• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

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.

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