Last week’s posts explored the knowledge of God through through a personal, relational lens. This was easy enough, since this is Western religion’s home turf. But, while it may be where most Christians feel most comfortable, the relational lens is only one of three perspectives we can take to knowing God, and if we want to know God as deeply and beautifully as possible, we’d do well to get out of our spiritual comfort zones. This post will look at a way of experiencing God that is less prominent in contemporary Christianity, though — as we’ll see — historically very important within Christian circles: the first-person, non-dual or unitive, experience of God.
The first-person perspective of God is to experience God within and even as oneself. While this language may be surprising, it in no way suggests a kind of ‘fusion’ between us and the divine, or an ego-based sense of our own divinity. (Quite the opposite, in fact.) It is rather an experience of God within us such that everything else falls away and all is left is God. Integral philosopher Terry Patten describes it as the awareness that the “effortless expanse at the center of each and every moment IS God transcendent, looking at His/Her own immanence through each of our eyes.” It is nothing other than the experience of the infinite within the finite bounds of our awareness.
While perhaps foreign to many of us today, this kind of experience has been a major driver of Christian spirituality, theology, and practice. The earliest Christian theological understanding of salvation centred around the concept of theosis, literally ‘divinization,’ the process of being fully united to God. This is surprisingly bold language, yet the concept has biblical precedent, most dramatically in 2 Peter 1.4, which urges believers to “become sharers of the divine nature,” and Jesus’ appropriation of the line from the Psalms, “I say you are gods” (John 10.34, citing Ps 82.6).
Theosis was such an important concept in the early Church that the Church Fathers went so far as to summarize the Gospel — the Christian message — as “God became man that man might become God.” This saying dates at least as far back as Irenaeus of Lyons in the late second century (Adv Haer. V preface [PG 7 col 1120]) and was repeated by pretty much all of the Church Fathers for centuries after him. It also remains to this day the primary framework through which the Christian East understands salvation.
It is this first-person perspective of God that drove the early Christian pessimism about language and the divine that we encountered earlier in this series: The ancient mystics didn’t reject the ability of language and concepts to speak accurately about God because of their philosophical speculation, but because they had themselves encountered and experienced God’s infinity. They knew the simultaneous blinding brilliance and impenetrable darkness of the Cloud of Unknowing, they heard the Spirit of God groaning within them, and they experienced God in that non-dual way that was simultaneously an experience of everything and nothing. Far from shrinking away from first-person experiences of God, these luminaries — often the very people who crafted the early Christian doctrines we take for granted — insisted on them.
We’ve also seen this perspective of God at work in the mystical writings: St. Bernard spoke of it in terms of loving the self with God’s selfless love; St. Teresa found God in the innermost courtyard of her heart; and St. John of the Cross’s nighttime escape from the senses ended in resting, completely helpless, in the Beloved’s arms.
And, this deep, inner knowing of God continues to be alive and well in the Church today. Towards the middle of the last century, Georges Florovsky described it as an experience “in which the whole human existence is, as it were, permeated by the Divine Presence.” For Thomas Keating, perhaps the leading figure in the twentieth-century Western Christian reappropriation of contemplative and meditative practices, “It is the opening of mind and heart, body and emotions — our whole being — to God, the Ultimate Mystery, beyond words, thoughts and emotions — beyond, in other words, the psychological content of the present moment.” Contemporary American pastor Paul Smith says: “All the images, sensations, and forms leave just like in dreamless sleep, except that we are awake. All that is left is an indescribable awareness of God’s presence, the direct experience of union with God.” The New Testament scholar Marcus Borg described his own experience as: “I felt a falling away of the subject-object distinction of ordinary everyday consciousness… My sense of being ‘in here’ while the world was ‘out there’ momentarily disappeared.” British theologian Sarah Coakley notes that “the dizzying mystery encountered in the act of contemplation [is] precisely the ‘blanking’ of the human ambition to knowledge, control and mastery.” And, spiritual writer Cynthia Bourgeault describes it as “to see and taste the presence of the divine as it moves fully in and out of everything. It is not ‘unitive’ simply in the sense of dissolving the multiplicity back into a One, but in the sense of seeing the One beautifully and radiantly illuminating the multiplicity, like light pouring through a stained-glass window, present in both the unity and the diversity.” *
These are Christians from different theological traditions and with different backgrounds, beliefs, and presuppositions. They each have their unique ways of describing their experiences. But, they are agreed that the unitive experience of God is possible and in some ways normative for Christian life.
This post has defined the first-person experience of God and demonstrated that it has an unbroken pedigree within Christianity. The next post will turn to how it plays out in Jesus’ life and in the life of the Church. But for now, I’ll leave you with some questions for reflection:
- Do you have any objections to the language used to describe the first-person experience of God? If so, where did those objections come from?
- What are some of the strengths of this kind of experience of God?
- What might some of the pitfalls be?
- Have you ever had a first-person experience of God? If so, how would you describe it?
- To engage more deeply with the first-person perspective of God, try:
- Meditation or contemplative prayer
- Read accounts of mystical experiences
- Ask yourself, “How is the divine life manifest in my life right now?”
* Citations for this paragraph:
Georges Florovsky, Bible, Church, Tradition (Boston: Nordlund, 1972), p. 115.
Thomas Keating, Open Mind Open Heart (New York: Continuum, 2002), p. 14.
Paul Smith, Integral Christianity (St. Paul, Minn: Paragon House, 2011), p. 101.
Marcus J. Borg, Convictions (San Francisco, HarperOne, 2014), ebook.
Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality and the Self (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 45.
Cynthia Bourgeault, Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (Lanham, Md.: Cowley Publications, 2004), p. 72.