Do We Lose Our Identity When We Become One with God?
A reader named Allen writes…
I have heard some mystics talk about when we die and are at a higher consciousness, we are all one and one with God. But from a Christian perspective don’t we retain our individuality and live in communion with God? Whatever that means.
Isn’t God meant to remake everything? A new heaven and a new Earth. I find the thought of losing my individual person and merging as a wave into the ocean, a frightening prospect. This nondual stuff can be quite confusing.
Thanks, Allen. You’re asking a question that I imagine many people interested in mystical Christianity might wonder about.
Meister Eckhart, the great German mystic, is famous for saying “The eye with which I see God is exactly the same eye with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowledge and one love.” On the surface, that sure sounds like a complete merging of identity, doesn’t it? And there are some Biblical passages that also seem to point to this same kind of mystical unity:
Anyone united to the Lord becomes one spirit with him. — I Corinthians 6:17
He has given us… his precious and very great promises, so that through them you… may become participants of the divine nature — II Peter 1:4
In Him we live and move and have our being. — Acts 17:28
And as far as us all being “one and one with God” — well, Jesus himself seems to say as much in the Gospel of John:
I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. — John 17:20-21
Jesus is praying for this divine/human union — but if we believe that Jesus is himself the second person of the Trinity, we may assume that he would not be praying for this if it were somehow inconsistent with God’s will. In other words, he seems to be praying this prayer more for our benefit than for God’s!
So, what are we to believe? With all this language of unity, is this suggesting that Christianity is about “losing my individual person and merging as a wave into the ocean” as Allen puts it?
For what it’s worth, I’m not persuaded that this is what the Christian mystics are saying.
So much of the language of the New Testament, and of so many of the mystics (at least in the Christian tradition), is language of love. God is love (or as I like to say, “Love-with-a-capital-L”). We love because God first loved us. God’s love is poured into our hearts. St. Paul prays “that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love” and that we may “know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (I John 4, Romans 5:5, Ephesians 3:17, 19).
Here’s the question. If our destiny is to become merged with God in some sort of egoless absorption, where is the room for love?
Love, by its very nature, is relational. The reason why God is a Trinity is because there are three essential elements of love: the lover, the beloved, and the love that flows between them.
I am not a philosopher and I’m only an amateur theologian, so I cannot claim to fully understand the language of union, abiding, participation, and so forth in the Bible (and the writings of the mystics) that describe the kind of unity that seems to be our ultimate destiny. But I don’t find it frightening (as Allen so vulnerably admitted), simply because I trust that whatever “union with God” means, it will entail love. And love ultimately implies some sort of distinction between the lover and the beloved.
There may be others who see things the opposite way from Allen: who think that anything less than pure egoless absorption into the Divine Unity is what they find terrifying. I know in human relationships, there are two fundamental fears: the fear of engulfment, and the fear of abandonment (and isn’t it interesting how in so many relationships, one partner fears abandonment and the other engulfment?). I imagine those who fear engulfment would, like Allen, find the language of unity and absorption terrifying. And those who fear abandonment probably find any idea that we won’t by absorbed into God equally horrifying.
As for me, I freely admit I have no idea what our destiny in eternity ultimately looks like, but I trust that God is love and that whatever transpires it will be an encounter with ultimate Love-with-a-capital-L. And I’m willing to trust that and to be surprised when I finally get there.
But I assume — or imagine — that it will be something that we just can’t describe in human thought and language. That we will be both completely one with God, and in a relationship with God that implies the persistence of the Creator/creature distinction. Don’t ask me to explain it beyond that. But I think whatever it is, it will be the highest possible consummation of love.
Allen, I assume that many of the mystics — not just in the Christian tradition, but in other paths as well — use language of nonduality, absorption, participation, etc. because it does point us to a truth that ultimately can’t be put into words anyway. So anything that anyone says about this will fail to capture the reality in its fullness. I’m sorry that you find it frightening. Perhaps that is something worth praying about? Holding your heart and mind in the presence of the Divine Lover who only wants what’s best for you? Perhaps your fear is a little bit of the awe human beings naturally feel when faced with God, the kind of existential “fear” that according to the Bible is “the beginning of wisdom.” (Proverbs 9:10). But let’s never forget that “perfect love casts out fear” (I John 4:18). In other words, fear may be the beginning of wisdom, but only love is the true end of wisdom. Whenever we human beings are fearful, God — Love-with-a-capital-L — is the ultimate and true remedy for that fear.
One more thing before I wrap this up. Allen ruefully notes, “This nondual stuff can be quite confusing.” I hear you. “Nondual” is, once again, a philosophical term that I believe gets kind of fuzzy and squishy in the hands of many spiritual writers. If you’d like to explore it in depth, the best treatment I’ve read (by a Christian author) on the subject of nonduality is by Cynthia Bourgeault, in her book The Heart of Centering Prayer: Nondual Christianity in Theory and Practice. See especially part 2, chapter 1. If you haven’t read it, do so.