God as “person”

 If matter’s energy is taken to be “God,” one of the things it will entail is the re-concep­tu­a­lization of the notion of “person” as applied to “God.” 

I have been accused of “impersonalizing God.” But the reader should be aware, this is not a new problem.  It has been a traditional point of tension in western religious thought since before the advent of Christianity.  Aristotle’s “God,” who was the scholoastic model, was a cosmic force that related to no one.  In the Middle Ages, theologians who defined “God” as “being,” had the problem of understanding how such a “God” might be a “person” in the ordinary sense of the term. The “God of the Book,” on the other hand, was said to interact with people in ways that Aristotle would call anthropomorphic. To mis-apply the word “person” justi­fies anthropomorphism, and essentialist philosophy is in a dilemma because, in theory, it eschews anthropomorphism.  Aristotle would never call “God” a person.  Why did Thomas?            

Aquinas used the analogy of being to support the claim that God was a “person.” His reasoning went like this: because we, finite spirits, are per­sons by reason of our powers of intellect and will, “God,” an infinite spirit, could not be anything less. Therefore “God” must have intellect and will and must be a “person.” 

But consider: “persons,” in our experience, are flesh and blood individuals that interact through episodic contacts characterized by constant change and modulation. We relate to persons through the interpretation of their changing intentionality. Thomas’ “God” does not do that, either going or coming. Aquinas himself claimed that God’s “providence” was complete in the natural order. “Miracles,” stock-in-trade for the Church that of course he would never deny, he still insisted had to have been foreseen and pre-programmed from all eternity, because “God” cannot change.  How does one interact “personally” with a changeless God?   And how does that “God” interact with us?        

For mediaeval theologians, the super-essential character of the notion of “God” derived from the traditional static concept of being. In fact, claiming that God was “Being” meant that “God” was not an entity definable and delimited over against other entities, and therefore not an individual in the normal sense of that word.  If “God” is not a separate entity, how could “he” be capable of interaction with other entities … how could “he” be a “person” as we understand it?  The point is, “he” wasn’t.  For Aquinas “he” was a “person” by abstract definition, not by human experience.

We have to recognize that the empirical absence of any verifiable interaction with “God” even in the experience of believers, corroborates the drift of this discussion: if “God” is a “person,” it is not as we experience and understand that term.  One might think that the mystics, of all people, would have opposed that statement, but as we shall see shortly, they confirm it.

Besides, even the highly abstract Thomist definition of “person” as possessing intellect and will, is unworkable on its own terms.  For Aquinas, there is no distinction in God between intellect and will. God is Being, and being is “one” and metaphysically “simple.”  There is no multiplicity of any kind.  All attributes and activities of God are the same as his “essence” … and his essence is simply “to exist.”  So to be, to will, to think, to create, to provide, etc., (any “attribute” that one can imagine of “God,”) are all one and the same act.  There is only one single selfsame act in which God exists and embraces “himself” eternally.  “God,” by traditional scholastic standards, does not have intellect and will as we under­stand the terms. Therefore Thomas’ abstract definition must be “tweaked” to fit the anthropomorphic imagery of the “Book.” To call “God” a “person” under these circumstances is utterly misleading because “God” doesn’t do what we expect “persons” to do, and what “the Book” says he does.  People are not interested in some irrelevant abstraction; they expect a “person” to hear, feel, understand and respond like a person.       

So, for mediaeval theology, calling “God” a person is a metaphysical abstraction — a formality.  We can relate to “God,” but we have to admit that we have absolutely no idea what “God” relating to us might mean. The only part of this relationship that we experience is the one-dimen­sion­al benevolence made manifest in our own existence.  

 The upshot is that scholasticism provides no more support for the creating, micro-managing, providential personal “God” of the “Book” than does the cosmo-ontology we have elaborated in The Mystery of Matter. Whatever modern science knows of “creation” and “providence,” is sufficiently and necessarily explained as the evolutionary dynamism of matter’s energy.  There is no need for any other agency.  What this means is that taking “God” to be material energy sets up the same austere, exclusively existential relationship between the human organism and “God” as the identification of “God” with the scholastic concept of “being.”  In each case, when the analysis is complete, it turns out that, in the practical order, it is more accurate for us to say that “God” is not a person, than that “he” is.  If the term “person” is used without the clarifications that effectively neutralize the term, it will necessarily create a profound misunderstanding and false expectations.    If in our times “God” has become a term of derision and absurdity, I believe this is the cause of it.

the church

 Historically the Catholic Church made no effort to correct this anthropomorphism and in fact encouraged it.  It was understandable. The Church lived off its alleged power to assuage, cajole and in other ways “control” God.  But, it is only a “God” who changes his mind, can be placated and prayed to, that could keep the Church in “business.”  And it is only a “God” who has a “will” and gives commands, and expects to be obeyed or will punish the disobedient, that can be an effective whip for social cohesion.  Such a relational, changeable, multi-dimen­sional, rational, anthropomorphic “God,” however, every bit as much for essentialist philosophy as for the cosmo-ontology pre­sented in this study, does not exist. Let me repeat: that “God” does not exist! neither for Thomas nor for me.  Both systems insist: as far as human experience is concerned, “God” is, practically speaking, impersonal; all claims to the contrary are products of human imagination. To use the word “person” of “God” is a sheer abstract conceptual formality.  It has no relational significance whatsoever, not for “providence” and not for prayer. In recent years I have heard people call a devastating earthquake or tsunami visited on poor people “unintelligible.” The use of that word implies some failure of justice or compassion; it betrays the deeply damaging anthropomorphisms that continue to contaminate our thinking about “God.” Natural events are perfectly intelligible. One could only call them “unintelligible” if one thought a rational intelligence — “God” — inexplicably willed or permitted them to happen.                    

“Material energy,” existence, generates exactly the same conceptual relationships as essentialist “being.” The self-embrace of existence that we can palpably experience in our conatus derives from a foundational existential dynamism, a property of the material substrate itself. That dynamism accounts for the communitarian persistence on display in every emergent form of existence.  The attempt to relate to this substrate — what many see as an impersonal force — is no different from trying to relate to the essentialists’ “God-Being” who is, by scholastic standards, equally non-relational, changeless, unidimensional — from the point of view of human experience, in other words, impersonal.

 the mystics and a “personal” God

 Contrary to popular opinion, this “impersonal” dimension is confirmed in practice by the mystics of all traditions.  This seems counter-intuitive; so let’s look at it briefly.

The pursuit of mystical experience has always been something of an elite, esoteric or even parallel religious project. It went beyond mere religious practice.  The original goal of the mystic in almost all cases was to make direct personal contact with the very source of the sacred itself.  If “God” were a “person” the mystics would be the first to tell us about it.  What, in fact, do they say?

 The mystics’ advice, according to its most articulate practitioners, was to avoid relating to “God” as a person … and in the east, was explicitly non-theist.  Most people are not aware of this.  Evidence for it, however, is ubiquitous in their writings although it takes many forms and may emerge only in the final stages of an arduous and extended personal program.  Allow me to illustrate with some examples. 

In the East, contemplative practice was expressly defined by the Buddha from the start as a non-theist and even anti-theist endeavor.  It was definitely not a relationship to a god, much less a personal god.  The original doctrine, known as Theravada Buddhism, carried forward in later centuries by Mahayana systems, bracketed the traditional Hindu gods. The Buddha taught that it was the illusory belief in the ability to achieve a personal existential permanence that was responsible for the unnecessary anthropogenic aggravation of the suffering that is endemic to existence. Belief in the gods, with the reward and punishment, eternal life and happiness allegedly pro­mised by them, was a prime symptom of this illusion.

 …the immortality of the soul through appeasement of the gods by prayer and ritual … have no place in the Buddha’s teaching. …[1]    Absent from all these [Buddhist] systems is any notion corresponding to the God of the monotheistic religions … the idea of a personal relationship with an absolute being in another, transcendent world is foreign to Buddhism.[2] 

 In the West, the “religions of the Book” presented the source of the sacred as a personal “God” whose anthropomorphic characteristics were initially brought over from the “Book” to contemplative practice.  Hence in these religions the relationship was first conceived in “personal” terms as between two lovers (The Song of Solomon, Jalal-al-din Rumi, John of the Cross) tending historically in Christianity to focus on the personality of a divine Jesus as a loving companion (Thomas à Kempis).

 In the case of Christianity, the overwhelming influence of the personalist anthropomorphic imagery and rigid doctrinal formulas about “God” imposed with terrifying severity by a violently inquisitorial church, prevented any open rejection of the doctrine of a personal God as Buddhism did.  But, within the range of possibilities available, adept contemplatives, without openly challenging the doctrine, separated themselves in the practical order from the imagery and pursuit of a personal relationship with God.  Re­gardless of how laden with expressions of “perso­nal love” their journey began, Christian mystics eventually came around to describing a relationship in which the “personal” dimension was muted, relegated to superfluous status and eventually ignored altogether.  

 As with the Buddhists, most of these ascetics were focused on practice and did not draw “doctrinal” conclusions from their experience. Christian mystics tended to find “God” in the simple acceptance of the “divine” depths of their own existence and the uneventful routines of everyday life.

Some few, however, did have “theological” interests and attempted to translate their experience into “philosophical” terms. This penchant often got them into serious trouble. Christian mysticism as proposed by John Scotus Eriúgena (d. 877), followed in the footsteps of the earlier Greek Cappadocian Fathers and Pseudo-Dionysius. Eriúgena called “God” natura naturans and the cosmic order natura naturata, God’s “theophany.”  This identification of “God” with “nature” infuriated the authorities 350 years after his death and he was condemned along with other more contemporary “pantheists” at the IV Lateran Council (1215). There seemed to be no “statute of limitations” for the Inquisition:  bones were ordered dug up and burned. 

 Elsewhere Eriugena asserts that God is the ‘essence of all things’ (essentia omnium) and the ‘form of all things’ (forma omnium). In the thirteenth century, expressions such as these led to the accusation of heresy, i.e. that Eriugena is collapsing the difference between God and creation.[3]

 Christian mystical writers of the early 14th century, Marguerite Porete and Johannes Eckhart, who manifest a mutual influence be­tween themselves, both speak about “transcending religion.” Margue­rite was the inheritor of the mystical tradition of the feminist Beguines. She says she came to see that the scriptural “commandments” and growth in ascetical practice were “obstacles” in the sense of being early partial goals that must be transcended. The mature mystic, she says, has no goals whatsoever, no aspira­tions, no ascetical or prayer practices because she is no longer “traveling toward God,” … she exists in a state of complete union, and all imagined interaction has ceased. 

  The soul … no longer seeks God through penitence, nor through any sacrament of Holy Church; not through thoughts, nor through words, nor through works; … not through justice nor through mercy …

… such a soul neither desires nor despises poverty nor tribulation, neither mass nor sermon, neither fast nor prayer, and gives to nature all that is necessary without remorse of conscience.  But such a nature is so well ordered through the trans­formation of the unity of Love, to whom the will of the soul is conjoined, that nature demands nothing that is prohibited.[4]

The fact that a human being, body and soul, should consider itself “part of God” and therefore beyond obedience and other acts of relating to God “as other” was more than the inquisition would tolerate.  When she refused to retract her book, The Mirror of Simple Souls, she was burned at the stake in Paris in 1310, for “pantheism,” naturally.

 Johannes Eckhart, a renowned Dominican theologian and venerable elder of his order in Germany, might have been a secret disciple of Marguerite, according to historians, because their doctrines are so similar.  He taught that the soul has to “get beyond God, to the Godhead beyond the Trinity” — unconditioned being. “God,” he said, and “Trinity” were terms of religion. They are human terms that represent our projections and do not denote the “Godhead.” 

 The authorities say that God is a being, an intelligent being who knows everything.  But I say that God is neither a being, nor intelligent and he does not “know” either this or that.  … Therefore we pray that we may be rid of God, for unconditioned being is above God and all distinctions.[5] 

 The “Godhead,” he says, is pure simple lim­pid “being,” the goal of a “breakthrough” that marks the ultimate identity of souls who realize that they are an intimate part of “being,” and that thay are as they were before birth when, as Eckhart says, “I wanted what I was, and I was what I wanted.”  Contact with “God” is had in the depths of the soul in a pre-existing and un­earned unity where the “being” of each is meshed and indistinguishable for eternity.  It is not ecstatic.  It is the simple experience of oneself, but understood as ab­sorbed in the “being” of “God.” Eckhart was condemned in 1329 two years after he had died of natural causes, thus deftly avoiding the fate of his Beguine mentor.

 Spanish Carmelite mystics of the 16th century, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila produced writings that claimed to lead to a unity with God that goes beyond visions, feelings or interest in a supernatural world.

 For John the goal is simply the darkness of “faith.”  Search for “supernatural” experience is explicitly rejected because:

 “[God] has laid down rational and natural limits for man’s governance; wherefore to desire to pass beyond them is not lawful, and to seek out and attain to anything by supernatural means is to go beyond these natural limits.”[6]  “They are unnecessary” …  “To desire to commune with God by such means is a most perilous thing.”[7]

 These individuals were thoroughly immersed in the ordinary routines of life and, by their own assessment, completely uninterested in any ecstatic condition, visions, feelings, “mystical experiences,” or consolations. In fact, their break­through, it seems, from what they said in their books, was that one had absolutely to avoid pursuing any such extraordinary experiences. And the point was not just “achieve­ment by non-pursuit.”  They were very clear about it: “God” was not to be found there.  Their advice is that “per­fec­tion” consists in the awareness of the presence of God in all things and at all moments. One touches “God” through faith alone. Extraordinary experience is not the mystic’s quest.  Nothing superna­tural or “other-worldly” is required. 

 St Teresa of Avila for her part was most emphatic: even the afterlife becomes unimportant, since immersion in God will be no greater then than it is here and now.[8]  

All these great mystics were in the apophatic tradition, which means their theology was grounded in the unknowability of God.  I distinguish them from lesser “spiritual writers” like Thomas à Kempis in the 15th century who fostered an imaginary relationship with a “Jesus-as-a-personal-friend.”  However, given the Church’s insistence on its unique power to mediate authentic contact with God, the compatibility of The Imitation of Christ with the Catholic claim of the “real presence” in the Eucharist, insured that minor figures like à Kempis would be officially promoted over the great mystics.  As late as the 1960’s The Imitation of Christ was read daily to seminarians during their entire time of training.  Not even the gospels were treated with such deference.  Like most Catholics, seminarians were unaware of the great mystics.  Discouraged from reading them by the ecclesiastical authorities, most knew nothing of their counsels.

 Conventional religion is “other-worldly”

 The views of the great mystics stand in stark contrast with the world-view promoted by conventional christian religion which is quintessentially “other worldly” and based on the interventionist power of a personal deity who dwells an another world.  In the West, this connection includes the necessary role of the Church.  Any happiness experienced on earth, “this world,” is ephemeral, vanishing.  The only true happiness is to be found after death in that other world where the human being really belongs.  For the partisans of traditional religion, if there were no fear of punishment after death, what could possibly motivate moral behavior?  Moreover, if there were no other world, where would God reside? He is clearly not present in ours.

 The mystics saw things differently. There is nothing really “mystical” about their program.  What they are saying is that, by whatever long and circuitous journey, they all eventually arrived at a vision of “God” characterized by a quiet familial embrace of themselves and everything around them … because everything is the outward display of the presence of “God.” Their “doctrine” would be completely compatible with our cosmo-ontology and a transcendent material energy.  Teresa and John believed themselves to be in a deep relationship to a “God-person,” but even so, their own experience led them away from seeking any personal interaction with “God.”  This “discovery” about the already existent union of “God” and creation (or, in their terms, “God” and the “soul”) was so important that they felt driven to share it with others, and so produced the great mystical literature that we cherish so highly.  I cite their work as “theological” testimony, not devotional hyperbole.  Christians, however, having been warned by the Church that they are “potentially dangerous,” generally do not read them.

I offer the testimony of these women and men as examples from our own tradition that seem completely compatible, and even tend to confirm, the conclusions of our study. Religion does not need an anthropomorphic “God” to function … even at the highest levels.

[1] Takeuchi Yoshinori, ed., Buddhist Spirituality, Crossroads, NY, 1997, p.10.

[2] ibid. p.xxiii.

[3] Dermot Moran, “John Scottus Eriugena”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.

[4] Marguerite Porete, The Mirror of Simple Souls, tr Babinsky, NY Paulist Press 1993, ch 9 & 85

[5] Johannes Eckhart, sermon: Blessed are the Poor in Spirit, in Walshe, Eckhart, German Sermons, London, Watkiins, 1979 vol 2, p.275

[6] John of the Cross, Ascent of Mount Carmel, tr. Peers, NY Image, 1958, Bk II, ch 21,1 p.189

[7] ibid, 7 p.193

[8] Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, Seventh Mansion, chapter III.


One comment on “RELIGION (II)

  1. Thank you for this, Tony. Given my absolute unbelief, and being a person with no recognizable mystical bent, I gained more from it than I thought possible. Because I do stand in continuous awe and amazement before this incredible universe of which we are a part.


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