I am a Catholic convert – with nearly twenty years intensive engagement in the New Age subculture prior to my conversion. And within that culture, it seems to me, there is a typical pattern, which involves that of the “spiritual teacher.” Now, our secular world is filled with individuals who have become “stars” – often due to real talent, even brilliance on their part. And something similar is at work in the New Age movement. There too, certain individuals achieve “star” status …
Let me explain the pattern further. Typically, an individual possessed of a certain charisma, ability to communicate and quite possibly a noble and moral nature as well, claims the attention and following of many New Agers. Typically, the individual will have spurned tradition and have evolved a spiritual teaching outside religious institutions. Much of the source of the teaching may then be his own interior, spiritual reflection or experience. (Though in my judgment, it will also usually draw on other New Age teachings and ideology).
But if the individual is highly ethical, there can be no doubt that the teaching will have some good points to it. The teacher may also have a kind of mystical experience, which may be rare or extraordinary. Herein will lie much attraction. In my own experience, many a New Ager reading the literature, attending the lectures, sessions, workshops and so forth, will also be a person of real sensitivity and ethical awareness. Recognising what may be genuinely noble in the New Age teacher, the New Age follower well may say to oneself: “That sounds good – I’ll buy it!”
Certainly, when I look to my own twenty years with the New Age, this is how I was – I heard and read numerous “spiritual teachers” and my reaction, not even fully conscious, went something like: “That sounds good – I’ll buy it!” Alas! For I now believe that what is called for is deep critical reflection, before “buying” any “spiritual path”. For the dangers are significant ….
It is with such thoughts in mind – and heart – that I want to turn briefly to the thinking of Eckhart Tolle – who has become a superstar in the New Age world. “Briefly” – I wish to stress that this is but a short piece in broad strokes. It cannot hope to do full justice to a spiritual philosophy with significant nuance and complexity. But even if it cannot do such justice, I hope this undertaking can still serve to stimulate in the reader, the very kind of critical reflection I ultimately found so sorely lacking in New Age circles.
We will quickly then look at a New Age text that has become very popular: Tolle´s The Power of Now. It is not only popular in the New Age, but has achieved considerable mainstream success as well. Since its first publication in 1997, it has been translated into thirty languages, reached millions of people and made the Number One spot on the New York Times Bestseller List.
All of this constitutes a phenomenon which – incidentally but significantly I think – would seem unimaginable thirty years ago. On the back of one edition of this book, there is a recommendation by Oprah Winfrey, which exclaims “The Power of Now can transform your thinking … The result? More joy – right now! ” The back cover blurb then goes onto inform us that:
“To make the journey into the Power of Now, we will need to leave our analytical mind and ego behind … We can find our way out of psychological pain. Authentic human power is to be found by surrender to the Now … the present moment where problems do not exist. … It is here that we discover that we are already complete and perfect.”
Now I believe this is a book with a depth of profound and authentic experience of a certain kind. For I do not think the author is a fraud. And summing up a profound book by its blurb is admittedly fraught with pitfalls. On the other hand, Tolle presumably agreed to have his thinking presented to the world with such a blurb. And within the limits of a short space, I feel this blurb does suffice to give an accurate reflection of the book´s content – at least to a degree.
Yes with honesty, I believe Tolle gives an account of how his life was transformed by the discovery of a realm of experience, wherein he found a “way out of psychological pain”, beyond “the analytical mind and ego” to the experience of a state “where problems do not exist” or at least seem to …
However, the question remains: are there sufficient grounds in the experience presented here for all of us to take up our beds and follow him? It seems to me that Tolle is making some sort of claim to this effect. For example, after speaking of that which transformed his life, Tolle confidently asserts:
“It wasn´t until several years later, after I had read spiritual texts and spent time with spiritual teachers, that I realized that what EVERYBODY WAS LOOKING FOR had already happened to me (Emphasis mine, pg 5).”
Dear Reader, as a Catholic, this is clearly troubling indeed. May I personally declare here that I, at least, am not at all looking for what has happened to Eckhart Tolle? And I believe the same has been and will continue to be true of countless others, including the great Christian mystics and saints …
Here is also an example of something all too common in New Age circles – that spiritual experience of a certain kind gets muddled up with New Age ideology. For at least implicit here is a classic example of New Age ideology, repeated so, so, so many times, that it has become axiomatic, and therefore unquestioned and unchallenged. The implicit ideology here then, is the claim that there is ONE spiritual goal that we are ALL seeking. However Tolle makes the same claim explicit as well. For he writes:
“In essence, there is and always has been only one spiritual teaching, although it comes in many forms … When I quote from the ancient religions or other teachings, it is to reveal their deeper meaning and thereby restore their transformative power, particularly for those readers who are followers of these religions or teachings. I say there is no need to go elsewhere for the truth. Let me show you how to go more deeply into what you already have … (pg 10-11)”
At this point, it may be necessary for the traditional Catholic reader to catch his breath! Such a reader may be forgiven for thinking I am being far too gentle with New Age teachers such as Tolle, speaking of their nobility and authenticity! If you are such a reader, remarking perhaps the sheer inflation on offer here, please know I understand and sympathise. But I think there is reason to be gentle. What is evident to you, dear Catholic Reader, is by no means so, to many sincere people in the New Age movement.
For throughout my long New Age years, the assumption Tolle is making about one single path that he is qualified to offer, might have washed over me, completely unnoticed. Unnoticed, because I had never paid serious attention – as I suspect Tolle has also never paid serious attention – to the idea that just because one has had a certain perhaps very profound form of mystical experience, does not mean ipso facto that this is the ONLY valid form of mystical experience.
Let us suppose we take Tolle at face value – that he truly is participating in extraordinary and in one sense, liberating way of being. Does that qualify him to speak about this experience? Undoubtedly, yes. Does that qualify him to say that this is the only form of valid spiritual experience that there is, which ´everybody is looking for’? Does he KNOW that his is the only way? And that for example, his way is the same way as offered by the Church with her Sacraments – which Catholics could just as easily forget and come to him for, instead? That the Christian Sacraments offer nothing different and can thus be exchanged?
Speaking personally, dear Reader, I see no justification at all for this New Age ideology in Tolle’s writing, and for myself, I am convinced that the Holy Church and Her Sacraments offer something very, very different to Tolle …
(One could also question why Tolle makes the implicit claim that religion has lost its “power” which he can “restore”. And I suspect I know the answer – that like many a New Age teacher, he has never deeply experienced a religious practice, but has nonetheless bought another tenet of New Age ideology: religion has lost its “deeper meaning and … power”.)
Yes, I am writing as an erstwhile New Ager who once bought such ideology myself – I who had never practiced a religion in my life! Now having practised New Age-ism and having practiced Catholicism, I can only report my personal conviction: the Power of Now and Catholicism lead to very different results in the soul …
In the short scope of this piece, no extensive comparison of Tolle and Christianity is possible. Suffice it to say, that Christianity seeks not the transcendence of suffering, but the EMBRACE of suffering. And that as such, Christianity is not about seeking “More joy, right now!”. Rather it concerns a compassionate identification with world suffering. At the very core of the Christian Faith, is the God who is not seeking “more joy, right now” but to become one with humanity, to the point of complete embrace of the entire agony of the human condition. Christians seeking a way of Imitatio Christi are therefore not in search of overcoming suffering, but of something else, which frequently will not relieve oneself of suffering, though it will lead to tremendous depth, strength, meaning and riches, within that suffering …
For Christianity, suffering is not without a point. For Tolle it would seem clear that ultimately there is no point. I say “ultimately”, for I am aware that Tolle does teach a certain willingness to meet the experience of suffering. But again and again, the message is there, explicitly and implicitly, that the only point to this is to move beyond suffering. For example in the Power of Now, he advises:
“When there is no way out, there is always a way through. So don’t turn away from the pain. Face it. Feel it fully. Feel it – don’t think about it. … Keep putting your attention on the pain, keep feeling the grief, the fear, the dread, the loneliness, whatever it is (pg 222)”
But one may notice the context the advice is couched in: “When there is no way out, there is always a way through. “ With Tolle, as the back cover of the book says, it is always about getting to the place “where problems don’t exist”. And shortly after Tolle has advised us to “keep feeling the grief, the fear” etcetera, he elaborates:
“Give your complete attention to what you feel … By giving full attention you use the power of your presence … Presence removes time. Without time, no suffering, no negativity can survive.”
Thus again, the goal is about getting beyond suffering, which is implicitly equated with “negativity” …
Dear Reader, all this and much more I find disturbing in Tolle’s philosophy. But it is his philosophy and it is his right to expound it. And one must be free to buy it – or not. Obviously, I prefer not to buy it. For in freedom, I have chosen Catholicism …
Now Catholicism is clear about the fact that freedom and choice exists between different spiritual paths. What I find severely problematic with Tolle is that such freedom and choice are being subtly denied. Again and again, implicitly or explicitly in his writing, I find the repeated suggestion that there is no other valid choice. That his philosophy represents the single path. IF this were true, all well and good. But if it is not true, then those who uncritically accept his claim have their freedom to choose reduced.
I want to turn to one last example of this tendency – one that seems to me to evidence no comprehension at all as to what Christianity is, and to subtly annihilate Christianity in the process. Thus directly after the material just quoted, Tolle, employing the literary device of an inquirer, presents us with the following exchange:
“Their are many accounts of people who say they have found God through their deep suffering, and there is the Christian expression ´the way of the cross´ which I suppose points to the same thing.”
To which Tolle responds: “We are concerned with nothing else here.”
We are concerned with nothing else here …!! From the context, it is manifestly clear that Tolle believes that the Way of the Cross is nothing other than his own spiritual philosophy. He seems in fact to have reinterpreted a path of voluntary carrying of suffering with a way in which one gets so fed up with suffering that one transcends it! For he writes:
“Enlightenment through suffering – the way of the cross – means to be forced into the kingdom of heaven, kicking and screaming. You finally surrender because you can’t stand the pain anymore (pg 225)”
This is indeed a profound reinterpretation of the Way of the Cross! One wonders whether it has never even occurred to Tolle that the Way of the Cross might be about something altogether different than his own path. Yes, a different “spiritual path” entirely which is not focussed on getting through the suffering. Yes, Our Lord went through the Crucifixion. Our Lord was resurrected. Yet he did not leave behind the world agony. But continues to suffer with us, his Sacred Heart pierced …
I cannot say for sure, but I will venture here an imagination. I imagine that such thinking about the pierced heart of Our Lord which goes on suffering … I imagine such a concept would be difficult for Tolle to take seriously. I cannot say with any certainty – but reading Tolle, it is very easy for me to imagine him seeing it as “medieval clap-trap” glorifying pain, little realising that countless Christian mystics, medieval and modern, walk such a way with Christ, letting their hearts be pierced with His …
Whatever the truth of my imagination, this is, as I say, a short piece. A more complete response could and would go into further issues. I well know for example, that many a New Ager – convinced by the “one basic path” New Age dogma – will demand if it is not that there is just semantics in my assertion that Tolle and Christianity are talking about radically different mystical paths. Many other questions and nuances could be addressed. But if my short piece has served to stimulate critical enquiry, it will have served its goal.
Dear Reader, in summing up, may I simply say that these are my personal convictions after years of reflection? That the kind of New Age-ism that takes its cue from Tolle IS about something radically different from Catholic Christianity. And we have a choice. And we deserve to know, that we have a choice – and that different spiritual paths DO exist, leading to different results in the soul. If you are a traditional Catholic such as myself, such a conviction will be the now proverbial “no-brainer”. What may be surprising to you, is that there are untold numbers of New Age folk – and a very great many of them are highly sincere and moral people – who have no inkling whatsoever that there could be an entirely different kind of “spiritual path” to the one offered by Eckhart Tolle. Or that there is a Mystery of Christ being completely buried by the kinds of assumptions and ideology that many New Age teachers are holding forth – often I suspect being barely conscious at all as to why they hold these views.
A Mystery of Christ being buried … ! Again dear Reader, if you are a traditional Catholic, you may feel I have been far too gentle in this piece. That I could have and should have used different and stronger language right from the outset. Perhaps you are right, but I will leave it to your imagination, as to what kind of language I might have used. I understand this New Age mindset very well, having participated in it for two decades. And I believe that as Christians, we need to be gentle. While at the same time, we need to be as alert as we possibly can to all that which serves to bury the Sacrifice on Calvary and all that which claims that the Catholic Mystery can be exchanged for the Power of Now – without cost to the soul.
From Amazon USA:
Here are five powerful and important books, we believe. Certainly, each has been a very significant inspiration for this site. These books can also be found in our Amazon UK store here, as well as in in our Reviews. Links to each review are here: (Book Review: The Power and the Glory) (Book Review: The Portal of the Mystery of Hope) (Book Review: Meditations on the Tarot) (Book Review: Marian Apparitions) (Book Review: The Heart of the Redeemer).