500 years ago this week, Martin Luther launched the Protestant reformation with his 95 theses that challenged Catholic church authorities. Without that move away from centralized religious dogma, New Thought and alternative spirituality would not exist. New Thought spiritual pioneers experimented with what worked in their lives without blind acceptance of tradition.
What in New Thought needs reform today?
Contributors to this blog have been mulling that question for the last two plus years. In this piece, adapted from the introduction to Can New Thought Be Saved?, a forthcoming anthology drawn from HarvBishop.com, I summarize some of our ideas and questions. One thing is clear. This New Thought reformation is about respecting evolving questions and dialogue, not imposing new dogma.
BY HARV BISHOP
What works in New Thought, what doesn’t and what needs reform?
Discussion about those essential questions is always being co-created though the blog that bears my name. It is a product of readers’ concerns, interests and comments, and the perspectives of my fellow contributors and I. It is this vibrant and rich dialogue between perspectives that is captured in this anthology.
Our blog contributors – including writers, historians, ministers, academics and metaphysical practitioners from all generations – don’t always agree with each other and we are fine with that. Sometimes our blog contributor’s views shift over time. We each evolve and thus the blog itself is always evolving.
One topic of discussion that generates passionate debate is what should be done to increase attendance in New Thought churches, especially among young adults. Some suggest widening the scope of New Thought and include other forms of worship such as drumming and energy healing. Other contributors reject what they see as watered down New Thought and argue that the key is getting back to basic practices and teachings so individuals can change their lives. Some argue that New Thought needs to address meaningful social justice and environmental issues to attract young people, while others say New Thought is about changing individual consciousness, not addressing larger social and political concerns.
I believe that New Thought is a big enough tent to accommodate all these different approaches to its teachings and practices.
My first posts were with New Thought historian and publisher Mitch Horowitz, author of the preface to this book. I had profiled him for Science of Mind magazine talking about how famous New Thought pioneers also had a passion for social justice. But there was a wealth of other material where Mitch discussed his concern that an overreliance on the Law of Attraction as the only explanation for why things happen in the world. As he writes in the preface to this book, thoughts are causative, but not the only cause for worldly events. If used as a one-size-fits-all explanation for everything that happens in the world it can lead to a lack of compassion for the sick or those who have endured tragic events.
The explosive response to those three posts with Mitch (included in this anthology) took us by surprise, garnering thousands of Facebook shares and inspiring heartfelt stories from readers who felt judged in New Thought circles and blamed for their life circumstances, including hereditary illness and the loss of an infant.
One Facebook comment under a link to an article by Mitch ominously warned, “I’ve read reviews about his book One Simple Idea [a history of the positive thinking] on Amazon. He doesn’t believe what we believe.” The comment begs the question why someone would authoritatively comment on a book they have not read. It also presupposes that New Thought, drawn from spiritual principles from many religions, and founded by free thinkers, somehow requires a rigid orthodoxy of belief.
This anthology is most emphatically not about which perspectives on New Thought are right or wrong. It is about airing and reflecting on these perspectives and the questions. We are not about creating a new orthodoxy. Indeed, there is no way we could impose our views, because the contributors and interviewees have so many different opinions.
You might then fairly ask what unites us?
Mitch Horowitz’s thinking is a model for the values that unite us. Exploration of ideas and experimenting with practices and beliefs to see how they work in your own life is healthy, Mitch suggests, which is a thought echoed by Science of Mind Founder Dr. Ernest Holmes. Dogmatism or insisting that others believe what you believe is not. On some issues, we just have to hold the question, avoid the temptation for easy answers, and respect the fundamental mysteries of life and the human condition.
The late holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel once told Oprah Winfrey, “The essential questions have no answers. You are my question, and I am yours — and then there is dialogue. The moment we have answers, there is no dialogue. Questions unite people, answers divide them.”
The contributors to this anthology are united by a love for New Thought. We are not armchair critics or unthinking boosters. Nor are we writing about something we keep at arm’s length. As the contributors and interviewees in this anthology, we actively work with New Thought principles and apply those principles in our lives. We have found these principles figuratively — and in some cases literally – life saving. We also agree that New Thought must also be practiced with consideration of the rich ethical guidelines of the ancient traditions, including the Golden Rule.
What are these New Thought principles?
As Mitch wrote in the preface, New Thought holds that at some level thoughts are causative and influence our life circumstances. Holmes, the intellectually curious and rigorous founder of The Science of Mind philosophy concisely summarized it this way. “There is One Life, One Presence, One Power in the universe. That life is God. That Life is my Life now.”
To briefly unpack these principles, God would be seen as both the creative force in the universe and an underlying, loving field of consciousness that holds and connects all of creation. As part of creation, humans participate in that creative consciousness. Thus, our thoughts, emotions and beliefs have creative power and can manifest in our life circumstances.
Holmes specifically cautioned against seeing his philosophy as a “get rich quick scheme” or naively assuming we could get everything we wanted by directing our thoughts. He did believe that when we consciously align with this underlying unitive consciousness we have greater positive possibilities in our lives.
From those basic premises, Holmes and many other New Thought teachers believe that all religions reflect these fundamental truths to a greater or lesser degree. In addition to honoring religious pluralism, New Thought does not see God or Divine Consciousness as judgmental or punishing in any way. We are simply in alignment with our Divine heritage or not and when are aligned we make better choices.
New Thought ethics are rooted in the recognition that every human, and all creation, is the Divine made manifest in the world and that we owe each other kindness, compassion and respect based on that knowledge. As New Thought singer-songwriter Karen Drucker’s song says, “You are the face of God.” If humanity recognized this truth, many New Thought adherents believe, it would be impossible to be prejudiced or commit violent acts upon one another.
Over the last two-plus years, the pattern of blog post topics revealed common areas of concern and thought-provoking questions that led to discussion and respectful debate among contributors.
1: Our contributors do not ignore New Thought’s power to change lives for the better, it’s emphasis on the motivation of a positive vision, and the importance seeing all people and creation as a manifestation of the Divine. They do debunk stereotypical and uninformed criticisms of New Thought.
2: Why do bad things happen to good people? Can the reliance on an all-encompassing Law of Attraction that creates 100 percent of our reality explain all suffering and tragedy? Does Divine Right Order exist amid the seeming randomness of life?
3: The Hidden History of New Thought. It isn’t widely known that New Thought has Occult roots and that the meaning of the Law of Attraction has changed over time. Are affirmations alone enough to create lasting change in our lives? Many of New Thought’s treasured pioneers were radicals, socialists and feminists. And pioneers such as academic and New Thought practitioner Theodore Dresser raised many of the questions about New Thought’s contradictions around 1900, questions we still deal with today.
4: Are some New Thought adherents in denial? Some contributors argue that New Thought adherents avoid difficult truths such as environmental problems, racism and inequality, for fear that their focus on these problems will magnify them (Law of Attraction: What we focus on grows.) These contributors challenge that view and add that these challenges must be acknowledged to be transformed.
5: New Thought is a historically open belief system that welcomed women and gay ministers well before mainstream society. But can it fall victim to fundamentalism in spite of its professed openness?
6: A world that works for everyone. How is New Thought trying to reclaim its historical passion for social justice through its vision of a world that works for everyone? Conservatives believe such concerns highjack New Thought for liberal causes when the movement should be focused on individual empowerment. Liberals believe inequality violates seeing the Divine in all people equally. But historically New Thought has inspired both liberals and conservatives. It has never been about conformity, but instead it has supported people’s highest aspirations and potentials. There are also surprising perspectives on New Thought, terrorism, and war and peace.
7: The Future of New Thought. How can new Thought stay relevant as its teachings are mainstreamed into popular culture and business seminars? Church attendance is declining, especially among young adults. Will new Thought “gray out”? Will its resources move online? Many New Thought churches and some umbrella organizations face significant financial challenges in spite of cherished prosperity teachings. Does New Thought need to update some of its beliefs to be more relevant to the suffering people inevitably face in their lives? Does it need to stress social justice to draw Millennials to churches?
Our contributors offer suggestions, but not answers. How New Thought evolves will be up to every one of us. Martin Luther upended the religious world 500 years ago. Now it’s our turn.