Over the past two weeks, we’ve explored what it means to know God in the second-person, that is relationally and personally, and in the first-person, that is to know and experience God within. This week, we round out this framework with the third-person knowledge of God, which can perhaps best be articulated in the words of that great ancient prayer which refers to God as “everywhere present and filling all things.”
Third-person perspective refers to experiencing God through the appreciation of the beauty and deep order and connectedness of the universe, sometimes referred to as the ‘web of life’. Today we might associate this most strongly on the one hand with a kind of scientific spirituality that sees an understanding of the deep down things of the created world as an experience of transcendent beauty, or on the other hand with a kind of ‘New Age’ pantheistic spirituality. It is also the intuition behind such statements as “I experience God more hiking in a mountain forest than I do in church,” so common among religious ‘nones’ in our culture.
Stephen Hawking describes this sense of wonder and awe well:
Living in this vast world that is by turns kind and cruel, and gazing at the immense heavens above, people have always asked a multitude of questions: How can we understand the world in which we find ourselves? How does the universe behave? What is the nature of reality? Where did all this come from? (The Grand Design, Chapter 1)
For many in our world, these are the questions that inspire awe, wonder, and humility — the questions through which they encounter transcendence (however they may understand or interpret it). Another contemporary physicist, Brian Greene, describes the universe with words such as “elegant,” “aesthetic,” and “beautiful.” Elsewhere, commenting on encountering the existentialist philosophy of Albert Camus, who considered “whether or not the world has three dimensions” as an issue of little importance, Greene writes:
Now, certainly, my teenage reading of existentialist philosophy was [unsophisticated], but even so, Camus’ conclusion struck me as off the mark. To this aspiring physicist, it seemed that an informed appraisal of life absolutely required a full understanding of life’s arena — the universe. I remember thinking that if our species dwelled in cavernous outcroppings buried deep underground and so had yet to discover the earth’s surface, brilliant sunlight, an ocean breeze, and the stars the lie beyond … — in short, if our experiences painted but a paltry portrait of reality — our appraisal of life would be thoroughly compromised (The Fabric of the Cosmos, 4).
Greene goes on to describe the history of science in rich, beautiful language reminiscent of a religious quest: “ingenious innovators … pulled back layer after layer of the cosmic onion, enigma by enigma, and revealed a universe that is at once surprising, unfamiliar, exciting, elegant, and thoroughly unlike what anyone ever expected.”
While scientists like Hawking and Greene would not describe what they find as being divine, the universe they describe sounds a lot like the thoroughly mysterious God described by the mystics. (I’m sure Greene and St. Hildegard would have lots to talk about!)
Moreover, much as we saw with the first-person perspective, there is a long Christian tradition of a similar experience of transcendence within the world, and therefore of God in the world. In fact, this tradition can be found in the New Testament itself in the Logos theology of the Gospel of John. John begins:
In the beginning was the Word [Logos],
And the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things were made through Him,
And without Him nothing was made that was made. (Jn 1.1-3)
Logos was a term that already had by John’s day a long history in both Greek and Jewish (and especially in Greek Jewish) thought, and while an exhaustive discussion is not possible here, a helpful way of looking at Logos in John is to think of it less as ‘Word’ than as ‘grammar.’* The Logos is the grammar, the deep structure, of creation: its underlying logic, wisdom and animating principle.
For Christians, the third-person perspective of God, then, is inherently linked to the idea of God as Creator. The intuition that the world around us is created by God is the very first thing we can say from the witness of Scripture, which opens with the story of God calling the universe into being, shaping structure and order out of the primordial, elemental chaos. This act is perhaps the defining difference between the Judeo-Christian understanding of the world and those of the cultures from which it emerged. Here, the existence of the physical world is not an accident of divine activity, as in the mythologies of Israel’s Ancient Near Eastern neighbours, or a kind of diminishing of God’s perfection, as in the Middle and Late Platonic cosmologies of Greece, but is an intentional act of a loving and creative God.
In the words of the psalmist, God created all things “in wisdom” (Ps. 104). The beautiful poetry of God’s speech from the whirlwind in Job suggests even a kind of creative pride in creation:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
Most importantly, when God had created the heavens and the earth, God judged it to be good. The importance of this judgment in the history of Christian thought cannot be overstated. Whenever Christian thought was most in danger of being absorbed into dualistic Greek philosophy, it was its absolute insistence on the goodness of creation that saved it.
Because creation is intentional and good, it can reveal who God is:
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world. (Ps 19.1-4)
This revelatory power of creation was developed in interesting ways by ancient Christians. One important stream of Christian thought understood the Logos according to which all things were created to be expressed within creation in myriad logoi (the plural form of logos). This is to say that the Word is expressed and revealed in the words of the created world: Each created thing in and of itself is a small — but vital and true — expression of the Logos that is the wisdom behind the universe.
As one teacher (commonly said to be Thomas Merton, but I have not been able to source the quote) put it, “When I go out to feed the rabbits, I contemplate the eternal rabbithood of God.” While, remembering what we said earlier in this series about having to unsay everything we say about God, we must not take this idea too far, the truth it conveys is that all things, even a rabbit, express something of the Wisdom of God that created the universe. Of course, the rabbit may not express God in a particularly helpful or robust way — just as the sentence “The cat sat on the mat” doesn’t tell us much about the English language (or the cat, or the mat, for that matter) — both are legitimate expressions of what they convey. In the words of former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey: “Transcendence … is always through the world. It is through the natural that we encounter the supernatural, although the supernatural eludes the ability of the natural to exhaust its meaning” (God, Church, World, 26f).
A sense of this revelatory power of the logoi of creation can be seen in the following story about the seventeenth-century spiritual figure known as Brother Lawrence:
During that winter [of his eighteenth year], upon seeing a tree stripped of its leaves and considering that within a little time the leaves would be renewed and after that the flowers and fruit appear, Brother Lawrence received a high view of the Providence [i.e., loving and guiding care] and Power of God which has never since been effaced from his soul. This view had perfectly set him loose from the world and kindled in him such a love for God, that he could not tell whether it had increased in the forty years that he had lived since (The Practice of the Presence of God, Conversation 1).
This story relates a transformative experience of God in the life of Brother Lawrence, an experience which did not come through a unitive first-person experience, a second-person vision or encounter, or through the Scriptures, Liturgies, or Sacraments of the Church, but through contemplating nature. We might say this contemplation allowed him to perceive the Logos within the life cycle of the tree, a deep truth about not just the tree but also about creation as a whole and the God who created it.
For this theological tradition, the Logos manifested in the created world is not to be understood in a static way. The seventh-century mystical theologian Maximus the Confessor insisted that God’s providence leads creation, in all its particular manifestations, onwards towards its full potential. While Maximus certainly did not have Darwin’s theory of evolution in mind, he captured the intuition that creation isn’t ‘done’ yet. God’s creative work continues as all of creation strives to speak the word God has given it to speak. And, if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we can encounter God in that.
We affirm then, that an encounter with the inherent goodness, truth, and beauty of the universe can legitimately be said to be, in its own way, an encounter with God. In the words of the Roman Catholic monk and philosopher Thomas Merton:
We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through it all the time … If we abandon ourselves to God and forget ourselves, we see it sometimes, and we see it maybe frequently. God shows Himself everywhere, in everything — in people and in things and in nature and in events. It becomes very obvious that God is everywhere and in everything and we cannot be without Him. It’s impossible. The only thing is that we don’t see it (Audio recording quoted by Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 155).
This is rich and beautiful theology. But, it needs a big caveat if we aren’t going to go off track. For, as much as Christians affirm the goodness of God’s creation and the possibility of knowing God within it, we also affirm that the world that we see and experience is not as it should be. To use Paul’s words, left to our natural devices, we see only dimly, as though reflected in an old mirror. We can see and know God in the created world if we have eyes to see and ears to hear, but that it is a very big ‘if’. In order to understand what the great web of life is telling us about God, we can’t simply rely on our eyes and ears, but need to cultivate the eyes and ears of our hearts, to become as receptive as possible to what creation is really telling us.
This has been yet another long post, but I hope it’s been helpful in introducing a beautiful and ancient stream of Christian spirituality and theology that articulates a deep intuition many of us have felt, but have struggled to conceptualize Christianly. In the next post, we’ll see how this third-person perspective of God plays out in the life of Jesus. For now, I’ll leave you with some questions for reflection:
- How does the idea of knowing God from the natural world make you feel? If you are uncomfortable with it, where does that discomfort 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 third-person experience of God? If so, how would you describe it?
- To engage more deeply with the third-person perspective of God, try:
- Commit to spending a half hour in nature unplugged from technology: ask yourself ‘What am I seeing?’; ‘What am I hearing?’; ‘What am I feeling?’
- Read non-fiction books, especially books on the natural sciences and physics.
- Ask yourself, “How is the divine being manifest in the world around me right now?”