In the most recent post in this series on knowing God, I introduced Ken Wilber’s integral model for how we experience God. Rather than viewing different ways of knowing God as a linear progression of steps to knowing God better, it understands them to be different perspectives on God, each of which teaches us something important. The last final posts in this series will explore each of the three perspectives in greater detail, starting today with the second-person perspective, since it is the most familiar to Western religious experience.
The second-perspective of God experiences God as a Person, as an Other Whom we meet. This is the perspective of God most strongly associated with the Abrahamic traditions. Whether we’re talking about Judaism, Christianity, or Islam, Western religion has been been unquestionably dominated by the understanding of God as personal. This personal God is the God Abraham met in the three strangers, the God with whom Jacob wrestled, the God Moses and Elijah encountered on their mountains, and the God who spoke to Job out of the whirlwind. It is also the God St. Bernard met in love, Julian witnessed in her revelations, and St John of the Cross slipped out in the dark of night to embrace. Whatever these stories reveal about God — creative, caring, just, faithful, or even jealous or violent — is revealed through God’s interactions with people. This personal God is a God who speaks and acts, and who demands a response.
Because this perspective of God is so pervasive within Christianity and within Western thought and culture more widely, I won’t go into much detail describing what it is. But, because it has been so dominant within our culture — historically often to the exclusion of the other perspectives — it has come to be maligned in some quarters. In rightly chafing under the weight of this one perspective’s dominance, many Westerners over the past century have sought out the first-person approaches of the East. But rather than using these to supplement, revitalize, and inform the second-person God of their childhoods, they have tended to reject the personal approach to God entirely. And perhaps the true value of the second-person perspective of God can best be seen in its absence.
Wilber, in his decades of watching this process unfold among his contemporaries — he was himself part of this movement towards first-person experiences of God among the baby boomer generation — has seen clearly the dangers of rejecting the second-person perspective of God entirely. He says:
The repression of the Great Thou often goes hand-in-hand with boomeritis [Wilber’s word for the narcissism of his generation]. By emphasizing either a 3rd-person conception of Spirit as a great Web of Life, or a 1st-person conception of Spirit as Big Mind or Big Self, there is nothing before which the ‘I’ must bow and surrender. The ego can actually hide out …. I simply go from I to [Divine ‘I’], never having to surrender to You. Spirit in 2nd-person is the great devotional leveler, the great ego killer, that before which the ego is humbled into emptiness.
If we think about it, this makes a lot of sense: In our day-to-day lives, what is better at dislodging our self-centredness than honestly engaging with another person, even if that engagement is only as deep as trying to negotiate what to have for dinner? The greatest chasm in the world is the one between two human hearts and minds. Meeting another person, conversing, negotiating, finding common ground and ways of working with difference — this stunning revelation that ‘I’, my thoughts, beliefs, experiences, hopes, and dreams are not all that matters in the world — is really the true work of being human. And so, it stands to reason that we expect this to happen to even a greater degree when we engage with the infinite and wholly alien Person we call ‘God’ in relationship.
Of course, the second-person perspective of God is far from merely being only a ward against the potential blind spots of the other two perspectives. Relationships are not only about humility; they also build us up. For it is only in relationship that we can love and be loved, forgive and receive forgiveness, and offer ourselves in service or be served in any way. Again, quoting Wilber:
In the face of Spirit in 2nd-person, in the face of the God who is All Love, I can have only one response: to find God in this moment, I must love until it hurts, love to infinity, love until there is no me left anywhere, only this radiant living Thou who bestows all glory, all good, all knowledge, all grace, and forgives me deeply for my own manifestation, which inherently brings suffering to others, but which the loving God … can and does release, forgive, heal, and make whole, but only if I can surrender in the core of my being, surrender the self-contraction through love and devotion (Integral Spirituality, 160).
And to that, all I can say is, Amen.
The next post will look at how the second-person perspective played out in Jesus’ life. Until then, I’m going to leave you with some questions for reflection and, totally optional ‘homework’.
- What do you think are the strengths of understanding God in a personal, relational way?
- What are some drawbacks or limitations to this approach to knowing God?
- Can you think of a time when God seemed particularly ‘personal’ to you? What did that feel like?
- To engage more deeply with the second-person perspective of God, try:
- Pray often, either in your own words or using liturgical prayers, such as the daily Morning or Evening Offices;
- Write a letter to God — and once you do, think about what God might write in response;
- Engage in a practice of Ignatian Gospel meditation, in which you imagine yourself in a story from the Gospels.