Special Series--What Process Thought Means to Me

Process Thought and the New Thought Movement

by Alan Anderson
Professor of Philosophy and Religion, Curry College, Milton, Massachusetts. Coauthor, with Deborah G. Whitehouse, of New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality (Crossroad, 1995).

* Reprinted from CPS Newsletter vol. 21, issue 1 [Fall/Winter 1997-98]

For the last few decades, I have devoted considerable time to blending process thought and New Thought. I came across Philosophers Speak of God, edited by Hartshorne and Reese, around the same time that I was given two books written by New Thought minister Emmet Fox. My interest in both led me to earn a Ph.D. in philosophy. In the last few years my wife, Deb Whitehouse, has joined me in seeking to make New Thoughters aware of a process explanation for basic New Thought teachings. We included a chapter on Process New Thought in our book, which concisely deals with the history and practice of New Thought.

New Thought (not to be confused with New Age) is a philosophicoreligious movement that includes Unity, Religious Science (Science of Mind), Divine Science, and various independents. It evolved from the work of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (18021866), a selfeducated Maine clockmaker who used the power of divine Wisdom to heal thousands of people suffering from various ailments. Quimby believed that he had rediscovered the lost healing methods of Jesus. Not long after Quimby's day, the movement broadened to include wholeness of any sort: health, wealth, and happiness. Much of the influence of New Thought has been indirect, as it underlies American success literature from the late nineteenth century onward, appearing (though not usually named) in the work of business writers such as Napoleon Hill. "Power of positive thinking" minister Norman Vincent Peale acknowledged his debt to New Thought, which also underlies the "possibility thinking" of Peale disciple Robert Schuller.

William James paid considerable attention to New Thought under the name "mindcure" in his lectures on "the religion of healthymindedness" in The Varieties of Religious Experience, where he particularly recognized New Thought writer Horatio W. Dresser (18661954).

At Boston University, I wrote my doctoral dissertation in philosophy on "Horatio W. Dresser and the Philosophy of New Thought." Dresser earned his Ph.D. degree in philosophy under James, Royce, and others at Harvard. His parents were patients of Quimby; and Dresser over many years wrote commentaries on Quimby and presented considerable portions of Quimby's writings, especially in The Quimby Manuscripts (1921), which remained the standard collection until the 1988 publication of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby: The Complete Writings, a project led by the late Ervin Seale. I was one of the contributing editors.

New Thought early became attracted to Eastern pantheistic views, despite Dresser's attempts to counter them. Dresser increasingly was attracted to Swedenborgianism and was comparatively little known in New Thought in the last few decades of his life. Dresser's contributions to professional philosophy were coming to a close as Whitehead's metaphysical phase was opening. Dresser sympathetically, if briefly, took note of Whitehead in his 1928 A History of Modern Philosophy.

Thus far, most New Thoughters remain unaware of process thought. However, there are some major commonalties that appreciation of process thought could clarify and make more effective. Among New Thought beliefs of greatest interest to process thought are emphasis on (1) living in the present moment, (2) the possibility of beginning again frequently, (3) the influence of enduring past beliefs on present conditions, and (4) the universe as the body of God (specifically stated in the Declaration of Principles of the International New Thought Alliance). New Thought makes much of God's omnipresence, which certainly harmonizes with process thought's view of God's involvement in every occasion of experience.

I have tried to express process insights as simply as possible in adapting them to New Thought applicability, I hope without doing too much injustice to Whiteheadian- Hartshornean thought. I have written of the contrasting "job descriptions" of God and ourselves, as well as all the other units of existence: God starts everything, finishes nothing, and keeps everything, "while your job description calls for you to start nothing, to finish very quickly what God starts for you, and to realize that you can't keep anything for more than a moment." I have summarized this in a Creativity Formula: Past + Divine Offer + Choice = CoCreation.

I have referred to our (and God's) "serial selfhood," in which one is "new every moment," in which we can psychologically free ourselves from undue responsibility (without sacrificing care) for a pasthowever recentin which we of this moment did not exist. Deb and I sign our correspondence "New every moment." We frequently speak to New Thought groups about "the three p's:" process, panentheism, and personalism.

In our book we include a processive interpretation of healing:
The cumulative nature of experience is vital to understanding healing, of any sort. The current past cannot be changed, but moment by moment the past grows larger. It is modified by the character of each new experience that becomes part of the past. To the extent that we make ourselves more rather than less like what God offers to us, we enrich the positive nature of the past. In this way, we reduce the contrast between the past and the initial aims offered by God in the future. This reduction of contrast is what we do in any treatment, whether by prayer, surgery, medicine, or whatever. The less the contrast between past and perfect, the easier it is for upcoming experiences to accept the perfect, and the perfect always is healingwholemakingin some sense. . . . Conversely, negative thinking, contrary to God's offers, increases the contrast between past and perfect and makes acceptance of God's offers proportionately more difficult. (p. 107).

It will be interesting to see to what extent New Thought accepts process conceptualizations, and whether process thinkers will appreciate some of the "practicing the presence of God for practical purposes" of New Thought. We invite process thinkers to visit our Web site on "Process Philosophy and the New Thought Movement" at http://websyte.com/alan/process.htm, with links to other process and New Thought sites.