The Reformation of New Thought

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.

Coming in 2018.

 

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.

 

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7 thoughts on “The Reformation of New Thought

  1. Harv, I look forward to reading the new book. It will be a great service that I hope will expand this conversation to a wider audience.

    These are questions that anyone who cares about New Thought should be asking. As you note, even as the principles and teachings are becoming mainstream, corporate New Thought is struggling. Membership is declining and increasingly the denominations are becoming irrelevant— particularly to the young. In fact, the only time we seem to crack the public consciousness is when we decide to cancel a convention.

    Yet it seems much of the leadership is content to do the same thing the same way they’ve always done it —to smaller and increasing grayer crowds. I’ve repeatedly seen new ideas, new models and new approaches met with overt hostility on line, in print and in conversation.

    We need some kind of reformation if we’re to be as relevant now as Holmes and the Fillmores were to earlier generations. We can’t do that by continuing to do things the way we’ve always done them. Where Holmes was fresh and avant-garde, our current organizational leadership and many ministers are rigid and committed to the Sunday Service model of Protestant worship. It’s funny that Evangelical Christianity is so good at developing and implementing new and innovative forms of worship, but we aren’t.

    Like ideologues who’ve lost an election, we just double down and do the same thing all over again— only more fervently this time.

    We continue to talk at people even as younger generations make it clear they want a conversation. We continue teaching “the basics” until people leave in search of depth. Too often we present the principles in simplistic and even simple minded forms that ignore both modern science and the intelligence of our membership. (Among others, I never again want to hear the obnoxious question “what was in his consciousness that drew that to him?”)

    We need a reformation and a transformation if we’re to continue to be a relevant organization. Of course, whether CSL or even Unity survive or not, the principles will continue to shape individual lives and public consciousness. Yet, I would hope that we could be one of those catalysts for change in consciousness.

    • Amen! When the CSL organization held a vote recently on whether to keep the practitioner credential as RScP or change it to a more modern credential, I told a friend that this would be telling of things to come in the formal organization.

      When the vote came in to “do it the way we’ve always done it”, I was saddened, as it seems to indicate that entrenched thinking remains a popular (majority) perspective.

  2. Hi Harv,

    Excellent summary.

    I don’t believe that we can change the world. However, when enough of us change ourselves, the world will change accordingly.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. Great post, Harv.

    I think that we have to live more in the questions and see what emerges. One helpful model that I am preparing some blog posts about is Polarity Management (Barry Johnson). It speaks to the need to stop seeing most of our questions as “problems to be solved” but rather as “polarities to be managed.” The need for dialogue you mention above is enhanced when we are not looking for “answers,” but a healthier balance between two polarities. That is just one example, but there are many others valuable ways to learn to process together.

    Those who propose solutions based on past experience are actually providing little of value. There is no going back to the halcyon days of packed churches and lectures. We in New Thought need to re-imagine our role in the world, and in doing so, begin with our own way of being in ministry. Our principles may be timeless, but the forms for bringing them to the world are changing. When we remain attached to form (like Sunday services as the main way of connecting), we are in trouble. I am very appreciative of your blog for encouraging just that.

    I look forward to reading the book.

    Love and Light,
    Jim Lockard

  4. Over the years I’ve heard many mainstream Christian denominations struggle with how to get better attendance: more people = more money. Several of the old mainline denominations are dying on the vine. For some insight, read religious sociologist Wade Clark Roof’s “The Spiritual Marketplace” and then look at the Pew Research report on Religion every April, and you will see some startling facts and figures. It’s a good clue to why people in general are not “joiners” — many are not even church goers.
    Having been reared in the Disciples of Christ (Christian) Church, converted to Mormonism after marrying a Mormon at age 21 and being excommunicated 10 years later, I’ve experienced liberal Christianity; rigid, legalistic Mormonism where the “box” became very uncomfortable after a few years; then being ‘called’ (yes, the inner voice) into Buddhism where I found my light. I have been a Buddhist practitioner for the past 25 years.
    I have studied just about every religion, and tasted most. I have been affiliated with a local SOM congregation for a number of years, having been introduced to it through a friend I met at one of our Theosophy meetings about 12 years ago. I enjoy my friendships at the SOM congregation, taken classes there that I find fascinating. I read Holmes’ Science of Mind and was thrilled to see that it was rooted in Buddhism and Hinduism (the first 2/3’s of the book anyway), and felt a real affinity with my new found SOM friends.
    Over the years, I’ve come up with a few realizations about people and spiritual/religious beliefs: 1) most people like the “box” — they like being told “believe in Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, be baptized and ‘thou shalt be saved.’ They want the answers — to hell with the questions! Give ’em the answers!
    2) Most people don’t like to take personal responsibility for the life they have created. Bring up Karma in any class but a Buddhist study, and people start rolling their eyes — most do not have a good understanding of the Law of Karma (we’re studying this topic this quarter in our Theosophy meetings) as the law of cause and effect, no matter how much Holmes talked about it. They want to believe in Old Testament Theodicy — God gives good to good people, and evil to evil people. Why do good things happen to bad people? No one ever asks that question.
    3) SOM doesn’t promote it’s roots in Buddhism/Hinduism. Reading “The Philosophy of Ernest Holmes” he said people should read Sri Aurobindo’s The Life Divine. I did and spent a year inside the awesomeness of that 1100-page tome. It was amazing! I re-read “The Philosophy of Ernest Holmes” and saw it full of Aurobindo’s philosophy. SOM should promote its Buddhist/Hindu roots — Buddhism has been totally embraced in the West and SOM is missing the boat by failing to acknowledge that. When people as me “what is Buddhism” I tell them it’s a science of mind (very parallel to quantum physics — I teach a class called Quantum Mind which has been quite popular at the SOM congregation I attend periodically.
    Like all things in physicality, New Thought will become Old Thought. I’ve always said that in reality New Thought is really just Old Thought packaged in new books. It’s the ageless wisdom tradition brought to light for these past almost two centuries. Few people are interested in these ageless wisdom traditions. Attendance will always be small at SOM/New Thought gatherings as it is in our Theosophical meetings, and as it is at most Buddhist Sanghas. We must get used to the fact that we are a rare group whose traditions in ageless wisdom and Eastern philosophies few will ever acknowledge as having any value in today’s world.

  5. Another great blog post – thank you! One of the things I find fascinating in this saga is that Joseph Campbell’s perspective is taught as part of the New Thought canon and yet many are missing some of his most important contributions to the greater spiritual discourse. Namely, that the spiritual quest is an individual one.

    Throughout his later years especially, he repeated often the story of the grail quest and the importance of entering the deep, dark and unknown forest alone, where there is no pre-established path.

    In many ways, the younger generations are doing just this. They love the teachings shared by Louise Hay, Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra and others; and technology has made them available “on demand”. They (younger generation) instinctively know what Campbell has taught: that they don’t need a guru, or master, and that the path to walk is theirs and theirs alone. They also have a more open approach to life in general, and are therefore much more likely to take a little of one tradition that resonates with them and blend it with sprinklings of other traditions to make their own unique spiritual practice. They are turned off by rules of spiritual etiquette (my term) imposed by ministers and/or organizations and frankly – their busy lives have no room for it.

    The ultimate fate of organized New Thought remains unknown, but if we were wise, we’d do a deep dive on what’s working in the communities that are growing and look honestly (!) at the historical practices (and thinking/“dogma”) that is in place where growth is stagnant or in decline.

    The answers we seek are available if we are willing to ask the right questions and hear sometimes-difficult truths.

  6. This discussion reminded me of the blast made in the San Diego area when Rev. Terry Cole-Whittaker made her debut in the late ’70’s early 80’s. In a couple of years she moved from 30 members to 5000 and there were mostly young people 20 – 30 year olds. When I read articles like this I can’t help but wonder what made her ministry exciting to young folks. All I remember is that it was an exciting time to find and explore new thought as her ministry evolved on to thousands of t.v. stations around the country. What did she do that got lost as her ministry faded?