Anyone who has followed Oprah over the years knows that her religious background is quite varied. This is not a knock on her as an individual. She obviously has a big heart and has spent a lot of money and other resources trying to do things to help people. She has built a school for young girls in South Africa, interviewed guests and promoted books to uplift people and help them overcome various problems, and created a reality TV show which gives away money to help people in need. Why, she was even responsible for getting Dr. Phil on TV. Oprah really seems to be sincere in wanting to help people who are struggling.
But when it comes to matters of faith, she is a bit off base. She was actually raised as a Christian in a Baptist church. Something about her upbringing, though, left her unsatisfied. Based on some of her comments, she seems to have experienced the same kind of dissatisfaction with her Christian upbringing that many other Americans have felt in recent generations. It is not actually a problem with the Christian faith, but with some to the anemic teaching of the faith that is prevalent in our day.
As a result, Oprah has been on a spiritual quest. Over the years, she has dabbled with various forms of New Age belief, and is now promoting a couple of different belief systems in a very direct way. There are so many belief systems out there that normally the introduction of another one would not make much of a splash. But because Oprah is so well liked and has so much influence, it is important to look at the teachings that she is proclaiming and understand why and how they are wrong. The main beliefs that Oprah is currently pushing are from two New Age teachers, Eckart Tolle and Marianne Williamson.
Currently, Oprah is co-teaching an online class with Tolle, based on one of his books, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. She has promoted it as a part of her book club. She is also promoting a daily radio show on her XM channel featuring Marianne Williamson, who is teaching A Course in Miracles. Let’s take a moment and see just who these people are.
Who Is Eckart Tolle and What Does He Teach?
Eckart Tolle was born in 1948 in Germany. At the age of 13 he moved to Spain to live with his father. He lived there until he migrated to England in his early 20s. Tolle did not have any formal schooling from the time he moved in with his father until he left for England. He refused to go to school because he perceived it to be a hostile environment. After moving to England, he studied literature, languages and philosophy at the University of London, and later did further research at Cambridge University.
At age 29, Tolle experienced a “spiritual transformation” that changed his life. He then became a counselor and spiritual teacher, advancing his particular brand of spiritualism. At the age of 48, he moved to Vancouver, British Columbia where he continued his teaching and writing.
Tolle does not claim to be aligned with any particular religion or tradition. He does acknowledge several people, however, who influenced his spiritual journey. In particular, he names J. Krishnamurti, Ramana Maharshi and Barry Long as people instrumental in helping him to understand the “truths” that he eventually came to teach. He also alludes to having been influenced by Meister Eckhart, Advaita Vedanta, A Course in Miracles, mystical Islam, Sufism, Mowlana Jalaluddin Rumi’s poetry, as well as by Zen Buddhism. Basically he cherry picked from the ideas of these various sources to create his own spiritual teaching.
He can credit Oprah for bringing him the notoriety which has propelled him to fame and his books to best-seller status. In January 2008, she selected his latest book as her “Oprah’s Book Club” selection. To promote it further, the two of them developed a 10-week, live, online seminar which has further expanded the audience of Tolle’s teachings.
Tolle’s beliefs have a particularly strong emphasis on various Hindu teachings, but tries to include Jesus in the mix, as well. He frames his teaching in a way which seeks to draw in as many people as possible by inserting elements which many different groups might find appealing.
Here are some of the key teachings of Eckert Tolle’s belief system.
1. You are not your thoughts. Your thoughts are an expression of you, but they are not you. Therefore, if you can come to the realization that your negative thoughts are separate from you as a person, you can step away from them and out of fear and pain.
2. Only the present moment exists. If you can become aware that the past and future don’t exist, and live only in the present moment, you can withdraw from any negative elements in your life. The means for doing this is to give full attention to the smallest details of the present moment.
3. Accept the present moment. The majority of pain in one’s life comes from resistance to what is happening at the present moment. It is okay to act in order to change a bad situation, but action does not imply resistance. Acceptance simply means you are not struggling.
4. Observe the “pain-body.” Whenever you experience pain, you are not to resist, but make yourself aware of it. By observing it, you are able to separate yourself from pain rather than identifying with it.
5. Heaven and earth. There is no such thing as heaven apart from earth. Heaven is not understood to be a location, but is the inner realm of consciousness. As we live on earth, we can experience a heavenly life as we transform our human consciousness.
6. There is no such thing as sin or hell. Our essence is oneness with everything that exists (pantheism). As long as we are aware of this fact, evil is not a part of our existence. It is when we become identified with material reality and forget our connection with “the whole” that we lose awareness of our link with the source of our existence and experience suffering and sin.
7. A united world. We need to identify ourselves with a unified humanity rather than with a country. Only as we see all of mankind on the same side, rather than lining up in opposition to one another, do we have the ability for true peace in the world.
8. No creed, no doctrine and no religion. Our understanding of the truth comes from within ourselves. Religions, which have outside sources, are considered to be divisive rather than unifying forces. Regardless of one’s life condition, every person who lives by the light within is able to discern the truth about reality.
Who is Marianne Williamson and What Does She Teach?
Marianne Williamson is an author and lecturer who teaches another New Age philosophy. She comes from a Jewish background and got her life into a mess as she was growing up in the 60s. In her youth she was rather rebellious and got into drugs and alcohol, as well as into numerous relationships. During this time she worked as a nightclub singer and became an unwed mother.
In trying to get her life sorted out, she discovered “A Course in Miracles.” This is a self-study system written by Columbia University professor, Helen Schucman. Schucman believed that Jesus had dictated the words of this course to her. In this teaching, Marianne found a set of beliefs which she identifed with and which gave her peace. From that time, Williamson began studying these teachings and has become its most prominent advocate.
Marianne later became a minister at Renaissance Unity Church in Warren, Michigan, which is affiliated with The Unity School of Christianity. Unity is a cult organization which has a very strong pantheistic bent. She later had to resign the church when she attempted to dissolve its formal ties to the Association of Unity Churches. After her resignation, she devoted herself to lecturing and peace activism.
Williamson published A Return to Love, in 1992, which became well known when Oprah featured it in her book club. Later, in 2006, she became a featured personality on Oprah’s XM radio channel.
The key teachings of A Course in Miracles include:
1. Only love is real. All that is negative is illusion. If anything negative is in your consciousness, it is real only because you give it reality by holding it in your mind.
2. Evil does not exist. It is an illusion that must be overcome by right thinking.
3. Sin is nothing more than a lack of love. Sin is a mistake to be corrected, not an evil to be punished.
4. There is no need to feel guilt because there is no sin. The problems that man faces are because of a perceived separation from God. However, this separation is an illusion. It is only a reality for those who believe they are not part of the divine.
5. There are no absolutes. Truth is relative and is determined by one’s life experience. No single religion has all the truth. Each individual is free to choose the path that is best for him or her.
6. Jesus is simply a highly evolved being who became divine. He is not the only Son of God, but is a “way-shower.” We are all equally Christ. Jesus is one of many enlightened beings (along with Buddah, Krishna and others) who are our evolutionary elder brothers. The life of Jesus shows us our spiritual potential.
What Worldview Does Oprah’s Viewpoint Represent?
At this point, we might typically work though the seven worldview questions to see how Oprah and her spiritual mentors might answer them. However, that is rather difficult in this case because there are so many contradictory beliefs.
Tolle’s version of New Age is definitely a hybrid as it incorporates elements of more than one worldview by making frequent references to Jesus, and sometimes speaking of God in a personal way. This is actually designed to make people think they are dealing with a Theistic worldview when, in fact, they are not. This veneer is pure trickery as there is no significant element of Theism in this belief system at all. In fact, the most prominent elements of Tolle’s system come directly from Far Eastern Thought.
Williamson’s version of New Age has an entirely different background. Hers is also heavily influenced by Far Eastern Thought, but mixes in a lot of Theism, as well. This one is based on the idea the there is an actual transcendent person who revealed ultimate truth from beyond this world. The doctrines of the belief, though, basically deny this by proclaiming that any of a number of paths to God are viable.
The result is that Oprah’s approach to religion comes from a hybrid worldview. She picks and chooses which beliefs she wants to include in her system without regard to any contradictions that might exist.
The Practical Implications of Oprah’s New Age Theology
The practical result of Oprah’s approach is that she gets to pick and choose what she wants to believe. This kind of boutique religion absolves her of the responsibility to acknowledge and live by any objective truth. In essence, she gets to pick what she wants to believe and throw out anything which does not suit her fancy.
In Oprah’s case, I don’t believe that she will turn into a tyrannical person by using this approach to religion. She probably has enough moral input from her Christian upbringing to keep her from going down that path. But using this kind of approach does not require a person follow Oprah’s personal morality. If truth is relative, it is certainly possible to define what is good and right in ways which make abortion, homosexuality, adultery, fornication, drug use, etc., to be moral, if not normal. And, in fact, many New Age believers actually do believe that things considered by the Christian faith to be sin are not sin at all.
What Is Oprah’s New Age Authority Foundation?
Oprah has chosen these two people as her models for spirituality. But this is not necessarily the last word for her. It is very possible that she will later find another teacher that she likes and who has a somewhat different system. If and when that happens, she will probably not throw out these two. Using her approach, that is not necessary. Since the authority for Oprah’s beliefs are found strictly in her own choices, it doesn’t really matter what she believe as long as she is sincere.
What Evidence Exists to Support Oprah’s Authority Foundation?
There is no particular reason why Oprah’s approach to belief is any better than anyone elses. Her authority is herself. There is no objective evidence which exists, though, which would make her beliefs any more viable than anyone else’s.
How Can We Evaluate the Viability of Oprah’s Authority Foundation?
Just having a belief does not make it the truth. The beliefs that Oprah is suggesting requires that one not acknowledge the existence of objective truth. After all, people are free to choose the path that best suits them.
The problem with this approach, though, is that it asserts an objective truth which states that there is no objective truth. This kind of obvious internal contradiction is inevitable with any hybrid worldview such as Oprah’s New Age beliefs. Her authority foundation provides no support which could make it a viable option.
Interacting with Believers of Oprah’s New Age Theology
For the most part, those who are attracted to New Age beliefs are good people with big hearts. Typically they are very interested in spiritual things and quite sincere in their spiritual practice. They also tend to be people who are rather free spirits and are looking for a kind of spirituality which does not “cramp their style.” They don’t want to be bound by rules and legalism in their religious practice. In fact, it is not unusual to find that many of these folks have rejected Christianity because of their past experience in a church which had a legalistic bent, or because of their interaction with Christians who demonstrated hypocrisy in their dealings in life.
When interacting with New Age believers, including those who are influenced by Oprah, the first thing we need to do is acknowledge their sincerity regarding spiritual things. This is a wonderful trait and deserves to be commended. They are right to be turned off by hypocrisy and legalism.
Where they are wrong is turning to another belief system which is not the truth about spiritual things. The fact is, Christianity is only a legalistic religion when it is practiced wrongly. The Christian faith, in its essence, is not a works focused faith, but is a relationship with a person. Any “works” that a Christian engages in because of their faith are a result of their relationship with God, not the source of it. The first thing we, as Christians, must do is to make sure that we are living out our relationship with God in a way that is consistent with the actual truth of our faith. New Age believers will deeply appreciate this consistency.
The next thing we must be able to do is to share with them the problems associated with New Age belief. There are two huge problems with it.
First, there is no basis for believing it. Every belief system must be based on something, and the foundation of New Age beliefs it is nothing more than an individual’s own opinion. We ought to be able to help people understand that one person’s opinions are no more valid than that of any other person. There must be some kind of objective evidence to back it up.
Secondly, as a hybrid worldview, New Age beliefs are internally inconsistent. We must be able to demonstrate what those inconsistencies are.
Finally, we must have the ability to share our own faith in a way that is clear and which demonstrates that our authority source is valid. By giving respect and having the knowledge necessary to address the issues which relate to actually knowing God in a personal relationship, we will be in a position to effectively lead New Age believers to consider a relationship with Christ.
In dealing with “The Gospel According to Oprah,” we must recognize that it is really not about her. This is not her gospel but an approach to spirituality which has been around quite a while and is practiced by a lot of other people.
The reason it is so important in this case is that she has influence with so many people who, like herself, are searching for truth outside of the Christian faith. New Age beliefs are a mixture of various religious ideas which have been put together in ways to try and satisfy the inner longing of the soul of people who don’t want to put themselves under the authority of God.
We know that the truth about reality is only found in Jesus Christ. But just knowing this fact is not enough to satisfy Oprah and those who have chosen to follow her path. The truth about Jesus has to be shared with New Age believers in a way that is credible to them. This requires that those sharing the faith live a life of complete integrity, and that they be able to answer the “why” questions – why New Age is not the truth and why the Christian faith is. When we put ourselves in a position to know the truth for ourselves and to effectively share it with others, God will be able to use us to reach those who are searching for his truth.
© 2008 Freddy Davis