Monday, April 14, 2008

Guest Post by K MacGinn

Last month, Oprah Winfrey made yet another author incredibly wealthy by blessing his book with her mega-endorsement. Her guest was Eckhart Tolle, author of "A New Earth: Awakening To Your Life's Purposes." She offered special online courses and e-mailings, to which some 700,000 people committed to exploring Tolle's hybrid of Eastern-Western mysticism. In fact, so many people went to Oprah's website during last night's webcast, making it one of the Internet's largest single online events. More than 500,000 people logged on simultaneously, creating problems for the website. (Go here for Oprah's press release regarding the technical difficulties experienced during the "webinar." New word for me ...)

I have a problem with "spirituality."
First, it is a rather loose term. What exactly does it mean? It appears to mean different things to different people. I recall a colleague talking about how she was "spiritual." I asked her what that meant. She gave me some explanation about practices she does to be a better person, to connect more with herself and the universe, blah, blah, blah. I commented that it appeared that spirituality was rather self-centered: all actions were focused on the individual, how he could make his own life better -- something rather self-focused. She did not like my comment.

Sorry! But that's how I see it. Yes, "religious people" (I prefer "people of faith") have committed some horrible atrocities in the name of God. Yes, "religious people" are hypocrites just like the rest of the population. However, I don't recall hearing of "spiritual people" doing such things as founding orphanages, universities, food pantries, fighting slavery and oppression, ministering to special populations (e.g. AIDS/HIV patients, foster programs, relief agencies, mission trips to feed the hungry and educate the poor, etc.). Sure, there are some philanthropic secular organizations, such as The Red Cross and Doctors Without Border; but, it seems only the hypocritical "religious people" selflessly focus their energies and efforts en masse on such activities.

[You might ask what I mean by "religion" versus "faith." "Religion" is the ritual -- the human-made rituals that we perform in attempts to honor God. "Faith" is the RELATIONSHIP we have with God. "Religion" is a horizontal action, too, sharing our actions, efforts, worship, beliefs with those around us. "Faith" is a vertical action -- our upward connection to God. In light of that, I would argue that a person of faith doesn't necessarily have to have rituals, but perhaps a spiritual person is one who performs the rituals, but there isn't necessarily the relationship with God. No relationship with God means no real responsibility TO God or his fellow man. It sounds like, in some respects, spirituality is the old "works righteousness" trap that spurred the Reformation.]

I am a bit alarmed by Oprah's endorsement of spirituality. Last year, she was all about the book "The Secret." That seemed like a type of "believe- hard- enough- and- it- will- happen" spirituality. Now, she's promoting "A New Earth." I wonder if her oh-so-powerful endorsement of yet another form of spirituality might not pull more people into "works righteousness" and away from developing a relationship with God.

The Chicago Sun Times' religion columnist Kathleen Falsani has an interesting article today regarding Winfrey and Tolle -- "Oprah's class offers a new way to see; 700,000 commit to exploring East-West-hybrid mysticism." In the commentary, Falsani reports on Oprah having been spiritually educating her viewers for year and now offering more than 700,000 viewers formal instruction around the globe. Her free, 10-week online class offers instruction from both her and Eckhart Tolle, the German-born spiritual teacher. The class has 90-minute cyber sessions at 8 p.m. on Monday nights.

Falsani cautions that "A New Earth is not light reading. It's esoteric and high-minded. Literally. In his best-selling tome, Eckhart encourages readers to view the book as an opportunity for enlightenment." Hence the online resources: e-mailed mediations, downloadable workbooks, connections with other participants, questions can be asked of Winfrey and Tolle, assignments, etc. "The ideas and concepts presented here may be important, but they are secondary," Tolle writes in the first chapter, the reading assignment for Monday night's first online class. "They are no more than signposts toward awakening. As you read, a shift takes place in you. This book's main purpose is not to add new information or beliefs to your mind or to try to convince you of anything, but to bring about a shift in consciousness, that is to say, to awaken."

Falsani says that the language of Tolle's book is not the kind of religious platitude that can be easily put on a t-shirt or sum up on a bumper sticker. The online classes, therefore, are to help readers through the challenging passages and to aid them in understanding the "languaging of new consciousness," as she Oprah described it to USA Today.

Falsani makes an interesting statement about Oprah: "Some say Oprah has become one of the most -- if not the most -- significant spiritual leaders of our time, a title I'm pretty sure she neither desires nor appreciates. If she hasn't taken on the mantle of "America's pastor," she certainly has stepped into the role of Pointer in Chief -- directing viewers toward people, things, concepts and ideals that she finds edifying." I think this might point to the sad state of affairs here in the U.S. and the world with respect to faith.

Falsani ends her commentary thusly (emphasis added):
Both Tolle and Oprah (through the class materials on emphasize that A New Earth (which takes its name from biblical passages that talk about the creation of "a new heaven and a new earth") is not anti-religion.

"This online class is not for or against any religion. It is intended to help all human beings, all over the world, bring about a shift in consciousness," Tolle says on the Web site.

To Christians or Buddhists or other practitioners of traditional religions, he says: "There is no need to go elsewhere for truth. Let me show you how to go more deeply into what you already have."

But it is clear, even from the first chapter of the book, that Tolle considers most religious traditions to be tainted, if not blatantly destructive. "Humanity is now faced with a stark choice: evolve or die," Tolle writes. "We are coming to the end not only of mythologies but also of ideologies and belief systems."

Spirituality vs. religion

A new Pew Forum study of the U.S. religious landscape that found 44 percent of adult Americans had either moved away from the faith tradition of their childhood or now ascribed to no religion in particular. Perhaps that ambiguity is Tolle's appeal to Oprah's book-reading multitudes.

"Like canned goods in a cabinet, religious beliefs can be selected and combined without federal punishment," said Kathryn Lofton, a professor of religious studies at Indiana University who is working on a book about Oprah as a religious icon. "The only limit to your religious choices is your imagination, and your particular sense of loyalty to a particular brand."

While Winfrey and Tolle champion a more fluid "spirituality" over dogmatic "religion," Lofton says their stance really is a conceit. "Talk of spirituality is often a means to whitewash newfound dogma. . . . The non-dogmatic dogma that encourages an ambiguous theism alongside an exuberant consumerism. All religions can be 'spiritual,' says Oprah, if you just look hard enough."

The optimist in me says: Well, at least they're looking.

Would that we all have the eyes to see.
I wonder if there is a connection between "spirituality" and theophobia. For various reasons, people fear and/or loathe The Church, the Bible, God, Jesus, etc. Does spirituality offer people a way to express their need to worship and reverence, but yet gives them a way to do so anonymous and innocuous way that requires no commitment -- no RELATIONSHIP? It seems to be the old "works righteousness" trap all over again. People are perhaps getting so caught up in rituals, missing the relationship, and falling into the never-ending trap of "do, do, do" in their efforts for self-justification. It makes me think of parents who have their kids involved in so many activities (e.g. soccer, tae kwon do, music lessons, scouting, etc.), and yet they never really connect with their kids. There is no RELATIONSHIP.

Is Oprah unwittingly peddling the same old trap: "exchanging the Truth for a lie?" Is she selling her viewers / disciples into the old slavery of works righteousness and diverting them from the possibility of having a true RELATIONSHIP with God? Does "spirituality" actually equate with rituals -- empty motions. FAITH is having a relationship with God. It almost sounds like the same diversion the Jews had lead people down, losing people in tedious rituals, until Jesus showed up. It almost sounds like same road the Catholic Church lead its adherents down back into the Middle Ages, until Martin Luther and other Church reformers appeared.

Then, there was The Reformation, founded on these words: "For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Ephesians 2:8-9)

I would like to see The Church become more proactive. Heck my own home church seems to be disinterested in assuring that members learn and know The Bible, mostly opting for "feel good" books to discuss. We seem to be feasting on spiritual Hostess Ding Dongs and Twinkies, lacking a nutritious and fortifying spiritual diet of "meat and potatoes", Bible-based education. Meanwhile, our members are going about in The World unschooled, malnourished, and ignorant of The Bible and Church history.

The Church as a whole seems to have been sitting along the sidelines, comfortable in Her protected status here in the U.S., and carelessly and thoughtlessly letting radical secularism and atheism wage increasing popularity campaigns and political agendas without so much as a peep. Yes, I understand that The Church has some ground to cover, especially due to the large number of adults who have been burned by The Church. She needs to be campaigning every bit as hard -- in fact, harder! -- than secularism, atheism, and "spirituality." She needs to remove the fear and intimidation of The Bible and teach her followers to be curious and enthusiastic about learning the Bible and Church history.

Knowledge is power. Ignorance is not bliss!
~K MacGinn- Hummers & Cigarettes

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