A friend asked me to define sin and God. I think its intriguing that he asked about those both, because I do think they are closely related subjects, especially in mysticism. Here are some of my thoughts.
God is notoriously difficult to define or describe. I find the more I explore the mystical, the less I know about what God is. This seems to accord with what Thomas Merton once wrote:
In the end the contemplative suffers the anguish of realizing that he no longer knows what God is.-Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
He went on to say why that might be:
He may or may not mercifully realize that, after all, this is a great gain, because “God is not a what,” not a “thing.” That is precisely one of the essential characteristics of contemplative experience. It sees that there is no “what” that can be called God. There is “no such thing” as God because God is neither a “what” nor a “thing” but a pure “Who.” He is the “Thou” before whom our inmost “I” springs into awareness. He is the I Am before whom with our own most personal and inalienable voice we echo “I am.”-Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation
That seems like a great starting place for trying to articulate the nature of God. God is not an objective what, a thing, an object or a being of any sort, a being among beings. No. We can’t point at God and say that is what God is. At best, it will be a manifestation of what God is, but not God’s totality or essence.
What is God?
Merton says that instead of a “what” that God is a pure “Who.” What does that mean? I suggest it means that God is something like the supreme Subject, the most ultimate “I,” the deepest essence of consciousness, of being. But it is not only these personal ultimates, but the impersonal ones as well, such as cosmos, universe, totality, reality, the All in All, and the Source from which it all emanates. I don’t follow a pantheist view of God, which would mean the cosmos is identical to God, but rather a panentheist view of God, which means that God is in the whole cosmos, and yet beyond it too (or perhaps prior to it).
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As I’ve suggested in some prior articles, God seems to be of a dual nature in the way we try to describe that nature, and yet these two natures are ultimately One, like two sides of a coin. In the first and perhaps highest sense, God seems to be an unmanifest, formless, absolute, beyond all manifestation, or prior to it. God is its Source. This is perhaps the essential nature of God, the fountainhead of all things, the ungraspable, ineffable, ground of all being, the fundamental substrate, the empty ocean, the void, the unified field, the quantum realm, the dimension of mathematics, of pure undefinable energy, pure consciousness. This can’t be seen, touched, felt, or perceived in any way. It is the sheer isness of all things, its essence.
In the second sense, God seems to be forming itself into all things manifest, formed, relative, all the things we can see, feel, touch, and perceive. This is commonly called God’s “incarnation,” or emanation, expression, manifestation, offspring, creation, etc. It is the substance of things, the way energy is ordered. It is all things perceived or perceptible in any way in the mind. If it can manifest in any way, then it is part of this realm, the classical world.
The first nature seems to manifest itself in the second, the unmanifest becoming manifest, the void taking on form, the field being excited into particles/waves. In Christianity we know these two natures as the Father and the Son. In Mahayana Buddhism we might call it the Dharmakaya and the Nirmanakaya. In modern scientific philosophy we might call them the absolute and the relative, or the implicate (enfolded) and explicate (unfolded), or the quantum and classical worlds. There are many ways we may label these two natures, which I explored in this prior article and chart.
What is critical to note, I think, is that none of these labels or terms or words are God as God really is. They are merely pointers, symbols, shadows on the cave wall. They are ways that our finite human mind tries to conceptualize these ultimates, of which it is itself a manifestation. And because it is also a manifestation of it, it cannot grasp it completely. It cannot contain what it itself is made of or from. That would be like the pot trying to contain the potter. It can’t do it. The human mind is perhaps a localized and finite manifestation of infinite nondual consciousness.
What is sin?
The nature of sin has been described in the various spiritual traditions as an offense toward God, a state of disharmony with God, not doing what God wants us to do, or doing something that God does not want us to do, an exile from God, an alienation from God, an ignorance of God. But if God is one of these ultimates, how can we not be in harmony with that? We are a manifestation of it!
The way I like to consider “sin” is this: a false or too narrow identification with a subjective finite self construction in the human body-mind that thinks it is somehow separate or apart from God or the Ultimate Reality. As Thomas Keating once said,
The chief thing that separates us from God is the thought that we are separated from God.-Thomas Keating
It seems to be a natural result of our dualistic subject-object mind, which separates every perception into a subject and an object, which is the beginning of this sense of separation. We tend to identify ourselves with the subject of mind, and everything else is an “other” object. And because our mind is associated with a particular body, we tie our identity exclusively to that body. What we think we are is the body and its mind, and everything associated with that body and mind, including its personality, skills, knowledge, etc.
And because we associate our identity with this particular body-mind, we commonly do things that will protect and aggrandize only it. We shield it from all harm, and we do that which will build it up stronger and more secure. These are not necessarily bad things, but they can often turn egoistic and selfish. We cut ourselves off from the rest of the world, and turn toward only caring for our particular body-mind, and even exploiting and taking advantage of others for our own gain. We have divided ourselves from the cosmos, from the Ultimate.
But what about the rest of the world? What about the cosmos? What about that which produced this very body and mind? Is it something separate and apart from the body-mind? I don’t think so. Not in a transcendent sense. We only tend to think it is because of the way perceptions appear in the finite mind, localized in a particular subjective self, and so we identify with that small self, the skin-encapsulated ego. Everything appears localized right here, and so I must be right here. This is what I am, we think, this body-mind right here, and nowhere else.
You might see the problem here. A creation of the world, in the world/cosmos, has come to think it is something independent and separate from that world/cosmos, its own island in the ocean of being. It has cut itself off from the wider ocean. It has adopted a constructed identity that only pertains to it, to that particular body-mind creation. It forgets its origin, its substance, its essence, its creation, its manifestation of a greater process. It does not realize its part in the greater Whole, not as something separate from the Whole, but a manifestation of the Whole.
I think this false separation from the Whole and the subsequent egoic identity is at the root of what we call “sin,” and it is the cause of all things we do that harm ourselves and others, and thus traditionally “sin” against God. We are really “kicking against the pricks,” harming our own Self. It is what “separates” us from God, causing that exile, that alienation, that Fall from the Presence of the One. It is our egoic mind that falls out of the Presence of God, out of a sense of Oneness with the greater cosmos, out of this Love.
Redemption from sin seems to me to be the reverse process of contemplatively divesting ourself of the limited and false identification with the separate ego-self, seeing through this illusion of separation caused by the subject-object split of the mind. It is returning to pure consciousness, where there is no division, but all is One Great Whole. It is an at-One-ment. We realize our identity is so much greater than the particular finite self or body-mind, but the Whole itself. We realize that we are not just a particular manifestation in the Whole, but the divine essence (the first nature described above) which has manifested the body-mind and all other things. We awaken to that essential identity which encompasses all beings, all things, all forms, the entire cosmos.
The sin of separation is instantly forgiven when we transcend the dualistic mind, and we know our Self as God, as that which is at the heart of all things, which is the One from which it all emanates, which is the Singularity that is the Source of All. It is Love because it includes all beings as One, as its own Self. We see ourselves as That, our true Self, the “Christ” Self. And there is no longer any fundamental separation.
We then know, as Jesus did and many other sages, that “the Father is in me, and I am in the Father” (John 14:11), and that everyone else may realize this Oneness too. God is not something separate from us, but our deepest identity, manifesting as a multiplicity of beings in the perceived world. This is salvation from sin, a return to the Presence of God, in Oneness with all other beings.
When we look out on the world, we don’t see “otherness,” but the Self, and we act accordingly, in harmony with our true nature as every being in the Whole. We do that which will be most beneficial to all, not only our particular body-mind, because we know we are part of a larger Body, a larger Identity. Paul called it the “Body of Christ.” The Buddha called it the sangha. It is the comm-unity, which is a word which expresses this oneness within itself—”together we are One.” We are the Human One (Anthropos), Humanity itself, even Life and Being itself, and so we act in harmony with this deepest of identities.
What do you think? What is God? What is sin? Please share your thoughts with us.