New Thought: Under Construction

By Alan Anderson
This article, emphasizing that the philosophical foundations of the century-old New Thought movement still are evolving, is in the Summer 1997 issue of New Thought, published by the International New Thought Alliance.

Surfers of the Internet's World Wide Web are used to encountering notices that sites are "under construction." Although New Thought does not advertise itself as "under construction," it could well do so. Ernest Holmes proclaimed Religious Science to be "open at the top." Unity co-founder Charles Fillmore explicitly reserved the right to change his mind about anything at any time. The INTA Declaration of Principles affirms "the freedom of each person in matters of belief," and it practically cries out for continuing reinterpretation of such matters as what exactly the "Creative Law of Cause and Effect" is, in other words, how God works in the world. Many people may think that this was worked out long ago to the satisfaction of everyone in New Thought. However, even in New Thought there never has been full agreement about what our relationship to God is.

Around the turn of the century, Horatio W. Dresser (1866-1954), then one of the most popular writers in New Thought, challenged the tendency to turn to Eastern religions for inspiration. He was especially concerned with what he considered the pantheism (all-is-God-ism, contrasted to panentheism, all-in-God-ism) that he identified with the Vedanta. After he published "An Interpretation of the Vedanta" in The Arena in 1899, two defenders of that outlook promptly published criticisms of his understanding of it. For our purposes it doesn't matter whether the Vedanta or any other position taught what Dresser opposed. What does matter is that Dresser's concerns are as important today as they were when he expressed them, since New Thoughters constantly are saying that God is all.

Long before he earned his Ph.D. degree in philosophy at Harvard, Dresser was influenced by reading Emerson, and expressed some of this influence in his first book,The Power of Silence95), Dresser referred to God's having put forth "his own being as the world." However, in the second edition of the book (1904) at the same place the reference is to God's having "put forth His own life in the world." There are similar modifications that Dresser introduced as his thought matured.

Many may find it practically impossible to conceive of New Thought without the pantheistic belief that God literally is everything. However, Dresser characterized New Thought (known as THE New Thought at that time) in non-pantheistic terms:

The New Thought is a practical philosophy of the inner life in relation to health, happiness, social welfare, and success. Man as a spiritual being is living an essentially spiritual life, for the sake of the soul. His life proceeds from within outward, and makes for harmony, health, freedom, efficiency, service. He needs to realize the spiritual truth of his being, that he may rise above all ills and all obstacles into fullness of power. Every resource he could ask for is at hand, in the omnipresent [as loving guide, not as the totality of oneself] divine wisdom. Every individual can learn to draw upon divine resources. The special methods of New Thought grow out of this central spiritual principle. Much stress is put upon inner or spiritual concentration and inner control, because each of us needs to become still to learn how to be affirmative, optimistic. Suggestion or affirmation is employed to banish ills and errors and establish spiritual truth in their place. Silent or mental treatment is employed to overcome disease and secure freedom and success. The New Thought then is not a substitute for Christianity, but an inspired return to the original teaching and practice of the gospels. It is not hostile to science but wishes to spiritualize all facts and laws. It encourages each man to begin wherever he is, however conditioned, whatever he may find to occupy his hands; and to learn the great spiritual lessons taught by this present experience.

Oneness often is identified with the idea that we are one with God in the sense that there is nothing of us that is not God. However, Dresser affirmed the oneness in a different sense, without embracing pantheism:

The essence of the New Thought, as I understand it, is the oneness of life; the great truth, namely, that all things work together toward a high ideal in the kingdom of the Spirit. Otherwise stated, it is the truth that God lives with us, in every moment of existence, in every experience, every sorrow and every struggle ["the great companion■-the fellow-sufferer who understands," as Alfred North Whitehead would describe God in 1929].

There are at least two intertwined grounds on which pantheism can and should be rejected: metaphysical and ethical.

Dresser emphasized the inadequacy of pantheism, as undermining the genuineness of human beings, which they could not have if they were merely roles played by God. If they were not real in themselves, they could not be free. Ethics presupposes freedom of choice; there is no point to urging a puppet to act in a way not chosen by the puppeteer. Moreover, love cannot be real if there is not a genuinely other beloved, rather than an undivided One merely pretending to be many--or illogically claimed to be a multiplicity of perspectives, which is what we mean by manyness.

Dresser attacked the belief that "man is 'divine,'" that God is "the sole Reality 'in' the self." He affirmed that "Man then is not 'one with God,' but . . . may be led into unison or conjunction with the Lord . . . . by the operation of the Divine love and wisdom through [not as] us . . ."

Some of the terms used here are particularly characteristic of Swedenborgianism, to which Dresser turned perhaps partly because New Thought little heeded his wisdom on these matters. For the remainder of his life he wrote for both Swedenborgian and New Thought publications, appearing in Unity as late as 1946. Perhaps he is best remembered today as the editor of The Quimby Manuscripts (1921); he first encountered Quimby's writings through his parents, who had been patients of Quimby.

Dresser concluded his final strictly philosophical book, History of Modern Philosophy (1928) with a summary of the trend of modern philosophy's understanding of the self, in contrast to pantheism:

[The self] is no longer "lost" or "absorbed" into an all-knowing "Absolute." It persists as a real individual regarded from the standpoint of some kind of pluralism.

Dresser deserves to be remembered for many reasons. He pointed the way to a non-pantheistic New Thought, but he did not develop this into a clearly panentheistic New Thought, recognizing that all is in God, but not as God.

While the term panentheism goes back to 1828, it is only in the last half century that we have heard much of it, largely in connection with the process thought of Alfred North Whitehead and his followers, especially Charles Hartshorne. However, some others, including Matthew Fox, have adopted the term for their views.

In earlier writings I have summarized panentheism as the outlook that recognizes God as figuratively inside, outside, upstairs, and downstairs, meaning that God is in the world, beyond the world, receptive, and active. To the extent that panentheism is identified with process thought, as is almost universally done at present, God is seen as the initiating, encouraging, guiding, luring personal divine presence in every experience--without which there could be no newness--yet also the great appreciative repository of all past experience. All reality is focused on the present, with the influential past being the collection of all the former presents that already and permanently have made their choices between past and divinely-given possibilities for each new present.

A panentheistic Process New Thought rejects theories of a roundabout creative process in which an assumed divine Law does the creating in accordance with beliefs fed into it. Instead, the new New Thought affirms a direct co-creative process, in which newness is the immediate product of choosing between contrasting influences of the past and of the perfect possibilities offered by God individually to each experience as it is coming into existence.

Another virtue of panentheism is that it is probably the only likely ground on which New Thought would be able come to a meeting of minds with Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Those religions are unlikely to reach more than superficial accord with primordialistic, perennialistic, New Age and Eastern religions that are clearly pantheistic.

If New Thought is to take the lead in bringing forth a new creative synthesis of the practice of the presence of God for practical purposes and a lucid, forward-looking, coherent metaphysics, it will be through New Thought's adoption of clear-cut panentheism. Thus, while avoiding the insoluble problems entailed in the claim that there is nothing but God, New Thought will be able to recognize all in God and God in all, with genuine manyness and responsible freedom.

To Working Toward a Panentheistic New Thought", presented by Alan at SSMR, July 18, 1997, in some respects a continuation of the present writing.

To New Thought Movement Home Page

To Process Philosophy and the New Thought Movement, with links to process sites around the world.

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Created Aug. 13, 1997
by Alan Anderson
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Latest update, not of text, Aug. 16, 1998

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