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God: Up Close and Personal

People don’t always say what they mean.  Worse than that, the same word conveys different pictures to different people.  When I say “car”, I may be picturing a red two-seater sports car, while you imagine a green sedan.

All of us struggle when we try to find words to express the inexpressible.  God is infinite; words are finite, so the moment we try to put God into words, we’re in trouble.  Nevertheless, we need to try to describe God, defining our terms as we go in the best way we can, so that we can help each other in the ongoing attempt to develop closer approximations of truth.

The ancients described God as an ill-tempered potentate, and God went right on being God.  Later, people described God as a sort of watchmaker who wound the universe up and then went off and left it; and God went right on being God.  Still others described God as some sort of impersonal force, rather like electricity, and God went right on being God.  It’s something like the old story about the blind men trying to describe the elephant.  Each was correct in his description of the aspect of the elephant that he was experiencing, but nobody had the whole picture.

In putting together our individual philosophies of life, which include our view of God, common sense dictates that even though we are the ultimate experts on our own lives, we profit by the experiences of other experts, rather than trying to reinvent the wheel.  Otherwise, we are like someone who takes a tennis racket and ball and goes out behind the barn to play, without ever watching experts play at Wimbledon, or working with a coach, or even reading books about tennis or watching videos about tennis.

When it comes to God, there are two types of expert: mystics and philosophers (and a few people who are both).  The mystic experiences God firsthand and then tries to express the inexpressible, usually resorting to beautiful, poetic, but imprecise language.  For sharing an experience, a feeling, that’s fine.  The philosopher’s job, on the other hand, is to remain outside of the emotions of the experience and try as far as possible to stick to precise language.  Both approaches are valuable ways of acquiring knowledge, and we need both.  A balanced spirituality contains physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects of our being.

For this article, I am attempting to describe God from the philosopher’s standpoint, as precisely as possible, and in a way that is most useful in other realms of existence.  I use the handy little three-letter word God to refer to the Ultimate, the Source of the universal principles that appear in every age and every culture.  I continue to use this traditional term not to indicate a traditional viewpoint, but to help replace any old outworn notions of the Ultimate wearing the label God that may be floating around in anybody’s mind.

In the INTA Declaration of Principles, we affirm everybody’s freedom of belief, but there is a big difference between free thinking and sloppy thinking.  There are criticisms of every argument for a particular view of God, and we weigh the various arguments and the criticisms of them and decide for ourselves which argument is the strongest or which criticisms are the weakest.  If we fail to note the pros and cons of any argument and weigh it against knowledge gained from other sources, we are probably guilty of sloppy thinking, although we do no such thinking while we are in the midst of a mystical experience.

Two ongoing concepts that come up frequently in New Thought have to do with what the relationship is between God and the universe, which most New Thoughters see as God’s body; and whether God is personal or impersonal.

Ancient theism saw God as a giant human being, and probably all New Thoughters would reject that view.  Theism also sees God as transcendent, outside or “other than” the universe.  New Thoughters would also reject this if it is not qualified in some way.  The view opposed to traditional theism is traditional pantheism, which sees God as an impersonal sort of force indistinguishable from the universe: God as completely immanent.  Traditional theism and traditional pantheism are diametrically opposed to each other, and to embrace one is to cut yourself off from the other.  Many New Thoughters are interested in discovering the common core in all religions.  They cannot possibly find such a common core if they embrace either traditional theism or traditional pantheism.

Happily, there is a third view possible.  It is a view that is in line with Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, habits of seeking win/win, seeking first to understand before seeking to be understood, and synergizing.  This view dates back to the early nineteenth century, when a German philosopher named Krause came up with a “higher pantheism,” for which he coined the word panentheism.  This view preserves the best of theism and pantheism, and answers the criticisms of each.

The main difficulties with traditional theism are that even if we have outgrown the notion of God as a large human being, God still is considered in some degree aloof from his/her creation, and not influenced by it; so how can he/she be at work in it, in us?  The main difficulties with traditional pantheism are the inverse of the difficulties with theism: an impersonal force or mere impersonal totality cannot love, cannot reason, cannot do things that a human being can do, and the creator is therefore inferior to the creature.  Furthermore, if God and creation are indistinguishably one, in some amorphous blob, there is no role for us as creatures with free will, and our lives lack meaning.  Panentheism answers these difficulties by holding that God is both immanent and transcendent, everywhere present and containing the universe.  As the INTA Declaration of Principles states, the universe is God’s body [a notion they got from some of the mystics].  The nature of that body is mind, but God also has a mind of his/her own.  I have a body that is made up of a great many minds, lesser minds than the mind that I am that contains my body; and this is also true of God.  So we are IN God.  “In him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28).  I am a part of God’s body, and there is something of God in every bit of me, but I am not indistinguishable from God; I am not all there is to God.  I have (am) a mind of my own; I have free will, and my job in the universe is to say yes or no to the perfect possibilities that God is holding out to me.  God has a plan and a purpose and preferences, but God does not overrule my free will; I have to say yes to God if I am to realize my potentials fully.  I can use God’s possibilities to create the world I want, first in mind, then in manifestation, to use traditional New Thought language.  We describe this impartiality and lawfulness as God’s reliability.  In offering the best possibilities for me in the situation that I am in, God is utterly reliable.

Here we need to take note that God is personal.  When philosophers use the term personal, they do not mean a giant human being, nor do they mean taking something as applying specially to you, such as “my personal Savior,” nor are they referring to limited human personality.  In this sense, a person is one who is self aware, rational, and teleological (goal oriented).  So all human beings are persons.  God is the Ultimate Person.  Only a person can love, and care, and make plans, or guide, or love right along with us as we love.  To indicate this personhood, we refer to God as him or her.

None of this is new to New Thought, but sadly, it has been overlooked.  In struggling free of traditional theism, many New Thoughters began to refer to God as impersonal, and confounded God’s reliability and impartiality with the habitually lawful universe that displays these qualities of God.  Yet they still feel the personhood of God as Love, so they tap-danced around, struggling to express themselves.  They were not familiar with the philosopher’s particular use of the term personal.

Fortunately, we do have some strong, clear statements of this personalistic view of God.  Here is what Ernest Holmes, friend of the noted personalist philosopher Ralph Tyler Flewelling, had to say in his textbook, The Science of Mind:

We do not think of God as a tremendous Person, but we do think of the Spirit as the Infinite Personalness in and through all Life.  Infinite Self-Knowingness is the Abstract Essence of all personality.  To think of God simply as an Infinite Principle would be to resolve the Divine Being into an Infinite IT, a cold impersonal Law, containing no warmth or color, and certainly no responsiveness. . . . No worse state of mentality could be imagined than one in which man thought of God simply as Principle.  The very fact that man comes from the Universe in a self-conscious state, proves that behind all manifestation there is a Power that knows Itself; and a Power that knows Itself must be Personal.  It is not, of course, limited.  It must be Infinite. . . . God is the Element of Personalness back of all personality.  (1938 edition, p. 618)

Another great New Thoughter, Emmet Fox, put it this way:

It sometimes happens that when people outgrow the childish idea that God is just a magnified man, they go to the opposite extreme and think of God as merely a blind force, like gravity or electricity.  This means they have lost all sense of the Love and Fatherhood of God, and such an idea is very little better than a subtle form of atheism.  Indeed, this standpoint is not very far removed from the attitude of the materialist who is usually a great believer in what he calls the laws of Nature. . . . 
Is God a person?  No, God is not a person in the usual sense of the word.  God has every quality of personality except its limitation.  It is true that the human mind cannot imagine any personality which is not limited, but this difficulty arises from the very limitations of the human mind itself, and of course, this does not affect the nature of God.  The Bible says, in effect, whatever you think I am, that will I be to you; and this means that if we attribute to God every quality of an infinite, intelligent, loving personality, having infinite power, God will be just that to us.  So we may say that we believe in a personal God, but not an anthropomorphic God.  There is nothing that an anthropomorphic God could be to us that the true God is not, and He is infinitely more besides.
In acquiring these wider and better ideas of God, you should not feel that you have, so to speak, left the God of your childhood for a new God—as one might leave one political party and join a different one—but that you are simply getting a better and more adequate idea of the same God that you always worshiped; because, of course, there is only one God.  (Alter Your Life, page 132)

We’ll let Jesus have the last word.  Surrounded by anthropomorphic images of God, Jesus instead told his followers to see God as a loving father; in other words, a person in the philosophical sense.  Father or mother, for God has no gender, we can sense that loving, guiding care, that “fellow-sufferer who understands,” as Alfred North Whitehead put it.  We can take responsibility for saying yes to and carrying out, as co-creators with God, God’s perfect possibilities for us as God’s grown-up children.