My friend Pauline gave me this book recently and asked me to read it. Eckhart Tolle began his ‘spiritual journey’ after experiencing a transcendent experience; an awakening. He thinks that this awakening is available to us all;
Christians have lauded such experiences (usually called ‘conversion’) for our whole history- from the beginning of our religion with St Paul on the Emmaus road. There was a time in my immersion in charismatic evangelicalism when people seemed to compete with one another to tell as dramatic a conversion experience as possible. Services were organised around ‘testimony’ which usually told how BAD someone used to be, until Jesus saved them and the Holy Spirit zapped them into sublime peace. I am forced to remember that the people who shared these transformations often seemed rather untransformed to me. But perhaps this is unkind- I am a work in slow progress, so who am I to criticise anyone else’s experience of faith?
Christians are often amazed to discover that these ecstatic conversion experiences- religions events- are not confined to the Christian faith.
Ekhart Tolle takes strands from all the world religions to point us towards a deeper, better life, not just for ourselves but for the planet. His language is laced with mysticism – much of what I find to be beautiful. However, I also find myself distanced from it all. I think this is because I am suspicious of quick fixes.
As a troubled child, struggling with an often abusive and emotionally deprived situation, I longed for some kind of tangibly unequivocal experience of the divine. This was less about ‘proving’ God, and more about proving me. It would mean that I was worth something, that I was somehow blessed, accepted. In my mind it also meant that the sinfulness that I knew I contained would be instantly dealt with- and I was hugely aware of how sinful and useless that I was. Ultimately I came to realise that this kind of spirituality was damaging for me- and exposed me and others to all sorts of potential abuse and manipulation.
Everyone is looking for a miracle cure. If only I take this drug, do this thing, follow this ritual, have this product, marry this girl/boy life will be OK. To be fair, Eckhart Tolle is not suggesting instant transformation for us all, but I suspect the wild popularity of his book is based on the fact that he offers a non-specific one- size-fits-all spiritual route to enlightenment within a modern consumer culture.
It feels like the difference between an Oprah Winfrey therapeutic TV event – in which we watch someone apparently deal with their past – and the reality of long term therapeutic engagement, in which two steps forward are often followed by three steps back. Over nearly half a century in and around Christians, my experience of spirituality fits far more with the latter than the former.
Having said all this, there seems no doubt that people are transformed by one off religions events. People are converted, changed, enlightened, filled with the Spirit. Some of these people are inspired to do wonderful things as the result.
Can this be replicated in the hearts of the hopeful, or are transformative events like this in themselves rare, precious? I have been in the presence of many Christian charismatic leaders that have promised ecstatic transformation to others as a matter of course. As I look back on these experiences now, then I am forced to conclude that the hundreds and thousands of people who prayed earnestly for such a transformation did not experience it, even if at times we pretended that we did. This might be about the need to conform to in group pressures, but it seems that it might also be related to a deeper yearning we have for a connection to the divine.
It is not surprising really- psychologists have been trying to understand these events for years;
Ultimately, despite the complex arguments about evolutionary group selection, religious experience is only ever fully understood from the inside.
We of faith might also counter some of Jonathan Haidt’s points about evolutionary usefulness of cohesive religion by suggesting that we are skewed this way because we are body, mind and spirit. On other words, we all come into the world with that thing we used to call a God-shaped hole.
I have just come to value a spirituality that starts with an understanding of what is broken and what is beautiful in all of us. From there, we can start to learn again that word love, both for ourselves and more importantly, those all around us.
But let us continue to search for our staircase.