by Pastor Doug Kings
So, who is Eckhart Tolle, the author of our next discussion book? Tolle was born in West Germany in 1948. His parents’ relationship was tumultuous. When he was a teenager, his parents divorced, and he moved with this father to Spain. At 19 he moved to England to work as a language teacher and to attend graduate school. By his own account, from a young age Tolle was miserable and deeply depressed. When he was 29, however, he experienced a spiritual transformation. In a 2003 interview, Tolle described it this way:
“I couldn’t live with myself any longer. And in this a question arose without an answer: who is the ‘I’ that cannot live with the self? What is the self? I felt drawn into a void! I didn’t know at the time that what really happened was the mind-made self, with its heaviness, its problems, that lives between the unsatisfying past and the fearful future, collapsed. It dissolved.” He pauses and reflects. “The next morning, I woke up and everything was so peaceful. The peace was there because there was no self. Just a sense of presence or beingness, just observing and watching.” He laughs lightly. “I had no explanation for this.”
No explanation then, but over the next few years, Tolle developed a way to talk about this experience that people he encountered found helpful and even life-transforming. In 1993, Tolle moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he lives now with his wife, Kim Eng. Shortly after the move, he wrote his first book, The Power of Now.
In 2000, the book reached The New York Times bestseller list, thanks in part to an endorsement by Oprah Winfrey and Tolle’s appearances on her TV show. It reached number one two years later and has been translated into dozens of languages and sold tens of millions of copies. The book we will be reading, A New Earth, is his third and has had a similar response.
Eckhart Tolle espouses no particular religion. He was raised nominally Christian, has studied Buddhism, and makes references in his talks and writings to all the major religions. His birth name was Ulrich but adopted the name Eckhart after his awakening experience, suggesting an affinity for the great medieval German Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart.
The essence of Tolle’s teaching certainly echoes that of east Asian religious traditions, especially Zen Buddhism. Not surprisingly then, conservative Christians have tended to view Tolle with suspicion, if not hostility. Moderate Christians and mainline denominations have generally ignored him. Those attracted to the Christian mystical tradition, however, have found Tolle to be a kindred spirit.
One such Christian is Father Richard Rohr, who has referred frequently to Tolle in his own books. Writing on Tolle’s own website, Rohr explains his view.
[Tolle] is teaching process, not doctrine or dogma. He is teaching how to see and be present, not what you should see when you are present. Tolle is our friend, and not an enemy of the Gospel. There should be no conflict for a mature Christian….
Although Tolle is not a Christian teacher, we must not assume that makes him an anti-Christian teacher. Today we need whatever methods or help we can receive to allow the Christian message to take us to a deeper level of transformation. Our history … shows this has clearly not been happening on any broad scale. This is an opportunity for us to understand our own message at deeper levels. It would be a shame if we required him to speak our language and vocabulary before we could critically hear what he is saying—that is true and helpful to our own message.
Christianity has a long history of not taking other religions seriously (except to try to eradicate them), so its disdain for Tolle is not surprising. But the text I’ve highlighted above says why I believe Tolle is so important to Christianity today. As I said in my sermon Sunday, through most of its existence the church has been in the sin forgiveness business. Today that business is failing. What the church needs to be in is the spiritual transformation business. As Rohr says, what Tolle points to is a method for doing that, which is fully compatible with the Christian tradition.
Early on the church adopted as its primary message, “Jesus died for the forgiveness of your sins.” Modern scholarship has shown, however, that at the beginning of the “Jesus Movement”, the message of his followers had more variety and had more to do with this life than the afterlife. Similarly, biblical scholars now recognize that Jesus’ own message was also more concerned with the lives of people here and now. But the church has been slow to adjust its own message to reflect this new understanding of Jesus and his earliest followers. It continues beating the drum of “Believe in Jesus and go to heaven”, even as fewer and fewer people are listening.
What Tolle offers, as Richard Rohr says, “is an opportunity for us to understand our own message.” The church’s obsession with sin and forgiveness became a colored lens blinding us to another message that has always been there. This is the message implied in the declaration by Jesus that “the kingdom of God is within you”. Or when Paul says, “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives within me.” It is the message of Jesus’ “abundant life” and Paul’s “peace the surpasses all understanding.”
Tolle helps us realize that “transformation” has always been at the heart of the gospel. This is a message of “good news” that speaks to us today: the awakening of the Spirit that opens our eyes to God’s presence within us, every person we meet, and the creation around us. That same Spirit is, in fact, who we truly are. And it is the Life that sets us free from the voices in our head of fear, anger, guilt, and shame, to know the true peace and joy of Being itself.
Blessings in your life and ministry.