We live in interesting times, indeed, as we approach the final year of the decade, the century, and the millennium, with or without a few Y2K glitches. In a recent article in Civilization magazine, Daniel Radosh pondered what life was like in Y1K and proceeded to research the subject on the Internet, describing in detail exactly how he went about his search, even though, as he says, when he started, he had no idea where to begin. I propose a much more modest task: let's go back to just before the turn of the present century and see what New Thought looked like at that time. And we'll do it the old fashioned way: we'll read books, a quaint and almost lost art these days.
In 1899, New Thought's star had risen. Thomson J. Hudson's new book, The Divine Pedigree of Man, had just appeared as a sequel to his earlier success, The Law of Psychic Phenomena (1893). Ralph Waldo Trine's blockbuster best seller, In Tune With the Infinite, had been out for two years, as had Horatio Dresser's In Search of a Soul; and Dresser's mother's book, The Philosophy of P. P. Quimby, was only a few years old. Divine Science and Unity, along with other branches of New Thought that have since disappeared, were in full swing. The very name New Thought or the New Thought was everywhere, as was its influence, even in mainstream Christianity, largely replacing the earlier term mental science. The year 1895 had seen the formation of the Metaphysical Club, a forerunner of the International New Thought Alliance. (I cannot resist noting that the use of the term "metaphysical" to describe what Braden (1963) calls "the new philosophy of spiritual healing" is one of the most unfortunate events of this period, since with the exception of such extremes of materialism as scientism and communism, all religions are metaphysical, and the term is redundant as well as confounding religious beliefs with a traditional branch of philosophy.) The original focus on health had widened—no one is precisely sure how—into an emphasis on prosperity, including health, wealth, and happiness. Most New Thought services were held at times that did not conflict with traditional Christian Sunday morning worship services, and this new blend of science and religion stood ready to serve as leaven to the loaf of orthodox Christianity, to reform it rather than deform or denounce it.
And what of 1999? Comparatively few people have heard of New Thought, even within the movement itself; and those who have heard of it have it confused with New Age. The rampant anti-intellectualism infecting American society at large has infected New Thought so completely that any pretense of adherence to the discipline of the scientific method is lost, as is any interest in rigorous philosophical reasoning. All that is left is do-it-yourself religion consisting of a set of superstitions of a magical, willful, any-old-which-way sort that leaves its practitioners disillusioned when despite their incantations, their lives are in the same disorder as before. Then they move on to the latest New Age craze to catch their fancy, indiscriminately mingling philosophically and psychologically incompatible ideas and approaches in a hodgepodge of beliefs, all the time priding themselves on their free thinking. With few exceptions, New Thought ministers are unable to interact collegially with ministers of other denominations because of their lack of training. The movement that should have become the heart and soul of the New Age, leading and guiding the cutting-edge-of-newness efforts in other disciplines, has become drowned in a torrent of shallow, incoherent, inconsistent babble. The movement that could have unified science and religion has lost the mental discipline essential to both. Even those of good character tend to teach incoherent, chaotic approaches to spirituality cobbled together from anywhere and everywhere. At the same time, as Richard Huber (1971) has pointed out, the loss of the character ethic has vitiated the influence for good that New Thought once had in American society, especially in its literature.
What has caused this tremendous change in the New Thought movement over the past hundred years? I suggest that it was the excessive influence of the other so-called metaphysical denominations. Had New Thought continued to be driven by a solid grounding in the principles of psychology and developed a sound metaphysical foundation instead of becoming immersed in various forms of occultism; had it remained in touch with common sense instead of pursuing the non-rational forms of idealism that emphasized pantheism; had it continued to center on the teachings of Jesus concerning ethical conduct and our relationship with God; and had it continued to emphasize individual responsibility instead of being subverted into a search for so-called social justice; New Thought could still be leading our society in the creative advance into novelty and progress of all sorts.
It is not my intention to criticize other so-called metaphysical religions or influences on New Thought. All of them have value; all of them have made valuable contributions to New Thought and the rest of society. It is the lack of an organizing principle, scholarly discipline, and a sense of proportion within New Thought itself that has led to the present state of chaos. But chaos theory teaches us that the greater the chaos, the greater the resulting order, and it is not too late for New Thought to decree divine order and align its intentions in that direction.
One of the glories of New Thought has always been its assertion of the freedom of each person in matters of belief, with no requirement of allegiance to any formal creed. However, as is so often the case, the greatest strength is also the greatest weakness. Internal inconsistency is by definition nonsense. Judah (1967) has pointed out that the early metaphysical leaders, including the New Thought founders, were syncretistic. Syncretism, according to Webster, is most likely "without critical examination or logical unity". Sometimes this can lead to a fresh creativity; more commonly, it results in a hodgepodge. Judah continues:
Besides transcendentalism various ingredients of their potpourri of thought are found in Emmanuel Swedenborg's philosophy, which entered through his followers, or through the works of Emerson and other transcendentalists. There was seasoning from Indian monistic thought, which influenced again both transcendentalism and the metaphysical movements after the translation of certain Hindu works in the nineteenth century. To the more occult groups like Theosophy, a generous portion of Hermetic and Kabbalistic philosophy gave an accented flavor that was not entirely absent from many mental healing groups. Rather closely associated with this occultism was the philosophical ragout of Anton Mesmer and his followers, whose practice of hypnotism supplied the basis for the trance state in Spiritualism and led to both Davis' and Quimby's experiments in healing. Mesmer's contribution thus added that savor which distinguishes the metaphysical direction most sharply from transcendentalism. (p. 12)
But, to continue Judah's metaphor, there is a big difference between a pinch of seasoning for the stew and dumping in the entire contents of the spice rack. In striving to overhaul Christianity and correct the philosophical errors inherent in an anthropomorphic concept of God, a modest dash of Eastern pantheistic thinking supplied a valuable balance. To succumb in turn to the errors of pantheism, deservedly considered a heresy by traditional Christianity, is to fall off the other side of the horse. Horatio Dresser's warning against pantheism was a lone voice crying in the wilderness; most New Thoughters blithely ignored him, mesmerized by the appeal of Vivekananda and others. Myrtle Fillmore's staunch Methodist background kept Unity on reasonably sound ground most of the time and preserved the bridge over which traditional Christians could cross with ease into the freedom of New Thought, but even she succumbed to pantheistic statements on occasion as she struggled to free herself from the tangles of anthropomorphism. Fenwicke Holmes, trained as a Congregationalist minister, sought to distance himself and Ernest from pantheism, but they eventually succumbed. New Thoughters were unaware of the existence of a system of metaphysics that could reconcile these differences, could synergize, rather than syncretize, the opposing theologies of traditional theism and pantheism, yet the term panentheism was coined by German philosopher Krause as early as 1828. Anglican dean Ralph Inge, delivering the Paddock lectures in 1906 on Personal Idealism and Mysticism, could state,
The "natural religion" which is based on belief in Divine immanence is very different from the lifeless, spectral creed which bore this name in the eighteenth century. It does not essay the hopeless task of "proving" the existence of God by the categories of the understanding; still less does it find a sorry satisfaction in confirming apparent injustices in revealed religion by parallel injustices in the course of nature. It is not pantheistic, but it does value and assert what Krause called panentheism; and in many thinkers, who are by no means fanciful dreamers, it produces a sympathy with what is known as panpsychism, the theory that nature is alive and even participant in soul-life throughout, though in very different degrees. (p.69)
Here was the emphasis on mysticism so dear to New Thought hearts, the emphasis on the immanence as well as the transcendence of God, correcting traditional Christian teachings, but not abandoning them. The New Thought founders all prized the teachings of Jesus, but they lacked the metaphysical foundation that would have allowed them to successfully combine all these elements without resorting to inconsistency and other philosophical errors. Their successors have all too often abandoned the teachings of Jesus as well, leaving them with no moral compass. To abandon inadequate views of God does not have to mean abandoning the moral absolutes that come from God to every culture in human history. It is ironic that as other religions begin to take note of the teachings of Jesus, New Thoughters increasingly neglect them in their zeal to distance themselves from all forms of Christianity. It is not the least of the shortcomings of the Jesus seminar scholars, who have unfortunately been influential in some New Thought quarters, that in their petty efforts to label each saying attributed to Jesus as authentic or not, they have largely lost sight of the overall message of Jesus.
Another unfortunate byproduct of pantheism is the New Thought emphasis on God as Principle. What is really being prized is the utter dependability of God in a world that operates in a lawful fashion, in divine order, in other words. This dependability is taught in both the Old and New Testaments. Such lawful operation is necessary to provide a level playing field so that there can be free will. However, none of this necessitates a supernatural idea of God; God can transcend nature and yet be immanent in it, can influence without violating either the laws of nature or free will. Nor does it necessitate God as Law, a sort of Lurch the Butler that does one's bidding, even if one tries to soften this robotic image by splitting God into Law plus some other part presumably more worthy of love and respect. Nor does it fall into the absurdity of a God that is identical with the universe. It is possible to have a consistent metaphysics in which God is within nature rather than supernatural, in which God does not violate the laws of nature no matter how many people pray, and in which God can still be relied on to mitigate whatever goes wrong, even though God is not responsible for the evils of the world. In short, it is possible to have a metaphysics that is perfectly compatible with the findings of today's science.
New Thought has always had a metaphysics of idealism. The twentieth century has proved tough going for idealism, as it has for serious scientific research in parapsychology, a field in which charlatanism is all too frequently found. Neither has been helped by New Thought's indiscriminate chasing after any and all forms of occultism and gnosticism, another heresy. All the New Thought founders investigated occultism and all generally rejected it, warning their followers not to dabble in it. This implies that they understood the need for serious research. But their followers were too liberated, too much free thinkers, to heed their warnings. Philosopher David Griffin (1998) and others have thoroughly discredited both materialism and dualism, replacing them with a realistic, pluralistic idealism (panexperientialism) and at the same time supporting parapsychological research into life after death. To follow these lines of thought would return New Thought to its role of uniting science and religion rather than reverting to the superstition and arrogance that separated them in the first place. Sound metaphysical teaching could supply New Thought with a sound answer to the problem of evil that philosophers have wrestled with for millennia.
And sound psychology can supply New Thought with an explanation for the times that positive thinking does not work for us, to the puzzle of our not being in total control despite the power of thought, for it is what we believe on a deep, unconscious level, not in our conscious minds, that jerks us around. Psychological techniques can help us influence our own other-than-conscious minds. New Thought is the only one of the so-called metaphysical religions that has been well grounded in psychology. New Thought techniques were originally based on psychological principles, and research in psychology has produced more support for the deliberate shift of attention to what one wants, the use of visualization and affirmation, and the value of optimism. Research in medicine has strongly supported the mind-body connection, especially in the field of psychoneuroimmunology; and at least one physician, John Sarno (1998) is curing the vast majority of his patients of chronic back pain by nothing more than having them attend two lectures on the physiology of the back. Like Quimby's, his explanation is the cure. Quimby and those who followed him attempted to distance themselves from mesmerism, because they saw that the theory failed to explain what was happening; but Quimby continued to use what he had learned about what would later be known as hypnotism.
Very few New Thoughters are familiar with the extensive and remarkable work of psychiatrist Milton Erickson on hypnotism. Transcripts of Erickson's hypnotic inductions are surprisingly similar to Quimby's written accounts of his sessions with patients. Hypnotism today is a respectable science which is to a large extent understood and replicable, but old prejudices die hard. Quimby patient Mary Baker Eddy denounced mesmerism in an attempt to distance herself from Quimby, whom she called an "ignorant mesmerist", but she herself was heavily involved in the narrow focusing of people's attention that is characteristic of hypnosis, and in the disputation technique that she learned from Quimby, one that is also used by Ericksonian hypnotists. She also entertained a pathetic fear of the power of "malicious animal magnetism", one of the early terms used in mesmerism. What this really was was the power of mind acting upon mind, and is an important clue to the strong influence of Quimby's work on hers, despite her vehement denials of it. In any event, New Thoughters would do well to give more attention to the well-documented power of a light trance state, often self-induced, for bypassing the resistance of the conscious mind in learning and other mental change; and less attention to dabbling in the occult.
Attention to the use of hypnotic suggestion— via self or other— helps to put New Thought back on the scientific path. The indiscriminant pursuit of occultism that we see so much of in New Age undermines science. Erickson, who appears to have been an agnostic, infuriated parapsychologist J.B. Rhine by fooling him into thinking that Erickson and his colleagues had extrasensory powers when they were merely noting printing impressions visible on a deck of cards. Embarrassing though it may have been for Rhine, it helped the overall cause of parapsychological research by keeping it on a sound scientific basis. The best of skepticism, again in moderation, serves science well. One recent example of this is the research brilliantly designed and conducted by Russell Targ's daughter Elisabeth, herself a physician and a skeptic. The results strongly support nonlocal healing.
Unsound science and unsound metaphysics both delay the quest for unity that is so dear to the hearts of New Thoughters everywhere. Any unity worthy of the term must account for all experience, must include all sound disciplines and all philosophically sound religious teachings. In epistemological terms, we have three ways of knowing: empirical, rational, and revelatory, or science, philosophy, and religion. We ignore any of these ways at our peril; they are all necessary; and any system of metaphysics that fails to reconcile all three is inadequate. Reconciliation is the task of the philosopher.
Of all the sciences, psychology is the closest to philosophy and religion. One of America's great contributions to Western thought is the work of William James, the Harvard philosopher whose psychology lab opened in 1875, a year before Wundt's, which is usually taken to mark the beginning of the discipline. And William James was a great supporter of New Thought. But psychology itself, unfortunately, headed in the wrong direction. As psychologist Lawrence LeShan explains in his book, The Dilemma of Psychology (1990), psychology not only embraced the Enlightenment desire to distance itself from the religious superstition that had bedevilled so much thinking; it also sought to become independent of its parent, philosophy; and hence, it went chasing after nineteenth-century physics. This gave it a narrow method of training specialists (who are said to learn more and more about less and less until they know almost everything about almost nothing), a valuing of the laboratory over life, a belief that everything is quantifiable and predictable, a notion that "you can make a metaphor out of anything you are studying", and "the concept that God is an engineer". As a result, psychology largely lost its position close to philosophy, and with it, lost the all-important distinction between a method of science suitable for studying people and a method of science suitable for the natural sciences: "la science de l'humanité" and "la science de la nature", as Rénan, Dilthey, and Windelband put it. More recently, some psychologists seem to be rediscovering that distinction and making psychology once more a useful discipline.
Now, one could well argue that psychology along with the rest of the sciences has become overreliant on reason. This points again to the needs for balance and holism that have been taught so well in Eastern philosophies for thousands of years. But that does not justify abandonment of reason altogether, nor does it justify regression into an indiscriminate blob of monolithic oneness. Although scholar Ken Wilber's model has its share of flaws, this is one point that he has made very clear. Maturity, or complexity, he states, involves greater differentiation, not less; followed by integration, not dissolution. Differentiation involves consideration of opposing ideas, such as we heard in the interesting dissertation on roast pig given by Dr. Saul Laughlin last night. These help us define our position more clearly.
Let's see if we can identify these lost threads that contributed so much to the glory of New Thought at the turn of the century, with the purpose of restoring them in time to save New Thought from being drowned in a tide of New Age excesses of mysticism, occultism, and lack of discipline. One thread is the judicious use of the best of psychology as the science closest to the central position that philosophy is designed to occupy. A second thread is the appropriate use of mysticism as the direct experience of God, and by God I mean what philosophers refer to as the Ultimate Actuality. "God is not a fundamentalist," and God is not an abstraction. New Thought, or the power of the God-aligned mind, works well for anyone who believes in some sort of divine power for good in an abundant universe, no matter how nutty or internally inconsistent that belief system may be. God can and does reach one through whatever channel one can be reached. But we as scholars dedicated to the closest approximation of truth we can find, including the use of some reasonable quantity of critical thinking (though not to the exclusion of direct revelation), can do better. We can offer a centrist position for people's consideration, one which avoids the errors and excesses of both anthropomorphism and pantheism. We can seek a systematic metaphysics that takes into account the best of mystical revelation and the best of empirical findings. Not all mystics, despite what you have heard about a so-called "perennial philosophy", have fallen into the trap of pantheism. Brother Lawrence is one frequently overlooked example; Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who is classified as a panentheist, is another.
A third thread that is in danger of being lost is that of the freedom of each person in matters of belief. At first blush, it may seem as if we are overusing this thread, since New Thought is such a cacophony of beliefs of all sorts, each loud in its affirmation that it is Truth, with a capital T. (Don't inquire too closely as to the meaning of the term Truth, or you may find to your embarrassment that the Emperor has no clothes.) But take a look in a different direction. New Thought came into being in the United States of America in a climate of political freedom the like of which the world had never seen before, incorporating the best of many earlier thinkers. This political system was founded on the greatest freedom for each individual commensurate with not interfering with the next person's freedom. To provide this, the founders used the principles of the rule of law, individual rights, the guarantee of property, and a common American identity. It included a balance of powers and the possibility for ongoing fine-tuning of the laws, because it acknowledged the fallibility of human beings. This system has worked better than any other political system in the history of the human race, but in the last thirty years, it has been undermined by those who believe in human reason as the supreme power and government as the central authority. They have done this by misleading the American people with meaningless terms such as "social justice" and promulgating a zero-sum economic model that is squarely at odds with the facts and with the basic New Thought belief in an abundant universe. They have used junk science to supplant old ideas of good stewardship of our planet by laying a guilt trip on those who seek to prosper themselves and others. They seek to broaden their own political base with more laws, more regulations, more taxes, and bigger government. What we need instead is less government, not more, enforcing the existing laws, allowing the free-market economy to function as it was designed to do, and above all, emphasizing the importance of good character in every aspect of one's public and private life. It is New Thought that is in the best position to lead this return to our founders' principles. It is New Thought that most clearly understands the importance of the individuals that make up society, that most clearly sees that we can best help society by making sure that each individual assumes responsibility for making the most of his or her own life, through the power of God-aligned thought. It is New Thought that can teach individuals to do this, and it is New Thought that can best assist individuals in attaining the independence that is the prerequisite for interdependence, which is the highest level on the maturity continuum. Stephen Covey, who has given us the maturity continuum, has also given us the blueprint for recovering the character ethic. Responsibility— not blame, but rather, the ability to respond— is the first step toward independence, he teaches, as only the fully independent person can be interdependent. And Covey, let us remember, is building on New Thought principles.
It is New Thought that can model the freedom to disagree while still respecting the other person. It is New Thought that can teach the logical consequences of the omnipresence of God: the respect for the presence of God in oneself as well as in the other, the understanding that all desires come from God, that all creation is cocreation with God, and hence, that everyone has a moral obligation to be the best that he or she can be. This includes every form of prosperity and abundance, along with the understanding that one component of prosperity is the avoidance of excess. Excess, after all, springs from a fear of lack, a sense of a need to hoard.
Psychology deals with the individual; sociology, with the group. Both are useful disciplines, but of late, sociology seems to have eclipsed psychology, as those who would undermine the priniples on which this nation was founded seek to render us discontented with our great contributions to the world by pointing out that not everyone is yet taking full advantage of the freedoms that we offer. Sociology studies religions, but just as philosophy helps us interpret our spiritual experiences, psychology helps us integrate our spirituality into the rest of our makeup. Yet psychology is a science. It therefore helps us to maintain balance among the physical, mental, social/emotional, and spiritual aspects of our existence. The person who ignores spirituality altogether and the person who attempts to live exclusively in the spiritual are equally out of balance. God is present in our bodies, the universe is God's body; and New Thought has always taught the importance of care of one's body. But the excessive influence of some of the other so-called metaphysical religions tends at times to carry us away from this important teaching.
New Thought has struggled to maintain this balance throughout its history. Quimby himself died ill, out of balance, because he neglected his own body while trying to serve others. He added a tremendous spiritual component to his original psychological insights, but he never succeeded in achieving balance. Eddy saw this, and avoided this trap for herself by doing comparatively little one-on-one healing, but she taught that matter was unreal, which is a distorted and unbalanced teaching. The Fillmores did a creditable job of creating balance, but lacked training in philosophy, and their metaphysics is self-contradictory. Still, they sought to maintain ties to mainstream Christianity and to honor the teachings of Jesus, whom they referred to as our Wayshower or our Elder Brother. At a time when many in Unity had succumbed to Eddy's teaching that the body is merely an illusion, Divine Science founder Malinda Cramer made a speech at Unity Village in which she set the record straight. Emma Curtis Hopkins also contradicted Eddy on this point.
As we face the close of the age next year, New Thought is at a choice point. It can recover its lost threads and use them in new, creative ways to spiral even higher; or it can dissolve forgotten into a morass of New Age nonsense. It can restore its character ethic and resume its leadership role, or it can continue to chase every metaphysical fad that comes along. It can heed the advice of the Dalai Lama and stick to its Western, Christian roots; or it can seek to please everyone and end by pleasing no one, spinning like a weathervane carried by the latest gust of wind. New Thought has the power to cease its airheaded flight from intellect without succumbing to an all-in-the-head lack of action. It can walk its talk. It can remember that every choice point is an opportunity to seek the guidance of the one whom Jesus called the Father within.
It is time for New Thought as a movement to cease its excessive adolescent experimenting and questioning, and grow into a mature faith that continues to flourish, still free, yet firmly rooted in sound metaphysical, psychological, and political principles. I spoke earlier of New Thought's much-vaunted freedom in matters of belief. Self-discipline is the psychological strength that best ensures that we can meet our genetically encoded need for freedom, and perhaps self-discipline is the most important of New Thought's lost threads, for it is the one that binds all the others together. Let us use it wisely to remain free. References
Anderson, C. Alan, and Whitehouse, D.G. (1995). New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality. New York: Crossroad.
Braden, Charles S. (1963). Spirits in rebellion: The rise and development of New Thought. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press.
Buchanan, John H. (1996). "Whitehead and Wilber: Contrasts in Theory." The Humanistic Psychologist, 24(2), 231-256.
Covey, Stephen R. (1989) The 7 habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Dresser, Annetta S. (1895) The philosophy of P. P. Quimby. Boston: Geo. H. Ellis.
Dresser, Horatio W. (1897) In search of a soul. Boston: Geo. H. Ellis.
Griffin, David (1998). Unsnarling the world-knot: Consciousness, freedom, and the mind-body problem. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Holmes, Fenwicke L. (1970). Ernest Holmes: His life and times. New York: Dodd, Mead.
Huber, Richard M. (1971). The American idea of success. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Hudson, Thomson J. (1899) The divine pedigree of man, or the testimony of evolution and psychology to the fatherhood of God. Chicago: McClurg.
Hudson, Thomson J. (1893) The law of psychic phenomena: A working hypothesis for the systematic study of hypnotism, spiritism, mental therapeutics, etc. Chicago: McClurg.
Inge, William R. (1913). Personal idealism and mysticism: The Paddock lectures for 1906. London: Longmans, Green.
Judah, J. Stillson (1967). The history and philosophy of the metaphysical movements in America. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.
LeShan, Lawrence (1990). The dilemma of psychology: A psychologist looks at his troubled profession. New York: Dutton.
Radosh, Daniel (1999). "The Y1K problem." Civilization, October/November, 92-95.
Rosen, Sidney (Ed.) (1982). My voice will go with you: The teaching tales of Milton H. Erickson. New York: W.W. Norton.
Sarno, John E. (1998). The mindbody prescription: Healing the body, healing the pain. New York: Warner Books.
Targ, Elisabeth. (1999). "Distant healing." IONS Noetic Sciences Review, 49, 24-29.
Wilber, Ken (1998). The marriage of sense and soul: Integrating science and religion. New York: Random House.
Vazsonyi, Balint (1998). America's 30 Years War: Who is Winning? Washington, DC: Regnery.
Society for the Study of Metaphysical Religion.
New Thought Movement Home Page, relating to the non-Christian Science side of the movement that grew out of Quimby's work.
Chapter One of Practicing the Presence of God for Practical Purposes by Deb Whitehouse and Alan Anderson.
Links to Phineas Parkhurst Quimby material.
Process New Thought , with links to other process sites.
Entered Dec. 19, 1999
by Alan Anderson