Fresh Ideas or Warmed-Over Enlightenment?

Monday, February 25, 2008

A couple of days ago, I stumbled across this article about Deepak Chopra, a spiritual teacher who is promoting his new book, titled, The Third Jesus: The Christ We Cannot Ignore.  Although I knew little about him, I was struck by some of the things he said in his interview with Reuters.

On his Web site, a reviewer of Dr. Chopra’s new book called it “fresh and profound,” but as I read some of the excerpts, some of his ideas sounded vaguely familiar.  At that point, I cursed that I hadn’t read more carefully during seminary!  Thank goodness I haven’t sold all of my old books yet.

Chopra’s basic thesis is that there are three interpretations of Jesus: 1) the sketchy historical figure (who is ultimately unknowable, since the New Testament is a mixture of fable and history), 2) the Christ of faith created and appropriated by “the church,” and 3) Christ, who embodies the highest level of enlightenment, the “God consciousness.”

Fresh?  Profound?  Alas, in the words of the sage, “What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9 ESV)  It seems that Dr. Chopra’s ideas are more like warmed-over Enlightenment, rather than anything terribly fresh or profound.

The Third Jesus: “God consciousness”–Chopra’s third Jesus–is a term coined by Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), a German philosopher and theologian (hardly an Eastern mystic) who attempted to do the same things as Deepak Chopra more than 200 years ago (Schleiermacher probably picked up the thread from someone even earlier!).  Schleiermacher, who was immersed in the rationalism of his day, attempted to rework traditional Christian orthodoxy so that it would be acceptable to the European Enlightenment crowd.  Basically, for him, Jesus was not the divine Son and his death was not redemptive in any cosmic way.  Rather, Jesus, a good rabbi, manifested perfect “God consciousness,” or a constant awareness of his dependence on God.  Redemption, in Schleiermacher’s terminology, is the journey from “God-unconsciousness” (evil) toward “God-consciousness” (salvation), modeled by the man Jesus of Nazareth.  Sound familiar?

The First Jesus: The quest for the historical Jesus–Chopra’s first Jesus–is also old news.  According to Enlightenment skepticism, Holy Scripture–usually considered by believers to be the Word of God, the normative rule of faith and practice–is merely a record of the religious experience of believers who lived in another time and place.  Therefore, in Enlightenment thinking, the Bible is not normative for contemporary Christians, but offers guidance and insight into others’ God-consciousness.  Moreover, in this line of thinking, the real story about Jesus–what really happened–lurks behind the legends expounded by his followers (a.k.a. the New Testament).  For better or worse, lots of scholars have offered to reconstruct the historical Jesus for us.  This quest began with Hermann Samuel Reimarus (1694-1768), another Enlightenment philosopher, continued with William Wrede (1859-1906) and Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), and now finds its home with the Jesus Seminar (Oddly enough, the idea that the original religion of Jesus was deformed by later tradition is the staple of Islam, Mormonism, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and various feminists and revisionists today).  The queer thing about the quest for the historical Jesus, however, is that the questers invariably “discover” a Jesus who conveniently endorses their preferred political and social convictions and only challenges the positions of their opponents.  Sound familiar?

The Second Jesus: As for Chopra’s second Jesus–the Christ of faith–I’m not sure where he stands exactly.  His words sound like a mixture of personal anger directed at the Catholic Church (sort of like Dan Brown who wrote The Da Vinci Code), progressive politics, and liberal social convictions. 

In an excerpt from his book, Dr. Chopra employs a tired, old saw in denouncing the religion about Jesus: “The second Jesus [i.e., the Jesus of the church] leads us into the wilderness without a clear path out.  He became the foundation of a religion that has proliferated into some twenty thousand sects.  They argue endlessly over every thread in the garments of a ghost.  But can any authority, however exalted, really inform us about what Jesus would have thought?  Isn’t it a direct contradiction to hold that Jesus was a unique creation–the one and only incarnation of God–while at the same time claiming to be able to read his mind on current events?  Yet in his name Christianity pronounces on homosexuality, birth control, and abortion.”  Dr. Chopra joins the chorus: religion is bad because some of its adherents have gone to war in God’s name, etc. etc. etc.

I look forward to reading Dr. Chopra’s book to encounter his “fresh and profound” ideas.  But since I feel like I have already read his book, I’m not expecting much.  I wish he would write another book where he seriously engages the richness and diversity of Christian thought, rather than pigeon hole all Christians as dupes and sketch a caricature of “the church” based on his negative experiences with Roman Catholicism.  The church–that is, followers of Jesus from all times and places, rather than an institution secretively operated from within the walls of the Vatican–is not nearly as monolithic as some revisionists think.  Using his own categories, I believe that Jesus can be all three at the same time: a historical person, the object of Christian thinking (theology), and the one who connects us to the transcendent God (the Father).  But I guess that boring stuff doesn’t sell books or make headlines.

I’m afraid that Dr. Chopra’s book is not exactly “fresh” or “profound”–just more warmed-over Enlightenment in fancy new packaging.

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3 thoughts on “Fresh Ideas or Warmed-Over Enlightenment?

  1. I’m not sure that I understand all of this, but what you review of Dr. Chopra’s previous views leads me to a confirmation I’ve had before: It is an audacious assumption to try to reveal God and Jesus through one’s own intellect. And, even though the approach is intellectual, it is still less intellectual than God. To approach the Truth of God and Jesus, one has to understand that he or she will never understand. For the intellectual, sheer faith has to replace absent knowledge. Since Dr. Chopra’s has written on this before, he still lacks that kind of humility. That makes him unconvincing. Am I on track?

  2. Dr. Chopra is nuttier than a fruit cake. He isn’t a chrisatian. He hasn’t come to faith yet. He is a natural man trying to understand a spiritual book. He is enlightened in no way. He’s in the dark.

    Jane, faith isn’t a blind leap nor is it faith in faith itself. Knowledge always preceeds trust. All faith is is trust. Trust in a historical God-man, Jesus and in His word, the Bible. From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is inspired, accurate, litteral and trustworthy. Read John 1:1, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” “In the beginning God created heaven tnd earth,” Genesis 1:1.

  3. Jane, I don’t know if I established the context of Dr. Chopra’s writing very well in my post. As Floyd spotted, Chopra is not a Christian and doesn’t pretend to be (probably a Hindu who borrows other ideas freely), but I do believe (and remember, I am not an expert on him) he is attempting to “rescue” Jesus from the clutches of “the church,” which he incorrectly identifies as a group of oppressive, manipulative men in Rome.
    It boils down to, I believe, authority–that is, who gets to speak definitively about who Jesus is? We have the New Testament documents, which are clearly the earliest and most extensive writings about Jesus; later on, there were some gnostic “gospels” written that are clearly not from his followers (read some of the gnostic gospels at http://www.earlychristianwritings.com; btw, their dates are off by a mile); beyond those early writings, we have only latter-day prophets, like Joseph Smith, who tried to tell the “truth” about who Jesus really was. Jane, you are right that Chopra’s basic line of thinking is unconvincing: After accusing “the church” of arrogantly reading Jesus’ mind on a host of social issues, he arrogantly does the exact same thing! A little humility goes a long way when trying to speak about God.
    The root question here is: Who gets to say who Jesus was really like? My answer is that we should stick with what the New Testament says about him rather than relying on someone living today who is trying to speak authoritatively about him.

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