Jesus, Meet Werner Erhard

Personal Theological Reflections on a Contemporary Philosophy of Transformation

The stated and intended outcome of the world’s great religions is changed lives. This usually means not only an ultimate transformation—e.g. salvation, nirvana, satori—but also some kind of penultimate here-and-now, I-can-see-it-in-your-life change. In spite of the central place of transformation in their theologies, however, mainline western religions have not addressed nor explored the process nearly as much as you would expect. 

That may be one reason why mainline religions have recently become less significant in people’s lives. More and more folks looking for something that makes a real difference are looking elsewhere. 

In the late 1960’s a controversial figure, Werner Erhard, emerged as the head of a California-based movement which enjoyed a rapid popularity. He established a large network of people who were graduates of a seminar he designed and led, called est, derived from the Latin verb, ‘to be.’

Without intending it, the est workshop represented a bridge between the search for meaning by everyday people and the transformational work of Jesus as I understand it. Even though Erhard’s trainers denied it, it appeared to me that they were teaching a process for believing. The content of belief was not their concern. The experience was. As a life-long student of Jesus, especially his parables (which I view as 

transformational encounters), I want to offer here a few theological reflections on the Erhard approach and summarize what might be of value for spiritually-oriented change agents. It will be too brief, highly personal and incomplete, but perhaps it will invite conversation into a contemporary philosophy of change. I also believe Jesus would have a few things to say to Werner Erhard, and I will briefly describe what appear to me to be missing ingredients in his approach.

The Gist Of Erhards’s Approach: The Experience Of Transformation

Erhard borrowed from and integrated the thinking of people like Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, who were philosophers probing the boundaries of language and reality at the turn of the century. Theirs is the study of Epistemology (from steimos—to stand, and epi—on or upon, thus, ‘to stand on’); ‘How do you know what you know?’ They also explored Ontology, the study of being. Their basic questions: ‘What does it mean to be an authentic being?’ 

The answer, for Heidegger, was that our world appears as we experience and describe it. It is hard to translate in English, but according to Heidegger ‘the thing itself’ doesn’t actually have an independent existence apart from our language. It is not that we talk about a thing which is ‘out there’. The ‘thing’ actually appears for us in our languaging it. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, God says, ‘You name it! And whatever you name it, that’s what it will be.’ 

What we do all day is walk around naming everything, and in that naming, we create reality. Then we forget that we are the authors of it all, and we come to believe that our own namings are ‘the way things are.’ For Erhard, there is no way out of this ‘vicious circle’. It is, for us, the way things are. It is the human condition. In that endless loop there is no possibility, no space, for anything but projections of our own world. And that means that there is no space for anything new or creative to show up, only more of the same. Only by creating—or I world say—discovering a place which does not now exist—a place which is outside the naming loop—can breakthrough or transformation take place. 

Standing in this new place is brought about by a declaration, a promise, a word, you might say. In this process, the circumstances are not are not relevant and are not given any weight in the making of the declaration. Therefore they cannot detract from it. It is a very powerful place to be, and is the place from which all true acts of creative change and transformation originate. There are no techniques for getting yourself there. There is only your stand to be there, living as if you were there. 

This act of commitment (or faith) does not change the human condition. It empowers us to be in an extraordinary way in the midst of the human condition, bringing forth something which was not there before. W.H. Murray’s quote is invoked here: ‘The moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.’ When that happens—when a stand is taken—the world changes. 

Before her death in 1992, my then 71-year old mother declared herself to be an alcoholic, something my father never could bring himself to do. She made a promise/took a stand/gave her word that she was a recovering alcoholic. The world was immediately different, for her, for her friends and co-workers, for me, for the most distant star in the universe. Talking about it, even trying hard, doesn’t create transformation. It may produce change, but it’s that familiar kind of change that doesn’t make a difference. Taking a stand, giving your word and then becoming your word, THAT changes things. 

It is easy for me to see how the parables of Jesus ‘worked ‘ in this light. They broke the loop of people’s epistemologies, just for a moment, which allowed a crack for something new to show up. That’s when up became down, rich became poor, being first became last, death became life, and what was trapped became free (saved).

How It All Started: My First Contact With Est

I had been avoiding Werner Erhard’s workshop for years, mostly because of what I saw as the ‘hype’ surrounding the enrollment/recruiting process. (Once these people got your name, you couldn’t shake them!) Ironically, it felt exactly like being on the other end of a conversation with an intense true-believer from a fundamentalist religious sect: Unpleasant, and a major hurdle for many people getting into the seminars. But basically, est never seemed like anything I needed to bother with. Just some more ‘California hot tub bullshit,’ as a friend put it. 

Then my long time colleague and consulting partner, Bob Crosby, announced one day at a Staff Meeting that he was going to something called ‘The Communication Workshop.’ This was, in itself, very surprising to me, since I had learned most of what I knew in the area of communication from Bob. He ‘wrote the book’ on Communications. What could he possibly see in this workshop? I mused. 

The weekend of the workshop came and went, and at our Staff Meeting an Monday morning, Bob was not there. We started without him. A few moments later the door opened, and in walked Bob. He sat down, looked me right in the eye, and said, ‘John, I blew it. I’m late. I know my being late make it tough for you and the team to work. How can I make it up to you?’ It was said with such clarity and straightness that, somewhat surprised and delighted, I responded, ‘I think you just did!’ 

The changes in the way Bob communicated and conducted himself in the months following were frankly astonishing to me and to my colleagues. Bob and I had been close friends and partners for 12 years, and I had become resigned to some of his characteristics. But they changed. They changed. Bob simply changed in areas where change seemed to be at least unlikely, and in some cases, even impossible. 

I was stunned. I said to myself, ‘I must go and see this thing which has come to pass!’ My wife, Catharine, and I signed up for the next Course with Bob as our Sponsor.

At Our First Werner Erhard Workshop

At the workshop Catharine and I came in a little excited, greeting a few new people and some old friends we saw among the 100 or so who were in the hotel conference room. The trainer was introduced, and, after a few opening remarks, he began by asking, ‘How many of you are willing to abide by the guidelines of the workshop during this weekend?’ 

Now, what would your first question be? Right: ‘What are the guidelines?’ ‘Perhaps you didn’t understand the question,’ repeated the trainer, How many people are willing to abide by the guidelines of the workshop during the weekend?’ More rumbling in the room and, ‘Well, I could answer your question if you’d just tell me what the guidelines are. How do you expect us to agree to something we don’t know about?’ 

At this point I started to laugh, I mean really laugh, one of those body-wracking, gut-wrenching kind of laughs. I found myself in the middle of a moment of enlightenment, when time stands still and life suddenly makes sense and you see things like you have never seen them before. I laughed until I cried, and all the while the now seemingly insane questioning of the Trainer by participants was continuing. Catharine leaned over and asked if I was O.K., and I joyfully replied, ‘Oh yes!’ 

Soon the trainer said, ‘O.K., let’s do it this way. . . In a moment we will take a break. After the break, whoever is back in their chairs is saying that they will abide by the guidelines for the workshop (which he had still not revealed). Your returning to your chair indicates your commitment to do this. Alright, let’s break.’ 

We broke, and the lobby conversations were all about how absurd this was, and how crazy to start a workshop that way, and how did he expect us to commit to something we didn’t even know about. I was still smiling from my breakthrough experience, listening to them in a detached way. 

We re-entered the room and sat down, looking around to see how many empty chairs there were. None! We had all come back. It was amazing! Every person had committed to abide by the still-unknown guidelines. The trainer said something like, ‘Great! (all of Erhard’s people said ‘Great’ a lot. . .) So all of you are committing to abide by the guidelines, right?’ The group shouted things like, ‘You bet your sweet______, cowboy!,’ ‘This is Spokane!’ and other equally proud and challenging epithets. Then the trainer said quietly, ‘Alright folks, is anyone here willing to bet their car that all of you will deep your work for the whole weekend?’ He said it seriously. I knew he meant it. It was not some kind of joke or a sarcastic comment. The guy really wanted to know if anyone in the room was not only willing to commit personally to keep the guidelines, but was also willing to bet their car that every one of the 94 others would as well.

I raised my hand. When I say, ‘I raised my hand,’ it was more like ‘I experienced my hand raising.’ I felt a tingling all over my body and a kind of electric hum in my ears and an excitement in my belly that I have only known in deeply profound spiritual experiences. Catharine leaned over and whispered, ‘Are you serious!?’ (We only had one car. . .) She saw that I was. I whispered something like, ‘It’s O.K. We’re all going to do it.’ 

Now, I have to tell you that I knew right there and then that we would do it. My statement was not a prediction, nor a statement of probability, nor a hope, nor even a belief. It was more than all of those. In a language we were to learn later on, it was a promise, a declaration, a stand taken. It was one of the most powerful things I have ever done, and I knew at the time that my commitment and declaration were contributing mightily to making it possible. I struck me then that where I was at the moment was called ‘faith.’ 

Whew. . . I can still feel the tingling of excitement when I recall this and write about it. I ‘got’ the workshop about empowered communication in the first ten minutes! The rest of the workshop was very useful. It gave me a frame of reference for understanding my promise regarding our car, for seeing what had not been happening elsewhere in my life, and introduced me to a way of accessing that creative ‘place’ again and again. 

By the way, the guidelines turned out to be fairly simple but challenging things like: Be in your seat ready to begin on time each time we start, including after breaks; Always have your notebook with you and something to write with; No drugs during the weekend, including alcohol. There were times in the workshop where people ran in, breathless, just before the second hand hit the starting minute, and crashed into their seats. The long and short of it is that we did it. Every person kept every agreement for the entire workshop. 

The Trainer told me later that in his seven years of doing the workshop, this had been the first time that a) everyone had come back after the break, thus promising to keep his or her agreements, b) someone had actually been willing to seriously bet his or her car, and c) that all agreements had been kept. I told him that I saw them as connected, that my stand may have created the possibility for participants to overcome things that always ‘come up’ in the circumstances.

Dr. Benjamin Bedenbaugh UNDER THE CIRCUMSTANCES. . . 

, my Seminary professor of New Testament, used to say, ‘Under the circumstance: What are you doing under the circumstances?!’ I didn’t understand what he was talking about until then. 
One of the central teachings from the Erhard seminars is how to live life without being shaped by what shows up in the circumstances. No matter what is happening ‘out there,’ sooner or later we make a choice about what to do. It seldom shows up as a choice that we are making, however. Our reactions to what shows up seem almost automatic at this point. In fact, we are choosing our reaction from a whole spectrum of possible reactions. 

A basic problem is that we have lost track of the moment of choice. In our minds we say to ourselves that we did what we did because of such and such, but on closer examination, it becomes clear that regardless of how we explained it to ourselves, we did, in fact, make a choice, and the source, the location of that choice was inside our own being, not out there in the circumstances. 

‘Therefore do not conform to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your minds,’ is the way St. Paul said it in his letter to the little group of Christians in Rome. This is easy to talk about, but is difficult to do. How can we be in the world but not be of it (take our navigational cues from it)? There is the monastic route, one with a rich tradition, and conversations with adherents suggest that they do find a way to tune out the distracting ‘data’ from the perceived world and to come from a different place within. For most of us, however, the circumstances seem to determine how we feel, what we do, even how we live. 

The Erhard training has enabled me to isolate, separate from, and listen to, the incessant voices which persist, like muzak, in telling me what everything means and what to do about it all. The key question raised in the training concerning those voices, though, is who is listening?! (This question places us at the boundary between epistemology and ontology.) Who or what is that Being, who, up to now has been at the mercy of the circumstances? The one who has lost track of the moment of choice? Lost track of the possibility of a completely new response, not determined by the interaction of old fears and what shows up ‘out there’? 

Could this ‘me’ who listens to my thinking be the target of spiritual transformation? Perhaps this is the being who is capable of not conforming to the world, but becoming open to transformation, as Paul admonishes. But how could this happen?

Jesus, Creator Of Transformation

There was obviously something about Jesus that transformed people. Something in his speaking. In his being. The way he was with people changed some of them. We don’t have a lot of objective data on all this; the sources we have are openly biased. It is also quite likely that some or even many people changed by an encounter with Jesus ‘lost it’ shortly afterward. Even the disciples were frequently losing it, as the parables attest. ‘Don’t get so down guys. . . See that man over sowing seed. You know what happens when you sow seed. . .’ But even Roman and Jewish historians of that era reported that he worked wonders with people’s lives. The man’s presence changed things, even, it is said, ‘saved’ people.

A Word About ‘salvation’

Theologians have for the most part kept their hands off the process of transformation called ‘salvation.’ That has been God’s country. But I am curious about it from a phenomenological point of view. What is it that ‘happens’ when someone is ‘saved?’ Does it still happen? Under what conditions? Who or what is the source? Is salvation an experience or a theological concept? Is there a generic process of salvation, regardless of the mental or cognitive content associated with the experience? 

The Hebrew word for salvation that Jesus would have used has the meaning of ‘being released form a tight space into a space of greater freedom of movement.’ It’s about spaciousness. In the story about the little encounter between Jesus and the tax collector, Zacchaeus, Jesus says to the crowd that is murmuring about his inviting himself over for dinner, ‘Today salvation has come to this man’s place.’ So, perhaps salvation is not something you have to die to experience, like life insurance. John’s Gospel has Jesus saying things like, ‘I have come that you may have life, abundant life.’ 

Traditionally, we in the Church have labeled the experience of salvation as Grace, assigned the source to God, celebrated it, yearned for it, been afraid of it, been admonished to pursue it like a prize, chided for thinking we’ve achieved it, been preached at about it. But all our conversations may or may not lead to an experience of the phenomenon we are talking about. It seems to be a capricious gift—’The spirit blows where it wills’—and on top of that, a gift which seems to exist mainly as theological concept. But what if it is also an experience, open to all, available in the here and now, as some of Jesus’ sayings attest? I believe it happens to people from time to time in therapy, in being loved, in near-death situations and in other sudden moments. But what is it that happens then? What is the change we call transformation or conversion or salvation? Are they related? How? More concretely, where are the models for such a transformation process? or, to use Jesus’ language, where is the ‘door’ to such a ‘kingdom’ or way of seeing/being/living?

‘Entering The Kingdom Of God’

Consider the possibility that ‘entering the Kingdom (rule, power, place, space) of God’ means letting go completely of the picture of the world as we have known it so that the way it really is can show up. In the process of letting go of what we know, we open ourselves to the possibility of something new and miraculous happening.

Some reader will call what I am saying blasphemy or heresy. They will say that Jesus was the only person who could do what he did. But what if all along he was trying to get us to live into our own God-given capacity, which he was trying to show us in everything he did? ‘You will do even greater things than I have done,’ as Jesus is quoted as saying to the disciples in the Gospel of John. If that were true, then that would make what we have been doing down through the centuries—avoiding our own assignment to do the things he did and to join him in a special relationship with God and life—a blasphemy. 

For 2,000 year, we may have been resisting his very gift to us, and elevating him to justify it. What if he didn’t want us to elevate him so much as to get about living ‘in the kingdom’ ourselves? What an irony. . .

A Contemporary Door To The Kingdom Of God?

Werner Erhard was not committed to bringing people to God. He was, however, as far as I can tell, committed to bringing people to themselves, or better, to living out of the possibility they actually are. The prodigal son, wallowing around in the drama of his pig pen, ‘came to himself,’ as did others who, in their encounter with Jesus, encountered themselves as God would see them. Jesus was the window through which they could see a) what the creator was like, and b) what they, as co-creator, were like.

The Down Side: Where’s The Grace? (What Jesus Has For Erhard)

There is for me a down side to my Erhard experience, something missing, something just not quite ‘there’ yet. In several opportunities to assist at Erhard seminars, the following concerns came up for me. (To be consistent with the Training, I should describe these next statements as declarations of mine, interpretations of experience for which I must take responsibility, rather than posit them as existing ‘out there’ in some absolute way.) So, here are some of my ways of languaging my experience with God and life which I find missing in Erhard’s epistemology: 

1. GRACE. With all the emphasis on commitment and creating your own reality, and taking responsibility for what happens to you, I miss the experience of God as the source of life, and the presence of surprise and gift in The Drama. It appears to me that est graduates frequently act as if they, and they alone, are the source of all of life. Solipsism at its finest. Martin Luther didn’t say, ‘Here I stand’ as if he were doing all this by himself. The complete quote is, ‘Here I stand. God help me. I can do no other.’ Judging from experiences with Werner’s staff, my hunch is that he could use some good old fashion grace every now and then. It must be exhausting to be responsible for intending and creating everything all the time. . .

2. FORGIVENESS. I also feel the need to fall back into the arms of something bigger than I am from time to time. To ‘blow it’ and have it be OK in some transcendent way, not just because I say so. I get that ultimately I have to be the one who accepts—even creates the forgiveness in my naming it. But I still need to have a larger partner whose capacity for forgiveness is greater than mine, which happens to be shot through with all the drama of this scene I am creating. My own grace is not sufficient for me…. 

3. ACCEPTANCE. There are times when it seems to me that the appropriate response to something is simple acceptance. Erhard’s work is amazingly successful at awakening and re-vitalizing the will and disconnecting us from the mischievous mind. There is, however, another ‘place’ to come from which is even more powerful than the intentional, detached place his training opens up: the spirit. This is the place which creates and transforms the way things are into something else by accepting what is. A friend noted that often the veins in the necks of the trainers stand out like Charlton Heston’s as they work at changing what is. Sometimes what is changes through a gentle acceptance of what is, rather than a lot of effort to change it, and creation often looks like surrender. . . In the Creation narratives in Genesis, the wording is interesting. It says ‘And God said, ‘Let there be______.’’ Allowing creation to occur, not forcing it. 

4. LOVE. There is a liveliness in the faces of Erhard’s people, a light in the eyes which is rare. The ability of their trainers to stay centered in the midst of a storm of blame and judgment of the worst kind is striking. I remember thinking at one point in the middle of an est seminar, ‘This Erhard has found a way to train Western spiritual masters !’ But some of the people seem to me to be cold, almost like robots, trained to language their experience in a certain way void of humanity. Like some of my fundamentalist Christian friends, they seem more interested in the path than in those of us walking beside them. 

It could be that in disconnecting from the drama they also disconnect themselves from the people trapped in the drama with them whom they intend to empower. It’s as if they got half the program. They got how not to get hooked by the voices which drive us all, but they mislaid the simple human contact somewhere. Perhaps there is a next lesson: How to be detached form the drama, but loving the people in it. You could call it love.


Those of us who work in the areas of personal, group, organizational or community transformation need to leave no stone unturned in our commitment to discover what works. The approach Erhard pioneered appears to offer a powerful way of being with people that seems to open the door for transformation. As a person trained to language experience with theological constructs, I found the experiences exciting and useful to me personally and in my practice as a consultant and as a person on a spiritual path. 

The religious institutions could stand to examine without prejudice the process and the method used in his work, assuming an interest on their part in participating in the transformations of people’s lives. I know it happens. My own life has been changed forever by several encounters with the power and presence of God, including quiet afternoons in a fishing boat with my grandfather, watching the newscast of the 1968 Chicago Convention when people were being beat by security guards, an encounter with Jesus during a yoga session (but that’s another story), and the first ten minutes of the Erhard Communications Workshop. There is something in Werner’s work for those of us in the life-changing business to explore, and—just possibly—something for Jesus to offer him—and us—in return.

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