A reader writes,
Carl, after reading the article today, What is Spiritual Formation?, I wondered if you’ll tell me what you meant by the word ‘God’? I get stuck on the ‘personification’ of God, the way God is referenced as a real person by so very many Christians who conceive of God as a ‘being/human form sitting on a cloud in the sky’, or some variation. What are your thoughts please? (I was ‘church raised’ in Canada + no longer associated but very interested in learning about Christian principles and history. I’m one of the ‘spiritual but not….’ and part company from ‘organized religion’ by how I understand the word ‘god’ . Thank you!
Thanks for a wonderful (and very important) question.
Is God Personal or Impersonal?
The heart of your question seems to be: is God personal or impersonal?
I can see where the idea that God is impersonal could make a lot of sense. After all, isn’t this the idea of divinity found in the Star Wars saga? The Force might be many things, but no one ever suggests that it has a personal nature.
Many Christians, by contrast, relate to God in very much a personal way. Christians talk to God in prayer, and worry about offending God or becoming subject to His wrath. This approach to spirituality seems to be very comforting for many people but others find it absurd, or childish, or simply naive.
But you’ve asked about what I mean when I talk about God. And frankly, if I could pick just two words to define my sense of God, they would be Loving Mystery.
Sorry, I don’t know how to define God just using one word.
In the New Testament, we find affirmation that God is Love (see I John 4). And certainly there is plenty of language to suggest that God is also profound mystery (see Ephesians 3, for starters).
So what I mean when I talk about God is that God is profound loving mystery. Not “a” mystery, and even more than “the” mystery. God is simply Mystery. But not just any old mystery: God is Loving Mystery.
When I speak about God-as-Mystery, I’m suggesting that every word, every concept, every theological construct or philosophical principle, ultimately fails to truly capture God. Before the Mystery of God, personal language and impersonal language are equally inadequate.
Human beings trying to make sense of God are about like amoebas trying to make sense of human beings. Except that human beings are much more comprehensible to the amoeba, than God is to us.
I think we need both humility and a sense of perspective when we dare to talk about God. Even the great dogmas of the church ultimately are puny and limited when it comes to the Divine Mystery. “All I have written is but straw,” muttered St. Thomas Aquinas, one of the great theologians of Christianity. If a mind as great as Aquinas’s is struck into humble silence by his sense of the inability of the human mind and soul to comprehend God, then the rest of us need to accept the fact that we are even more profoundly lost in the cloud of unknowing.
Now, having said all this, let’s look at the other word in my two-word definition of God. God not only is Mystery, God is Loving Mystery.
In other words, God is Love. And the God-who-is-Love is a God who loves. A God who embodies the fullness of Love, far beyond the greatest and most noble of human loves. In other words, there is a mysterious quality to Divine Love. But it’s not entirely inaccessible to us. Because God is Love, God seeks to be in relationship with us. It is the nature of Love to want to love.
Now… here’s the kicker. If we insist that God is impersonal, where does that leave Love?
Many people want a God who is just like a heavenly Santa Claus. In other words, a god who provides for their needs and who cares for them. This personal God is easy to imagine as “Love” but not so easy to imagine as “Mystery.”
On the other hand, a God who is pure impersonal abstraction — like The Force — is easy to imagine as “Mystery” (utterly incomprehensible) but hard to imagine as “Love” (intimately engage with us and our lives.
See? I think the personalists and the impersonalists both have it about half right. If God is Love, then God must be a God who loves — which implies there is a personality there, a face. When I gaze into the eyes of Divine Love, Love gazes back.
But since God is also Mystery, then God is far beyond any imagination or conceptualization or abstract principle we might use to try to make senses of God.
Spirituality, Religion, and the God-who-is-Loving-Mystery
I think most people tend to more comfortable with either the impersonal God-as-Mystery or the personal God-as-Love. The ones who are more comfortable with the impersonal image of God may think the personalists or naive or overly childlike. By contrast, those who relate to God in personalist ways may see the impersonalists as trammelled by their skepticism and their abstraction. But it is my hope that each “side” would learn to listen to, and strive to appreciate, the wisdom of the other side. I honestly believe the personalists and the impersonalists have a lot to teach each other — as long as both “sides” embrace a spirit of humility, kindness, and eagerness to see life from another perspective.
But what about theology? What about all the stories about God in the Bible? What about people who talk to God like he’s their invisible friend, eagerly waiting for God to make parking spots magically appear whenever they are late for a meeting?
Here’s the thing. We human beings are innate storytellers; we tell stories about every aspect of life, including spirituality. The Bible is a book of stories. The great saints and mystics were usually gifted storytellers even if the only “story” they told was the story of their own lives.
All the stories we tell one another about God — whether personal or impersonal, mythic or scientific, theological or devotional — are simply that: stories, that can never be proven or disproven scientifically but are invitations for us to respond with faith.
What the believers of the impersonal God often fail to recognize: their way of seeing and thinking about God is just as much a “story” as all the language about God walking and talking and getting angry, etc. Just because a story might be a bit more philosophically sophisticated doesn’t make it any less of a “story.”
When we accept that God-is-Mystery, it’s easier to accept the fact that everything we say or think about God is simply part of the great human project of talking about God. And when we accept that God-is-Love, it’s easier to understand that the stories — at least, the best ones — all point beyond themselves, into the Mystery, where we find not indifference or lack of caring, but ultimate, intimate, life-transfiguring Love: a Love who loves.
This post is already way too long, so I need to wrap it up. Back to the question I was asked.
The reader who wrote in, mentioned that she thinks of herself as spiritual but not (religious), and that she actually parted company with her church because she didn’t see God they way she thought others understood God. I certainly understand how important it is to find a faith community that feels safe and supportive.
By the same token, I also think that people within churches — even the very same church — often have radically different images and understandings of God, different from even the person sitting right next to them. As one friend of mine, a retired seminary professor, puts it, “There is greater diversity and variation among the members of the same church, than their is differences between the members of two separate churches.”
A conservative Catholic probably has more in common with a conservative Baptist than either one has in common with the liberals in their same neighborhood churches.
So I think it’s not always the most helpful move to reject a community of faith because its members don’t see God the same way I do. First of all, I think anyone might be surprised at how much diversity of viewpoints can be found even within a single church community. And secondly, I think that sometimes our best spiritual teachers are precisely those people who see God (or prayer, or theology, or worship) in a different way from how we see it. This is why I think Jesus instructed us not to judge. If we judge less, and listen more, we just might learn a thing or two.
So I do believe in a personal God, but not in terms of the old white guy who looks like Gandalf up in the sky. That makes no sense to me. God is personal, but still profoundly Mysterious, deeply incomprehensible, and ultimate far beyond the limits of any of our thoughts or consciousness.
So why talk about God in personal ways? Well, because God is Love. And love’s nature is to love. And besides: a Mystery who Loves me simply rings true. Even if all my thoughts about God are ultimately only worth so much straw.
PS. After I wrote and published this article, I recalled that the popular Christian author Rob Bell has a book called What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I haven’t read it — and the similarity in titles between his book and this blog post are purely coincidental.