Two Ways of Relating to God
by Raji Johnson, Austin, TX
Two Ways of Relating to God
Adapted from chapter 14 of "Living God's Joy" by John Wijngaards, St.
Paul Publications, Bombay 1990.
A historical study of religion shows that there are two principal
patterns of religious experience. The first is a merging in God as
the Source of our Being; the second is an encounter with God as the
Nature religions tend to favor the first approach. God is perceived
as a mystery underlying the whole of reality as we know it. God is
the "immanent ground and operative principle of all being". We try
to unite ourselves to God partly by purifying our own imperfect
notions, partly by partaking in sacred images by climbing God's
mountain or bathing in God's sacred river; or simply by honoring the
symbol that mediates God's presence. In its highest forms this
approach leads to mysticism. It is based on our experience of our
Prophetic religions, on the other hand, present God as a Person who
reveals a message and imposes his commands. By his word and his
divine will he forces us to either accept or reject his lordship.
His revelation comes through human mediators and addresses itself to
concrete human realities. God is experienced as the unexpected, the
totally other, the one to whom the believer submits in an act of
obedience and surrender. It derives from our experience of our
Although either the one or the other may be more congenial to a
particular religion, we frequently find both approaches at the same
time. The two forms of religious experience are contrary poles which
constantly attract and repel each other. Islam for example is very
much a prophetic religion. Yet we find in its bosom, and almost in
revolt against it, the mystical search of Sufism. There seems to be
a psychological reason for this inherent tension.
Experiencing reality through our mother and our father
Our first experience as a child is the embrace of our mother. As we
lie in her womb or suck her breasts we receive warmth, security and
satisfaction. Psychologists call this the oral phase and
characterize the experience as a participation in the oceanic
oneness of universe. It gives us the basic trust we need for life,
trust in ourselves and in others. Even when the mother is gradually
withdrawn, we retain the original experience so that we can face the
reality of living confidently. The same experience forms the
psychological foundation on which and through which we can respond
to the mystery of God. By our basic trust we can again experience
participation in oceanic oneness, this time as a mystical approach
to reality. Just as dolls and toys function as substitute mothers in
our early life, so images and symbols can be the
substitute "breasts" through which we feel one with the "mother" of
In the genital or oedipal phase we have another basic experience.
Through the face, voice and word of our father we learn our identity
as a separate person. It is a step to becoming adults. We discover
the otherness of other persons. We learn to see ourselves as
distinct. We also acquire our super-ego, our conscience, which will
guide us throughout life. Here, too, there are consequences for our
religious awareness. The experience of the `father' releases in us
the possibility to respond to the prophetic pattern of religion.
Both forms of religious experience have their roots in crucial
stages of our psychological growth. That is why they come so
naturally to us and why we usually feel the need of both the one and
the other. The psychological root does not cause the religious
experience, as is sometimes asserted by agnostics. God would then be
purely imaginary: a fictitious father or mother figure. No, God is
real, but the forms of our relationship to God are transferred from
our early human experience onto God, not unlike the transfer of our
basic trust in our mother, or our respect for our father, to other
The scriptural approach to God
The overall emphasis of the Old and New Testament scriptures tend to
rest on the `masculine' aspect of God. In this sense the Bible
presents a prophetic religion. But this is not the full picture. If
we read the inspired texts properly, we discover that the other,
more `feminine' and mystical approach is also there. I will
demonstrate this at the hand of St. John's Gospel.
In what category does John's Gospel place the Christian experience
of God? The first overwhelming impression is that John presents
Christianity as a prophetic religion. The Father speaks a word and
reveals his will. Jesus approaches us as the Father's ambassador. He
comes with the reassuring message that the Father loves us and
recognizes us as his own dear children. Our Christian experience of
prayer will therefore be a prayer of response, a prayer of accepting
God's gifts and of submitting to his will. In response to the
proclamation of God's word, Christian prayer will be vocal, explicit
praising and thanking God for revealing himself as the Other and for
making us what we are.
Some theologians have characterized this form of prayer as an "I-
Thou" relationship. We have discovered God as an overpowering and
all-loving (and male) "Thou." He makes us an "I." He gives us our
identity. This relationship is, indeed, well illustrated in Jesus'
high priestly prayer (Jn 17, 1-26). Throughout the prayer Jesus
manifests how he owes his identity to the Father. The Father gives
him his name (17, 11), loves him (17, 24), entrusts him with his
mission (17, 4), supplies the authority needed ( 17, 2), attracts
disciples ( 17, 6.9) and gives him glory (17, 24). It expresses
dependence, but also self-identity. The Son glorifies the Father in
return ( 17, 1.5) and can say, "All I have is yours; all you have is
mine" (17, 10).
This form of prayer finds expression in the public prayer of
Christian liturgy. We address the Father though the Son. We hear his
word and receive his gifts. It is also found in those personal
moments of prayer when we consciously address God as the loving
Other when we give him thanks, ask for his favors, promise obedience
to his will and submit ourselves to his guidance. While we pray to
him we are aware of the fact that his love recreates us; that he
treats us like his own sons and daughters, yes like successors to
Jesus. But this is not the only aspect of Christian prayer.
If we were to read John's Gospel only superficially, we might
interpret it entirely as prophetic in character. But this is far
from the truth. After receiving our identity from the Father, we are
invited to move closer to God in unmistakable mystical union.
The oneness we are called to is a real mutual embrace with God,
mediated through union with Christ. Although the term `Father' is
maintained in the Johannine text for the sake of consistency, the
more natural appellation for God in this context would have
been `Mother.' To bring this out I have substituted Mother'
for `Father' in the following representative passages.
"Mother, may they be in us as you are in me and I am in you.... I in
them and you in me, so that we all may be completely one, so that
the world may know that you have sent me and that you love them as
you love me" (Jn 17, 21.23).
"On that day you will know that I am in my Mother and that you are
in me, just as I am in you" (Jn 14, 20).
"My Mother who is life sent me and through her I live also. In the
same way whoever eats me will live through me" (Jn 6, 57)
The purpose of Jesus' coming is participation with God in a
communion that goes beyond mutual knowledge and mutual affection. It
is an indwelling, a sharing of life, a submersion in the other
without losing one's identity (6).
Jesus can mediate this union precisely because he is not only a
prophet, but an image and a symbol. Seeing Jesus we see the Father.
Joining ourselves to Jesus we lose ourselves in the Father. He is
the vine, we are the branches. By remaining united to Jesus, we
remain in the Father's love ( Jn 15, 1-10). He is the new manna, the
bread from heaven who communicates divine life to us by having us
eat his flesh and blood (Jn 6, 53-58). This is not the approach of
prophetic religion, but of participation with the divine through
sacred symbols. It is the search of mystical union with the "mother"
of all, with ultimate reality.
All created things are filled with numinosity. All are, to some
extent, symbols pointing beyond themselves, revealing a glimpse of
what ultimate reality must be like. All creatures are images that
reflect more lasting and perfect values than they themselves
possess. This is the basis of our natural religious experience when
we reflect on the created world. By experiencing the existential
limit of things, we are somehow touching the transcendental that
lies behind it. But if ordinary creatures already allow us to reach
out to ultimate reality beyond them, how much more Jesus who is the
image par excellence, the Son, the great sacramental symbol uniting
us to God. Christian mysticism thereby both continues and perfects
the search for union of natural religion.
Such Christian mysticism is found as a necessary component of ritual
and liturgy, if these be properly understood. For liturgical
practices are not magic rites, by symbols: images leading to
contemplation, signs allowing the believer to participate in the
divine, to somehow touch and experience the nearness of God. Words
are not important here, but the gesture of reaching out and opening
oneself to God. It is not what we say, but the act of immersing
ourselves in the reality that is God.
Also our personal prayer will show this element of contemplation. It
will relish periods of silence, of quiet awareness in closeness to
God. It will seek withdrawal from everything that distracts to focus
attention on God alone. In this it will very much resemble
contemplative prayer in other religions. What is specific to
Christian contemplation, however, is that not a natural image but
the humanity of Jesus is central as our means to partake in the
Mature Christian prayer will show both aspects. It will be a prayer
of response (to God as Father) as well as a mystical quest (of God
1. RADHAKRISHNAN, The Hindu view of Life
2. M. VELLANICKAL, "Divine Immanence in St. John" Biblebhashyam
3. HARDY, The Divine Flame, The Spiritual Nature of Man, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1979, pp. 134-136.
Hardy traces the two
approaches even further back in evolution. He relates them to two
social bonds rooted in animal nature dependence on the mother and
submissive attachment to the dominant leader of the pack.
the Creative Intelligence of your Soul Through the Connection with God's
When I think about “Creative Intelligence” I think of God, the Holy
Spirit. God is the definitive, The Great Creator, and the Greatest of
all Intelligence. This scripture comes to mind…
Do You Operate in Fear or
The greatest tool the enemy uses against us in life is fear, because
fear keeps us from doing many of those things we would like to do in
order to make our lives, and the lives of others, more complete and
Is Prayer Important for the
When you pray, you are communicating with the Creator of the universe.
The Creator sincerely wants to hear and answer your prayers.