The Faces of God

“There is a fine old story about a student who came to a rabbi and said, ‘In the olden days there were men who saw the face of God. Why don’t they any more?’ The rabbi replied, ‘Because nowadays no one can stoop so low.’” 

(Carl Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, 1963)

For many Friends today, it is difficult to know how to make sense of Quaker worship, given the radical differences in religious understanding within Britain Yearly Meeting.

When we do not share our spiritual experience and beliefs with each other, differences are easily ignored. So long as we abide by the ‘behavioural creed’ of the Quaker meeting for worship (ie sitting still, and speaking without any suggestion of certainty) we all appear to be doing the same thing. But this only works if Friends are careful in their vocal ministry to avoid words or topics that they suspect may generate strong reactions from others. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why spoken ministry tends towards the anodyne in many meetings. We are semi-consciously steering away from sentiments that may expose the hidden reefs of disagreement that lie just under the smooth surface of our meetings for worship.

Needless to say, this is not a recipe for spiritual vitality or prophetic ministry. So perhaps it is a hopeful sign that there seems to be a growing level of open disagreement in some of our meetings, as more Friends are finding the courage to discuss their beliefs with each other. This can be an uncomfortable process, and it may be tempting to try to suppress conflict by returning to a culture of inhibition. But conflict can signal the potential for renewal, if we can deal with our disagreements in a constructive way, with a sincere desire for the flourishing of our Friends and growing mutual understanding.

The chapter on ‘approaches to God‘ in Quaker faith & practice includes a wide range of perspectives on the meaning of worship; from adoration of a divine Being, to simple awareness of present experience. It is not always clear that these understandings of worship are mutually compatible, and some of them may feel very alien to some readers. Perhaps one helpful way to approach an understanding of such very different perspectives is through the image of the differing ‘faces’ which spiritual reality can present to us.

The mystical traditions of many religions testify that the mystery of spiritual reality is greater than any of our concepts of it. This suggests that understandings which appear to be very different, and even incompatible, may reflect fragments of a greater whole seen from the perspectives of people with different temperaments and experiences. One of the most obvious differences is between personal and impersonal understandings of spiritual reality (or ‘God’, used as a symbol for the totality of spiritual reality beyond our limited categories).

The Christian mystic Simone Weil once wrote that God has both ‘personal and impersonal aspects’. Contrary to the way that this is often caricatured, a personal understanding of God does not mean believing in ‘an old man on a cloud’. Instead, spiritual reality is known as an active, intentional, loving, guiding and protecting presence. This understanding reflects an extraordinarily common experience among people from very different religious traditions. It is reflected in the writings of virtually all Friends until very recent times, expressed in diverse images including ‘Guide’, ‘Creator’, ‘Lord’, ‘Inward Christ’ and many others.

Another common way of experiencing God is as an impersonal energy, principle or universal interconnectedness. This perspective is particularly emphasised in religions such as Zen Buddhism and Taoism. It also runs through the Christian tradition from very early times, especially in mystical writings such as Meister Eckhart and The Cloud of Unknowing, as well as modern theologians such as Paul Tillich. The language of early Quakers is also full of images that reflect the ‘impersonal face of God’, including ‘Seed’ ‘Inward Light’, ‘Principle of Life’ and ‘Universal Righteousness’ among others. The use of these impersonal symbols reflects a concrete experience of God as a source of energy, illumination and connection to ultimate reality.

Of course, this distinction between the personal and impersonal faces of God highlights only one dimension of the diversity of religious experience. It is also possible to experience and understand the divine in a multitude of other ways, including an agnosticism which is attached to no definite views or concepts, but is simply open to the possibility of encounter with that which one does not yet know.

All of these ways of experiencing and relating to ‘God’ can be brought into the practice of Quaker worship. ‘Our response to an awareness of God’ does not rely on any particular belief about which aspect of God we are responding to – whether personal, impersonal or otherwise. Quaker worship is not limited to those who use the same concepts and images, or who experience God in exactly the same way, since these all vary according to our particular life history, temperament and cultural background.

It is profoundly unhelpful to turn our different experiences and images into a game of identity politics; saying in effect ‘I am a nontheist and I need to stand up for nontheists against theists’ (or vice versa). This kind of thinking is premised on mutual suspicion and only tends to escalate it. We would do far better to refuse to play this game, and instead practice listening to each others’ experience in order to enrich our own understanding of the inexhaustible breadth of spiritual reality.

Rather than defending my images and opposing yours, we could accept the necessity of multiple images for appreciating the many-sided nature of God. This requires me to acknowledge the validity of other people’s experience of spiritual reality, even where it differs from mine. This presupposes, of course, that I do not already ‘know’ that everyone who claims to have any kind of experience of God is deluded, and that there is ‘really’ no such thing as any spiritual reality at all.

It is not coincidental that it is the small number of Friends who reject even the possibility of spiritual experience who have been most active in promoting the identity politics game of ‘theists and nontheists’. In fact, the most significant distinction for the practice of Quaker worship is not between those who adopt personal or impersonal images of spiritual reality, but between those Friends who are open to the possibility of spiritual experience in any form, and those are not.

Anyone who is open to the possibility of encounter with some kind of reality beyond our own thoughts and opinions can enter into Quaker worship expecting to be changed, challenged and illuminated by a reality that is outside our control. Such an encounter may expand our understanding of reality, so that new words and images become meaningful to us. We don’t need to confine ourselves to narrow identity categories that exclude the possibility of change and growth. We simply need to be willing to meet whatever face of God is presented to us, to welcome and respond to it, and to listen and learn from the very different experiences of others.

How do personal or impersonal images of God speak to you? Has the practice of Quaker worship changed your experience and understanding of spiritual reality?

This post is a response to the ‘Reading Quaker faith & practice project of the Book of Discipline Revision Preparation Group, which aims to encourage a national conversation about how Quaker faith & practice speaks to us and how it serves us as a Yearly Meeting. The full calendar of readings for use by local meetings, writers and individual Friends is available here.