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It’s Personal

January 28, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

“When we ask, ‘Is God a person or is God not a person,’ we get lost. In fact, God is not a person, and God is not a non-person. There is a German theologian who expresses this very beautifully: ‘God is not a person, but not less than a person’ ” (Going Home, page 12).

In the unraveling of my worldview, I found this question to be one of the principal threads, one on which the whole tapestry hung.

Memories: choosing, as a child, to empty the lint screen on the dryer because it was the better thing to do, and though it was trivial and unimportant and so much easier to be lazy and neglect the task, I felt suddenly, in that moment, a rich and delightful warmth in the realization that God saw. God was, and was watching. And though this was the most banal of choices, it mattered. Because it was the better thing to do. Because God cared about living by the better way. And because in this framework, nothing was insignificant.

A world alive with meaning – for me, that is the most important thing. I am well if this is so, and I’m empty if it’s not.

Memories: walking around the campus of Dallas Baptist University wondering where God had gone: recalling a time when I heard God listening to me, felt God’s company, in everything I did; and wondering why that presence had left. Later I chose to believe what’s written in the Bible despite what I might or might not feel, to believe the promise and allow it to come true through the phenomenon of belief: Lo, I am with you always; I will never leave you nor forsake you; I am with you.

Throughout my life the personhood of God has been very important. And when I started tugging the loose threads, and when the fabric began to unweave, row by row, and when this principal thread followed suit (“Is God a person or is God not a person?”) I did indeed get lost.

I have always loved Paul Tillich’s statement that God is the ground of being, as Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us (Going Home, page 7). That spoke to me the moment I heard it said. I love ontology, the layer beneath the layers. In literature I love the subtext almost more than the text; in this world, I love ontology almost more than phenomena. It is a beautiful way to look at God – the ground of being. It reminds me of the intense thrill I got from the words, “The world is shot through with the glory of God,” as I looked at the tree dancing furiously in the wind at the edge of the parking lot and saw its movement infused with this: it danced because God is. Again, like the realization that even the lint screen mattered, it made me see this living world as infinitely alive, breathing meaning, down to every last molecule, significant. God-filled. God-derived. Joyous, or painful, or confused, or immersed in peace – all of these things variously, wherever in the world they may appear, simultaneously, all because God is; and despite however tragic things may get, all of it well.

All of this is to say, Paul Tillich’s vision of God resonates for me, and I can see how, as Thich Nhat Hanh suggests, the notion of personhood isn’t necessary for this to work. But. At the same time, personhood is necessary to me in other ways. It’s necessary for prayer.

How can I talk to someone who isn’t someone? How can I believe that every last thing matters without also believing that God is witness? How can I love God, most importantly, if God isn’t someone who can love? How can I confide in God if God isn’t someone who cares?

And if I can’t love God, talk to God, confide in God – I may as well not believe at all. Because this is what I need out of my relationship with the noumenal: a place to pour this deepest, highest, strongest conversation.

So, when Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Why do we have to imprison God in one of these two notions: person and non-person? Do you really need to define God like that?” (Going Home12), I answer, yes and no. I’m fine with saying that God is not just a person – that God is more than a person. I don’t need God to sit inside the “person” box. But I do need God to possess certain qualities that one might find in that box.

I notice too that wherever the subject comes up, he says “neither, nor” – God is neither a person nor a non-person. I have always been more of a “both, and” person than a “neither, nor” person, and I wonder if, at this point, there’s any important problem with saying that God is both. God is a person. God is a non-person. And also, God is neither. I mean, as long as you’re starting from the tenet that words and notions are insufficient to describe God anyway, than is it any real problem to play with the words you do use?

It’s the same with gender. God is not male. God is not female. God is not neuter. But, given that our language necessarily involves third-person singular pronouns which necessarily denote one of the three, you may as well use them all. God: he is with us. God: she hears us when we call. God: it is all that is. God: they are the ground of being. The pronoun itself is an icon, not the reality it refers to, and by remaining deliberately unattached to any one of the pronouns available, you avoid the trap of turning that icon into an idol, making the important mistake of thinking that, in essence, in actual truth, God is “he,” and it’s sacrilege to describe “him” any other way. Again, “Do you really need to define God like that?” (Going Home, 12).

So, given that God can’t be described with any fixed concept, because God is beyond the tools we have available, God is beyond our ability to conceive – which I think we’d all agree – I’d propose that at this point, it’s no less correct to say, “God is both,” than, “God is neither.”

Of course, what it really comes down to, though, is not, “How are we going to talk about God,” but rather, “What is the actual nature of God?” In other words, when you pray, are you heard? Does someone or something care? This question goes beyond what we perceive; it is to ask, “Is something out there or not, and if so, does it know about me, does it want things for me, does it hear me and interact with me, does it love me?”

It’s funny. I don’t know what the “right” answer is. But I know I’ve experienced the “yes” answer. I have prayed a question, waited, then heard the answer and learned what to do from it. I have sent a desire of mine skyward, and seen it fulfilled. Over, and over, and over. I have prayed, and been delivered. I have danced with quicksand and, when my strength wasn’t enough to save me, been rescued. You could explain this away as coincidence; you could say I had the answers inside me all along; you could say that when one makes certain moves, other moves naturally follow, a kind of practical karma. But that is not the character of what I experienced – that is not how it felt to me, deep down, or on any level, as it happened – that is not what it tasted like. And more importantly, had I been interacting with it on those other terms, I don’t think I would have seen the same outcomes. Since then, whenever I’ve tried to look within myself for the answers or hope for lucky coincidences, or simply trust that I’m walking my road in such a way as to call certain providential circumstances into my life, the effort falls, and always falls, flat. The good I experienced was not invoked through those means. It came to me when, and only when, I was looking out, beyond myself, to a person who loved me.

A word about personhood. The other day my friend said that cats aren’t people. My husband and I disagreed. A cat has a perspective, thoughts, feelings, interests, intentions. Cats aren’t human, obviously. But they are “persons.” Our friend said she reserves the word “person” for people. I found this kind of funny. It’s an axiomatic, and therefore unsatisfactory, definition. Turn to Webster’s under “person,” and read, “one of a category defined as people.” Turn to “people” and read: “two or more persons.”

I think what she meant is that, to her, “person” has an ineffable quality only found in humans; that the only creatures who possess this quality are human. Whereas to me, “person” has an ineffable quality which exists in all kinds of creatures, in each case respective to their kind. Cats possess personhood, not in the same way as do humans. They don’t think human thoughts; they think cat thoughts. We are human-people. They are cat-people.

Why does this matter? Because it makes calling God a person a lot less loaded. By calling God a person I’m not calling her a human being. After all, I call a tree a person. When Thich Nhat Hanh rejects Teilhard de Chardin’s statement that “the cosmos is deeply personal and personalizing, that it is in the process of personalizing all the time” (Going Home, 11), he does so on the grounds that to say this demonstrates a kind of dualism: “There are two different things. One is the person, and the other is the non-person” (ibid.). Later, talking about impermanence, he goes on to say that the tree in the front yard does not have a separate self, because without all the non-tree elements – the sun, the rain, the ground, etc. – the tree could not exist; it and they are so interconnected that the line between “tree” and “not tree” begins to lose its metaphysical practicality. Similarly, about the question of personhood, he says, “a person is made of non-person elements and vice versa” (Going Home, page 12). But here’s the thing. Whether you believe that everything is personal or that nothing is personal, you’re equally rid of dualistic thinking. As long as you’re going to say it’s all one or it’s all the other, you’re kind of saying the same thing. It’s just a question of whether, for you, the image is found in the positive space or the negative space in the silhouette.

God is not a person, but not less than a person. God is a person, but also more than a person. It’s the same silhouette.

So long as a tree is a person, I think God can be a person. So long as each one of my cells has a distinct self, and I, made of all of them, have a self that’s more than the sum of the parts, why can’t God be the same? I think he can. I think God is a person – just not a human. I think God is, at the same time, also not a person. More than a person. Something beyond the person/ non-person duality.

Does God know about me and care? That’s another question. I don’t know. I hope so.

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