The Three Faces of God for Atheists

Written by 


Part I: The Three Faces of God

One of the core teachings of integral spirituality is The Three Faces of God. The Three Faces of God are the ways in which The Divine appears to us under the rubric of three distinct perspectives: 1st, 2nd, or 3rd person. These perspectives are different ways we humans can approach life generally and in this case God specifically. Depending on the perspective one takes it shifts the quality of the experience of connecting to God. The Three Faces teaching shows that how we approach God affects how we experience God.

In other words, each of these faces has a characteristic set of qualities--each reveals a different facet of The Divine Nature (at least as experienced by humans). Further, there are typical spiritual practices that, generally speaking, lead to one or the other of the Three Faces. The Three Faces teaching seeks to provide spiritual aspirants with a simple but powerful checklist so that they may remember to incorporate practices that touch into all Three Faces. Each Face has its strengths as well as weaknesses. There are certain things one can only experience and learn in each of the Faces. Moreover, each Face not only offers a unique window into The Divine but each Face cultivates characteristic spiritual virtues.

In a little bit I'm going to use The Three Faces teaching to explore atheism but first I'd like to make some more general observations on the value of The Three Faces teaching.

In my experience working in the area of spirituality, I find a large number of folks have real difficulty articulating what precisely they are and are not experiencing. My sense is that people can easily touch into various higher states of consciousness but when asked to reflect on those states--to name them and describe their contours in order to understand them more deeply--many folks end up in vague talk of feeling "connected" or they describe the experience as beautiful but can't really answer the question about what precisely they did (and did not) experience in any greater detail.

While connected and beautiful are certainly true, I find I try to pry deeper: what kind of beautiful exactly? What kind of connection is that feeling connected you mention? But again the responses often strike me as rather vague.

My experience is that many people are unclear why I would even ask such questions. From conversing with folks, a prevailing attitude seems to be something along the lines of 'the experiences are simply the experiences. I feel better when I have them.' But there doesn't seem to be much reflection beyond that point. Questions like: "What, if any, consequences and implications are there having had this experience?" "What does this experience say about The Divine, us humans, the world?" These questions seem to get short shrift, which I feel is a real tragedy.

I think this vagueness stems, in part, from a strong devaluation of the mind in contemporary spiritual circles. The mind is often seen as the enemy, or at minimum a hindrance, to spiritual authenticity. A teaching like The Three Faces is a framework growing out of reflection on spiritual experiences. It's certainly true that a person could mentally learn The Three Faces teaching and then claim that they "get it", when they have never actually practiced and experienced what The Three Faces point towards. This would be a problem for sure. On the other hand, simply accumulating more and more experiences (spiritual or otherwise) without deeper reflection on their meaning isn't particularly helpful either. In fact it can be quite dangerous. Individuals can very easily get addicted to spiritual experiences. Spirituality, like anything else, can be an escape from facing the vicissitudes of life. I believe authentic spirituality should actually draw us more deeply into life, but it certainly can become another mechanism to avoid pain. Whatever else may or may not be the case, any form of spirituality lacking thoughtfulness is not very helpful.

389px-Andrej Rublëv 001
So what does each of the Three Faces/Perspectives teach us and how do we experience them?

The 1st Face of God is accessed through meditation. In the 1st Face of God we experience a sense of The Eternal, transcending space and time. Words like Stillness, The Infinite, The Womb, Peace, The Ground of Being, and Oneness describe this space. The word I prefer best for the 1st Face of God is Presence.

The 1st Face of God is a clear pond. The waves of existence ripple on the surface of the water but underneath the water is perfectly at ease. The depths are never disturbed by the ripples on the surface. The rains fall on the water, leaving beautiful drops and yet the water is wide enough to embrace them all.

When we sit in silence and let all thoughts and emotions come and go we find we begin to sink. We sink into these never-ending depths of peace. We notice this Stillness is a kind of subterranean current, always available, in the midst of life. In the 1st Face we experience ourselves as one with The Divine--or rather non-separate. There only is this Holy Presence. It's a space of Pure Consciousness.

The 2nd Face of God is the realm of The Heart. It is a place of Deep Feeling. It is a relational space. If in the 1st Face of God we feel totally one with God, then in the 2nd Face we experience The Divine as Holy Other, as Beloved. We experience ourselves receiving Grace from The Divine and wanting to give ourselves back to The Divine out of gratitude and love. If the 1st Face is a still pond, then the 2nd Face is a liquid fire. In the 2nd Face our hearts melt like wax until they are pliable--it is then that the Divine marks our hearts with The Divine Seal.

We access the 2nd Face of God through practices of devotion: e.g. prayer, chant, prostrations, ecstatic dance, holding the pain of the world in our souls, or gazing at a person or an icon from the heart.

In the 2nd Face of God we have a Lord. There is one we visualize as the personfication of what we desire to give our lives to: Christ Jesus, Green Tara, Kwan Yin, Amitabha, Krishna, Allah, The Holy One of Israel, Availoketsvara, Kali, etc. We surrender and submit to this Lord in the 2nd Face. We become what we meditate on. By meditating on the Deity as Lord, the Lord's reality become ours by grace. From the Christian perspective. St. Irenaeus of Lyons put it this way: "God became human, so that humanity would become God."

The 3rd Face of God is the realm of Creation--the vast expanse of the heavens, the wonder of a blade of grass, the majesty of ancient trees, the exquisite harmony of Nature. The 3rd Face of God is a place of Wonder and Awe. The Great Story of Evolution from The Big Bang through the formation of stars and planets, the emergence of cells and bacteria, the proliferation of countless life forms of all sizes, shapes, and colors--what Darwin called "endless forms most beautiful."

We access the 3rd Face of God through contemplation. Standing on the shores of the oceans contemplating the incomprehensible vastness of the galaxies as well as the seas. And yet also feeling the sand in your toes, hearing the surf roll in and out, and knowing in your bones there is deep rhythm and harmony to life. That while it is true that there is this incredible Vastness, there is also the sense of being Home, of being in awe of this whole process of getting to play a part in its unfolding. Or laying on the earth we feel the grounding of Mother Earth who supports our being.

Words like The Universe, The Whole, The World Soul, The Cosmos, The Earth. Seers from The 3rd Face typically speak of order, harmony, self-organization, flow or beauty. They may see Creation as a kind of Sacred Geometry or "the music of the spheres."

While all three of these characteristic forms of spirituality--Presence (1st), Devotion (2nd), and Awe (3rd)--are related to one another, they are distinct. It is very possible to spend a great deal of time in one or two of the Faces and not the other(s).

The simplest way to find one's preferences is to sit in spiritual practice and to select a word that evokes each of the Faces. For example, you might choose Presence (1st), Beloved (2nd), and The Universe (3rd). Or Big Mind (1st), Big Heart (2nd), and Big Wonder (3rd). You then cycle through the various terms, as you say each one, shifting internally to that space and noticing what arises. If your more kinesthetic you could even draw circles on the floor and write 1st, 2nd, and 3rd on them and step into each one when shifting perspectives. You can also choose postures (asanas) that indicate each of the three: standing upright with arms raised outward (3rd), bowing to the ground (2nd), and sitting eyes closed in meditation pose (1st). 

Pay attention to which space or spaces feel natural and comfortable and which one or ones do not. The places that feel less familiar will give you a clue of where you might need some more time in your practice.

The ideal is not to spend 33.333% of your spiritual practice in each of the Three Faces. We all have certain tendencies in one direction or the other. That is perfectly fine. We must however have facility and a basic understanding of each of the three spaces.

Part II: The Three Faces and Atheism

Another advantage of the teaching on The Three Faces of God is that it is universal in nature. One can be Christian, Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, or Shamanic in orientation and use the Three Faces. A person can input whatever terms and images are appropriate from their tradition into the process. This allows individuals from differing traditions to practice together--holding a similar frame while allowing each to retain the uniqueness of their tradition. One can also use The Three Faces and not be identified with any specific tradition, e.g. "spiritual but not religious" persons.

For this piece I'd like to focus on the Three Faces practice for atheists. At first glance, this might seem odd, given that the practice is called The Three Faces of God and atheism is the philosophical position that there is no God (or gods).

Nevertheless, atheism is (or at least can be) a valid form of spirituality. Big name atheist writers have of late been exploring spirituality from within an atheist worldview. For example, Alain de Botton thinks atheists should borrow the best practices from religion. Slavoj Zizek, half-jokingly, calls his atheistic philosophy a "materialist theology". Here's a short video of New Atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett talking about his own spiritual experiences. Even staunch atheist philosophers of the past like A.J. Ayer described their own spiritually-tinged near death experiences.

Of course atheists will not want to call this practice The Three Faces of God. They would need to come up with a different framework for it that is resonant with their worldview but yes atheists can practice The Three Faces (under whatever name). Perhaps they would prefer calling it something like The Three Faces of Awakening or The Three Faces of Spirituality. Regardless of linguistic difference, integral spirituality could, through the practice of The Three Faces, lead to a common space where atheists, agnostics, panentheists, theists, whomever, can worship together. This would be a major achievement I believe.

How then would atheists practice The Three Faces?

Let's take the Third Face of God (or Awakening or whatever term is preferred). As Br. TJ documented, famed atheist Richard Dawkins has written a beautiful text on the wonders of nature. He writes of his deep awe and wonder. E.O. Wilson has written movingly of the beauty of the earth calling all of us, whatever our theological predispositions, to environmental stewardship.

Brian Swimme, the great storyteller of the Universe, isn't exactly an atheist but he's not exactly a theist either. His masterful epic of the universe is awe-inspiring whatever one's personal beliefs. The New Creation Story of The Universe is the same for agnostics, atheists, theists, and others. Someone who believes in God will of course understand this story in light of the idea of a benevolent Creator. Atheists will not see the order and beauty of the Universe as evidence of a Creator. But they nevertheless can experience a sense of total awe and wonder in the face of the mysterious beauty and generativity that surrounds us.

Awe and wonder are certainly spiritual virtues that atheists can (and do) express in their lives.

The First Face of Awakening is also one in which atheists already participate. Sam Harris recommends that fellow atheists to take up the practices of meditation. Harris has a strong meditation practice. The mindfulness strain of Buddhism has made great inroads in North America particularly through describing itself in more secular terminology and connecting it with contemporary neuroscience (though there are attendant problems with that formulation). Not surprisingly, Harris advocates the practice of Buddhist vipassana (mindfulness) meditation and has described the experience of no-self arising from the deeps of his meditation practice. He is speaking for the 1st Face of God (The Emptiness of all phenomena), though again God wouldn't be a term he with which he would agree.

So atheism can very easily incorporate the 1st and 3rd Faces of Awakening. But what about the 2nd Face of Awakening (i.e. Devotion)? Devotion seems a particularly religious and theological proposition. A standard atheistic critique of theism--dating back to at least the philosopher Feuerbach in the 19th century--is that human beings create a god in their image as a way to immortalize themselves. Atheist criticism from Feuerbach to Freud see this personification as a form of human hubris--a weak attempt by humans to project meaning and love in a cold, meaningless, harsh universe.

It is certainly true that in 2nd person devotional practice, one often personifies The Divine in some fashion. But over time, the experience seems to be that one becomes what one meditates on. In the Tibetan Deity Yoga tradition one devotes/meditates upon the image of Divinity over the top of one's head, until eventually one allows the image to melt down into one's body (moving from a 2nd Face devotional practice to a 1st Face of God practice of Union). This proposition might be hard for an atheist--to personify awakening.

But not all 2nd Face of God practices require a personified deity. One can use a symbol that becomes the focus of one's loving attention. I've written before on a rosary (mantra) practice. Though it might seem odd, there is no reason why an atheist couldn't practice a rosary. Each bead could be used to bring attention to virtues one seeks to cultivate: compassion, justice, honesty, loving-kindness, or humility.

Of course, the 2nd Face is the most overtly worshipful of the three. The 2nd Face, however, is also interestingly, the great leveler of the ego. The ego, after some initial disturbance, can always hide out in the Awakening of the 1st and 3rd Faces. The ego may temporarily dissolve in experiences of ecstasy (whether chemically induced or otherwise) but it its existence is not ultimately threatened in either the 1st or 3rd face.

The 2nd Face however is a very different story. In the space of devotion one is 'face to face' with the image, nay the reality, of the truth of one's existence (however understood).

Nevertheless, there are possible avenues for atheists to take up a devotional 2nd-person practice. The brilliant contemporary atheist philosopher Alain Badiou has written on what he calls truth conditions--conditions under which truth can be enacted. He lists four: science, politics, art, and love. Love--by which he means human to human love--becomes in a sense his 2nd Face of God. It is the element of devotion in his philosophy. Emmanuel Levinas, an atheist who incorporated religious even mystical language in his reflections, wrote movingly of Le Visage--i.e. The Face (there's that word again!) of The Other. The Other becomes for Levinas a replacement for the dead God of religion. The Other is a revelation, engendering in us an ethics of hospitality. The aforementioned Slavoj Zizek has spoken darkly but movingly on loving the shit that is life and the bile that is another human. Contrary to Levinas, Zizek does not see The Other as a source of inspiration but one who bothers us ("hell is other people" wrote the great atheist Jean Paul Sartre). For Zizek, the other is hell but we are to love the hellish--only such love genuinely is real love.

So even if atheists would be uncomfortable with calling itself a spiritual path we see, through a practice like The Three Faces, it certainly is a path of wisdom (1st), love (2nd), and awe (3rd), leading the possibility of real transformation and profound ethics, what we would call by any other name, an integral spirituality.

Belvedere 3Faces425


Editor: Chela Davison 

Related items

Join the Discussion

Commenting Policy

Beams and Struts employs commenting guidelines that we expect all readers to bear in mind when commenting at the site. Please take a moment to read them before posting - Beams and Struts Commenting Policy

1 comment

  • Comment Link Eric Pierce Sunday, 03 February 2013 06:38 posted by Eric Pierce

    Shouldn't Big Mind be mentioned?

    Or Buber's I-Thou?

    re: pornographic religion: Holy Spirit has sex with God?

    2nd face of {???} is about relationships to the Divine Feminine ("daddy god") and Divine Masculine ("mommy god")?

    Western axial religions are premised on a dominant, masculine divine form. (see Karen Armstrong) The "strict daddy" god was needed to reform the extreme levels of violence and chaos at the end of the "magic" era of cultures based on the divine feminine, when technology disruption was causing a crisis (dense urban populations, widespread agricultural slavery) and the older beliefs/paradigms were not capable of maintaining order/harmony, or meeting the "coherence needs" (Wilber) of emerging culture.

    The Divine Father was a model of submission of ego to Something Greater, and contemplation and "yoking" of aggressive, warlike tendencies. Imperialism With Purpose: war remained, but was made an instrument of an increasingly transcendent "daddy god". Contemplation in that sense (elimination/subjugation of ego) had never been a major part of earlier religions!

    The Divine feminine was retained, but in a secondary role, such as Christian "Holy Mother". The late Pope was reportedly deeply devoted to the Divine Feminine.

    In the middle east, many traditions remain, perhaps on the margin, that are based on devotion to the Divine Feminine. In some esoteric/sufi traditions, spiritual bliss is described in clear terms as as having metaphoric sex with god. iirc, the Holy Spirit is feminine, and is "penetrated" at the moment of ultimate spiritual experience by the Unknowable.

    How many "atheist" scientists are willing to propose a model of spiritual sexuality as sophisticated as the ones in Sufism or the Tantric traditions?

    Without such a model, or something Holistic but similar, is it possible to have a culture with a healthy sexual ethos?

Login to post comments

Search Beams

Most Popular Discussions