If you've seen the weekly pop culture roundups we do on the Preaching Today blog, you know Eckhart Tolle's A New Earth has rested atop the New York Times bestseller list for weeks. Recent counts have it selling over three million copies—one million of which are due to Oprah's picking it for her book club. Over two million people are participating in a ten-week interactive webinar that Oprah hosts with Tolle (pronounced "toll-ee"). This is what many people are reading as they sip their lattes in Starbucks or close their evenings balled up on the couch. Many may very well be churchgoers.
The book's back matter calls Tolle's work "a profoundly spiritual manifesto for a better way of life—and for building a better world." But A New Earth tastes like the warmed leftovers of modernism, humanism, and the New Ageism of the '80s, with hints of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity.
With a spiritual mix like that, preachers have good reason to address the hopes and promises held out in A New Earth. Tolle quotes from the Bible every three pages or so. Some of his reflections have just enough truth to lull the reader into a dreamy spiritual sleep that misses the rest of the story. Tolle even rewrites Scripture to his own advantage. Many might argue A New Earth is biblical—it's anything but. In this article, I'd like to identify three of Tolle's themes that preachers may want to address with biblical and theological alternatives.
Trumpeting the goodness of humanity
"You do not become good by trying to be good, but by finding the goodness that is already within you, and allowing that goodness to emerge."
—A New Earth, p. 13
The truth is, there is tremendous goodness within humanity. A theology of imago dei says as much. But it is also just as true that we are quite awful. A theology of fallenness says as much. We can do a lot of good things, but our oft-misguided thinking certainly finds us doing the wrong things more often. At our very best, it seems we can sometimes only manage to do good things for the wrong reasons.
You cannot trumpet the goodness of humanity without acknowledging our need to successfully overcome human depravity. To be fair, Tolle would push back and say his entire book deals with overcoming the power of human depravity, which he calls the Ego. The Ego is the unconscious self that holds us back from reaching our full potential. It's enslaved to pride, materialism, and personal gain. Tolle acknowledges that when left to our own devices for self-betterment and world change, we instead make bombs and find more effective ways for lucrative business. This is the Ego at work within us, he says, and we can overcome it with grit and determination. We need only to silence the stubborn thing when it speaks and become conscious of what is good about us.
It's the very beauty of the biblical account of the new heavens and new earth that makes the vision in A New Earth so disturbing.
A New Earth basically represents Tolle's version of Paul's old-man/new-man theology. The Ego is the old man, while the enlightened self is the new man trying to wrestle the codger to the ground. But there's a huge difference between the apostle and the guru. The effort to overcome the Ego is a human effort—which is what got us into trouble in the first place. When the wrestling match is over, Tolle's new man is really nothing more than a man who happens to be at best a bit more evolved. Paul's new man, on the other hand, is new because he is hidden in Christ. This is the heart of the gospel: if humanity was ever to overcome depravity, it was only going to be through the transcendent-yet-immanent work of a God-man.
Suggestions for preaching:
One fascinating thing you could do is compare Tolle's philosophy to Paul's theology in Romans. A survey sermon that systematically addresses the major theological tenets of Romans will lay the groundwork for the listener to address virtually every issue raised by Tolle in A New Earth. For example, why not compare Tolle's old-man/new-man journey from Ego to Enlightenment to Paul's old-man/new-man journey in Romans 68?
Replacing the I Am with me
"Before you ask any other question, first ask the most fundamental question of your life: Who am I?"
—A New Earth, p. 186
Tolle's book is written to provide meaningful answers to what he considers the most fundamental question of existence: Who am I? This is a particularly important question for us to ask with the time given us on earth. In fact, it's a profoundly biblical one (Ecclesiastes, anyone?). The chief problem is Tolle offers only half of the question that needs to dance in his readers' minds: "Who am I in light of who I know God to be?" It's not terribly surprising that Tolle swallowed up the pivotal second half of the question with the first half. In the first few sections of A New Earth, Tolle works hard to collapse God into man, making them one in the same.
If Tolle is willing to dismiss the God-man for an enlightened man, then man is to be considered God. Though Tolle flirts with the idea of a divine being with his use of capitalized terms like "Presence," "Life," "Peace," or even "Truth," he ultimately settles for "I," "me," and "myself." He aims for God and settles for himself. To sum it all up, Tolle writes: "The Truth is inseparable from who you are. Yes, you are the Truth." (p.71)
Throughout the book Tolle focuses on our need to discover our "I Am-ness." Though we heard hints of this in the New Ageism of the '80s, the boldness of that ideology still manages to make us gasp when we realize that the elevation of "I Am-ness" is an attempt to overthrow the I AM. While it's true that I "move and have being"—that "I am"—this is so only because of someone far greater than I. Though I'm created for eternity, I must first acknowledge the "vanishing mist" quality that dogs me now.
Tolle does something startling to establish our godlike stature, and it stands in stark contrast to Revelation 2122. The pages of Revelation 2122 are yellowed in my Bible from being handled so much. Thoughts of a new heaven and a new earth are breathtaking, so I read them time and again: "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God for the old order of things has passed away." After centuries east of Eden, creation will offer no greater sigh than when the future long promised by Christ is fully realized. It's the very beauty of the biblical account of the new heavens and new earth that makes the vision in A New Earth so disturbing. Tolle writes of something all together different—something hopeless. You don't need to look any further than the name of the book: A New Earth. A critical portion of the new heavens and new earth theology is missing, and Tolle doesn't shy away from the matter: "The inspiration for the title of this book came from a Bible prophecy that seems more applicable now than at any other time in human history. It occurs in both the Old and the New Testament and speaks of the collapse of the existing world order and the arising of 'a new heaven and a new earth.' We need to understand here that heaven is not a location but refers to the inner realm of consciousness" (p. 23). With a few bold strokes of his pen, Tolle rewrites Revelation to simply say: "And when all is said and done, you will be your own God." Tolle's new earth could better be called Babel.
Suggestions for preaching:
Spend time in both the parabolic and propositional teachings of Jesus on the new heavens and new earth. While A New Earth is filled with serious errors, preachers can use those errors as points of contrast with the truth of Scripture. We look forward to the new heavens and the new earth that God alone can create (and reign over). Visit related themes of the kingdom and resurrection. A long look at Revelation 2122 is certainly in order. You could show how Tolle's manner of thinking fits within the biblical narratives concerning the Serpent's temptation in Eden and humanity's arrogance in Babel. Another angle would be to take the thoughts in Tolle's work and place them alongside thoughts raised by N. T. Wright in Surprised by Hope.
Living life outside the community
"The new spirituality, the transformation of consciousness, is arising to a large extent outside of the structures of the existing institutionalized religions. There were always pockets of spirituality even in mind-dominated religions, although the institutionalized hierarchies felt threatened by them and often tried to suppress them. A large-scale opening of spirituality outside of the religious structures is an entirely new development."
—A New Earth, p. 18
Tolle's consistent use of "I" and "me" leaves little room for "you" and "us." This makes Tolle's A New Earth a bit odd in that at the very same time it denounces my Ego, it offers the beastly thing quite a feast with its promises that I can get everything ironed out on my own. Can narcissism be defeated by more of the same?
Most every exercise in the book puts the burden of "attaining consciousness" on you and you alone. You must find the truth. You must identify the Ego and wrestle it to the ground. You must set the boundaries. The subtitle of Tolle's work says it all: Awakening to your life's purposes (italics mine). Having already covered how this promotes works-righteousness and a radical replacement of God (and the God-man, Christ), we must also acknowledge how this approach abandons communal aspects that are of profound benefit to the individual. Truth is identified and championed in community. Battles are fought and won with the collective strength of fellow brothers and sisters. Boundaries are best set by taking more than one voice into account.
The irony is that Tolle himself does not practice what he preaches concerning rugged individualism lived radically outside the supposed prison of larger-scale systems. Every thought he develops in his book is born out of major world religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, and Christianity). By his own acknowledgment, most of his own "consciousness" was brought about and is now sustained by the consciousness of others—in community. And in partnership with Oprah, Tolle has begun a "church" of 2 million via webinars and other videos. A spirituality made beautiful by existing outside confining systems is quickly becoming a system of its own.
No matter the inconsistency, the consistent plea is for self-consciousness for the sake of self-truth-ing. But the world's gurus have long said we need only to look into the mirror to find our salvation. The only thing Tolle does differently is ask that we look a little longer—and we're not impressed by what we see. It isn't long before we notice that there is but one person reflected, meaning we go it alone in fear of getting it wrong with no one else to set it right. We don't "awaken" to truth on our own. We need others, in partnership with God, to shake us from our slumber. And when we're awake, we need that same someone to help us stay the course. There may be a good reason why "a large-scale opening of spirituality outside of the religious structures is an entirely new development." For thousands of years, few people thought much of the idea except that it would be awfully dangerous.
Suggestions for Preaching:
It would serve people well to walk them through the communal thread that runs through all of Scripture. Start with the establishment of the beauty of community—and dangers of individualism—in Genesis 13. Allow the thoughts in Acts 2:4247 to counter the rugged individualism in Tolle's work. In Paul's development of the old-man/new-man theology in Colossians 3, the climax of the passage is in the corporate notion of "teaching and admonishing one another." The writer of Hebrews urged, "Let us not give up meeting together." God declared that a man alone is "not good."
One final word
With his use of Scripture and willingness to engage in theology, Tolle has afforded us a rich opportunity. We should take notice when he raises a good question, and engage in theological or philosophical dialogue. When Scripture is taken out of context or rewritten to mean something it doesn't, we should take issue as responsible stewards of the Word. We ought to help people see the difference between the enlightened man and the God-man. The fact that 3 million people are reading A New Earth—and thousands more are intrigued by it—tells us one critical thing: people still long for someone to show them something beautiful. Let's not leave them waiting.
Brian Lowery is managing editor of PreachingToday.com.