First published in Midwest Outreach Christian Journal, Fall 2008; title and article modified for CANA website
On March 3rd, 2008, Oprah Winfrey and Eckhart Tolle began an online class with a reported 2 million people to study Tolle’s book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. On her April 9 television show, Oprah highlighted testimonials from those who claimed that this book had changed their lives. On that show, Oprah said that she is a Christian but that she long ago understood that Jesus did not come to die on the cross; instead, he came to show us how to achieve “Christ Consciousness.” She said that rather than the cross, what it really was about was “Christ coming here to show us how to do it —- how to be — to show us the Christ consciousness that he had, and that that Consciousness abides with all of us.”
Oprah acknowledged that a book by Eric Butterworth, Discover the Power Within You, is what opened her eyes. Who is Butterworth and what does he have to do with Tolle?
UNITY AND OPRAH’S FAITH
Eric Butterworth (1916-2003) was a Unity minister. Unity was an offshoot of the New Thought Movement, which teaches, among other things:
1. Jesus was a highly evolved man who realized his inner divinity — the Christ Consciousness – demonstrating that all men could achieve this.
2. Everyone comes from God and returns to God, and there is no heaven or hell.
3. Sin is the belief that you are separate from God; liberation is to realize that you are not separate from God.
4. You must discard historic Christian beliefs for the New Thought way of understanding.
The New Age, which is an amalgam of many beliefs – Eastern, Gnostic, occult – incorporates elements of New Thought as well, including the concept of Christ Consciousness. Jesus is just one of many who realized his inner divinity. New Thought claimed to be Christian; even today, Unity bills itself as “practical Christianity.”
This is why Oprah considers herself a Christian. Butterworth’s book was a factor in paving the way for Oprah’s subsequent acceptance and endorsement of the numerous New Age teachers and beliefs she has promoted on her show, including Tolle’s book.
A GLIMPSE OF TOLLE: FROM ULRICH TO ECKHART
Tolle (pronounced in two syllables as “toll-e” to rhyme with “slowly”) reportedly had a spiritual awakening at age 29 after many years of depression and anxiety. Waking one night in fear, he believed he could not go on. His thought, “I cannot live with myself any longer” caused him to surmise that there were two of him, and to ask
“‘Who is the ‘I’ and who is the self that I cannot live with?’ There was no answer to that question, and all thinking stopped. For a moment, there was complete inner silence. Suddenly I felt myself drawn into a whirlpool or a vortex of energy. I was gripped by an intense fear, and my body started to shake. I heard the words, ‘Resist nothing,’ as if spoken inside my chest. I could feel myself being sucked into a void. Suddenly, all fear disappeared, and I let myself fall into that void.” – From this site
This experience led Tolle into studies of Eastern beliefs, including various schools of Buddhism. According to an interview with Tolle in the “Vancouver Sun” after the success of Tolle’s first book, The Power of Now, “He knows he’s achieved full self-realization” (Douglas Todd, Oct. 5, 2002, Vancover Sun). Tolle is fully convinced of this, and is quoted in this article as saying to another source,
“The certainty is complete. There is no need for confirmation from any external source. The realization of peace is so deep that even if I met the Buddha and the Buddha said you are wrong, I would say, ‘Oh, isn’t that interesting, even the Buddha can be wrong'” (Douglas Todd, op cit.).
This is an astoundingly bold statement revealing that Tolle believes himself capable of being more enlightened than how the Buddha is perceived.
It is important to remember that Tolle assumes himself to be fully self-realized, which means in New Age terms that he has achieved the Christ Consciousness, the realization of his inner divinity, which is a New Age state of enlightenment. Tolle considers himself a spiritual teacher, advanced enough to guide millions, even if he were to be contradicted by Buddha! This is in stark contrast with his reputed humility and low-key manner.
Tolle changed his first name Ulrich to Eckhart out of admiration for the mystic, Meister Eckhart. Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), known as a “Christian mystic,” was a controversial figure, having been charged with heretical views after his death. One of Eckhart”s better-known statements is
“The eye by which I see God is the same as the eye by which God sees me. My eye and God’s eye are one and the same–one in seeing, one in knowing, and one in loving.”
Eckhart also said,
“God’s is-ness is my is-ness, and neither more nor less. The just live eternally with God, on a par with God, neither deeper nor higher.”
One cannot help but wonder if this thought from Meister Eckhart about the present influenced Tolle’s recurrent theme, first seen in his book, The Power of Now, and also expressed in A New Earth:
“There exists only the present instant… a Now which always and without end is itself new. There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence”
It seems that Tolle took more than just Meister Eckhart’s name.
Meister Eckhart’s views could be described as possibly pantheistic (God and the universe/humanity are one in nature – God is all and all is God), or at least panentheistic (God and the universe are contained within each other – God is in all and all is in God; or God is part of the universe and also transcends the universe), a not uncommon viewpoint of mystics, as well as being found in New Age beliefs.
Tolle maintains that his book will cause a “shift” in your consciousness and that his book The Power of Now or other “transformational” books can also start the process of awakening (page 7). The New Age is always looking to a future toward which man is spiritually evolving. Many believe a shift in consciousness is taking place, and humanity is poised to make leaps spiritually, mentally, psychically, and technologically.
Some attribute this shift to the Age of Aquarius (though Tolle does not mention this); others are connecting it to the year 2012 based on a Mayan prophecy stating there will be a particular alignment in the sky at the end of a cycle of time, or see other evidence for this spiritual evolution taking place or about to take place.
However, according to New Age teachers, not everyone is prepared for this “shift.” This teaching is only for those who are receptive and able to process it. As Tolle explains, his book “can only awaken those who are ready” (A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose [NY: Plume/The Penguin Group, 2005], 7). In order to say this, Tolle must assume that he is “awake” and has achieved a higher level of consciousness than others. He apparently expects others to accept this without question. But readers should be asking: Why should we accept that Tolle is the “enlightened” author? On what basis can he say this and where is the evidence for it?
Tolle’s ideas, in fact, are a mere echo and rehashing of philosophies that have been around for centuries; this hardly indicates enlightenment or even special insight.
A BIG BAD EGO AND BUDDHISM
According to Tolle, the root of our problems is the big, bad ego. We identify with the ego, which is the false self, and become trapped in a false identity, which skews our perception of reality. This idea is hardly groundbreaking; it is a well-worn adage of the New Age with origins in Gnostic and Eastern thought.
One of the ways to transcend identity with ego and the false self, Tolle advises, is to “let go of thought,” because “Thinking isolates a situation or event and calls it good or bad” (194-96). Tolle also instructs the reader to focus on the present moment, the “Now,” which is “the end of the ego” (200-01). In fact, Tolle posits that there is no real time, only an illusion of it (205). When we “awaken within the dream” and see who we really are, “This is the new earth” (210).
Tolle approvingly quotes many Buddhists and uses Buddhist terms. Concepts from Buddhism underlie Tolle’s views throughout the book. Tolle’s depiction of the ego (false self) could be equated to the Buddhist concept of self, which is believed to be a temporary construct resulting from feelings, bodily sensation, memories, and thought. Identification with this self keeps man trapped in a cycle of illusion and suffering.
The answer to this problem is to cease identification with the ego. This is one of the purposes of Buddhist detachment-a practice that eventually allows one to realize the self (ego) is not the true identity (Buddhist Mindfulness meditation practices play a large role in developing this detachment). And Tolle’s “Being” could be parallel to the Buddha nature, which is the ultimate and only reality in Buddhism.
The Gnostics taught that man is pure spirit but through the machinations of an evil god or intermediary (accounts differ), these spirits came to earth and became trapped in bodies. They began to identify with the physical body, and a self separated from God, and forgot they were pure spirit. Tolle’s teaching regarding the ego being the false self echoes these ideas.
DOES TOLLE HAVE GOOD THINGS TO SAY?
It is not difficult to find Christian blogs where comments such as, “I don’t agree with Tolle’s spiritual views, but he has some good things to say” are common. Some have even said that Tolle can be helpful. But teachings contrary to those of Jesus will almost always “have some good things to say” or will even quote from the Bible right and left. Deception at its best is often a mixture of lies and truth, because the true parts give validity to the false. The New Age is a blend of beliefs, and is therefore quite skillful at embracing and using Christian terms in order to appear compatible with Christianity.
Tolle does address some symptoms of the problems in society – drugs, addictions, suicide, selfishness, fear, hatred, insecurity, anxiety, wanting control, jealousy, greed, etc. But the source of these problems, according to Tolle, is our identification with the ego, which is not our real self.
What Christians need to realize is that Tolle’s beliefs are not just non-Christian, they are anti-Christian. The true source of the human problems discussed by Tolle is sin, not identification with a false self such as the ego. If the source of the problems is identification with the ego, then the solution is merely to become aware of this and alter one’s perception and thinking. Indeed, this is the view of the New Thought Movement of the 19th and early 20th centuries based on their false teaching that Jesus came to correct “wrong thinking.”
CRACKING THE CHESTNUT ABOUT ENERGY
The old New Age line — we are all energy and how solid things are really energy — is trotted out by Tolle (146). But this is a New Age urban legend. Indeed if this true, we would all be part of a nuclear explosion! Matter simply is not energy “in ceaseless motion” (146). To become energy, matter must be converted to energy via something like a nuclear bomb. And we certainly would not continue to walk around as though we were little streaming beads of light!
Ironically, considering Tolle’s supposed enlightened teaching on man’s basic nonmaterial spiritual nature, views that reduce man to molecules is actually a very materialistic view. He is saying that we are merely a mass of molecules packed together, a view which would gladden the heart of any Atheist. The energy which science speaks about in relation to matter is not the “mystical” energy of the New Age, nor is it the chi or qi of Taoism. Chi and qi as spiritual concepts derive from Taoist terms for a force or energy that underlies and connects all living things.
MAN IS DIVINE
The Bible reveals a God who is both immanent (present in the world) and transcendent (existing beyond the world), Deut. 32:39; Job 33:4; Ps. 33:13-15, 83:18, 139:7-10; Is. 55:8-9; 57:15; 63:11). But God is always distinct from His creation, not a part of it. God created the world out of nothing, not out of Himself (Genesis 1). Since humanity is created by God, distinct from God, we do not have a godlike or divine nature (Job 9:32). People often confuse the idea of God’s omnipresence – that God is present everywhere – with the idea that God is present in everything, including man.
Only man is made in the image of God, and this means that man, as opposed to animals and to nature, reflects attributes of God such as will, intelligence, language, and awareness of moral rights and wrongs.
The biblical teaching on man is that on the one hand, man is a “little lower than God“ and “a little while lower than the angels“ as well as being “appointed over the works” of God’s hands (Ps. 8:5, Heb. 2:7). On the other hand, man fell into sin by believing Satan over God, thus corrupting his relationship with God, and separating himself from God (Gen. 3:17-24;
Rom. 5). Accordingly, we see that while man is created in God’s image, that image has been marred by sin and man is born into this state of separation from God. Tolle equates man with God by taking the Biblical titles identifying God or Jesus and applying them to man.
Tolle believes that man is basically good since he is part of God (13). He asserts that we are all “I Am,” (which he equates with the word “God”) expressed in form.
“When I no longer confuse who I am with a temporary form of ‘me,’ then the dimension of the limitless and the eternal – God – can express itself through ‘me’ and guide ‘me,'” (251)
Tolle says that “God …. is formless consciousness and the essence of who you are” (219). This is the spiritually lethal premise of Toll’s message: man is equal to God.
TOLLE AND JESUS
Tolle rejects the historical Jesus of the Bible, and recasts Jesus as an enlightened, awakened teacher like Buddha. Tolle, in typical New Age fashion, completely disregards the prophecies and context of Jesus as the prophesied Messiah. Eastern enlightenment and liberation are the same as salvation taught by Jesus, declares Tolle. This statement is a brazen and boorish denial of the biblical text as well as 2,000 years of Christian teaching and belief.
Tolle claims that when Jesus said, “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life“ (John 14:6). Jesus was saying we are all the Truth (71). If anything, Jesus was saying the opposite: He was claiming to be the prophesied Messiah, the Redeemer, the unique Son of God (which means he had God’s nature), and the only way to God. Tolle ignores the overriding theme of Scripture about man falling into sin and the resulting separation from God through this sin.
Throughout his book, Tolle violates the biblical text, reading his own meaning into the words. For example, Tolle avers that when Jesus said, “Deny thyself,” he meant, “Negate (and thus undo) the illusion of self” (79). Of course, even a schoolchild looking at the context of this comment (Matthew 16.21-27) can understand this is not what Jesus meant. Jesus said, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (16.24). Jesus is speaking to his disciples and goes on to say that some may lose their lives for believing in Jesus, but that in doing so, they are saved. That is, belief in Christ brings real life, eternal life, even if physical death comes. This is supported by other statements from Jesus.
Ironically, Tolle would know nothing about what Jesus said without the Bible, yet Tolle refuses to see the plain meaning in it.
The Bible’s message is not to realize one’s inner divinity but rather to recognize one’s sin and the need for redemption. Truth is not recognition of a natural unity with God, but rather admission of one’s inherent separation from God.
The good news is that the separation between man and God is ended when one puts his or her faith in the resurrected Jesus Christ, who atoned for our sins on the cross:
“For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life” Rom. 5:10
The biblical Jesus, thankfully, is not the ethereal Jesus of the New Age — an amorphous mouthpiece of esoteric enigmas. Jesus, God the Son in a human body, felt hunger and thirst, ate with sinners, healed the sick, spoke concrete truths for everyday people, shed real blood on the cross, and bodily rose the third day, victoriously defeating death itself. He lived love, not a wimpy permissive love, but rather real love that judges and overcomes evil.
“For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.” Luke 9:26
“Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away.” Luke 21:33
SUGGESTED QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION WITH READERS OF TOLLE
SUGGESTED QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSION WITH READERS OF TOLLE
For Tolle fans, some of these questions and points might be helpful:
1. On what basis should we assume Tolle is enlightened and not self-deceived?
2. By what authority does Tolle teach?
3. What does enlightenment mean anyway, and who is defining this term?
4. If you had not read Tolle or any other ideas like his, would you think that your self is not your true self?
5. Do you believe man is divine? If so, what evidence is there for this?
6. If we are divine, why did Jesus pay the penalty for our sins on the cross? Please read Hebrews chapters 9 and 10 to understand this.
7. Why is Jesus called the Lamb of God? Why the numerous references to the blood of Jesus in the New Testament? Tolle never refers to or explains this.