More On Oprah's "Spirituality" Classes

Oprah Winfrey is hosting a 10-week course (online, free of charge) titled A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, based on the book of the same name by Eckhart Tolle. Over 700,000 people enrolled for the class with over 500,000 attempting to participate live on Monday, March 3 for the first session. Some had trouble viewing because of the overload.

Tolle describes himself as a contemporary spiritual teacher who is not aligned with any particular religion or tradition. A New Earth is Tolle’s follow-up to the 2,000,000 copy bestselling inspirational book, The Power of Now which encouraged readers to discover the freedom and joy of a life lived “in the now.” In A New Earth, Tolle attempts to show how transcending our ego-based state of consciousness is not only essential to personal happiness, but also the key to ending conflict and suffering throughout the world. Oprah says this online course/Webcast is the most exciting thing she has ever done.

I viewed the first session (it is available on Oprah’s website) and have the following thoughts to share:

  • I give Oprah credit for attempting to do such a positive thing, especially when TV and other media offer us so much negativity, violence, and drivel.
  • Clearly there is a hunger for spirituality as evidenced by the incredible numbers of people participating in this course. The key for us as Catholics and especially as catechists is to help others recognize that Catholicism is a spiritual path. Too often, the Catholic faith is perceived as simply a set of dogmas and doctrines. And yet, Catholicism has such a rich and deep treasury of spirituality. Apparently people are not finding spirituality in the Catholic Church and so they are searching elsewhere.
  • Tolle appears to be a meek and humble individual who sincerely desires to help people.
  • At the heart of Tolle’s message is the invitation to find a stillness within. He invokes Psalm 46:10 “Be still and know that I am God.”
  • Most of what Tolle teaches can be found within the Catholic Tradition and with much greater depth than he offers. The Cloud of Unknowing does a much better job of teaching the type contemplation that Tolle is proposing.
  • In general, Tolle does not talk about God but about “consciousness.” Oprah calls this consciousness, God. The invitation to be still is to get in touch with the greater consciousness (feel free to call it divinity) that dwells within us.
  • It would seem that the underlying message in what Tolle and Oprah are teaching is that we should come to identify ourselves with the divine. This is not too different from the “you are God” message of The Secret that Oprah was proclaiming last year. 
  • I find Tolle’s message to be very vapid (flavorless) – the goal is to be more in touch with “life” and with “a greater consciousness” – these concepts are very amorphous and impersonal. Spirituality is concerned with reaching beyond ourselves – transcending. The question is, what or who are you reaching out to? Catholic Tradition teaches us that we are reaching out to a personal God and entering into a relationship, not just tapping into some amorphous consciousness or force.
  • Within the Catholic Tradition, the concept of contemplation is how we learn to “be still” and know that God is God. In recent times, the practice of Centering Prayer invites us to interior silence.
  • Tolle insists that the goal to discovering our life’s purpose is to get in touch with life’s purpose and to ask life what our purpose is within that greater context. I’m not sure how you “ask life” anything because I’m not sure how he defines life. What exactly is this “life” that we are talking to? A person? A force? A thing?
  • The first “caller” or “skyper” (referring to the technology used to make video calls) identified herself as a Catholic and wanted to know how to reconcile Tolle’s spirituality with her Catholicism. Tolle attempts to assure people that nothing he teaches is in conflict with their religious tradition. This is well-intentioned but it is naïve and falls into the “basically we all believe the same thing” mentality.
  • Oprah and Tolle have an aversion to the word dogma. They stress that Tolle has no dogma to teach…just “pure spirituality.” The word dogma technically means an opinion or belief (or set of opinions or beliefs) that one thinks is true and authoritative. They, and many folks today, see dogma as restrictive of individual freedom and therefore as stifling and bad. Tolle does not realize that the moment he asserts that there is a “Consciousness” that we can all tap into, he is presenting dogma: his belief that he thinks is true and, for those who want to follow his way, authoritative. Catholics believe that dogma is part of the gift of God’s revelation, entrusted to the Church, and handed down from generation to generation to guide us to live in close relationship with God and with one another.
  • Oprah says that she walked away from her traditional Baptist upbringing when her preacher proclaimed that our God is a “jealous God.” (see Exodus 20:5) She felt that this trait could not be applied to God. It’s true that we sometimes run into passages in the Bible that are difficult to interpret but that is why we, as Catholics, are so grateful for our Tradition…there is wisdom to be found to help us!  This passage speaks of God’s passionate desire to be in relationship with us. Jealousy here is not indicative of envy but of deep desire and zeal.
  • Oprah says that Jesus came to show us “the higher consciousness.” Jesus of course, never used that term. Rather, he tells us that he came to show us the Father…someone with whom he is in relationship . Oprah also says that Jesus came to show us the principles that we need to attain this higher consciousness. Jesus did not come to give principles but to give himself
  • Tolle is right in saying that religion is a doorway to spirituality and that sometimes that door is closed, preventing us from a deeper spirituality. This can and does happen unfortunately.
  • Oprah quotes from a book by Elizabeth Lesser called The Seeker’s Guide in which Lesser describes the difference between what she calls the old spirituality and the new spirituality. Lesser says that in the old spirituality, everything was hierarchical, God was defined, and there was only one path. According to her, in the new spirituality, you are your own best authority, we listen for our own definitions of who God is, and there are many paths. In others words, “no one can tell me what to believe or what to do. I just find it out within myself as I go along because God is in me and if I pay attention, I’ll figure it all out.”
  • Tolle does not speak of sin but of dysfunction and how, through our own negativity and dysfunction, we all contribute to a collective consciousness that is dysfunctional. He rightly asserts that we need to examine ourselves to see how we are contributing to this dysfunction. It would seem, however, that in the end, we “fix” ourselves and thus can “fix” the collective consciousness. I don’t perceive any notion of being saved or redeemed by a higher power.
  • Tolle speaks of the “voice in my head” but does not refer to it as conscience (at least not in this program). He says this voice is simply conditioned thinking and that, when we experience an awakening, we can move beyond it. He doesn’t stress conscience formation but rather “awakening” to that place within ourselves that is untouched and where the eternal abides.
  • Tolle compares this awakening to the consciousness expanding that people attain through drugs but says the difference is that, with drugs, we always fall back to where we were whereas, through his method, there is no falling back.
  • I couldn’t help but think of St. Thérèse of Lisiuex and her “little way” when Tolle talked about accessing the power of the present moment, especially in simple things. St. Thérèse
    , the Little Flower, does a much better job of addressing this concept.
  • Tolle said flat out that God is another word for consciousness. I’m not sure how he comes to this conclusion since, as far as I know, God has not revealed himself to us as consciousness.
  • Tolle insists that “how spiritual you are has nothing to do with what you believe.” I find that very puzzling. Again, to be spiritual is to seek transcendence…to reach beyond oneself for that which is greater than our self. We need to know (to believe, to trust in) what or whom we are reaching out toward.
  • Finally, Oprah invited people to return for the next session to participate in this process of getting closer to who you really are and honoring your life’s calling and purpose. Those are nice sounding words but the only problem is that it is all so me-centered. It’s all about me. And this discovery all takes place in a vacuum…God is (or may be) involved but only in the sense that it is the God that I discover within myself. I heard nothing about recognizing one’s responsibility to fellow human beings. You may be called to that, but only if the God within you reveals it to you. No one or nothing outside of yourself can tell you what to do because then, we’re in to dogma and that, apparently is bad.
About Joe Paprocki 2366 Articles
Joe Paprocki, DMin, is National Consultant for Faith Formation at Loyola Press, where, in addition to his traveling/speaking responsibilities, he works on the development team for faith formation curriculum resources including Finding God: Our Response to God’s Gifts and God’s Gift: Reconciliation and Eucharist. Joe has more than 35 years of experience in ministry and has presented keynotes, presentations, and workshops in more than 100 dioceses in North America. Joe is a frequent presenter at national conferences including the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress, the Mid-Atlantic Congress, and the National Conference for Catechetical Leadership. He is the author of numerous books, including the best seller The Catechist’s Toolbox, A Church on the Move, Under the Influence of Jesus, and Called to Be Catholic—a bilingual, foundational supplemental program that helps young people know their faith and grow in their relationship with God. Joe is also the series editor for the Effective Catechetical Leader and blogs about his experiences in faith formation at www.catechistsjourney.com.

17 Comments on More On Oprah's "Spirituality" Classes

  1. Joe, thank you for sharing your insights…and for providing us with some real well-thought-out answers for questions that we may encounter. You are a treasure to us working in the field. You’re so right. People are hungry for God, but they want a quick answer and a quick fix. And God works through human nature which takes its time and goes slowly.
    Peace!
    Sr. Constance

  2. Hi, Joe,
    Like Sr. Constance, I appreciate you taking the time to walk step-by-step through the assertions and statements. I simply would not have time during this season to do this and yet, a ready answer and response might be necessary. I have forwarded to all my catechists and trust that they will learn and confirm their Catholic beliefs just from reading your notes. Keep the good work coming!
    MCM

  3. Mary Catherine,

    Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad I can make this kind of contribution. My job allows me to do this and is designed to have me do things like this. One DRE who seemed impressed that I have the time to do things like this asked me if I work 24/7. I told her, “No, I just don’t have a parish ministry like you do!” The demands of parish ministry do not leave time for getting into depth on some of these things swirling all around us. I’m glad I can contribute and be “the DRE’s )(and the catechist’s)best friend!”

  4. Thanks for your comments Joe. I have to say the book, “How Big Is Your God” by Paul Coutinho is such a great book b/c he includes in his wholistic spirituality a personal, passionate relationship with God. I would love to see Oprah promoting that with her book club!

  5. Again we witness religion according to Oprah! I find it irritating that Oprah continues to develop “dogma” related to every aspect of our lives. Now she has decided that this “Consciousness” is the type of spirituality we all need to ascribe to and practice.

    As catechetical leaders it is our responsibility to shed light on the nature of this type of “propaganda.”
    Thank you, Joe, for bringing it to my attention. I do not worship at the altar of Oprah Winfrey but I know a number of people who do, and some are catechists. I will suggest spirituality exercises that are more in keeping with Catholic beliefs and practices.

  6. We were trying to discuss in class last week (8th grade) what exactly is not quite right about Oprah’s version and presentation of her spirituality. It does seem to be a new religion, dogma and all, that cannot be reconciled with our Catholic traditions and teachings. Thanks for your thorough analysis and with your approval I’d like to use some of your points in class tonight.

  7. Hi Joe,
    I read your thoughts on Oprah’s and Tolle’s class quickly. I am going to give it time and response because many people are so easily influenced by good intention but as you pointed out there are important points of direction that need research and conversation. Our catechists are already disturbed by Christian U-tube responses to this session of classes. I just began reading Tolle and also need to give it time so I can respond intelligently. This is an important discussion and I am forwarding your site once again to our team!

    Thanks and Peace,

    Terry

  8. Robert Mulholland describes Christian spirituality in the following terms:

    “Spiritual formation is the process of being conformed to the image of Christ by the gracious working of God

  9. It is my favorite definition. Jam packed, if you know what I mean. And yes, it is a book by him:

    http://www.amazon.com/Invitation-Journey-Road-Spiritual-Formation/dp/0830813861

    I came across it in a text (by Cunningham and Egan)that was required reading for a Christian Spirituality class in the Pastoral Ministry Leadership Formation progam that I am enrolled in.

    You might want to take a look at this link as well. it ‘breaks open’ the definition:

    http://makingdisciples.wordpress.com/2007/09/17/spiritual-formation-is-not-optional-it-is-essential/

  10. Joe, very wonderful insights. Your summary provides me with a better understanding. It is very helpful and I really apprecicate that. Thank you very much.

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