Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The God Mirror

I recently read Deepak Chopra's How to Know God. To be honest, I didn't understand a lot of it, and there were aspects that seemed a little too New Agey for my taste. You know those philosophers who say that a chair isn't really there? Well, there were times when Deepak was leaning in that direction.

Reading this book was like my experience with Joseph Campbell's Primitive Mythology: I'm sure he's communicating profound things that I can find useful, but, for some reason, they're not sinking into my brain. Maybe it's their writing style, or my short attention span, or the information overload. I don't know. And I'm not really in the mood to read them again, at least not at this time.

But a key point of Chopra's book is that God is a reflection of human beings. Chopra's not an atheist, mind you, for he claims, "The fact that we single out traits like mercy and love, judgment and redemption, shows that we are forced to give God human attributes, but that is absolutely proper if those traits come from God in the first place" (44). So there is a God, in Chopra's opinion. Also, Chopra maintains that there are stages in how we approach the divine, ranging from the primitive to the most advanced. He states that "God has to be approached in stages, for otherwise one could never close the huge gap between him and us" (44).

Chopra gives a succinct summary of the stages on page 44: "God is a protector to those who see themselves in danger. God is almighty to those who want power (or lack any way of getting power). God brings peace to those who have discovered their own inner world. God redeems those who are conscious of committing a sin. God is the creator when we wonder where the world comes from. God is behind miracles when the laws of miracles are suddenly revoked without warning. God is existence itself--'I Am'--to those who feel ecstasy and a sense of pure being."

For Chopra, one's relationship with God goes from wanting a strong protector-deity for one's family, to developing a dispassionate sense of wisdom and peace (regardless of external circumstances), to cultivating virtues and creativity, all the way to forming a oneness with God and all things (the New Agey part). Chopra sees value in all of the stages, for even the most primitive one emphasizes good things like family and community (187). For that reason, I'm not sure if he holds that we can be in multiple stages at once (since people tend to compartmentalize). But he does seem to believe that humans can progress from one stage to another.

And so our view of God is a reflection of where we are. One thing Chopra said that internalized this point for me was that we worship a wise God when we ourselves have a certain amount of wisdom. Could some of the things that I admire about God be in me already?

Chopra overlaps with Ludwig Feuerbach, a nineteenth century German philosopher and anthropologist. For Feuerbach, humans project upon God the attributes that they want to possess. For the ancients, these may have included power, strength, sexual prowess, and prestige. For Jews and Christians, they are mercy, compassion, and love. Unlike Chopra, Feuerbach appeared to have a negative attitude towards religion, for he viewed it as man's alienation from himself. In Feuerbach's view, here man is, projecting his desires and qualities onto God, when he should be looking within himself and celebrating his own humanity.

Years before Feuerbach, the philosopher Xenophanes (570-480 B.C.E.) had the same sort of model, but he took it in a different direction. Like Feuerbach, Xenophanes said that humans make gods in their own image. In his words: "if cattle or horses or lions had hands and could draw, and could sculpture like men, then the horses would draw their gods like horses, and cattle like cattle; and each they would shape bodies of gods in the likeness, each kind, of their own" (see here). But Xenophanes was not an atheist, for he felt that portraying God as a human being was a disservice to God. Consequently, he was a major force behind the allegorical method of interpretation, which held that Homer's anthropomorphic portrayal of the gods was not literal but had to be symbolic of something else. I've heard various labels for Xenophanes' understanding of God, for some call him a monotheist, others a pantheist, and still others assert that he had a mathematical picture of the divine. In any case, he believed that bringing God down to the human level in effect cheapened God, who is above and beyond us.

But I can hear Chopra saying that there needs to be some bridge between humans and the divine, otherwise there can be no relationship. And even a lot of Christians acknowledge this point. In the sixteenth century, John Calvin said that God speaks to us in a lisp, which means that he stoops down to our level when he communicates to us. Perhaps we need metaphor in order to understand a being as great as God!

And yet, there are others who would claim that there actually is some overlap between humans and the divine. According to this view, God is like us, and we are like God, for God created us in his image, after his likeness (Genesis 1:26-27). That doesn't account for how different cultures can have a variety of pictures of the divine, though.

I often hear Christians say that we become like the God that we worship. If we worship a God who is harsh, judgmental, and critical, then we will become harsh, judgmental, and critical. But if we view God as compassionate, loving, and forgiving, then those are the attributes that we will have. Ellen White said that "by beholding we become changed." The question is, "What exactly are we beholding?" And are we reflecting what we are beholding, or is what we are beholding a reflection of ourselves? Or is it a little of both?

In my next post, I want to discuss my image of God. Where do I fit into Deepak Chopra's schema, and what's that say about me?

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