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The old error of 'A New Earth'

The Oprah-Tolle juggernaut is deeply unbiblical.

By Peter Jones / May 5, 2008

Escondido, Calif.

When Oprah Winfrey declared a few weeks ago that "this is the most exciting thing I've ever done," she wasn't referring to a new charitable project, her endorsement of Barack Obama, or even her new reality TV show.

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She was referring to an unprecedented, 10-week Web broadcast to discuss spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle's latest bestselling book, "A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose." Millions have joined this "webinar," which concludes May 5.

It's not hard to see why. It appeals to many disaffected believers, because it claims to liberate us from old, ideological, "I am right; you are wrong" religious beliefs. It offers a new spirituality that supposedly lies at the hidden center of all religions.

It has thus generated great confusion, and a serious backlash among those who see in the Tolle-Oprah juggernaut a pernicious teaching. "The Church of Oprah Exposed" video clip on YouTube has been viewed more than 6 million times.

The confusion derives from the fact that Mr. Tolle's book is not, like "The Secret," just another glitzy, profit-driven work of self-help literature. It comes across as an earnest attempt to meet our deepest spiritual needs. Who doesn't want to experience freedom from anger, depression, resentment, bad habits, and emotional pain?

Indeed, a new earth – a new life – has been the fervent hope of all who have experienced sin, sickness, and suffering.

Apparent similarities

The Bible and "A New Earth" at first seem very similar, because Tolle's teachings are often presented in a quasi-Christian framework and affirmed by Oprah as consonant with Christianity.

Tolle's book cites the Bible about 20 times, without the reader feeling that texts have been wrenched out of their context. It describes our situation of dysfunction and anxiety, of man's inhumanity to man, and our selfishness. It identifies inauthentic attempts to gain meaning through physical possessions or manipulative relationships. It finds no worth in secular humanism and the consumer society. And it encourages a spirit of forgiveness, citing the words of Jesus on the cross.

There are also parallels with the benefits associated with Christian conversion – phrases such as "new birth," "joy and peace," and "grace" are sprinkled throughout the text.

But here is where the similarities end.

On the issue of the nature of God and humanity, and the way of salvation, the apparent agreements give way to fundamental contradictions.

At bottom, one approach is rooted in God's grace. The other is rooted in man's vanity.

For Tolle, echoing the teachings of the ancient Gnostics, the chief error is ignorance of our true self. This leads to the rise of "egoic mind patterns," a false consciousness that causes distress. This ego also mistakenly sees as real the "forms" and "content" of everyday life and the distinctions we see therein: right and wrong, creature and Creator.

The spiritual truth, according to Tolle, is that much of what the ego calls reality is merely – as the Hindus say – maya, illusion. Since the basic human problem is ignorance owing to illusion, the solution is the knowledge of how to attain a transformed state of human consciousness.