A Personal God – May 1998

Question: Is God Personal?

Publication Month: May 1998

Dr. Cobb’s Response

The answer to this, as to so many questions is Yes and No, but on the whole Yes is a better answer than No. Of course, everything depends on what is meant by “personal”. For some people, the only way God can be personal is to be very much like a human being. In the extreme case this involves attributing a body to God that resembles a human body. Obviously, the answer must then be No. If we think of God having a body, that body is the universe as a whole.

More commonly, it is only the human mind or soul or spirit that God is understood to resemble. Then the answer depends on how the questioner understands the human spirit. Often it is understood substantialistically, with the relations among human spirits, and even between spirit and body, seen as quite external. When it is clear that the questioner is thinking in this way, it is still best to begin with the answer No. God is not like another human being, only greater, when one thinks of a human being in this way. But then, from a process perspective, other human beings are not like that either!

In somewhat more sophisticated imagery, questioners sometimes are asking whether the I-Thou relationship exists between us and God. Addressing God as Thou has been so central to the Abrahamic traditions that to rule out such language would mean a serious rupture. Process theology allows and affirms its use.

But the language of I-Thou suggests an over-againstness or externality that is inadequate and misleading. In Tillich’s terminology it seems to imply that God is one being alongside other beings. We need to claim the language but free it from this externalistic interpretation. Paul himself helps us to do so. He says of human beings that we are members one of another and jointly members of the body of Christ. We are in Christ and Christ is in us. The Holy Spirit is also found within. Process thought interprets this to mean that we participate in constituting the very being of one another and that the divine reality participates in constituting our being as we participate in constituting the divine reality. We are quite literally in God, and God is quite literally in us.

I-Thou language by itself does not capture this. But this is not because the relationship process thinkers affirm is less personal. The mutual immanence of all things only makes the personal character of relationships deeper, more inextricable. Process thought in this way enables us to appreciate the meaning of some of the language of the New Testament that has previously been toned down because of the metaphysical assumptions of interpreters.

Even so, this emphasis on the immanence of God seems to some to count against the idea of God as a personal being. In human interpersonal relations, we transcend one another as well as participating in one another. Does God transcend us? Of course. But is the way that God transcends us similar to the way other human persons transcend us?

No, there are differences. Other people are spatially separated from us. The locus from which they experience the world is different from the one from which we experience the world. But God is equally everywhere. Where we are, God is there, too. Or else, God as transcending creatures is “nowhere” in the sense that spatial language may not apply to God. In this way God is very different from another human person.

Nevertheless, God, like other human persons, is a subject who acts and is acted upon. In Whitehead’s terminology, God is an actual entity, distinct from all other actual entities. This does not make God any more like humans than like creatures in general. On the other hand, we suppose that some human characteristics, shared with some but by no means all other creatures, are shared by God. Consciousness is an important example.

As to how much further we should go in attributing human-like characteristics to God, process theologians divide. Charles Hartshorne encourages us to think of God as a closely unified succession of actual entities in which all the past ones are fully included in the present one. Since such a succession of actual entities is just what Whitehead defines as a “living person”, Hartshorne gives a clear positive answer to the question of whether God is a person. Whitehead, on the other hand, proposes that we think of God as a single everlasting actual entity. That is extremely different from any creature, including the human one. In his terminology, then, God is not a person. Yet much of what believers have in mind when they ask whether God is a person, is present in God for Whitehead as well.