Oprah’s Religion

Posted by on Nov 12, 2008 in Sermons | One Comment

The name Eckhart Tolle is hardly a household name—at least, yet. Earlier this year, his book The New Earth, was chosen by Oprah Winfrey as the choice of her Book Club and has sold 3.5 million copies so far. (And to think I was excited that my Narnia book has sold almost 1,000!) He has appeared with Oprah several times and they have hosted webinars (online seminars) together when people phone and Skype in with their questions: over two million people have taken part in these courses so far, and 27 million have downloaded them afterwards! That’s why I say we had better get used to the name Eckhart Tolle.

 

So who is Tolle and what is he teaching? I have read most of his book, The New Earth. I have watched videos of him and of Oprah and of the two of them together. (Lots of them are on YouTube.) And I have read a cross-section of what people are saying about him and his teaching. The most helpful I found are a pastor and theologian called Greg Boyd, and a teacher from Tyndale Seminary in Toronto called Jim Beverley. Some of what I am going to say is based on what I learned from them.

First of all, there are things in this book that are very positive.

  • Tolle talks about the importance if living in the present. If we are always planning and worrying for the future, or living in the past, we miss out on the good things that are happening right now—the smile of a child, a sunset, or the smell of a flower.
  • Tolle reminds us that it’s no use trying to get our sense of self-worth from things or from money or from having influence over other people. It’s a waste of time, because it doesn’t work and it doesn’t last.
  • And he reminds us that religion can damage our spiritual health. Instead of being a door into helping us to explore our spirituality, it can actually be a door slammed shut against our spirituality. Many of us have known the kind of churches he’s talking about. Nobody wants that kind of religion . . . and it certainly has nothing to do with Jesus.

I can’t say any of these are new ideas, but it’s helpful to be reminded of them.

But there are things I feel less positive about. For instance, what he says about:

  • Religious beliefs

Tolle says he is against what he calls “belief systems”—“a set of thoughts that you regard as absolute truth.”(17). He thinks we should let go of “form, dogma, and rigid belief systems” (18) so we can be free to experience enlightenment. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

The problem, of course, is that on every page of his book he is setting out his beliefs, “a set of thoughts.” What’s more, he’s very dogmatic in his beliefs. For example, he tells you what Jesus really meant, which apparently nobody has understood for the past 2,000 years. And if you disagree, well, you’re wrong—or at least unenlightened. But Tolle never tells you how he knows the things he says: he just says them, gently and with a smile, but dogmatically and with great authority.

It’s ironical, isn’t it? Although he says he is against religions which think other religions are wrong, what is he offering in their place? A religion that thinks other religions are wrong. What is wrong with this picture?

Let’s look at some of his specific beliefs, beginning with the most crucial one of all:

God

Let me read you a very revealing part of this book:

It has been said that “God is love” but that is not absolutely correct. God is the One Life in and beyond the countless forms of life. Love implies duality: lover and beloved, subject and object.

That sounds innocent enough, to say “that is not absolutely correct.” But it’s actually very radical. When the Bible says God is love, it means there is a God who is separate from me, who is my creator, and who loves me and the whole world.

For Tolle, there is no “God” in that sense, no God who is separate from me. In a sense, everything is God, including human beings. In fact, he often refers to people as “I AM” (in capital letters), a name God calls himself in the Old Testament.

Now, the way you think about God is going to affect everything else you believe. That’s true for example about what Tolle believes about:

People

He takes the view that people exist just like waves on the sea. A wave is there for a short time, but then it goes back into the ocean and loses its identity. Human beings are the same: we exist for a time, but really we are a part of the ocean of universal consciousness, and that’s what we return to after death. That’s an ancient and respectable point-of-view. But it is diametrically different from Christianity.

Christians want to say, No, human beings are more than waves on the ocean. They are made in the image of God—not that we are God but that there is something amazing and wonderful and god-like about every one of us. And this fact that we are who we are—our personhood—is a precious gift from God.

And that’s why to say God is love is not nonsense: however much we lose ourselves in the love of God—in the same way you can lose yourself in a good conversation or a good game—we will always be us and God will always be God—even beyond death. C.S.Lewis asks his friend Bede Griffiths why God would bother to make us separate in the first place if God always meant us to lose our identity in him? (Letter, 27/09/49)

* Salvation

Tolle doesn’t so much talk about salvation so much as about enlightenment. Enlightenment means realizing that you are just a wave of the sea, that you are a part of universal consciousness. When you’re enlightened, you can then live in harmony with the universe, and that brings a kind of peace.

But this is not the same peace the Bible talks about. Being at peace with God, as Christians understand it, doesn’t mean that everything is one. No, it means that we can be friends with God our Creator because Jesus has dealt with our wrongdoing. It’s like the peace that comes after a war, when the peace treaty has been signed.

And then there’s Jesus:

* Jesus

Tolle quotes Jesus about a dozen times in this book, and (how can I put this nicely?) I would say every single time he twists what Jesus meant. How can I say that? Am I being dogmatic too? Yes!

I say it because he totally ignores the fact that Jesus was Jewish, that he lived and breathed the air of the Old Testament. For him, Jesus as a real person really isn’t that important: he’s just a guy who said some wise things that can mean whatever you want. So, for example, he quotes Jesus’ words, “The kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (234) Let me read you the whole section:

When you hear of inner space, you may start seeking it, and, because you are seeking it as if you were looking for an object or an experience, you cannot find it. This is the dilemma of all those who are seeking spiritual realization or enlightenment. Hence, Jesus said, “The kingdom of God . . . is in the midst of you.”

But when Jesus says “the kingdom of God” there is no way he is thinking of “inner space” or “spiritual enlightenment.” He is a first-century Jew and what he meant by the Kingdom was what all first-century Jews meant by the kingdom—the community where people live in relationship with God and with one another and with the world around in accordance to the Creator’s laws—not what 21st century New Age Western teachers mean by it!

Conclusion

There’s lots more that could be said. But let me finish with this: Eckhart Tolle reminds us that people are deeply spiritual, and that they are seeking for some kind of spiritual reality beyond this world to make sense of their lives.

But Tolle also reminds Christians that we really haven’t done a very good job of representing Jesus to the world, and helping people discover true spiritual fulfillment as followers of Jesus.

As we come to the table this morning, and hold out our hands to receive the bread and the cup, it reminds us that we are not God, and that our destiny is not universal consciousness. It says to us that God is our Creator and our Lover, and that we are his creatures, his children, and his friends. It reminds us that he loved us enough to die for us. And that he invites us to live for him. 

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John Bowen taught evangelism at Wycliffe College from 1997 till 2013. He now directs two departments of the college: Wycliffe Serves! which co-ordinates the external ministries of the college; and the Institute of Evangelism, which helps churches across the country with resources for congregational vitality and evangelism. He is married to Deborah, an English professor. They have two adult children and four grandchildren.

1 Comment

  1. avatar
    Rafael Vallejo
    April 13, 2010

    John. It will be very difficult to understand Tolle if you are unable to get into his whole philosophy.From the point of view of Western Christian Tradition he sounds like a “monist” “pantheist” etc.

    His views around Jesus may sound far out for those of us who have studied biblical languages and have done a fair bit of exegesis on some of the usual texts like “The Kingdom of heaven is in your midst” etc.

    I have no difficulty seeing where you are coming from. I feel I understand you. I have also read a fair bit of Tolle as well, and reading him with an Asian lens, I can see my own culture and religious heritage articulated by him as well, even if he is a white, western and male.

    One of the things that makes it difficult for people like us to understand each other, I think, is that even when we use the same words, we actually can mean very different things.

    Words like “God” and “Jesus” become very problematic, because people today attach very different meanings to these words.And since no one can really claim exclusive ownership of these words, they tend to get used in ways that we may not approve of.

    Rafael

    Reply

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