From Oprah Winfrey's Television Show, April 9, 2008:
A woman in the audience says that even before she read Tolle, she had come to believe that Christianity is about "Christ consciousness," and that to be "fully human" is to be "Christlike." She believes this is what Tolle is teaching.
Oprah responds, "Yes, I'm Christian, too, and I got that a long time ago. I mentioned this also that in this book called Discover the Power Within You, by Eric Butterworth, where he talks about the Christ Consciousness. And up until then, I was like you, Margy, I thought Jesus came, died on the cross, that Jesus' being here was about his death and dying on the cross, when it was really about Christ coming here to show us how to do it ---- how to be -- to show us the Christ consciousness that he had, and that that Consciousness abides with all of us. That's what I got, that's what I got." There is applause and then a commercial break.
Eckhart Tolle's bestselling book, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life's Purpose (NY: Plume/The Penguin Group, 2005), gained high profile when Oprah Winfrey initiated an online study of the book in March 2008 with Eckhart Tolle and Oprah hosting. A New Earth sold more than 3.5 million copies in the first four weeks after it was added to Oprah's book club. The online group reportedly involved 2 million people. Eckhart Tolle lives in British Columbia with his girlfriend, Kim Eng.
I was involved in the New Age for most of my adult life and the beliefs in Tolle's book are nothing new. This book could have been written 20 or 30 years ago - and did appear then, just under different titles and names. Tolle puts some of his own spin on certain teachings, but basic Eastern and New Age views are there. As I read this book, it was like going back in time.
Oprah's reference on the TV show above is to a book by Eric Butterworth (1916-2003), who was a Unity minister. Now deceased, Butterworth's website has quotes from both Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou acknowledging his tremendous influence on them (see http://www.ericbutterworth.com/html/eric_bio.html). Interestingly, Butterworth mentions the influence on him from Plotinus (A.D. 204-270), considered to be the founder of Neoplatonism, a syncretization of Gnosticism with Christianity, who believed that there is a higher part of the soul that is "unchangeable and divine" (http://ericbutterworth.com/html/logo.html; for Neoplatonism, see http://www.iep.utm.edu/p/plotinus.htm#SSH2a.ii and http://www.iep.utm.edu/n/neoplato.htm). Unity grew out of the New Thought movement, another source of these teachings.
The basics of this book are:
You identify with your ego, which brings you sorrow and pain, but you are not your ego and you are not your mind
Sin is forgetting that you are connected to the "Source"
You are deluded by identifying with "form" when actually, you are timeless "Presence;" you are formless "Being;" you are eternal "I Am"
You need to "awaken" to this true identity and be free of the ego and the mind so you can be your true Self, "formless Being"
Jesus was highly evolved man who realized these things and this is what he came to teach us
I believe that a Buddhist worldview underlies Tolle's book, although he uses different terms. This Buddhism is integrated with New Age fundamentals, which necessarily incorporates elements from New Thought and Gnosticism.
The New Age is always a blend of beliefs; intermingling strands from Eastern accepted wisdom, New Thought, Gnosticism, the occult, and even Christianity. It uses terms from these beliefs but often changes the meaning, especially with Christianity, adding in other concepts along the way. Thus, the New Age has multiple facets, some of which differ widely from each other. However, the New Age embraces that which is compatible with its basic ideas:
God is one with the universe or is contained in the universe
Everything came out of God
We are pure eternal spirit, and come from God, and/or are pieces of God or are expressions of a divine being, and will return to God
God is usually not personal but is described as Intelligence, the Source, the One, the Divine, Consciousness, the Universe (Tolle uses "consciousness," "Being," "Presence," "Source") or variations of these
God emanated beings from himself in order for God to learn or experience something, and/or to experience him/herself in material form
We are trapped in our bodies and in a material existence; the world we see and our bodies are illusions or temporary forms that serve as vehicles for our eternal spirit
We are always evolving toward our purpose (usually through reincarnation), which is to awaken to our true Self, which is part of God or an expression of God
We must awaken to our true nature and reality by transcending the mind; thinking is a barrier to this awakening
Everything has a vibration; vibrations are higher or more spiritual the closer one is to realizing the true Self
Jesus was an advanced spiritual teacher, a highly evolved man who realized his true Self - the Christ Consciousness - a consciousness we all can attain
We have the ability to create our own reality
There is no sin, or sin is redefined as identification with the false self (or with form) and/or as a belief that we are separate from God
There are variations on the above, which are also very close to New Thought principles and to some Gnostic views. All the views above are embedded in some form in Tolle's book.
Buddhism is too complex to tackle here, but some basic elements of it that are expressed in Tolle's book are:
All is Buddha nature (Tolle uses terms such as "Being" and "Consciousness")
Humans are trapped in material form and identify with it as who they are
We identify with our selves as who we are (Tolle uses the term "ego" for self) but the self is a mere construct, a result of experiences, sensations, feelings, and thought
Liberation is realization that we have no self, only Buddha nature; this realization comes about in part over time (reincarnation, though it differs from Hindu reincarnation concepts) and through techniques that cultivate detachment, a nonreaction and nonjudgmental attitude toward feelings, thoughts, and events
Tolle believes that we are at the edge of a spiritual awakening (5). This has been the mantra for the New Age since the 60's. The belief that the Age of Aquarius is upon us is part of this teaching. As a former astrologer, I am familiar with this idea: Man is constantly spiritually evolving, and the Age of Aquarius signifies a revolutionary step in man's progression. Aquarius is the sign of innovation, invention, as well as revolution (among other things). This awakening is what is creating the new earth and a new heaven. The new heaven is an "awakened consciousness" and the new earth is its "outer reflection" (308).
For Tolle, spiritual awareness/awakening is to see who you really are - the ultimate Truth (71). You are not who you think you are, some limited human being, but actually you are spirit, you are "Being" (God). Sin is forgetting that you are connected to the "Source" (22). The problem is that you are identifying with form (which is Tolle's definition of evil) and with the ego, and your thinking needs to be changed. Tolle tells us that identifying with what he calls "little me" is "an illusion that obscures our true identity as timeless and formless Presence" (140). You are "the underlying I Am" (242-43).
This philosophy is also found in New Thought (see CANA articles on The Secret to read about New Thought), the beliefs espoused by Eric Butterworth, one of Oprah's favorite authors. New Thought followers define sin as believing that we are separate from God, or from the Divine Source. We are to change our thinking and realize we have come from God (or Being, Universal Intelligence, the One, the Source, Divine Mind, etc.) and are part of God and will return to God, thereby attaining "Christ consciousness." According to New Thought, this is what Jesus came to do. Tolle echoes this.
But Tolle's ideas also reflect Gnosticism. Basic Gnostic credos in the 2nd century held that man is emanated from God and is spirit, trapped in a body; liberation begins upon realization of this truth. But this teaching is only for those who are ready for it; it is esoteric, a secret teaching. As Tolle writes, his book "can only awaken those who are ready" (7).
For all his talk against the ego, Tolle maintains that his book will cause a "shift" in your consciousness and that his book The Power of Now or other "transformational" book can also start the process of awakening (7). This is pretty big claim - that your book can initiate the process of awakening! But Tolle sees himself as a spiritual teacher (274) and apparently has no problems believing this is his role.
Tolle assumes that he is enlightened enough to give advice to others, and apparently expects others to accept this without question. But we should ask: Why should we accept that Tolle is the "enlightened" author? On what basis is he a spiritual teacher?