Thursday, January 21, 2010
Joel Goldsmith is an enigmatic figure in the history of self-help. While never a real superstar of the movement, his books always had a cult following, and many of them remain in print to this day. His great classic was a slender book called The Infinite Way, which layed out his basic philosophy. Its brevity does not denote ease of reading, however, because it's a dense little volume. After its publication groups emerged all over the US and the world (up until the late 1990s there were still groups meeting here in Sydney) devoted to the study of the book and Goldsmith's philosophy.
He is often characterised as the great modern reformer of Christian Science, and he seemed to have attracted many followers from that camp. My favourite Christian Scientist, Doris Day, was a fan of Goldsmith's work, and claimed to go to sleep every night listening to his tapes.
Certainly Goldsmith's books present a more overtly religious - and by that I mean Christian - aspect than most of the other modern New Thought books. I suspect this is what stopped him from becoming a genuinely popular literary figure. The Jesus talk was simply too unpalatable for the general reader.
That said, once you begin to examine the books' underlying theology you quickly realise that we are not in the realm of mainstream Christianity here. Beside the fact that he was a great advocate of meditation, Goldsmith's own religious life was quite fascinating. he was born into an Orthodox Jewish family, and was educated in a Hebrew School. Quite when he began healing in the name of Jesus no-one knows, but Goldsmith described his emergence as a spiritual leader as a slow process, something that happened in stages until one day he realised that no-one came to see him any longer for business purposes - 100% of his days had been taken up by healing work. Taking this as a sign from God, he allowed his business to go broke and instead set himself up as a fulltime Christian Science practitioner. Later, of course, he was to reject the dogmas of that church, as so many had before him, and instead he established his own school based on similar principles, but allowing its students more intellectual and spiritual freedom.
Much of The Infinite Way seems to be pretty standard Christian Science minus the dogma and the insistence on exclusive truth. Goldsmith was at heart a Universalist, and recognised the name of Jesus as a concept and spiritual symbol more than a defining point of religious difference. He said that we need to develop an exclusively spiritual mindset, and once we did that the world will fall in line with the perfection that is the law of spirit.
To my mind Goldsmith's most readable book was Practising the Presence. Indeed, it is quite beautifully written, an extended meditation on the necessity to be always at prayer, always "showing forth the health, harmony, and wealth, which are our spiritual birthright..." (55).
There is a fascinating (and quite rare) biography written by one of his closest assistants which describes Goldsmith as a "Modern Mystic," and he certainly is entitled to that description.
As an example of mid-20th century self-help, The Infinite Way stands out as being among the most overtly religious in its vocabulary and concepts, but it was a religious view so unorthodox that it separates Goldsmith from those other great populist clergymen Norman Vincent Peale and Fulton J. Sheen.