The God Within Heresy

The God Within Heresy June 20, 2012

In the end, the God Within heresy is a kindly apocalypse: it overwhelms with niceness, tolerance, and is a make-up-your-own religion that is safe as long as you and I leave one another alone to make up our own religion for ourselves. Ross Douthat, in Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, takes direct aim at the following: Elizabeth Gilbert, Oprah Winfrey, Eckhart Tolle, Karen Armstrong, and some others like Deepak Chopra, Paulo Coehlho, James Redfield, Neale Donald Walsch, and Marianne Williamson. My read of American religion is that the God Within heresy is far more pervasive and far more threatening to Christianity than the prosperity gospel. These are the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, Douthat says.

How pervasive is this God Within theology/religion/spirituality? Where are you seeing it in the church? Why is it so appealing?

Douthat goes after Gilbert, famous for her book Eat, Pray, Love, a journey from a marriage, to divorce, to seeking God in the Far East at an ashram recommended by her (ex-)lover, and then finally finding love in Bali with a Brazilian man … she had arrived, and her secret is what Douthat calls the God Within. She found a voice within, a voice within her own self, it was God’s voice, it was God, it was herself. God and Self, more or less the same. For Gilbert, all religions offer the path to the divine — and all religious teachings are “transporting metaphors” leading to the infinite — you can cherry pick your own religion, make it all up, bricolage spirituality. Here’s her creed: “God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are” (214). We are to “honor the divinity that resides within” us (215).

What does this God Within stuff believe? Four points:

1. Organized religions offer only a glimpse of God.
2. God is everywhere and within everything; it is a form of pantheism ultimately.
3. All will eventually be reconciled with God — pantheistic universalism.
4. The good life, peace, etc, is available now.

They think they are truer to Christianity and Christ than most of Christianity. Here is where it becomes not only the God Within, but even more: the Me in the God Within. The person finds his or her own voice, or God, or the Soul.

It depersonalizes God — not the Father, Son and Spirit; not Yahweh; instad it is Being, Soul of the World, Highest Thought, Supreme Love. He gives Karen Armstrong a good sketch too: not about propositions but about encounter. The problem is that the theologians who are colonized into this new bricolaged religion of God Within, seen in #1 above, were all fiercely dogmatic — Gregory of Nyssa, Aquinas, et al. They knew their limits, but what they knew they really knew — and held out for. The faith exists because of the Flannery O’Connors, not the Paulo Coelhos.

He gets after a point that I have found so often among this crowd, and I see it at times in some in the spiritual formation movement: baptizing egomania and divinizing selfishness (his terms). That is, it becomes about Me and what God is doing in Me and my Soul and my Own Inner Self. It’s a kind of solipsism, he says. Religion for such people is the great Self-Enabler!

Critics or prophets were Philip Rieff and Les Kolakowski and Christian Smith and Melinda Denton. Moral therapeutic deism is where this stuff leads. God is out there for Me. So just be nice.

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  • phil_style

    The deistic trend in the affluent west is closely aligned with our consumerism. We forget that in order to “find life” one must lose it.

    The likes of Oprah etc, allow for a spirituality that is non-invasive. One and pick it up and put it down as one pleases, much like a diet or a de-tox regime.

    This spirituality makes none of the demands of a traditional religion, or even of a strongly principled atheist’s ethic.
    How does “love yourself” compare to “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”.
    How does “honor the divinity that resides within” compare to this “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”

  • Clay Knick

    I thought this was a good chapter, too. We are awash in “meism.”

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Okay, I am going to go out on a limb (hopefully not with Shirley Mcclaine 🙂 I hear what Douthat is saying about heresy. He has the guts to name names and give examples. I know this will make some people nervous but I get tired of the lack of courage to challenge anything in some sectors of the church. So Douthat has an ambitious project and I am glad to hear it from a Catholic perspective which gives it more substance than what I would probably hear from a more progressive liberal Protestant (but it does happen occasionally, Robin Meyer has a more unigue ability to cut through and challenge both conservatives and liberals) It does seem Douthat critique is one way—-against the liberal and progressive tide. What about the conservative tide though?

    Secondly, it seems like one could use Douthat’s critique against the great mystical tradition within the Roman Catholic Church historically. I suspect Douthat would not want to do that but it seems like his critique would just as much cut against the mystical tradition as it does the quasi-new-agers types.

    Lastly, I am reflecting from Scot’s summaries here but since I have not read either Douthat or Gilbert books, I wonder if Douthat has really done justice to Gilbert? (others who have read Gilbert will have to chime in on this one). And maybe to show how messed up I am, the four points of the “God-within” group does not sound that bad from my perspective (and one does not have to buy into the univeralism and selfish-ism to believe God speaks often from within and God’s Spirit resides from within!).

    1. Organized religion offers only a glimpse of God. Although I believe the church can offer more than this, isn’t this basically what the present reality in the church is for most of us if we are honest?

    2. God is every where and in every thing. This can be pantheism but it could be panentheism and it could even be a more nuanced view of God who holds all things together but God is distinct from his creation as well. Again, it seems a wonderful strength of the Catholic Church is its sacramentalism. A more robust Catholic theology would say God’s presence can be experienced any where and any time. A sacrament of the world and not just the seven sacraments.

    3. All will be reconciled—universalism. Some of the early church fathers held this out as a hope and speculation and not neccesarily a doctrine. Can’t people like Rob Bell challenge people that love wins in the end with at least a hope of the redemption of all things? This does not mean there is no judgment. The fathers also spoke about hell and purging and fire. Although I believe it is wishful thinking when people simply take a pick and choose approach and say heaven is in, hell is out; Love is in, judgment is out. When all people die, they all go straight to heaven despite how one’s life or actions effected others. But Douthat critique would be fitting for that crowd but he say “all will ‘eventually’ be reconciled with God.” This gives a lot of space for those thinking about these issues within the church and even those within the Roman Catholic church.

    4. “The good life, peace, is available now.” Maybe I am missing something and Scot summarized things to briefly but isn’t this N. T. Wright’s thesis (kingdom of God on earth now in the present?). Isn’t this the promise of Jesus that the Spirit would be with us now and forever and not just something we wait for after we die? I focused more on the peace here and maybe Douthat means something else by the good life? Scot, anybody? The spiritual life in Christ is the good life but like Douthat, this is not just some private me and God and that’s all kind of Christianity.

    It’s a life with and for God and it’s a life with and for others. I have not even read Gilbert but I doubt she is saying that spirituality is all about me and not about others. So again, I must be missing something?

  • scotmcknight


    He does at times criticize American fundamentalist Christianity; not nearly as often as he does the progressive side, but he sees the problem in the progressive side more than the fundamentalist.

    He’s deeply aware of the Catholic mystics, and one of his points that can’t really be gainsaid is that the Catholic mystics were constrained by Catholic theology. Yes, there are some exceptions but by and large the Catholic mystics remained orthodox.

    I’ve not read Gilbert’s book. Each of those four points can be read more gently — as you do — but there’s a substantive problem here to be acknowledged, with each one. Even the last one is not kingdom made available now through Christ but more happiness now. Inner peace now.

  • Sally D

    I’m glad CGC found the patience to critique this, and so well. As for me, it just made me feel slightly nauseous. Whatever is the point? If you’re into intrusive, taking-other-peoples’-inventory religion then obviously you’re in the choir Douthat is preaching to. If you’re not, you’re, well…not. Why can’t we be constructive instead of finding fault like this? Who are we, in any case, to say what is and is not of God within someone else’s life?

    I’m happy to leave it to the theologians to acknowledge the problems, or work on them if they must – but one of those problems has to be the enormous popularity of a gentler, more inwardly spiritual Christianity. Even many Evangelicals and former Evangelicals are weary of (yet again) being called to arms in the verbal assault against this or that heresy.

    Are the God-within people settling for less/too little? Maybe. But maybe those whose Big Kick of the Day comes from demolishing someone like Elizabeth Gilbert, have also settled for just a little bit less than God’s full and best standards of love.

    I hear the trumpet call, or rather the fading Evangelical in me does; but don’t think I’ll respond, at least not today. Got some eating, praying and loving to do.

  • Anna

    I don’t think he’s done justice to Gilbert’s book as she specifically states with those experiences that it was NOT herself, but something she experienced as “other” communicating with her, and that it brought her a great and unexpected sense of peace and sense of being loved. I don’t find what she wrote about those experiences to be all that different from what Christian authors published by Christian publishing houses describe to be their interactions with God.

    I will agree Gilbert is not an orthodox Christian, but neither did the Catholic mystics go unchallenged by the guardians of orthodoxy in their day. Many of them lived under the repeated threat of inquisition (i.e. Teresa of Avila) and many of them were indeed challenged as heretics.

  • What you’re talking about goes back over a hundred years in North America to the start of the New Thought movement, and to an extent, also to the Theosophists. I think part of what’s left out in your article is the motivating and pervasive American attitude that, “Anybody can achieve anything even if they have nothing as long as they believe everything.” Americans celebrate the independent “I can do it on my own” attitude, and I often wonder how much this affects which religions they choose to follow… and how much they change their religions to match this attitude. I’m not a Christian, so obviously I disagree with you that this “god within” belief is heresy, but I enjoyed your article for the point of view it provides – it got me thinking about the intersection of religion, history, and cultural attitudes. Thanks for sharing!

  • Wise word about what Harold Bloom calls “the American religion.” This kind of inner light gnosticism, while saturating American religious life, is, of course, nothing new. It was rampant in Paul’s Greco-Roman culture, and he determined early on that it was the bane of authentic faith. Several of his letters contain bitter diatribes against it.

    The pursuit of the Spirit in American life is seen by the purveyors above as simply another approach to health, along with good diet and exercise. Oprah will have a food expert, a fitness guru, and Deepak Chopra all in the same show. Prayer is positive thinking, another angle of a “well-rounded life,” in the same category as the South Beach diet and P90X, and you want to make sure you don’t overdo any of them. It’s therapeutic. The goal is to make you feel good.

    This heresy, as Scot calls it, is endemic in the Church, which is one of the reasons only 17% of Americans go anymore. Why fiddle with Church when you can get the same message, much better expressed, from Marianne Williamson while sipping a cocktail by your swimming pool?

    One note: there is a class division between prosperity gospel proponents on one hand, and the spiritual-but-not-religious crew on the other. The latter appeals to the affluent while the former targets the poor. As the gap between the rich and the poor widens in this country, I’m afraid we will have to endure even more Creflo Dollars.

    A good test for spiritual literature is this: does it make you squirm? The reader of Flannery O’Conner knows instinctively that she isn’t ratifying anybody’s inner biases.

  • DRT

    I am largely with CGC, but want to add.

    I don’t think that this god within part is wrong, per se, but rather it is incomplete. It takes the nice parts, the parts that help me, and stops there rather than go the next step which is to turn toward others. It is shallow.

    Isn’t this exactly the critique that Paul makes in Roman’s 1? Isn’t this natural religion that is not turning around and worshiping god but instead, more or less, worshiping the nature, the things that are, the coolness of this natural view of the world?

    And then I find the fundamentalists have the exact opposite problem. They don’t appreciate the interconnected and wonderful nature of our creation and the way things work, instead focusing on sinfulness etc. I don’t think Jesus wants us to be unhappy either.

    One of the great benefits of the recognition of the natural view is that it can be taught to those who are less fortunate and help ease their suffering. Instead it seems to be practiced by those who are well off.

  • DRT

    …and combining this post with Scot’s other on his interview about the difference between a salvation culture and gospel culture….

    It seems that the god within view, the prosperity gospel, and the salvation gospel are all just variations on the theme of “what’s in it for me”. If the point of the religion is to make yourself happy/prosperous/or eternal, then they are all the same.

    The true Christianity comes when you go beyond that and focus your faith outward. That’s what makes it a religion and not self help.

  • Bob

    I have needed the Catholic mystics and writers that affirm the love of self. You can’t give yourself away or lay down your life if you don’t have a self. I like Merton, Manning, Nouwen they are gentle with folks inner woundedness and human fragility. Authors like Richard Foster, Bonheoffer are too legalistic or austere for me. You can’t know God unless you know yourself.

  • CGC

    Hi DRT,
    Good thoughts and I would only add that if the religion of Christianity does not present an incarnational theology of the cross to its followers, people might end up a mile wide and an inch deep in their faith (and it might even be smaller than a mustard seed 🙂

  • Joe Canner

    I disagree that the “niceness and tolerance” gospel is more dangerous than the prosperity gospel and it is certainly better than no gospel. I’m not familiar with most of the personalities mentioned, but I do know that Oprah, for example, has used considerable amounts of her wealth to help the poor and needy, both here and abroad. In contrast, the prosperity gospel (intentionally or not) preys on the poor and enriches a few. Moreover, I don’t think the niceness gospel is responsible for human trafficking, corporate greed, drug cartels, and similar pathologies.

  • CGC

    Hi Everyone,
    Does correct theology save? I certainly believe in confessional Christianity and orthodoxy but isn’t the problem that we draw too tight and narrow lines? Yes, there were false gospels like docetics that deny Jesus in the flesh and we have the opposite today of those who deny the divinity of Jesus. I don’t know if anybody else wonders this but I wonder about people who actually reject false representations of Jesus and therefore have they really rejected Jesus or its abuses in Jesus name? I wonder about people who have not made a “confession” but may be a God-fearer nevertheless? I wonder about the love of God I see in people who are on a spiritual path of seeking God but have not “found” God versus those who claim they have found God but misrepresent that God by their actions and almost every time they open their mouths.

    I know this kind of wondering can get you into trouble but I do wonder at times . . . I quess I am at such a point that the church seems so messy and messed up today that I think it would do well to listen more to all the exit interviews of people leaving the church, the new atheists who can not stand the church, and possibly for the church to be more concerned about looking in the mirror than looking out the window at others. Maybe if we got our own houses more in order, we might gain a better hearing from the world?

  • Tracy

    I find much here to agree with, but labelling the “spiritual but not religious” crowd as egotistical and selfish is just unncessary. They aren’t all globe-trotting, chardonnay sipping yuppies. While Douthat is writing his apologies for the Republican Party’s economic policies and embrace of Wall Street tycoons, the “spiritual but not religious” are the majority of the crowd sleeping outside for the Occupy movement. Visit your local community’s Americorps projects, soup kitchens, and tutoring programs in prisons– and you’ll find plenty of the “spiritual but not religious.”

    When I go to visit my Christian friends in their large homes in the suburbs, and compare that to the former peace corp volunteers down the street, I’m reminded of just how wrong this caricature can be.

  • When I read the title of this post I was genuinely excited. I thought that, perhaps, it was going to be a post acknowledging that deep down every “heresy” contains a bit of God, or at least a bit of evidence of a person’s desire for Truth. I thought that maybe it would be a post about the unity that can be found in Christian diversity as we realize that Truth lives in the heart (and the fruit that springs from it) rather then the head.

    Oh, just another “Christian” labeling people (BY NAME!!!) as heretics? I guess I misread the title as the “God within heresy” rather than the “God Within” Heresy.

    I hereby move to ban the words “heresy” and “heretic” from the christian vocabulary, except insofar as they are used in reference to self when one is tempted to use them regarding others.

    CGC, Sally D., and Anna: I appreciate your thoughts an comments on this very much. Good stuff!

  • Gregory Du Bois

    The “Gospel” gospel is neither niceness nor prosperity, nor doing good to others. The core of the True Gospel is that Jesus died so that we don’t have to, even though we deserve the great and terrible wrath of God because of our sinful, rebellious desire to do things our own way. The Good News in that is that the righteous and Holy God made a way through Christ for us to live forever with him through the reconciliation of the cross.

    More good news: God comes to us to express His love and show us this way of salvation. He meets us where we are and speaks to our felt needs first. In this way we fall in love with Him as we discover how much he loves us. This can happen in many different ways. A sinner can suffer the consequences of sin and finally be fed up and look for a better life. He will find it in Christ. A wounded victim in need of healing will find it in the Loving Lord Jesus.
    We start out being saved in our “own” way, that is, according to our needs. But God expects us to start to learn how to do things his way, and those who truly love Him WANT to learn how to do things His way.

    I think all these me-ism religions and false faiths of do goodism and feel goodism, basically all suffer from failing to go on and learn more of God who is, the Holy Lord of the Universe, worthy of our obedience and allegiance to his revealed Word. In other words, there may be a lot of rocky soil people receiving salvation, or something like it in God’s first attempts to reach them, as an initial blessing without being able to endure the sanctification process of true discipleship, both inside of and outside of the institutional church or established religion.

    The Word of God is what is demanding. The people who understand the demands of discipleship and try to communicate it get shot at or shot down as a way for the shooters to avoid the demands of growing in Christian and spiritual maturity. The people who resist the demands of discipleship call themselves more spiritual and loving, even as they shoot the messengers of the true gospel.

    More good news! The demands of the True Gospel result in the delights of the maturing Christian living out the most fruitful, most joyful, most abundant, most generous, most otherish life style found on the planet, even if that inner life is accompanied by extreme privation in material blessings, as evidenced by the strength of the persecuted Church in other lands East of the USA. Not that I have already attained it. Yet, I press on!

  • As a Christ-centered Quaker, I get concerned when people start denigrating the idea that God can, and does, speak within the silence of our souls. This is a denial of Gospel truth. To conflate the idea that God is active in the world outside of the church with pantheism is highly problematic and shows a lack of nuanced understanding of both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. Throughout the bible and our world God is shown to be active in the lives of those that call on the names of other Gods. I see a danger in denying the image of God or the activity of the Holy Spirit in others that borders on denying the humanity of the person/people we are looking at.
    What is most missing in what I am seeing here is a call to humility. We have a lot of people claiming to have achieved full understanding of God and how God chooses to work in the world. Maybe if we as Christians did not constantly equate being “chosen” with being “better” we might be a bit closer to walking as Christ. In my experience, and in scripture, God seems to not choose those who are “better”, but instead chooses those who are “worse, lowly, broken, and/or worthless” and is most visibly active in them.
    I find the hyper-individualism of our culture to be unsatisfying and would love to see a discussion of how to balance the personal nature of God’s love for us with God’s call on us to live in mutually submissive interpretive communities. As long as we are addicted to being personally “right” about systems of theology that are externally imposed modern constructs, I don’t see this conversation having a starting place.

  • DRT

    The more I think about this post the more indignant I am feeling. I agree with Tracy – ” labelling the “spiritual but not religious” crowd as egotistical and selfish is just unnecessary.”

    I ran away from Christianity because of the religion presented in Christianity. I found great comfort and wisdom in some of these, and was edified by them. But I ultimately ran from them too because they suffered from the same problem as Christianity, they portrayed it was all about me.

    When I was a Catholic I had a hard time believing that it was all about me being “good” then going to heaven.
    When I looked at Protestantism I had a hard time believing that it was all about me worshiping god to preserve his glory.
    When I was a Buddhist I had a hard time feeling that the purpose of life was to improve my station, though I actually liked the easing of suffering, finally something that was “other” oriented.
    When I experimented with New Age, I felt at peace but felt that somehow I was trying to help myself!

    The question became, for me, “Is there no spirituality or religion out there that is bigger than me! I know I am not god, but it seems like they are all about me!”

    When I found N.T. Wright and JVG it changed my life. It became about Jesus and that is very different from any other Christianity that I had known.

    My Point – If Christianity is not presenting a religion that is bigger than us, who can blame people from believing in and pursuing the god within? Calvinism does not do that. It says that god somehow needs us to fill his ego so he will then reward us.

    The heresy is that Christianity stopped worshiping Jesus, and that legitimates all other spirituality.


  • phil_style

    @DRT #18
    I agree with Tracy – ” labelling the “spiritual but not religious” crowd as egotistical and selfish is just unnecessary. My Point – If Christianity is not presenting a religion that is bigger than us, who can blame people from believing in and pursuing the god within?

    I agree to a point (and perhaps entirely) with you DRT. I think, for many people the commercial (television) version of SNR (spiritual not religious) is supported by the very same attitude that supports a Christianity focused entirely on self-ation (individual salvation). It really is all about me, in both cases. Christianity has used the old “get to heaven” card for longer than SNR proponents have sold a generalised spiritual well-being.

    But there is also, as you identify, another kind of SNR – that is, folks who wish to be connected to something greater than themselves, but that can no longer stomach what they see as immoral and/or intellectually untenable elements of the christian (or other established) religion. Where else should these folks turn?

    Where is the Christianity that offers a love so blatant that people know that HE is with them, by the love they have for one another?

  • Mike

    I am currently reading the book, The Sacrament of the Present Moment, by the 18th century Jesuit priest, Father Jean Pierre de Caussade. An incredible book with wise insights about living life faithfully in Christ. There is room within Christianity to believe God dwells within. Even Jesus says, “Make your home in me as I make my home in you.” Father de Caussade’s point is that if we believe the truly the risen Christ is everywhere present, then we live in the present moment in the presence of the graciousness of Christ, inside and outside of us. Without any emphasis on the reality that God dwells with us in every moment, we begin to emphasize the false dichotomy of the sacred vs secular. God does not dwell in certain places, people, and times…leaving the secular world and our secular lives outside the realm of divine influence.

  • DRT

    phil_style sees my next rant coming that I thought of in the shower (is that TMI?)

    This failure of soteriological Christianity to deliver something bigger than ourselves is also the root of hypernationalism and the Americanism of the Christian right. The Christian right comprises people who are trying desperately to fill that “god shaped hole in their heart” but they end up finding a self based peg that does not do the job. They continue to know that they are lacking in fulfillment, but they don’t know why. They need, we all need, something bigger than ourselves.

    That’s where the worship of America comes in. It is clearly bigger than us, there is little to no payback for us directly, and it helps out the broader mankind. It fills that need for something bigger than us.

    The heresy of the god within is not heresy so much as it is a stage along the developmental trail for people that have no where to go from there. Christianity has not provided that next level either.

    Clearly I think Scot’s King Jesus and the good former Bishop get this right and that is why I am here badgering all of you with my ideas. I think this is what Christianity is supposed to be and without I would just give up on it.

  • There are, of course, a lot of troubling things about this type of self-spirituatlity that many have already pointed out. One thing that hasn’t been pointed out is the the lack of emphasis on narrative. I think this type of spirituality just creates a shallow worldview because of the lack of narrative. The only narrative present is that between me and what is within me. This becomes problematic when say I encounter someone in pain, or I see a lack of justice, but I long for justice…since I have a self-promoting spirituality, do I ignore the long for justice, do I call for justice regardless though I cannot make sense of it, or do I recognize the “god within them” and use that as motivation for justice?
    I think where it has influenced the church world in America is with a heavy emphasis on personal piety, an individualized spiritual formation, self-help and relational/life improvement sermon series, a distaste for structure (denominations can be included), and the lack of emphasis on narrative and more on principals. A meta-narrative of self(ves) would naturally produce most of this though.

  • Bob (#110 wrote: You can’t know God unless you know yourself.

    I’d say it is the other way around. You can’t really know yourself — who you were created to be and what your purpose is — until you know the God in whose image you were created.

  • phil_style

    @ Cris, #22 the lack of emphasis on narrative and more on principals

    This might be a little bit off-topic, but I would characterise the church you are critical of as being too overly influenced by narrative (i.e. the modernist narrative of “progress”, wealth creation, growth and development) and not influenced enough by principles (i.e. character virtues)….
    Perhaps I have misinterpreted you?

  • Bev Mitchell

    You quote,

    “…..the God Within heresy is far more pervasive and far more threatening to Christianity than the prosperity gospel. These are the “spiritual but not religious” crowd, Douthat says.” 

    The danger is real and indeed greater than PG. But “Spiritual but not religious” depends on the definition used for both words. We are familiar with the near uselessness of ‘spiritual’ in today’s conversations, but ‘religion’ fares almost as badly. I like Bloesh’s conclusions that “Religion is not the same thing as revelation, nor is mystical spirituality the same thing as biblical piety.” and “Religion …….. tends to suppress and distort faith unless it is consistently being purified and reformed by divine grace.” (or Holy Spirit). I wonder how Douthat would change his statement if Bloesch’s definition of religion is what was commonly held?

    “How pervasive is this God Within theology/religion/spirituality? Where are you seeing it in the church? Why is it so appealing?”

    Started in the Garden. It’s all about us and we like it that way. Our ingenuity knows no bounds when it comes to finding attractive ways to say (to grand applause) “It’s all about me!”

    “1. Organized religions offer only a glimpse of God.
    2. God is everywhere and within everything; it is a form of pantheism ultimately.
    3. All will eventually be reconciled with God — pantheistic universalism.
    4. The good life, peace, etc, is available”

    All true, in a way, which is why it is so dangerous. The Church has a similar message, but with repentance and obedience attached. We tend to strongly emphasize repentance and obedience and to downplay the others. This is probably, in part, to avoid the pantheistic (or panentheistic) trap – which is to be avoided, of course. But the Church would do well to make clear to all where the truth lies in these statements.

  • Bev Mitchell

    Glad I restrained myself on points 1 to 4. I see CGC has already fleshed this out, and very well too.

  • Bev Mitchell

    CGC, (14)
    “Does correct theology save?” As much as I like ‘wallowing’ in a good theology read, I always try to keep the answer to your question in mind. My question for this is “Will there be a theology exam on Judgement Day? I try not to think of what my grade will be if there is. 🙂

  • John Morris

    I find this incredibly true, and incredibly pervasive. One of the most dangerous aspects, I think, is that this kind of religion masks itself as Christianity. In my opinion, problems like this are why theology matters. I know too many who want to throw out all theological inquiry either because they see how ruthless Christians have been or because they are simply too lazy. My two cents is that we need honest discussions about what we think and why, but without attacking the other (which would help the first complaint about theological inquiry). I still struggle with how to develop my youth group to recognize such deeply destructive understanding and seek to understand God in better, healthier, ways – ways in which God has actually self-revealed through scripture and meaningful dialogue.

    also, phil_style – great comment right there at the top!

  • @Phil

    I think it’s possible our church experiences are different. It is definitely true that false narratives have been heavily over emphasized, such as the examples you gave. What I am referring to, and I should have clarified, is the rise the “modern” church as of late (so the popular church/megachurch model that has become common now).

    The problem I am seeing in my church experiences is people preaching messages mostly on marriage, finances, and the real self-help practical messages (though important, too heavily emphasized in my opinion). So we never hear the biblical narratives, I have never even heard a sermon series on say the whole of the biblical narrative, how it works together, and what it means. It’s been less about the narrative, and more about what kind of “objective” principle that is beyond (or even thought of as better than) the text that I can pull out and talk about to make me better. It’s “me” religion. That is what I meant, hope that clarified!

  • Bob

    “The faith exists because of the Flannery O’Connors, not the Paulo Coelhos.” Who wants the narrow faith of Flannery O’Connor when Coelho is a Roman Catholic and has a more formative or universal message in the Alchemist also.

  • Scott Gay

    It interesting that G.K. Chesterton criticizes the God within heresy in his “Orthodoxy”, and it is very similar in tone to Douthat.

  • Rick

    Bev #27:

    “Does correct theology save?”…My question for this is “Will there be a theology exam on Judgement Day?”

    But are we not hoping to build our lives based on the truth of who God is? Do we hope to have a relationship with Him and yet not care if we have our limited knowledge of Him wrong? Finally, does not that truth impact our lives, here and now?

  • Bev Mitchell

    Hi Rick, (33)
    You may have over-interpreted my comment. You are correct, good theology is terribly important. As many point out in this discussion, a bigger dose of solid theology is badly needed in many churches today – whether congregations are ready for that is another question. My comment has to do with what happens when we insist that others make our own theology (or worse, our theological system) normative for themselves. It would be far better to cut each other more than a little slack on the grounds that there is probably not going to be a theology exam on Judgement Day. It’s a question of agreeing on essentials and giving freedom elsewhere. And, I should add, being very thoughtful, prayerful and collaborative when we are tempted to add to the list of essentials.

  • Rick

    Bev #34-

    “It’s a question of agreeing on essentials and giving freedom elsewhere. And, I should add, being very thoughtful, prayerful and collaborative when we are tempted to add to the list of essentials.”

    Thanks for clarifying. I totally agree.

  • SG

    As I can recall, Eat, Pray, Love, Oprah’s shows and Tolle’s The Power of Now do not claim to be Christian or to provide any sort of Christian theological guidance. They are self helpy type books/teachings with a new age spiritual side which most Christians will recognize as (mostly) not theologically sound (though, Christians may find some of the general lessons helpful which don’t contradict Christian theology, especially related to treating others well, taking care of yourself, etc.). Gilbert et all differ from the prosperity gospel teachers, and, I would say that they are not committing heresy because they are really teaching another religion/way of life/spirituality versus trying to enhance/add on to Christian teaching. Of course, some Christians have incorporated the teaching into their lives, to the extent that it compromises good Christian theology and beliefs and I imagine this is what Douthat is criticizing (and perhaps these beliefs could by definition be considered heretical). My point is that it seems silly to criticize Gilbert et al for introducing heretical belief systems when what they teach isn’t any more related to Christianity than Buddhism or the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

  • DRT

    SG Where do we find the gospel defined in the NT? First place, 1 Cor 15, second place, the apostolic gospel sermons in Acts.

    Very nice and I agree. If they identify it as the only way, or something like that then it is heretical, but most don’t. They simply allow someone to transcend the sensing oriented world and I see that as a positive.

    How can we fault people for not believing in a shallow Christianity?

  • DRT

    Oops, the first paragraphs was supposed to be

    SG says “My point is that it seems silly to criticize Gilbert et al for introducing heretical belief systems when what they teach isn’t any more related to Christianity than Buddhism or the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”

    Dang, I am glad that is all my accidental paste put out there……

  • Christy

    I agree – I don’t think you can call someone who never claimed to be a Christian a heretic for talking about things that contradict orthodox Christianity. I found Gilbert a bit narcissistic in her book, but I’ve found Tolle to be very helpful – even if he goes a bit woo-woo every so often.

    I wish Christians such as Douthat would be a touch less quick to make generalizations about those of us in the spiritual but not religious group. It’s not like there’s an official organization or party line, and in my experience, people who label themselves as SBNR are all over the map, and it can mean anything from “I’m into crystals and past-life regression.” to “I”ll never get a date if I check the atheist box on” to a very principled commitment to social change and the inherent dignity of all people to a whole bunch of other stuff. Sure, some are egotistical and narcissistic – but so are lots of people of many different religious stripes.

    I’m not an atheist, and I no longer adhere to a specific religion, ergo – spiritual but not religious. I’m not crazy about the label, but don’t have a better one. And no – I don’t consider myself truer to Christianity or Christ than the churches – if I were interested in being true to Christ, then I would still be a Christian.

    I look at it like this – I could spend my time telling my Christian friends what I think is wrong with what they believe or their churches (and that list is substantial.) Or I could focus on the values we have in common and try to respect and understand their spiritual journeys, as they try to respect mine. Personally, I’ve experienced better results with Option B. Douthat might want to give it a shot.

  • CGC “Does Correct Theology Save?”

    I’m always inspired by your questions. I wonder these same things all the time. Don’t be ashamed for wondering! In the end, the trouble that questions and doubts get us in is just with people who are arent open to questions and doubts. : )

    The prophetic Bob Dylan:

    “the rules of the road have been lodged, but its only peoples games, that you’ve got to dodge, and it’s alright Ma, I can make it….
    and if my thought dreams could be seen, they’d probably put my head in a guillotine, but it’s alright Ma, it’s life and life only…
    But I don’t mean harm, nor put fault, on anyone who lives in a vault, but it’s alright Ma, if I can’t please him…”

    If we have to receive trouble for asking whether things are more complex, people are more valuable, and God’s love is more majestic, then so be it! I will always do my best to not lead astray with doubts and complex questions one who has a beautiful and simple faith in Christ, but when words like “heresy” begin to be thrown around in condemnation of other people who are (just as genuinely) seeking the exact same thing we are —when love,the glory of our father, is at stake— these issues need to be discussed.

    What if the church has done a really good job telling people how depraved, sinful, and hopelessly lost they are? What if we’ve convinced people that the christian view of self is that we are “wretched worms”? We follow that up with the “good news” that “God loves you anyway!!”, but how can we be surprised that people would not want to embrace this? Isn’t there something deeper, more real, hidden inside every person? Isn’t the very image of the triune God of love the defining quality of our being (though we refuse to believe this and to live as if it were true)?

    What if the evangelical gospel is heard by many today as this: “you are horribly wretched, but GOD loves you anyway. He can stand to bear your stench because he pretends that you’re somebody else (Christ) when he looks at you—but always remember, you really are disgusting without the febreeze of christ’s blood”.

    Is it really any wonder that people are craving better news, that they long to be loved for who they are, not who somebody else was? Throughout the bible who’s voice reminds people of their shame and unworthiness? Who hopes to convince us that we are not enough, that we need to be MORE, to have a relationship with God?

    (I recall a serpent, Pharisees, and judaizers among many others)

    If the message they hear from the church sounds so much like the whisperings of Satan, how can they be damned for choosing to reject “the gospel”? What if the still and quiet voice that Elizabeth Gilbert heard affirming her value as a person is not depraved “meism” but is actually a trickle of life giving water rising up from the image of God hidden deep within her? What if she believes the word spoken by this voice (you are valuable, secure, and loved unconditionally) and finds in this belief (faith?) the strength necessary to rise from her shame and weakness and to humbly set out on a path to seek true wisdom outside herself? What if that path ends in belief that the “divine basic principle of the universe” or “ultimate reality” (or whatever she calls it) is not “God”, but the mystical/spiritual embodiment of Love? What if this belief leads her to look to this affirming and loving voice of “God Within” for her value instead of basing her value on how much knowledge she attains, or how pure her belief in God is? What if her faith in the “good news” of peace spoken in her heart leads her to love others, respecting them as having value that flows from the same mysterious deep spring as hers whether they believe the affirming voice or not?

    What if, as she grows, she is burdened that so many others see themselves as shameful and wretched (perhaps oppressed by the “christian” God?) and she dedicates her time and talent to speaking the same word of love to them so that they might recognize the voice of their “god within” and find hope?

    What if she were to observe a christian who not only spoke but lived out the same familiar words of love and affirmation that she had heard in her darkest times? What if she saw in his life a brokenness for those oppressed by shame and fear, and a humble and respectful attitude toward the experiences of others, affirming them by acknowledging their “God within” and empowering them by being an eating, praying, and loving INCARNATION of the still and quiet voice she sometimes hears?

    What if she were to approach this Christian…
    And he called her a heretic?

  • DRT

    Nate W.#40, that was excellent, thanks.

    I also like the way the catholic church frames this up. It is not so much a heresy, as it is not experiencing the fullness of what god/Jesus has to offer.

  • Tom F.

    How pervasive is this God Within theology/religion/spirituality? Where are you seeing it in the church? Why is it so appealing?

    I think this theology is fairly pervasive, and it comes out of the 19th and 20th century Romantic philosophers who emphasized communion with nature, self-expression, who were incorporated into much of humanistic psychology in the 60’s and 70’s.

    I see it in the church when the emphasis is placed on what God can do for me, in conceptions of salvation that emphasize self-actualization (“becoming who God made you to be”), and theologies that reconceptualize sin in the terms of individual’s failing to listen to their inner voice.

    I think it is so appealing because it fits in with narratives that are continually reinforced for other reasons in our culture. Advertising culture, for example, has a very strong vested interest in leading individuals to prize self-fulfillment and self-exploration through consumer products. Furthermore, in the modern era, other “sources” of moral guidance (such as scripture, church teaching, ect.) have been problematized. I know, I know, liberals/progressives probably overstate the problems with traditional sources, but I would argue that conservatives tend to minimize the problems as well. In the context of these problems, the gospel of the God within promises direct access to the source of moral guidance: the divinitized self within. This God appears gracious, and asks for very little.

    So yes, this gospel is not the gospel of Christ. On the other hand, I grew up in an evangelical context that often overreacted to this false gospel. If the gospel of the God within makes the self God, than the evangelical culture I grew up in often made self-negation and self-debasement virtues. Humility was not having an accurate estimation of one’s gifts, abilities, and sinfulness all at the same time, but rather a dwelling on the self’s complete sinfulness. The goal was to be totally “self-less”, and the original sin was no longer pride but now it is selfishness. Sometimes it seemed that even just having/being a self was problematic, and “crucifying the self” seemed often to mean trying not to have any desires that referenced the self, rather than being about pursuing holiness.

    Granted, the gospel of the God within is likely more damaging that the evangelical overreaction, but I think we need to find a “third way” that doesn’t merely attempt to see the gospel as the negative image of the culture, but a genuinely different way of thinking about selves that neither worships self or demonizes self.

  • DRT – Exactly! We need to realize that we’re all looking for the same thing and come alongside those who suffer in the absence of “shalom” with humble compassion rather than defensive and divisive accusations.

  • jerimi

    These are not new ideas or practices. The idea of the Spirit within, the God within are ancient ways, and they were flourishing in the 1st and 2nd century AD before they were forcefully squashed by Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy’s best friend Empirical Rome. The writings discovered at Nag Hammadi have so much to teach us of what Christianity was like before it married itself to political and military power. The scriptures themselves give much validity to the Spirit within.

  • Patrick

    Listen to this one, Oprah&others explain this view. IMO, it sounds similar to both gnostic beliefs and pantheism. They’re “children of the universe”. God seems like “the force” after listening to this.

  • Bob Sanders

    Cereal/coco pops
    orange juice
    Toilet rolls
    dog food
    A little surprise