Thursday, September 29, 2005

The Myth of a Personal God

The blogging community, especially the spiritually oriented, most especially the Christian spiritually oriented blogging community enjoys a tremendous variety of faith-stances, perspectives and viewpoints. Each of us have our own, and all too often we tend to absolutize ours and relativize those of others who may not be in complete accord with ours. This of course is a form of exclusivism; it may be crude or subtle, yet few Christians can confess to being perfectly free from it.

I have already posted ideas about the stages of spiritual growth. Summarizing I see three:

1) The childlike trust in the parent extends spiritually to a love of the Heavenly Parent. (Jesus said "except you become as a little child, you shall in no wise enter the kingdom of God". Scientists often bring a child like trust to their discipline enabling all sorts of tremendous development of science; they understand Jesus' admonition better than do most ardent Christians.)

(Unfortunately many, perhaps the majority of the Christian community remain at this level of faith throughout their lives.)

2) The discovery of objective truth, the 'scientific' orientation appropriately born in adolescence, the development of a critical consciousness, often accompanied by a new scepticism re matters of the spirit.

3) The birth of a mature love leading to a reasoned faith. (A chief attraction of the spiritually oriented blogging community lies in the relatively large number of members who have progressed to this level in their development.)

Another useful categorization for spiritually oriented bloggers lies in their attitude re the personal God. Some of us cling to the idea while others in the course of their spiritual development have laid it aside.

Karen Armstrong provides a unique example of the three stages in the story of her life (June 10 link): raised in a nominal Catholic home in England, she entered a convent where she stayed 17-24, while also studying at Oxford. At that point Truth won over Faith. She became (in Marcus Norg's term) "religion's foremost public intellectual".

Some question remains in my mind as to whether, how or to what degree Karen may have achieved the stage of "a mature love and a reasoned faith".
However I completely agree with Marcus. In Chapter 7, "The God of the Mystics" of her A History of God she provided an interesting discussion of the pros and cons of the personal God; she pointed out that myth, mysticism, and
mystery all stem from the same Greek root (p. 211).

On page 209: "the personal God has helped monotheists to value the sacred and inalienable right of the individual....and helped the West to acquire the liberal humanism it values so highly."

"Yet the personal God can become a grave liability... a mere idol carved in our own image.... We can assume the he loves what we love and hates what we hate, etc." The is the basis of the terrible fratricidal blood among Christians
through the centuries.

And of course there is the issue of gender, a monumental one in the minds of many people. (Some liberal churches have taken to praying "Our mother
who art in heaven, etc.", acknowledging that as a metaphor Christ could not have meant "he" to be exclusive.)

These problems may have had some bearing on the suggestion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer that it might be time for "50 years" of "religionless Christianity". (Of course he remained a very religious person until he died.)

Speaking of prayer it's difficult to conceive of prayer being addressed to a nonpersonal entity. I can witness that religion had little meaning for me until I encountered the personal dimension.

The unprogrammed Quakers rarely speak of prayer; instead they 'hold you in the light', and this term, as an alternate to prayer suggests that they (at least many of them) have moved away from a personal God. They are a powerful force in our
culture, but probably not as significant to the general population as pentecostalism (at the opposite pole re a personal God. ) I lean toward Quakerism, and find pentecostal very attractive.

Re 'myth': to speak of 'The Myth of a Personal God' does not in the least cast aspersions on the reality. In spite of the popular culture myths do not imply a lack of validity: your myth is the system of thought that informs your life.


Shawn said...
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Shawn said...

I’m not sure it’s necessary to mature “beyond” the idea of a personal God. What’s important is to realize that God is inexpressible by words, images, or myths alone. The concept of a personal God is an accurate portrayal of God, but it is incomplete, as any idea of God must be.

God is transcendent, immanent, personal, and impersonal…he/she/it is all these things and more. The trap is in thinking that God can be pinned down or expressed fully by us, His children.

Larry said...

Thanks, Shawn. I agree completely with what you're saying. Meister Eckhart, Bonhoeffer, and other spiritual giants were deeply devoted to God the Father, but they understood as you have said that God is not limited by anything we might say about Him.

crystal said...

Hi Larry. As you already know, I think seeing god as a "person" is essential, because to me, it's all about relationship. As an article on Ignatian prayers says ...

Is our God is a living person with thoughts and feelings of God’s own, and not just an extension of our own thinking and feeling? ... You thought you were doing something relatively safe—praying—and instead you find yourself face to face with someone real. Fierce or fond, bright or dark (who knows?), but it is someone other and someone real—not yourself. Ignatius wants every spiritual exercise to be an encounter with the living God, another knot in the web of relationship woven in the gaze that passes between you and God.

Paul said...

Two quick comments:

For me, contemplative prayer came to replace prayer to a person-like God. And yet there is a personal dimension to it - there is very much a sense of my relationship to God.

I'm not sure that a childlike faith in science has been responsible for its advances. I think the advances in science and technology have more to do with the scientific method being a reliable methodology for learning about the physical world.

Twyla said...

Some interesting thoughts here, Larry. On the gender thing -- I read that some of the gnostic texts showed that many early Christians described and worshipped God as dyad, a being consisting of both masculine and feminine elements. They prayed to both the divine Father and divine Mother = to Mother-Father. One of their prayers, still intact, begins, "From thee, Father, and through thee, Mother, the two immortal names, Parents of the divine being."

Interesting. I'm working on a paper about this right now. I'll be posting from it soon on Whimsical Mystic.

Twyla said...

Oops, meant to ask -- have you read "The Spiral Staircase" by Armstrong? It's a memoir that talks about those years. Really good.

Larry said...

Paul, you commented on "Scientists often bring a child like trust to their discipline". I wasn't referring to "a childlike faith in science" as such, but rather to an open (child-like) attitude toward nature, which includes, among other things the fundamental belief that things happen according to laws, some of which we're beginning to (partially) grasp.

Twyla, re "The Spiral Staircase", yes, indeed, I've read it, and posted on it on this blog; (unfortunately I can't locate it because of the way this thing is set up, but I'll find the url and let you know.

Larry said...

Here it is, Twyla:

david said...

I'm an advocate of a personal God but not as it is expressed in contemporary pop religiousity. For me "person" is a legal or to use aristotle's term -- a forensic category. To be a person is to be recognized within a community, to be given rights and responsibilities within the social contract. In effect to be given a hearing.

So a faith community is a community that takes God seriously. A faith community takes seriously the possibility that God speaks.

The popular notion taht faith is about having a relationship with Jesus -- for me misses the point. The point is the sort of relationship. And this is one where God has a say in how we order our lives together.

Jon said...

"Hold you in the light!"

WOW! Thanks for sharing that, Larry. Sometimes, I've felt stymied in situations where I used to feel comfortable saying "you'll be in my prayers," since the meditation/contemplative prayer that I 'm more comfortable with now has so little to do with the favor-asking I associated with prayer in the past.

I'll hold you in the light. Now that I can say. Honestly and without reservation. Thanks.

Twyla said...

Thanks for the link to your post about Karen Armstrong. What a wonderful description. Makes me want to read the book again - and perhaps I should, being at a different place on the Path now.

Would it be rude of me to ask about what sickness you spoke of?

Twyla said...

Sorry, Larry - I cruised through your archives and got an idea about what you might have been referring to. Should have done that first (duh)

The good thing is...I forgot that I hadn't read your archives yet! Goody, goody (hands clapping in delight) Looks like I'll be busy for awhile, hold my calls. :)

Larry said...


Larry said...