“The God Within” is the title of chapter seven in Bad Religion, New York Times columnist and Catholic author Ross Douthat’s important new book. Douthat suggests that if there is a representative religious pilgrim for our time it is magazine writer-turned-memoirist Elizabeth Gilbert. If you don’t know much about Gilbert you have missed a story that is, in so many ways, ‘the spiritual odyssey” of our time.
In 2001, at the age of 32, Gilbert had three books published. She had also won a National Book Award. (She is a great writer!) She had a rewarding day job as a travel writer, an apartment in Manhattan, and a big house in the gorgeous Hudson Valley. She even had a devoted husband and intended to begin a family with him. But after only five years she traded her marriage and houses “for a globe-trotting spiritual quest.” The result was a publishing phenomenon titled: Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. This book was a New York Times bestseller for an amazing 187 weeks! Last year it became a popular movie with Julia Roberts and Javier Bardem in the starring roles.
Gilbert’s spiritual journey began where similar experiences have begun for many centuries. She had a dark night of the soul. Awake at 3 a.m. and weeping on her bathroom floor, she found herself longing for the life she wished she had rather than the one she did have. Douthat concludes that, “Culturally, she was some sort of Christian (‘born Protestant of the White-Anglo Saxon persuasion’), but theologically, she had always been unable to swallow ‘that one fixed rule of Christianity insisting that Christ is the only path to God.” She thus began to speak to god in a more open-ended way and planned a new life. This life would be without her husband or the baby she had once hoped to have with him. What she describes is the experience of an inner voice of illumination rather than anything remotely centered on Jesus Christ. So off she went, seeking for peace and love. She met spiritual gurus in India and enjoyed the culture of Italy. Suddenly, her ex-husband signed off on the divorce she wanted and she felt like her prayers had been answered. In Indonesia she met a ninth-generation medicine man who told her she would lose all her money (which she did in her divorce) and then get it all back (which she did with her best-selling book and the movie rights). Her story includes a Roman excursion and a Balinese spiritual sojourn but the happy ending makes it all work for Americans. Douthat adds, “. . . it’s the ashram section that really distinguishes Eat, Pray, Love from the ordinary run of self-help books.” She describes what so many mystics have discovered, “[a] sense of an overwhelming divine love, ‘like a lion roaring in from within my chest.’”
What is Elizabeth Gilbert’s core belief? Our positive duty is to “take whatever works from wherever you can find it, and [then] you keep moving toward the light.” The key to understanding divinity for Gilbert is this sense of hearing God speak “in my voice from within my own self.” Douthat adds that her voice is, “distinctive–warm and chatty, self-deprecating and sincere–but her testimony is not unique.”
Eat, Pray, Live preaches the same gospel that is preached by a growing number of modern gurus, teachers and would-be holy men and women; e.g. Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Paulo Coelho, James Redfield, Neale Donald Walsch and Marianne Williamson. These are the same voices that have been given a huge platform in our popular culture by superstars like Oprah Winfrey. They are the modern voices of an ancient heresy called Gnosticism. This is George Lucas’ Jedi, whose mystical Force, is much like Gilbert’s god, a being who “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the universe together.” This is what is often meant by so many who express a desire to be “spiritual without being religious.” The proponents of this view are not comfortable with the word God and are universally critical of organized religion. They insist that their spiritual vision is bigger than all religions or what can be said in any dogma about God.
What makes Douthat’s critique so important is not his survey of this faith form, which has been done well by others. What is unique is his clear understanding of Gilbert’s book and how it testifies quite explicitly to a kind of faith as much as St. Augustine’s Confessions or Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain. The faith it witnesses to, however, is a faith with a particular theology that includes a particular way of understanding God. Both Augustine and Merton included a deeply mystical understanding of the divine in their classic works but it is a Christian understanding. Gilbert’s view could be summed up as a partial glimpse of God, or divine light, one that is rooted entirely in personal experience with no reference to external revelation. As Neale Donald Walsch says, “Listen to your Highest Thought. . . . Whenever any of these differ from what you’ve been told by your teachers, or read in your books, forget the words.”
I am an evangelical mystic. I believe rationalistic explanations of the mysteries of Christian faith convince no one and thus create no true wonder or deep worship. But note my words here very carefully. I am centered in the gospel, a revealed messaged about God’s love, Christ’s suffering and death, my forgiveness and his bodily resurrection. This is Christian mysticism! What the God within offers us is a do it yourself faith that you can create out of your own mind that has no reference to divine revelation outside of me. The center of this faith is me. This is why understanding heresy is so important for Christians. Real heresy denies the core of what we believe, understand and live. When it is popular inside the church we are in deeper trouble than we know. Why? Without divine revelation outside of me there is no Christianity! Thus when the church begins to listen to voices like that of Elizabeth Gilbert, as many more do than you may think, the visible church is adrift in a sea of Gnostic religion. This was, after all, the original Christian heresy. It is back and it is back in a really big way. The question is clear: “Do we know this and what are we doing about it?”