Integral Christianity: Panentheism, Gratitude, and the Three Faces of God

David Steindl-Rast Audio, Conversations, Perspectives, Premium, Spirituality, The Future of Christianity Leave a Comment

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In this lively discussion, Br. David Steindl-Rast and Ken Wilber suggest an exciting new path for the Christian tradition. The two discuss the concept of Integral panentheism — the belief that God imminently exists within the manifest universe, interpenetrating all that we can touch and see, while simultaneously existing infinitely beyond the universe in timeless transcendence. They then explore the “Three Faces of God,” a remarkably insightful way of approaching spiritual realities that helps organize and understand all of the various descriptions of the divine throughout all the world’s great spiritual traditions. Finally, Ken and Br. David explore some specific practices to help cultivate and stabilize our experiences of gratitude, and to learn how to deal with those darker aspects of our lives we simply cannot feel grateful for, no matter how hard we might try…

The One and the Many

As human beings continue to evolve, so do our conceptions of God. In fact, some would go so far as to say that as human beings evolve, God evolves right along with us, and with every small step humanity takes toward wider care and deeper consciousness, God takes another step toward its own perfection and the divinization of the universe. And it is through our very conceptions of the divine that God’s voice can speak to and through us, finding more volume and resonance as the architecture of thought becomes more sophisticated and inclusive.

This is why our theoretical understanding of spirituality is just as important as our actual experiences of God, or Buddha, or Spirit of any name. There is an aspect of God, our selves, and the universe that is best described as being ultimately “One,” and there is an aspect that is best described as the “Many.” And while we may all be looking at (and as) the very same ultimate Oneness, it is our interpretations of that Oneness that determine our relationship with the Many.

Central to the discussion is the notion of panentheism as a foundation to anchor our conceptions of God. This is not to be confused with the idea of pantheism, in which the divine is completely immanent within the physical world itself, but is without transcendent qualities whatsoever. Panentheism also offers a way to step beyond merely deistic conceptions of Spirit, in which God is credited with the creation of the universe but remains eternally removed from it, with no immanent qualities whatsoever—the “great clockmaker in the sky,” as deists often describe the divine, able to be perceived only through the light of reason. Panentheism also frees us from the typically mythological conceptions of God that are found in traditional forms of theism, in which one particular group of people claim an exclusive knowledge of God’s nature—usually a single, monolithic, omniscient God who reveals himself only through faith and revelation, which more often than not resembles the “great superego in the sky.”

Rather than saying “the universe is God,” as the pantheists would, or that “God is beyond the universe,” as the deists and even theists likely would, the panentheistic view would more likely state that “the universe is in God, and God is in everything in the universe.” In this conception, God is the universe, while being infinitely beyond the universe—that is, to borrow terms from Nagarjuna, there is a sense in which God represents Absolute unmanifest perfection, while simultaneously becoming increasingly more perfect in the relative world. It is precisely this divide between God transcendent and God immanent that, in the modern and post-modern worlds, only panentheism can seem to bridge. As American philosopher Charles Hartshorne put it, “panentheistic doctrine contains all of deism and pandeism” (the synthesis of deism and pantheism, in which God preceded the universe and created it, but is now equivalent with it), “except their arbitrary negations.”

One of the most important contributions Christianity has to offer the world’s discussion of spirituality is the idea of the Holy Trinity: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. This unique conception of God as “three persons, one substance” has been a central part of Christian doctrine since the 3rd and 4th centuries A.D. And when viewed through the lens of Integral panentheism, the Trinity truly comes alive in our minds as three very different ways of experiencing God:

– The God that is the great, unknowable, Absolute Mystery, from which we come and to which we shall return—God transcendent, or God the Father.

– The God that we recognize in everything that we see, everything that we touch, everything that is—the entire universe as the Body of Christ; God immanent; or God the Son.

– The God that exists through doing, creating, knowing, understanding—the dynamic aspects of God; God as verb; or God as Holy Spirit.

The Holy Trinity is just one of many traditional religious symbols from around the world that take on renewed life, relevance, and significance in the light of a panentheistic conception of the physical and spiritual worlds. As such, the panentheistic model is an almost ideal place to begin any Integral discussion of religion and spirituality, as it not only helps to reconcile some of the apparent contradictions within the Christian tradition (e.g. transcendence vs. immanence), but also provides a common foundation upon which we can begin a truly inter-religious discussion, revealing many of the essential similarities (and important differences) between a multitude of different religions and faiths, as well as with the secular and scientific worlds. In a panentheistic universe, there is no need for conflict between spirituality and science, between God and evolution, or even between consciousness and biochemistry.

The Three Faces of God

Just as human beings intrinsically possess 1st-, 2nd-, and 3rd-person perspectives of the world, so do we possess those same perspectives in our experience of spirituality. And while these dimensions of the divine can be found in just about any spiritual lineage—Christian, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Islam, etc.—many of these traditions only explicitly emphasize one or two of these perspectives, resulting in one or more important aspects of spirituality often being left out of their conceptions of God.

God in 3rd-person is often described as the “great web-of-life,” and is frequently experienced when observing objects of miraculous beauty such as the Grand Canyon, exquisite music, transcendent art, or the mind-boggling elegance of deep-space photography. Many astronauts returning to Earth have experienced powerful states of transcendence triggered by simply looking at our planet floating in the vacuum of space, the sublime fragility and significance of the human condition clearly reflected in their retinas. As John Glenn said, “To look out at this kind of creation and not believe in God is to me impossible. It just strengthens my faith.”

God in 2nd-person is traditionally defined as the “I-Thou” relationship with the divine, where Spirit is experienced as a living intelligence that we can actually interact with in our own lives. As Ken often says, borrowing from renowned theologian Martin Buber, in the “I-Thou” relationship, God is the hyphen connecting the I and the Thou. And of course, our conceptions of God in 2nd-person evolve right alongside the rest of humanity, growing from magical animistic immersion, to the mythic “old bearded white man in the sky” interpretation, to rational and pluralistic recognitions of divinity within our families, communities, and humanity itself, to the simple intuition that we all exist within the unimaginable Mind of some Supreme Being, by whatever name.

God in 1st-person refers to the actual phenomenological experience of God, in the form of satori, kensho, ecstatic reverie, and other sorts of “peak experiences” of the divine. These are most frequently exercised through some form of contemplative practice, such as meditation or prayer, in which we can directly experience consciousness as the “singular to which the plural is unknown”—and the effortless, open awareness behind all of our experiences is recognized as the consciousness of God (or Godhead, as Christian mystics might prefer). In this space, all of our thoughts, emotions, and experiences, as well as the rest of the world around us, are simply and effortlessly witnessed, in much the same way that clouds float effortlessly through the infinite expanse of the sky. And that effortless expanse at the center of each and every moment IS God transcendent, looking at His/Her own immanence through each of our eyes.

What is fascinating is that we can see that any spiritual tradition is capable of expressing all three of these forms of spiritual experience—in fact, if you are leaving any of these out, chances are your understanding of spiritual realities is incomplete in some way.

Gratitude and Contemplation-in-Action

Historically, Western traditions can be said to have largely focused on 2nd- and 3rd-person interpretations, and have often been distrustful of 1st-person reports of God, using them, at times, as the grounds for heresy. On the other end of the pathology, Eastern traditions tend to emphasize 1st- and 3rd-person perspectives, and too often try to deny the existence of any sort of personal “God in 2nd-person.” However, when moving from a 3rd-person description of God directly to a 1st-person experience of God, without the soul-cleansing qualities of extreme humility, grace, and gratefulness that God in 2nd-person bestows upon us, it can be deceptively easy to sneak the whims of the ego into our interpretations of spiritual experience—and, rather than transcending the ego, our spiritual experiences can ironically become the last refuge of the ego.

Strictly speaking, nothing can be said about the true essence of Reality (including that)—but in the finite, manifest domain, the three faces of God appear to be intrinsic to Spirit‘s radiant display. And unfortunately, Spirit‘s expression as 2nd-person Thou has largely gotten stuck at the mythic-membership fundamentalist level of development. The modern world not only rejected the marginalization and cruelties associated with the mythic god, it threw out God in 2nd-person altogether—and thus a huge baby got thrown out with the bathwater of mythic consciousness: one-third of God’s own ever-present Face. Indeed, one of the key dilemmas for humanity is discovering a way to help the great spiritual and religious traditions grow into their modern, postmodern, and integral forms of being-in-the-world, with all three faces of God shining brightly.

For some, the notion of “God in 2nd-person” can initially seem somewhat confusing, off-putting even. After all, with whom exactly are we communing? The anthropomorphic “personal God” we know from the Western religious traditions? The pantheon of deities and demons we find in the East? Mother Nature? The Great Web of Life? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? There seem to have been so few exemplars in the modern and postmodern worlds to help us understand the “we” that exists between our individual selves and the divine, especially since this crucial “Second Face” of God is so frequently labeled as obsolete, a quaint relic of mythic consciousness.

It is interesting that, while modernity and postmodernity are quick to dismiss the importance of the 2nd-person nature of God, the Golden Rule (“treat others as you would like to be treated”) is widely acknowledged as the common core of all the world’s religions, and is so easily adaptable to these post-mythic levels of development. And what else is the Golden Rule, if not a distillation of the very essence of God in 2nd-person? While it can be difficult to find this sort of devotional spirituality role modeled beyond the mythic stage of development, it nonetheless shows up in everyone’s life—in every act of kindness, compassion, and empathy, in every quiet feeling of gratitude, in every heartfelt “thank you,” and in every intimate connection we have ever felt with each other and with the world. Whether explicitly acknowledged or not, we are in relationship with God every single moment of our lives. And every moment is another opportunity to express the deepest gratitude for this relationship, allowing the love we feel between ourselves and God to fill our hearts—until we feel ourselves overflowing with warmth and limitless light, spilling it into the rest of the world.

Cultivating this experience of gratefulness—or “great fullness”—is the impulse behind all devotional practice, no matter what tradition it is situated in. As such, gratitudeitself represents a unique space in which we can anchor our discussions of the unity underlying all the world‘s religions. While our third-person descriptions of the divine often vary greatly from tradition to tradition, and our first-person experiences of Spirit are usually elusive and difficult to wrap meaningful language around, the feelings of gratitude and thankfulness are universal—so universal, in fact, that they form the living bedrock of all the world‘s great spiritual traditions, from the beginning of the world until the end of time.

It doesn’t matter whether it’s an ancient deity with a long white beard, a thousand-armed bodhisattva, your guru, priest, or sensei, your friends and family, a stranger on the street, your cat or dog, or the unknowable Mystery behind it all—the point resides within none of these objects of devotion, as they all equally reflect the fractalized perfection of the One. As Martin Buber reminds us once again—in the ‘I-Thou’ relationship, God is not some sort of ultimate ‘Thou’ at the end of the universe, but the hyphen that connects you with everyone and everything in creation. God is the essence of relationship itself, the temple of “we” in which every gesture is a prayer, every kindness a blessing, and every conflict an opportunity to bring even more love into the world.

Written by Corey deVos

David Steindl-Rast

About David Steindl-Rast

Brother David Steindl-Rast has been a practicing Benedictine monk for over half a century and was one of the first Vatican-sanctioned delegates to participate in Buddhist-Christian dialogue. He is a recipient of the Martin Buber Award, and serves as a senior member of the Mount Savior Monastery in Elmira, New York.

Ken Wilber

About Ken Wilber

Ken Wilber is a preeminent scholar of the Integral stage of human development. He is an internationally acknowledged leader, founder of Integral Institute, and co-founder of Integral Life. Ken is the originator of arguably the first truly comprehensive or integrative world philosophy, aptly named “Integral Theory”.

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