I am going to take a long side-road in this post, touching lightly and not altogether accurately on several movements before posing my question "how much does it matter to be a positive thinker?". I apologize in advance for my scattered thinking, but I think my madness might have method. We'll see. I apologize in advance if I offend, as I wish to avoid making anyone uncomfortable on difficult matters of theology.
I am fascinated by, and love to read up on, religions which arise here in America. One set in particular which intrigue me are the series of "new thought" faiths. I will not attempt any historical or doctrinaire treatment of these related but somewhat disparate faiths, as I intend, like the magpie, to draw only strings of history and theory, in no particular order or accuracy, to explore an idea.
New Thought's origins can largely be traced to a 19th Century New England mesmerist and faith healer named Phineas Parkhurst ("Park") Quimby. Quimby's contribution was the belief that the application of a "mental science" to the patient could result in a miracle cure. Quimby is not unique among 19th Century faith healers. He is not historically antecedent to other folks with his ideas or to other faith healers. What makes Quimby amazing is that he influenced so many people. Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science, studied under Quimby, and her revelation bears clear marks of his influence. While Quimby's own writings are sometimes prolix, a bit mystical, and not altogether systematic, Eddy's work is instead positively analytical and scriptural in its analysis of the power of faith in achieving material changes in life, including healing. Ms. Eddy herself was concerned to avoid the difficulties that theological interpretation could impose upon a new movement, and in essence created a church which eschews independent sermons in favor of readings of her work, so as to prevent diluting or altering Ms. Eddy's message. Rather than spend any real time on Christian Science, though, I'd like to instead talk about Emma Curtis Hopkins. Ms. Hopkins studied under Ms. Eddy, but schism between them broke out, and Ms. Hopkins went her own way. Ms. Hopkins wrote a number of fascinating "new thought" works, including High Mysticism, a classic work which tried to tie this "power of positive thinking" into the mystic traditions of Christianity, the earth religions, and the eastern religions.
This book is not an easy read, but it is a fascinating read.
If Ms. Hopkins' only impact were as an author, though,
she would be merely a footnote. What is remarkable about Emma Curtis Hopkins is that everywhere she went, a new religion seemed to sprout in her wake, as if she were a sort of Johnnie Appleseed. Ms. Hopkins met the Fillmores, who then founded Missouri's Unity School of Christianity. She met Ernest Holmes, which founded the Religious Science movement. Many of Ms. Hopkins' students were far more interested in popularizing her concepts for the ordinary person than was Ms. Hopkins. The result was that New Thought began to evolve a very accessible, very American face.
In New Thought, God is often referred to as Universal Mind, or Spiritual Law, or by any of a dozen similar names. While New Thought movements are very disparate, aside from Christian Science they tend not to insist on strict creeds or uniform belief. What New Thought movements often share is the common notion that thought can directly influence not only one's internal spiritual practice, but also one's external reality. God is not a grandfather, but in essence an Atman-similar universal law of nature, accessible to all.
That is what I find so American about New Thought. It is the ultimate "can do" faith. Change your thinking, change your life. It's so attuned to the land of opportunity thinking that was so pervasive in the late 19th and early 20th century. Much of its "I think I can, I think I can" culture has been absorbed into our popular culture, so much so that many people do not realize how pervasive new thought ideas might be. I am frequently amused, for example, when the same Charismatic Christian folks who deride new thought as "satanic cults" then call upon devotees to "claim the promises" of faith and prosperity. Look at the Prayer of Jabez movement, in which we are to emulate the minor Biblical figure Jabez, who basically asked God for good land, good cattle, and a good time, and got it. I see the ghost of Emma Curtis Hopkins, and perhaps she is smiling,just a bit. The "new age" thinkers, of course, are deeply influenced in many instances by Quimby's own ghost.
For this is a key defining difference between New Thought and traditional faiths--New Thought is not opposed to material prosperity; indeed, some branches of New Thought actually encourage the notion that positive thinking will lead to prosperity. The beginnings of the human potential movement drew heavily on this thread of New Thought ideas. In the "new America", poverty would not be a way to saintliness--it would be an indication of negative thinking (I should hasten to point out that a related movement, "Higher Thought" enjoyed vogue in the UK, and, to a lesser extent, in Australia).
I find myself very drawn to the teachings of Ernest Holmes, the founder of the California-based Church of Religious Science. Holmes was active from the early to the middle of the 20th Century. He wrote extensively, and founded a new religion. But a less likely messiah might be harder to imagine. Holmes freely admitted that he had not discovered any new revelation. He claimed no special gift from God. He not only expected that some of his ideas would be wrong--he rather counted on it. He enjoyed a nice income from his ministry, which he did not feel badly about, but he never really wanted to found a church. He was a terrible organizer, and mainly wanted to ensure harmonious presentation of his ideas. His churches still exist in relatively strong numbers today, exacting no creed, eschewing any thought of sin, treating hell as a state of mind, and preaching the all-consuming power of positive thinking. They liberally borrow from many faiths, as well as psychology, science, and sheer popular culture. Holmes himself freely admitted deep debts to Emma Curtis Hopkins, to the English New Thought pioneer Thomas Troward, and to a myriad of faiths.
But the "problem" of new thought, whether it is Quimby's or Hopkin's or Eddy's or Holmes', remains the same. New Thought practitioners insist that literal reality can be influenced by coordination of one's mind with a universal reality, i.e., with God. The idea of contact with God is not unique to New Thought, of course. The difference is that in New Thought, the practitioner's independent connection (or "positive thinking") is held by some to be what cures illness, what ensures prosperity, and what in essence makes things happen.
I do not wish to pretend that what I have summarized is as complete an understanding as I have about New Thought, that it represents all views, or that I am a scholar in New Thought. But I believe that it is safe to say that New Thought churches tend to move beyond positive thinking as a psychological choice and see positive thinking as a way to transform reality, or to mold oneself into reality.
On the one hand, I deeply admire the idea that trying to break free of negative patterns of thought and try to focus on constructive ways of living. Even on a metaphysical level, I am not willing to discount the power of prayer or meditation. But I am still troubled--it is still a problem for me. I am concerned that it is not healthy to try to cover over genuine pain with "positive thinking" on a psychological level. I am concerned that a belief that "positive thinking" can lead to the negative counterbelief that any misfortune could have been avoided with enough attunement to the Powers that Be. I see this, for example, in the early editions of Holmes' seminal book Science of Mind, which tried to use "mental healing" based on scientifically inaccurate descriptions of disease to prescribe mental cures. I also remember a troubling passage in one of the Holmes bios in which Holmes attributed a material problem to "somebody not thinking positively enough".
I have intentionally not sketched out the whole of New Thought thinking, and I hope that my "New Thought" friends' list friends will forgive the many sins of commission and omission I have made in setting up my construct. I take some comfort in the fact that Ernest Holmes himself would have, I believe, have been the first to encourage such exploration, and to accept modification of his theories based on scientific and psychological experience.
But my point, I suppose is this--
I see people trapped in negative thinking all the time, and there's no doubt that breaking out of that trap can be a very good thing.
Still, if "positive thinking" is the way to solve inner problems, isn't it sometimes easy to pretend problems don't exist, in the name of "positive thinking"? (interestingly, Holmes' writings recognize this problem, and try to discourage ignoring what "is")
Also, if we believe that reality is changed by positive thinking, don't we run the risk of "blaming" those in negative situations for their lack of "faith"? Is it an accident that the demographic for New Thought practitioners includes a lot of people who are fiscal conservatives?
Finally, is New Thought dependent on Universal Mind altering reality? Could there be an atheist New Thought practitioner, i.e., one who believes in the life within, but not in external change.
Of course, belief in or understanding "New Thought" is not essential to any of those questions. We all face the issue of how to think positive and what/if it matters that we do.
I know this is a long post with many details glazed over,
and I hope my New Thought "friends list" folks will forgive me if I have seemed critical. I hope I have betrayed my fascination with those ideas as well as my skepticism. I am deeply attracted to New Thought's work in trying to build tolerance and rejection of stereotypical thinking--it's no accident that many people who are bi or gay have found a home in these churches, it's no accident that the faiths involved cross many ethnic boundaries, or that many practitioners of earth religions feel at home in New Thought churches. As a Unitarian Universalist, I deeply respect tolerance for all faiths, and the new thought lack of strict doctrine is appealing. Still, it's a puzzle to me. I'd be eager to hear any thoughts anyone might have.
I don't really want to debate New Thought....I just want to hear other perspectives, whether New Thought or otherwise.