Friday, October 3, 2008

Why I Believe in a Personal God

“God,” as I understand that term, names something that is not the least bit anthropomorphic but is deeply and profoundly personal. When I say that something is personal, I mean that it is both a subject and an agent. In other words, a person is a conscious self that acts.

And love cannot happen without such personhood, because love is really about a self that says YES to the other in all its otherness. To say that God’s essence is love is to say, I think, that “God” names that fundamental reality which is constantly and endlessly saying YES to all of us and everything around us. Even if such a reality is unlike anything remotely human, even if it is otherwise shrouded in a cloud of impenetrable mystery, it cannot affirm and value and care unless it is personal.

I believe in a personal God because, when I clear my mind of all my fears and frustrations and preoccupations, I can feel that YES affirming me and resounding in every particle of the universe, coming as if from the very root of it all.

The YES feels like more than just an endorsement or an attitude of approval. It is more fundamentally active than that. It is a performative YES, a YES that sustains. The YES resounds through it all as if it were the source of it all, the limitless being from which all bounded realities flow. It is the YES of the Infinite that cradles the finite, keeping it from descending back into non-existence, from being swallowed up by “the abyss in which it must inevitably sink, the ocean by whose waves it must inevitably be overwhelmed, if He who created it did not also preserve and sustain it” (to quote Karl Barth). It is, in short, a love that preserves.

The encounter with that YES is always transitory. Anxieties and the preoccupations of ordinary life flood back in, drowning it out. The dread of the abyss returns, and all that is left is the memory of a YES that, for the brief moment that it sounded clearly, was more potent than any no could ever be.

The experience of that YES could be delusional. It could be nothing but my deepest hopes projected onto the field of experience. It could just be the power of suggestion, or a side-effect of neural misfirings.

But it feels real. And I can decide to live as if it is real. For there is not a single empirical fact which precludes the reality of something like what I am experiencing—even if, as must be admitted, there are ways of elaborating on the concept of God that do clash with the empirical facts. Such elaborations must be rejected, but not the reality of that which loves from beyond the world.

Believing that my experience of a personal God is veridical doesn’t change what I would expect to observe with my ordinary senses. I wouldn’t expect the empirical world to look different were my experience authentic rather than delusional. But even if believing in the veridicality of that experience makes no difference for what I would expect the empirical world to be like, it makes an enormous practical difference for my life. When I embrace it, when I don’t explain it away but instead accept its substance—when I really come to trust that the fundamental reality in the universe is saying YES to me and everything that is, treasuring and sustaining it all, I find myself saying YES so much more.

And this means that my capacity for joy and gratitude expands, and it means that my capacity for love expands. I live, not in an indifferent universe of blind mechanism and chance, but in a universe that says YES. So long as I can sustain the hope that this is true, I find that I can love more fully and richly, without the usual limitations and conditions. In a universe where that YES is the fundamental truth, to join in the joyous affirmation is to be in tune with the voice of God.

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