New Age and the New Thought Movement

Excerpts from Chapter 5, "New Thought and New Age," of C. Alan Anderson and Deborah G. Whitehouse, New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality

Similarities Between New Age and New Thought

New Thought and New Age both believe in a direct relationship with the Ultimate, however conceived. Neither movement favors hierarchical organizations, and both groups treat women and men as partners, with many women in leadership roles. Many people in both groups believe in reincarnation, because they feel that we can't learn all we need to learn in one lifetime.

New Age, like New Thought, is strongly optimistic, largely because most people in both groups believe in a good God, and that all people are part of God or have at least a spark of the divine. New Agers are full of hope for the transformation of society and the planet. New Thought accepts, as does New Age, the old Hermetic teaching, "As above, so below," which appears in an early version of the Lord's Prayer as "As in heaven, so on earth" (Luke 11:2). Heaven, in a New Thought interpretation, alludes to one's state of mind, and earth is the manifestation of that state. As in mind, so in manifestation. Symbolically interpreted, Heaven is the uplifted state of consciousness, the wonderful, peaceful sense of universal oneness that the mystic seeks. Charles Fillmore defines it as "a state of consciousness in which the soul and the body are in harmony with Divine Mind." All of Jesus' metaphors about heaven are attempts to explain the necessity for disciplining our thoughts, weeding out the negative ones and treasuring the positive ones; e.g., the pearl of great price, tares growing with the wheat, seeds falling in various places with various results. New Age shares New Thought's interest in metaphor, and the late Joseph Campbell, the preeminent authority on myth and metaphor, is a popular New Age author.

In large part borrowing from or paralleling New Thought, New Agers generally believe that there is only one Presence and Power in the universe and that that Power is good (although there may be a small segment who believe in Satan). Many see that Power as both immanent and transcendent. Both movements have a growing interest in panentheism (not to be confused with the old heresy, pantheism, which holds that God and the universe are one), expounded on at length by one of us (Alan) in New Thought and with perhaps a somewhat different understanding by former Roman Catholic and now Episcopal priest Matthew Fox, in New Age. . . .

Like New Thought, New Age also emphasizes the value of meditation. Much of this interest springs from the influence of Eastern religions on both movements, as well as the importance given to the power of the mind and the necessity for disciplining or training the mind.

New Thought and New Age both frequently seek alternatives to orthodox medicine, especially in overlooked natural and scientific discoveries for healing that lack the huge profit potential of drugs or surgery. Members of both groups use orthodox medicine when it is appropriate, but seek better choices where it falls short or fails altogether. They particularly seek to learn to harness the power of the mind to heal, and increasing amounts of scientific research have supported this approach. New Age physician Larry Dossey in his most recent book, Healing Words, has listed over 100 studies on the power of prayer to heal, over half showing that prayer brings about "significant changes." The result of one randomized, double-blind study by a cardiologist was so significant that Dossey states, "If the technique studied had been a new drug or a surgical procedure instead of prayer, it would almost certainly have been heralded as some sort of 'breakthrough'." Dossey also describes three eras in medicine: Era I, physicalistic medicine, dominant from the 1860s to 1950 and "still influential"; Era II, mind-body medicine, arising in the 1950s and still developing; and Era III, nonlocal science and medicine, "just being recognized."

In this, New Age is clearly building on New Thought, which began with Quimby's use of the power of the mind to heal, frequently with absent healing. Most New Age groupsțand indeed, individualsțwelcome New Thought teachings on healing and general prosperity, along with its views on God, once they become aware of New Thought's existence.

New Age is fascinated with the new physics, and New Thought shares this interest. Both movements are philosophically idealistic, and the findings of the new physics support idealism. Marilyn Ferguson observes, "the new science goes beyond cool, clinical observations to a realm of shimmering paradox, where our very reason seems endangered." Physicists are starting to sound like metaphysicians. Research moves so fast that results are obsolete before they can appear in print. Scientists have repeatedly demonstrated the mind's ability to affect the body, beginning with biofeedback and extending into studies showing that white blood cell count varied according to whether subjects thought happy or unhappy thoughts. Bell's Theorem led to experiments showing that paired particles remain mysteriously connected even after they fly apart, another example of the nonlocality that Dossey mentions in connection with Era III medicine. Neuroscientist Karl Pribram's research on holograms suggests that the universe may be a giant hologramțin other words, we are all one. As he puts it, "The brain we know now allows for the experiences reported from spiritual disciplines."

And Differences

But New Thought and New Age do differ, whether or not both are viewed as religions. One big difference is interest in the occult. Crystals, pyramids, and other occult trappings belong to New Age, not New Thought. Unity founders Charles and Myrtle Fillmore investigated various occult practices such as channeling early in their ministry and rejected them as largely ineffective and possibly even dangerous for dabblers. Still, New Thought does remain open to truth from whatever unlikely source it may spring. It may discourage interest in the occult, but it does not invariably condemn it.

In the early years of current New Age thinking, John Charles Cooper, in his Religion in the Age of Aquarius, characterized New Age interest in the occult as a wholesale rejection of a society founded on materialistic positivism (not to be confused with positive thinking). He found that this interest originated in people's frustration with social conditions that they believed that they could not control. If this is so, New Age and New Thought have different psychological origins; New Thought never has suffered from a feeling of inability to deal adequately with a world held to be essentially mental and subject to mental control.

The supposedly channeled New Age work, A Course in Miracles, purportedly coming from Jesus, remains popular among Unity churches despite efforts to discourage its use. Many people undoubtedly have been helped by the Course, especially by its emphasis on forgiveness and its discussion groups in which people share their problems, but it remains quintessentially New Age, not New Thought. New Agers Gerald Jampolsky and Marianne Williamson have mined the valuable nuggets of the Course and set them down admirably in their own writings. . . .

New Thought more nearly relies exclusively on spiritual healing than does New Age. New Thought allows and sometimes even encourages use of both conventional medicine and alternative healing methods, but recognizes them as outside New Thought. In contrast, most if not all of the alternative forms of healing are within the broad boundaries of New Age. . . .


New Thought concentrates on the power of the mind to heal and to prosper in a world in which all is mind. New Age especially extends this healing, prospering transformation to the entire planet, and with the inquisitiveness of youth, pokes its nose into numerous interesting corners, some clearly valuable, some questionable, in the process. It is possible to share in many of these interests, beliefs, and practices, yet continue to belong to mainstream Christianity or other religions.

The success of both New Thought and New Age can be measured to a considerable extent by the degree to which their interests and teaching have seeped into cultures that neither know nor care about either group by name. By this measure, both are successful, and probably will become increasingly so. It seems almost certain that New Thought will continue in largely its current organizational ways. Many New Agers will find their way to New Thought organizations, but probably most will remain outside any organized religion, or even organized spirituality. However, the world is far too complex and the changes that are occurring are far too profound to make predictions worth much. What seems clear is that with or without capital letters, we have entered a promising new age, and New Thought will remain an important and distinguishable part of it.

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Created November 10, 1995
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