God Out of the Box (Ken Pennings) 4.15.18

At ORUCC, we use a lot of theological terms that make some of us cringe, but make others of us smile, depending on where we are in the movement toward metaphorical understanding.

Audio Version of Sermon

Given the rise in intolerance in American society towards those perceived to be different or other, it seems fitting to explore what some leading voices outside the Christian faith might offer us on our journey of hope and grace. Last Sunday, Winton shared the wisdom of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

This morning, I’ll be sharing insights from Deepak Chopra, born in October 1946, from a Hindu background, an American author, public speaker, alternative medicine advocate, and a prominent figure in the New Age movement. Through his books and videos, he has become one of the best-known and wealthiest figures in alternative medicine. Chopra studied medicine in India before emigrating to the United States in 1970 where he completed residencies in internal medicine and endocrinology.

I’m going to move into Deepak Chopra in a round-about way. I’m going to start with the teaching of one of the greats from within the Christian tradition, Marcus Borg. Recently, in Java & Jesus, we discussed one of the chapters from Borg’s books, Convictions, in which he shares an experience quite common to most of us in the Progressive Christian Church, a movement through the stages of pre-critical naivete, critical thinking, and postcritical affirmation.

Pre-critical naivete is a childhood stage in which we take for granted whatever the significant authority figures in our lives tell us is true. For instance, if they say the Bible is true and Christianity is the only way, we take it for granted.

Eventually, we begin to wonder how much of what we absorbed as children is really the way things are. We move into a stage of critical thinking in which we question what we once so readily believed.

The third stage, postcritical affirmation, begins with the realization that some truths, especially religious truths, can be expressed only in metaphorical and symbolic language. This stage does not abandon critical thinking but integrates it into a larger whole. In the stage of postcritical affirmation, the great stories of religion, including the miracle stories of the Bible, yes, even the resurrection of Christ, can be seen as true even though not literally factual.

Borg applied this triad to his memories, conversions, and convictions about salvation. For young Marcus Borg, in the stage of pre-critical naivete, salvation was about believing in Jesus and going to heaven when he died. The other possibility, of course, was hell. Salvation asked the question, “Where will you spend eternity?”

Critical thinking led Borg to his conviction that Christianity is not primarily about heaven and hell. Rather, salvation in the Bible is seldom about an afterlife, but mostly about transformation this side of death. Christianity and salvation are mostly about this life, not the next.

Thinking critically about salvation as metaphor gently led Borg into the third stage of postcritical affirmation, where he no longer cringed each time he heard the word “salvation,” because the word was packed with new meaning.

When I was hired at this church nine years ago, I was a bit stuck at the stage of critical-thinking, and hadn’t yet moved into the stage of postcritical affirmation. I remember a conversation with some of you when the topic of salvation came up, and I retorted, “I don’t need a Savior. I’ll save myself, thank you very much!” I’ve softened into the stage of postcritical affirmation where I don’t bristle hearing the term salvation. Like Borg, I have packed the term with new meaning, and realize that I do, in fact, need salvation every day — salvation from all that binds me or blinds me in this life.

Many of us in this congregation have journeyed through these three stages to be able to use certain theological terms without cringing, because we’ve packed these terms with new meaning.

A few examples:

  • Prayer – Is prayer about prying open the hands of God to receive a blessing for ourselves or others? Is prayer about coaxing God to help us in our times of need? Is prayer about crossing ourselves at the free-throw line so our team will win the game?

No, most of us are moving toward a new understanding of prayer. Prayer is about aligning ourselves with the divine, expressing ourselves openly and honestly before God in a loving trusting relationship through all that we think, feel or do. We pray through our breathing, our yearning, our laughing, our crying, our waking, our sleeping, our working, our playing. Our very lives, and even our deaths, are our prayer to God.

Some of us who once cringed at the idea of prayer now enter into prayer expectantly because it’s packed with new meaning.

  • Faith — Is faith about believing with absolute certainty? Claiming certain promises without question or doubt? Knowing that our interpretation of Scripture is accurate and true?

No, most of us are moving toward a new understanding of faith. Faith is about living non-anxiously in the uncertainties, ambiguities, and perplexities of life. Faith is affirming the “all is well” of the universe, seeing the divine in every aspect of creation.

Some of us who once cringed at the idea of being a person of faith now gladly self-identify that way.

At ORUCC, we use a lot of theological terms that make some of us cringe, but make others of us smile, depending on where we are in the movement toward metaphorical understanding. Because we are not all at the same place in our use of metaphor, it’s important for us to explain what we mean by the words we use. And take it from me, as a former fundamentalist Baptist, I’m not sure some of us ever will be completely free of the cringe factor.

We use one important theological term more often than any other – God.

What do we mean when we use the term God?

This is where the wisdom of Deepak Chopra may become meaningful and helpful to us.

I’m quite sure that Deepak Chopra, in his critique of institutional religion, has moved from a pre-critical naivete to a postcritical affirmation when he writes “Religions draw into tight camps where their God is the only true God, for racial, tribal, political, and theological reasons. I find none of them justified” (page 91).

“To see God without illusions, we’ve had to overturn conventional religion. We had no choice. Religion does its worst because of lower-brain responses (fear of punishment, us versus them, the need for security and safety) mixed in with tribalism, cultural mythology, childhood fantasies, and projections. The whole mélange was unhealthy. More to the point, it wasn’t God” (page 206).

In Chopra’s opinion, God has nothing to do with the divisions of people racially, tribally, politically, or theologically. Instead, God is much more than, much broader than, any god of institutional religion. This is God out of the box!

Chopra writes, “(God) cannot be put in a box. As curious as this sounds, it’s the most important thing about God…Quite literally, to find God, you must go outside the box” (page 145).

And he writes, “The reality of God is hidden behind a fiction of God” (pg. 74). Our job, then is to move beyond any fiction of God, much of which is found in our own Scriptures, to discover the reality of God.

Chopra summarizes his God-view on the last page of his book, The Future of God (which our Progressive Christianity Discussion Group read a couple years ago):

  • God is the intelligence that conceives, governs, constructs, and becomes the universe.
  • God is not a mythical person – God is Being itself.
  • God exists as a field of all possibilities.
  • God is pure consciousness, the source of all thought, feelings, and sensations.
  • God transcends all opposites, including good and evil, which arise in the field of duality.
  • God is one but diversifies into the many – God makes possible the observer, the observed, and the process of observation.
  • God is pure bliss, the source of every human joy.
  • God is the self of the universe.
  • There is only God. The universe is God made manifest.

 

In this summary, Chopra packs the term God with new meaning. God is the intelligence or mind of the universe, Being itself, the field of all possibilities, pure consciousness, the source of compassion and every human joy, the self of the universe. In other places, he writes that God is Wholeness, Oneness, Brahman nature or Buddha nature.

 

“When you reach higher consciousness by any means, you no longer separate what is good for you from what is good for everyone. Humanity contains Buddha nature (the source of compassion); the world contains Buddha nature; the cosmos is nothing but Buddha nature” (page 118).

Is this what some of you mean when you use the word God? Maybe yes, maybe no. But it’s something to think about!

Certainly, we, with the apostle Paul (I Cor. 13:11-13), long to move beyond our childish reasonings, see more clearly than we might see in a dim or cloudy mirror, and more fully apprehend and reflect all that God is.

What may be more significant to us than Chopra’s view of God are his ideas about the human path into God.

He writes, “A seeker is searching for God, reality, and the true self all at once” (page 165).

“The journey to know God begins where words fail us” (page 147).

 

“You face only a single choice: to align yourself with wholeness or not” (page 228).

 

“Empty your mind of all opposites. Since God has no opposite, what you will be left with is Oneness. The way it works is something like this. A crisis has arisen, and people are rushing around in a panic. The crisis could be anything – a hurricane, a bank failure, a political upheaval. You are tempted to join in the rush, but you tell yourself, ‘God isn’t found here. God isn’t the crisis or the solution but both. God isn’t action or inaction but beyond both. God isn’t panic or calm but beyond both.’ By examining every detail of duality, you stop being attached to mental constructs and the emotions they arouse” (page 208).

 

We must open our minds to “a God who is all things, (who) can’t be only good, loving, peaceable, and just. Whether we like it or not – and mostly we really hate it – we must make room for God’s participation in the bad, painful, and chaotic parts of life…. Once your mind begins to wrap itself around an all-inclusive God, one who simply is, you are truly escaping illusion” (page 154).

 

To know God, “Go beyond the shadow play of appearances, and reality will greet you, as Rumi says, in ‘a world too full to talk about.’ Enter the realm of all possibilities.” (page 222).

 

So what is our path into God, according to Chopra?

  • Search for God, reality, wholeness, and the true self all at once.
  • Empty our minds of opposites; examine every detail of duality; stop being attached to mental constructs and the emotions they arouse. For instance, drop the illusion of our own goodness or someone else’s badness.
  • Open our minds to the God who simply is, including all that is good and all that is bad.

 

And if we have trouble walking that path into God, Chopra encourages us, “Your present self, in its un-awakened state, isn’t your enemy or a cripple or a failure. It is Buddha waiting to realize itself. It’s the seed of wisdom needing to be nurtured” (page 121).

“Every step forward contains a hint of Buddha nature” (page 121).

One of our members reflected on these optimistic words and wrote, “No matter how old we are or how successful or unsuccessful we have been in our lives, the seed of wisdom is there — just waiting to be nurtured and developed.  How wonderful a concept!  I can start to nurture that seed at any time.  I CAN realize my true self!”

I don’t know what you’ll do with Deepak Chopra, perhaps read his book, The Future of God, and decide what’s relevant for you.

What I plan to do:

  • Try perceiving and addressing God using Chopra’s language. See if it works for me.
  • As often as possible, confront dualities and move toward wholeness, oneness & connectedness with all people, all creation and all that is.
  • Be patient with myself when I fail. The Buddha is within me waiting to reveal itself!

 

 

 

 

 

 

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