Intelligence Squared: US is a debate-style podcast that centers around one motion under investigation. Typically, IQ2US (their preferred shorthand referent) doesn’t put out content that’s particularly interesting. There are a lot of episodes on economics and global politics which, while important, are boring as far as I’m concerned.
A few weeks ago, however, I finally listened to the debate surrounding the motion “The More We Evolve, the Less We Need God.” Two pairs debated each other, one side arguing for the motion and the other against. In favor of the motion were neuroscientist Heather Berlin and “public intellectual” Michael Shermer. Against the motion were Deepak Chopra, well-known in part because of his spiritual relationship to Oprah, and physician Anoop Kumar.
This debate was an enlightening exchange for a number of reasons, but the reason I want to key in on relies not so much on the minutiae of argumentation but on the general spheres that the two sides represent. IQ2US will typically put a question to task and assign respondents who, in large measure, represent widely held beliefs in respect to the motion under review. That is to say, you can rely on IQ2US to put people on stage to represent the majority-held “horns” of the argument; rare is the radical. Of course, the accepted field of debate for IQ2US’s audience will be different than for the general American audience, but we will look at that more in a moment.
Their tendency to use mainstream spokespersons is what made this particular debate so interesting. On the one side, you have a pair of strict materialists. The neuroscientist and the skeptic both argue that there can be no god–and no use thereof–because there is no immateriality. Consciousness, even–that intending-toward which demarcates humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom–is the result of the bio-neurological processes of the brain. One will eventually explain all things through the rigorous analyses of the sciences, and to revert to god-talk is merely to make use of a “god of the gaps,” an unacceptable acquiescence to ignorance. All fairly mundane, as far as scientism is concerned, and representative of a growing cultural trend.
On the other side, you had Deepak Chopra, famous “new age” doctor and occasional dabbler in metaphysics. (Kumar’s contributions to the structure of the debate were relatively minor, and they can safely be subsumed under Chopra’s larger project.) Chopra defines from the beginning what is meant by the word “god” when he and Kumar speak of god. “God” is “the consciousness in which all experience occurs.” Consciousness/god is the potentiality and actuality of every and all experience. There is no external being who stands beyond experience; “god” is, to abuse Tillichian terms, “the ground of experience.” There can only be god qua consciousness, potential and actual. Succinctly: “God is our highest instinct to know ourselves.” Through consciousness and through it alone, we know ourselves.
Now, to explain the title. There’s a point in The Odyssey wherein Odysseus must make a choice: be willing give up six men to death or risk losing his entire ship. He’s to pass through the Strait of Messina, and on one side is the six-headed monster Scylla, who will snatch six sailors at will–and if you tarry, she’ll snatch six more. On the other side of the strait, a sea monster named Charybdis would appear three times a day, destroying everything within her reach at these points. There would be no escape were you to be caught in Charybdis’s terror. Odysseus chooses the guaranteed loss of six versus the potential loss of his ship and crew in toto.
Along the lines of our phrase “between a rock and a hard place” or “on the horns of a dilemma,” the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” has come to represent choosing the less-worse of two awful options. Treading a middle ground would not do; you’re as likely to wreck on both accounts simultaneously than to avoid either. As far as IQ2US is concerned, the horns of this dilemma (what is god, and what is its use?) are simple: god is either a wholly irrelevant myth or merely the sum total of all consciousness.
With reference to Christian orthodoxy, neither one of these options are appealing. Fortunately, I would wager that the popular understandings of god have not yet devolved there. The ideas articulated by Chopra and Berlin are still too radical for most. Elements of strict materialism or vacuous new age mysticism may be incorporated into popular thought, but they won’t be assimilated wholesale for some time.
Nevertheless, history seems to demonstrate that the ideas fermented in the upper echelons of culture tend to trickle down. For the moment, Berlin and Chopra’s projects are limited broadly to the bourgeois strata of our society: well-educated, self-satisfied, little experience with material poverty. Such an environment breeds a view of god which strips the divine either of substance or of existence. Who needs a god in the comforts of wealth? The American upper classes have determined either that god does not exist or that god’s existence derives solely from our experience of consciousness; making your way through the middle of the strait merely invites an attack from both sides.
These are the Scylla and Charybdis of bourgeois theology. These are the relative positions of debate. Because this is the case, we need to consider developing an articulation of theology that broaches one or the other construction in order to speak intelligibly to the culture. It’s no secret that the nation’s Christian heritage is withering, which means that the cultural cache of Christian thought can no longer be relied on to create common ground. To borrow again from Tillich, we must develop an apologetic theology that takes seriously the location and direction of our culture’s theology.
In hopes of not stretching the metaphor too far, we should wonder which bourgeois position corresponds to the Scylla and which to the Charybdis. That is to say, which threatens the destruction of Christian doctrine wholesale, and which merely threatens certain aspects? It may be the case that both positions are so threatening that we have no other choice but to remain aloof, in a certain sense, to the dangers that loom on either side. However, that would have to be a last-case scenario, having exhausted all other options. Such a posture bespeaks the fundamentalist impulse of any theology worth considering; it’s Balin’s Tomb.
Grant that we have an obligation to consider one side or the other. Which side risks a total loss? Which risks less? For my money, I’m far more wary of Chopra than Berlin. As much as Dawkins- and Harris-inspired ideologues drive me insane (which is what Shermer seems to represent), Chopra’s project would do far more lasting damage to future attempts at theologizing and evangelism. By Chopra’s radical redefinition of god as the ground of experience, he maintains a spiritual flair to “god” while at the same time utterly stripping “god” of anything transcendent. I have found myself closer to Berlin in certain respects, and I’m fairly certain that we can articulate a post-materialist theology more easily than a post-rudderless-mysticism theology. We can’t forget, however, that whichever route we choose will be fraught with hazards. Obviously, neither position are ideal carriers of Christian theology, but I do not believe that we are at the point where we must revert (a la Dreher) to strictly Christian communities and raise the drawbridge. Because these positions are still largely restricted to the higher classes, the church has some time to prepare adequate responses for whatever form materialism and new age mysticism may take in popular culture.
 Whenever you read “new age,” whether here or elsewhere, you can substitute “bastardized concepts of Buddhism and Hinduism in a Western context,” and you won’t be far off.
 Don’t read more into the phrase than intended. The predominant religious and cultural influence in this nation has been some version of Christianity, and only an ideologue would bother denying this. This historical foundation has been eroding for generations, and the erosion has accelerated of late. That is our “new normal,” and it is not necessarily good or bad.