Wednesday, 6 April 2016

The Supra-Personal

It's been suggested to me that the problems referred to in the earlier questions on the void, which create a conflict between Buddhism and Christianity or, in more general terms, between monism and theism, might be avoided if the absolute was described as supra-personal or transpersonal rather than impersonal. Metaphysically speaking, this might be seen as a step in the right direction but, in fact, it doesn't really resolve the difficulty as much as might initially appear.

For what does it actually mean to be supra-personal? It's a word the meaning of which no one can really understand. To begin with, how does it differ from impersonal? It strikes me as potentially a gambit used by non-dualists to deny the reality of the personal or demote it to a lesser and relative state. It can certainly be employed to that effect. Therefore those who advocate the idea of reality as supra-personal must be careful to differentiate between that and the impersonal, and make sure they are not re-introducing the latter through the back door and under another name. If supra-personal is compared to personal as a sphere is to a circle that makes theoretical sense because at least then it can be conceived of as something including but more than a person (rather than less than one as impersonal undoubtedly is). But even so this is still just a theoretical concept, and the idea that God is a Person, not supra-personal or transpersonal (vague terms that carry very little meaning and which can be used to deny real personhood to God) is the only real basis on which it can be said that God is Love. A personal God is still the only way in which we can have a relationship with God which, according to the Christian idea, is the goal of the spiritual life. And it is the only way in which values of goodness, truth and beauty can have any real meaning. That is to say, meaning fundamentally rooted in reality. For only if the person is real can anything be real, other than pure undivided consciousness.  And maybe not even that.

So, all things considered, I don't think that conceiving of God as supra-personal is all that helpful. While it might help to describe an experience of the ground of being it should not be used to support the reductive view of the world that advocates of non-duality incline towards. God, no doubt, cannot be limited to a person as he cannot be limited in any way, but if we truly are made in his image then this must be an important and real part of what he is.


David Balfour said...

"God, no doubt, cannot be limited to a person as he cannot be limited in any way, but if we truly are made in his image then this must be an important and real part of what he is."

I find this a fascinating but difficult problem. The notion of disembodied intelligence or non-corporeal God has some apparent benefits eg a conception of God in this manner makes it easier (for me at least) to conceive of a being capable of super human things such as communicating with several billion human souls simultaneously or having omnipresent or supernatural aspects.

But if we are to imagine the created as having a body or tabernacle then this uniquely offers a personhood and focus to love and relationship that the abstractness of a disembodied intelligence cannot. I know that Mormon doctrine would support this conception of God. But it seems to me that the reality somehow must necessarily include both situations ie the personal embodiment of a personal God and also a being that stands on divine ground of his/her creation otherwise that would put this apart and as anticedent from the creator. Unless we take the starting point as a situation of uncreated and eternal multiple intelligences in the ether somehow. Also, I have severe difficultly imagining a Buddhist attaining Nirvana then going to live in the aura around a person or that a supreme being with a mouth, eyes, etc. Being able to function as an individual person whilst knowing every hair on my head and yours and simultaneously witnessing the horror or one persons circumstances contrasted with the joys of another in real time. Surely a person can only really give one person full attention at any one time. I am therefore *currently* only able to perceive of deity as necessarily personal but not in a merely human corporeal form. I need to resort to a conception of deity that can manifest both materially and immaterially, can travel at the speed of light or even thought and can exhibit omnipresent qualities of awareness throughout creation from one persons heart to another and from heaven to Earth to a distant galaxy far far away, necessarily of his creation as it is part of the created order.

I would welcome any reflections you might have with respect to this.

William Wildblood said...

I don't think we can ever understand what God is through thought. The best we can do is to say that he is everything but not limited to that. He is the Absolute and can never be defined or confined. But he is also the Self, the very 'I'ness of I, so not so much a person but the Person, and not one out there and separate from us but everywhere, both within and beyond everything in the universe. He has the aspect of pure being but he also has the personal aspect, closer to us than hands and feet and aware of every hair on our heads as you say, though that is not too hard in my case!

But really theorising about God won't get us very far. It truly is a matter of faith and imagination and trust, and understanding that he is not just life in the abstract but actually alive. He is what Jesus said he is, our Father in heaven, but he is also what he says he is, the supreme I am. That's the best I can do really other than to say that the only way for us to have any sort of proper idea about God is through the heart. He may be everywhere but that's where he particularly dwells in us.

David Balfour said...

"the only way for us to have any sort of proper idea about God is through the heart"

Yes, I think we are pretty much in agreement here. I sometimes feel that this needs to be as central in a genuine faith in Christ otherwise the risk is of drifting into cold intellectualism and legalism which has produced some horrific abuses of the Christian message over the millenia. Head and heart have equally essential roles but one cannot go without the other.

Best wishes, Enjoy your Sunday, the weather is marvellous in the North East of England which is where I am writing from :-)

Virginia said...

I ran across the phrase "supra-personal" in one of Huxley's writings, and that led me to your post. Lately I have imagined that god is "big" enough to be both personal and impersonal, and the issue does not have to be either--or. The "supra-personal" label might be a desire not to say the label "impersonal" and therefore to use "supra-personal" to denote "different" from personal. The problem with a simply "personal" God is that "he,she, it" seems to be rather detached from the affairs of people, and the impersonal label seems to excuse this slight?? I tend to go very strongly to your idea that we know God "through the heart". Which could be partially defined by an extra-human part of us that has the ability to see without boundaries? Just some thoughts and thanks for your blog. Virginia

William Wildblood said...

Thanks for commenting, Virginia. I agree that God must be both personal and impersonal for how can we conceive of something that is not unless it is a contradiction in terms? But i see the impersonal as relating to God in complete inactivity rather like a divine sleep. If we think of him as the Creator in whom we live and move and have our being then he is personal. And if the law of the universe is love, as I believe it is, then the personal must lie at the root of things. In a way those that deny this deny everything except pure naked existence but God is more than pure existence because if he were not then nothing could have ever arisen.