How do we conceive of God? This has to be one of the most important and more elusive issues that we face in this life. How we conceive of the Source and Summit of reality will automatically shape how we see everything else, ourselves included.
As children, we were probably taught to think of God as a kind of Big Daddy in the sky. He knew our name, heard our prayers, saw our misdeeds and perhaps even sent us angels when we were in danger. Although this God, like any father, could be imposing and even frightening, it gave us comfort to believe that there was Somebody up there Who loved us and was looking out for us.
Yet most of us have left this view of God far behind. Somewhere along the way it just stopped making sense. For readers of this magazine, chances are that we exchanged our rather naive anthropomorphic Father for a far more sophisticated picture, informed by traditional mysticism and transpersonal psychology. In this view, God is not personal but impersonal; not a being but the Ground of being. God is the formless, unmanifest essence out of which all forms and beings arise, an impersonal void, a Divine desert.
This view makes a great deal of logical sense. How could God, the Source of all things, be a big person presiding in the sky, making promises, getting jealous, unleashing floods? He must be more akin to a force or an essence than to an old patriarch. This view also has the cross-cultural testimony of history's mystics behind it, men and women who have directly experienced God and reported that He is more like infinite consciousness than a Big Daddy. Once we encountered their reports, we too probably longed to experience God in just this way, in perfect union unfettered by boundaries and separate personalities.
Yet with this view came many problems. Do we pray to such a God? If we do, does He hear us? Does He respond? Does it make sense to pour our hearts out to Him in love and worship? Does He love us ? Is it appropriate to feel a sense of emotional connection with Him? My observation is that, upon making the shift to God as Ground of being, many of us lose something vital. The sense of closeness with God evaporates. We see ourselves as on our own, journeying against a backdrop of cosmic indifference. At the heart of reality we no longer envision a living Presence that cares about us, but a cool and impersonal void. In short, when we graduated from the view of God as loving Father, we may also have sacrificed the sense of love and connection contained in that view.
Wouldn't it be wonderful to have both sides: to have the transcendental grandeur of the Ground of being and the personal love and care of the heavenly Father? Unfortunately, these two images just don't seem to comfortably go together, as we see from this entry on "deity" in The Encyclopedia of Religion :
Is deity being (Sein, sat, esse) or the supreme being (höchstes Seiendes, paramatman, ens realissimum)? One can think about the first, but one cannot worship it. One can adore the second and trust in it, but this God cannot be reasoned about; it is corroded by thinking (vol. 4, p. 271).
One way around this dilemma, taken by many traditional teachings, is to see the personal God as a manifestation that arises out of the deeper impersonal Ground. This is a reasonable solution, I think. It makes sense that any personal being, even the supreme personal being, would be a concretization of the unmanifest Ground of all being.
A Course in Miracles , however, has its own solution to this ancient dilemma, one that I find to be even more spiritually satisfying. This solution is what I would like to offer in this article.
God in A Course in Miracles is very much like the unmanifest Ground. He is utterly without form, void of boundaries and limits. The Course at one point describes God as "Formlessness Itself" (Workbook, p. 353). He resides outside the changing winds of time, in the perfect stillness of eternity. The beings He creates are not separate from Him. They are made of the stuff of His Spirit and remain forever part of Him, even inside of Him. He is, therefore, not one being among many; He is All that is. "God is All in all in a very literal sense. All being is in Him Who is all Being" (Text, p. 119).
Thus, when the Course at one point employs a physical metaphor for God, it does not symbolize Him as an old man sitting in the sky, but as the sky itself. It first likens our true nature to a star and then says that God "is the eternal sky that holds it safe, forever lifted up and anchored sure" (Text, p. 632).
This view of God as "the eternal sky"—another way of describing the Divine Ground—seems so incompatible with the image of God as loving Father. Yet this is where the Course goes in a completely unexpected direction. Its teaching does include both the eternal sky and the loving Father, but here the loving Father is not a manifestation of the eternal sky. That would imply that the Father is more superficial than the more fundamental sky, that He is derivative, lesser. Instead, in the Course the eternal sky and the loving Father are one and the same . The formless eternal sky is also a deeply loving Father.
How can this be? How can two such disparate images possibly merge into one? To reconcile them we can imagine the Divine Ground not as void of personal qualities such as love and caring, but as exactly the opposite, as containing those qualities expanded to infinity. The love and caring would thus pass beyond all limits and become boundless and formless, just as is the Ground Itself. The unmanifest Ground, then, would not be less loving and personal than the traditional loving Father, but more so. It would be that very Father's love and personhood shot into infinity.
For this reason, the Course likes images of human love as symbols of God's Love. It often takes our experience of love here, and suggests that God's Love is like that , only infinitely expanded and intensified. As an example, I would like to include an extended passage from the Course material. This is not from A Course in Miracles itself, but was channeled by the Course's "scribe," Helen Schucman, in the same manner as the Course itself. This passage (from The Gifts of God , by Helen Schucman, p. 126) uses four images of intense human love as symbols for God's Love. I will comment on each image one at a time.
Rest could be yours because of what God is.
He loves you as a mother loves her child;
her only one, the only love she has,
her all-in-all, extension of herself,
as much a part of her as breath itself.
One of the most profound images of love we have in this world is a mother's love for her child. This passage paints an extreme version of this image, in which the mother's love is literally her whole life.
What I suggest is that you make this into a kind of practice. As you read each line, make an effort to apply it to yourself. Consciously imagine God loving you just as that line says. When it says, "her only one, the only love she has," imagine God loving you as a mother loves her only child, the only love she has. When it says, "as much a part of her as breath itself," think of a mother regarding her child this way, and then imagine that this is how God regards you.
He loves you as a brother loves his own;
born of one father, still as one in him,
and bonded with a seal that cannot break.
Brotherly love is also a very familiar image. Even though brothers are often divided by discord, we still know that beneath the conflict there is a bond that goes very deep. Here that bond is characterized as the experience of coming from the same father.
In applying this passage to yourself, imagine that, just as a brother feels joined to his brother because they share a common father, so God feels joined to you. Just as a brother feels bonded to his brother "with a seal that cannot break," so God feels bonded to you. He feels about you as the closest brothers feel about each other.
This adds a new dimension to God's Love. If His Love were only that of parent to child or Creator to created, there would remain a gap, a sense of distance that lies between the superior and the inferior. Here, however, that distance is erased. There is a sense in which God feels toward us as a brother, an equal, united by something we both share in common.
He loves you as a lover loves his own;
his chosen one, his joy, his very life,
the one he seeks when she has gone away,
and brings him peace again on her return.
This is a very intense image. Romantic and sexual union is perhaps our world's most powerful symbol for total union, and this is exactly what God wants with you. He wants a union with you that is so complete that no part of either of you is left outside. Imagine, then, that God chose you (in His creation of you) just as wholeheartedly as a lover chooses his beloved. Imagine that God regards you as His joy, as His very life, just as a lover regards his beloved. When you fall into dreams of separation from Him, He goes looking for you, as any lover would. When you awaken to Him again, He experiences a peace that is even deeper than it was before.
He loves you as a father loves his son,
without whom would his self be incomplete,
whose immortality completes his own,
for in him [the son] is the chain of love complete—
a golden circle that will never end,
a song that will be sung throughout all time
and afterwards, and always will remain
the deathless sound of loving and of love.
Our final image is of fatherly love. Unlike the others, however, it requires some explanation. When a man fathers a son, it is as if his identity has reproduced itself; has extended outward and thus become more complete. The son will eventually do the same: He will pass his identity on to his sons; they will do so with their sons; and so on. At its best, this process of identity flowing from generation to generation is a river of self-giving, in which identity continuously and generously passes itself on. This is "the chain of love," the "golden circle that will never end," referred to in the passage.
The point is this: It is through his connection with his son that the father participates in the entire chain. This is how he achieves a kind of immortality. Through his son he becomes part of a river of identity that will flow on forever, "a song that will be sung throughout all time."
This song will be sung even "afterwards," after time, because, in the Course's system, this is what happens in Heaven (the Course's term for the transcendental realm beyond time, space and form). There, in a timeless process, God passes His identity on to us, and we continue to pass it on through our own creative activity—something that is difficult to explain in our terms, as is everything about the heavenly state.
Now we can understand the gist of the above lines: Just as an earthly father derives immense meaning from his son's fatherhood, so God derives some kind of transcendental fulfillment from our creative activity in Heaven. With this understanding in mind, I suggest you return to the above passage and read each line, consciously imagining that this is how God feels toward you.
I find using these four images as an exercise to be immensely rewarding. I habitually envision God as being somewhat indifferent towards me. In my mind's eye, He could take me or leave me; I'm not included in what is centrally important to Him. This exercise pulls me out of this comfortable place into whole new territory. Suddenly I see myself as radically included, as part of His definition of Himself, as His joy, as His beloved. It feels exhilarating and unsettling all at the same time.
It also feels deeply satisfying to realize that this loving Father is also the unmanifest Ground. For both of these images fill a profound need in us. We yearn for the limitless grandeur of the Divine Ground and the personal warmth of the Father. If we only realize that God's nature fully includes both, then these yearnings can at last find their rest. And we can find ours. In the words of the first line of our passage, "Rest could be yours because of what God is."