Making God Necessary?” - a post-Theism view
A Response to Deepak Chopra by John Bennison on February 17, 2019 |
I. Prefatory Context for this Commentary
“Making God Necessary” is the chosen title to one of the chapters in a newly released book, “how I found GOD in everyone and everything,” contributed by Deepak Chopra.
Deepak Chopra is a 73-yr old Indian-born American author, public speaker, alternative medicine advocate, and a prominent guru-type in the New Age movement. Through his books and videos, he has become one of the best-known and wealthiest figures in alternative medicine. (Check out the website!)
With regards to spirituality and religion, Chopra has likened the universe to a “reality sandwich” which has three layers: the “material” world, a “quantum” zone of matter and energy, and a “virtual” zone outside of time and space, which is the domain of God, and from which God can direct the other layers. (Wikipedia) Wow.
II. A Post-theist’s Path
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, And sorry I could not travel both And be one traveler, long I stood And looked down one as far as I could … Robert Frost
As anyone who’s read or listened to me share my journey over the years knows full well, I have now arrived at a place (at least for now!) where – in my thinking, and with the window through which I see the world these days – I call myself a “post-theist.”
By this I mean, first of all, that I have never found the contrary stance to theism (a-theism) to be little more than the flip side of an irreconcilable squabble. And my passing fancy with the notion of simply being a nontheist was more a re-action; where I realized I simply wanted little to do with the meddlesome debate. Nontheism, I realized, was nothing more than the negation of both sides of the theist/atheist argument.
On the other hand, post-theism is, in one sense, the thought – with an innate feeling — that I have moved on, moved beyond. If, in fact, I was once drawn to the German poet Rilke’s idea that “God is a direction,” then the direction I have travelled has simply lead me to a place beyond usefulness of the ubiquitous, humanly conceived term, “God.”
By this I do not at all mean the myriad of ways in which the human imagination has attempted to bestow those attributes we subsequently bestow on such an imagined “divine” being by so many apologist’s endless clarifying and qualifying; e.g. “God” is love, justice (or judgment), mercy (or wrath), compassion, forgiveness, reconciliation, energy, light, source, culmination, completion, even “being” itself. But simply put, being-ness is just not the same thing as a “Being.”
What I do mean is that the employment of the catch-all term “God” – followed by the endless struggle to shape, define and defend anyone’s notion of that term, and the entity it represents (the work of theology itself) – is wholly an exercise in human ingenuity. If you’ve followed along this far, consider this: There’s a fork in the road that now poses a question, and begs a decision. One can either imagine some all-powerful being with the will and capacity to plant the very idea of “Itself” in the mind’s eye of its prized creation (you and I).
The employment of the catchall term “God” is wholly an exercise in human ingenuity. Or one can take the road less traveled and simply see “inspiration” as something that is not “divine;” but rather the “breathing in” of the human experience in its fullest, most insightful and meaningful way. An illustration:
When I was in seminary, engaged in critical biblical studies, this either/or question was unwittingly posed by a New Testament professor; who once cited the example of a stained glass window found in a centuries-old chapel in Germany. The scene depicted was St. Matthew, seated on a stool, dressed in a monk’s robe, and bent over a scribe’s table. In one hand he held a quill pen, poised over a blank sheet of parchment. With his head tilted upward, the evangelist had his other hand cupping his ear; as if to be taking direct dictation from the Almighty Himself. The power and authority of what became sacred scripture in one religious tradition was attributed to a non-human source.
The window itself, of course, was the creation of the human artist, expressing a human experience. But whether it was an encounter with something more or other, that notion centered around the struggle to decipher the actual source of such revelatory inspiration. And even that distinction itself could only have been conceived of by the human imagination.
So to my way of thinking, the experienced wisdom to be found in the gospel tradition represented by Matthew was not a compendium of some systematic theological treatise, being poured into the mind of the writer as if it were an empty vessel. Rather, the power and authority of what I respectfully decline to deem and call “sacred” scripture are those kernels of human wisdom found in the simple teachings, parables and aphorisms (as near as we can reclaim them anyway) of the 1st century CE Galilean sage we refer to as the historical Jesus. It is only in this sense alone that I continue to call myself a progressive Christian; with little use for the human notion of a theistic deity.
III. “Making God Necessary” – A Response
With the aforementioned apologetic, I turn at long last to one of the contributors to the anthology of personal memoirs, “how I found GOD in everyone and everything.” All the writers have, in some form or fashion, shared their perspective and experience with “panentheism.” While my computer’s word processing program does not yet recognize the term as a legitimate word, it has nonetheless been added to the pantheon of like or competing terms by those who dabble in such circles.
So, panentheism is a human belief, constructed on the imagined notion that the “divine” (that term being an assertion, in and of itself, begging a fuller definition) pervades and interpenetrates every part of the universe; and even extends beyond time and space. Wow.
I was first drawn to explore this book with my fellow Pathways travelers because one of my old mentors from my graduate studies was a contributor. John Cobb’s book on the “Structure of Christian Existence” in the early seventies was formative to the thesis I developed for my doctoral dissertation. Now long retired and in his nineties, I wanted to find out what the Prof’s thinking was these days.
But the question in the title to Deepak Chopra’s chapter (“Making God Necessary”) rang closer to the question that’s been ringing more recently in my own mind: Is “God” – or are “gods” – necessary? And the title suggested to me the author might be suggesting it’s a matter of our own volition. The employment of the catchall term “God” is wholly an exercise in human ingenuity.
Is the idea of “making God necessary” a matter of our own human volition?
So here’s a few nuggets I pulled from Chopra’s offering to expand upon and share my own thinking. In his chapter Chopra recounts a Roman Catholic convert telling him she’d decided Jesus was either crazy or the “Son of God.” Chopra offers an alternative. “Jesus could have been ordinarily sane,” he writes, “but convinced by his subjective experiences.” A few sentences later he describes the Indian tradition of living “saints” as merely a general term, “denoting a holy man, swami, yogi, mystic or enlightened master. No official body confers the title, and people regularly sit in the presence of saints in order to get a blessing.”
This third alternative seemed to suggest the less-travelled road I’ve had in mind when it comes to a Jesus tradition, void of deification. It is the image in Matthew’s gospel of a very-human Galilean sage, seated on a hillside, delivering his Sermon on the Mount to throngs of followers. The teachings are essentially a collection of sayings; constituting an instruction manual about how to exist most meaningfully in this world.
But then Chopra introduces and uses terms like “spirituality” and “light,” “belief” and “faith” differently than I would, in general. He emphasizes the importance of knowledge, refers to knowledge as light, and even asserts “If God cannot pass the test of knowledge” (I take this to mean our idea of God) “the spiritual journey remains incomplete and even aborted.”
But, he asserts, one must be willing to believe that a belief in God is even possible. Faith – as he employs the term – is even more “convincing; upheld by actual personal experience of some kind that points toward the divine.” Really? My translation: Close your eyes, squeeze them tight enough, and if only you can imagine something is possible, it can become real.
Now, I’ve always reminded myself that each person’s “personal experience” cannot be judged as valid or invalid; but only false or true for that person. Holy-rollers seem to have ecstatic experiences that are real and genuine to them. But it’s something to which I, as yet, cannot relate at all. Thus, I cannot challenge anyone’s assertion when they describe a human experience as a “divine” encounter. I would only suggest that the source of such a transformative experience be recognized as being within the person, rather than some outside force (or, as some might want to label it, “Force”).
Still, Chopra talks about the “whole point of the spiritual experience” that can be transformative and life changing. “In fact,” he says, “everyday life is littered with clues and hints of spiritual experience.” I fully agree. Life can absolutely have its transformative and life-changing episodes. But whether one chooses to label them as “spiritual” begs further qualification, requiring the human consciousness, awareness and the mind’s articulation.
Chopra then goes on to assert: “The essence of making God necessary is coming to grips with reality,” adding “the only two things any of us actually knows with total certainty is that we exist and that we are aware of existing. The real question is what existence means.” … “If existence isn’t fated to be empty and inert, it must be something else, replete and alive.”
Then he finally defines his use of the ‘god’ term: “The fullness of reality and the source of all life is God.” Okay, so “God” is the complete fullness and origin (source) of all reality. But he then goes on to offer this admonition, adding it to the edifice he’s constructed: “If God isn’t existence, then the search for God will only lead into deeper illusion.”
That sounds more than a little presumptuous on his part. But more so, it seems Chopra is taking the conscious awareness we have of our existence, and then wanting to attach a ‘God’ label to it. Why? Why can’t our human awareness we exist simply be existence? Is the idea of “making God necessary” a matter of our own human volition? Instead, in his search for a synonym, in order to speak of the “source” and “origin” of all “reality” and our own perceived existence he latches on to this 3-letter word and capitalizes it. But – unlike many other apologists seeking a way to diffuse, disarm, and domesticate this 3-letter word with a capital ‘G’ with all the attributes aforementioned when I began my comments – at least he doesn’t capitalize ‘source,’ ‘origin’ or ‘existence’ itself.
But here’s the thing: Existence is not a thing, a “being,” apart from yours and my existence. It seems he gets around to saying as much towards the end of his chapter, but he throws more cumbersome stumbling blocks in the way before we get there.
“The fact that God has been experienced over the ages,” he writes, “only goes to show that religion is a primitive holdover, a mental relic that we should train our brains to reject. But all attempts to clarify matters .. that God is absolutely real or unreal – continue to fail. What this tells me is that it’s impossible to stand aside from experience when we come to the source.” To the contrary, our ancient religious traditions are not simply mental relics. Instead, they represent in their own way the same hunger and desire Chopra seems to have; though expressed differently through myths and metaphors, proverbs and parables. Because in both cases, the human imagination is employed to construct a framework in which existence can best be understood; in order to affirm those life experiences that are of greatest meaning and value to us.
And, in which case, making “God” un-necessary just might be the clearer, less cluttered path.
I shall be telling this with a sigh Somewhere ages and ages hence:Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.
© 2019 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved. This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit. You can read more Words & Ways commentaries by John Bennison by clicking here.