What did Chopra say?

mill pondEven though i have gradually shed my belief in a god, i remain intrigued by and sympathetic to the human impulse toward belief, particularly the longing for a personal god who sees each individual as uniquely valuable.

For this reason, i found myself in agreement with the following teaser sentence for a Deepak Chopra column about why god still matters:

“‘With the workaday world filled with suffering and frustrated ideals, there’s a huge incentive to look beyond the horizon to a God that will continue to evolve for the simple reason that humans never stop evolving,’ says Deepak Chopra.”

While some believers will take issue with an assertion of god evolving, the idea of looking to the horizon for something or someone which provides meaning beyond the mundane seems to resonate broadly. As scholar Karen Armstrong has shown (“A History of God”), conceptualizations of god evolve. As for Chopra’s column, that turned out to be the only sentence i could agree with. His seven brief paragraphs offer a breezy vacuity that nonetheless at least manages to illustrate the pitfalls he warns others of.   

His starting point about prior images of god being outdated is straightforward enough, but from there he arbitrarily replaces them with his own notion of god: “…the source of consciousness and the vital creative spring from which we get our mind, creativity, and above all, our ability to evolve.” He proceeds to personify this concept as being “on the move.” Apparently, pure consciousness has motion and volition, as well as an image that human beings can still be made “in the image” of.

It’s an appealing idea that ancient stories, freshly interpreted, can connect us to a “higher reality.” Accepting his supposition of a vague yet positive entity, however, leaves one adrift as to what that entity has to do with the complexities of daily existence, and ill equipped to deal with the unavoidable questions of suffering.

Like the craving for a sweet treat with no nutritional benefit, Chopra’s “…infinite possibilities, and endless unfoldment” may be attractive in the abstract – until the next time a trusted friend betrays us, or we see a child in pain. Unless we simply shut down, we’re suddenly left hungry for answers.

The problem for humanity, in his view, is that we “reversed the scheme…” – that conventional views of god amount to us creating god in our image. I’m at a loss as to why his claims don’t amount to the same thing. He further asserts that “once we get over our ingrained skepticism, disillusion, and broken hearts, God will continue to evolve…” So we have to ‘get over’ something, so god can evolve? The god i don’t believe in anymore – a personal creator to whom i could at least attempt to direct my questions about what’s true and why my heart hurts – is a lot more appealing than this exhortation to merely ignore the hard questions.

When i was growing up, i was taught, mostly by implication, that it’s wrong or bad to doubt god – that choosing to believe there is a god who is good, and working to tamp down doubt, were both morally right and comforting. Eventually i became determined to address head­-on life’s inconsistencies, and to examine closely the purported answers; most failed to withstand the scrutiny that the ache of existence elicits.

Chopra labels such thinking as skepticism and describes it negatively: “To know God by standing apart and analyzing the situation doesn’t work…Skeptics are working toward a preconceived conclusion.” At the risk of redundancy, how is he so certain that he is not also working toward a preconceived conclusion? When he asserts, “The leap that will resurrect God can only happen through personal experience,” i respond that personal experience is precisely what made god seem distant and irrelevant – and made him seem progressively more unlikely.

In his closing paragraph Chopra does finally acknowledge suffering, as a generality: “[The] world is filled with incredible suffering and frustrated ideals…”  His very next sentence correlates skepticism with an “allergy” to god. His prescription? Consider “what’s more interesting than where your own consciousness is headed.” Talk about a leap! This sounds like a leap from embraceable experience to abstract absurdity. Do not wrestle with reality, only turn inward.

In the absence of explanations (and conveying little personal empathy, at least within this column), the best he can offer is: “The pathless path, as it is known in India, starts anywhere and leads everywhere. Infinity needs no other set of directions.” These are words with no handles, no meaning to grab onto.

The apparent take­away from such vapid meanderings is that if a conventional idea of god fails to satisfy, make up a new one that you like — but don’t suggest there may not be one. And if you say things about that god that are soothing yet substance­less, people might feel a bit better and might buy your books.

Life’s joys and distresses may drive us toward the escape and comfort of an airy unchallenged feel­-good­ism. Yet there can also be profound reward in the candid engagement of the unanswered quandaries of reality, and in joining in that exploration with others.

07/07/2013

(Photo credit: B. Van Sluys, Mill Pond, Maryland, Dec 2014)

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