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May 2024
Vol. 23, No. 8


The Two Faces of God

by Peter BollandJuly 2018

Let’s talk about God. It isn’t going to be easy. Is there any more charged word in all of the English language?

It seems that any conversation about God gets immediately bogged down. So before we begin, some simple housekeeping is in order.

What do we even mean by the word “God?”

As passionate, partisan voices rush forward to answer the question, the more ambivalent among us turn away. Why would we want to stick around for that? We’ve heard it all before.

But maybe there’s a way to bring us all back together. Let’s turn to ancient India for a refreshingly inclusive approach to the whole God question.
In the religious philosophy of India, ultimate reality is conceptualized in two distinct ways: personal and impersonal. In the earliest sources, the Vedas, God or ultimate reality is always personified. The Vedas are rich with worship of various gods, most notably Indra and Agni. In the later Upanishads a new idea took root–that all of the personifications of ultimate reality are a foreground that in some ways obscure a still deeper reality called Brahman, an ineffable presence much like the Force in Star Wars.

Brahman is the ultimate, sacred formless source of all things, a boundless energy that gives rise to all matter, consciousness, and forms, including the gods. As such, Brahman cannot be thought because thoughts are forms, and Brahman is beyond all forms. We cannot think about Brahman because Brahman is our ability to think. As 20th-century Vedanta teacher Nisargadatta Maharaj put it, “The source of consciousness cannot be an object in consciousness.”

Later, further refinement occurred. There arose two ways of thinking about Brahman, Nirguna Brahman, and Saguna Brahman. Nirguna Brahman means Brahman without qualities, while Saguna Brahman means Brahman with qualities. Let’s take them one at a time.

Nirguna Brahman is beyond all thoughts and forms. It is utterly indescribable because it transcends all thoughts. The less we say about it, the better. In fact, the more we try to understand it conceptually, the more it eludes our grasp. The only way to “know” Nirguna Brahman is to realize and embody our oneness with it; not by intellectual understanding, but through pure awareness.

Saguna Brahman, on the other hand, is the one we talk about. Here, we can apply all sorts of qualities and attributes to ultimate reality, and in fact we do. At this level of consciousness we can call him or her by many names. This is where personification begins–the curious act of attributing human characteristics to the divine. We ascribe gender and all manner of personality traits to the personifications we conceive. Personification of ultimate reality is ubiquitous throughout human culture–we see it everywhere throughout primordial and recorded history. There’s something about the structure of human consciousness that leads to this inevitability–we need to relate on a personal, human level to the sacred source. It’s hard to relate to an intellectual abstraction. As Aristotle said, nature abhors a vacuum. In the absence of conceptual specificity the imagination runs wild.

This same dichotomy between an impersonal God and a personal one is found throughout world religions. For the majority of the world’s Christians, God is a personified entity, an assertion further concretized by the belief that Jesus of Nazareth was not just a spiritual teacher but God in the flesh–the ultimate example of personification. And yet among Christian mystics, God is far less tangible. He (or It) is not a distant sky God, but an ineffable presence best felt within the immediacy of our sacred awareness.

The good news is we don’t have to choose. The two forms of God, personal and impersonal, are not mutually exclusive. In most religious traditions it’s understood that while one modality might remain dominant, the other is always present. It’s not either/or but both/and. You conceive of ultimate reality any way you like since, in the end, ultimate reality transcends all conceptualization.

And still more good news: if the emphasis is placed on the impersonal or non-personified form of God, then a bucket of cold water gets poured on the fiery theism vs. atheism debate. Once you remove all the anthropomorphic personifications and conceive of God as a non-local energy, atheism loses its nemesis. It’s the personifications that atheists have been railing against. Even famed physicist and astronomer Carl Sagan refused the label “atheist,” finding it too limiting, preferring instead “spiritual.” Turns out both theism and atheism were too narrow and limiting.

This is what makes the Indian example so arresting and consequential. By including and honoring both the personal and impersonal approach to ultimate reality, Hinduism models a synthesis that has eluded us in the west where the tiresome and false dichotomy between science and religion has Balkanized us into two intractably warring camps. What if the God of Newton, Einstein, and Heisenberg could be the same reality as the God of Moses, Jesus, and Mohammad? Since all God-concepts exist at the level of Saguna Brahman, they are therefore provisional, analogical, and metaphorical even. They simply point to ultimate reality like signposts.

Calling God “Father,” as Jesus and his followers do, is a clear example of the metaphorical nature of God concepts. Christians do not mean to say that God is their biological father, rather, that he is like a father in a poetic sense, as the creator of the universe. In a way, all thinking is analogical and metaphorical–we see the world through a grid of signs and symbols largely of our own making. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something profoundly real behind the masks we make.

Perhaps no other wisdom tradition gets to the heart of the matter as quickly as Daoism does. In the opening line of the Daodejing, Laozi writes, “The Dao that can be told is not the eternal Dao,” meaning, that whatever idea you have of ultimate reality, rest assured that your concept does not contain ultimate reality. In fact, as the Zen Buddhists say, all of our ideas and concepts of ultimate reality are like a finger pointing at the moon, and only an idiot would confuse a finger with the moon. The menu is not the food, the map is not the place, and the concept of God is not God.

This is why it’s so vexing to be asked the question, “Do you believe in God?” Which God concept are you asking me to affirm or deny? It can never be a simple yes or no answer until a long discussion has transpired, one a lot like the one we’re having now.

Maybe the deeper understanding we’re cultivating here will take root and bear much fruit. Building a more nuanced stance on the God question will bring enemies together around a common understanding–that even though we call it by many names and conceive of it in many ways, the ground of being contains and honors them all. Within our own families, and in the entire human family, there can be peace surrounding the God question as long as we all agree to look past our surface concepts and into the unified depth they conceal.

Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, spiritual teacher, singer-songwriter, and philosophy professor. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at

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