Schleiermacher: “Suppose there is someone who rejects the idea of a personal God. This rejection of the idea of a personal Deity does not decide against the presence of the Deity in his [or her] feeling.”
Because personality is the filter through which we humans experience reality, our long-standing assumption has been that it represents the crowning achievement of evolution. As energy condensed into rock and rocks made way for the first living organisms, so is the vibrant and self-conscious personality a miraculous leap of advancement beyond mere biology. As we move up the hierarchy of life, tree shrews are more complex and interesting than earthworms, dogs are more like us than tree shrews, but a human person – a personality – is essentially incomparable to anything else in our known universe.
I remember as a little boy how I personified things in my world. My toys had personalities, as did just about everything I encountered outside at play. Even now at midlife I find myself getting angry at inanimate objects, like a cupboard door that swings out as I bend over to empty the dishwasher. When I straighten up and hit my head on that damned door I have an urge to hit it back, to punish it for hurting me. It’s important – somehow and somewhere deep inside the more primitive part of my personality – that I teach the door a lesson. There are no accidents in the animated world of childhood simply because intention flows out of the center of each existing thing and connects it to everything thing else.
This is one theory of how religion began: our early ancestors looked out on reality and saw numerous intentional forces impinging on their survival as they settled in or migrated across the globe. Gradually these intentional forces were imbued with personality, depicted in local art and mythology, and duly worshiped for their influence in human affairs. Like the scripts I conjured up for the various genies and higher agencies of my childhood play-world, these divine (and demonic) personalities were not invented and installed by anything resembling an objective and critical self-awareness. We were primed for it and it just flowed spontaneously out of our creative imagination.
The psychological value of this theory is two-fold. First it acknowledges our human need to be in relationship with the greater environment that both supports and threatens our existence. Whether it be our mother’s womb, our family of origin, our native tribe, the patch of Earth we inhabit or the universe entire, we have a yearning inside us – Schleiermacher would locate this yearning in our intuitive intelligence, or heart – to belong. What better way of fulfilling this need of ours than to reach out to this otherness in trusting release, earnest petition, humble reverence, and devoted worship?
Secondly, and really building on this first value, the theory establishes the mythological god on more respectable ground. Rather than beginning its critical examination with the assumption of the divine personality as an actual being whose existence must be proved or disproved, it takes its start from the side of human experience. (This was the turn to phenomenology, or to the study of how consciousness apprehends, perceives and represents reality that was revolutionizing philosophy in Schleiermacher’s day.) The question is not whether or not the personal god exists, but what it means – or perhaps what it might have once meant – to be in relationship with a universe that notices you and interacts intelligently with you.
Because he started with experience and not with the objective existence of a mythological god, Schleiermacher didn’t have to defend or discredit the belief in one. Concern over the biblical legitimacy or theological orthodoxy of your representation of god is really secondary to your awareness of and encounter with “the Presence of the Deity.” In my vocabulary this is the real presence of mystery or present mystery of reality that supports, surrounds, permeates and dissolves your existence in this very moment.
Our mental representations, or models, of god are not as clear-cut and immutable as we may think. Just as your concept of god has developed and changed countless times throughout your life – do you regard “the Deity” the same today as you did when you were a child? Let’s hope not – so too even a cursory reading of the Bible observes a mythological god who develops over time. God creates and then later regrets his creation, deciding to drown but a boatload of all living things; he wants to incinerate a wicked city but then is persuaded by Abraham to change his plans; he orders ruthless violence against the enemy, but then commands us to love and do good to them. This is an obvious problem for someone who takes the Bible literally and then reads in James 1:17 that god doesn’t change.
Human beings are in a complex relationship with the universe. Out of our developing needs and expanding consciousness, the one on the “other side” of this relationship changes and evolves accordingly. It isn’t necessary – or profitable for the welfare and destiny of our species – to debate and wrangle over whose god is the true god. The “truth” of your god cannot be determined through some sort of rational calculus, comparative study, or biblical exegesis. The real question is how your concept of god – whether personal, non-personal, or transpersonal – corresponds with and meaningfully represents your experience.
If your god connects you to life and inspires the development of your higher capacities for personal responsibility, unconditional forgiveness, healthy dialogue and cooperation, and a wider outreach to the human and nonhuman inhabitants of our common planetary home, then it’s as true as anything.
Check yourself. I’ll do the same.