Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Touchy-Feely Faith that Neglects the Mind

In one of her signature ah-ha moments, Oprah Winfrey announced to 50 million talk show viewers that, "God is a feeling-experience, not a believing-experience!"—a statement based on the New Age teaching of one of her spiritual gurus. Why should Christians take note of yet another one of Oprah's epiphanies? Because in this concise statement, Oprah succeeded in encapsulating the essence of an ideological movement that has gained far-reaching influence and has even infiltrated the Christian faith in insidious ways.

It is in the “new spiritualism” of Eckhart Tolle that Oprah finds the inspiration for such a concept. After Oprah’s widespread promotion of Tolle’s books, such as A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose, Tolle made several best seller lists and his teaching has had significant impact. In 2011, he was dubbed by the Watkins Review as the most spiritually influential person in the world. While this likely an inflated view of Tolle, it is true that ideas like his are hugely popular. Tolle articulates the common New Age notion that peace and truth can only be found by searching deep within oneself, a search which supposedly culminates in an overpowering feeling of oneness with the universe—which is God in us all, and by which we are all connected.

Another Oprah-endorsed author, Rhonda Byrne, presents much the same premise. In her best-selling book, The Secret, she claims to have unlocked the secret through which we can create a better life through Quantam physics and the law of attraction—in other words, we can shape our own destinies through harnessing the universal powers that are at our disposal if we search within ourselves. As Byrne puts it, “There is a truth deep down inside of you that has been waiting for you to discover it, and that Truth is this: you deserve all good things life has to offer.”[1]

Ideas like these can, and do, have mass-appeal because they tap into our innately self-centered nature. It's all about self-help, self-fulfillment, self-truth, and—quite frankly—self-indulgence. As a result, millions of people have embraced the New Age beliefs promoted by Oprah. Ann Oldenburg, reporting to USA Today wrote: “After two decades of searching for her authentic self — exploring New Age theories, giving away cars, trotting out fat, recommending good books and tackling countless issues from serious to frivolous — Oprah Winfrey has risen to a new level of guru.”  It is unsettling that the concept of self-truth has had such extensive impact even within Christian circles. I have encountered with some frequency Christians reading both Tolle's and Byrne's books and also Christians who admire Oprah. 

In the quest for self-truth, Tolle encourages his readers to let go of pre-conceived religious beliefs that present obstacles to the transformative power of his teachings and to gain freedom from the mental constraints that inhibit their access to spiritual enlightenment. Like other new spiritualists, Tolle claims that his version of the “Truth” about universal oneness is a-religious, (completely disregarding the fact that he is merely replacing one belief system with another pantheistic version). Tolle denies the need for a conscious belief in God, holding that the “Truth” can only be sensed through an intuitive method of unconscious internal knowing—in other words—a feeling. He criticizes “mind-dominated religions” in which “people…equate truth with thought.”[2] Tolle’s theory of oneness, therefore, did not come to him through a thought-process, he claims, but through a near-death experience.[3] 

For those not firmly grounded in the Word of God, ideas like these may sound profound and have surface appeal. Even among Christians, the trendy practice of mind-emptying meditation[4] as a relaxation technique has become popular, for example. Erasing conscious beliefs from the mind involves letting go of biblical knowledge and opening up the unconscious to the "power of the universe." While this process may seem benign to some believers, it can in fact open them up to ungodly influences, perhaps even demonic persuasion.  

Paul describes how we should "demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God" and "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ." (2 Cor 10:3-6). In complete opposition to Tolle's position, it is clear from scripture that the process of salvation begins in the heart through the believing reception of the testimony of God—a conscious process that also involves the mind. The mental rejection of that testimony hardens the heart, for without a conscious acknowledgment of our sinful state and our need for salvation, we will have stubborn and unrepentant hearts (Rom 2:5). Instead, we are told to set our "minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth." (Cor 3:1-2). Seeking the truth within the [earthly] self through a feeling-experience, therefore, can only lead to deception, a hardened heart, and away from God.

Worryingly, an emphasis on faith as a feeling-experience is being echoed by a growing number of Christians today who base their relationship with God far more heavily on their emotional response to Him than on their biblical knowledge of Him. Believers are increasingly placing more stock in heart-feelings as a means to discerning God's will for their lives without also going to the Bible for direction. Many Christians are turning to mystical or self-help books that contain "spiritual fluff" rather than solid biblical content. Often, these books call themselves "Christian," but never mention the gospel, quote Bible verses rarely, selectively, or out of context, and indulge the reader in a touchy-feely portrayal of the Christian faith. Books such as these fail to equip believers for a faith that endures.

In keeping with this trend is the Emerging Church movement—a broad, yet controversial, movement that seeks to use culturally sensitive approaches to reach the postmodern, un-churched population with the Christian message. Emerging churches often promote a feelings- and experience-based relationship with God, while downplaying the need for doctrinal understanding. In this context, the gospel can be diluted in a sea of emotion and a church culture is created that caters to human needs first, which sadly results in promoting self-indulgence while de-emphasizing the Lordship of Christ. This is the epitome of touchy-feely faith.

Touchy-feely faith, as well-intended as it may be, can put us on a winding rabbit trail of emotion that actually leads us away from God. This is because without Bible-knowledge, it is harder to discern which heart-feeling is of God and which isn't. God never contradicts His Word, and heart-feelings that aren't compatible with biblical truth are not of the Holy Spirit, even if they might feel like it. But touchy-feely faith overlooks the need to watch our doctrine closely and persevere in it in order to save both ourselves and our hearers (1 Tim 4:16). It neglects the need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds in order to test and approve God's will (Romans 12:2). And it can leave us vulnerable to being led astray by false teaching. Jesus showed that being rooted in scripture is vital when He said, "If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31-32). 

The importance of loving God with all our minds is overlooked in a dumbed-down Christian culture that relishes sound-bite theology and fleeting ah-ha moments in our Twitter feed. In addition, the growing emphasis on feeling-experiences in the Christian culture reflects the pattern-behavior of this world—patterns we are specifically taught not to conform to! (Romans 12:1).  Leading emotion-driven lives and “following one’s heart” is indeed the modus operandi of a worldly culture. The vast majority of secular pop music unashamedly indulges every emotional whim and fantasy rather than conveying anything remotely redeeming or edifying to the human heart. And our younger generations suffer from a culturally imposed sense of entitlement—believing that they deserve to live emotionally indulgent lives of happiness, comfort, pleasure, or, in other words, self-worship. David Powlison, in his in-depth analysis of idols of the heart, explains that the Bible treats idolatry, not only as stemming from within the human heart, but also “as a central feature of the social context, ‘the world,’ which shapes and molds us.”[5]  Indeed, our self-absorbed culture provides the perfect context for Byrnes’ pronouncement that “you deserve all good things life has to offer”  to be well-received, and for the idol of self-worship to take root. The hedonistic environment in which we live, is also fertile ground for self-serving lies to flourish such as, “if it feels good, it is good.” And as followers of Christ, we should reject this worldly pattern of behavior vehemently.

Basing one’s life decisions and priorities on feelings, or following one’s heart, certainly has fatal pitfalls; the Bible teaches clearly that the heart (in biblical Hebrew, the heart is a metaphor for the seat of emotions) is deceitful above all things (Jer 17:9) and is naturally wicked (Gen 8:21). Hence, the heart, when left in its original condition, contaminates one’s whole life and character (Matt 12:34; Matt 15:18). The Bible teaches that the heart must be changed and regenerated (Eze 36:26; Eze 11:19; Psa 51:10), before we can willingly obey God. 

Jesus said: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matt 22:37). In this, the first and greatest of God's commandments, we learn that loving God involves a cognitive grasp of who He is (through His Word), coupled with our heart response to the transformative power of the gospel, for a faith that will endure with our souls forever. 

[1] Byrne, Rhonda, The Secret, 2006, p41
[2] Ekahrt Tolle, A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose
[3] Richard Abanes responds to this claim in A New Earth, An Old Deception: Awakening to the dangers of Ekhart Tolle’s #1 Bestseller, pointing out that similar out-of-body sensations have been documented to result from torture, hypnosis, and drug-induced hysteria.
[4] The term "meditation" here is not to be confused with practice of meditating on God's Word, which has an entirely different meaning.
[5] Powlison, David, “Idols of the Heart and “Vanity Fair,” The Journal of Biblical Counseling, Volume 13, Number 2, Winter 1995, p36


Liss Askew said...

Thank you so much for this article. I sent it to so many people, and actually wrote my own blog with it. This is such an important article to read. And you are right on. I see so many Christians falling for this false spirituality. And I have friends who were raised in church, but have left church and Christianity to follow these beliefs. These "sound-good" beliefs are very seducing especially for those who are not well grounded in Christianity. I spend so much time researching these beliefs and attempting to reach Christians to have more discernment regarding these false teachings. Thank you. Excellent article..

Maeve McDonald said...

Thank you for your encouraging words. It is not always a popular thing to write about considering the prevailing culture. I pray that you are able to help many others grow in their faith with your blog.

Paul Robinson said...

While I appreciate the thrust of your article, the stoicism of many Christian groups is NOT winning the lost. Religion you can't feel is like food you can't taste.

How long would bars stay in business if there was no sense of community, no laughter and no feeling of belonging?

The Bible has little negative to say about "feeling" God, and lots about experiencing God.

There needs to be a balance of doctrine and emotion.

MikeSnow said...

Most American Christians do not understand "heart" in the Bible. http://textsincontext.wordpress.com/wp-admin/customize.php?url=http%3A%2F%2Ftextsincontext.wordpress.com%2Fwp-admin%2Fupload.php

Ron Staples said...

Thanks for this article. It is good to know there are kindred souls out there. I am at a point right now where I'm a little frustrated with Christians who seem to have abandoned the mind, logic, and reasoning.

Of course there is faith and we need it and there will always be things about God we won't understand (how can there not be, he is infinite, we are finite). Yet, there is so much we can learn and understand, we can really do more to build a solid Biblical foundation. Instead we tend to replace all this with sentimentality, it is saddening.

KDG CosmicDave said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KDG CosmicDave said...

An unfortunate misunderstanding of both the love of Christ and Tolle's teachings. I believe most articles can be interpreted quickly through the filter of is this inspiring love or fear. By their fruits you shall know them.

Stephen said...

Cosmic Dave remains lost sadly...claiming to have understadning. Where do we draw the line between these forms of 'anti-Christ' Gnosticism(s) and the Truth...as described in 1 JOHN.? THanks for this post.