Does God = Consciousness?


1960s Paperback Edition of “Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander”

A reader writes…

Carl, I am a theoretical physicist by training and have struggled with the idea of supernatural concepts like God. Even so, contemplation has increased my sense of God being part of me, which I like very much. So here is my question: Do you think it is too radical to say God IS your consciousness? After all, Jesus said, “The Father and I are one.”  Personally, it seems wonderful to have such awareness of God 24/7. Since we have no idea what consciousness is, saying it is God seems OK to me. What do you think?

I suppose most Christians would hesitate to say God “is” human consciousness; and I think the danger lies in trying to fit limitless, boundless God into the structure of finite human consciousness. We can say that a drop of water is the ocean, speaking rather poetically, but we get the point. And yet, there’s no squeezing the ocean into the drop. And the drop gets into trouble when it thinks it’s the whole thing.

So many of the mystics, from Meister Eckhart to Julian of Norwich to George Fox to Thomas Merton, have spoken (in different ways, using different metaphors) of God’s presence within the human soul. My favorite quote along these lines comes from Merton:

At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billion points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely.

— Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

How do we behold this “point of nothingness”? I would say, only in silence, and darkness, and unknowing. I agree with Merton: it is “inaccessible to the fantasies of our mind.” To gaze deeper than the depths of my soul, only God could meet my gaze. The problem, of course, is that so often our gaze, our beholding, simply doesn’t go deep enough. We get lost in the “brutalities of our own will” and we confuse that for God. We’re just another drop, convinced we’re the whole ocean.

“We have no idea what consciousness is” — how can an eye truly see itself? The most we can hope for is that our consciousness will reveal God — Love, Divine Love — to us. But in order for this to happen, we have to get out of our own way. Repentance is not so much about behavior modification (although I imagine true repentance must necessarily lead to a radical change in behavior) — rather, it’s about letting go of all the tangled thoughts within us that generate the hubris, hatred, cynicism, greediness, hyper-consumption, sexual objectification, indolence, and narcissism — thoughts that form the root of what Christianity calls sin. Repentance — metanoia — means letting go of these life-strangling thoughts, to gaze deeper into the vast silence that lies beneath them. That’s a kind of spiritual free-fall, but it’s what is necessary of we want to find that place where “my” little consciousness, and God’s boundless being, remain not-two.

So to my friend, who wrote me the question, I say this: it’s very radical to say that God is consciousness, or consciousness is God. It’s radical because it takes you to the root of things. Go beyond the root of your thoughts, your need to control your experience with your running internal commentary on it. Go to the root, and then beyond the root. Let go of the thoughts. Free fall into unbounded silence. And then behold. You won’t be alone. As Eckhart says, “The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.” One Silence and one Love. The minute we start thinking about it, we’ve lost it. We’ve climbed out of the silence and back into the safety of the tiny shell that is our “mind.” We always do this, so there’s no harm, no shame: simply an ever-present invitation to let go again, fall into silence again, and behold.

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About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Elizabeth

    Tagore gives us this borrowed from the Upanishads:

    “In the body there is a little shrine. In that shrine there is a lotus. In that lotus thee is a little space. What is it that lives in that little space?

    The whole universe is in that little space, because the creator, the source of all, is in the heart of each one of us.”

    Thank you, Carl, for bringing so many together here. peace, Elizabeth

  • Eric Nielsen

    As a mystic, I would like to add a little to this conversation.

    Yes, God is consciousness, but not the intellectual type that you think of as a human being.

    This consciousness is the pure awareness that sits behind the intellectual consciousness. It is more of a witness that never blinks. This is what travels with the energy that science is finding at the sub-atomic level.

    Eric Nielsen

    Author of: “Beyond God’s Veil”

  • Daniel

    Merton’s point sounds like Eckhart’s idea of a “virginal point” in the soul. I love this idea!

  • Robert Wunker

    Since Carl McColman quotes Merton, I recommend the inquirer also read Chapter 3 of No Man is an Island by Thomas Merton within which he says, in part, “conscience is the face of the soul’ and “is the light by which we interpret the will of God in our own lives.” A paraphrase of that may be to say that conscience itself is not the root, but an enablement gift of God to us of ability to discern God’s presence, or, as Eric Nielsen states, “is more of a witness that never blinks.”

  • Max Sabellius

    If God is consciousness and our consciousness is in God and God’s consciousness is in ours then theoretical physics and cosmology shouldn’t be a stumbling block. Why couldn’t God truly be the Creator? We are told that God is observant of all things including our innermost thoughts. The real question becomes why would we suppose that couldn’t God be omnipresent, omnipotent, and omniscient?

    • Eric Nielsen

      Maybe it would help you to understand this better if you could wrap your mind around the fact that there isn’t an “us,” but that all is God. This would answer the question of God being omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient. We, as He, are what is looking back at Himself. The Tao says it best when it states all gets done without anything being done (paraphrasing).

      • Max Sabellius

        Eric, I believe that God is a sentient being with a consciousness separate from and pre-dating mine. God is supreme and I am but a humble servant. Therefore I believe that nothing in theoretical physics touches upon the First Consciousness, the creating principle that exists and pre-existed. I do not believe that “all is God”. I believe that God existed before the Universe, created the Universe, penetrates this Universe, and observes it and all that we do in it. That does not stymie my access to God or God’s ability to penetrate all that I am. Though a heretic, at heart, I am fairly “orthodox” in my views on the Trinity.

        • Eric Robert Nielsen

          Hi Max,

          I would respectfully like to disagree with what you have just stated. I would also ask that you define your definition of “First Consciousness a little more exactly.” DO you mean like an intellect, as in rational thought, the way we operate daily?

          As for physics, at least at the sub-atomic level, they are beginning to get it. They are discovering that the energy involved has awareness. Of course, all that they are discovering is on this side of the Big Bang and that is limited.

          I don’t see how they will be able to understand the territory before the Big Bang without someone in science having the classical mystic’s experience. Why? Because they won’t be able to bring their intellect with them to the before the Big Bang area.

          The same is true for our belief in God. First, there is the belief we have that is created in life, but like the physicist, the believer has yet to have experienced God from the other side or spiritual side of life.

          By that I don’t mean out of body or near death experiences where someone gets a peak at heaven or those spiritual worlds. If you ever read these stories you can easily see that the intellect remains in tacked and so also does the use of the five senses. These experiences are of the spirit and not that of the soul like many think.

          The above statement makes those heavenly realms as temporary as this earth realm, of which is part of the Kingdom of Heaven and very different from the Kingdom of God.

          These are the mystic’s view and why what they say make them heretics to church belief. The Kingdom of God is a separate chamber, if you will. A very impersonal place due to the fact that all that is seen there is witnessed without the use of the intellectual mind. And why many experiences of this kind have to be combed through because of the risk of misinterpretation.

          It is the place you reach only after leaving this world, as well as the self behind. It is the place of the soul and the same place that Jesus received the information that He and the Father are One. It is the same place that others (Buddha & Krishna) discover the same, but described it differently as “Thou Art That” or “I Am That.”

          There is only one God and one place to discover Him as He truly is and all religions are pointing to the same place.

          In this area, one finds the Trinity. The church states that the first thing out from God is the Holy Spirit. I ask: “How does one know that unless someone witnessed it?” Christians claim the Bible is the word of God and therefore since in is written–it must be true.

          Having had this mystical experience, I can tell you that as the creation process takes place, the soul witnesses the Holy Spirit, as both exit from God at the same time. The Holy Spirit is this awareness and energy I spoke of before, that completes all of our souls.

          In other mystical writings they mention the Dark Night or the Cave. This is the chamber or Throne of God. The place that Jesus was when He discovered who He was. I’m stating this because many believe the Kingdom of God is the same as the Kingdom of Heaven. It is not for the reasons I used above.

          Earth is one of the Kingdoms of Heaven and very much a separate place from the sanctuary called the Kingdom of God.

          To conclude, the physicist will find that when they shrink the Big Bang to before its beginning, it will be the exact same as the totality felt when in the Kingdom of God. This would be like being in a seed where one could feel the potential for all that is possible, yet being unconscious of what exactly that means at the same time.

          This is the Void. The God that can never be fully known. A place where God sits both conscious and unconscious at the same time. The place where all that is created, including us, comes forth from, as an expression of God–not as the individual we take ourselves to now be. If you ever read the Tao, you would see the language in that book fits perfectly.

          Because the mystic gets directly into this place of creation, he knows that all that exists is none other than God Himself. Yes, as Jesus stated it–”You are Gods.”

          • Ellen

            Hmmm. Prior to posting my comment on April 30, for the sake of brevity, I edited out this paragraph: “I wonder if there is a danger in intellectualizing God to the point where we create elegant and complex theories to describe God, but the end result of these constructs, in a very practical way in our daily lives, is to make God seem so ineffable and beyond human comprehension that we end up creating more, not less distance between ourselves and God?”

            Mystics do have experiences that transcend ordinary human consciousness, but the great Christian mystics always grounded themselves in a very practical application of the principles that Jesus taught.

            Intellectual jousting about God can be fun, maddening, perplexing, and wearying. Wars have been fought based on whose idea of God, heaven, etc. is the “correct” one. Everyone who has posted so far agrees on some points, and disagrees on others, which goes to show that even a personal mystical experience does not necessarily lead one to the absolutely highest truth, even though it is, literally, tempting, a temptation, to believe that is the case.

            Which leads us back to my reference to danger. In Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila’s first subtitle is “Spiritual Warfare.” There is God, and then there is that which is malevolently opposed to all aspects of the essence and will of God. And it messes with our minds, in very specific, planned, and strategic ways.

            So, I’m just making the point that getting too intellectually caught up in theorizing about God can muddle our minds. We end up hopping down the bunny trail, as I term it, following this idea and that idea, and without realizing it, the end result is to weaken our faith in God, our connection to God – or even worse, weaken the faith of others in God. We can also end up creating fertile ground for all kinds of distorted ideas about God and Jesus, intentionally planted there by the dark side, to take root and grow.

            Many profoundly evil people have been intellectually brilliant, law-abiding citizens (see Scott Peck’s book People of the Lie).

            On the other hand, some of the most spiritually advanced people I have met have been intellectually challenged. They can’t understand most theological concepts, but in their simplicity, they radiate the truth and love of God.

          • Eric Robert Nielsen

            Hi Ellen,

            I think the word intellect is being confused when one talks about mysticism. The beauty of the mystical experience is that you don’t get to bring the intellect along for the ride. Everything seen during a mystical experience is done at the level of the soul as a witness–only. It is when the soul returns to the body that the intellect kicks in and the mystic gets to contemplate the events.

            Every contemplation of these mystical events, doesn’t necessarily end in truth, if they are wrap in too much religious fever. During the 16th and 17th centuries nuns were eating the scabs of lepers and writing about how sweet the scabs were in their praise to God for them having the opportunity to serve the poor and helpless.

            The mystical experience isn’t a complex group of theories, yet when theologians study these experiences, they are reading the events put down in writing after the fact and depending on the time in history, they get a romantic version (common in early Christianity) or a poetic version (Persia), but what the theologian doesn’t realize is that the mystical experience isn’t complicated. In fact it is just the opposite–more like 1,2,3,4 and done. It is also very lucid.

            For example… in my searches I discovered that George Fox (founder of the Quakers) saw exactly what I saw, but the difference between the two of us, is that my experience started out without no thought of God as the goal for my meditation practice. Now George Fox, living in the 1600s took what he saw and explained the darkness and light of the scene before him as good and evil, proving he let his religious training or upbringing affect his experience. This leads to a lack of truth for those that will come later and want to rely on what he saw.

            Because of their lack of understanding, when it comes to the mystical experience itself, they don’t know how to question its validity. Not taking into consideration the person’s station in life or their religious mental state, if you will. The tale of mysticism can be less accurate then the theologian wants to believe.

            Your words here:

            Mystics do have experiences that transcend ordinary human consciousness, but the great Christian mystics always grounded themselves in a very practical application of the principles that Jesus taught.

            To base how one looks at a mystical experience, by confining it to one religious belief or another is the biggest mistake mankind can make. Why? Because the mystical experience does transcend everything worldly, all various religious mystical experiences talk of and pertain to the human experience at the level of the soul, only. It remains the duty of each religion to see the similarities of these experiences and find ways to come together, rather than insist that their experience is theirs and ours is ours. And conclude that one out weights the other as far as truth is concerned.

            Intellectually, if a person can’t grasp the fact that each and every religion, when it comes to God, is in fact pointing to the same God and the same place within, where God can be found, then what good is a theologian’s degree?

            God is the absolute–meaning He is infinite. So, how can any theologian remain confined to what is obviously finite when his or her thinking is only concerned with one religion. It benefits no one.

            The mystical experience has nothing at all to do with theory. The mystical experience is the same regardless of what part of the world the mystical story comes from and it has been that way for far more than just two thousand years.

  • Ellen

    From a classical Christian perspective, Jesus continually characterized and defined God, and his own role on behalf of God, as love. God is love.

    Jesus, the Son of God, came to model for us, and provide us with, a new way of loving and connecting with God, and loving each other. Indeed, his final words to his disciples prior to the crucifixion were “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35).

    So here’s my question for the theoretical physics/consciousness crowd: where does love fit into theoretical physics and theories of consciousness? If God is love and the creator of all-that-is, then can any theory that tries to explain the physical workings of the universe be complete without addressing the question of love as well?

    In my opinion, it is the daily discipline of inviting God into our hearts, of asking God to help us grow in our capacity to love, that makes God real for us. It is the fruit of God’s work in us that will enable us to know God in a very tangible way. And that’s really what we want, right? Not a theory about God, but actual experiences of God – not necessarily in the form of something “supernatural,” but of God’s love for us and his assistance, both individually and collectively, on a daily basis.

    When we transition from our limited human bodies to the next world, we’ll have that greater understanding of God that our intellect craves. Until then, with respect to God, I am reminded of these Aaron Neville song lyrics: “I don’t know much, but I know I love you, and that may be all I need to know.”

  • Max Sabellius

    Dearest Ellen and Eric:

    I enjoy this discussion. Eric, I suggest contemplating the possibility of an infinite number of universes, each with its distinctive quantum dynamics and constants. Yes, it is true that we happen to be situated in one of those few Universes that happens to be able to support life, but that does not negate the possibility of a rational sentient being constructing or creating the one we live in.

    Ellen, I agree with your suggestion that speculating too much and trying to define God, godhead, Divine Consciousness can be dizzying and can lead in non-productive directions. Yet I will continue trying to see theoretical cosmology not as a stumbling block to faith in God the Father Almighty, Jehovah, my Abba, my Dad … but as a way to reach out to others. I do not adhere to a literal interpretation of the Bible. But I am a Christian in the classical definition of the term. I believe that Jesus is the Christ and is my doorway, my bridge, my Savior … who died because of the sinful nature of humanity and who died and was resurrected to point out the Way to God. I believe that the Holy Spirit is a constant source of strength and encouragement, ever-present, and always available. So, Ellen, I appreciate your wisdom, thank you for your insight. [By the way, I plan to seek out spiritual direction from the Cenacles this month. I feel the need for strength and wisdom from Christian contemplatives - Max.]