In the religions of the world, there are two distinct concepts of God, even within Christianity. The first is the personal God that is common today. “Personal” usually means “belonging specifically to someone,” as in “my personal computer,” but in theology the meaning is “having characteristics of a person.” A personal God is a God much like us, a God who sees, hears, thinks, and judges. A personal God may assume any form, ranging from a human to a white light, or a pillar of smoke, but definitely some sort of form. A personal God walks beside us, watches over us, and hears our prayers. Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on.
The other concept is of a transcendent God, meaning something far beyond any possibility of human comprehension. This God’s characteristics are those we know nothing about, characteristics we do not experience and unlike anything we have experienced.
Transcendent gods are usually associated with Eastern religions and have no form. Form is something we understand, and, by definition, is not part of a transcendent God. An example of a formless God is in the expression “God is truth.” Truth has no form. For a completely transcendent God, “God is . . .,” but we have no words to complete the sentence.
St. Thomas Aquinas had an epiphany of the transcendent God late in life and realized anything he had said before “was straw.” A 13th century Christian theologian, Meister Eckhart, once asked, “Why do you babble on about God? Anything you say of him is wrong.” (Him?)
God does not love, anger, favor one of us over another, and does not get jealous. These are human experiences. Some say the Old Testament is the story of a God who moves away from a personal God, who visits the Garden of Eden in the cool of the evening to chat with Adam, to a transcendent God inaccessible to humans. All of this was set straight by the concept of the Trinity.
God loves us?
Wrong. There may be some bond between us, but it is not the human understanding of love, or even that of a father-child relationship.
Then God does not exist?
How can both be wrong? God must either exist or not exist.
God is beyond existence. God is not simply one more thing in a universe full of things. God is existence itself.
Many of today’s Christian theologians avoid using the word “God” at all because it has too many anthropomorphic connotations. We cannot help but imagine a robed, bearded, old man. Instead, they prefer “Ground of Being” that gets more to its mystic, transcendent meaning. “God,” after all, is just a word, a symbol for the unknowable.
The Roman Catholic Church has traditionally preferred a transcendent God, warning parishioners of comprehending God as too personal, as the “Big Guy upstairs.”
Both concepts of God have problems.
A personal God reflects our own preferences and prejudices and justifies them by elevating them to cosmic axioms. In any war, a personal God is always on our side, wants us to win. Our enemy is his enemy, and he wants us to destroy as many as possible. A personal God commands us to “Honor thy father and mother,” an admirable thought, but does it really rank among the top ten rules of the universe? Does your God find homosexuality an abomination, or is it just you?
Describe your personal God, and you will be largely describing your ideal self, how you would want to act if you were in charge. Obeying a personal God is really obeying your own values. Everyone’s concept of a personal God is unique to themselves.
A personal God often leaves us puzzled, so puzzled many reject all concepts of God for atheism. How can God permit the suffering of innocent children? There is no way a personal God concept can answer this. We are trying to see God as ourselves writ large, a God with a will like ours, a God who judges like us, a God who jumps to action like us. Like us, a personal God would not let a child suffer.
The problem with a transcendent God is how can you love and obey, petition, try to please, be uplifted, consoled, inspired, by an ineffable, formless entity? These are what people expect from religion. Can you worship and pray to “Truth?” “Justice?”
A personal God is a God we can relate to, while a transcendent God is one we can philosophize about, and a compromise of the two is often necessary. The Trinity is the most obvious example, but most people make their own compromise. A believer in a personal God can accept there is a large part unknowable. A believer in a transcendent God can appreciate the symbolism of human characteristics, the symbolism of the Christmas season just past. Psalm 103 is a favorite of those whose view is of a personal God. Psalm 8 describes a more transcendent God. (I use BibleGateway.com for quick access to Bible references.)
(While you are there, flip over to Psalm 109 for a lighter note. In this hilarious Psalm, the writer is not only unforgiving, he is hopping mad as he spits out all of the things he wants God to do to his enemies. Talk about Muslim fanaticism!)