Deepak Chopra, a former medical doctor turned New Age sage (he was once described by Time magazine as "the poet-prophet of alternative medicine") has written some 50 books. His most recent, The Third Jesus (2008), is subtitled, "The Christ We Cannot Ignore."
If only we could ignore this book and the false Christ it presents. But Chopra, who has earned millions of dollars from his particular brand of neo-Hindu monism for the masses (he studied under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation), is quite popular. And The Third Jesus, published in February 2008, has sold well, having spent several weeks on The New York Times top-ten bestsellers list for "Hardcover Advice" books.
Worse, The Third Jesus features blurbs by Catholics, including Fr. Paul Keenan, the host of "As You Think," a program on The Catholic Channel/Sirius 159. Fr. Keenan states, "In The Third Jesus, Deepak Chopra unfolds for us the spirit of Jesus and with a reverence that is at once simple and profound makes his spirit accessible to us in our everyday lives." And Sr. Judian Breitenbach, a longtime adherent to Chopra’s teachings, gushes, "In this intriguing study of the sayings of Jesus, Deepak Chopra gently releases this highly evolved spiritual teacher, light of the world and Son of God from the limitations of dogmatic theology." But, far from gentle, Chopra’s approach to Jesus is heavy-handed, arrogant, shoddy, and often downright nonsensical.
The Third Jesus Is a (New Age) Charm
The Third Jesus consists of three main parts. The first, "The Third Jesus," presents Chopra’s Christ and urges readers to abandon the Jesus found in the Bible and Church teaching. The second, "The Gospel of Enlightenment," interprets various sayings of Jesus, including some from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas, and concludes with a section titled, "Who Is The ‘Real’ Jesus?" The final part, "Taking Jesus as Your Teacher: A Guide for Seekers," offers 15 steps to "God-consciousness" and concludes with a withering attack on orthodox Christians—"fundamentalists," in Chopra’s simplistic estimation.
Chopra begins by saying that Jesus left a "riddle" that "2,000 years of worship haven’t solved." The riddle: "Why are Jesus’ teachings impossible to live by?" For Chopra, traditional, orthodox Christianity has not only failed to help people follow Christ, it has created a false Christ who keeps Jesus’ true intentions hidden. What Jesus really intended, we are told, was "a completely new view of human nature, and unless you transform yourself, you misunderstand what he had to say. . . He wanted to inspire a world reborn in God" (2).
There is a sense, of course, in which Jesus did indeed intend a new understanding of human nature, but it does not flow from man’s self-transformation, but from a transformation wrought by God through Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. But Chopra insists man can save himself if only he recognizes what made Jesus stand out in the crowd: "What made Jesus the Son of God was the fact that he had achieved God-consciousness" (3-4). And, a few pages later, in what is clearly a thesis statement (emphasized by italics): " Jesus intended to save the world by showing others the path to God-consciousness " (10). This is a variation on the general New Age belief that man is meant for a "higher" or "cosmic" consciousness, in which the material realm and morality disappears.
The New Know-Nothings
Chopra flatly states that the first Jesus "is historical and we know next to nothing about him" (8). Chopra employs contradictions in striving to do away with this Jesus. "The first Jesus was a rabbi who wandered the shores of northern Galilee many centuries ago. This Jesus still feels close enough to touch." And yet, while he seems so close and knowable, he is completely unknowable. Why? "This historical Jesus has been lost, however, swept away by history" (8). While this is apparently intended to be pithy and devastating, it actually sounds like something a high school freshman might write in a 1,000-word essay titled, "What I Learned from The Da Vinci Code This Summer." Granted, Chopra’s remark about history is absurd, but it is also significant: absurd, since it makes no sense; significant, because it sets the tone for the entire book, which revels in contradictory and illogical statements.
This is in keeping with much of Eastern mysticism, which revels in being "supra-rational" and unhindered by traditional reason and basic logic. Thus, 200 pages later, readers are informed, "History may blur Jesus’ biography, but it can’t put out the light" (217). So, which is it: swept away or merely blurred?
Not only is Chopra consistently inconsistent with his "arguments" and observations, he demonstrates a lack of interest in actual Christian doctrine and theology. This is readily apparent in his dismissal of the "second Jesus," who is "the Jesus built up over thousands of years by theologians and other scholars." This Jesus "never existed" and "doesn’t even lay claim to the fleeting substance of the first Jesus" (9). As if to underscore his complete lack of theological knowledge, Chopra writes that the supposedly nonexistent Jesus created by the Church "is the Holy Ghost, the Three-in-One Christ, the source of sacraments and prayers that were unknown to the rabbi Jesus when he walked the earth" (9). But if the historical Jesus has been "swept away by history" (just three paragraphs earlier!), how do we know what was known or unknown to him? Where does the Catholic Church teach that Jesus is the Holy Spirit? Is Chopra familiar with any Christian theology? Considering that the only post-apostolic Christian thinkers named in The Third Jesus are Dante (in passing) and Kierkegaard (a brief mention of Either/Or), the obvious answer is, "No, he’s not."
Chopra, in fact, contemptuously tosses aside theology and metaphysics: "Theology shifts with the tide of human affairs. Metaphysics itself is so complex that it contradicts the simplicity of Jesus’ words" (9). In his world, mind-baffling theology and complex metaphysics are, oddly enough, used by Christian "fundamentalists." For example, Chopra later assures readers, "Trying to find ‘the real Jesus’ is basically a fundamentalist effort" (139). His pronouncement must be amusing to the many highly educated New Testament scholars who are also orthodox Christians.
Scripture Could Mean Anything at All?
Despite praising "the simplicity of Jesus’ words," Chopra later complains, "Anyone can devise a new interpretation of the New Testament. Unfortunately, this great text is ambiguous and confusing enough to support almost any thesis about its meaning" (139). The reason for Chopra’s disdain for theology—from the Greek words theos (God) and logia (discourse or discussion)—seems simple enough: He doesn’t like thinking logically about God (at least the personal God of the Jews and the Christians). And when Chopra encounters an argument or position he disagrees with, he simply dismisses it: "Theology is arbitrary; it can tell any story it wants, find any hidden meaning" (136). Chopra’s own arbitrary methods and findings are apparently exempt from any such criticism.
Then there is Chopra’s open disdain for the Catholic Church and Church authority. (Chopra, it should be noted, spent some of his childhood attending a Catholic school, and he dedicates the book "to the Irish Christian Brothers in India who introduced me to Jesus . . . ") So the second Jesus—described as "the abstract theological creation"—"leads us into the wilderness without a clear path out" (9). Christianity is marked by division and sectarianism, endless argument, and an unhealthy appeal to authority: "But can any authority, however exalted, really inform us about what Jesus would have thought?" And yet this remark comes right before 200 pages that declare, in an authoritative and sometimes exalted tone, what Jesus did think, would have thought, and must have thought about a host of topics. So, yes, some self-exalted authority by the name of Deepak Chopra does attempt to do the unthinkable.
Jesus and "God-consciousness"
The Third Jesus, according to Chopra, "taught his followers how to reach God-consciousness." This Jesus was "a savior," but "not the Savior, not the one and only Son of God. Rather, Jesus embodied the highest level of enlightenment . . . Jesus intended to save the world by showing others the path to God-consciousness " (10). Then, having already claimed that the historical Jesus cannot be known and that the second Jesus is a nasty lie, Chopra offers an unconvincing olive branch: "Such a reading of the New Testament doesn’t diminish the first two Jesuses. Rather, they are brought into sharper focus. In place of lost history and complex history, the third Jesus offers a direct relationship that is personal and present" (10). But if the historical Jesus cannot be known and Jesus of doctrine and theology is a fabrication, how can they be "brought into sharper focus"?
Upon what evidence does Chopra construct his portrait of Jesus? Chopra doesn’t reveal much about the sources he used (there are no footnotes, nor a bibliography). They are most likely a combination of Jesus Seminar-like works, radical feminist texts, neo-Gnostic tomes, and standard New Age tomes. Whatever the sources, they apparently aren’t interested in the first-century context in which the Gospels are written, especially the Jewish context. Apart from mentioning Jesus’ conflicts with various religious leaders and some comments about Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, the explicitly Jewish character of the Gospels is given short shrift. Chopra simply assumes that most of the New Testament is historically inaccurate, written by followers of Jesus who manipulated their Master’s words for their own ends. No evidence or arguments are provided, no scholars are quoted, no effort is made to show how and why Chopra accepts one verse as authentic while dismissing or ignoring others. Call it a low-level variety of the "hermeneutics of suspicion." Or call it convenient, self-serving, and dishonest. Either works.
Chopra makes errors that could have been avoided with a modest amount of study. He writes: "Jesus calls himself the New Adam" (15). No, he didn’t; the only use of "Adam" in the Gospels is in Luke’s genealogy. The term "new Adam" doesn’t appear in the New Testament; rather, Paul compares the "last Adam" (Jesus) to the "first man, Adam" (1 Cor. 15:45). Yes, Jesus is understood to be the New Adam (see Catechism of the Catholic Church 504, 505, 539), but the Gospels don’t record Jesus referring to himself in such a way.
Having quoted from John 8 ("I am the light of the world . . . "), Chopra gives this context: "Jesus had entered Jerusalem for the last time. Within hours he would be arrested by the Romans . . . " (Third Jesus, 22). Wrong. That was still some time away, as the Feast of Dedication had yet to take place (John 10:22), as well as raising Lazarus, (John 11), the triumphal entrance into Jerusalem (John 12:12-19), and the Last Supper discourse (John 13-17).
Chopra claims that "Jesus railed against the law . . . " (Third Jesus, 23). Woefully incorrect. Jesus praised the Law—it was the misuse and abuse of the Law that angered him. He said, "Think not that I have come to abolish the Law and the prophets; I have come not to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished" (Matt. 5:17-18). And Jesus, insists Chopra, "didn’t dramatize the End of Days," which will come as a surprise to those familiar with Matthew 24 and 25, Mark 13, and Luke 21. He describes the pre-Christian Paul as "a worldly skeptic," which directly contradicts Paul’s clear testimony about his zealous adherence to Judaism (Acts 26:4ff; Phil. 3:4ff).
Chopra Ignores Core Christian Beliefs
More importantly, Chopra has little interest in what Christians have always understood to be the heart of the Gospels: the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He makes the strange remark that "with the Resurrection a flesh-and-blood man was transformed into completely divine substance—the Holy Spirit" (136), and implies that the early Christians, desperate to have Jesus back with them, created the belief in the Resurrection (179). Other than that remark, he is silent on these core Christian beliefs.
Of course, there is much talk of Jesus pointing man toward "God-consciousness," but it is invariably ephemeral and vague. Reading Chopra trying to explain the nature of his Jesus’ life and work is like watching a madman shooting fog with a shotgun. He claims to have hit the target every time, but the fog remains and nothing has really happened, even while the shooter’s cockiness grows with every blast.
Chopra’s Christ disregards the material world. He has nothing to do with Christianity or the Church, or with the God of the Jews and the Christians. He has no interest in faith, concerned only with enlightenment and a higher state of consciousness: "Once we see Jesus as a teacher of enlightenment, faith changes its focus. You don’t need to have faith in the Messiah or his mission. Instead, you have faith in the vision of higher consciousness" (62). This Jesus does not ask us to believe in him, but to seek out "his essence, which is the light of pure consciousness" (63). Divine intelligence, the mad shooter opines, "manifests whatever we can imagine" (65).
This is self-help monism for the masses, which promises spiritual and physical wholeness if only readers will look inside themselves for the answers. To focus on Jesus and our response to him, says Chopra, is to miss the point. When one achieves God-consciousness "wholeness prevails. There is no more going in and going out of God, coming to God and moving away. The experience of God turns into a constant for one reason alone: ‘I’ and ‘God" become one and the same " (212, emphasis added). Jesus may be a good example, but he is not the goal: "But Jesus is the very thing you and I won’t be like once we arrive at God-consciousness" (213).
The New-Age (Anti)christ
Despite his many contradictory remarks, Chopra clearly presents his Jesus as the real Jesus: unique, fresh, and newly recovered after centuries of dark oppression on the part of the Church. Yet this Jesus is hardly unique; he is essentially identical with a host of New Age Christs who have been created, recreated, and reincarnated over the past century by authors such as Levi Dowling, José Silva, Edgar Cayce, Richard Bach, Matthew Fox, and many others.
Evangelical apologist and philosopher Dr. Douglas Groothuis has written several excellent books on the New Age movement. In Jesus in an Age of Controversy, he outlines common traits of the New Age Jesus, all of which are found in Chopra’s book:
- Jesus is a spiritually advanced being who provides an example for us to achieve our own "spiritual evolution." He is often compared to, or paired with, Buddha. Thus, Chopra insists, "the Christian seeker who wants to reach God is no different from the Buddhist. Both are directed into their own consciousness" (Third Jesus, 87).
- The historical Jesus is distinct from the universal and impersonal "Christ consciousness" or "God-consciousness," which he embodies but does not monopolize. Orthodox Christian understandings of Jesus are considered narrow-minded, provincial, and limiting. Or, in Chopra’s words: "Clearly Jesus did not have a provincial view of himself. Although a Jew and a rabbi (or teacher), he saw himself in universal terms" (Third Jesus, 20).
- Jesus death on the cross and his Resurrection are of little or no importance. Thus, a significant part of the Gospels (roughly a quarter of those texts) is simply ignored or dismissed as unimportant.
- Jesus’ Second Coming is not a literal, visible event at the end of the age, but a stage in the evolutionary advancement of humanity. As Chopra states, "the Second Coming will be a shift in consciousness that renews human nature by raising it to the level of the divine" (Third Jesus, 40).
- Extra-biblical documents, especially Gnostic texts, are used and regarded as authentic sources for the life of Jesus. Meanwhile, the Gospels are quoted selectively and often "corrected" by other sources. "Other documents may be as old as the four Gospels," Chopra writes, "and therefore make their own claim to authenticity" (Third Jesus, 133).
- Bible passages are given esoteric interpretations that contradict orthodox understandings, as well as historical facts. Chopra especially enjoys reinterpreting texts about "light," ignoring (as in the Gospel of John) the context of the Feast of Lights, and the connection being made in John’s Gospel to the Shekinah glory of God.
Like so many before him, Chopra does not appeal to history, facts, or logic in presenting his version of Jesus. He is completely derivative and unoriginal, despite his attempts to appear otherwise. His assumption that his "Third Jesus" should be accepted simply because he, Deepak Chopra, believes in him, reveals a belief system that is not just illogical but makes no real attempt at engaging the difficult, challenging questions—historical, philosophical, theological—that should be taken seriously.
The Road to Spiritual Narcissism
An essential message of The Third Jesus is the tired-but-popular mantra: Spirituality is good; religion is bad. We need, Chopra exhorts readers, to discard "the model of religion. To gather together on the path isn’t the same as forming a sect. There is no need for dogma, prayer, ritual, priests, or official Scripture. No one is to be elevated above the rest" (171). But if The Third Jesus (and many of Chopra’s other books) is anything, it is a dogmatic work, a scripture that provides rituals and meditation. Chopra is a sort of priest, the spiritual leader who provides teaching and guidance.
James A. Herrick, in his excellent study, The Making of the New Spirituality, writes about how the New Religious Synthesis (his term for New Age movements and related belief systems) does away with history in order to open the way "to universal religious insights." Religious belief is detached from historical events and the focus becomes inward. In this context, the gate is opened to
[T]he self-styled mystic, the spiritual charlatan, the religious expert or just the self-deceived neighbor, each operating in a realm of private interpretation of elusive evidences largely inaccessible to their followers or any would-be critic . . . Shamans, gurus, scholars of religion and even laboratory scientists now intervene between the public and the divine as a new class of priests. (256)
Chopra is one such guru, and his elevated status is not based on reason but on a system of subjective interpretation he describes as "secular spirituality." It is, in reality, a religion: the worship and divinization of self. Herrick, further pondering the tension between those who believe in a personal God and Jesus Christ, and those who espouse an impersonal oneness and the need to achieve a higher form of "consciousness," writes of this spirituality of self-obsession:
The New Religious Synthesis calls us to self-adoration as spirituality, to the exaltation of our own rational self-awareness—"the divinity operating within us" . . . —as an act of worship. The Other Spirituality’s journey away from submission to a personal and sovereign deity, away from moral responsibility before a Creator God, away from community built on worship of the Wholly Other, arrives at no more interesting destination than spiritual narcissism. (New Spirituality, 259)
"Spiritual narcissism" is a perfect description of The Third Jesus. Chopra’s book is only superficially about Jesus; in fact, he hardly makes any effort to find the real Jesus, having dismissed—without providing compelling reasons—the "historical" Jesus and the Jesus of doctrine and theology. On the contrary, this book is a self-absorbed exercise in pseudo-mystical navel-gazing, the sort of book whose beautiful cover disguises a hollow, empty work that is intellectually confused and spiritually toxic.
- Catholics and the New Age (Charis, 1992), by Fr. Mitch Pacwa, S.J.
- An excellent Catholic examination of the New Age movement is the Vatican document, "Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the ‘New Age,’" released in 2003 by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue. Available at www.vatican.va.
- Jesus in an Age of Controversy (Harvest House, 1996), and Confronting the New Age (InterVarsity Press, 1988), by Douglas Groothuis.
- The Making of the New Spirituality (InterVarsity Press, 2003), by James A. Herrick is an excellent overview, with a wealth of historical background.
- A fine popular introduction to Eastern pantheism and New Age beliefs can be found in The Universe Next Door (InterVarsity Press, 1988; 2nd ed., especially pages 136-208), by James W. Sire.