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Issue Date:  April 18, 2008

-- Newscom

Eckhart Tolle
Eckhart Tolle's message is positive. But is it Christian?


Eckhart Tolle is the planet’s hottest purveyor of what some would call New Age religion. And Oprah Winfrey -- well, she needs no introduction. He is soft-spoken, reflective, and otherworldly -- many would say enlightened. She is dynamic, sparkling, and -- by her own admission -- caught up in a war with her own widening body, as worldly a concern as one can imagine. So what could these two possibly have in common? What could bring them together as co-instructors in the world’s largest classroom?

Oprah adopted Mr. Tolle’s latest book, A New Earth, as her February book-of-the-month. She was so excited about it that she persuaded the German-born author to do a live Monday evening Web cast with her to discuss its ideas. Nearly half a million viewers from all over the world have registered. It’s free, and it runs March 3 to May 5.

I have read both this book and Mr. Tolle’s more famous The Power of Now, which was catapulted to No. 1 on The New York Times Best Sellers List a few years ago by an earlier Oprah endorsement. I have taught it in a college classroom. And I have found myself wondering, is Mr. Tolle’s message consistent with Christian teaching? Could it help Christians? Should they be tuning in to the show?

Mr. Tolle’s first priority is to bring healing to a sick and suffering planet. Most of us, he says, live on the brink of insanity. This is because our thoughts are running away with our lives: They have hijacked our consciousness, our essential being, and are miscasting us as an ego, a grasping, frightened individual cut off from our quiet depths and battling with other egos for dominance in a never-ending war.

I think many people, including Christians, can relate to this.

-- AP/Stephen Chernin

Oprah Winfrey

Mr. Tolle goes on: Most of us are trapped in past regrets and future anxieties. Note how your mind carries on as you drive to work. It’s always in the past or future. It’s regretting something that happened yesterday or anticipating an event that might not happen tomorrow. Worry, always worry. A mind spinning out of control, accountable to no one, living its own life, often in pain, while you, the real you, the part of you that should be holding the mind accountable and controlling it instead of its controlling you, is helpless.

Can Christians relate to this? Again, I think so.

Now for the solution. If you are ever to be happy, Mr. Tolle says, if you are ever to live at peace with yourself and others, you must learn to live in the Now. This means that you must control your mind and deliver yourself from the slavery to past and future. What exactly does this emancipation feel like? And how do you carry it off?

Take an example. Suppose you are planting a garden in your backyard and every time you stick your spade in the earth your resentment of an enemy is tweaked into life, and you, barely consciously, and certainly not freely, are destroying him in argument or slapping her hated face in your imagination. Or maybe even sticking a spade in his heart! What effect does this have on you? In a word, it makes you miserable. Your pulse is up, your breathing is shallow and quick, and your adrenaline is stampeding. Yes, that’s misery. But there is a way out of it. Get into the habit, Mr. Tolle says, of reminding yourself that the mind is not you. Rather it is your instrument. A precious instrument when used wisely, but a beast when left to its own devices. Program yourself to quiet the incessant chatter, to enter the silence, to dwell in inner space where, for a brief moment, the mind is absolutely still. “Say or think, ‘I am,’ and add nothing to it. Be aware of the stillness that follows the I Am. Sense your presence, the naked, unveiled, unclothed beingness,” he writes in A New Earth. If you do this, Mr. Tolle says, you will experience the “joy of Being.” This joy “is your natural state, not something that you need to work hard for or struggle to attain,” he writes in The Power of Now.

Mr. Tolle equates this Being with what most of us call God. “It is the Source, the unmanifested one Life. It is the timeless intelligence that manifests as a universe in time,” he writes in A New Earth. And we are part of that universe. So we, in our depths, are divine consciousness manifesting itself in a material world, individual by individual. For what purpose? “For the enjoyment of it,” says Mr. Tolle.

Can Christian thought affirm this sort of theology? Some would say it sounds a lot more like the Hindu Vedanta, or even Zen, than anything Christian. But then there are the mystics. The popular spirituality author sounds a lot like the contemporary Catholic monk Thomas Keating, who roots his centering prayer movement in the tradition of the Christian mystics. Listen to Fr. Keating: “We rarely think of the air we breathe, yet it is in us and around us all the time. In similar fashion, the presence of God penetrates us, is all around us, is always embracing us,” he writes in Open Mind, Open Heart. “And it is delightful.”

What, then, is the verdict? My reading of Eckhart Tolle is that there is a real difference between his God and the God of Christianity, as most of us, even most of the Christian mystics, understand that God. For Mr. Tolle, God is in the world in a more radical way than for the Christian. Mr. Tolle sees persons as being like water drops, and God as being like the ocean from which the drops come. For him our inner nature, our tiny morsel of Being, is literally and completely divine. It is of the same substance as God. As Fr. Keating sees it, however, we are not like drops of water; rather we are like little sponges in the water. We are completely saturated with the water, but we are not the water.

Theological differences between Mr. Tolle’s God and the Christian’s will loom as important for some Christians, and they have a right to know what they are in for if they tune in to the show. Other Christians may not notice or care. Frankly, I wouldn’t worry about them. Mr. Tolle’s theology is only a footnote to the therapy he holds out to his audience. What’s essential, as he sees it, is the experience of God in our depths, not the way we think about God. After all, thinking is the problem. Both Mr. Tolle and the Christian mystics agree that to know God we must get beyond thinking, beyond creeds, beyond belief and experience his presence. If enough people did that, the world would be new indeed.

Mr. Tolle isn’t saying much that is new. In fact it’s as old as the Upanishads, written 2,500 years ago. His genius is in the writing. He writes superbly, with an idiom as American as Kansas City.

As for the program, Oprah Winfrey is an effective foil to Eckhart Tolle. She is his radiant shadow, summarizing with verve -- and accuracy -- his quiet message.

Stafford Betty is professor of religious studies at the University of California, Bakersfield.

National Catholic Reporter, April 18, 2008

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