For the past three weeks, we’ve been looking at the three elements of a multi-perspectival, Integral approach to knowing God. We might think of such a model as being like an atlas. It isn’t a map of its own, but is a map of maps, a framework that tries to put all the different maps in context. This model claims that there are three distinct ways we can experience God, that, in the phrasing popularized by Terry Patten, that God has ‘three faces’.
Each of these three approaches offers valuable insights into who God is and who we are in relation to God. And yet, as much as they are all valuable and can broaden and deepen our understanding and experiences of God, each always has limitations.
First-person unitive experiences of God, allow us to know God in the deepest parts of ourselves and lives. It involves a beautiful stripping away of the ego, superego, and id such that all that remains in our experience is God. While older models viewed such experiences as gifts for the spiritually mature, even those who have experienced deep communion with God in meditation or prayer often miss the mark in their words, understandings, and actions in the world. No matter how profound our experiences of God may be, we will always interpret them through our dominant cultural and personal lens. And, as Ken Wilber points out, to jump immediately from our ego-driven selves to meeting God within our selves, without the intervening experience of humility demanded by meeting God outside of ourselves required by both the second- and third-person perspectives, can be spiritually disastrous. The first-person perspective of God is beautiful and needful, but incomplete.
The second-person perspective allows us know God personally and relationally — as a Friend, as a Father, as a Lover, as a Lord. It teaches us the humility of otherness and the grace of belonging and love. But, it too is limited. We can never fully know another person, let alone a Divine Other. We cannot know God so as to lay claim to God. God is forever the God who speaks from the whirlwind, shrouded in that mysterious name, “I will be what I will be.” As C.S. Lewis, put it, God is never “a tame lion.” This approach can also narrow our vision of God so we can’t see God beyond the confines of our own experiences and the stories of our own tradition. On the other side, if God is only ‘out there’, faith can grow static and arid, and we can turn God into a distant abstraction, easily put into a box we take out only on Sunday mornings. A person can be ignored. And so, on its own, this approach is not enough. We need the intimacy of the first-person experience, and the wonder of third-person experience to bring out the best in our second-person experience of God.
Lastly, the third-person perspective on God offers us beautiful insights into the deep structure of the universe, leaving us with that simultaneous sense of bigness and smallness, power and fragility, that has followed us through these reflections. Yet, as wonderful as these insights may be, they will always be partial and skewed by our limited perspective. We are finite and we are sinners. Our vision is clouded by our self-centredness, self-righteousness, by all of the baggage we bring with us, our personal histories, our personalities. Left to our own devices — if not challenged and corrected by the healing intimacy of the first-person experience of God and the humble submission of the second-person experience of God — we will, more likely than not, read creation wrongly.
All this is why these reflections on knowing God started with so much talk about paradox. We know God, legitimately and intimately. Yet, God always remains a mystery. There is always a chasm. We can experience God so intimately that all else falls away, yet we are not God. We can know God in relationship, and yet the separation between oneself and the Other can never fully be bridged. We can know God in the awe and wonder of the natural world, yet we see as through a mirror, dimly. The same warnings that have come up throughout this whole series still apply: Our ideas and conceptions of God can never be up to the challenge of adequately describing God. We must be prepared to unsay whatever we say about God. Infinite is, after all, infinite.
And yet, for Christians, this chasm between our finite reality and the infinite reality of God is not the last word. For the infinite God has been revealed fully in the finite man Jesus of Nazareth. From Christianity’s earliest days, an encounter with Jesus was experienced and understood as an encounter with God. At the same time, Jesus also fully reveals what it is to know God. As Marcus Borg captures this double truth, Jesus is both “the decisive disclosure of God and of what a life full of God looks like” (The Heart of Christianity, 37).
The Christian claim then is that the fullness of God, our human potential for union with God, relationship with God, and discernment of God’s wisdom and truth is faithfully and exhaustively expressed in the man Jesus. And so, whether we are more comfortable understanding our identity as Christians as being Christ in the world (first-person), following Christ into the world (second-person), or seeing Christ in the world (third-person), all roads lead to Christ, to the man Jesus.
And how much better to do all three?