The New Thought Dilemma: When Law Eclipses Love


Once upon a time I was an in-the-closet New Thoughter writing for a Catholic weekly newspaper. Catholicism had been the religion of my youth and this paper was strong on covering social justice issues.

At the time I was not only a closeted New Thought adherent, but also caught up in Shirley MacLaine’s books. I believed that I, and all people, created 100 percent of their own reality.

I interviewed a woman in the newsroom who worked with impoverished people in Africa. At some point I allowed that I thought people’s thoughts created all their life circumstances. I’ll only say that my declaration did not go over well. Looking back on my statement, I cringe at the arrogance and lack of understanding I exhibited in that time.

In an essay on this blog (and included in the forthcoming anthology book Can New Thought Be Saved?) historian Mitch Horowitz writes, “We must improve the intellectual tone in New Thought and avoid leaning on catechism when topics of tragedy or injustice arise.” That catechism, which I exhibited in my interview with the aid worker, can lead, Horowitz says and I have witnessed, to “blissful indifference” of other’s fates.

A recent Medium article by Mitch talked about the importance of combining New Thought and other metaphysical self-empowerment practices with Golden Rule-based ethics that provide “vital guardrails for human interaction.”

The indifference I showed in the newsroom was a convenient lie, allowing me to bypass upsetting emotions and difficult, complex truths about the world. The empathy and compassion required by the Golden Rule and traditional spiritual ethics was missed.

“I don’t know if anybody can walk through this tradition and not have that judgment happen a couple times,” Masando Hiraoka, a Religious Science social justice minister in Albuquerque once told me.  “We all have had that judgment at some point.”

In the 20 some years since my gaffe, New Thought’s move toward the mission of creating a world that works for everyone is evolving the movement worldview towards social justice. But some still contend that “we already have a world that works for everyone,” which translates to all people everywhere attracting the circumstances of their lives through their thoughts. If they change their thoughts, the thinking goes, poverty and injustice will disappear. Social, economic, political and cultural systems are ignored and sole responsibility is placed on the individual. This single-minded approach to life’s hardships can show up as indifference. Although we wouldn’t say it in polite society, in our hearts we feel that if people are living in poverty it’s not our problem.

The “Just-World Hypothesis” shows that people are less compassionate when they believe that the world is ordered and just, and therefore people get what they deserve.

I’ve observed that it’s not only social justice where indifference rears its head. It can insulate us from the consequences of ill-considered decisions. As a university teacher, I have to make difficult decisions that can impact students’ futures for years to come. When I started teaching I had too much certainty in my judgements. I once ripped into a student for a lackluster effort only to find out he was depressed and my upbraiding collapsed what little self-esteem he had.

It’s too neat a package to say, “I prayed about it and this is what I came up with so it must be for the highest good of everyone.” That is false certainty. I do pray and do my best, but can human decisions ever be unquestionably for the highest good when we are forced to play God with our choices? It can be the same in the workplace. Employees who are laid off to cut organizational costs are going to their “greater yet to be,” is one rationalization that pushes out compassion. The employees, some would say, attracted those very circumstances. These rationalizations exclude the recognition that, whether wise or unwise, such choices seriously mess with people’s lives and break hearts. Compassion is called for, not blissful indifference.

Psychology says that uncertainty and difficult choices provoke anxiety so people often opt for premature closure jumping on the first plausible answer, so they can believe all is well.

Worldly causes and consequences are complex. It is indifference when we parrot the platitudes that this is their soul path, or their highest and best good. That’s when empathy and humble, thoughtful decision-making leave the room. These are the very qualities New Thought churches and organizations will need as they evolve into an uncertain future.  As individuals when we encounter the homeless, friends who have lost jobs or are facing troubling diagnoses, or see mass tragedies in the media we can react from our hearts and not retreat into platitudes and easy answers.

Perhaps it is time for us to remember the priorities set by Dr. Ernest Holmes, founder of the Science of Mind philosophy: “Love points the way and Law makes the way possible.”

Can New Thought Be Saved? Why New Thought Must Evolve or Die, an anthology featuring all of your favorite writers, will be available in 2018!

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2 thoughts on “The New Thought Dilemma: When Law Eclipses Love

  1. Another good and important post, Harv.

    What you are pointing to, I think, are developmental stages that human beings move through (or become arrested in) in any growth process. Newcomers to New Thought will often become dogmatic because that is part of a stage of development wherein the student is using “certainty” to cement his or her own belief system in a new set of ideas. What you described with your newsroom colleague is a fairly typical manifestation of this. Hopefully, we develop beyond this rigidity (and ignorance) to a greater capacity for paradox and uncertainty – or at least a greater capacity for compassion.

    Models such as Emotional Intelligence, Spiritual Intelligence (SQ21), and Spiral Dynamics are very useful in helping us understand our own development, and, if we are New Thought teachers, the development of our students.

    And I see Mitch Horowitz’s point about a certain lack of intellectual rigor in New Thought. I see this as our heritage, for the most part. Other than Ernest Holmes’ attempts to bring the Science of Mind into the university system via USC and a Religious Science Journal which existed for a time, I am unaware of any of the New Thought founders showing much interest in taking the teachings into academia for research, etc. And, given the resistance of non-linear consciousness to empirical observation and measurement, I can understand their reluctance.

    Love and Law. That’s about it. I would throw in Kindness – we will need a lot of that as we learn.

    Love and Light,

  2. Karma is a difficult law, especially for those of us who were reared in the Christian tradition. However, it answered a lot of my long-unanswered questions that I’d held since childhood about why was I “lucky” enough to be born into a middle-class, Christian family with all the benefits of being a citizen of the United States, while other children were “unlucky” enough to be born in Africa where sickness and starvation were their lot. There were for me then, only two answers: it was the luck of the draw or God chose who got to be fortunate enough to be born as I was and who was born in far less fortunate circumstances. When I encountered Buddhism and the law of Karma at the age of 42, a whole new world opened up for and suddenly I began to understand the answers to the age-old question of “why bad things happen to good people.” (No one ever asks the question of why good things happen to bad people!)
    Take God out of the equation and it becomes a bit easier. However, for many Christians it is “all God.” For my New Thought Friends, it is not only “all God” but it is also “all good.” Now then, one must believe that whatever happens is “good” — but that is a word that is merely a human judgement. What is good? What is bad? Christmas Humphreys, a Theosophist and founder of the London Buddhist Society in 1921, commented in his book “Walk On!” “And if the doctrine of Karma, of cause and effect, be true, . . . then whatever happens to you is neither good nor bad but right.” So perhaps we need to say “It’s all God and it’s all right” (if one must add an anthropomorphic God to the equation).
    Many people, like my mother for example, believe that God is responsible for everything. If someone gets killed in a car wreck or by a person wielding a knife or gun, or through some act of nature such as an earthquake or volcano or flood, it is God’s doing. It’s God’s will, and since God is perfect all He does must also be perfect and one should not question that. Fortunately, I questioned that from childhood.
    Buddhism being an atheistic spiritual tradition, holds that when the Wheel of Dharma was set in motion, it turns. Perhaps that similar to the watchmaker theory.
    Law is always subordinate to love and while we can believe that all Law is right — including the Law of Cause and Effect — we must also believe that the Karma that plays out in each of our lives is also right. There is a purpose. Perhaps we cannot know that now but perhaps it will be revealed in another lifetime. Is it love to interfere with another’s Karma? That was an interesting discussion in our Theosophy meeting two weeks ago. Does helping someone in some dire situation qualify as “interfering” with their Karma? Or can compassion/love for those who cross our paths in need of what we have to offer be a part of their (and our) Karma that is not only “right” but also “perfect” in the spiritual sense.
    St. Catherine of Genoa said, “We must not wish anything other than what happens from moment-to-moment, all the while, however, exercising ourselves in goodness.”
    In the opening verse of the Dhammapada (Pali Canon), the Buddha says: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. This is the eternal law.”
    Karma makes sense in the light of those teachings.