Copper Beech Tree

It’s Personal

On page 12 of Going Home, Thich Nhat Hanh said this:

“When we ask, ‘Is God a person or is God not a person,’ we get lost. In fact, God is not a person, and God is not a non-person. There is a German theologian who expresses this very beautifully: ‘God is not a person, but not less than a person’ “

In the unraveling of my worldview, this question was a principal thread, one on which the whole tapestry hung.

Memories: when I was in middle school, I chose to empty the lint screen on the dryer even though I didn’t want to and no one would know the difference. But I felt in that choice a warmth in the realization that God saw. God was, and was watching. It was banal, but it mattered, because it was the better thing to do. Because God cared about living by a better way. And because in this world, nothing was insignificant.

Memories: walking around the campus of Dallas Baptist University, wondering where God had gone, recalling a time when I’d heard God listening to me, felt God’s company in everything I did, and struggling with why that presence had left. Later I chose to believe what’s written despite what I might feel, to believe the biblical promise and allow it to come true through the phenomenon of belief: Lo, I am with you always; I will never leave you nor forsake you; I am with you.

Throughout my life, the personhood of God has been very important

When I started tugging the loose threads, challenging the many inconsistencies and injustices that I’d slowly become aware of in my community’s Christianity — when the fabric of my worldview unwove itself row by row, and when this principal thread followed suit (“Is God a person or is God not a person?”) — I did get lost.

For Thich Nhat Hanh, the personhood of God is a non-issue. To explain why, he quoted the theologian Paul Tillich, who said that God is the ground of being. Thich Nhat Hanh’s point was that God is bigger than our ideas, that God’s substance runs deeper than the images we use to describe God. You can see God as the fabric of existence: something real, but not necessarily someone.

I love Paul Tillich’s statement that God is the ground of being. I love ontology, the layer beneath the layers. In literature I love the subtext almost more than the text; ontology almost more than phenomena. The ground of being, this is a beautiful way to look at God.

It reminds me of the thrill I once got from the words, “The world is shot through with the glory of God.” Memories: I looked up after reading those words for the first time to see a tree dancing furiously in the wind at the edge of the parking lot. Its movement was infused with this: it danced because God is. Like the realization that even the lint screen mattered, it showed me a living world, significant down to the last molecule. God-filled, God-derived, joyous or painful, confused or at peace, all these things variously, simultaneously, wherever in the world they do appear, all because God is. And no matter how tragic things get, all of it well.

That vision of God-in-all speaks to me. So does Paul Tillich’s. I can see how, as Thich Nhat Hanh said, the notion of personhood isn’t necessary for it to work.

But personhood is necessary in other ways

It’s necessary for prayer. How can I talk to someone who isn’t someone? How can I believe that every last thing matters without also believing that God is witness? This is what I need out of my relationship with the noumenal: a place to contain this deepest, highest conversation.

So when Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Why do we have to imprison God in one of these two notions: person and non-person? Do you really need to define God like that?” (Going Home12), I say yes and no. I’m fine with saying that God is not just a person, that God is more. I don’t need God to sit inside the “person” box. But I do need God to possess certain qualities found inside that box.

I notice he keeps saying “neither, nor”

God is neither a person nor a non-person. I’ve always preferred “both, and,” and I wonder if there’s any important problem in saying that God is both. God is a person. God is a non-person. God is neither person nor non-person. I mean, as long as you’re starting from the tenet that words and constructs are insufficient to describe God anyway, is it a problem to play with the words you use?

I definitely hold that view on gender. God is not male. God is not female. God is not neuter. But given that our language necessitates third-person singular pronouns which must denote one of the three, you may as well use them all. God: he is with us. God: she hears us when we call. God: it is all that is. God: they are the ground of being. The pronoun itself is an icon, not the reality it refers to, and by remaining unattached to it, you avoid the trap of turning that icon to an idol: making the important mistake of thinking that God is, quite actually, he, and that it’s sacrilege to describe him any other way. “Do you really need to define God like that?” (Going Home, 12).

If God can’t be described with any fixed concept, because God is greater than we can describe or conceive, it’s no less correct to say, “God is both,” than, “God is neither.”

Then again, let’s not delude ourselves. What I’m asking isn’t, “How are we going to talk about God,” but, “What is God, actually?”

When you pray, are you heard?

Does someone or something care? Does it know about me, want things for me, interact with me? These questions go beyond perception. They scrape at the skin of what’s real.

It’s funny. I don’t know what the right answer is. But I have experienced the yes answer. I’ve prayed a question, waited, watched the answer emerge and learned what to do. I’ve sent desires of mine skyward and seen them fulfilled. Over and over, I’ve prayed and been delivered. I’ve struggled in quicksand and been rescued.

You could explain it away as coincidence; you could say I had the answers in me all along; you could say that when one makes certain moves, other moves naturally follow, a practical karma. But that’s not what I experienced. That’s not how it tasted as it happened. More importantly, had I been interacting with it on those other terms, I don’t think I would have seen the same outcomes. Since unraveling my belief in God and prayer, whenever I’ve tried to look within myself for the answers or trust to lucky coincidences or earned rewards, the effort has fallen flat. The good I experienced wasn’t invoked through those means. It came to me only when I was looking beyond myself to a person who loved me.

I have an unusual view on what personhood is

The other day, my friend said that cats aren’t people. I disagreed. A cat has a perspective, thoughts, feelings, intentions. Cats aren’t human, obviously. But they are people. The same goes for trees. I feel the same goes for everything, frankly.

My friend said she reserves the word “person” for people, which is funny and axiomatic, but I think I know what she meant. To her, the word “person” has an ineffable quality only found in humans. But to me the word has an ineffable quality which exists in all kinds of creatures. Cats don’t think human thoughts. They think cat thoughts. We don’t have cat-goals, but human-goals. We’re human-people. They’re cat-people.

Why does this matter? Because it makes calling God a person a lot less loaded. By calling God a person I’m not calling her a human being. I mean, I call a tree a person.

When Thich Nhat Hanh rejected Teilhard de Chardin’s statement that “the cosmos is deeply personal and personalizing, that it is in the process of personalizing all the time” (Going Home, 11), he did so on the grounds that saying so is dualism: “There are two different things. One is the person, and the other is the non-person” (ibid.). Later, talking about impermanence, he went on to say that the tree in the front yard doesn’t have a separate self, because without all the non-tree elements — the sun, the rain, the ground and so on — the tree could not exist. It and they are so interconnected, the line between “tree” and “not tree” loses its metaphysical practicality. Similarly, about the question of personhood, he said that “a person is made of non-person elements and vice versa” (Going Home, page 12).

But here’s the thing. Whether you believe that everything is personal or that nothing is personal, you’re equally rid of dualistic thinking. As long as you’re going to say it’s all one or the other, you’re kind of saying the same thing. It’s just a question of whether, for you, the silhouette is found in the positive or negative space.

God is not a person, but not less than a person.

God is a person, but also more than a person.

So long as I see personhood in a tree, I think it’s fair to call God a person. So long as each of my cells has a distinct self, and I, made of them all, possess a self that’s more than the sum of the parts, I think it’s fair to say the same is true of God.

God is a person. God is not a person. God is more than a person. God is something beyond the person/non-person duality. Does God know about me and care?

That’s another question. I don’t know. I hope so.