By Hazrat Inayat Khan
There are two points of view from which one sees the God-ideal. One is the point of view of the imaginative person, and the other the point of view of the God-conscious. […] One person thinks that there is a God, and the other sees God. The believer, who adorns his God with all that imagination can supply, sees God as all beauty, all goodness, and as the most merciful and compassionate God, and recognizes Him as the Almighty, the Supreme Being. He sees in God the true Judge, and he expects one day to receive justice from Him. He knows that in God he will find at last the perfect love on which he can rely entirely. He sees in God the Friend to whom he can turn in sorrow and in joy. He calls him his Lord, his Father, his Mother; and all that is good and beautiful he recognizes as coming from God. In point of fact he makes an intelligible form of God, that being the only means by which he can see God. And the believer who has imagined God as high as his imagination permits adores Him, asks His forgiveness, looks for His help, and hopes one day to attain to Him. He feels that there is someone nearer to him than anyone else in life, whose mercy is always with him.
It is this point of view that is called monotheism: believing in the personality of God, a personality which man imagines to the best of his ability. Therefore the God of the monotheist is within him, made by his mind, though it is only the form of God that he makes; the spirit is always the same, hidden behind the form that man has made because he needs a form. But there is no doubt that at this stage the God of the believer is the form made by him, the form of a human being; God is behind that form, and He answers His worshippers through it. Someone once said to a Brahmin, 'O ignorant man, you have worshipped this idol for years. Do you think it can ever answer you?' 'Yes,' said the Brahmin, 'even from this idol of stone the answer will come if your faith is real. But if you have no real faith, you will get no answer even from the God in heaven.' It is natural that man, who knows and sees all things through his senses and his feelings, and who tries to picture everything through his imagination, things that he has neither seen nor known, such as spirits, angels, and fairies, should make God intelligible to himself by means of his imagination.
The other, the major point of view is perhaps less interesting to some and more interesting to others; however, this is the true point of view. When a person begins to see all goodness as being the goodness of God, all the beauty that surrounds him as the divine beauty, he begins by worshipping a visible God, and as his heart constantly loves and admires the divine beauty in all that he sees, he begins to see in all that is visible one single vision; all becomes for him the vision of the beauty of God. His love of beauty increases his capacity to such a degree that great virtues such as tolerance and forgiveness spring naturally from his heart. Even things that people mostly look upon with contempt, he views with tolerance. The brotherhood of humanity he does not need to learn, for he does not see humanity, he sees only God. And as this vision develops, it becomes a divine vision, which occupies every moment of his life. In nature he sees God, in man he sees His image, and in art and poetry he sees the dance of God. The waves of the sea bring him the message from above, and the swaying of the branches in the breeze seems to him a prayer. For him there is a constant contact with his God. He knows neither horror nor terror, nor any fear. Birth and death to him are only insignificant changes in life. Life for him is a moving picture, which he loves and admires, and yet he is free from it all. He is one among all the world. He himself is happy, and he makes others happy. This point of view is the pantheistic point of view.
In reality these two points of view are the natural consequences of human evolution, and one cannot really separate them. No one reaches old age without having passed through youth, and no one attains to the pantheistic point of view without having held the monotheistic. And if anyone arrived at the pantheistic point of view at once, without having held the monotheistic one, it would be like a person becoming a man without having been a child, which would be devoid of beauty.
There are certainly two possibilities of error. One is that made by the monotheist when he continues to adore the God he has made, without allowing himself to see the point of view of the pantheist. In order to love God he limits his own God, which does not mean that God is really limited, but that He is limited for that person. The ways of childhood are charming in a child, but a grown-up person with the characteristics of a child is absurd. When man begins his belief in God by monotheism, it is the best way, but when he ends his life without having made any progress, he has lost the greatest opportunity of his life. The man who makes this mistake, separates man from God, when, in reality, they cannot be divided. For God and man are like the two ends of one line. When a believer in God conceives of God as a separate entity and of man as a being separate from Him, he makes himself an exile, an exile from the kingdom of God. He holds fast to the form of God created by himself, and he does not reach the Spirit of God. However good and virtuous he has been in life, however religious in his actions, he has not fulfilled the purpose of his life.
The pantheist makes a mistake when he believes that only that which he can conceive of and which answers to his five senses exists. For by this mistake he holds on to the form of God and loses His spirit. All that we can comprehend in man is not all that there is to be comprehended. There is something which is beyond our comprehension. And if the depths of a human being are too profound to be touched by man, how can he hope to reach the depths of God? All that is visible is in reality one body; a body that may be called the body of God; but behind it there is the spirit of God. What is behind this body is the source and goal of all beings. And, of course, the part, which is the spirit, is the most important part. The pantheist who only recognizes the divinity of that which is comprehensible to him, although pantheism may be to him a great ideal, is yet like one groping in the dark. All that is subject to change, all that is not constant, all that passes through birth and death, may also someday be destroyed. The man who limits the divine Being to something that is subject to destruction, the man who cannot feel the trace of the divine Being in something that is beyond his comprehension, has gone astray. True pantheism means that God is all, and all is God; the known and the unknown; all that exists within and without; God is all that exists, and nothing exists save He.
The beginning of monotheism may be called deism, a belief in Someone higher than oneself. And for the souls who have reached this stage of evolution, many lessons have been given by the sages. The sages have taught them to adore the sun, fire, water, certain trees, and many idols. And no doubt behind all these teachings there is always the wisdom of the masters. The lessons given to certain peoples were not meant for others, as what is suitable for one period is not suitable for another. And in teaching pantheism elementary lessons were also given, such as the idea of many gods, as amongst the ancient Greeks and Hindus and Egyptians. All these peoples believed in many gods, and this lesson was given to them to help them see in different things the same spirit of God. Every god had among his characteristics certain human traits, and by this means man was taught how to recognize God in his fellow man, and to become tolerant and forgiving; also he was led to concentrate and meditate on certain human characteristics, considering them as something divine. Consideration and respect for humanity were taught by meditation on certain traits.
A man who is without knowledge of these two different points of view, and who is strongly impressed by materialistic ideas, often looks upon God as a force or an energy, but he emphatically denies that God can have a personality. No doubt it would be a great mistake to say that God is only a personality, but it is a still greater mistake when man denies the personality of God. And if one asks such a person, 'What is your source? What is your goal? Are you yourself a personality? Is it possible that you should be a personality yourself when the goal and the source, from which you come, is not a personality?' he has no answer. The seed, which is the origin of the flower and the fruit, is also the result of the flower and the fruit. Therefore man is the miniature of the personality of God; God is the seed from which the personality comes. Man, in the flowering of his personality, expresses the personality of God. It is a subject that can hardly be discussed, because one is only able to distinguish anything by comparison, and since God is the only Being He cannot be compared; even to use the word personality in speaking of God would be a mistake. There cannot be a better way of looking at the God-ideal, than to consider Him as being perfection in the widest and fullest meaning of the word.
[Extracted from the section titled “The God-Ideal” in Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Unity of Religious Ideals (The Sufi Message Vol IX)]