God grounds our personal self

God is personal because God is the Ground of our personal self

What is the “self” in us that makes us individuals, aware of who we are and what we are doing? In recent years many studies have been devoted to a scientific understanding of human consciousness.

There is little doubt about the fact that self awareness is a feature that gradually evolved in animals as their intellectual capacities increased. It is also undeniable that our typically human self has identifiable biological and psychological components. It relies on a specific wiring of neurons in the brain. It utilises `software programmes’ such as culture and language for its full expression.

I tend to agree with D.C.Dennett that consciousness is a programme developed in the brain which allows intelligence, especially our working memory, to reflect on itself, a process of higher-order thought, that is: thought about thought. And our “self” is a construction of consciousness to help us function better, a web of words and deeds that becomes our `centre of narrative gravity’ (see: D.C.DENNETT, Consciousness Explained, London 1991, pp. 209-226 and pp. 412-418; see also A.NEWELL, Unified Theories of Cognition, Cambridge MA 1990).

But do such physical facts exhaust the full reality of our individual self? I do not imply that we should postulate an immaterial soul separate from the body – which was the natural thing to do for those who believed in a two-tier world. But objects and people can have a higher reality even if their infra-structure is material. And our human reason and personality stand out as a spectacular spiritual advance.

I cannot understand the shallowness of thought exhibited by those scientists who believe that their analysis of physical and biological components demolish the “self” as a higher entity. When a pianist plays Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, the sounds can be broken down as a mixture of complex waves. Yet as a piece of music it inspires us and moves us on a higher level. The Sonata is more than just vibrations of air. Rembrandt’s painting The Jewish Bride can be correctly described as vegetarian pigments on canvass. Its complete nature, however, is infinitely more: it communicates a message of human tenderness that touches our hearts. In the same way our molecular, biological and psychological make up as human beings does not prevent our individual “self” from possessing its own higher-level reality.

Dennett too falls into the materialist trap. He calls the self “an imaginary construction by Homo Sapiens”. I cannot see what is imaginary about it. We are individuals. We are unique, each with our own history and our own specific desires and aims. For our progress in evolution it was natural and necessary for our human brain to develop the hardware and software in our brain to cope with our emerging individualities. Just as our brain evolved programmes to handle the light we see, the sounds we hear and the language we listen to – none of them imaginary! – , so it evolved self-consciousness to deal with our emerging personalities.

For criticism on the narrow mechanistic analysis of consciousness, see A.KOESTLER, The Ghost in the Machine, New York 1967; K.R.POPPER and J.C.ECCLES, The Self and its Brain, Berlin 1977; Z.VENDLER, Res Cogitans, Ithaca 1972, and The Matter of Minds, Oxford 1984; TH.NAGEL, The View from Nowhere, Oxford 1986; D. ROSENTHAL, A Theory of Consciousness, Bielefeld 1990.).

God’s “You” makes us an “I”

Let us now turn to our own experience. Being a self is presupposed in all we think, say and do. But our own identity is linked to that of other people. If we reflect a little, we will discover that our ability to relate to other people is by far the most exalted and absorbing experience in our life. We love, we hate, we fear, we care, we listen, we talk, we read: we are continuously engaged in a process of exchange with others . Other people affirm us as persons, and we affirm them.

The process began when we were small. We became personalities in our own right because our parents treated us as persons and not just as objects.

I would like to deepen this reflection using the approach of Martin Buber who has coined the expression “I-Thou” for any genuine relationship. “Thou” is an old word for “you”, and I will translate it here as “you”. Buber’s thought may, at first, seem academic and involved. But if we take the trouble to reflect on what he says, we will grasp that he is making a valid and crucial point.


A room, a bed, a table, a book, etc., are things. We deal with them, but they do not enter our personality. They are for us nothing more than an It. With them we have a so-called It relationship. Sometimes we also look on people as if they were an It. Suppose I am waiting in the outer office of a lawyer and a stranger comes. I may hardly notice her. She is just like another object in the room – an It.

But when I discover that she is my younger sister, the whole situation changes. I will stand up and address her as you. She becomes more important than everything else in the room. I have with her what Buber calls an “I-Thou” relationship.

As long as I am dealing with things (with Its), I remain closed. To some extent I myself remain an It. My own relationship with other Its is bound to time and place. I am, so to speak, just one object among many others. But when I really get to know another person and open myself to the other, when I say you to the other with all its depth of meaning, a change takes place in me. It is as if I enter a new world. I am no longer bound by time or space, but have, as it were, a direct relationship to the other, irrespective of time or place. It changes me into a real I, into myself. Because only in as far as another person exists for me, do I become myself.

At the moment when I really say you to someone else, I live the fulness of my personality. I experience the full intensity of being me. When I share myself with another person in close friendship and loving intimacy, my self reaches a peak.

But, however dear another person may be to me, I only have rare and short moments of “I-Thou” relationship with him or her. Very soon the person will again become a he or a she (and, therefore, a sort of It) about whom I think or speak and who is, therefore, again reduced to be just one among many Its around me.

Yet I have a strong self and I feel in myself a limitless hunger for YOU, Buber says. Limited human persons cannot account for the fulness of my personality. So there must be another, totally satisfying, unlimited, eternal YOU to which my soul is responding, and with whom I am in touch. This eternal YOU alone can explain the self in me and the you in other human beings.

Our link to the infinite YOU

Buber’s argument here may not convince you unless you perceive its intuitive force. It is based on the insight that some realities imply a counterpart to account for a perceived `completeness’. An example from biology might show what is at stake.

In 1835 Charles Darwin, while studying flowers in Madagascar, was struck by the white Christmas orchid. This orchid has a honey-sack or “nectary” that is more than a foot long (!). The honey fills only one-and-a-half inch at the bottom. Darwin knew that the honey in flowers is meant to attract insects who pollinate the flower while sucking the honey. But no insect could be found with a proboscis long enough to such honey a foot deep.

After reflecting on the matter Darwin concluded that such an insect must exist. He said it should be a moth that operated during the night as no daylight insects could account for the fertilization. Its tongue was to be a foot long. Many zoologists ridiculed the idea. But forty years later Darwin was proved right. The insect was found. It turned out to be a night-flying moth with a 10-inch tongue. It received the name xanthopan morganii praedicta, that is: “the moth that had been foretold”.

Of course, this is just an illustration. But it shows how the existence of one reality (such as the openness of our inner self) can postulate the existence of its complementary reality (God, the Ground of all personality and self).

This is how Martin Buber puts in in his own words:

“The extended lines of human relations meet in the eternal Thou. Every particular Thou is a glimpse through to the eternal Thou. In every particular Thou, I ultimately address the eternal Thou.”
M.BUBER. I and Thou, Edinburg 1937, passim; see also E.BRUNNER, The Divine-Human Encounter, London 1944.).

What is the meaning of this in simple terms?

I become a person by other people affirming my identity. But I know that those people, however loving they are, cannot fulfil my deepest need of recognition. I carry in me a hunger to be realised by the whole of reality, by Ultimate Reality, by God. In fact, I know intuitively that the Source of all Being does affirm me and allows me to be me. And even if all other human beings would let me down and disown me, that affirmation by God constitutes me as a person. I also realise that it is this deepest affirmation that releases in me the ability to have other inter-personal relationships.

Borrowing a term from trinitarian theology, H.OTT calls this action of Ultimate Reality God’s perichoresis, “intimate embrace” in us; see Gott, Stuttgart 1971, pp. 10-16; Wirklichkeit und Glaube, Stuttgart 1975, vol. II, p. 178.).

God is in us

Jan van Ruysbroeck, a mystic who lived in Flanders six centuries ago (1294-1381) expressed the same truth in poetic form. “God is more interior to us”, he said, “than we are to ourselves. His acting in us is nearer and more central than our own actions. God works in us from inside outwards. Created beings work on us from the outside”.

Why is each one of us an individual? “Because God has made us after his own image”, Ruysbroeck said. The reason for our self is that each one of us is an expression, an imprint of the eternal Self of God.

“Our essential and highest individuality lies in God. All creatures exist and live and are preserved by being united to God. The moment we were to be separated from God, we would return to nothingness. Our link to God is the self we possess, a self that reaches beyond ourselves: it is the origin and mainstay of our existence and our life.

The essential unity of our personality with God is not of our own making . . . Our spirit receives according to its most interior and highest being, in naked nature so to speak, the imprint of God’s eternal image and God’s own radiance – all the time without ceasing.

Created by God, we undergo every moment of our life the imprint of God’s eternal image. Like an untarnished mirror we cannot fail to reflect that image.

The image God has of us, gives all of us life and existence. Our created being is anchored in that image as in its cause . . . Thus our personality rests in God, and flows from God, and hangs in God, and returns to God as its eternal source. “)
J van.RUYSBROECK, The Spiritual Espousals, London 1952, passim.



The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.

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