Liza J. Rankow, Ph.D. is an independent scholar and the founding director of OneLife Institute, based in Oakland, CA.
Copyright © by Liza J. Rankow, used by permission of the author.
An overview of the origins and beliefs of New Thought, a religious movement growing out of 19th century Transcendentalism and mental healing practices. New Thought emphasizes the practical application of spiritual principles to support personal health, happiness, and enlightenment, and an increasing commitment to social justice issues.
Called “The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness” by William James in his classic work, Varieties of Religious Experience, New Thought is a spiritual and philosophical movement associated with the founding of a number of ideologically-related churches in the late 19th and early 20th century United States. Among the best known of these are Divine Science, Religious Science (or the Science of Mind), and the Unity Society of Practical Christianity (or more commonly, Unity). Although drawing on spiritual principles evident in a variety of settings throughout history, the New Thought movement is generally considered to have its origins in the mental healing practice of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802-1866) and the transcendentalism of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882). New Thought developed out of a post-Revolutionary War ethos of individualism and personal entitlement. The ideals espoused in the Declaration of Independence are evident in the New Thought belief that each person is divinely endowed with the right to happiness and the power of choice, enjoying equal access to the creative potential of spiritual and metaphysical laws.
In traditional philosophical use the term metaphysics refers to a study of the fundamental nature of being and reality; in New Thought metaphysics, or metaphysical, specifically indicates that fundamental nature as a spiritual or mental reality that transcends the physical. Spirit is regarded as pure energy that expresses along a continuum with higher and lower levels of vibration. Thus matter is spirit (or mind) in form. The power of mind to create experience is stressed in the New Thought adage, “Change your thinking, change your life.” This is often noted as consistent with Proverbs 23:7, For as he thinketh in his heart, so is he, as well as Romans 12:2, Be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind. The term “mind,” particularly when capitalized, is used in New Thought to indicate the Divine Mind or Mind of God. The concept of Mind goes beyond the intellect to encompass the conscious and subconscious creative power of thought, in both its universal and individualized expressions. Through practices such as meditation and affirmative prayer (sometimes called “spiritual mind treatment”), transformation of the individualized mind, or “consciousness,” may be accomplished, along with a corresponding transformation of life experience.
New Thought teachings emphasize the omnipresence of God as the one life, power, and intelligence that expresses throughout the seen and unseen world. Human beings are “made in the image and likeness” of this Divine Source – individualizations of It and inseparable from It – inheritors of free will, self-dominion and creative thought. Citing the example of Jesus, New Thought teaches the practical application of spiritual principles for the healing of body and affairs, and the availability of “the kingdom of heaven” in every moment. All healing is essentially understood to be a healing of the sense of separation (actual separation would be an impossibility) from the unitary wholeness of God.
Although the specific spiritual practices and doctrinal statements may vary somewhat from one denomination to another, or among individual practitioners of New Thought (many adherents are unaffiliated with a particular denomination), there are philosophical consistencies that can be noted. The overview presented in this article will focus primarily on these broader concepts that are more generally representative of New Thought and will often rely on the statements of belief from different denominations to illustrate these principles, hence making extensive use of web-based resources. I will offer a somewhat systematic review of New Thought philosophy, considering textual sources and hermeneutics, beliefs about the nature of Divinity, humankind, christology, and universal creation, and how these beliefs inform the way New Thought addresses suffering. I conclude with a discussion of the New Thought approach to individual and social transformation, and particularly the relatively recent development of what I have termed “Prophetic New Thought,” as an engaged spirituality concerned with peace and justice issues.
Texts and Hermeneutics
The primary scriptural text for most New Thought denominations is the Judeo-Christian Bible. The sacred writings of other spiritual traditions are referenced in varying degrees by the different authors and denominations. For example Ernest Holmes, the founder of Religious Science, while retaining a decidedly Christian emphasis, explicitly acknowledged the wisdom teachings of many of the world’s faiths as contributing to his development of the Science of Mind. Secondary textual sources are comprised of the writings of the fore-parents of New Thought, such as Emerson, Thomas Troward, Emma Curtis Hopkins, Warren Felt Evans, and others who did not establish any congregational body, but whose teachings were instrumental to the articulations that followed. Additional sources include the more doctrinal writings of the founders of the various denominations, and the work of contemporary practitioners of New Thought.
The central hermeneutic of New Thought is “metaphysical” (in the sense previously defined), interpreting scriptures – and often life itself – according to esoteric or allegorical meanings. Charles Fillmore, a co-founder of Unity, provided detailed instruction on this symbolism that was published in 1931 as The Metaphysical Bible Dictionary, a reference widely used in New Thought. In metaphysical exegesis proper names, features of the landscape, numbers, gender, and other details, each have a deeper significance corresponding to a state of consciousness. The Bible is viewed not only as an historical or canonical document, but as a description of the individual soul’s journey of spiritual development and commentary on what happens when different states of consciousness interact with one another in the collective drama of human existence.
God Is All There Is
The fundamental teaching of New Thought is the infinite eternal omnipresence of God (Spirit, Divine Mind, or however It is termed) as all there is. The Divine Science Statement of Being is representative: “God is all, both invisible and visible. One Presence, One Mind, One Power is all. This One that is all is Perfect Life, Perfect Love and Perfect Substance.” Divine Science maintains “[t]he transcendence and immanence of God is manifest in all created things, yet above and beyond all created things: God the Create and the Uncreate [sic]; the Visible and the Invisible; the Absolute and the Relative; the Universal and the Individual.”
God is not personified in New Thought, but regarded as “an Eternal Principle that appears as Law, Being, Mind, Spirit, the Cause and Source of All.” According to Unity teachings, “the nature of God is absolute Good, the unchangeable, impersonal, eternal Truth standing under all creation with absolute integrity. The elements that make up this absolute Good are what we term ideas (attributes, qualities) of God, such as life, love, substance, power, wisdom… joy, strength, plenty, and every other good thing.”
This emphasis on God as absolute Good is common in New Thought, as it is in mainline Christianity. In mainline doctrine, however, God’s goodness is often contrasted with some independently existent evil, in a dualistic context (whether or not that evil is personified as the devil or Satan). In the New Thought setting of ultimate oneness, and the conviction that “God is all there is,” evil is regarded not as a fundamental part of the universal order, but as the byproduct of a human consciousness of separation.
Expressions of the One
New Thought teaches that every person is an individualized expression of, and inseparably one with, the Life of God. Rather than human beings with a spirit, we are described as spiritual beings in human incarnation. Our essential nature and identity is not physical, but spiritual and eternal – a microcosm of the Divine macrocosm – with the ability to reveal all the qualities of God. The reason for incarnation is to provide opportunities for the soul’s learning and development.
New Thought emphasizes the direct access of every individual to the power and presence of God, without intermediary or intercession. This union does not have to be earned, nor can it ever be lost; it is inherent in spiritual existence. Through the Divine Mind, every individualized mind is joined; all consciousness is one. New Thought teaches that “[t]here is no separation from the cosmic wholeness that many call ‘God,’ other than an experience of belief in such separation. All realms and dimensions of human experience – physical/material, mental, emotional, etc. – are so interwoven that no person or thing in the cosmos can be separated from the whole. The only way to experience such separation is to believe in separation.”
Neither is there any separation or cessation of consciousness with the death of the physical body. Divine Science represents the general consensus of New Thought belief when it affirms that “death is only one of many experiences in the spiritual unfoldment of the soul. At this time, the soul simply moves into another level of expression. Life never ceases for all is life eternally expressing through a multitude of forms. What is true at one point in life is true at all points in life; therefore, man, the spiritual being, can not and does not die.”
Jesus the Wayshower, Christ the Consciousness
In most New Thought denominations a distinction is made between the historical person, Jesus of Nazareth, and the Christ consciousness he is believed to embody. Jesus is regarded as the “divine example,” a master teacher who exemplified what all of humanity is called to demonstrate as sons and daughters, expressions or emanations, of God. The Christ is understood as the consciousness of enlightenment, a universal principle of Spirit rather than an exclusive person. Ernest Holmes notes that
Religious Science does not deny the divinity of Jesus; but it does affirm the divinity of all people. It does not deny that Jesus was the son of God; but affirms that all beings are children of God. It does not deny that the Kingdom of God was revealed through Jesus; but affirms that the Kingdom of God is also revealed through you and me.
In the hermeneutic of New Thought, Jesus’ admonition to pray “in my name” may be interpreted as “in my nature” – with the authority and integrity of the Christ consciousness. Holmes writes, “If our thought is as unsullied as the Mind of God, if we are recognizing our Oneness with God, we cannot pray for other than the good of all [humanity].… The secret of spiritual power lies in a consciousness of one’s union with the Whole….” This is the foundation for the healing practice that has been part of New Thought since the “mental cures” of Quimby. Jesus is believed to have healed and performed miracles through his Christ nature – his conscious union with God. Philippians 2:5, Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus, is taken as an affirmation of the universal availability of the Christ Mind/Principle and the directive to seek its embodiment. Jesus is regarded as the Divine Wayshower who, having fully realized his own divine nature, can guide each person to a realization of the Christ – the presence of God – within her or himself.
Universal Creation: The Body of God
New Thought is generally panentheistic, regarding God as present within, but infinitely exceeding, the manifest universe. Just as the physical universe can be described by observed physical laws, the spiritual universe is believed to be organized by metaphysical laws that can be activated through the use of spiritual practices to consciously create life experience. The Declaration of Principles of the International New Thought Alliance (INTA), an association of New Thought groups and denominations, states: “We affirm that the universe is the body of God, spiritual in essence, governed by God through laws which are spiritual in reality even when material in appearance.”
The Universal Foundation for Better Living, founded in 1974 by the Rev. Johnnie Colemon (who came out of the Unity church), believes that “Everything that exists, or ever will exist is pressed out of the body of God (God-Substance) in different forms of manifestation. Since the nature of God is absolute good, and everything is God-Substance, there can be no evil in reality.” Even that which appears to be material is spiritual in its essence, the physicalized expression of Mind. According to its founders, Divine Science “has always taught that so-called matter is pure divine energy manifesting as form; it repeatedly points out that Substance is Spirit.”
Generally speaking, New Thought takes an affirmative and empowering approach to human suffering. Several denominations offer specific practices that facilitate a deeper understanding of the “mental cause” of adverse conditions and shift the underlying pattern of thoughts and beliefs, thereby transcending or transforming the corresponding experience. As we have seen, the philosophy of mental causation teaches that experience is determined by consciousness. Given any set of objective conditions or circumstances, the subjective experience of an individual (and the meaning assigned to any condition) will depend on the climate of thoughts, feelings, and beliefs s/he maintains. The following excerpt provides illustration:
It is done unto me as I believe…. All healing results from the healing of belief in separation from cosmic wholeness. All experience of disconnection and ‘brokenness,’ be it in my own body, the body of my affairs or any other body, is a consequence of believing that I am separated from the cosmic whole that many call ‘God.’… All healing is a healing of the perception that wholeness does not prevail. … Accordingly, New Thought supports the cleansing of perceptions, the neutralization of all perception of disconnectedness, brokenness and separation, which in turn results in the healing of conditions…. Only the healing of one's perception produces comprehensive and permanent results.
New Thought affirms that a person is not defined or diminished by the conditions that he or she may experience; no outer circumstance can eclipse the truth of spiritual wholeness. However, the New Thought emphasis on consciousness as the determinant of lived conditions can lead to a simplistic “blame the victim” type attitude regarding lack, limitation, and even social injustice. A person experiencing illness or adversity may be perceived as somehow less evolved or enlightened, or less God-realized, and their consciousness as being in need of correction. Divine Science represents many of the New Thought denominations in declaring, “Sickness is the result of a belief in two powers; a lack of the full realization that we are, in Truth, spiritual beings… when an individual is expressing on a high level of consciousness and knows completely that he is Spirit, he cannot be ill, for he is in complete harmony with the one creative power, God.” Although the motive may be to relieve suffering, it’s a slippery theological slope that suggests the equation of material success or well-being with spiritual evolution. Furthermore, with this emphasis, the formative or soul-deepening value of suffering is too often disregarded in the rush to find relief.
Individual and Social Transformation
Historically, New Thought has focused almost exclusively on individual transformation as the way to achieve transformation in the world. Believing that everything begins in mind, New Thought teaches that events in the “outer” world reflect inner mentation. Conditions on the global or social level, then, cannot be definitively addressed without a shift in the underlying mental causation. The macrocosm of human collective consciousness is regarded as inseparable from the microcosm of individual thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs. In this context affirmative prayer, meditation, and so forth, may be viewed as the most effective actions to bring about positive social change. Each individual is seen as a co-creator of the collective consciousness, and is therefore personally accountable for contributing to the world condition. An article by the president of Religious Science International describes the denomination’s approach to the contemporary issue, “Dealing Spiritually with Terrorism.” She writes:
The Science of Mind teaches that the only way we can change conditions, transcend our experiences, or impact others in any meaningful way is to use the Power of Mind constructively. That's what it means to take responsibility when bad things happen. Taking responsibility does not mean to blame ourselves for the things that happen, but to take charge of our mental reaction when they do. … Through [prayer] treatment we can align our consciousness with the Divine Consciousness so that our next action is motivated by love and compassion rather than hatred and fear. … Peace begins only where it can – within each and every one of us. Right here and right now.
New Thought’s cultural and historic roots in the 19th century New England ethos of personal independence and spiritual entitlement support an individualistic response to communal problems. The Universal Foundation for Better Living, for example, suggests that, “rather than devoting our primary efforts to providing for the needy of the world, the time has come to make available to all people everywhere a teaching that will enable them to provide for themselves by learning to release the divine potential within them.” Another New Thought organization likewise affirms, “We can establish Global Transformation by intentionally choosing to improve our personal lives. Each time you choose to entertain healthy thinking you impact life on two levels, individually and collectively.…The world will automatically change as a result.”
As with the approach to personal suffering, the intention is to engage the creative power of mind, and through a shift in consciousness to generate a corresponding transformation of external conditions. In order to maintain a positive mental state and avoid the perpetuation of “negative” circumstances, adherents of New Thought may be counseled to turn their “attention from the outer visible effects of this world to the inner world of First Cause…. The [outer] world is seen as the realm of constant changes in appearance, but the inner world is perceived as the Source of All Being.” According to the teachings of Divine Science “[t]he power of right thinking releases into expression in each individual life its divine inheritance of health, abundance, peace, and power.”
Prophetic New Thought
Recent years have seen a development within the New Thought movement that could be referred to as “Prophetic New Thought.” This metaphysical approach to social transformation comprises a practical application of spiritual principles to directly address the violence, injustice, and suffering that exist in the world. An example may be seen in the work of the Rev. Michael Bernard Beckwith, founder of the Agape International Spiritual Center in Culver City (Los Angeles area), California. Although ordained as a Religious Science minister, Beckwith practices an ecumenical spirituality that he calls “New Thought – Ancient Wisdom,” acknowledging the consistency of wisdom teachings found throughout the ages in a diversity of faiths and cultures. Rooted in this theological context, his sermons and his activism demonstrate a commitment not only to peace and justice, but to a wholistic paradigmatic shift affecting every dimension of the inner and outer landscape. (See illustration.)
In a 2006 interview, Beckwith addressed the urgency of contemporary issues, inviting readers to move beyond two of the common tendencies within New Thought that hinder social engagement – the avoidance of social concerns in order to withdraw attention from “negativity,” and the use of spiritual practices to manifest personal desires. He notes,
How sad that the sophistication of weapons is greater than the world’s collective systems for producing and sustaining the sacredness of life on the planet… How tragic that the planet’s resources are raped and plundered, and war is still a commonly accepted solution to human conflicts. Acknowledging these facts is not negativity. We cannot bury our head in the proverbial sand about where the collective evolution of consciousness has brought us thus far. Never before has the spiritual technology of prayer, meditation, taking an active stand for peace, compassion, and intelligent dialogue been more vital. Now is not the time to be egotistically concerned with manifesting petty desires – it is a time to be intelligently and actively involved in the welfare of all beings.
According to Beckwith, “When humanity’s view transforms egocentric boundaries of ‘me and mine’ into a worldcentric view of ‘ours’ we have a true chance not only to create integrative policies of peace but to live them. Events such as the world is currently experiencing [in the aftermath of 9-11] offer the prospect of moving into a creative response, one that may have never before been considered.”
Rev. Beckwith is a co-founder of the Association for Global New Thought (AGNT), an umbrella organization that oversees a growing roster of international spiritual activist projects. Among these are: A Season for Nonviolence; the Synthesis Dialogues with His Holiness the Dalai Lama and progressive multi-faith leaders from around the world; an annual Awakened World conference bringing together scientists, futurists, and spiritual activists; participation in the 1998 UNESCO Seminar on Religion and Peace, and the 1999 and 2004 Parliament of the World’s Religions.
The Association for Global New Thought maintains a “vision of planetary transformation based on the conviction that there are universal spiritual truths which represent the emerging spiritual paradigm for the new millennium.” Conforming to the New Thought belief that “consciousness is elementally creative, reciprocates thoughts, and thereby shapes all manifestation,” AGNT affirms “the community of all life is sacred; our practices of meditation and prayer enhance a worldview promoting reverence for, and service to humanity and planet earth. New Thought is committed to Global healing through personal transformation, community-building, interfaith, intercultural, and interdisciplinary understanding, and compassionate activism.” So here we find the traditional New Thought emphasis on individual transformation extended in its application to address the world situation.
Another example of prophetic New Thought is found in the ministry of the Rev. Deborah L. Johnson, based in Soquel, California. Acknowledging Beckwith as her mentor, Johnson has combined New Thought spirituality with her lifelong commitment to social justice activism. A respected diversity trainer and consultant in conflict resolution, Johnson possesses a keen understanding of the mechanisms of societal oppression (based on race, gender, sexual orientation, economics, etc.) and seeks to approach these from the context of spiritual oneness. Her congregation, Inner Light Ministries, emphasizes oneness as a core principle and strives to embody this ideal in every aspect of operations and community life. (It is important to clarify that, for Johnson, oneness does not connote sameness or uniformity, but the integration of diverse expressions as parts of an interdependent whole. Every person is viewed as a spiritual being, endowed with equal value and equal worth.)
Unlike many New Thought pastors, Rev. Johnson frequently addresses social issues from the pulpit. In a sermon given on 18 December 2005, she spoke about the U.S.-led war in Iraq:
When we get to the point where we say we are one planet, where we are one people, the idea of sacrificing one person’s life for another person’s life is not acceptable. Calling human beings “collateral” is not acceptable. … We’ve got to…have the courage to move beyond divisiveness…. If there is only one people, that needs to show up everywhere. We need to see that in our economics. We need to see that in our childcare. We need to see that in education. We need to see that in health reform. We need to see that in how we treat the elders… And we have to stand on that…that it is unacceptable to value some people more than other people. … It is unacceptable to run over a sovereign nation because our country’s consumerism is so great that we want to take their resources. It is unacceptable. There’s just one people here. There’s just one.
Johnson affirms the New Thought belief that the microcosmic and macrocosmic, the individual and the collective, are mirrors of one another and cannot be separated. She notes, “each of us is integral to every circumstance as both part of the reason it exists and how it will heal. Nothing happens at a global level that is not first happening at the individual level, and nothing can heal globally without healing on the individual level.” This implies both accountability for the world condition and agency for its transformation.
As African Americans coming of age in Los Angeles during the social unrest of the 1960’s, both Johnson and Beckwith were heavily influenced by the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr.’s vision of the Beloved Community. During his childhood, Beckwith attended Holman United Methodist Church, known for it’s tradition of social involvement and commitment to peace and justice issues. He attended Morehouse College in the early 1970’s where he encountered the teachings of Dr. Howard Thurman, combining a deep mystic spirituality with the necessity of social engagement. Johnson grew up in the Church of God in Christ, where spirituality and programs of social uplift went hand-in-hand. Her grandmother was a member of Second Baptist Church in Los Angels under the pastorship of the Rev. Thomas Kilgore, a longtime activist and friend of Dr. King and his family. As an “out” lesbian Johnson’s own activism has included national leadership roles in the movement for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender rights.
Beckwith and Johnson represent a new generation of African American New Thought ministers. Their grounding in the social conscience of the Black Church and their participation in liberation movements of the sixties and seventies informed their interpretation and practice of New Thought. In their ministries, New Thought teachings regarding individual healing and transformation are not discarded, but rather extended to include social healing and transformation of the collective consciousness. Although somewhat controversial within the larger New Thought movement, this direction is gaining both prominence and momentum.
Largely influenced by Beckwith and the work of AGNT, a commitment to social engagement has begun to find its way into several New Thought denominations. Reverend Beckwith’s former association with the United Church of Religious Science (UCRS) led to their 2001 adoption of the “Global Heart Vision,” calling for “a world free of homelessness, violence, war, hunger, separation and disenfranchisement.” More recently, in 2005, UCRS formed a Social Issues Committee to “identify local and global issues that are relevant to a world that works for everyone, to apply spiritual principles and move forward into appropriate action.” Their stated intentions are:
To respect and preserve the dignity of every being, to universally ensure human rights, to promote freedom of expression, and freedom in all its forms.
To be conscious stewards of the environment and preserve the sanctity of creation.
To develop and engage in activities that cooperate with the laws of nature allowing the earth to return to its natural state of being.
To dedicate ourselves to support all efforts that uphold and spread peace through nonviolence and cooperation.
To align, integrate and co-create with others of like mind.
In early 2007 the committee unveiled a Spiritual Advocacy Handbook covering such topics as working together for change, visiting an elected official, attending a public forum, and influencing the media. They have also released “greening” guidelines for improving the environmental responsibility of congregations. Future plans call for an interactive website providing information, resources, and networking for those seeking to address social issues from the context of New Thought spirituality.
The Association of Unity Churches followed suit with the creation of a Spiritual Social Action Ministry Team in 2006. The initiative came out of a strategic directive adopted by the Association, which calls for “positively impacting the human condition,” and evidences a growing support for spiritual social action among the broader membership of Unity. Goals for the ministry include:
1. To work collaboratively with organizations around the world who are engaged in effective social action that is in alignment with Unity principles.
2. To encourage the Association [of Unity Churches] to speak the Truth that promotes justice and peaceful resolution, and be a strong voice in the world for positive change.
3. To make an annual prestigious award for, and to shine a light on, spiritual social action and service that is being done by Unity ministries.
4. To provide resources, information, education and training for individuals and ministries that want to become involved in spiritual social action.
5. To support regions, ministers and ministries in engaging in ongoing diversity-consciousness education so that we welcome and honor all people.
6. To establish a movement wide system for responding to human need through conscious compassionate service and action.
7. To take actions that promote, inspire, support and create sustainable worldwide peace.
8. To encourage and empower the work of social and environmental justice by the Association and Unity ministries.
The work of both UCRS and Unity is in its early stages; however, just the fact that such commissions exist within these major denominations is a noteworthy shift from their historic position. It is too soon to know if increasing support for social action within the denominations will have a reflexive effect on New Thought doctrine, or on the content of what is preached from the pulpits of New Thought congregations, moving them further toward the prophetic. It will also be interesting to see if increased participation of New Thought adherents in movements for social change alters the discourse and the strategies of those movements. To some degree this is already happening due to the popularization of New Thought teachings through self-help books, movies, and other commercial outlets. As New Thought principles become part of the vocabulary of the general population this cross-pollination will likely increase. Whether the influence is superficial and short-lived or more significant and enduring remains to be seen.
The fundamental tenets of New Thought philosophy include mental causation, the omneity of God, and the oneness of all life. Early practitioners of New Thought focused on the use of mental and spiritual practices for the healing of body and affairs, and the betterment of personal conditions. In this belief system, everything is made up of energy vibrating at different frequencies. The conditions of the physical dimension are regarded as the transient effects of consciousness, without enduring substance or ultimate reality. Through a shift in consciousness, conditions can be altered – for the individual, and thus for the collective.
From this traditional New Thought perspective, the most effective way to work for social change is through personal inner transformation. For instance, poverty is addressed through dissolving the blocks to prosperity within the consciousness of each individual, without analysis of the social structures that perpetuate economic inequity. In the face of war (or any conflict), adherents might seek peace among the warring factions within the borders of their own heart and mind. To end oppression they may strive for a deeper understanding of the “oppressor” and the “oppressed” within, to re-establish a consciousness of wholeness. Generally, attention is placed on the desired outcome rather than the adverse condition. Some New Thought adherents choose to avoid news media in order to maintain this positive focus.
Certainly, there is great value in personal transformation. Diligence in inner peace-making, for example, can help develop the capacity to stand in integrity and with compassion in the face of troubling world events. However, the primary focus on causation in the inner realm risks obscuring the gravity of trespasses in the “outer” world, the systematic and institutional nature of oppression, and the culpability of the perpetrating agents. Furthermore, the practice of withdrawing one’s witness of suffering and injustice as a way to avoid “negativity” can create a false sense of complacency, short-circuiting the motivation for social action.
Although maintaining an emphasis on individual transformation as the key, recent years have witnessed a movement beyond this exclusive focus to advocate the need for transformation on all levels – individual, interpersonal, institutional, and political – and the explicit valuation of social engagement as part of committed spiritual practice. This emerging “Prophetic New Thought” is evidenced in a growing number of congregations and denominations.
The dominant society is built on a paradigm of dualism and polarity – us and them, good-guys and bad-guys, right and wrong, friend and foe, haves and have-nots. This polarization risks dehumanizing the “other” and can thereby disinhibit and even normalize acts of violence, discrimination, and degradation. Many movements for social change, while seeking to halt violence or injustice, too often simply recast who is right and who is wrong, who is “us” and who is “them,” without challenging the paradigmatic assumption of duality. Applying the New Thought principle of universal oneness to conditions of social concern can have profound implications both for how we interact with other members of the human family and how we care for the earth. If, as this worldview asserts, the essence of all life is singular – one with God and one with every element of creation – then there is no “other,” no “them,” only an infinitely inclusive “us.” Acts of harm (whether against people or the natural world) would then constitute a trespass against the whole, against self, and ultimately, against God.
In New Thought, as in the mystic traditions of many faiths, oneness is regarded as literal and absolute, and therefore must include not only the victims of violence and domination, but also the perpetrators. Thus the oppressed and the oppressor are seen as one at the deepest level of God-life, and it is that very recognition that creates the possibility of redemptive transformation and reconciliation. In the prophetic application of New Thought principles, a just and compassionate world becomes possible not by simply shifting who holds power in society, but in shifting the paradigmatic framework that guides beliefs, policy, and action.
When the transformation of individual consciousness that is the cornerstone of New Thought is translated into a corresponding commitment to work for the common welfare of all beings, it has the potential to provide fresh resources and perspectives for the social and political struggles central to the prophetic tradition.