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.
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.
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.
True consciousness, and thus salvation, involves what Tolle calls "presence." We attain knowledge of "presence" by becoming aware of the "inner body," actively eliminating distinctionmaking thought, conscience, and all forms of physical reality. By doing this, we can't overcome disease or suffering, which he advises us to accept, but we can see that we are an integral part of the world of "true being," not a separate "ego."
For Tolle, "knowing self and knowing God become one and the same." The millions who've turned to Tolle might naturally conclude: I am the "I Am." Sound familiar? It should. According to the Bible, such "knowledge" springs from the oldest error of all: man's desire to be "as gods."
The Bible teaches that humanly conceived "enlightenment" is actually idolatry, the worship of the human self, a creature, as the equivalent of – or in place of – God, the only Creator. Such idolatry is moral rebellion against "our Father."
The Bible declares that the basic problem is not ignorance, but sin. Thus the solution is not self-realization through esoteric knowledge, but the grace that flows from the depths of God's love. As we receive God's gift of salvation by believing in Jesus Christ, we become, not gods, but "new creatures," working for and awaiting the Creator's new heaven and earth.
There is a further source of confusion. Though sounding very open, humble, and inclusive, Tolle's teachings implicitly reject this biblical truth. He declares that "all religions are equally true and equally false." But notice: While he and Oprah dismiss religious teaching that claims to be the only way and the only truth, the unstated, but logically inescapable corollary is that theirs is the only way!
On the webcast, a woman asked Oprah how she reconciles Christianity and "A New Earth." The Baptist-raised Oprah said she could because she had opened her mind to Tolle's way of thinking and, earlier in life, freed herself from church rules and doctrine. In so doing, though, Oprah – and her millions of followers – are accepting the rules and doctrines of another system, Tolle's Gnostic view of truth that Jesus' earliest followers warned against. No wonder so many Christians are confused.
A choice of ultimate importance
But this Web class unintentionally creates an occasion of genuine clarity. We face a choice of ultimate importance. We can stand with "the truth" of Tolle-Oprah and a long tradition of mystics who suggest that man is God and that "God" is merely a human creation. Or we can stand with Jesus Christ, who proved that he was "the way, the truth, and the life," and affirm that God is God, and man is God's creation.
As contemporary humanity seeks to create a global community, some sort of "new earth," the age-old challenge that Joshua issued to Israel is placed before us with added urgency: "Choose this day whom ye will serve": the gods or God, because, in the global community, as Bob Dylan rightly observed, "you're gonna have to serve somebody."