Saints know God. So do prophets, mystics and Stevie Wonder. But for the rest of us, the Almighty can be, well, mighty elusive.
Is He the stern father who creates tragedies to punish us for our sins? Or the protector who helps us through tragedies of our own sinful making?
There are as many images of God as there are people on Earth, which, says Deepak Chopra, is perfectly natural. In his ambitious new book, How to Know God, the medical doctor-turned-spiritual-teacher attempts to explain how we experience the divine. His scholarly approach blends quantum physics and religious teachings to argue that in essence, we create God in our image.
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"What kind of world did God create? It depends on where you are in your awareness," Chopra says. "At the first level, which is the fight/flight response, you create a reality where survival is the most important thing. In the second level you create a reality of ambition, winning and competition. Yours is a God of the reactive response."
As we grow, our brain responds to God on other levels: intuitive, creative, visionary and ultimately sacred. Chopra has defined seven stages in all.
The idea that we can know God by looking in the mirror may inflame orthodox believers. But it's comforting to those who like their spirituality with loose reins. And that may be more of the population than we expect. A recent survey by the New York Times found that nearly half polled said they are as religious as their parents. Their definition of "religious," though, omits the Puritanism and Calvinism that formed our young nation's morality.
"Americans want a capacious God who smiles on everyone," says Alan Wolfe, director of Boston College's Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, "not a jealous God protective of one particular version of his teachings."
Perhaps this is why Chopra's works -some 25 books that blend science, mysticism and self-determination - have resonated so strongly with the rebellious post-war generation. We want a God who is more of a mentor than a parent.
There is a breach, however, between having faith in God and experiencing Him. Chopra insists that everyone can know the Creator, in ways as subtle as "the sudden rush of love for a stranger" and as powerful as a miraculous healing. The first we've all felt at one time or another; the second we have a chance to experience even in this lifetime.
How fast we accelerate through the seven stages depends on our spiritual and psychological makeup, and whether we heed the messages we receive every waking minute.
"Every emotion is spiritual," says Chopra. "Coincidences are messages from the manifest."
Despite its title, How to Know God offers little practical instruction (Chopra says his next effort will focus on applied spirituality. But its popularity may signal that we're heading toward a new spiritual path: from knowing about God to knowing God.