The most recent post in this series on knowing God explored the first-person perspective of God, which is an experience of God within us so intimate that everything else — our ego, desires, thoughts, feelings — falls away. It also demonstrated that despite the discomfort many contemporary Christians have with the language of first-person encounter with God, it is has exerted a strong influence over the whole length and breadth of Christian history, spirituality, and theology.
But as important as this pedigree is, within the Christian tradition, the first-person perspective of God remains best exemplified in the life of Jesus himself. And this is what the focus of today’s post will be.
There is no question that Jesus claimed a unity with God. He said things like “The Father and I are one” (John 10.34) and “You, Father, are in me and I am in you” (John 17.21). He claimed to know God so deeply, so intimately, that he could speak of it in terms of complete unity, without division or separation. The only question is whether he meant this only for himself — by right of his unique divinity — or whether this translates into anything we might experience. But, if we read these verses in context, it’s clear that Jesus was not speaking of an exclusive experience of God:
[Jesus said,] “The Father and I are one.”The people took up stones again to stone him. Jesus replied, “I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?”
They answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.”
Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the scripture cannot be annulled—can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? (Jn 10.30-36)
In this story, Jesus’ assertion of his oneness with God elicits a strong negative (that is, homicidal) reaction from the people around him. Jesus counters by quoting a line from Psalm 82: “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you.” He then asks them how they could accuse him of blasphemy for saying he was one with God when the psalm says the same thing about those to whom it was addressed. His argument isn’t that he is uniquely divine and so it’s okay if he says he’s one with God, but that identification with God is not itself scandalous.
The second example is even clearer. Jesus’ petition goes, “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Jesus’ prayer here is for his followers to be ‘in’ God just as he is ‘in’ the Father and the Father is ‘in’ him: The intimacy he shares with God is exactly what he prays his followers will have.
The notion that Jesus desired his followers to have the same oneness with God as he experienced does not lessen any sense of his uniqueness. The ancient Christian way of expressing this is that we become by grace everything that Jesus was by nature. In this case, if Jesus can speak of God in the first-person because of who he is, the promise is that we too can share this experience by the grace — the free gift of love — of God.
In this way, not only does Jesus represent the example of the unitive experience of God for Christians, but he also represents the means of such union with God. When Christians have spoken of union with God, they have always understood this as union with God “in Christ.” This was certainly the apostle Paul’s belief; he taught an identification with Jesus such that even his death and resurrection could be appropriated as our own:
- For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. … ****And if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. (Rom 6.5-8)
- For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ. (Rom 8.22)
- If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! (2 Cor 5.17)
- I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. (Gal 2.19f)
For Paul, and for the Church after him, this radical identification with Christ is the heart of Christian faith. And so, for Christians, the first-person knowledge of God — as we saw last week with the second-person perspective — is Christocentric. One practical way this has been manifested is that the main form of sacred practice Christians have undertaken to cultivate the direct, first-person experience of God within our hearts is the “Jesus Prayer,” Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have mercy on me, a sinner, which can be even further contracted to simply Lord have mercy. These three words are simple, but they speak to the kenotic — that is, humble and self-emptying — way of Jesus: a release of one’s hopes, desires, thoughts, and opinions and acceptance of floating in a vast sea of God’s mercy.
While there is not time to discuss it fully here, the radical identification with Jesus and his way was connected for Paul and the Church following him, with the ritual of baptism, in which new followers of Jesus are immersed in water as a sign of their identification with Jesus’ death and brought out again as an identification with his resurrection. But this ritual does not entail some metaphysical sleight of hand. This new life united to Christ is not just a change of status, but is really a new and transformed life, something that must be grown into and lived out. Again quoting Paul:
What then are we to say? Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life […] (Rom 6.1-4).
Later in this same letter, Paul clarifies that this transformed life is made possible by the further gift of the Holy Spirit. Using the metaphor of two ‘laws’ — two scripts which one’s life can follow — Paul says: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom 8.1-2). God sent Jesus, Paul continues, “so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (8.4).
One consequence of this is that the unique contribution Christianity brings to the discussion of first-person perspective of God is a kind of democratization of this experience. Union with God is not just for a spiritual elite who have the time, resources, and wherewithal to devote their lives to prayer, contemplation and meditation. Rather, Christians insist that this union can be experienced to one degree or another by everyone, not from using any kind of spiritual technique, but as a gift of God. This is certainly not to say that there is no benefit in cultivating union with God intentionally, but simply that anyone can experience God’s divinity first-hand, being faithful with the time and resources they have at their disposal.
This post has covered a lot of ground and has been pretty theoretical in places. So, to summarize:
- Jesus claimed a first-person knowledge of God and prayed for his followers to experience the same.
- From Christianity’s infancy, union with God has been understood in a manner that is both Christocentric — it is an appropriation by grace of Christ’s oneness with God — and Trinitarian — it is union with the Father in the Son, through the Holy Spirit.
- While Christianity has encouraged cultivating first-hand knowledge of God through sacred practices such as the Jesus Prayer or other forms of contemplative prayer, it has always held that it is not for a kind of spiritual elite, but is open to everyone, in Christ, not only through mystical encounters, but also through the sacraments and life of the Church.
I hope these two posts have demonstrated that, while perhaps not the ‘home turf’ of the relational perspective of God, the first-person, unitive experience of God has a deep and pervasive history within Christianity, from the experience and teaching of Jesus himself, through until the present day. We are called not just to know God as Other, as Someone outside of and apart from us, but also within us, the truest part of ourselves.
Next, we will look at the final perspective in this framework, the God who is “everywhere present and filling all things.”