Chapter Summary: This chapter explores the idea of relating to God as if He/She is a Person and relating to the Uncreated as if It is a Person. The power of such ideas of God is discussed, as well as their advantages and disadvantages.
We’ve discussed the relationship of the Real to our external and internal worlds. What of Its relationship to the supernatural? Does a supernatural realm even exist? In particular, do Gods who are Persons exist? Let’s begin our discussion of these questions by examining some more ideas about the perennial philosophy.
As distilled by Aldous Huxley, the perennial philosophy’s “highest common factor” is ([S18],13) a nucleus of four fundamental principles and an fifth optional principle. The first principle says the world of people and things is a manifestation of a single Eternal Ground without Which it could not exist; the second, that we can directly experience this Ground and even consciously unite with it; the third, that we possess two selves, an ego and a Self. We’ve already discussed these ideas. The fourth principle, which we’ll see more about later, is that life’s ultimate end and aim is unitive knowledge of the Eternal. Huxley’s fifth principle is of concern to us in this chapter. We’ll begin discussing it by briefly re-examining the first principle.
The first principle says that everything is a manifestation of one Eternal Substance, a single Reality. It’s been called “pantheism” and “monism.” Religious monism is the idea that God is the One and only, the sole Reality, the One without a second. We’ve seen a monist description of the universe and ourselves.
In contrast to monism, monotheism is the more familiar idea that some God who is a Person, a Person supreme among all persons, has created the universe but remains distinct from it. In monotheism, God is one entity among many. God, people, animals, and inanimate objects all exist and are distinct.
So, in monotheism there is only one God. In monism there is only One. Period.
Religious monism says that everything—us, a lamp, a worm—has the same Ultimate Ground of Existence, God. It may seem absurd when it’s first encountered, perhaps because the idea of God as some Person is so ingrained. In his youth, Swami Vivekananda met the monist viewpoint in the teachings of Ramakrishna. He was less than impressed.
What’s the difference . . . between this and atheism? How can a created soul think of itself as the Creator? What could be a greater sin? What’s this nonsense about I am God, you are God, everything that is born and dies is God? The authors of these books must have been mad—how else could they have written such stuff? ([I04],205).
Vivekananda’s statements were based on a misunderstanding of monism. Saying the God which is not a Person is the Ultimate Substance of both any person and any God who is a Person doesn’t say the two are equal or identical. Just as saying both ice and steam are water doesn’t say they’re equal or identical. Ice and steam are different, but share a common ground. People and Gods who are Persons are different but share a common Ground.
So, monism doesn’t equate the creature with any God who is a Person. It doesn’t equate any human soul with the Creator. And it doesn’t confuse a God who is a Person, the Creator of the universe who is distinct from it, with the God which is not a Person, the creator and upholder of the universe at this very moment in the sense of being its Eternal Substance. Rather monism maintains a distinction between these pairs of very different ideas.
For example, Shankara, one of religious monism’s foremost spokesman, carefully maintained the distinction between the creature and “Iswara,” his term for the God who is a Person. In an introduction to his Crest-Jewel of Discrimination, the translators write:
We can become Brahman, since Brahman is present in us always. But we can never become Iswara, because Iswara is above and distinct from our human personality. . . . [W]e can never become rulers of the universe—for that is Iswara’s function. ([S11],23-4).
They even label ([S11],24) the desire to become Iswara as madness and Lucifer’s sin. However, they seem to slightly misstate our relation to Brahman, perhaps for the sake of the parallelism “we can become Brahman . . . But we can never become Iswara.” In fact, we already are Brahman, the Source, the Ultimate Ground of Existence. Our conscious realization of this fact is all that’s lacking. Our ego has not yet realized its Basis.
So monism doesn’t, as the young Vivekananda feared, teach that a person can become some God who is a Person, just as it doesn’t teach that a person can become a rock. However, it does say that people, Gods who are Persons, and rocks all lack the ultimate reality possessed by the Real. It denies the ultimate reality of people, the universe, and Gods who are separate, distinct Persons, calling them “Maya,” illusions, projections of Uncreated Light. As Ramana Maharshi taught:
The Self alone exists and is real. The world, the individual and God are . . . imaginary creations in the Self. They appear and disappear simultaneously. Actually, the Self alone is the world, the “I” and God. All that exists is only a manifestation of the Supreme. ([T03],16).
The idea that the God who is a Person isn’t fully real also occurred to certain early, heretical Christians who
. . . insisted on discriminating between the popular image of God—as master, king, lord, creator, and judge—and what that image represented—God understood as the ultimate source of all being . . . . “the depth” . . . an invisible, incomprehensible primal principle. ([P01],38).
Similarly, “Dionysius” taught, in the words of Rolt, that
. . . God is but the highest Appearance or Manifestation of the Absolute. ([D08],40).
So from the monist point of view, the God who is a Person and mundane entities have this in common—their existence is grounded, as is all entities, in the Ultimate Ground of Existence. Later in his life, Vivekananda came to understand monism. He shocked Christians by claiming there was no essential difference between Jesus and the lowliest of God’s creatures, since they are both manifestations of the same Godhead, the same Eternal Substance.
Since Gods who are Persons aren’t absolutely and ultimately real, why not just dispense with them entirely? A certain kind of religious seeker often does. This kind of person is usually capable of deeply loving entities which are just abstractions to other people, such as Truth, Love, or the Ultimate Ground of Existence. For someone with this temperament such things are quite real.
For example, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche
. . . lived with his intellectual problems as with realities, he experienced a similar emotional commitment to them as other men experience to their wife and children. ([N12],11).
Imagine someone with Nietzsche’s temperament who is also religious. Isn’t it likely they’d naturally relate to God intellectually and philosophically? For example, might they not tend to think of God as the Root and Source? And might they not prefer this relationship over an emotional one where, for example, they are the child and God is the Divine Parent?
Certain mystics of Nietzsche’s temperament have found the intellectual and philosophical approach congenial. They’ve been as devoted to the God which is not a Person as Nietzsche was to his intellectual pursuits, and as other people are to their spouses and children. For such mystics, Huxley’s first four principles—his “simple working hypothesis”—are sufficient. Their religion doesn’t require a God who is a Person.
A man who can practice what the Indians call Jnana yoga (the metaphysical discipline of discrimination between the Real and the apparent) asks for nothing more. This simple working hypothesis is enough for his purposes. ([S18],17).
Someone who discriminates between the Real and the unreal practices what’s called “Jnana yoga” in India. So, they’re a “Jnana yogi.” Typically, the jnana yogi is a religious person with an introverted, cerebrotonia personality. They’re strong in intellect, and often wary of emotion. I could use the term “jnana yogi” to refer to such an individual. Although it’s a Hindu term, such individuals appear in any culture. Instead, I’ll use the term “religious monist” or simply “monist.”
Monists naturally tend to philosophical and metaphysical approaches to Reality. They often disdain highly emotional presentations of religion based on the life of some religious Personality or Incarnation. Sometimes they even condemn such presentations as mere histrionics. For instance, Totapuri, one of Ramakrishna’s teachers, criticized him for worshiping Krishna with dancing, chanting, and clapping hands. Totapuri sarcastically asked ([L07],166-7) if Ramakrishna was clapping bread dough between his hands. Totapuri was a strict monist. He regarded Gods who are Persons as mythological, that is, as having less real existence than you or I.
Are Gods who are Persons mythological? Or are They real? We’ve seen that our own existence and identity vanish as we approach the level of the One and the All. The existence of God considered as an individual Person, as one entity among many, necessarily suffers the same fate.
. . . Brahman only appears as Iswara when viewed by the relative ignorance of Maya. Iswara has the same degree of reality as Maya has. ([S11],23).
All manifestations exist in the Ultimate Ground of Existence and lose their separate existence and identity as we approach the Absolute.
Yet we may say the same thing in a more positive way: Gods who are Persons may be as real as you, or I, or the world we see around us. Gods who are Persons may have a more than mythological existence, they may have an existence as real as anything else. Of course, they might just as well fail to exist at all. Without proof, a scientific religion could neither deny or affirm the existence of separate Gods who are Persons.
Huxley believed the religious monist was the exception rather than the rule. He wrote Jnana yoga was
. . . exceedingly difficult and can hardly be practiced, at any rate in the preliminary stages of the spiritual life, except by persons endowed with a particular kind of mental constitution. . . . ([S18],17).
Many religious believers don’t possess the monist temperament. They aren’t capable of loving Truth in the “abstract.” Many people, however, are capable of loving a God who is a Person. They find it easier loving someone like Jesus, who died for us, or the cute baby Krishna. In other words, many believers are capable of practicing a religion which includes some form of Huxley’s fifth principle. This principle affirms
. . . the existence of one or more human Incarnations of the Divine Ground, by whose mediation and grace the worshiper is helped to achieve his goal—that unitive knowledge of the Godhead, which is man’s eternal life and beatitude. ([S18],17).
From the fifth principle follows the bulk of popular religious belief and practice. In Christianity and Hinduism, the story of an Incarnation’s life is scripture; reverence and devotion for an Incarnation is piety; and pleas to an Incarnation are prayer. And if we take “Incarnation” in a wide sense, if we view any God who is a Person as an Incarnation of the God which is not a Person, then we find a similar situation in Judaism and Islam. That is, Jewish and Islamic scripture consists of records of the actions of an “Incarnation” (Jehovah and Allah), as well as the actions of prophets. Again, reverence and devotion for an Incarnation are piety, and pleas to an Incarnation are prayer.
Even Buddhism has, in a sense, an Incarnation. Buddhism is perhaps the most impersonal and “unreligious” of religions, so much so that some adherents claim it’s not religion at all, but a philosophy. Geoffrey Parrinder describes such believers when he writes:
It is common nowadays for Buddhist apologists, in East and West, to claim that the Buddha was only a man, or a man like us . . . ([W07],6).
Yet the needs of some Buddhists have forced Buddhism to undergo some measure of “personalization,” so much so that Parrinder (perhaps overstating the situation) continues:
. . . but no Buddhist thought this in the previous two thousand years, since the Buddha was for him the object of faith and the means of salvation . . . Functionally he is the Supreme Being . . . ([W07],5-6).
In any case, belief in some God who is a Person underlies religion as practiced by—and God as worshiped by—the great majority of believers.
So, religion as it’s usually practiced is based on the perennial philosophy’s fifth principle, a principle Huxley called optional since some temperaments don’t need it. But for most individuals the fifth principle isn’t optional at all. It’s required. If they’re to have any religion at all, it will be a religion based on the fifth principle. For many, monotheism in its most real and actual form is essential. Emotional attachment to some God who is a Person may be their primary, or only, motivation for living a religious life, and for pursuing a spiritual quest.
Belief in Gods who are Persons is quite powerful. Its influence in civilizations, past and present, is obvious: much of the world’s population lives within walking distance of a building dedicated to some God who is a Person. Such Gods play a vital role in the lives of many, if not most, religious people. They function as focus of worship, parent, friend, protector, judge, or teacher. Their most important function, however, may be as a bridge to the Unchangeable, the Real. As Underhill observes:
The peculiar virtue of . . . Christian philosophy, that which marks its superiority to the more coldly self-consistent systems of Greece, is the fact that it re-states the truths of metaphysics in terms of personality: thus offering a third term, a “living mediator” between the Unknowable God, the unconditioned Absolute, and the conditioned self. ([U01],104).
What’s the value of re-stating “the truths of metaphysics in terms of personality”? To some religious monists there’s none. They have no need of a mediator, and prefer to approach the Unconditioned directly. But to monists who seek to use emotions as well as intellect in the journey to vision of the Real, the personification of metaphysical truths can be quite valuable.
Transforming one’s entire person is a difficult, long-term process. Changing one’s daily life to reflect religious and philosophical truths can be an arduous task. Emotions are a powerful aid to this transformation, even to those of the cerebral, jnana temperament. One way the religious monist can engage their emotions is to regard the Uncreated Light as if It were a Person. Erwin Goodenough describes some ancient people who seemed to have regarded their Gods in this way. In By Light, Light, a book about Hellenistic Judaism, whose most famous exponent was Philo, he writes:
. . . it is not the mythology itself which matters but the mythology as a symbol of metaphysical truth. The mystery is not a path to Isis or Attis; it is a path to Reality, Existence, Knowledge, Life, of which Isis or Attis is the symbol. The value of Isis, that is, is to make the intellectual concept emotionally realizable, something which can be taken out of the cold words of formulation and made radiantly alive within the longing hearts of mankind . . . ([G01],1).
So, some ancients didn’t regard Isis or Attis as actual Gods who are Persons, as real, distinct personalities, as separate Entities. Rather Isis and Attis functioned as personifications of the Ultimate Ground of Existence. Those ancients used the “personal aspect” of the Eternal to help make higher truths “emotionally realizable” and “radiantly alive.”
Goodenough observes certain Hellenistic Christians employed the same device. These Christians regarded Christ as a personification of the Eternal Light.
The same process is illustrated in Christianity. The early Christians seem to have been content with the mythological assertion that Jesus was the Son of God and would return from the clouds to assert his power . . . Such a religion in itself meant nothing to the Hellenistic religious thinkers. Christ almost at once became to them the Logos, the Sophia . . . ([G01],2).
Logos and Sophia, of course, were Greek philosophical concepts. Goodenough continues that after this transformation
. . . Christianity became another and more adequate means of making emotionally real and accessible the old Hellenistic abstractions . . . ([G01],2).
Now, he observes,
. . . it was ready to conquer the Graeco-Roman world. ([G01],2).
We’ve seen that the separate existence of you, I, the universe, and Gods who are Persons vanishes when we approach the Absolute. For someone temperamentally suited to the worship of a God who is a Person, this leaves two unsatisfactory choices. First, they can choose to worship the ultimately real God which is not a Person. Second, they can choose to worship some ultimately unreal God who is a Person. A very poor choice indeed.
There is, however, an alternative. Someone might choose to relate to, and even to worship, the Self-Existent as if It were alive and conscious, as if It were a Person.
We’ve seen that consciousness may be considered identical with the Absolute. If we turn this around, we can say the Self-Existent is Consciousness, is conscious and living. Thus the Root and Source may be regarded as a Person, as Friend or constant Companion or Spouse, for example, or as Mother and Father.
After all, the Source gives “birth” to us at this very moment. Our existence depends on the Self-Existent more fully and intimately than it depends on our parents. For we’ll continue existing after our parents are gone. But we couldn’t continue to exist if the Ultimate Ground of Existence ceased to exist. So, the Real is our Father and Mother in a very actual and literal sense. For It creates us and keeps us at this very moment, and is with us always.
So we can think of the God who is not a Person as a Person, as Mother, Father, Companion, Friend or Spouse, if we desire. If we want, It can be a living, conscious Father and Mother, an eternal Companion and Friend, even a Spouse. So, a monist who has no belief in God as an actual, separate Person, as one entity among others, might nonetheless choose to think of, and even worship, the Absolute and Source as if It was a Person.
After all, a person still has some emotions no matter how mind-centered they are. True, some monists choose to ignore their emotional faculties and approach God solely through their intellect. They choose to regard and worship the Real as an entirely non-personal Entity. But others, even if they’re predominately mind-centered, choose to also use their emotions in the journey to God. They choose to sometimes regard the Ultimate Ground of Existence as Mother or Father, Friend or Spouse. Such a choice provides them with an Entity able to attract both heart and mind. Such a God (who is like a Person) truly is eternal, omnipresent, the Mother and Father of all.
Thus we may distinguish the actual monotheism of the monotheist from the “operational monotheism” of some religious monist. Operational monotheism is a type of monism. It acknowledges the separate God who is a Person as ultimately, ontologically false. But it nonetheless worships the Uncreated as if It is a separate entity, a Person among persons.
. . . [T]o conceive one’s self as separate from God is an error: yet only when one sees oneself as separate from God, can one reach out to God. (Palmer, Oriental Mysticism, in [U01],108).
Operational monotheism is actually a form of monism. It’s a pseudo-monotheism. The Eternal is regarded as a Person, even though the believer realizes It is not actually a Person.
A monist who practices operational monotheism regards the Eternal as if It were a Person. Such a monist emphasizes the “personal aspect” of the Ultimate Ground of Existence. Thus we may distinguish two sides or aspects of the One. When we regard It as an non-personal Entity, we emphasize Its impersonal aspect. When we regard It as a Person, we emphasize Its personal aspect. It may seem paradoxical to regard an “It” as a Person, to regard the God which is not a Person as a Person. But the God which is not a Person is also the God which is not a Thing. Thinking of the Uncreated as a Person is as accurate, or inaccurate, as thinking of the Real as a Thing. The Self-Existent is like a person and like a thing. Yet It is neither.
In engineering there are stable and unstable balances. A ball in the bottom of a bowl is in a state of stable balance: shake the bowl and the ball moves but eventually returns to balance. A ball at the top of an inverted bowl, or on the peak of a mountain, is in a state of unstable balance. Disturb the ball and it doesn’t eventually return to the top. Instead, it rolls to one side or another and stays there. Only with effort is the ball returned to the mountain peak.
The idea that the Eternal Reality has a living, conscious, Personal aspect and yet is not an actual person, not one entity among many, seems to put the mind into an unstable balance. The mind tends to fall to one side or other of this truth. On one side, the tendency is to think of the Eternal as a non-personal Energy which one may regard as a Person (especially if one is a rather fuzzy thinker). On the other side, the tendency is to think of the Eternal as really a Person among other persons, a person who theoretically has non-personal qualities—of no great consequence. A mind trying to hold on to the dual nature of this situation often falls to one side or the other.
It seems the dual aspects of the Ultimate Ground of Existence, the impersonal aspect and the living, consciousness aspect, both represent It imperfectly. To use a familiar analogy from physics, the twin ideas of “particle” and “wave” both represent light imperfectly. Light is a physical entity which has both a particle nature and a wave nature. Yet light is truly neither particle nor wave. In the same way, the Eternal truly has both a personal aspect and an impersonal aspect. Yet the Real is truly neither person nor thing.
Starting now, I’ll use the phrase “God who is not a Person” to emphasize the Self-Existent’s dual aspects, personal and impersonal. So the phrase “God which is not a Person” refers exclusively to the impersonal aspect of the Real, as it has throughout this book. And “God who is not a Person” refers to both the personal and impersonal aspects of the Ultimate Substance. And as always, “God who is a Person” refers to some God such as Jesus, Krishna, Jehovah, or Allah.
The phrase “God who is not a Person” attempts to remind us of the Eternal’s dual aspects. It’s easy to forget one aspect or the other. When this happens, confusion and misunderstanding often result. Two instances follow where an author apparently failed to fully grasp the idea of the Self-Existent’s dual aspects. One author was writing about Ramakrishna; the other, Guru Nanak.
Sri Ramakrishna worshiped the Eternal as Mother, specifically the Hindu goddess Mother Kali. He deeply yearned for direct experience. He prayed and wept for it and eventually in his frustration almost went mad. He felt ([S01],143) as if his heart and mind were being wrung like a wet towel. Sometimes bystanders assumed he grieved the loss of his human mother, and offered their sympathy. In fact, he grieved that he had not yet had the vision of God.
Eventually, driven by longing and despair Ramakrishna resolved to end his life. As he reached for a sword,
. . . suddenly I had the wonderful vision of the Mother . . . I did not know what happened then in the external world . . . But, in my heart of hearts, there was flowing a current of intense bliss, never experienced before, and I had the immediate knowledge of the light, that was Mother. . . . It was as if houses, doors, temples and all other things vanished altogether; as if there was nothing anywhere! And what I saw, was a boundless infinite conscious sea of light! However far and in whatever direction I looked, I found a continuous succession of effulgent waves coming forward, raging and storming . . . ([S01],143).
Ramakrishna declared he had “immediate knowledge of the light, that was Mother.” He described his vision as a vision of shining conscious Light. He had prayed for the Mother to reveal herself, and the Mother, Brahman, the Uncreated Light, had revealed Herself—as a shining ocean of Light and Consciousness. The situation seems clear.
Christopher Isherwood’s Ramakrishna and His Disciples recounts the story of Ramakrishna’s life. In it, Isherwood writes:
Ramakrishna knew that Mother Kali was not other than Brahman. ([I04],118).
Presumably then Isherwood knew “Mother Kali” was a personalized label for the God who is not a Person. Yet he wonders if Ramakrishna also saw a woman in his vision, specifically Kali. He writes:
It is not quite clear from Ramakrishna’s narrative whether or not he actually saw the form of Mother Kali in the midst of this vision of shining consciousness. ([I04],65).
Did Ramakrishna see a woman in his vision? Both Isherwood ([I04],65) and no less than a direct disciple of Ramakrishna decide he did. Why? Because afterwards
. . . as soon as he had the slightest external consciousness . . . . he, we are told, uttered repeatedly the word ‘Mother’ in a plaintive voice. ([S01],143).
Lack of appreciation of the Eternal Light’s dual aspects forces “Mother” to be taken as Mother Kali, a God who is a Person. Lack of appreciation leads to confusion and uncertainty since Ramakrishna talks of the Mother yet describes an experience of Light.
Who was the God Ramakrishna longed for? Was it some God who is a Person, specifically a Hindu goddess, Mother Kali? Or was it the Self-Existent, in his own words
. . . the universal Mother, consisting of the effulgence of pure consciousness . . . ([S01],255)?
I believe it was the Real. Once, he had declared Brahman
. . . is Light, but not the light that we perceive, not material light. ([G03],307).
He had also said
[t]he attainment of the Absolute is called the Knowledge of Brahman . . . ([G03],307),
I believe Ramakrishna wanted—and finally received—first-hand knowledge of Brahman, a direct experience of the Uncreated Light. Ramakrishna was, I believe, a monist practicing operational monotheism.
So if the dual nature is understood there is no cause for confusion. The Mother is the Uncreated Light. Thus there is no reason to suppose Ramakrishna also saw some female image. The Mother he referred to was the Mother of the Universe, the Uncreated and Eternal Light.
Like Ramakrishna, Guru Nanak, the founder of the Sikh religion, also seems to have known the dual aspects, the personal and impersonal aspects of God. In Guru Nanak and the Sikh Religion, W. McLeod writes ([M09],164) that God for Nanak was “the one” and that Nanak often affirmed “There is no other.” McLeod wonders if such statements should be understood in a monotheistic sense—
Does it refer to the uniqueness of God, to His absolute difference in essence from all other beings . . . ([M09],164).
—or in a monist sense—
. . . or does it denote the unity which denies ultimate reality to all phenomenal existence? ([M09],164).
McLeod chooses monotheism.
If we are compelled to choose between these polar conceptions our choice must settle upon the former alternative. Guru Nanak’s thought cannot be made to conform to the categories of advaita doctrine without equating his concept of God with the ultimately unreal Isvara of Sankara’s philosophy . . . ([M09],164-5).
Nonetheless McLeod finds elements of monism in Nanak’s teaching.
Nanak himself explicitly declares notions of ‘duality’ . . . the essence of man’s problem, and the overcoming of such notions to be a vital aspect of man’s quest for salvation. Moreover, we must also acknowledge the stress which he lays upon divine immanence and upon the fundamental importance of this immanent revelation in the quest for salvation. ([M09],165).
Again, there’s confusion. Nanak wasn’t a monist but often spoke like one anyway. Is it Nanak’s statements which are confused and inconsistent? Or is it their interpretation?
If the two aspects of the Uncreated are understood, then Nanak’s beliefs are neither inconsistent nor confusing. If Nanak is seen as a monist who often used an “operational-monotheistic” mode of speaking, then there is no confusion. Nor is there a compulsion to choose between the “polar conceptions” of monism and monotheism. Guru Nanak, I believe, was an operational monist.
The dual aspects are easily forgotten, even by the spiritually aware. The mind easily slips to one side or the other of the unstable balance. It’s natural, therefore, that the personal aspect of the Eternal might over time in the minds of the average believer become some God who is a Person.
In Judaism and Christianity Yahweh is the name of a God who is a Person. How did the word “Yahweh” come to be connected with God? In Exodus 3:14 we read
And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you. ([H08], Ex3:14).
A footnote explains
I am who am: apparently this utterance is the source of the word Yahweh, the proper personal name of the God of Israel. It is commonly explained in reference to God as the absolute and necessary Being. It may be understood of God as the Source of all created beings. ([N02],61).
Thus the phrase “I am who am” may have once referred to the Source, the Root, the Ultimate Ground of Existence. That is, “Yahweh” may have originally indicated the personal aspect of the self-existent and eternal Reality. In time, however, it became the name of a God who is a Person, a God separate from creation, one Entity among others.
In the mind of the average believer, the Eternal’s personal aspect is liable to change into a separate, distinct Person. Conversely, in the minds of the mystics a separate, distinct God who is a Person tends to change into a personal aspect of the Eternal. Nicholson describes this phenomena when he writes the Sufi’s
Light, Knowledge, and Love . . . rest upon a pantheistic faith which deposed the One transcendent God of Islam and worshiped in His stead One Real Being who dwells and works everywhere . . . ([N11],8).
So, we may describe experience of a God who is a Person as unrecognized experience of the personal aspect of the Uncreated, as unrecognized experience of the personal side of the God which is not a Person. In other words, as unrecognized experience of the God who is not a Person.
Ramakrishna spoke of such experience when he said:
For the bhakta He assumes forms. But he is formless for the Jnani. ([T04],3).
A Bhakta yogi uses a heart-centered approach to the Eternal, who usually is some God who is a Person. Someone who practices Bhakti yoga uses the emotions to draw nearer to God. Ramakrishna continues:
. . . Brahman, Existence-Knowledge-Bliss Absolute, is like a shoreless ocean. In the ocean visible blocks of ice are formed here and there by intense cold. Similarly, under the cooling influence, so to speak, of the bhakti of Its worshipers, the Infinite transforms Itself into the finite and appears before the worshiper as God with form. That is to say, God reveals Himself to His bhaktas as an embodied Person. Again, as, on the rising of the sun, the ice in the ocean melts away, so, on the awakening of jnana, the embodied God melts back into the infinite and formless Brahman. . . . But mark this: form and formlessness belong to one and the same Reality. ([T04],3-4).
Notice that “blocks of ice are formed” and “the Infinite transforms Itself into the finite.” We’ve seen the problem with God actually being a Person is that personhood is too limited and finite. So perhaps “transforms” is too strong a word. Perhaps the Infinite appears as a finite Person, but remains infinite nonetheless.
Of course, there are different kinds of limited, separate existences. A person is a distinct, separate entity, just as a block of ice is a distinct, separate entity. Yet a person is higher in the “Great Chain of Being” than a rock. Similarly, a God who is a Person is higher than a person. Yet all three are still limited, distinct, separate manifestations of the Uncreated Light. All three are “blocks of ice” in the shoreless ocean of Uncreated Light.
So angels, demons, Gods who are Persons, and other “supernatural” entities—if they exist—are no more supernatural than a rock. Since the Ultimate Ground of Existence underlies their existence as It underlies the existence of the rock, one is no more above nature—i.e, super-natural—than the other. Therefore the entire realm of existence—rocks, angels, and Gods who are Persons—is united, one. It is all natural. Or, if you prefer, it’s all supernatural since the God which is not a Person underlies it all. Therefore, the “supernatural” realm is actually a part of the natural universe. However, mentally dividing the natural realm into the interior domain, the exterior domain, and the “supernatural” domain may still be useful on occasion. It should be remember, however, that the “supernatural” realm is actually a part of the natural universe, even if the double quotes are omitted.
The quote also has “He assumes forms.” Plural. There are many different Gods who are Persons in the same ocean of Uncreated Light, even as there are many different blocks of ice in the ocean. This brings us again to a question raised in a previous chapter: why mystical experiences of the God which is not a Person generally agree, while experiences of Gods who are Persons often disagree. It’s because the Self-Existent assumes different forms for different worshipers.
As a young boy, I heard a T.V. talk show host describe his trip to Japan. He remarked some Christian statues of Jesus and Mary there had oriental features, particularly eyes. At the time, this amused me; I thought such statues ridiculous. Only later did I realize the distinctly Western, Caucasian appearance of the statues of Jesus, Mary, and the saints I had seen.
Our Gods who are Persons are Gods who are persons like us. But suppose creatures existed on another planet and looked like, say, spiders. And suppose these creatures would experience an uncontrollable revulsion at the sight of a human. Then their mystics who experienced a God who is Person would probably experience a God who was a spider, not a human. Therefore, Gods who are Persons are, to some extent, our own creations. I don’t mean they are entirely our creation, that they are mythological. I mean only that our personalities and limitations condition our experience, that the Eternal seen as some God who is a Person is not seen as It is in Itself. It’s seen in a form It assumes for our benefit, as a accommodation to our limitations.
Therefore, there can be as many Gods who are Persons as there are people (or spiders) to see them. As Rufus Jones remarked:
. . . there is always a profound subjective aspect of interpretation of the Divine . . . in terms of the expectation of the individual, and in terms of the prevailing climate of opinion. ([J02],86-7).
I once knew a man who with perfect sincerity believed Jesus had been tall, light-skinned, blond-haired and blue-eyed. I could, no doubt, find someone else who believes Jesus was short, brown of skin, hair, perhaps eyes, too. Do these two people have the same God who is a Person? Suppose each of them became a mystic, intent on direct experience of their God. Suppose they worshiped and prayed constantly, hoping for an experience of God. Would it be surprising if one experienced a tall, blond-haired Jesus, the other, a short, brown-skinned Jesus? After all, if the Eternal assumes a form for our benefit, might it not assume the form we wish to see?
Relating to the Eternal as if It is a Person is obviously very similar to relating to a God who is an actual Person. There’s a difference, but is it important?
The difference may not be important to the average believer. Someone who only knows of a God who is a Person can progress quite far in religious or even mystical life. As Shankara writes:
Devotion to . . . the Personal God, may lead a man very far . . . it may make him into a saint. ([S11],23),
More than that, it may make him a mystic who achieves first-hand knowledge of God, or some restricted kind of “union.” Many saints and mystics have known nothing of the God which is not a Person.
Yet, experience of the Eternal is obviously less conditioned by the experiencer. It’s purer, truer, and more universal than experience of some God who is a Person. Therefore, Shankara describes such experience as a higher goal than monotheism offers.
But this is not the ultimate knowledge. To be completely enlightened is to go beyond Iswara, to know the Impersonal Reality behind the personal divine Appearance. ([S11],23).
To know the Reality behind the appearance of Gods who are Persons implies either first-hand or unitive knowledge of the Ultimate Ground of Existence.
Many mystics, Meister Eckhart, for one, valued union far above first-hand knowledge. In fact, Eckhart placed the Godhead so far above any God who is a Person he wrote:
. . . I pray God to rid me of God, for my essential being is above God . . . ([M12],219).
This phrase is no doubt shocking as translated. To understand it properly, we must understand Eckhart’s ideas of “God” and “Godhead.”
Eckhart drew a sharp distinction between the God who is a Person and the Ultimate Ground of Existence. In fact, Rufus Jones claimed ([J03],224) this distinction was at the very core of Eckhart’s thought, which he described as follows:
He whom we call “God” is the Divine Nature manifested and revealed in personal character, but behind this Revelation there must be a revealer—One who makes the revelation and is the Ground of it, just as behind our self-as-known there must be a self-as-knower—a deeper ego which knows the me and its processes. Now the Ground out of which the revelation proceeds is the central mystery—is the Godhead. . . . This unrevealable Godhead is the Source and Fount of all that is . . . ([J03],225).
Eckhart, it seems, had direct experience of the Godhead. He wrote:
When I still stood in my first cause, I had no God, I was cause of myself. . . . But when by free will I went out and received my created being, then I had a God. ([M12],116).
When Eckhart’s Consciousness was united with the Real, the First Cause, there was no separate, distinct God who is a Person. When It descended to the plane of duality, then the universe, Eckhart’s ego, and a God who is a Person all reappeared.
And so we see why he “prayed to God to rid him of God.” Eckhart prayed to stay united with the Real, and not to fall back into duality where a separate God who is a Person exists. Though “for my essential being is above God” is true, I much prefer “for God’s essential being is above God” or “for the Godhead is above any God who is a Person.” All three versions express the same thought—that the Godhead is above any God who is a Person—but the last two avoid the appearance of blasphemy.
In any version, the meaning is the same: the Godhead, the God which is not a Person, is the Ground of, the Source of, the Basis of—and therefore above—any God Who is a Person. Shankara and Eckhart agree: experience of the God which is not a Person is above experience of any God who is a Person.
So, for mystics who seek the highest goal, union with the Eternal, the distinction between the Eternal Substance and Gods who are Persons may be important. The distinction may also be important to a scientific religion.
We’ve seen Gods who are Persons are subjective, to some extent. That’s why they’re experienced differently by different people. The God which is not a Person, on the other hand, is objective. Different mystics experience the same Reality. Therefore, the more universal and objective God which is not a Person is a better foundation for a scientific religion than some particular God who is a Person. Science has found itself more able to study objective phenomena. Physics and chemistry, for example, are often predictive and exact while psychology and sociology often aren’t. Therefore, an emerging scientific religion might decide to study the objective Ultimate Ground of Existence, rather than the multitude of different Gods who are Persons.
The distinction could also be important if the human race ever encountered another intelligent species. Any species who can experience some God who is a Person would, presumably, be able to experience Its Ground, too. That is, any species which possesses consciousness would be able to experience God in the same way, as the Eternal Light, Consciousness Itself. The God which is not a Person might be the only God different species could have in common.