Thursday, December 17, 2015

Review of 'The Future of God' by Deepak Chopra

I picked up this book from an airport bookstore in preparation for a long-haul flight. Had I thought I would write a review at the time, I would have been more careful in compiling my notes. But, I have lately come to the view that a review of, or response to the book is necessary, and so I have to do so in hindsight. My review therefore rests more on impression and leading arguments than carefully substantiated and balanced research. Notwithstanding my retrospective limitations, I trust the following is not inaccurate, and I hope it is of benefit to anyone who might read the book.
What I liked most about the book is Chopra’s fierce criticism of the New Atheists, led by Richard Dawkins (author of The God Delusion). Chopra rightly points out that Dawkins fails to subject his own beliefs to the same scrutiny that he applies to religion. Dawkins’ selectiveness with the data is neither scientific nor reasonable. In an epilogue, and typical to his style of writing, Chopra includes the following list, which I have reproduced below, with some comments of my own.
Ten Flaws in the Dawkins Delusion
  1. His atheism attacks a Sunday School version of God as if there were no other. It lumps any kind of belief in with the excesses of extreme fanatics.
  2. His atheism rests on the belief that the universe has no intelligent source. Yet a random universe is the least likely explanation for how intelligent life came about.
  3. His atheism equates reality with the material world, as perceived by the five senses. This fails to account for the quantum revolution, which opened up reality far beyond the physical world.
  4. His atheism traces all events back to the inflexible laws of nature but cannot explain why the laws of nature exist, or where they come from.
  5. His atheism uses evolution as an argument against an intelligent source for life, even though survival of the fittest cannot explain the creation of life . [Note: I think this is a weak argument that sinks to the level of pseudo-science that both Dawkins and Chopra despise]
  6. His atheism positions itself as rational but cannot explain the source of rationality. How does random brain activity produce order and logic? [I would prefer to frame this in terms of probability – what is the probability that a random universe can produce one single brain, i.e. Dawkins’, that perceives reality as it truly is. Why would the cosmos reveal itself to Dawkins’ brain and not the religious brains he so hates?]
  7. His atheism claims that biology is the basis of consciousness without offering a theory of how molecules learned to think. [Pseudo-science again?]
  8. His atheism views the brain as rigid cause-and-effect. All thought and behaviour is deterministic. He gives no explanation for free will, creativity and insight. [If all thought and behaviour is deterministic, how can any thought or behaviour be considered evil? Yet, Dawkins uses the term for all thought and behaviour that is expressed in a religious context.]
  9. His atheism denies the existence of the self, considering it an illusion created by the brain. Yet neuroscience has never found a location for “I” anywhere in the brain.
  10. His atheism cannot explain how the illusory self arrives at self-knowledge. [Good point – if our ‘self’ is illusory, how can we have any confidence that our understanding of our selves is itself an illusion? If atheism is true, we are locked into the blackest void with no hope of redemption.]
What I like least about the book is Chopra’s mangling of Christianity to get it to comply with his own dogma. I would prefer a much more honest approach; Chopra is a Buddhist (or, perhaps a Gnostic) who struggles with Christianity, and I wish he would say so at the outset so that readers would not have to get to the final chapters, armed with a considerable knowledge of comparative religion, to figure it out. I don’t object to Buddhists, or anyone else forming their own view of Christianity, but it irks me when they misrepresent it and then present their misrepresentations as if they were the real thing. It is much better, in my view, to say “I agree with this”, or “I disagree with that”, because it alerts the audience to the existence of a conflict between the differing world views and, preferably, provides some reliable information that would enable it to make an informed choice, which is its prerogative. Chopra, instead, denies all conflict in his extended sermon on Bhuddistic, Gnostic syncretism. Chopra dislikes dogma, which is unfortunate because it leads him to the untenable position of having to deny his own. I will lead with this in my list:

Ten Flaws in Chopra’s understanding of Christianity.
  1. Chopra, like many people, misunderstand what is meant by dogma. Dogma, in my opinion, is something that is either true, or it isn’t. Most issues understood to be dogma, for instance the virgin birth of Jesus, actually lie downstream of true dogma, and flow out of it. In this case, the true dogma is whether there is a God who can work miracles (a subject Chopra explores in depth). If this is true, the virgin birth becomes possible; if it isn’t, it doesn’t. The observable fact (that the virgin birth actually happened, or it actually didn’t) is shaped by the dogma, not the other way around. This leads to another aspect of dogma, in that it is essentially untestable or unfalsifiable. Another example is whether life has meaning or purpose. If it does, we would experience life as it is but, what is equally valid is that the same would be true if it doesn’t. What is more, we could not change the dogma, even if we wanted to. I think it best, then, to identify your dogmas and own them as what they are – revelations, epiphanies, insights, hunches - because they inform your logic far more profoundly than you may realise. Chopra fails to recognise and describe his own dogmas. Finally, the Christian understanding of dogma is that it is “out there” – in God, or in the heavens if you like - and we need to adjust our thoughts and perceptions of the cosmos to align with it. (Incidentally, this very dogma underpins the whole scientific enterprise.) To the contrary, Chopra’s understanding of dogma is that it is “in here”, and the cosmos will align itself with our thoughts and perceptions. Dawkins would scoff.
  2. Chopra cherry-picks Bible verses. The ones he doesn’t like are binned with all other “failed” scriptures. However, he likes Jesus’ assertion that “The Kingdom of God is within you” and uses it as a launching point for the inward journey to the Bhudda-nature within us all. He conveniently overlooks all the other verses that call us to look beyond ourselves, and to recognise that our inner selves are not the source of the light we seek. The curious thing about this kind of cherry-picking is that it comes with no explanation about why the cherry-picker prefers some passages and ignores others, especially when the cherry-picker is trying to make a point from the scriptures he has cherry-picked from.
  3. Chopra titillates post-modern tendencies by claiming that the truth is found within us, as expressed in his exegesis of “the Kingdom of God is within you”. The Christian’s understanding of how the truth is not found within, but comes to us, is most vividly portrayed in the rite of the communion, or mass, or eucharist (a Greek word literally meaning “good gift”) in which the believer receives the bread and takes it into himself or herself. The fundamental direction is towards and into the believer, not from and out of the inner self, as Chopra claims.
  4. Chopra refers to urban myth, rather than authoritative sources, particularly in dividing the Old Testament Jehovah, whose leading message is “smite” and the New Testament Jesus, whose leading message is “love”. Does Chopra not realise that the New Testament Jesus does, or promises to do, all the “smiting” of the Old Testament Jehovah? Or, that the Old Testament Jehovah does all the “loving” and sacrifice of the New Testament Jesus? There is a reason for that that Chopra’s dogma cannot embrace …
  5. Chopra’s Christ is not God Incarnate in the exclusive sense that the New Testament describes. The reason Jesus does the smiting of Jehovah, and Jehovah does the loving of Jesus, is that the two are one and the same, according to the corpus of scriptures in the Bible. Further, because there is only One Jehovah (a.k.a . Elohim, God, Lord), there is only one Incarnation, which is Jesus Christ. Because Jesus is one person, and not another person or everything, God is one, and not everything, which Chopra’s dogma explicitly denies …
  6. Chopra’s God is the universe. Technically, this is pantheism. Chopra’s dogma overlaps with Judaeo-Christian dogma in identifying God as the source of the universe, but it differs by claiming that God becomes the universe. The Judaeo-Christian tradition separates the Creator from His Creation. For instance, when the Bible talks about discarding the old (present) heaven and earth, what is God doing? If God becomes the universe, would He be amputating the limbs He grew. Thus, according to Chopra, God is the totality of everything, and Christian claims to the exclusivity of Jesus as the ultimate revelation of God are wrong and must be dismissed. Thus, according to Chopra, we can find God within ourselves, because we, too, are God. Thus, according to Chopra, we, being God, change reality around us through our Bhudda-consciousness.
  7. Chopra gives no attention to the Trinity, which is the central core of Christian faith as described in the Christian scriptures. This is a pity, because in the Trinity, Chopra might find a Christian perspective that is not entirely hostile to his own, particularly in the little-understood realm of Theosis. This is a subject too big to explore here, but it is worth noting that in their meditations on the Trinity, several prominent Eastern Orthodox Church Fathers used the language of “becoming God” (the literal meaning of Theosis). A couple of points must be kept in view, though. The first is that the Orthodox Fathers viewed God as a noun and a verb, which overlaps with Chopra’s perspective, and it is right to do so, in my opinion. In this sense, “becoming God” can be understood as “doing God” and we “do” God whenever we “do” something good, like love. The second is that the Orthodox Fathers saw the Trinity as something that makes Theosis possible, not the other way round. I fear that a syncretistic approach would jump on the Trinity bandwagon as a means to justify its talk of becoming God. In other words, the Trinity could become the means to the end, rather than the dogma from which the outcome flows.
  8. Chopra regards the resurrection of Christ as a mystical experience that is only of relevance to Christians after they have died. He fails to notice the physicality of the resurrected Christ who, on one notable occasion, cooked a meal of bread and fish (John 21). He also fails to acknowledge that the resurrection is not just a pointer to life after death; it is regarded by Christian Scripture as the ultimate vindication, verification and validation of God on the life of the man, Christ Jesus. The way to God’s vindication, verification and validation of our lives, therefore, is to follow Christ, and we had better do it while we are still alive.
  9. Chopra makes rookie mistakes with the Christian scriptures. I have previously noted his skewed perspective on “the Kingdom of God is within you”, and his false division of Jehovah from Jesus. But, he makes other blunders that should not have got through the editing. For example, Chopra claims that the Gospel of John describes Jesus’ life without reference to miracles. I don’t know which version he has read (maybe Benjamin Franklin’s, after he cut out every reference to the miraculous with a pair of scissors?), because in my version I read about changing water into wine (Chapter 2), the healing of the man born blind (Chapter 9) the raising of Lazarus from the dead (Chapter 11), and many more, culminating in the resurrection of Christ Himself (Chapter 20).
  10. Chopra would be better served by acknowledging the conflicts between his own dogmas and those of the Christianity he seeks to subsume. Rather than trying to claim that all is one and, in the process, damaging the dissenting world-views, an honest appraisal would leave them appreciably intact, which occurs to me to be the more respectful approach. Certainly, I would hope to use it if ever I were to critique or adopt aspects of a world-view that is different from my own.
There is more to consider in Chopra’s The Future of God than I have addressed here. Much of it is good, and Christians could learn from it. I hope, however, that they would not be misled into thinking that Chopra speaks for Christianity, because he doesn’t except where his dogma overlaps with Christian dogma. Chopra struggles with atheism, and for this I am grateful. He also struggles with Christianity, but makes the mistake of trying to absorb it into his own Bhuddism. He’s not the first to do so, and he will not be the last.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Eulogy for my Dad - Geoffrey Frank Jacobs

Read at the Thanksgiving Service at Christchurch Priory on Wednesday, 9 December 2015.

My name is Martin, and I was privileged to have Geoffrey as my father. Of course, I would like to claim some credit for that particular decision, but alas.

Dad’s life was not just an arrival at an end point. It was a long journey that intersected many lives. We remember the many meetings and intersections along the way, and we remember that they were good.

In the last few days, I have started to clear out the garage. I’m starting at its current state, or end-point. It was Dad’s shed; his man-cave. There was an outer crust of ‘I’ll just put this down there for the time being’ and stuff that would be sorted later, after a cup of tea.

Like an archaeological dig, the outer crust had to be removed in layers but, underneath, Dad’s workbench began to emerge. There were the screws and nails, sorted into boxes and jars, and used paint-brushes, standing in jars of turps, waiting for the next job. I found, to my dismay, that Dad had never assembled a piece of Ikea furniture, because, try as I might, I could find a hex key nowhere. Every piece of flat-pack furniture always comes with a hex key, and after a while of assembling these things you garner a small collection of hex keys, but Dad had none.

Of all the rooms in the house, Dad’s garage seems to be the place to remember him best. That was where he made things, fixed things, painted things, took things apart, and reassembled them with various degrees of success. It was where he solved problems.

Dad and I built a boat there. We or, rather, he started by laying out the plywood boards. Then we stitched them together with copper wire and sealed the joints with fibre-glass. Slowly, the thing took shape – the keel box, the buoyancy tanks, the rowlocks and rigging. We painted it a luminous fluro-yellow. Dad and I and assorted family and friends and enjoyed sailing it around Christchurch harbour. I remember, on one alarming occasion, looking down at the keel box and seeing the luminescent green sea through a hole, which then proceeded to fill the boat as water is wont to do. Time for some more of Dad’s repairs.

Whilst clearing the garage, I found a relic of that old boat and wondered about whether to bring it here today because it is such a pug-ugly thing. Here it is; a rudder pin, with its striking yellow paint.

I remember (or I think I remember) standing on Dad’s shoulders as a small boy. You can see the photo. He was big and strong, then. When he came home from the sea, we three boys would demand a romp and a wrestle with him on the sofa, and he would tie us up in giggling knots.

In later life, we got to know Dad further by his quiet deeds. Janna and I are always grateful for the support Dad and Anne gave to us as we started to build a life of our own. Dad’s generosity was not limited to material help, either. Dad, and Mum, never tried to keep us at home like household pets. They wanted us to go wild, and we did; to out and make our own way in the world, and that takes a particular kind of generosity. On the other hand they never closed the door to us whenever we needed a bolt-hole or a stopover or a cup of tea. Dad had a large and generous heart.

God is love, so the Bible says, and I believe it, in no small part because of Dad’s example. 

It’s a curious thing to say because love is a noun and a verb; something you have, and something you do. Is God a noun and a verb? Possibly. But trying to separate the noun from the verb is like trying to separate the journey from the thousand small steps, and each small step makes the whole journey.

I mention this because the small steps are important. Dad’s small steps of generosity, tolerance (which Dad valued highly), integrity, forgiveness, forbearance, giving others the benefit of the doubt, making space for others in your world; in a word, love. These small steps are important and there are too many to count, or remember here, but they are known to God.

Of course, a large number of these small steps are beyond my memories of Dad. For instance, I knew him as Dad, but his ship-mates would have known him as Captain, and you don’t get to Captain without mastering the sea and those that sail on it. I would have liked to have known more about Geoffrey as Boss, but I am content to believe he was a good one.

You have your own stories of Dad, your own memories. To conclude, I feel it is right to thank you, on Dad’s behalf, for loving him. Thank you, Dad, for loving us.

God is love, and love endures when all else has passed away.