God cannot have a name, for a name distinguishes one being from a similar other. There is a mountain called Everest because there is another mountain called Mont Blanc. A name can imply negation: a house is a house because there is a lawn which is not a house. Air is that which is not water or stone. God is not even everything because we don’t know every thing; he is more than everything as we understand it. By attributing to God a name or definition we belittle him infinitely.

But why did God tell us his name? The answer is that he told us many names. A fiancée may be smart and funny and good looking and many other things, but you would never finish reciting her attributes. She is also two-handed, has a spine, studied at YU, and so on. Even more than humans, God has an immeasurable number of attributes, but he still has to point out these or those of them as appropriate to the circumstances. Thus God is known by many names which are actually particular descriptions. A person’s name denotes him entirely, but God’s name refers to a certain set of attributes only.

Theologians commonly describe God’s attributes through negation: he is not dead, ignorant, or powerless. The assumption is far from straightforward. If the negative attributes refer to absolute nothingness, then it is plausible that God lacks them. For example, “he is not totally bereft of action.” Even that is not certain, however, since presumably God can create things ex nihilo, he might therefore lack the attribute of speed; but he has the potential to create speed, thus in an important sense he possesses speed.

But more importantly, negative attributes are often positive in their own way. Thus, God’s power is described negatively: he is not weak. That is mistaken, because weakness is an attribute on its own rather than the mere absence of power. To call a person weak is not exactly the same as to call him powerless; the connotations are quite different. Death is a condition in itself, rather than merely the absence of life. For ethical reasons, we can choose to believe that God created death, weakness, and other negatively colored attributes ex nihilo for this world, and lacks them himself, but that belief is entirely arbitrary.