Recently, I wrote an article about the constraints we put on the concept of God when we use limited human definitions.
I got some interesting response on social media.
People insisted that God was “loving,” “kind,” “compassionate,” or described God as “un-manifested consciousness,” “sentient energy,” “beautiful, beloved Holy One,” or “the Greatest and Most Merciful.”
Reading those comments made two things clear to me.
First, there are infinite ways to describe what we call God and if we try to limit God to one idea, we exclude all the others. God is always more than what we can perceive.
Second, and somewhat paradoxically, I was reminded that if we humans are to have a personal relationship with God, then we need a personal image of God that we can relate to.
Personal and Trans-Personal God
This means that even though we can never fully explain God with our limited human thinking because God is trans-personal (beyond our thinking), our personal image of God is the only way to either mentally or emotionally connect with the Infinite.
Our personal image can include adjectives—such as the ones used above—to describe the qualities of God that we admire or are attracted to, or we can relate to God in a specific role (father, brother, mother, friend, sister, spouse, etc.), which is quite common in both religion and spiritual poetry. Either way (and even when we use words such as sentient energy) we are using limited human means to connect with a personal version of God.
In the Vedantic tradition, this approach is above board and is accepted. God (Brahman) is too magnificent for the human mind to ponder, so human beings must connect to God with qualities (Ishwara).
This concept is also found in Christianity, which talks about God immanent (personal) and God transcendent (trans-personal), although these ideas are not preached as freely in Christianity as they are in the Vedantic tradition and are often revealed only by those who call themselves Christian mystics.
God Is That And More
Let me be clear. There is nothing wrong with having a personal image of God. There is nothing wrong with devoutly and passionately pursuing a connection with God through that personal image. And there is nothing wrong with gathering with others who also share that image and want to passionately pursue the same relationship.
However, we must always be mindful of the limits of the human mind.
Sufi scholar Ibn Ata Allah, said:
“Whatever you think God is, know he is more than that.”
“No statement about God is simply, literally true. God is far more than can be measured, described, defined in ordinary language, or pinned down to any particular thing.”
Can You Define the Internet?
If we were to compare our efforts to define God to a limited concept, the Internet, for example, we could see how this rings true.
If people were asked to finish the sentence: “The Internet is…” we would get a variety of different answers, most of them correct in their own way, but none of them would fully explain the phenomena that the Internet has become.
If that is true about a man-made thing such as the Internet, the same must be true about definitions of God.
Idolatry and the Personal Image
People often mistake idolatry as the worship of statues or likenesses. The true meaning of the word idolatry, however, is to, “reduce God to something less than God.”
That is why clinging to a single definition, single image, or even a single scripture, can be seen as an idolatrous act if the definition of God is limited to only that and no more.
However, having a personal image of God is not idolatrous when the trans-personal concept of God is also accepted.
This is the religious paradox in a nutshell and all religions have to contend with it. The personal image of God creates passion while the trans-personal God can only be accessed through experience.
Humility and the Personal God
All religions preach humility (to some degree), born from the simple thought that, “I may know everything.”
With humility, a person can approach his or her personal image of God by saying: “I love my God with all my heart and my soul, but my limited human mind can never know the entirety of God, and I am okay with that.”
Rev. Charles Kimball, director of religious studies at the University of Oklahoma, recently put it this way:
“…my experience of God does not exhaust all possibilities.”
Such humility does not diminish God in any way, but rather acknowledges the vastness and infinitude of the reality we speak of.
Interfaith Minister & Author
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