Monday, February 28, 2011
Christian Science and the diverse New Thought movements that sprang out from under it have been described by theorists as the Harmonial religions. They are described thus because they claim that the human's central purpose in this life is to be at harmony with universal laws. This harmony, once established, is representative of the pattern of the entire universe. God did not create chaos, but complete harmony - it is up to the believer to realise this and to fall into line with it.
Unsurprisingly, 'harmony' is a concept that arises regularly in The Science of Mind, and Holmes' concept of it is revealed bit by bit as the massive book unfolds. Just as the theorists contend, Holmes is convinced of the inherent harmony of the universe, though such harmony is hidden from our clumsy, unrefined eyes. It is, however, a mere moment away, and could be ours, "Would that some Voice were sweet enough to sound the harmony of life" (p. 512). With this wistful statement, Holmes seems to be suggesting that no human voice is capable of properly capturing the beauty of the Universal essence, and so this beauty remains hidden to the bulk of humanity. Our all-too-human voices succeed only in obfuscating or denying the harmony that is at work even as we deny it. Life itself, despite how it might be characterised in scientific literature, is an exercise in harmony. As always, those in the world mischaracterise it.
In his book This Thing Called You (1948), Holmes writes: "Love is the fulfillment of the law, that is, it is only through love that the law can fulfill itself in your experience, because love harmonizes everything, unifies everything. It gives to everything, flows through everything" (p. 93). Love, then, is the cause of harmony that is so essential to a sacred life. Unless we are loving we cannot be operating in accordance with the dictates of divine law, and so are doomed to a disharmonious existence. In our own worldly existence we, through the gift of free will, are inclined to make clumsy errors and to experience pain and suffering. On the divine level - a level which we are all capable of inhabiting in the here and now - there is none of this erroneous thought and belief. Once we are channeling divine love we are operating according to law, not error, and "There is no over-action or inaction in Divine Law, for everything moves according to perfect harmony" (Science of Mind, p. 524). It is worth noting that the promise is not of a largely happy life, or a mostly happy one - harmony will be present in all that we do, once we are operating in accord with the laws of the Universe. Such a promise is quite attractive.
The last part of The Science of Mind is taken up with meditations and affirmations for all kinds of problems and conditions. The meditation "On Being One With Perfect Action" asks the practitioner/reader to declare daily that "God's own harmonious actions can operate through us" (p. 525). This notion is, of course, essential to the harmonial project - it is not enough that God in heaven experiences perfection. We are capable of being agents of that same perfection, thatt harmony. We pray not to be delivered to God, but to become a part of Her. Thus mankind is capable of this evolution into Divine being in the here and now, where "'Universal harmony' is an attribute of God, and so a definition of spirituality" (Living the Science of Mind, p. 33).
More and more I am beginning to realise that the demands made upon the practitioner and student of New Thought are incredibly demanding, and these examples point out that what is expected of the truly spiritual person is no less than Divine Perfection. Far from being the light-weight religious option that it is characterised as being by its critics, it would seem to me a particularly gruelling path, leaving the follower no room to call on the mercy of shared human foibles. Reading the history of Holmes' movement, however, exposes many who were all-too-human in their conduct, however, and fell short of the Divine ideal they were meant to be modelling. Even this microcosm of harmonial understanding was filled with people who, according to Holmes' lifelong companion Reginald Armor, "were not infrequently out of harmony with the vocabulary of metaphysics..." (That Was Ernest, p. 162). This lack of a unified front pained Holmes, though he always insisted on the freedom of choice of all beings, including those who were members of his own church.
In The Sciene of Mind harmony seems to be the codeword for all that is positive in the Spiritual universe. It is an embodied quality, and also a section of the great goodness we can all expect in our lives when we increase in spiritual knowledge and practice. It is a gift from God, and "It is the Father's goodpleasure to give me the Kingdom of Heaven, or harmony and abundance..." (SOM, p. 556).
(Image from nonprints.com)
Monday, February 21, 2011
Joel Goldsmith is a fascinating figure in New Thought, one I have written about before.
Growing up in a Jewish home in New York, Goldsmith became a Christian Science healer as a young man, having witnessed his own father's miracle cure at the hands of Christian Scentists. He would quite quickly, however, break away to establish his own school named, after his bestselling book, The Infinite Way.
His books definitely lie at the more mystical end of New Thought teaching, and Goldsmith and his followers seem to have been always aligned more closely to Christian Science than to the more free-wheeling milieu of New Thought. Indeed, much of his philosophy seems to me to be almost entirely a re-iteration of Mary Baker Eddy's teachings, though with a slightly less dogmatic spin, and a more willing and enthusiastic nod towards the richness and validity of other relgious traditions.
After The Infinite Way, Practising the Presence is Goldsmith's most popular and frequently cited work. As the title would suggest, it deals very much with the same territory as that great Catholic mystical classic The Practice of the Presence of God. Oddly, Goldsmith never mentions it.
Like all of Goldsmith's work, Practising the Presence is a meditative, poetic and brief text, dealing, in several small chapters, with the different ways the spiritual practitioner might be able to deepen her experience of the Christ within. It is actually quite beautifully written, its concise nature making it constantly inspirational and giving the reader pause to reflect on their own exercise of spiritual discipline - most specifically prayer and meditation. In fact, the practice of prayer and meditation take up two full chapters, and is dealt with extensively in the others.
A note on the title: I read a 1958 edition published in England, and it is spelled "Practising" - later US editions seem to spell it "Practicing." This is the eternal England/US practise/practice controversy that I still haven't quite got my head around, but I felt I should mention it for the sake of any spelling nazis lurking amongst my readership.
The book's central message is that we need not worry about anything because ultimately we do and control nothing - all is in God's hands. Our lives would improve immeasurably if we would only abandon any sense of ownership of our actions. As soon as we allow the universal love of God to flow through us we become spiritual beings, and our anxieties are at an end. One of the book's prayers says:
"I am not concerned with whether anybody is grateful or anybody is loving or anybody is just. I renounce all that. I look for love, justice, recognition, reward, and compensation in, of, and from God."
So we should not look without for solutions or satisfactions. The ultimate satisfaction lies with God, who is within us at all times. This is, of course, enormously comforting in a religious sense, though people of a more political turn of mind could (and would) criticise such an attitude as a form of ideological escape, as a disengagement from the world's very real problems. It is hardly a charter for social justice.
What it is, quite specifically and quite obviously, is a mystic's charter. Goldsmith himself was a supremely unwordly figure, and Practising the Presence frequently reads like the manifesto of a monk or saint. It says that the only relationship that will ever count in our lives is the one we have with God.
Goldsmith was, in fact, a popular religious figure in his day, and was famously followed by Doris Day and other celebrities in the 50s.
The book sets out to be little more than a devotional guide, a collection of moral musings on the technology of prayer and the necessity of turning everything over to Christ. It is still in print, though the Christian rhetoric would probably be difficult for most 21st century readers to cope with. Stripped of its Christian jargon I suspect it would read very much like Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now, which it constantly reminded me of.
The whole Goldsmith-ian theology is quite fascinating, veering as it does between Christian Science certainty, soft-boiled New Thought assurance and a more deeply mystical reflection perhaps inspired by Goldsmith's own Judaism. Like many New Thought books (and as illustrated in so much camp glory in the film Magnificent Obsession), there is a peculiar insistence on secrecy in our spiritual and charitable actions. This fascinating philosophical thread is one I would like to explore more closely, perhaps in a full-length scholarly paper. Goldsmith confidently declares in the book that:
"Secrecy and sacredness go hand in hand."
But do they, really? It is an odd motif that I notice repeated throughout the literature. Goldsmith tells us it is better to pray in private, and to be circumspect in sharing our spiritual realisations with others - mostly because he insists that people need to reach their own conclusions, and so can never be forced along the path of progress.
The overriding message of the book is, to the seasoned reader of New Thought, not a radical one. We are possessed of a Divine energy which we need establish a reasonably constant contact with, and this contact is most efficiently made in prayer and meditation.
Friday, February 18, 2011
The Sermon on the Mount: The Key to Success in Life by Emmet Fox
This unlikely little book is one of the great classics of New Thought literature, and Fox one of its most eminent teachers. He is frequently cited in contemporary self-help literature, and his teachings and methods have been particularly advocated by Louise Hay. The Sermon on the Mount is his classic work, considered to be the best example of his teaching, and is still in print.
Fox himself, however, has faded somewhat into obscurity. Perhaps because, unlike other New Thought teachers of the early part of the Twentieth Century, he never successfully established his own personal school or church. He was a minister of the Divine Science sect of Nona Brooks. He may well have been the first to establish a really successful "Hotel ministry" - whereby he gave his lessons and services in rented function rooms or concert halls - something that was to become a feature of New Thought ministries, and used with particular success by Ernest Holmes, founder of the Church of Religious Science.
Fox died in 1951, just as Holmes was beginning to take off, and we can assume that he was a great influence on the work and style of Holmes and others. He was also influential in the beginnings of the Alcoholics Anonymous movement, and many early AA members adopted his Sunday services as their home church. Fox's influence was greatest in the 1920s and 30s - The Sermon on the Mount was first published in 1938 - and in her wonderful scholarly study of the life and influence of Norman Vincent Peale, God's Salesman, Carol V. R. George suggests that Fox's writing and ministry were also an influence on the then-young and impressionable Peale.
Like most New Thought books of the era, The Sermon on the Mount is filled with Christian imagery and language. Of course, the whole thing is based on Christs's Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew, and offers a new, "metaphysical" reading of the message of the Beatitudes. It is a canny offering, because many of the seemingly anti-materialist statements of the Sermon must have sat at odds with some of New Thought's this-wordly aims - especially those of prosperity, success and abundance. Fox, in this intriguing little book, re-casts the Sermon on the Mount as the ultimate New Thought text, and re-casts some of the interpretations of the text, rejecting traditional readings as both faulty and horribly superficial. The book came with an addendum, a long exegisis on the Lord's Prayer, which is particularly fascinating and quite hard-hitting.
For all of the accusations against New Thought as being a feelgood path for the undisciplined, Fox's message of, and insistence upon, total forgiveness of one's enemies (as prescribed in the Lord's Prayer) comes across as particularly forceful.
"Search and see if you are not really holding a grudge (it may be camouflaged in some self-righteous way) against some individual, or some body of people, a nation, a race, a social class, some religious movement of which you disapprove perhaps, a political party, or what-not. If you are doing so, then you have an act of forgiveness to perform..."
Such an injunction strikes guilt into my own heart, and would certainbly be salient advice to many modern advocates of spirituality. In a tradition dating back to the 18th century writings of Swedenborg, Fox in this book is decrying what he sees as overly-literalist and decidedly unsophisticated Biblical analysis. He asserts that the Beatitudes, the most-loved and familiar list of Christian advice, are almost entirely misunderstood by those who claim to be Christians. He posits the text instead as a prescription for success in life, part of the great New Thought project of reclaiming the Bible as historic self-help book.
I don't think it's unfair to say that the book is somewhat dated now, its overtly devotional tone making it an uncomfortable read for a secular audience. And of course the author assumes a great deal of Biblical knowledge which simply doesn't exist among a 21st century readership. Nonetheless the book's chatty, elder-brother tone still works its charm, and its frequent rallying cries and urgings are still efective as motivational tools and inspirers of thought. Ironically, his re-reading of the message of the Sermon on the Mount is even more counter-cultural now than it would have been in 1938. In many ways this particular part of the Bible has been re-claimed by Christian progressives who cast it as the ultimate anti-establishment and anti-materialist teaching of Jesus Christ. It is fascinating to hear it being cast in this book as somewhat the opposite, as "The Key to Success in Life," and a tool to successful negoitiation in the material world.
Wednesday, February 9, 2011
There is surprisingly little biographical material about the early figures of the New Thought movement, so I was intrigued to read this eccentric little memoir about Ernest Holmes by his longtime associate and lifelong devotee Reginald C. Armor.
Armor was one of Holmes' first and most devoted followers, and one of the first official "practitioners" of Religious Science, the philosophy invented and taught by Ernest Holmes. That Was Ernest is the account of an unusual life spent entirely in the shadow of a great man and a forceful personality, and serves more as a hagiogrphy than serious critical biography.
That said, it is a fascinating read, packed with information not just about the beginnings of the Science of Mind movement, but also about Holmes the man, his foibles, vanities and absolute sincerity.
Starting life in a dull clerical job in local government, Holmes took advantage of his light duties to read the great spiritual and metaphysical classics in his office, eventually becoming convinced of a unified philosophy that he saw lying behind each of the world's religious systems. He saw God and the Universe in terms of laws and principles which all people had access to, and which they could turn to their advantage (and, it must be stressed, spiritual and moral advancement).
By 1935 Religious Science - the movement Holmes had begun to teach these universal spiritual principles - had become phenomenally successful in California, teaching the New Thought philosophies of Emma Curtis Hopkins, Thomas Troward and, of course, Holmes' own unique take on things.
Armor tells us that by the 1950s Religious Science had become a huge religious institution, much to the discomfort of Holmes himself, who was uncomfortable with officialdom and dogma, and wanted only to see people educate themselves to make the best possible decisions. Indeed, after the death of his wife Holmes began to explicitly reject the church and its work, returning instead to the closer and older circle of original students who, while less well-trained than the new generation of Ministers that served his church, were more sympatico with the original spirit of the movement.
Armor, the book's author, was involved with the Holmes family from childhood, being a parishioner at Ernest's brother Fenwicke's small Congregational Church. Obviously in thrall to this charismatic, clever and religiously obsessive family, Armor quickly became enamoured of the older Ernest, who made himself known by curing Armor of his warts by advising him:
"You practice not seeing it. Think of it each day as being gone."
Armor's position is surely unique in having known and worked with such an influential figure for such a long period, and through such diverse experiences. It is this incredible insight into the man Holmes that makes this book, as quaint as it may occasionally appear, so fascinating, and such a rich resource for the scholar of twentieth century American religion.