I was recently reading some essays by a person who takes a more universalist view of God and the spiritual life, accepting all the major religions as descriptions of the same truth. And I can certainly appreciate the parallels that are obviously there. They do seem to reinforce the truth of many of the important teachings of Jesus (and others).
It seems, though, that the personal nature of God seems to get lost with the universalist approach. Like with other universally accepted truths, such as the physical sciences, the focus tends to be on consistent laws and forces that everyone can observe or experience. So there's lots of discussions on ethics or morality or helpful religious practices. And also lots of references to God as a force, or life, or as Reality, Truth, etc. But God as Person doesn't easily fit with the "all religions are one" belief, and it's usually set aside.
Maybe it doesn't make much difference to our ethics or actions whether or not God is personal. But it would seem to make a difference to how we think God feels about us, and how we feel about God. We are personal. And we experience love in a personal way, through parents and friends and spouses. We are loved by persons and we love as persons. We can experience and believe in the force of gravity, but we are not loved by gravity. So it seems pretty important that God is personal if we are to know the love of God, and love God. And isn't that the main thing, at least according to Jesus? Not to believe in God, or fear God, or obey God, but to love God with all your heart.
Perhaps the biggest difficulty in accepting a personal God is dealing with the possibility that our suffering (and others') may be connected somehow to a personal will, rather than impersonal laws and chance. A bitter struggle indeed.
But as I contemplate right now the relationship of a child to his parents, and anticipate looking on my son with love, I cannot help seeing that as a powerful sign for us. An image so fundamental—and universal—in human experience that I recognize the revelation of God in it. Not many religions speak of God as our Father, but Jesus did. And he taught and showed us that we are loved, and that the God of the universe desires to be loved by us.
We gave a retreat this past weekend, a good experience. It was nice that we knew most of the folks from previous retreats. And we used the story of the widow's mite, which has been a favorite. Here's some of Heather's dramatic reading based on that story:
God gave me a good life. Oh, you could say it was a bad one, people do say that; what do they know? I'm alive, not dead. I still have joy, in a cup of cold water, in the face of a young man. I have something to give to God, even if they say it's nothing. My husband is dead, and of my two daughters one died in childbirth and the other ran away. And yes, it hurts. It always has and it always will. God hurts, too. It doesn't help to have gold or stars or incense, I think, when you have children who've run away, who are living their own nightmares and still will not come home.
I wanted to give him something. I wanted to give him something, to tell him thank you, to tell him I know, to say please, please do all you can for my Johanna and I know you love her too. And this is all I have, and he knows that; if he allows it I should be getting a little more next week, but until then I don't know what I'll eat, and he knows that too. It was the only way I could do it. I tried and tried to save a little up, but I couldn't. So I had to, I had to do this for him. He'll take care of me, I thought. He's taken care of widows before.
But now I don't know. Now I feel ashamed. The temple shines with gold in the sun and I have come to give him two pennies. Two pennies, as if they were worth something. As if I was doing something important, as if me and my sweat-stained dress were something God wanted to see. What will they use my two pennies for, in this temple? To buy a rag to wipe the floors with? What will people think of me, seeing me drop them in the offering box?
The beautiful lady in her silk dress is still ahead of me, walking slowly between her servants under the colonnade, gracefully. She turns aside a little, to avoid a group of dusty men listening to some kind of teacher. They lean in, all eyes on him; his face is hard and angry as I pass by, and I hear him saying “they eat up widow's houses and then they pray long prayers in front of everyone—”
(The whole reading can be found here: "Two Coins")
I rush out of the house finely dressed in my sunny day best
And run straight up the trail to the holiest place in the meadow
Sheer grace all around me
I look up at the heavens so gospel true blue
Oh it's here that I come when I'm wanting to pray
When there's something needs saying to you
In my wildflower church I kneel down with my knees in the dirt
Full exposed to the heavens, no props no pretensions
Just this feeling I get and these thank yous to set on the altar
Yes this is the place where I gather my blessings
And make my confessions of passions inspired
By meadowsong choirs and moments transcendent and true
Oh give me this day a full measure of beauty
Of sun in my heart and joy in my duties
And let all who I meet share a taste of this sweet
Nectar communion with thee