Is God Formless?

By: Brian Robertson

"Thou art formless; thy only form is our knowledge of thee."

-The Upanishads


Anyone who has taken the time to read or study the Upanishads, one of the great spiritual works of the Hindu faith, is struck by the beauty of the words and depth of feeling they evoke. As Christians, it is an exciting thought that as we are able to communicate more with each other, to make use of this marvelous tool without boundaries called the Internet, we can find sources for inspiration and support and expression in our own tradition and faith.

Great saints like Bede Griffiths spent their lives in India, maintaining their Christian identity as they absorbed new approaches and insights into their spiritual outlook. This particular quote caught my attention because it unlocks some significant understandings for the Christian mystic.

Christian writers such as Dionysius have long expressed the view that God, in essence, is beyond knowledge unless God chooses to reveal some aspect of God to us. There is, according to this idea, a side of God which points towards us -- which we perceive in the Christian tradition in the form of the Trinity. The Trinity, then, is a reality, a vehicle by which we conceptualize God. But these same writers state that there is a side of God that is forever turned away from us, that neither reason nor any other human aspect can reach, understand or grasp.

This particular quote had a profound effect on me as I meditated on it. Attending a Friend's Meeting as a guest, sitting in silence, I found the quote kept running through my mind and I tried as best I could to look down into it and see what it was trying to tell me.

Let us start with the fact that people who say, "I know God" give me cause for some alarm. God, by definition, is not knowable in the same sense that I can walk around inside my house and then outside my house, marking off all boundaries and borders until, in essence, my awareness encompasses the house. The same thing simply can't be said of God. We may know of God, we may have a notion of God, but that is not God but merely a concept or, once again, the vehicle by which God makes God known.

Is this not the same thing as saying that, for practical purposes, God is formless? There is no one form we can embrace with our intellect. Yet, as the quote says, there is form -- our knowledge of God, or, in this case to quote the Christian Orthodox writer, our awareness of God's (and for lack of a better word) energies.

What makes a difference for the Christian is that Jesus' experience of "Not I, but God who lives in me" is available through him to us. While we cannot know God, we can know Jesus. The Eternal has interfaced with time in the physical -- which is why, after all, we are even able to have such things as icons and religious art without resorting to idolatry.

And so, what I'm trying to suggest within the difficulty of words, is that Jesus' life on earth allows us to have a certain knowledge, to be able to perceive what is formless (unknowable) by way of the known.

Now, having said that, let's shift to a slightly different level or area. When we practice prayer and contemplation, are we not experiencing God in our knowledge or experience, touching some form? Yes, and here we are certainly treading on thin ice to use words, but let us, as an example, suggest that Divine Love is one way that our knowledge or experience of God is known by the form, then, of Divine Love. By God's grace, this form also might be by insight or wisdom, perhaps the solution to a particular problem that we have brought into contemplation with and before God in an effort to solve. There are other forms, but these suffice for explaining.

To magnify this, then, we can drawing again from the Vedantist or Hindu tradition, where, there is a great story of a group of people who go down to the river to get water. Some take teacups, some bowls, others pails and so on. Assume that all draw water and go back to their village, where a terrible argument breaks out. One suggests, "Water is like a teacup, see?" Another protests and says, "You're a fool! Water's like a bowl!" Still another person might say, "You're both wrong! Water is a bottle!"

Then, suppose, a wise person comes along and hears this and laughing, say, "You mistake the water for the container! Water's property is that it conforms to whatever container is offered and it fills it perfectly."

Is that not what God does for each one of us? Doesn't God take form, as it were, according to who we are individually -- meaning depending upon our ability to perceive, understand and, mercifully, to endure? To see God as God would, using the water image, drown us like a salt doll going to measure the depth of the ocean.

But, in prayer or contemplation, Christian mystics find that their experience of God gives God form, and, yet, just as the teacup cannot possibly hold the river or box contain the wind, we are given by God what we can understand and in that we can know the essence of the whole. By taking a taste of the water from our container, we know that water cools and gives life.