Panentheism, finding God in everyone and everywhere (VII)

This is the seventh in a set of reactions to “How I found God in Everyone and Everywhere”, a collection of essays edited by Andrew Davies and Philip Clayton, for which there is currently the “Cosmic Campfire” book group, a crossover between Homebrewed Christianity and the Liturgists, studying the book over the next few weeks. If you haven’t yet read my first post, you should probably read that first!

The seventh essay is by Deepak Chopra. I’ve not read anything by him for quite some time (I think I have a thin memory of something which must have been one of his very early works), and must admit that this arises from a certain amount of prejudice. Firstly, his books seemed to be shelved in bookshops amidst a stack of new-agey stuff, which I gave up reading any of rather more years ago than I prefer to admit. Secondly, (and this is linked with the first) I viewed him as trying to do a kind of synthesis between Indian and Christian traditions, and had decided after my 10 years or so exploring all sorts of traditions that syncretism generally did no justice to either (or any) of the traditions involved. Yes, you can do successful syncretism to an extent (let’s face it, Christianity is to some extent a syncretic effort between Hebrew and Greek traditions) but you need to be, in my eyes, a genius to do it well. Most of those I read who were trying to do this weren’t geniuses, and I was pretty confident I couldn’t do a good job myself, at least not without far more work than I was prepared to put into the project, given that as I saw it, each tradition actually functions adequately on its own terms.

So I was agreeably surprised by this essay, while being really nervous about the title – “Making God Necessary”. Were we going to descend into another pit of ontology, I wondered? But no, Chopra is, like Sheldrake and Delio, out of the tradition of biological sciences, and focuses immediately on making sense of (and properly valuing) personal experience. He then proceeds to attempt to make a case that a full understanding of that experience requires a God – “Unless God enters into daily decisions and, furthermore, brings about better results than doing without God, the divine will be at most an add-on to modern life”.

Laplace, of course, when taken to task by Napoleon for writing a huge amount about the natural world but not mentioning its putative creator, said “I had no need of that hypothesis”, which is a view effectively shared by the vast bulk of science these days, so Chopra has a distinctly uphill task. He talks of “belief” as being willing to entertain the God hypothesis and of faith as being upheld by some kind of personal experience which points towards the divine; I diverge from him there. I’m a mystic, I claim that I don’t need to entertain a hypothesis of God or have faith in God, I experience God. But perhaps this is a difference in the way of putting it rather than something more substantive.

I am in complete agreement with his well-made point that just because we can see brain activity during spiritual experiences doesn’t mean that the brain is creating those experiences. You can see brain activity when I look at a photo of my wife, but that doesn’t mean she is a figment of my imagination.

However, he goes on to stretch somewhat further than I think is viable as an argument. He says:-

“I would say that everyday life, in fact, is littered with clues and hints of spiritual experience. These passing moments take on a flavor everyone can identify with, even the most convinced atheist. Let me offer a partial list, which consists of moments when you or I feel: Safe and protected; Wanted; Loved; As if we belong; As if our lives are embedded in a larger design; As if the body is light and action is effortless; Upheld by unseen forces; Unusually fortunate or lucky; Touched by fate; Inspired; Infused with light, or actually able to see a faint light around someone else; Held in the presence of the divine; Spoken to by our soul; Certain that a deep wish or dream is coming true; Certain that a physical illness will be healed; At ease with death and dying” (I have reduced this to a list divided by semicolons, which I have added, in order to save some space).

I have in the past spent a very large amount of time (possibly as much as the magic 10,000 hours) attempting to argue with atheists that there is some value in the concept of God, and one of the bases for this was to point at a lot of examples of subjective experience; I can therefore pretty much guarantee that while those of us who are already confident that there is a God (for some value of that word) will look at that list and think “Yes, I can see God at work in those”, an atheist will say “those are just emotional states” and, in some cases, that they are definitely subjective illusions. I once spent well over a year in a discussion thread involving several thousand messages trying to get a group of French atheists to accept the idea that there could be something which underlay these and other experiences. I managed to bully everyone into accepting that they had actually had such experiences, and got them as far as saying yes, there might be some [   ] underlying those which was perhaps, just perhaps, an useful idea. The square brackets represented a box, and my next move was to say “G-O-D” is a label we can put on the box, a variable the value of which we don’t yet know, perhaps – we might find out, for instance, that the box contained nothing but a mirror.

It didn’t work – as soon as those three letters appeared, we were right back to the beginning and they were discounting their actual experiences as meaningless.

So I applaud his attempt, but I think it fails in practice. I’ve tried…

Beyond this, he is absolutely right in suggesting that the Indian traditions make it really easy to accept radical divine immanence. So does Taoism, so do some strands of Confucianism. I came very close to setting my Christian upbringing and milieu completely aside and espousing one of those many years ago, and am still inclined to “think Taoist” or “think Buddhist” on occasion (my decision was to no small extent based on the fact that the Eastern systems would have required a vast amount of study to become “second nature” to me, and that wasn’t likely to be achieved without teachers from those traditions, which were in short supply in a small market town in Yorkshire). Referring back to my initial comments on syncretism, however, the Eastern traditions are, to me, completely different systems; I can work in one or in another, but trying to combine them is apt to produce confusion.

He is absolutely right in saying that if you drill down far enough in contemplation, you will find a “knowledge you become”. We have such a tradition in Christianity as well, perhaps best expressed by Meister Eckhart in many quotations, of which I select You should know (God) without image, unmediated and without likeness. But if I am to know God without mediation in such a way, then “I” must become “he”, and “he” must become “I”. More precisely I say: God must become me and I must become God, so entirely one that “he” and this “I” become one “is” and act in this “isness” as one, for this “he” and this “I”, that is God and the soul, are very fruitful.

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