Posted by: Mark Nielsen | December 13, 2008

Oprah & Tolle: Sorry, No “Cheap Grace” For Me, Thank You

What is it about Oprah Winfrey that I can’t get past?

Maybe it’s that there’s something crass– certainly marketable, but vaguely hollow and hypocritical– at the core of her style and message. In fact, it’s mostly style, with very little message or substance. It’s the further dumbing down of a search for truth and justice, a search that Americans already tend to take far too casually, if they do any searching at all.

My lesson this week in the wisdom of de-Oprahfication is the unfortunate discovery that another “friend of a friend”, spirituality writer Eckhart Tolle, has been championed by Oprah for awhile now. I’ve been on the fence about Tolle… had read snippets of his ideas that I liked, and had some recommendations by folks I respect, but I still was not sure how New-Agey he is.

Now, seeing that Oprah not only chose one of his books for her book club, but also did a series of webinars in support of his overall program, I’m moving toward having to dismiss Tolle as another near miss, in the blending of philosophy and spirituality to get at the deepest truths. Simply put, his book A New Earth strikes me as pantheism, dressed up with a lot of Jungian and Eastern buzzwords, plus a few Christian ones, the sheep’s clothing he uses to see who he can slip a few wild, “wolfy” theories past. 

This type of program often doesn’t stand for anything but the journey itself. There’s no “there” there… no destination, nor even a specific directionality. Openness is fine. Readiness to journey, to come into closer community with humans and communion with God, is always a good thing. But so is rootedness. Where’s the sifting and sorting, the testing of a considered, reasonable action, separating it out from the harebrained idea that merely came to interrupt one’s great meditative state? If everything is holy, then nothing is, right? Or am I just being a rigid, old-fashioned, overly-structured moralist when I say that no matter what color one paints it, an apple is not an orange?

No thanks. The “God” that Oprah, Eckhart, and most New Age proponents want me to embrace is an emperor with no clothes on. He/She/It is whatever any seeker wants or needs him/her/it to be. It’s the triumph of self, of individualism and selective consumerism, and most importantly it too easily sidesteps the problem of sin and the pursuit of self-interest.

Just one little example, a personal touchstone, to demonstrate what I’m talking about by bringing up sin. Check out this great pair of lines from the U2 song “God, Part 1”:

( I ) don’t believe in the Devil. Don’t believe in rape.

But every time she passes by, wild thoughts escape.

See? Al Gore is right: the truth really is more inconvenient than Oprah would have us believe. (Or why else did she end up alienating the very families she was paternalistically trying to help at her own Oprah Academy over in Africa?)

Yes, I’m holy. But I’m also brazenly selfish, and proud, and distractable, and steadily tempted (by both human and supernatural forces). I’m human. I’m a beautiful mess. Therefore, no amount of inner strength, or strict adherence to some outer rule, will keep me on the good path without fail. I’m bound to fall. I can get back up myself sometimes, learn from my mistakes, keep climbing, on that journey to health and happiness. But at other times I just plain need to be saved. I need to be carried for awhile. By the community, by God, by both. Otherwise, what was the use of that guy up on the cross? He was rebuilding our bridge back to God. And now, the Eternal Spirit maintains that bridge, even as we dig in our heels and refuse to move forward, or try to dismantle the bridge, or to re-route it, in a thousand different ways.

Speaking of a thousand ways, I was put onto the Oprah-Tolle connection by a British blogger who has the gall to call his site 1000 Ways to the Real You. Here’s how he starts one of his “God is everything, and everything is God”, sort of remarkably sollipsistic entries:

Spiritual maturity, as related to religion, is a function of two things.

Firstly the degree toward which the ‘believer’ manages to de-anthropomorphise God, and gain a grown-up understanding of Ultimate Reality.

Secondly the ability to feel and think and do without attachment to ‘thumb-sucking’ supports – they vary with each individual.

See how inherently judgmental, paternalistic, and mean-spirited these self-pr0claimed “loving” free-thinkers and religious synthesizers can be? 

Apparently the Right Wing is not the only domain of fascists with the gall to tell others they’re doing it wrong. I’ve just been called a thumb-sucking child, for believing that God in heaven and I have anything in common. For using a theological model that puts existence into a familiar framework –literally, familiar as in “family”, as in acknowledging God, our Parent– I’m accused of a lazy, immature lack of sophistication.

That last quote is Roger the blogger talking, though. Not necessarily an accurate representation of Eckhart Tolle. I still need to see for myself what Tolle’s about. But I’m starting to question the company he keeps. The view expressed above is nothing like the “I Am” of the great monotheistic religions. If his is a god without a likeness to persons — a likeness which ennobles and dignifies human experience as valid, complicated, beautiful, and fraught with basic right-and-wrong choices and creative potential every single day.

And yes, God is also somewhat like a tree, or water, or a mother hen, or a rock. But why is it childlike to believe, to sense, to almost know, that the Person of God prefers my company to that of a rock? Ain’t I more interesting than a rock?

This modern Us vs. Them atmosphere just plain sucks. It’s no wonder that a genuinely shallow and hollow someone like Sarah Palin has such success pandering to rural Americans, saying “I’ve been called a redneck, but that’s okay, ’cause I’m proud to be one.” (I’m paraphrasing, but I did see the video recently, so that’s pretty close.)

If the alternative to Bible-thumping is this fuzzy-thinking, navel-gazing, guru-paying, The Secret buying, two-faced hatred and lying disguised as love, then I’ll have to settle for not joining either team.

We’re all struggling with this, and I guess that’s okay. We’re even at odds with ourselves sometimes. Take my mother, the big Oprah fan, who nevertheless at some level is nervous about Barack Obama because he’s got so much that’s “new” about him. She wonders whether he’s one of those “too good to be true” Smooth Operators, a false messiah figure that our vaguely apocalyptic reading of John’s Revelation supposedly predicts.

And who knows what “the truth” is? (Only God, …not that we’re listening.) We say we care, but do we really? We’re post-modern here in America nowadays. We stick it all in a blender, flip the switch, then see how the end results taste (with a side of cheese fries). And don’t we just love to complain about the bitter aftertaste, when we were the ones who blithely smiled and nodded at the trendy opinionmakers, the ones who threw some forbidden or rotten fruit in with our strawberry and ginseng smoothie?

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