History of Hymns: “How Can We Name a Love”
How Can We Name a Love
by Brian Wren
The United Methodist Hymnal, No. 111
So in a hundred names,
each day we all can meet
a presence, sensed and shown
at work, at home,
or in the street.
Yet every name we see,
shines in a brighter sun:
In Christ alone
is Love full grown
and life and hope begun.*
*Words Copyright © 1975 Hope Publishing Co., Carol Stream, IL 60188. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Brian Wren masterfully leads congregations in singing through theological challenges and new perspectives. In “How Can We Name a Love,” he helps us consider the theological paradox that God is both transcendent and immanent.
When we emphasize God’s transcendence, we acknowledge that God is beyond our human understanding. We consider that God is the Creator of everything, omnipotent and omniscient. While such a perspective can provoke beneficial humility and awe toward God, it can also emphasize the distance between God and humanity.
The opposite of transcendence is immanence. When we view God as immanent, we see God as Immanuel – God with Us. God dwells within us, and we can find God’s presence all around us.
Wren juxtaposes these views in the first stanza of his hymn. He confesses God’s transcendence in the opening question: How can we begin to name the One who is beyond our knowledge and language? Yet Wren also demonstrates that God is immanent; we know God because God indwells “all we know or think or do.” Wren answers his own question in two ways: first, he gives the congregation the name “Love” to refer to the God who is both immanent and transcendent. Second, he reminds us that we see God in the faces of those around us. Rather than being impossibly remote from us, God is “hid in the commonplace.”
In his second stanza, Wren explores the most common name for God: Father. Jesus referred to God as Father, or Abba, and this metaphor for the first person of the Trinity has been enshrined in the Lord’s Prayer and in our baptismal rite. Is it appropriate to call God “Father” – and why? This is a question that has led to much debate among congregations, hymnal committees, and in many other venues.
Wren shows us that we use parental names for God because God is our “rock of care,” reliable in all circumstances. Most of us find such reliability from our parents more than from any other human relationships. Therefore, “we can, with parents’ names, describe, and thus adore” God. But Wren challenges our use of father as well as affirming it. In the last line of the stanza, Wren holds up both father and mother as images for God. And in a subtle twist on parenting stereotypes, Wren helps us to sing of paternal love as “kind” and maternal love as “strong and sure.”
In the third stanza, Wren goes a step further in his exploration of God’s immanence. Not only can we know God through the people around us, but the concrete act of collaborating with others gives us a glimpse into God’s “will… that all should share, create, and care, and know that life is good.” If we are made in the image of God, and God is Trinitarian Creator, then we, too, find “shared delight” in tasks and projects that require creativity and collaboration. Wren gives us words to sing a beautiful affirmation of our life together as a creating community in this stanza.
In the fourth stanza, we find this variety of ways to encounter and name God summed up. Wren teaches us that we encounter God in “a hundred names,” all varied and present to us “at work, at home, or on the street.” God is indeed immanent, and we come to know God better through the people around us and our work with them. Yet Wren cautions us that this is not the end. While God is immanent, God is also transcendent. While the people around us may point to God, the Holy One is still beyond what we immediately encounter. And so, with Wren’s words, we acknowledge that “every name we see, shines in a brighter sun: in Christ alone is Love full grown.” Christ is the blazing sun, whose radiance all those around us can reflect but never match.
Wren’s profound hymn text also incorporates a poetic technique that lends a playful quality to our singing. The hymn tune matched with “How Can We Name a Love,” Terra Beata, is in Short Meter Doubled. It places syllables in groups of six, then six, then eight, and then six (18.104.22.168), and the whole pattern repeats again each stanza. One would expect the poetry to also follow this pattern, forming groups of six syllables with one group of eight. Wren generally follows this pattern (note where the commas line up in the middle of each line of music), but he breaks the pattern in the second printed musical line of the third stanza. “In projects old or new” uses only six syllables, followed by the eight syllables of “to make or do with shared delight.” This is opposite to the melody’s pattern of eight notes followed by six and creates a poetic meter resembling 22.214.171.124. This discrepancy, which is similar to the poetic technique “enjambment,” makes of the third stanza a fresh experience, one where the congregation together finds “shared delight” in uniting its voices in the new project of Brian Wren’s charming hymn.
“How Can We Name a Love,” like all of Brian Wren’s hymn texts, richly rewards singers who explore the meaning of the words they sing and use such exploration as a theological springboard.
About this week’s writer:
Heather Josselyn-Cranson is Associate Professor of Music and Sister Margaret William McCarthy Endowed Chair of Music at Regis College in Weston, Massachusetts.
This article is provided as a collaboration between Discipleship Ministries and The Fellowship of United Methodists in Music and Worship Arts.
For more information about The Fellowship, visit UMFellowship.org/Hymns.