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The Second Face of God

Andrew Cohen & Ken Wilber discuss why having a relationship to a transcendent God is the only way to bring the postmodern ego to its knees.



I’ve always been very interested in what the word “God” means. If God represents the Absolute dimension of life, the highest spiritual reality we can conceive of, then what does God look like? And what does God feel like—what is the experience of God?


I was first introduced to God by an elderly German lady with a wooden leg. Growing up in a secular, upper-middle-class Jewish family in New York City, the Creator was not really a presence in my household. But one day, when I was five or six years old, I was sitting on a windowsill on the second floor, watching the people and the traffic go by on Lexington Avenue, when our housekeeper hobbled over and sat down beside me. She pointed to the roof of the twelve-story apartment building across the street and, to my surprise, declared, “That’s where God lives. He lives in that corner apartment on the top floor, and he can see and hear everything you do and say!” She seemed so serious that I believed her—at least for a while.

When I was sixteen, I discovered God in another form altogether. It happened unexpectedly, late one night, when I was having a conversation with my mother. For no apparent reason, the doors of perception opened wide, and I lost any and all notion of boundaries. The entire universe and everything in it appeared as one vast conscious being, and I was not separate from that infinite cosmic unity. I was lost in awe and wonder at the majesty of the entire panoramic display, engulfed in a Love that was physically overpowering.

Although it quickly faded, that revelation was the catalyst for my spiritual quest, which culminated in India, at the age of thirty, with a powerful awakening. This time, I encountered an entirely different God, the God that the mystics and sages describe. Meeting my last teacher, I was plunged into the mystery of Being, the spiritual freedom that is always already present in the depths of our own Self, ever abiding beyond the world of time and form.

As a teacher, I have been inquiring into these different experiences and expressions of the Absolute ever since. So a couple of years ago, when my good friend Ken Wilber began to write and speak about what he called the three faces of God, I found the distinctions he was making both thrilling and clarifying. He articulated and put into a simple framework the different dimensions of the Divine that I had encountered: God as the great all-knowing Other, God as the entire cosmic Process, and God as our deepest Self. And he connects these three very different expressions of Spirit to the three fundamental perspectives that integral theory is built upon: first person, second person, and third person, or I, You/We, and It. Spirit, or God, can be looked at through all of these perspectives, which (as Ken often points out) correspond to the perspectives found in all major languages. “First-person Spirit,” Ken explains, “is the great I AM, the pure radical subjectivity or witness in every sentient being. Spirit in second person is the great Thou, something that is immeasurably greater than you could ever possibly be in your wildest imagination, something before which surrender and devotion and submission and gratitude are the only appropriate responses. And Spirit in third person is the great web of life, the Great Perfection of everything that is arising.”

I continue to find these distinctions very illuminating. It’s all too common, I’ve observed, for people to have very deep spiritual experiences but not necessarily know what they’re experiencing or what it means. If we want to develop spiritually, we need both an intellectual or philosophical framework and an experiential grasp of what many of these very profound spiritual concepts mean. And what could be more empowering or inspiring for a sincere spiritual aspirant than learning to make these distinctions and then beginning to discover the actual manifestations of these different dimensions of Spirit within his or her own self?

This year, Ken and I held an online seminar, and we devoted our entire discussion to these three faces of God. For this issue’s Guru & Pandit dialogue, I chose a section that focuses on the second face, God as the great Other, because as I explain in the pages that follow, I’m convinced that while all three faces are important, this one in particular is essential for our time and culture and is all too often dismissed.

–Andrew Cohen

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This article is from
The Evolving Faces of God - New perspectives on the meaning of spirituality for our time


September–November 2009