Three Faces of God

In 1957, the religious philosopher Martin Buber formulated a late postscript to his famous book “Ich und Du” (commonly translated as “I and Thou”, while the more informal “I and You” is closer to the original meaning) that had been published in 1923. In a few short sentences he outlined an answer to the question of how we can speak of God. For the Jewish Buber it had always been clear that God wasn’t an abstract idea but an alive, personal counterpart that meets people in an immediate relationship. Nevertheless, as Buber then points out, you can’t only speak of God as a person. Rather, it is permissible and necessary to say: God is also a person. But what else is God? Buber identifies three ways in which people experience the essence of God:

First God can be experienced as “essence of nature”, which presents itself in all that is known to us as nature. Secondly God can be encountered as “personhood”, from which all of humanity is derived. And thirdly, we can understand God as “Spiritness” – the origin of everything that we call spirit.

Buber’s thoughts seem like an early Jewish track to the concept of the three faces of God that the practicing Buddhist Ken Wilber first published in his 2006 book “Integral Spirituality”. In this book he uses the image of Spirit in the first, second and third person for the first time. Later, he also speaks of the “Three Faces of God”, the “3-2-1 of God” or three Faces of Spirit.

This approach is so promising because it defuses the notion of any kind of opposition between personal and impersonal experiences of God, which are often played off against each other. It also shows the integral movement’s new appreciation of Western monotheistic religions. Among Wilber’s writings and contributions on the web, there is an increasing number of examples from Christian, Jewish and Islamic-Sufi sources, whereas in his earlier publications any references to “spirituality” were often understood as being exclusive to Buddhist or Hindu practice. But for several years now people from different religious backgrounds have been teaching at his Integral Institute in Boulder, Colorado; for example Jewish scholars such as Michael Lerner and Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Christian contemplatives such as Thomas Keating, David Steindl-Rast and Richard Rohr.

This “3-2-1 of God” model has real potential to hold the great world religions’ diversity of experience of God within one nondual framework. At the same time, this model can help people in all religions to better classify their own experience of God. All three faces of God can be experienced at all levels, and there are an impressive number of mystical testimonies for all of them.