By Rev. Robert Barron
Francis Cardinal George Professor of Faith and Culture
Last year, Oprah Winfrey recommended to her world-wide audience a book written by the German-born spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle entitled A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. As expected, the book became a runaway bestseller, and an internet program featuring Oprah and Tolle has attracted millions of participants. But then something happened that wasn’t expected: Oprah’s advocacy of A New Earth prompted a vigorous reaction from evangelical Christians who claimed that the book represented an attack on classical Christianity. A Christian-sponsored YouTube site critical of Tolle and Winfrey has received over seven million hits. What can we Catholics make of this controversy?
Part of the genius of Catholicism is its capaciousness, its ability to take in and assimilate to itself whatever is true in other religions, spiritualities and philosophies. And there is much in Tolle’s teaching that is compatible with a robust Christianity. He speaks, for example, of the need to overcome the ego-driven self, the “I” predicated upon the assertion of superiority and independence. Well, any number of Catholic mystics and spiritual masters over the centuries have spoken of the “false self,” with its tendencies toward attachment, violence, and pride. And they have urged, as Tolle does, the discovery of the true self, grounded in love, connection to others, and the transcendence of egotistic preoccupations. More to it, Tolle defends the existence of what he calls “the pain-body,” a semi-autonomous psychological structure taking its rise from the suffering and injustice that a person has endured. Frequently, Tolle claims, the psyche is, as it were, possessed by this highly-charged negative force, compelling one toward actions one would not otherwise perform. Well, St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, speaks of sin as just such a darkly compelling force: “I do not do the good that I want, but I do the evil that I don’t want…but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind…the law of sin. ”The reason for these correpondances—and there are others as well—is that Tolle’s spirituality represents what scholars have called the philosophia perennis (the perennial philosophy), a distillate of elemental truths discoverable in most of the philosophical and religious traditions of the world. The church has never despised the philosophia perennis, but at the same time it has regarded it with caution.
As I read Tolle’s book, I was reminded frequently of St. Irenaeus and his struggle against Gnosticism, an ancient form of the philosophia perennis which Tolle enthusiastically embraces. Like the Gnostics, Tolle sees Jesus primarily as a teacher and interprets salvation as a transformation of consciousness, a kind of waking up to a new awareness. The Church certainly affirms that Jesus is a teacher, but it emphatically states that he is infinitely more than a spiritual guru, a wise and enlightened philosopher. Jesus is God, and that makes all the difference. He is not simply one teacher among many who has found a way to God; he in person is the way; he is not simply one enlightened figure among many who has come upon the truth; he in person is the truth. What he brings, therefore, is not one teaching, however moving and transformative; what he brings is the divine life, a participation in ?God. And thus salvation is much more than the clearing up of a false consciousness; it is a transfiguration of the entire self through the grace of God, made available through a mystical participation in Jesus.
But my fundamental problem with Tolle is the same as Irenaeus’s fundamental problem with the Gnostics: an impersonal view of God. Tolle will speak of getting in touch with Life or with Being or with the Universe considered as a totality, and he characterizes these breakthroughs as self-divinization. But this places his program thoroughly outside the ambit of the Bible. For the biblical authors, God is neither an impersonal force, nor the universe as such, nor the energy that flows through and connects all things, but rather the personal creator of the world, Someone who stands utterly outside the world even as he sustains and governs it, and Someone who has entered history personally and directly. C.S. Lewis commented that much of modern mysticism thinks of God as a kind of pleasant background music to which one can turn for inspiration, whereas the Bible thinks of God as a Person, powerful, overwhelming, and unpredictable, a Person who seizes us and calls us to himself. Tolle’s “Universe” has little to do with the God of the Bible.
A last point: toward the beginning of his text, Tolle excoriates the classical religions—especially Catholicism—for contributing to the violence and dysfunction of the world by making exclusive truth claims. I could only smile at this. Does Tolle think that he’s not making truth claims and that he, therefore, holds alternative views to be wrong and worthy of critique? God knows that far too many religious people across the ages have backed up their assertions with violence, but this regrettable fact cannot prevent Catholics from saying that, in essential matters, we are right. Despite his protestantions, Eckhart Tolle does the same.
Published in Catholic New World