I grew up believing that God literally had a face, and a head, and a body, with arms, legs, and every other body part (except blood, because “resurrected beings” were said to not have blood, which was considered a mortal characteristic). God was a human, just like us, except “exalted.” It was a very anthropomorphic conception of deity and the Divine. God was literally a separate Being out there, a Human Being somewhere, that we would eventually encounter, and give a hug to, just like any other person.
In the last few years that anthropomorphic conception fell apart completely. I realized that it was essentially impossible for God to be a human, particularly in the light of evolution, and that these conceptions were more about our projecting our own image on God than realizing what God really was in its Self. I think there are good reasons for such symbolism, primarily that the Divine incarnates its Self into all creatures, including humans. But the literal interpretation fell flat.
So what does it mean for God to have a “face,” encountering the “face of God,” or meeting God “face-to-face”? I see it in a whole new way now, and I’ll try to briefly describe that, particularly as I have experienced it in my mystical experiences and studies of mysticism.
Did Moses see God’s face?
One of the first people we hear about in the Judeo-Christian tradition having an encounter with God’s “face” is Moses.
And the LORD spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.-Exodus 33:11
This seems pretty clear and explicit. Moses spoke with God face-to-face, Moses’ face to God’s face, just like any person speaks to a friend face-to-face, eyes, nose, mouth, and all. But it paradoxically also tells us that Moses did not see God’s face, in the very same chapter.
“But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” Then the Lord said, “There is a place near me where you may stand on a rock. When my glory passes by, I will put you in a cleft in the rock and cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will remove my hand and you will see my back; but my face must not be seen.”-Exodus 33:20-23
So did Moses see God’s face or not? This has been the source of endless debate and confusion through millennia.
I think the confusion is related to the mystical nature of seeing God’s face, and what it means to “see” it, and “who” sees it. Is it an actual face? Is it a human face? Is it the face of a person? Or does it mean something else entirely?
Mystically “seeing” God’s face
I think to “see” God’s face, or see God “face-to-face,” means to have a direct unmediated encounter with divinity. It is a direct, first-hand, immediate, intuitive, unimagined, revelation of what God’s true nature is. It is the unveiling, the apocalypse, the Ultimate Reality, the experience of nonduality, of oneness, of the true nature of reality, the One. It is the transcendence of the dualistic mind, and the awakening to our deepest nature.
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The “face of God” is God’s true nature. It is God’s true “face,” true reality, true being, true essence. It is not a thought, image, conception, idea, perception, theory, theology, doctrine, symbol, or any other intermediary. The “face of God” is what the Divine really is, it is what countless mystics throughout history have experienced in their sublime ecstasies, in their mystical experiences, in their beatific visions, in their heavenly ascents. The “face of God” is simply what God is, God’s isness, God’s true nature, stripped of all ideas and conceptions. It is the Truth itself, the Absolute itself, the Real.
St. Augustine once said:
Zion means contemplation… Contemplation means that we shall see God face to face… What has he promised will be granted to us, and what has he promised? Himself, so that we may find our joy in his countenance and in contemplation of him.
Of course, this is full of anthropomorphism too, including all the male pronouns. But Zion = contemplation = seeing God face-to-face, that seems to hint at something other than seeing a human form, a human face like ours. Contemplation is something else. It is a very different kind of seeing, like a seer.
I don’t think St. Augustine meant that we would see a literal face. We would contemplate God, see God as a seer does, not in a mundane way we see other human faces in life.
There is a famous Zen koan that goes like this:
Show me your Original Face, the face you had before your parents were born.
This begins to get at what I think God’s “face” is. Clearly we did not have a “face” before we were born. This koan seems to be meant to make our minds stretch towards something much deeper than the literal face on our human body. It is pointing us toward a deeper reality, a more fundamental reality, a timeless reality, the nature of our reality beyond the finite body-mind.
In his famous story Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote:
To love another person is to see the face of God.-Victor Hugo
I think this also helps point us in the direction of what God’s “face” really is. When we truly love another person, we are encountering Love. We are transcending our dualistic ego, our subjective self, in order to realize connection, communion, shared being, and that oneness is God’s Self. It is at-one-ment that we realize in that Love.
1 John 4 notes this about Love:
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love…
No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us…
God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.-1 John 4:7-8, 12, 16
The nature of God is this Love. So when we find ourselves truly loving, deeply immersed in this Love, this at-One-ment, this Oneness, this connection with others, we may realize ourselves at-one in God, and we come to know God. We don’t see God as something “other,” but as the Love that exists within us, in our Love for one another, in that nonduality that is our fundamental essence. When we live in Love, we live in God, and know God is living in us. We see God’s face in those we Love, and in the Love itself.
There was once a 16th century Italian monk who said:
Lord, Thou art the Love with which I Love Thee.
We Love God with God’s own Love. That unifying power, that sense of connection, that underlying oneness, that foundational singularity, that attraction that pulls things together, that reveals to them their essential unity, that is God. That is Love. That is the One.
The famous 13th century Christian mystic Meister Eckhart once said:
Some simple people think that they will see God as if he were standing there and they here. It is not so. God and I, we are one. I accept God into me in knowing; I go into God in loving.
The eye with which I see God is the same with which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye is one eye, and one sight, and one knowledge, and one love.
In these passages we can see that God is not an object that one can see “out there” somewhere. God is not like a person that they will see “over there.” When we “see” God we realize we are One in God. We realize at-one-ment. We realize that the “eye” with which we see God is God’s same eye. We are seeing through God at all times. We are seeing God with God’s own eye. God sees God’s Self.
In my most revelatory mystical experiences, in which I seemed to intuit God directly, I did not see anything external “out there.” Nothing sublime appeared in my vision. It was a radical internal realization, awakening, recognition, insight, which seemed to transfigure the entire “ordinary” outside world. It suddenly dawned on me what I was in my deepest nature, which was identical to God’s nature. It was God in me. I saw God in my own face, and in the face of each and every person, creature, object, being, etc.
I realized that what I think of as Bryce is a construction of mind, of human experience, of my relative being-in-the-world. Bryce is a temporal finite being, a mortal form, a relative expression, manifestation, incarnation of something more Ultimate. Bryce did not see God. Bryce was transcended for God to see God. It was God in me who knew God, who saw God, who knew its Self, who knew the One.
This seems to correlate to other mystics throughout history who have ascended/transcended to God’s “throne” only to see their own mirror image reflected back to them “seated” there. They realize that their truest Self is what they have been seeking all along.
What did Moses see then?
Returning to Moses’ experience of seeing God face-to-face, as I’ve suggested before, I think he too experienced God within himself, in his deepest nature as “I AM,” that beingness, that pure consciousness that exists at the heart of every individual, at the foundation of every mind, as the fundamental essence or “rock” upon which all experience arises, the pure awareness from which all perceptions emerge, the sea of glass out of which all waves wave, the Ultimate Reality that is timeless, that does not exist in time or in the world of form. It is our “soul,” the eternal Spirit of nature or the cosmos.
Moses could not “see” God’s face, because that would be a subject-to-object experience. Moses’s ego identity had to die from consciousness in that mystical experience in order to realize God’s Self within him, in order for God’s face to be contemplated as God’s own Being, as Moses’ own deepest being. That is why I think God said that “no one may see me and live.” No human may see God because no ego can see God in a dualistic way, subject to object. The ego-mind which is inherently dualistic cannot do it. The ego must be transcended for that to happen, for God to see God’s Self as God really is. Moses’ deepest being or nature or consciousness saw/knew its original Face, “face-to-face,” directly, without intermediary, not even with “Moses” as an intermediary.
It seems we must go beyond this dualistic mind, this subjective self construction, the perceptions and thoughts and conceptions and images that we have attached our identity to, and which we have attached God’s identity to, in order to see God as God is. It is the God beyond “God.” It is God’s actual reality, not as it is thought or symbolized in any way, in any image, in any conception or perception. It is the direct Reality of God’s Being that is realized directly as one’s own deepest Self in oneness, not as an “Other.”
What do you think about God’s “face”? Is it real, literal, mystical, embodied, abstract, contemplative, symbolic, subjective, objective, pointer, human?