Is God Personal or Impersonal?
Based on what I have written so far, one might come to the conclusion that my view of God is impersonal, that God is not a conscious personality that we can relate to on a personal level. As my views have changed over time, this is definitely something that I have struggled with. In Christianity God is spoken of in such a personal way, but I don't hear the same kind of language from Buddhist teachers I've encountered. Talking about God in a personal way almost seems inauthentic after everything I've learned about the universe, but at the same time the child in me that was brought up Christian yearns for a personal connection to God.
Right from the outset I'll say that I think these either/or categories are much too simplistic to accurately describe God. I don't think its so black and white. I think God transcends personal and impersonal. Franciscan friar and spiritual author Richard Rohr says in his book The Divine Dance that we might think of God on three different levels represented by the Trinity: Jesus as the personal aspect of God, the Holy Spirit as the impersonal aspect, and God the Father as the aspect that transcends all categories. I like that idea because I think it keeps us from getting too attached to looking at God in any one particular way.
I think it makes sense for us to relate to God on a personal level because we ourselves are personal beings. Relationship is everything to us as humans, so of course we would want to relate to the universe on a personal level. That's okay as long as we don't get too caught up in the idea that God is literally a divine person and there is no other way of seeing God. In the viewpoint I am describing, God is not literally just this person or this tree or this bird. Those things are manifestations and expressions of God, but ultimately God transcends any one form.
If you've ever seen the Pixar movie Inside Out you'll remember that the different emotions inside of us are portrayed as separate characters inside the head. Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust are all characters in the movie, but they all exist together inside of the main character Riley's head. Riley is both many and one. This is true about all of us, and you'll know this if you've ever been in therapy. There are many different sides to us. You have the side that is confident and the side that is afraid, the side that is loving and the side that is vengeful, etc. That's just the mental/emotional side of it. We are also composed of many physical parts. Which part is most essentially us? We might say the brain, but even within the brain we can't say that any one part is responsible for generating a sense of self. It arises out of interactions and relationships between parts. So even within ourselves we are both one and many. In the same way, I think of God as both one and many. I am part of God, but obviously there are parts of God that extend well beyond what I ordinarily think of as "me."
In the view that I'm describing, God is actually even more personal and intimate than the view of God as being totally separate, other, and outside of oneself. In this view God is your very deepest self and nearer to you than your own breath.
Consider this: when you read some spiritually inspiring texts, whether Christian or Buddhist or otherwise, something about the energy of the words and teachings resonate with something inside of you. You're not really learning anything you don't already know. Something resonates with something that is already present in you. Let me explain what I mean.
Once, after a few days spent in meditation I had a dream. In this dream I saw the face of a woman I did not recognize. As her eyes gazed at me I felt a profound sense of love and total acceptance, so much so that I was sobbing in the dream. I didn't even remember the dream until late the next morning. I wondered to myself who in the world the woman was. Was it someone I had known? Was it the Virgin Mary? Was it a female form of God or some kind of angel? Was it a real experience of some spirit coming to me in a dream or was it only the imagination of my dreaming brain? Honestly I don't think it really makes any difference whether it was real or imagined. Whatever the deepest dimension of me is, I think she is there too. I am connected to that energy of love. Maybe the spirits of Jesus, Mary, or the Buddha live on in this way. Maybe what was truly real in them is the only thing that is truly real within the rest of us: divine love. Maybe at that level our identity is the same. Maybe at that level we are eternal and the rest is just fleeting illusion. Maybe when Jesus walked the earth his spirit resonated with something deep in the people around him and that woke it up inside of them. I think this spirit is coming through all the time, through other people, through scripture, through dreams and our collective subconscious.
Maybe through prayer, through reading and connecting with one another we can awaken the spirit of Divine Love within ourselves, not unlike how we make Christmas happen each year. Christmas doesn't "come" from anywhere. It comes out of us. In my view Christmas is essentially the spirit of generosity. The Grinch tried to "steal" Christmas by taking the trees, decorations, gifts, music, etc. but he failed because Christmas was within the people the whole time. The extra stuff was just the outward expression of that spirit. So in the same way God is never to be found in church or in nature or anywhere else apart from the deepest dimension of yourself. The extra stuff is just there to remind you and bring those parts of yourself to the surface. They are there to remind you that you are more than just your individual self and this individual life. You are Divine Love and Life without limit.