Eckhart Tolle: Does the Mask of "Stresslessness" Hide a Deep, Bitter Anger?

In a new article in Canada’s national newsmagazine, Maclean’s, Ken McQueen tries to walk the journalistic tightrope between appreciation and credulity as he interviews New Age guru Eckhart Tolle.

Your servant is quoted in the article along with friend Prof. James Beverley, as evangelical critics. (Funny: I’m almost always described in mainstream Canadian media as teaching at “evangelical Regent College” while I never see a qualifying adjective attached to, say, the Vancouver School of Theology or the like.) Jim and I are quoted accurately about Tolle:

“He gives a certain segment of the population exactly what they want: a sort of supreme religion that purports to draw from all sorts of lesser, that is, established, religions,” says John Stackhouse, a professor of theology and culture at Vancouver’s evangelical Regent College. “In fact [he] so chops, strains and rearranges the bits that it borrows that it ends up as a nicely vague spirituality that one can tailor to one’s own preferences.” James Beverley, a professor of Christian thought and ethics at the evangelical Tyndale Seminary in Toronto, has read Tolle’s books “in gory detail,” and finds Tolle denies “the core” of Christianity by claiming there is no ultimate distinction between humans and God and Jesus. “From a Christian perspective, Tolle misquotes the Bible to assert his strange mix of Hinduism, Buddhism and New Age pop,” he says. “He misrepresents the teaching of Jesus about the self and ignores the clear claims of Jesus as Saviour, Lord and Son of God.”

It is telling how Tolle replies to this criticism in the next paragraph of McQueen’s piece:

“Yes, there is a certain interpretation of the Bible that people have where every word is literally true and anybody who doesn’t share that particular interpretation actually becomes an opponent,” he says. He calls it a throwback to the bloody Crusades of medieval times. “Five per cent of his beliefs are different so he’s evil, you must burn him,” Tolle says with a chuckle. “It’s completely insane and so we still have remnants of that, unfortunately.”

Wow. That’s quite a characterization of Professor Beverley and me, isn’t? Just work your way through the half-dozen ways he describes us and see if a single charge sticks. How could someone purporting to have mastered and transcended the world’s religions caricature such opponents in this obviously false and nasty way?

I’ve seen it with Karen Armstrong, with the Dalai Lama, and now with Tolle: All smiles, all “everything is beautiful,” all genial generality until someone raises a pointed objection. Then the smiles turn into grimaces, the soothing tones go harsh, and the wild countercharges fly.

Of course I agree with them in their distaste for religious extremism and for evils (such as sexism, racism, nationalism, and more) that wrap themselves in religious legitimacy. Of course I agree with them that we need more dialogue with people other than ourselves and to appreciate the genuine good that is in traditions other than our own. And of course I agree with them that much in my own tradition, Christianity, has been spitefully intolerant of any deviation from a narrow norm and sometimes violent in its repression of the merely different.

But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about serious, substantial criticism of Tolle (or Armstrong or the Dalai Lama) rendered by people who might be credited with knowing what they/we are talking about. This isn’t about “five per cent” differences and we are not calling for their deaths (good grief!) or even their repression. We’re simply taking them seriously as people who purport to have investigated the world’s religions (quite a claim) and found them wanting, who routinely subject those religions to withering criticism, and who then champion their own views as superior to all these alternatives. Well, Jim and I say, we don’t see it the same way and we think your views deserve a robust critique.

I’m still waiting, that is, for one of these “peace and light” types, who claim to have transcended all the horrible dogmatism and crazy feuding of the world’s established religions, to stay nicely and sweetly high above the fray when their dogmas are challenged.

0 Responses to “Eckhart Tolle: Does the Mask of "Stresslessness" Hide a Deep, Bitter Anger?”

  1. robahas

    Watching several different responses by Christians to challenges lately, I have to admit that we Christians do seem to project a kind of judgmentalism – I mean, if you step back and try to see it from the outsider’s perspective. And then that is so easily used, in Jujutsu fasion, to neutralize our critique. I wonder if it’s really worth saying anything, when it can be so easily marginalized? Maybe our focus should be not on saying “what is true” but on saying “what I believe”, not what is wrong, but what it means to be Christian. Just some thoughts on strategy, NOT theology. Is it OK to speak the language of the subjective even if we aren’t subjectivist?

  2. conrade

    John,
    Your note on the ‘qualifying adjective’ used by the press strikes an important but gratifying chord. On a negative side, some may see the word ‘evangelical’ in a derogatory manner, like politicized religion etc.

    On a positive side, at least people know Regent-College and Tyndale stands for something quite different from worldly values.

    That said, it is how we handle criticisms that tells the world which side we take.

    conrade

  3. Meera Bai

    Hi John,

    I read the article before I read your blog on it, and I was surprised because, at least the one aspect I’ve chatted with you about in person (the equality of women), you presented as exactly the opposite of one of the 5% difference -burning Christians (or at least what I imagine they’d be like). It’s a shame that Eckhart Tolle didn’t attempt to see the person (or even the reason) behind the statement, and instead resorted to a dismissal at best and personal attack at worst – implying that positive relational interactions are best withheld for those who buy your book.

    Meera

    P.S. I bought your book.

  4. John Stackhouse

    #1: Brother robahas, I’m going to keep trying to communicate with and through mass media since I think many reporters and their audiences really are sincerely looking for the truth. As for HOW we say it, I’m largely in agreement with your sorts of suggestions, and have made a number of my own in my book Humble Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (Oxford University Press, 2003).

    Thanks to the Whites, Ryan, and Conrade for their encouragements.

    And as for #5: Ooo–good one, Meera!

  5. Dan

    What I found interesting about the Macleans article is that Tolle wants to put more and more of his online material behind a pay-wall. One would think that a spiritual man who is obviously financially secure would just want to share all that dogma-breaking enlightenment with the world. Apparently though enlightenment costs a monthly online fee plus whatever his books go for these days. This is money-grubbing on a level quite equal with the worst of the TV-preacher hucksters.

  6. Samuel

    John,

    Thanks for this. I don’t know Tolle nor did I read the article, but it seems that these ‘peace and light types’ are in the same boat as the rest of us in needing something deeply transformative beyond what they are espousing. Which, I suppose, isn’t surprising.

    Then again… I suppose many Christian academics (evangelicals included) could fall into that category too!

  7. stackstudent

    Great read, Prof Stackhouse – this and the Maclean’s article as well.

    I’ve seen Tolle on tv a few times and those brief exposures were enough to convince me that the man was really beneath contempt – theologically, spiritually, philosophically, what have you.

    I tend to be pretty knee-jerk with stuff like this, so I can only admire and envy your fortitude and alacrity in explaining why Tolle’s brand of New Age syncretism is so objectionable. I hope Maclean’s (or some other prominent publication) gives you a nice, roomy sidebar should they ever pursue a more thoroughoing expose.

    And hopefully I’ll emerge from the end of my time at “evangelical Regent College” with like patience and precision in humble apologetics. I sometimes wonder if I’m really not one of those “completely insane” people who might encounter characters like Tolle and actually see fit to push him into something hot and unbearable.

    I thought about deleting that last sentence, but it made me wonder if perhaps, phenomenologically speaking, Tolle’s charge against his insane evangelical critics might not be based on some kind of subjective truth – that in the face of clear-eyed scriptural and theological teaching offered by esteemable, conscience-driven critics, Tolle really does feel the threat of some kind of scourging, the lickings of some very intimate, internal fire.

    In that case, I say, Keep pushing. Study the Word, make it sharp and sturdy in our hands, get in their face with it.

    That’s it! It’s Friday afternoon, and I’ll stop now, before I fall into more clearly sinful and proud contemplation. Mercy, Lord!

    Peace of Christ, everyone~

  8. Wil Cheung

    Great entry for your blog, John. It’s funny – I used to enjoy Eckhart’s excerpts in the Common Ground for many years. I found that in his writing about the mind-body connection and living in the moment, I found him particularly authoritative. However when he started using Jesus or God to describe his views on the metaphysical world, it was 85% inaccurate. Basically, he uses the Gospels or even the Bible to support his own views, never mind exploring the points of the Bible that may disagree with him. Also I noticed Common Ground stopped publishing excerpts a little after he hooked up with Oprah. Indeed we now have to pay, (which I don’t have a problem with).

  9. Henry Cullihall

    I’ve enjoyed the writings of Eckhart Tolle. His work, (esoteric, metaphor and myth driven) reminds me of The Nag Hammadi texts that provide fresh food for the journey of life. I think writers like him are contributing to a new evolutionary spirituality which the masses are hungry for.
    Whereas Kierkegaard and Pascal argued that truth resides in the individual, occasionally the herd surprisingly develops “their own truth,” outside the institution. It seems as though people like Tolle, Versluis and Bloom provide food for us hungry Christians who feel the hermeneutic of literalism imposed on the Orthodox Canon has left us rather thirsty.
    I think the “Babble,” is one small grain of sand on the seashore of sacred scriptures.

    Sincerely Henry

  10. Steve Schuler

    While I am not a fan of Tolle and definitely have no personal affinity for, or association with, the New Age movement, “stackstundent”‘s comment has sufficiently moved me to make a brief comment here. His/her relishing the notion that Tolle will ultimately be suffering eternal hell-fire for his heresy/apostasy provides yet another reminder of why I cannot consider ‘Evangelical’ Christianity as a reasonable option deserving of my spiritual allegiance. Of course I may ultimately find myself cohabitating in Hell with Tolle for my failure to accept and align myself with the Brutal Truth you promulgate, but then again, maybe I won’t…

  11. John Stackhouse

    Well, I’m not sure what you mean by “Brutal Truth,” Steve, and I have the feeling, don’t you, that “stackstudent” is uneasy himself about his feelings about Tolle.

    But I’m pretty sure no one goes to hell merely for doctrinal disagreements with God. People go to hell for rejecting God. So the interesting questions are “Who is God and what does he want of me?” and “Am I doing what he wants me to do?” Get THAT wrong, and I guess we’d agree you’re in trouble, no?

  12. Steve Schuler

    John,

    Thanks for your response to my comment. In truth I really didn’t expect anyone to reply to the observation and somewhat pointed statement that I made. Yes John, the profound mystery and question of who or what ‘God’ is and how we should best live our lives remains unanswered by me. Even if one cannot accord oneself with traditional, or non-traditional, versions of divinty (or the central ‘Truth’) that we encounter and explore, the void of understanding remains still unfilled. For the most part, knowing that I do not know, I tend to remain silent and not challenge the beliefs of others. Every once in a while, as was the case with my reponse to the comment left by ‘stackstudent’, someones perspective seems so off-mark that I may interject a thought into a conversation. Was this the hope and teaching of Jesus that those who would profess to follow him would hold someone as innocuous or benign as Tolle as being “beneath contempt”? Clearly I have no orthodoxy to protect against Tolles’s heresy and can regard him, at worst, as an essentially harmless voice in the wide world of those who stand before humanity offering guidance as to what constitutes the ‘spiritual’ life and how best to realize it. I acknowledge that I could be completely wrong in my assessment of the situation at large, and with that said, I would agree with you that I may be “in trouble”, yes.

    While I am not at all certain that there is a God to hear and respond to my prayers, I do frequently pray for guidance as I make my way through this life.

    By the way, it is not my ambition to establish more adversarial relations in this world. I think we have quite enough of those already. While I have perhaps voiced some challenges to what may be your perspective, I imagine that we have much more in common than not. I would like to think that if we were to find ourselves in a relationship with each other that it would be a friendly one.

    Steve

  13. Jim Beverley

    Steve,

    I am late reading comments on John’s blog so forgive the delay in responding.

    Along with John, I was quoted in MacLeans. I understand your point about evangelical judgmentalism. “We” often err in grumpiness or attitude. Granted, stackstudent was pretty heavy in his rhetoric.

    However, don’t throw the baby (evangelical faithfulness to Jesus) with the bathwater (grumpy, etc). The former does not demand the latter.

    As well, remember that since Tolle is fundamentally missing much of the heart of Jesus’ teaching, that is a major error (and thus not harmless) that Christians should note. Tolle is offering a blend of Hindu advaitism and Buddhist no-self theory, both views different from what Jesus taught.

    It should also be noted how Tolle calls names (Inquisitors) rather than deal with concerns.

    Best wishes,

    Jim

  14. Chris

    Excuse me, Sir, but you as an expert are not really getting the point. He’s talking about releasing. E.G. from the strong rules you were.. Ugh, you know what? I’m waisting my time right now.. My former fiancée was a pastor’s daughter and she was so convinced from her belief.. She justified even cheating on me three times with Christianity. Come on, there’s no God like you believe in. Too bad you wasted years on that one, buddy. Plus: you American Christians are way to radical. You would never succeed in Germany. Everything starts in your head, Sir. Your perception, your beliefs, your valueing. Go and let go of all the sin-stuff. Yeah, Jesus died for ME! Hahaaa! Sure! Hahaaa! And that’s why I have to feel guilty… Man, I’m really sorry for the developement of Christianity. Ok, gotta leave.. Appreciate your reply. Chris

  15. Phil

    I can’t speak from an educated theological perspective so my comments are based soley on my experience of my Christian faith and study of Tolle. Both have led me to a wonderfully deeper connection with God and the peace , joy and love that flows from this.
    Phil

  16. Deborah

    ANYTHING and ANYONE that/whom promotes peace, love, and personal responsibility is OK in my books. I prefer the idea of a God that loves me unconditionally than a god that I have to fear the wrath of when I make mistakes… which by the way seems to be inevitable for we human beings. It actually seems to be the most effective way that we learn. Acceptance is the base of Eckhart Tolle’s teachings, and I can think of no better base for ANY religion to have! He also does not condone not thinking… I mean do you really believe that he could have come up with such a beautiful way of explaining such complex/simple concepts without thinking??? THIS is his art. He doesn’t tell a great architect to abandon architecture to pursue E.T.”s art. He simply explains how adopting a more balanced inner state can help the world be a happier place. In fact really all I have ever heard him do is answer questions about his own personal experience, and if that experience has included a melding of religions(which I personally think is a very lovely idea) than so be it!!! What makes his interpretations any more right or wrong than any other humans interpretations????? If I were to cut it down in my own mind to it’s simplest possible concept… I would say that all Eckhart Tolle is simply trying to say is… ‘Trust that you are loved’, and if you really look at that statement and really take the time to feel those words than I think you must ask yourself… Why am I criticizing this man? What is it that he is saying that threatens me?
    Thank you for your thoughts however as I have felt fear at the thought of finding someone who could criticize this mans philosophy, and make me turn away from it. Your arguments have only strengthened my admiration. I am very glad that I have come across his work/art.

  17. Georgie

    Thank you so much for your comments Deborah.

    I could not have expressed my own view any more succinctly.

    • John Stackhouse

      Alas, neither of you is paying attention to the point of the post. Tolle is saying things that are patently untrue about subjects about which Professor Beverley and I actually know quite a bit about. He then insults us in the most extreme and violent terms–as if we want to kill him because he disagrees with us about a few small matters.

      This is not the language of peace and love he is supposed to be spreading. It’s the language of the most disgusting arrogance and untruth. That’s what one has to reckon with when you’re reckoning with Eckhard Tolle.

      And OF COURSE you “prefer” a different deity. I might, too. That’s the opening point of my remarks, however: Tolle gives some people what they apparently want in a religion. But that’s not doing us a favour, is it, if what we prefer isn’t actually the case, and if, as Christians claim, there is no such deity, despite your preferences or mine, and there is instead a real God with whom we have to deal.

      So let’s deal with what’s actually the case: what Tolle actually says and does, and what the religions actually claim, and what is actually the case–whatever we wish were otherwise.

  18. Deborah

    You prefer to be right over being reasonable and there is no point in trying to help you see my point of view.

    There will never live another human being whom will be able to convince me that he unequivocally understands the creators intent in all of this.

    SOME of what you may have to say about what you believe may ring true with me in my heart. A LOT of what Eckhart Tolle say’s DOES ring true with me in my heart, but I still have my own relationship with whom I believe the creator to be and his intent. Eckhart Tolle would respect my right to my truths… you do not.

    You turned a flip comment into something much bigger than it was intended to be. You twisted the intent of his words so that you could attack him. You have mistaken your intolerance for his.

    • Deborah

      I have no desire to prove you wrong sir. You are far more educated than I am, but please don’t allow your education to keep you from learning new things in different ways… incorporating new ideas with the old , or possibly seeing old ideas in a new light.

      I believe that people are tired of the violence, death, and war that following standard world wide religion has wrought. No one believes this is what is in God’s heart anymore. I think we are evolving. I know that I feel the joy of love every day… I am kind, and gentle and forgiving. Not because I fear God, but because I agree with the love I feel inside. When I look at people who seem objectionable I try to see them as I think God would, which through the eye’s of God(I believe) is lovingly and appreciatively… wouldn’t be much of a war if all your soldiers had that point of view would it now???

      It would be scary to dedicate your life to the study of something and then have it challenged, but your study is not a waste no matter how ideas may change. You are in the unique position to study new things and listen to your heart, and your head and come to new questions and new possibilities.

      The bottom line is… no one REALLY knows the absolute truth! We only have what we believe, and that is deeply personal for each one of us. We can listen to one another, but not another one on this planet can tell me if I’m right or wrong.

  19. Hennie Swanepoel

    I spend most of my life being a Christian, feeling guilty about everything and the fact that I was supposed to believe in everything a Pastor or preacher or other Christians, who made out to be experts on religion and God. If you do this or do not do that you will go to hell.

    Christians spend so much time talking and studying about God and Jesus and miss the whole point. In John 13 he explains about being humble and the servant of others. His whole mission was to teach about love nothing but love.

    But we came to learn about a GOD that LOVES you , his child but beware if you do not do what is written, you are cast out and will burn in hell forever!!!

    Anyone you is not absolutely sick in his mind will understand that no one wants a fathers like that and having a God like that, NO NO, that is an abusive God a control freak, a manipulator. Are you so blind that you cannot see that it is all man made? A heaven with streets of Gold. Which spirit body needs gold and streets of gold and emeralds. It is of no use to the spirit.

    The spirit needs nothing no food no water no home its home is with its creator. Its creator also needs nothing the universe belongs to the creator of all.

    Do you not see that the lie is all about the physical, that which the eye can see.

    Thank you for people like Tolle,and he is definitely not the only one, that can look at this sick world and teach anyone and everyone ,that will turn away from their right to be right , their fear of not being in control, without manipulation to Love and care about themselves and their co inhabitants on this planet.

  20. John Stackhouse

    Um, folks, I sympathize–really, I do–with your revulsion against abusive religion and mean-spirited religious authorities and ridiculous religious claims and so on. I’m a refugee from a very narrow religious upbringing myself.

    But I’m not attacking your new-found happiness or assaulting your devotion to love. I’m all for happiness and love.

    What I’m NOT for is Eckhard Tolle insulting me, and particularly when he does so as a self-appointed expert on Love and Happiness and Being What You Ought to Be.

    If what I said was factually wrong about what Tolle does with the world’s religious traditions in his teachings, by all means show me and I’ll apologize. But if I’m not wrong, and Tolle is doing what I’m saying he’s doing, then why pick on me? I’m not the one attacking someone else’s religious tradition: I’m just asking Tolle to get his facts straight and tell the truth. And he’s not doing that–about my form of spirituality or about me.

    I would think that people who are hate religious bullies would be on my side AGAINST Tolle in this case! Why aren’t you?

  21. Steve

    Time for Oprah/Tolle meets Ravi Zacharias.
    Oprah spending time in Haiti should know that it is the intolerant, meager Christians that are trying to help the world today, not the elitist self improvement gurus.

    • Deborah

      It’s not a competition, and there is room for everyone. This world is filled with different types of people with differing beliefs for a reason… if it weren’t we’d all be in Haiti, and I don’t think Haiti is big enough for everybody :-D. I like Tolle because of his tolerance and open mindedness.

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