A onetime protégé to Science of Mind founder Ernest Holmes, Obadiah Harris has lived a life deeply interwoven with the history of New Thought. An accomplished university administrator and now president of the University of Philosophical Research, Dr. Harris is a living link between the Pentecostal tradition of his youth and Science of Mind, which he learned directly from Ernest Holmes. Here we present Mitch Horowitz’s historical introduction to Dr. Harris’s recent book, The Simple Road, in which Mitch highlights several intriguing aspects of New Thought history.
BY MITCH HOROWITZ
The book you are about to read could save your life. That is not some maudlin claim. I know it as fact – because it helped save mine.
Its author, Obadiah Harris, a university administrator, scholar of religion, and lifelong seeker, says little about himself. He makes hardly a personal reference throughout this book. So, before getting into what you will discover in this work – and defending the claim I make above – I will say something about the man behind it. Understanding the author and his background will illuminate how he reached his conclusions, and what they may hold for you.
Obadiah Harris was born on January 6th, 1930, to an ardently Bible-reading family in Wynona, Oklahoma, a small town in the northeastern part of the state. His father was the pastor of a local Pentecostal church and his mother taught him to read using Scripture. They completed the entire Bible before Obadiah’s first day of public school.
The Pentecostal faith was at the foundation of his household. Americans have long misunderstood Pentecostalism, with its emphasis on speaking in tongues and spiritual healing. The denomination is often viewed as belonging to the lower rungs of emotional religious life among the Southern poor; or, worse yet, critics see Pentecostals as a congregation of sheep who are exploited by slick televangelists and tent-revival faith healers.
In actuality, the Pentecostalism that animated Obadiah’s childhood arose from a hunger among American Protestants to move beyond the formality and cold professionalism that had settled over much of mainline Christianity by the early twentieth century. Pentecostalism was not a call to flee the modern age but rather to revive a form of religion that intimately mattered in the life of the individual; a religion in which miracles, struggles against evil, and the peace brought by redemption were palpable forces. This was the faith in which Obadiah grew up: one of wonder, mystery, and commitment. Biblical figures were as real to his childhood as sports heroes and presidents.
When Obadiah was eight, a young Oral Roberts – then a freshly minted, twenty-year-old Pentecostal minister decades away from fame as a televangelist – conducted his first revival service at the elder Harris’s church in Oil Center, Oklahoma. In person, Roberts was humble and gentle – but in the pulpit he burned with the conviction that religious healings and the ecstasies of the Holy Spirit had to be part of Christian faith if it were to remain relevant to modern people. Roberts’s passions outstripped his experience: when he ran short of sermons Obadiah’s father gave him outlines for new ones.
As a teen, Obadiah followed his father on a circuit trail of churches, singing and accompanying himself on guitar. He became ordained as a Pentecostal minister himself, but yearned for greater freedom and opportunities. In particular, he wanted to broaden his religious perspective. The Judeo-Christian Bible was not, to his mind, the sole repository of religious truth. The notion that other, non-Christian faiths possessed Divine truth was intolerable within most Pentecostal circles – and the young minister determined to move beyond them.
He began studying some of the new metaphysics that had gained popularity in America in the first half of the twentieth century, particularly the idea that the mind can serve as a channel of Divine creativity, and that thoughts possess causative properties. This outlook, generally called New Thought, went under the congregational banner of movements such as Science of Mind, Divine Science, and Unity. The philosophy’s most articulate purveyors included Ernest Holmes, Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, and Neville Goddard – all of whom held, in their own way and with their own distinct emphases, that mental experience and spiritual experience were part of the same continuum, and that our feeling states and thoughts, and our capacity to direct these expressions along productive, generative lines, could manifest reality.
One day in early 1958, Obadiah was delivering a talk as a guest speaker at the Apostolic Christian Temple, a liberal evangelical congregation in Phoenix, Arizona. A slight bustle arose at the rear of the congregation when in walked a group of well-dressed, urbane-looking visitors. At the center of the group was a cheery-eyed, roundish man around whom the others gravitated – he was clearly their leader. Obadiah continued with his sermon, which dealt with the inner meaning of Christ’s parables. The minister said that the parables were not intended as moral doctrine but as portraits of human archetypes, exposing our foibles and possibilities. At the end of the sermon the man at the center of the visitors walked up to Obadiah with a handshake and told him: “I enjoyed your talk. It was pure Science of Mind.” This was Ernest Holmes, a figure Obadiah only dimly recognized from his studies, but who had assembled the most intellectually vibrant of the nation’s New Thought congregations.
Holmes invited Obadiah to come to his Los Angeles seminary to study with him. “Don’t try,” Holmes said in a gentle but pressing manner, “just do it.” Obadiah did go – and forged a close student-teacher relationship with the metaphysical philosopher. By the late 1950s, Holmes had weathered bruising factional fights within his church and, with his health unsteady, he was searching for successors. He apparently found one in Obadiah, who was soon appointed senior minister at the First Church of Religious Science in Phoenix, one of the denomination’s largest congregations. He also preached at Science of Mind churches up and down the West Coast.
In the late winter of 1960 Holmes was in markedly deteriorated health. Before his death on April 7th, the leader asked Obadiah to take over leadership of the Science of Mind movement. Obadiah declined. He had watched the movement and its factional politics consume too much of his mentor’s life and energies. He knew that he once more had to leave a religious movement that he loved. “I have to find my own way,” Obadiah told his teacher, kneeling by his sick bed. Holmes smiled and replied: “I wish I could go with you.”
Obadiah did find his own way. He served until 1964 at the Phoenix church before pursuing a career in higher education. In 1973 he earned his Doctor of Philosophy in education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. That year he became an associate professor of Educational Management and director of Community Education at New Mexico State University. Two years later he filled the same position at Arizona State University, where he remained for almost two decades, designing programs in community outreach and in adult and continuing education. Obadiah’s experience in diverse pulpits had given him the ability to communicate with wage-earning people who wanted to return to school; with retail, manufacturing, and railroad magnates who could fund new university programs; and with community members who he wanted to bring into campus life for more than homecoming parades and football games.
In the early 1990s Obadiah’s life path once again intertwined with an icon of American metaphysics, as it previously had with Ernest Holmes. This time it was with the legacy of a man who had died in 1990 and whom Obadiah had never personally met but knew by reputation: the esoteric scholar Manly P. Hall.
Although invisible in the mainstream, Hall had become the informal dean of the nation’s alternative spiritual culture when at age twenty-seven in 1928 he independently published a massive codex to the mythical, symbolic, and occultic religious traditions of antiquity, The Secret Teachings of All Ages. The comprehensive encyclopedia arcana brought Hall sufficient resources from contributors to construct a “mystery school” in the Griffith Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, which he called the Philosophical Research Society. Hall’s Egyptian-Mayan-Art Deco-styled campus grew to feature a world-class library of spiritual texts, a vault with ancient manuscripts and artifacts, a small complex of classrooms, book-production and warehousing facilities, and an auditorium. For seekers of esoteric wisdom, it was the closest thing to Valhalla.
But the place fell into financial ruin following Hall’s death, when a series of legal disputes arose around his estate. The legal bills were crushing and resulted in the selling-off of some of Hall’s most treasured antiquities. The board brought in Obadiah as president in 1993 to set matters aright financially. He restored the organization to financial health and fulfilled one of Hall’s aims by opening the University of Philosophical Research, an accredited, graduate degree-granting distance learning college. In his more than twenty years on the job he has cashed no paycheck.
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Those are the outer details of Obadiah’s career – but this book returns him to the inner movements that undergird the outer; just as the outer helped inform the inner man. Obadiah’s life has been marked not by random changes but by the need to yield to the demands of growth. To understand this requires casting one more look at the past before turning to the ideas in this book.
Although Obadiah could have pursued a career as Holmes’s successor, and entered into a somewhat ready-made position of authority, he took a much longer road. This road not only avoided the trappings of religious politics but called to him for another reason – one that he rarely discusses and that I bring up here of my own choosing, not of his. Obadiah detected – rightly, in my view – a lack of intellectual excellence within much of the New Thought world following Holmes’s death. There were, of course, outstanding ministers and personalities remaining in the movement; but there existed no new generation of thinkers who possessed Holmes’s hunger to continually redefine New Thought principles and validate them in traditions ranging from the Vedas to Hermeticism to recent advances in mind-body medicine and physics. Figures such as Holmes and Neville Goddard were impeccable intellects whose reading habits ranged from Emerson and Blake to Mary Baker Eddy and Sri Aurobindo to studies in quantum physics and relativity. The New Thought movement, in his view (and my own), failed to sustain a culture of intellectual vigor, in which seekers continually challenged and reformed old ideas in light of new discoveries, and the development of new religious cultures and expressions.
One of Obadiah’s core points in this book is that religious thought has, in fact, changed over the course of centuries, and even in recent decades. The religious messenger is no longer a figure whose life is marked by martyrdom or persecution. The concept of guilt, he writes, does not serve modern people well, and is not foundational to Western religion. Guilt was not predominant in the earliest stirrings of the Mediterranean faiths that became Judaism and Christianity or in the Vedas – it grew from ancient judicial codes rather than mystical currents. Finally, the doctrinal approach to religion – in which the vision of a single faith dominates one’s religious thought –may be losing its primacy in the Western world, even though that model has historically served as an incubator for invaluable ideas and insights.
Obadiah also insists on the continued relevance and possibility of miracles and wondrous events. He begins this book, bravely and unapologetically, with the subject of spiritual healings. That he opens the book this way is notable; this is not a work that “hides its light under a bushel.” Indeed, Obadiah’s views on the possibility of healing through prayer and meditation point up continuity in his spiritual development. Some observers have difficulty understanding, or feel deep offense over, the emphasis on “signs and wonders” – and specifically miraculous healings – within Pentecostal, Charismatic, and certain Catholic congregations. Yet Obadiah has not rejected or run from the beliefs he grew up with; rather he has refined them, leavened them, and submitted their claims to the insights of other faiths, dramatic advances in medical science, and the caution that sudden healings and other remarkable events are matters of mystery and possibility, not outcomes that can be catered or predicted. Obadiah believes that if we categorically reject the possibility of the miraculous, we reduce what religion can offer the individual; we succumb to formalism and doctrine; we limit discovery.
But his approach will inevitably disappointment anyone in search of burning bushes, blinding flashes of insight, or quick fixes. Rather, he prescribes a lifetime of submission to Divine will, which means: persistent prayer, meditation, inner search, and personal expansion through learning, immersion in diverse religious traditions, and the constant re-estimation of one’s values and motives. Obadiah encourages an awakening of the “educational variety,” as described by philosopher William James. The simple road, as referred to in the title, is also the long road. Yet its path holds wonders to be discovered.
I began this introduction with my own bold claim: That this book was lifesaving to me. And so it was. It did not heal me of a physical malady or move a mountain out of my way. But it did reach me with a clear and simple truth, which shined a light forward for me when I was lost in a frightening and depressing personal struggle. Several months before I wrote this introduction, I was in a period of darkness after I felt that I had disappointed people I love. I knew that my actions were wrong and I couldn’t figure out how I could have been so estranged from my own best instincts. I didn’t want a way out of my problems – I wanted a way to understand them and to make amends to others.
Clarity came to me through reading Obadiah’s chapters on “Overcoming Hostile Forces.” He makes a challenging and immensely clarifying claim in those sections: Namely, that we do face the presence of maleficent influences in this life – influences that seem to appear just when our self-assurance of “spiritual progress” may be at its zenith. At such times, he writes, these forces “have the right to test the sincerity of every spiritual devotee.” They have the right. This is a very different perspective than merely viewing ourselves as plagued by evil or mischief-making spirits. Rather we are persistently – and necessarily – tested in life. This may be the meaning of an ancient parable found in both Judaism and Islam: When God expels Satan from heaven, the Creator whispers: This way leads to me too.
Maleficent forces are sometimes self-produced. Obadiah writes of those individuals who “may subconsciously luxuriate in their misfortunes, deducing from them proof sufficient to their ego that all other people are at fault, and that fate is conspiring.” In other instances people “consult the fortune-teller or soothsayer vainly seeking by superficial occult means to prevent these attacks which they can neither understand nor resist.” This is an important passage: he is not denying the metaphysical basis of certain divinatory arts; nor is he condemning the classical occult tradition that arose from the Renaissance encounter with remnants of Greek, Roman, and Egyptian mystery religions. Rather, he is discouraging the kind of cheap grace that is sought through attempting to wishfully divine what lies on the road ahead, rather than accepting that road, bowing to its necessity, and strengthening our limbs for its challenges, which may require accepting and mending the calluses, sprains, or even broken bones that it may bring. Without these challenges we would stagnate; we would become permanently lost.
Some readers may object that not all tragedy can be understood as purposeful. We live in a world of war, disease, and appalling random violence. This is incontestably true. But we cannot make progress by arguing from extremes. Most of us, most of the time, face far more ordinary domestic and mundane challenges than bouts with ultimate evil. If we permit our concerns with extreme cases of evil to deter us from better understanding the circumstances that actually govern most of our workaday lives – circumstances that test rather than crush us – we will limit our ability to self-search. We must start from where we are before we can begin to expand our perspective – that is the nature of “the simple road” toward which this book directs us.
For me personally, Obadiah’s chapters on “hostile forces” helped reframe the struggle I was facing; these passages did not serve to lessen but to heighten my sense of bearing intimate, personal responsibility for my situation. It was necessary to engage my failures – and to try to emerge from them with a better sense of what I owed to others. My temptations to seek out reassurance by indulging in predictions, avoidance, or blame would do no good. And, yet, I also felt the odd and persistent sense that I was wrestling with a presence inside me that seemed totally unfamiliar; I was contending with something that felt alien. Was this some kind of a “hostile force”? Simultaneously – and I cannot emphasize this enough – the responsibility was wholly my own. This may sound paradoxical, but it has been suggested to me that living with paradox is a basic ingredient of spiritual inquiry.
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Is the spiritual struggle even real? Can’t everything I have just described be explained in psychological terms? Well, yes. But as I and many seekers have discovered there is a point at which psychological insight brings us to water without quelling our thirst. Probing one’s motivations does not always result in change; persistent self-reflection can set us on a repeat loop of morbid inner scrutiny that leads nowhere. My own crisis opened me to a period of deep prayer, which continues today. Indeed, this book calls us to prayer. We must finally appeal to the Higher to make us whole, to help us take steps that we cannot take by ourselves alone.
There exists a popular attitude today that we are self-sufficient as spiritual and ethical beings. An audience member once asked philosopher Jacob Needleman: “Isn’t everything that we need really inside us?” Needleman paused and responded, “Well, there’s a lot more in us than just that.” In other words, we are shot through with forces, automatisms, habits, reactions, impulses, and negativities of which we are completely unfamiliar. We are in pieces. To pray is to seek alignment, to rely on something other than the mind as we conventionally use it.
This is where we can join in the suffering, joy, disappointment, and quest for understanding that has characterized the great religious expressions, from the Tao Te Ching to the Gospels to the Bhagavad Gita. These and other sources noted in this book give us a path to walk and methods to try. This is the simple road in the book’s title; but it is also a greatly rigorous one.
When you grow exhausted with all of today’s spiritual programs, axioms, seminars, and techniques; when you feel fatigued from searching and cannot find a way forward; when it seems that years of seeking have netted so little – throw yourself upon the essential truths in this book. Obadiah’s work returns us to the foundation of the universal search as it exists in all of the historic faiths. This is a handbook for living. It calls us to the clear, revitalizing waters of faith. It can be lifesaving.
A columnist for Science of Mind magazine, Mitch Horowitz is the PEN Award-winning author of Occult America and One Simple Idea, a history and analysis of New Thought. Paris Match writes, “Mitch Horowitz, a specialist in American esotericism, traces the history of positive thinking and its influence … takes us far from naive doctrines.”