What Should Catholics Make of Eckhart Tolle?

Editor’s Note: Considering that Eckhart Tolle’s “A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose” is still influential in Catholic circles, we thought it would be a good idea to bring the following (originally published in 2009) out from our archives. 

Eckhart Tolle

Eckhart Tolle

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 correspondances — 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 protestations, Eckhart Tolle does the same.

Fr. Robert Barron

By

Fr. Robert Barron, S.T.D. is a priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.

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  • JoeLukowski

    “And there is much in Tolle’s teaching that is compatible with a robust Christianity” — I dont believe this is coincidence. My opinion is that people like Tolle uses Christianity as a basis from which he picks, choses, modifies and re-sells it with his slant.Nothing new under the sun.

  • Warren Jewell

    I figure if he has anything important to say to Catholics, it will take two centuries of making note just how and why. By that time, if he makes heaven, he will have his hands full of Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas over the banquet debate table.

    He seems too very ‘New Age’ – old gnosticism as ‘new wine’ foisted off in ‘old skins’ – to me.

  • noelfitz

    I consider the article by Fr Barron balanced. He has encouraged me to try to find out more about Tolle.

    Some time ago a few Catholic friends of mine were discussing him. They wondered was Eckhart Tolle his real name as his ideas seemed to resemble those of Meister Eckhart OP (1260-1328). I note “He (Meister Eckhart) is also considered by some to have been the inspirational “layman” referred to in Johannes Tauler’s and Rulman Mershwin’s later writings in Strasbourg”. Tolle sounds similar to Tauler.

    I would suggest there is not much harm for Catholics in Tolle’s writing.

    God bless,

    NoelFitz.
    _________________________________________________

    In necessariis, unitas; in dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas.
    _________________________________________________

  • Mary Kochan

    Ah, yes, gnosticism. As the Catholic Encyclopedia says:
    ______________________
    When Gnosticism came in touch with Christianity, which must have happened almost immediately on its appearance, Gnosticism threw herself with strange rapidity into Christian forms of thought, borrowed its nomenclature, acknowledged Jesus as Saviour of the world, simulated its sacraments, pretended to be an esoteric revelation of Christ and His Apostles, flooded the world with apocryphal Gospels, and Acts, and Apocalypses, to substantiate its claim. As Christianity grew within and without the Roman Empire, Gnosticism spread as a fungus at its root, and claimed to be the only true form of Christianity, unfit, indeed, for the vulgar crowd, but set apart for the gifted and the elect. So rank was its poisonous growth that there seemed danger of its stifling Christianity altogether, and the earliest Fathers devoted their energies to uprooting it…

    From the first Gnosticism met with the most determined opposition from the Catholic Church.

    The last words of the aged St. Paul in his First Epistle to Timothy are usually taken as referring to Gnosticism, which is described as “Profane novelties of words and oppositions of knowledge falsely so called [antitheseis tes pseudonomou gnoseos -- the antitheses of so-called Gnosis] which some professing have erred concerning the faith”.
    _____________________
    But the apostles and fathers should not have worried for Noel has determined that there is not much harm in it for Catholics.

  • jamespereira

    This discussion reminds me of the issues surrounding The Secret as well. Many a times I have wondered if the lessons in the Secret are compatible with Catholicism.

    I have penned my thoughts in these blog posts:

    1. Law of Attraction – Hate Satan? – http://romancatholicinfo.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=375

    2. Law of Attraction for Christians – Faith – http://romancatholicinfo.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=366

    3. The Secret Lessons for Christians – http://romancatholicinfo.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=361

    4. The 10 Commandments ala The Law of Attraction – http://romancatholicinfo.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=360

    5. The Secret – Compatible with Christian Teaching? #1 – http://romancatholicinfo.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=357

    6. The Secret – Compatible with Christian Teaching? #2 – http://romancatholicinfo.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=358

    7. The Secret – Compatible with Christian Teaching? #3 – http://romancatholicinfo.com/wp-admin/post.php?action=edit&post=359

    Please view these articles and post your comments as well.

  • noelfitz

    Mary,

    many thanks for your thoughtful post. In it there is food for thought. It has encourage me to read the article in the Catholic Encyclopedia about gnosticism. I need to reflect some more.

    My original views may have been too simplistic.

    God bless,

    NoelFitz.
    _________________________________________________

    In necessariis, unitas; in dubiis, libertas; in omnibus, caritas.
    _________________________________________________

  • Mary Kochan

    James you have created your links from within your editor so that only people with admin status in your website can read them. You need to give us the links from the view post window.

  • Grace Harman

    If Ophra likes him, he must be “new age” or totally out in left field, and most likely anti-Catholic as well.

  • terrygeorge

    Funny that ET should criticize Christianity for having ’caused’ violence, while himself adhering to another thought system which seems to have caused so much violence over the centuries.

  • dayofwrath

    The message of the cross is nonsense to those who are being destroyed,but it is God power to us who are being saved.The power of now is not in or from Eckhart Tolle,but from God.The power is the cross and now is the word that the church emphasizes on it:The Holy past is present “now” with power.Let Oprah and Eckhart if they dare,to speak on tv about the real “power of now” of the cross the true miracle of the blood in the book the coin of the temple by souheil bayoud.There you will find who is the false guru christ and who is the real Jesus Christ the Lord and Savior.
    dayofwrath

  • chaco

    Most of us have heard: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” It seems things haven’t changed much since Jesus said to Pilot: ” I have come to bear witness to the Truth.” and Pilot’s response: “Truth, What is Truth ?” (Jn. 18: 37-38). Relativism (seemingly synonymous with perennial philosophy) was alive & well even back then and it’s probably safe to say since the beginning of time. At least we can know how to spot the enemy of Truth. Relativism’s main appeal seems to be how it enables people to side-step any confrontation from countering someone else’s personal agenda. Thus, many viewing it as a means to peace on Earth by avoiding confrontation. Truth lovers only means of enticing poor relativists is to exhibit the freeing peace of having contact with a real- personal God rather than their ethereal nothingness. The Lord be with you.

  • http://JamesTPereira.com/ James T Pereira

    I was introduced to the New Age beliefs in 2007 by a guy named T. Harv Eker. His teachings similar to Tolle’s try to incorporate all religions into the program. He gets the buy in from Christians by quoting Scripture but misinterpreting it.
    Eventually, God showed me the errors of these types of movements – to believe that you make your life and that the Universe is some impersonal collective spirituality of all living beings.

  • NYCFiredog

    Isn’t it true that God is both personal and impersonal? And I do remember well, being a 6 year old parochial school student and the nun teaching us that only Catholics go to Heaven. This shocked my young mind at the obvious injustice of it, and I asked her, “But Sister, what about all the kids in Africa who never had a chance to become Catholic?” She replied “That’s why we have missionaries.” That one question troubled me for many years. Of course, I know that that is not what the Church teaches now, but for quite a while, the Church taught that it was the ONLY road to Heaven, and all others were in grave danger of Hell. The truth is, we are all just humans trying to filter the pure truth with imperfect filters. I do agree with you on Echart Tolle as also falling into the belief that HE has it right. The only thing that keeps me in the Catholic Church is Our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament, and the Mystics. As for the socialistic pacifist Hierarchy of the Church, that covered up for horrid abuses and ignored the wounds of so many boys and men……….May God have Mercy on them, and enlighten them, and awaken their consciences.

  • Joseph

    I think no one has the truth, only God. All are believes. Serve, love, give, pray, anything else is unnecesary. The attachment to the form is what generates conflicts. In India, they think that Krishna was also God, and was an historical person like Jesus. We can found this polemic about the personal God and the impersonal God thousands of years ago. It is not new. We loose God in this kind of conversations. Love God and everybody without exception, anything else is unnecesary. If it´s personal or impersonal is not relevant. In some hundreds or thousands of years many of religions will have disappeared, probably the catholic church, but we are going to be speaking about the same, for example, if God is personal or impersonal, if we are determined or we are free…we think and we believe because we are human beings.

  • Katee

    You do not fully understand Eckhart Tolle’s teachings. He is not producing an idea that should be believed and thus does not need to be defended nor fought over as Religious beliefs often do. The nature of a belief system is that it becomes part of the mind’s structure, an almost idol that adds to the egoic sense of self and when attacked needs to be defended. Tolle’s teachings are able to transcend any idealogical claim of individual religions and finds the truth that each possess. It asks you to experience God instead of create an idea of God that could even be believed or not believed. This experience of God does not exclude anyone based on beliefs. It is the experience of God that perhaps Chrisitians are able to experience at communion or the Buddhist in meditation and even perhaps the Atheist when they look at something Beautiful in nature. Tolle just gives the gift of how to be present in daily life, in church or synagogue but does not concern himself with what you should believe when you are present. His experience seems to be I am present, experience God and there is no need to go any anywhere else for that experience but does not create thoughts, that could cause outer harm, about those that carry beliefs.

  • Kevin White

    Thanks. You are dead on. From Tolle, I took what is true and good, and left the rest behind. Sadly, I found mostly pits and very little fruit.

  • Scott

    Dr Robert Barron’s min is still in thinking that a certain ‘belief’ will better provide God to look more kindly on you – in this case Catholicism. What Tolle is attempting to discuss in his life’s work is…. It does not matter what the mind ‘believes’, it only matters how much awareness and dwelling in the place of being, allowing the creative love or whatever name you want to give it that you can dwell in and live in. In this place a human is in correct relationship to the self and to others at all times. Same message as Jesus ( albeit in different time, teaching methodology, etc) but just like in the time of Jesus (when those in the religious power if that time were oppositional to everything Jesus taught) eckhart is met with the same sort of fear based on the minds of present day religious leaders whose minds are so thoroughly and completely conditioned to think certain ways and in certain patterns. This unconscious conditioning is so strong and holds far more power than nearly everyone realizes. Hence, no matter what “argument” is made for eckhart teachings (which are eons in age) the conditioned minds of present simply can not open or let go of the thoughts that already form the total self and worldview enough to see and feel that what eckhart is presenting is not a belief at all but rather a way of opening to dwell in awareness which ultimately is the greatest compassion of all. Again though, this may take a long time for humanity to slowly open or release the stuck thinking processes enough to open to dwelling in the place of being, of peace. Perhaps the next several hundred years or more. A misunderstanding of this is simply the mind that can not accept that which it already tells itself what is true as a way to avoid the fear of “what if everything I think about myself, about life, about the universe…. Is confused or not correct”. This kind of self exploration takes real courage and can be very frightening. The fact that someone has received years of official religious training means a highly developed intellect maybe, but not neccessarily does it mean more wisdom, truth, or dwelling in the place of being-ness.

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