Much is made of the idea of a ‘personal’ God in Christianity. The idea of God being a person, or a unity of three persons, has been with us for so long, and has been so adamantly preached as the key to having an acceptable experience of and relationship with God, that some Christians consider it among the worst sacrilege and blasphemy to speak of God in any other way. Even so, this is precisely where the Spirit has led many Christian mystics. It seems to me that this is part of why some Christians have a hard time understanding Christian mystics, let alone recognizing us as ‘good’ Christians. In this post, I hope to show how, in their most authentic love of God, mystics can embrace other ways of relating to God.
There are lots of traditional biblical arguments for why a Christian could adhere to that “old time religion” in which God is conceived of as a superhuman Father, one who thinks and feels like humans do, whose mind works pretty much like a human’s does, but is different primarily because He is all-knowing, infinitely intelligent, and infinitely wise. It’s easy to see why this anthropomorphic way of thinking about God is commonly offered, and has at times been brutally enforced, as the only truly Christian way to think and speak about God. After all, it is the language the Bible itself most commonly uses. The teachings about God attributed to Jesus are presented in such terms, and then the writings of the Apostles, especially Paul, further speak of relating to the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit in personified terms.
The question that arises for some of us is whether or not it’s necessary to take all that anthropomorphic language literally. Is there no room in Christianity for people who find such language to be poignant and inspiring, yet also humbly acknowledge that they find it alone inadequate for the Supreme Being, the very Source, Creator, and Sustainer of Existence Itself? At times, Christian authorities of various sorts have not only answered that question with “No!”, but they have been willing to destroy lives over the issue. Why is that? What are they afraid of? Where is the definitive Biblical statement that no other way of thinking about God is acceptable to God? You won’t find it because it doesn’t exist. There is no “shalt” or “shalt not” with regard to anthropomorphic theism. In fact, it seems to me that the scriptures offer many opportunities to not be limited to that way of thinking about God.
Is “Person” a Fitting Term for God?
It is interesting that the English word “person” is taken from the Greek prosopon, which originally meant a theatrical mask. The prosopon represented the role, and would obviously have never been confused with the actual actor. According to Thayer and Smith’s lexicon, in the New Testament prosopon refers to:
1. the face
a. the front of the human head
b. countenance, look
i. the face so far forth as it is the organ of sight, and by it various movements and changes) the index of the inward thoughts and feelings
c. the appearance one presents by his wealth or property, his rank or low condition
i. outward circumstances, external condition
ii. used in expressions which denote to regard the person in one’s judgment and treatment of men
2. the outward appearance of inanimate things
We can see that the word always refers to an outward, worldly, or superficial appearance, not the essence of something, which fluent speakers of Greek, like Jesus and the New Testament authors, would have known. In many English versions of the New Testament, this word is translated as “person,” and one of the most common contexts is when it is said Jesus and God do not regard the persons of human beings (Matthew 22:16; Mark 12:14; Luke 20:21; Galatians 2:6). To my knowledge, only once is the word prosopon used in reference to God/Christ. It is in 2nd Corinthians 2:10 where Paul speaks of forgiving others in the person of Christ, which is to say that in such moments the believer’s presence to others is a mask of the Christ within him or her.
In all of these cases, the wording emphasizes appearances, masks upon something more essential, central, and real. For me, this leads to a theological position that I find very reasonable: When I think of God in anthropomorphic terms, as if a person, then I am looking at a conceptual mask that helps me relate to God in a way that can be very meaningful and helpful, yet can nonetheless sometimes prevent me from experiencing God more directly and more fully. Said another way, a mask can be very attractive, fun, informative, challenging, even threatening, and somewhat revealing in all of these ways, but if I want to get to know more about who or what is behind the mask, then sometimes I must be willing to let it fall. This is a point where great Christian mystics like St. John of the Cross and Meister Eckhart enter the theological discussion.
Mysticism and the Trans-Personal Perspective on God
This willingness to let go of the masks and simply open to the Ineffable Mystery of God is one way that Christian contemplative mysticism differs from other ways of relating to God and Christ. This does not mean that Christian mysticism is about giving up faith in God as very much alive and present in and around us. In fact, for many of us, letting go of the masks of personhood for God has made it easier for us to relate to God as Life Itself, as Love Itself, as Truth Itself, as Reality Itself, but a Life, Love, Truth, and Reality that isn’t limited to our human experiences and understandings; God’s transcendence is revered as much as God’s immanence. A great number of us even continue to speak to God, about God, and of our relationship with God, in very personal terms. In my own case, following in the footsteps of greater mystics, I write poetry addressed to God as the Beloved. I bear witness that it is very natural for some of us to express our most intimate thoughts and feelings about God in such human terms. Just as we anthropomorphize God by imagining God’s mind to be human-like but with infinite knowledge, intelligence, and wisdom, we also personalize our experience of and relationship with God by likening it to the most rewarding human relationships infinitely magnified. We simply don’t have a better single way to communicate so much of our relationship with God than in these very personal terms. Yet among the challenges of a trans-personal mysticism are (1) that we don’t forget it is symbolism to speak of God as a person, (2) there are other symbol systems with their own value, and (3) even the most complete, all-encompassing, and complexly detailed conceptualization falls short for the Infinite and Eternal One.
An important take-away from that last point is that what we know, or think we know, about God is transcended by what we don’t know. To realize union with God more fully, which is the definitive aim of contemplative mysticism, we must therefore surrender to the Unknown, and we do so through the practice of unknowing. We open ourselves to the immediate presence of God freed from our beliefs, hopes, and expectations about how God “should” be present. We let go of all words, all images, and all feelings that might arise, understanding them to be parts of a mask we put on God. It isn’t that we are striving to attain some state of mindlessness, but rather that our awareness sinks down into the purest depths of mind where, if we are so graced, we might realize deeper union with its very source and essence, which we call Spirit, or God. Likewise, we are not trying to eliminate all our beliefs and hopes so that we walk around in a self-induced state of agnosticism and apathy, but rather remind ourselves that our beliefs and hopes are bound to be inaccurate reflections of even greater truths.
The Existential Challenges and Rewards of Unknowing
At this point I want to address why some people are resistant to letting go of anthropomorphic theism as the only way to think about God. I believe the short answer is fear. We fear that it’s unacceptable to God. We fear it will open the door to delusions or demons. We fear that people who are important to us will be uncomfortable with us, and even ridicule or reject us. We fear we will lose a sense of confidence and direction about what is meaningful and important in life. We fear that we will lose something that has given us comfort. We fear that we will have to admit that we no longer think the way we once thought. We fear that we will lose our sense of who and what we are as spiritual beings.
I think that last fear penetrates very deeply into one of our most common psychological struggles, which is facing the fact that we don’t fully know ourselves. One of the great revelations of depth psychology is that, as with an iceberg, there is more to the human psyche beneath the surface of consciousness than above it. If we aren’t aware of most of our own souls, how can we begin to know even the tiniest fraction about God?! And beneath all of these fears, perhaps we can see the more basic fear of uncertainty, of the unknown, and our insecurity about simply being in the midst of forces and events that are beyond our ability to anticipate, control, or even fully understand in hindsight. In fact, many of us have been taught that among the essential purposes of religion are comfort and support in the face of all the fear and uncertainty in life. When fear and uncertainty are major engines for one’s religious beliefs and attitudes, and especially if one is in denial of them, then the idea of unknowing and embracing God as the Great Mystery can sound like the exact opposite of what one needs.
In my own case, despite having grown up in the Church and practicing a fairly devout mainstream spirituality, and perhaps even as a result of doing so, by my mid-20s I became aware of how much I had been in denial of my uncertainty. One day, as I drove north on I-35W to go to class at UNT, an epiphany came to me about the extent to which I had been either fighting or fleeing uncertainty with so much of my spiritual life. For a moment I sat there wondering, “Okay, so now what? I’m really freaked out about how much more uncertain I am than I ever realized. What am I supposed to do with this? How do I do anything without some sense of certainty?”
Almost immediately I saw the image of a toddler boldly living life, unencumbered by uncertainty, and instead fully immersed in the adventure of simply being. That’s when it not only became okay for me to be uncertain, but I began to see how uncertainty can be transformed into mystery, mystery into freedom, freedom into gratitude and joy, and all of it into love. That’s also when my understanding of “faith” began to transform from a specific unchanging set of crystallized beliefs into something much deeper and more basic, something more about the simple will to live and to love, and the trust that anything worthy of the name “God” would understand and accept me even better than I understand and accept myself.
Finally, I want to clarify that I am not saying letting go of a strictly anthropomorphic theism and practicing contemplative mysticism is necessary in order to be a “better” Christian, or a happier soul, or a more loving human being, or whatever. Far be it from me to prescribe what another soul’s relationship with God should or shouldn’t be. All I can assert is that this is how it has worked out for me and some others, that it is an authentic experience and expression of Christian faith, and to describe some of its demands and rewards.