The late Alan Watts, a onetime Episcopal priest turned popularizer of Eastern religions, told a story that aims at the heart of one’s true spiritual identity. The story goes something like this: A Persian sage knocks on the door of heaven, and the voice of God responds, “Who is there?” The sage says, “It is I.” The Lord answers, “In this house there is no room for thee and me.” Years later, the sage is ready to try again, knocking once more on the door of heaven. The voice of God replies as before, “Who is there?” The sage answers, “It is I.” The door remains shut. More years pass before the sage knocks a third time. “Who is it?” the voice of God bellows. This time the sage cries, “It is thyself!” And the door of heaven swings open.
If there is no room in heaven for “thee and me,” where does that leave me? Out in the cold, apparently, which is one of those troublesome details about spiritual seeking that often escapes the notice of those who embark on this seemingly uplifting venture. As with any other self-improvement exercise, we assume the self will emerge more or less intact, albeit greatly enhanced. Imagine our surprise and disappointment if we were to discover that the self we brought to such a sublime state of perfection turns out to be entirely superfluous to this undertaking.
Even more troubling is the punch line to Alan Watts’ story. The sage knocks on the door of heaven, and when God asks who’s there, he replies, “It is thyself.” What sort of effrontery is this? Yet the Lord rewards this apparent act of blasphemy by opening the door and welcoming the sage into paradise. The story seems to be suggesting that the only way to find God is to become God.
The theologians have a fancy name for this: autotheism, the identification of oneself with God. At first glance, this would appear to be monstrous self-aggrandizement and also contrary to any understanding of God as a transcendent being. And yet, there are mystical strains of all three major monotheistic religions that would seem to accommodate such a notion. The thirteenth-century Jewish mystic Abraham Abulafia wrote that anyone who has felt the “divine touch…is no longer separated from his Master, and behold he is his Master and his Master is he; for he is so intimately adhering to Him that he cannot by any means be separated from Him, for he is He." Similarly, Catherine of Genoa, the Christian saint who ministered to the poor and the sick as a laywoman during the fifteenth century, said that “my I is God, nor is any other self known to me except my God.” Not to be outdone, Bayazid Bastami, a Persian Sufi living in the ninth century, exclaimed, "I went from God to God, until they cried from me to me, 'O Thou I!’”
Although mystics of every stripe seem to be talking more or less the same game, the religious traditions from which they spring are not always so accommodating. The thirteenth-century German theologian Meister Eckhart got into hot water with the pope for having written, “We shall all be transformed totally into God and changed into him.” Perhaps fortuitously, Eckhart died before the Inquisition could pursue its inquiries. Less fortunate was the tenth-century Sufi poet al-Hallaj, who ran afoul of religious authorities for insisting that he and God were one. Hallaj was thrown into prison, then tortured and executed, his body burned afterward.
A story is told about al-Hallaj that bears a strong resemblance to Alan Watts’ tale of the Persian sage. Returning to Baghdad after a year's stay in Mecca, the poet knocks on the door of his former master. A voice calls from within: "Who is there?" Hallaj then proclaims: "I am the Absolute Truth," later translated as, "I am God."
What are we to make of such utterances, and how do we reconcile them with any traditional understanding of God, to say nothing what it means to be a human being? Perhaps we should start with Jesus of Nazareth, whom Christians believe combined elements of both. Jesus, of course, had stirred up a bit of a fuss at the temple in Jerusalem when he announced, “I and the Father are one.” But then, just as the crowd was preparing to stone him for blasphemy, he quoted one of the Psalms, "Is it not written in your law, 'I said, you are gods'?" Suddenly the tables were turned, and now the issue was not just who Jesus was but also who they were.
Who indeed? The early church had enough trouble agreeing on who Jesus was, never mind anybody else. Was he a man who became God, or a God who merely took the form of a man? Eventually theologians hammered out a doctrine that proclaimed Jesus to be both fully human and fully divine. The formulation used in the Nicene Creed, drafted at the church Council of Nicaea in 325 CE, was that Jesus was the “only begotten” Son of God, which is commonly interpreted to mean he was the only one of his kind.
But did Jesus actually think of himself that way? Not long after he offended local sensibilities by proclaiming, “I and the Father are one,” Jesus prayed that his followers “may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us.”· This certainly does not sound like the prayer of someone who regarded himself as having an exclusive franchise. Later, St. Paul described Jesus as being the “first-born among many brethren” (and presumably sisteren). If so, where are they? Sadly, those who came after mostly were content to worship him rather than to be like him. We pour our hearts into fervent prayers and prostrations, hoping to catch some glimpse of the Sacred Other who, in fact, lies closer at hand than our own breathing. So how will we answer when we go knocking on heaven’s door, and a voice from the depths of our own being asks, “Who is there?”
Alan Watts, The Wisdom of Insecurity
James A. Wiseman, O.S.B., "To Be God with God: The Autotheistic Sayings of the Mystrics," Theological Studies 51 (1990)
John 10:30; 17:20-21