In this paper I want to describe the three faces of God: the three main ways that human beings have come to understand and experience the Mystery we call God, across the whole range of religious traditions and throughout history.
This way of thinking about God was first suggested by Ken Wilber, the American independent scholar and author, in his book Integral Spirituality in 2006. Paul Smith in his book Integral Christianity developed this further and described the three faces of God as Infinite, intimate and Inner.
I think quite a few people have found it to be quite a helpful way of thinking about God because it respects the viewpoints of a variety of traditions and standpoints and at the same time invites us to have the fullest possible relationship with God, however we understand that reality. Obviously language is difficult when talking about God and I sometimes use all sorts of other terms like the Divine, Beloved, Mystery, ultimate reality, evolutionary impulse etc. but often come back to that simple 3 letter word: God. The Three Faces of God is a metaphor for thinking about the three most direct ways in which any of us can understand and experience the mystery which is God.
In the Christian context Jesus is the embodiment of God and Paul Smith helpful describes how Jesus spoke about God, to God and as God. He develops this as infinite, intimate and inner – the three faces of God that we will explore.
1. God as infinite:
The Infinite face of God can be thought of as the impersonal energy of the universe, the energy that has given rise to the visible universe, the world of form. The infinite face of God is the world of Nature, of atoms, molecules and quantum energy, the world of mathematics and beauty. It is the world of the great evolutionary unfolding of all things.
According to Rabbi Michael Lerner, this relates very well to the Jewish notion of God as expressed in the name Yahweh. This name YHVH, is “more of a process than a being” he says. It is a naming of God as a verb. A literal sort of translation of YHVH might be “will-being-was” – a past-present-future sort of word. He suggests a made up word “God-ding” as a sort of English transliteration. Rabbi Lerner says “What YHVH really means is the Energy or Power that brings about ‘the transformation of the present into that which can and should be in the future.’”
It is the creative energy, or Spirit-Force, or Life Energy, that has brought forth ever-increasing complexity in the form of a universe, a galaxy, a planet, life and consciousness. This is an impulse that is present throughout the universe, we can think of as present in all things everywhere and present in us too. It invites us to participate co-creatively in this noble process through the choices we make. Some people call this “conscious evolution” – consciously making choices that are aligned with the trajectory of goodness, beauty and truth in the evolutionary process.
It is therefore no surprise that we may experience the Infinite face of God as a sense of awe, wonder, or oneness when we spend time in the natural world. The natural world is the most common trigger for awakening or spiritual experiences. The natural world has powerful qualities like beauty, grandeur, a sense of open space and power that it is capable of inducing spontaneous meditative states that take us beyond ourselves into the Divine, especially the infinite face of God.
2. God as intimate:
Traditionally the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are most comfortable with the Intimate face of God. They have often thought of God as being “Other”. The Intimate face of God is the Divine in personal relationship with us. Whereas the Infinite face of God is impersonal, the intimate face of God is very much personal. This is the face of God that Jesus addressed when he said: “Abba, father”. This is the aspect of God that knows every sparrow that falls, that knows even the number of the hairs on your head.
The Intimate face of God takes us beyond the impersonal creative energy of the universe to the realisation that God is love and that we are loved, forever, always, unconditionally. In the Christian tradition this face of God is embodied in the person of Jesus, his character, his compassion, his passion for justice, his willingness to lays down his life for his friends. In response to such love, follows worship, adoration and praise and the desire to be like him.
This face of God can sometimes be a problem for modern spiritual seekers because it reminds us of the traditional mythic God, the white bearded man in heaven ruling from a throne. If God is not a man but a Presence or energy how can we speak of intimacy, or love, in relation to God? How can we worship, how can we pray? I think the answer is that this energy and this Presence which is God contains the fullness and the perfection of personhood. The universe has given rise to people, with all their human qualities, not because God is a man, or a woman, but because the Source of all is the Perfection of Personhood and from such personhood intimacy flows.
So the Intimate face of God is the one to whom we can speak, the one we worship and adore. This face of God is so important because it takes us beyond ourselves, beyond our own priorities, beyond our own weaknesses. When we perceive the perfection of personhood this is an ego-humbling experience, and this experience helps us to wake up to live from our deeper True Self, which is the Inner face of God in us. This means we can worship, we can pray, we can laugh and we can cry, we can suffer and we can die knowing that God is with us and loves us. As we worship God as the Intimate One our worship becomes a doorway into the experience of God and into God’s love.
3. God as inner:
This is the face of God that is less familiar to us in the Western spiritual traditions but common in the East. It can even be quite shocking for those who have only understood God as being separate and other than us. It is a perspective that sees our deepest self as Divine. In knowing our deepest self as divine, the boundaries between us and God dissolve so that we can know and feel our oneness with God as the divine spiritual being that we are. In seeking this face of God in the 1st person it is as though we look in the mirror and look beyond the face of flesh and beyond the history and story of this individual, beyond the ego and all its distortions. If we look deeply enough we find the image of God in us as our True Self. Our True Self, the awareness and consciousness is not separate from God but is sacred.
This is not easy for Western Christians. On the one hand we have often been taught that we are inherently sinful, and even that we deserve to go to hell if we don’t repent and believe the right things. This makes it difficult to believe that there is divinity within us. Another problem is that the ego mind, when it is self-centred, is often focussed on self-importance, it loves to think of itself as being the centre of the world, it loves to play god.
Let me ask you – who are you? Are you the face that you see in the mirror, the one who puts on a different mask or persona depending on the situation? Are you the sum of your various roles in life, for me: mother, father, wife, husband, friend, lover, sister, brother, tax-payer, and so on. If we peel off all the personas, all the roles, even all the clothes, what do we have left – perhaps just a naked body, an organism? But perhaps we are something more:
The experiencer of this moment, talking and listening…
The mysterious presence that we call “I”…
The awareness that is aware of what we are thinking and feeling right now…
So as well as the physical objective self that has various roles in life, there is a subjective self – what we might call our “deep self”. Your deep self is your being, your essence, your spirit, it is what and who you truly are. It is your divine nature, I suggest – the unique drop of consciousness that is part of the great ocean of consciousness that we may call God. We spiritually wake up when we become conscious of this deep self, which is our spiritual nature, and is capable of living in relationship with the Divine.
The body, the organism is what we appear to be. Awareness is what we are, our consciousness which is of God. At the surface level we appear to be simply physical organisms. In the depths we are essentially spiritual beings.
The three faces of God can be a very helpful way of understanding our relationship with God, or with ultimate reality. We live our lives most fully when we are aware of all three aspects and relate to God in all three ways.
Jonathan Jelfs, September 2015