Criticisms of The New Thought
The Spirit of The New Thought
Edited by Horatio W. Dresser
[The following is condensed from a letter to the Editor of the Boston Transcript, July 27, 1901, answering a critic of the New Thought]
The article in the Transcript entitled “Chaff in ‘New Thought’ Wheat,” though devoted particularly to chaff, uncovered some good grains of wheat. The critic would hardly be a critic if he did not discover what he was looking for. Chaff is essential in the production of wheat, and is therefore an inevitable accompaniment in its growing stages. Not until it has “gone to seed” is the chaff fully eliminated, and the New Thought is far from having reached that finished condition. Not only new institutions, but old and even good ones contain a portion of chaff. It is like the background in a picture, useful as a contrasting accessory. Everything has its husk, and it may be assumed that the very process of separation emphasizes the preciousness of the pure grain. But it is a question of proportion! and is it not possible that the writer slightly overdid the matter of chaff?
I would be the last to deny that extravagances and even excrescences have attached themselves in some measure to the New Thought. But they form no part of its vital principles, and are only incidental accretions which are common to all new movements in their initial stages. Aside from its therapeutic possibilities, as proved by numerous practical demonstrations, it embodies a great and general reaction against the prevailing materialism which has characterized the closing part of the nineteenth century. Reactions may go too far, but they soon regulate themselves from within. By a subtle evolutionary selection the truth inevitably comes to the surface.
Some of the points made by our able contributor make it appear that she is hardly familiar with the broader and more rational aspects of the new philosophy. It must be borne in mind that this is no cult, in the sense of having any central authoritative creed or specific formulated system. If so, criticism could be more definite. It is rather a great spontaneous trend, an impersonal movement. It is free from dogmatism, and so permeated by an evolutionary optimism that it sees the good even in everything and everybody which most actively opposes it.
In the article under review, it is assumed that the “All-is-spirit” philosophy properly belongs to the New Thought. Among a somewhat extensive acquaintance with its most prominent exponents I know of none who hold such a view. Matter is regarded as expressive, secondary, and resultant, but by no means as unreal. In its proper place and relation it is good and useful. Man is the normal and rightful executive of his physical organism, and not its subordinate, nor the slave of its sensations. But progress in this rational adjustment is admittedly gradual, in accord with well-understood spiritual law. This law is scientific; but, owing to the submerging materialism of generations, no one at present can perfectly utilize it.
A word upon “repulsion.” Is there not enough of it without any further endorsement or cultivation? Is it not responsible for all the wars, conflicts, hatred, and selfishness in the world? The law of human solidarity is now recognized as the future ideal and inspiration. Only the cultivation of oneness of feeling will hasten the consummation.
The New Thought should be no fad, hobby, or narrow unrelated theory. If not confirmed by experience, analogy, and well-ascertained spiritual law, it will shortly go the way of all error. To be of practical value, any truth must be wrought into daily life. The spiritual basis of all things is more and more in evidence, and the general trend of scientific development and discovery is distinctly in this direction.
The New Thought legitimately contains no shadows of asceticism or morbid other-world-liness. . . . All growth is from within outward, and not from external accretion. The divine processes of nature are vital and not mechanical. The incubus of materialism has weighed heavily upon science, ethics, theology, and sociology; but they are surely emerging.
External organization is but little depended upon for the spread of the new movement. It is not aggressive, not a sect, and no rival to existing religious organizations, but rather vitalizing and complementary. Its rapid progress is in the nature of an esoteric leaven, transforming without observation. Therefore, the great magnitude of the movement is quite unappreciated by the general public.
The evolution of the higher life is in perfect correspondence with unfolding principles upon the lower planes. The spiritual is the lawful upper zone of man’s nature. Any inversion of this relation produces discord. When, in the ruling consciousness the ideal order is set up, the change is expressed and indexed in the external man. The cultivation of an inner supremacy is as normal as the growth of a tree, and involves nothing that is strange.
Outcroppings of “miraculous” or “supernatural” healing continually occur in response to the compelling force of superstition and credulity, but the modus operandi is unrecognized. If mental action with such a basis possesses so much energy, what about an intelligent basis of truth? Surely, the moral order has not put a premium on superstition. . . . Only an orderly interpretation of admitted facts is what is lacking. Electricity has laws, and through conformity therewith we utilize it. Is it not our privilege to so employ the beneficent forces of mind and spirit? … It should not be forgotten that the inherent beauty and power of the New Thought must be subjective and experimental, in order to be appreciated; for no mere intellectual survey, from the outside, will reveal them.
[The following, from “The New Thought and Common Sense,” contributed by Mr. Wood to The Higher Law, Boston, June, 1900, also answers the usual criticism.]
Much ill-founded and unnecessary prejudice is aroused against the higher philosophy of life by unqualified statements which are beyond present conditions and above the viewpoint of ordinary observers. The claim of extravagant present realizations often comes from well-meant but in reality hyper-enthusiasm.
Extremes always beget opposing extremes. High abstract propositions are abstractly correct, and under favoring conditions in the future will be demonstrable. But to affirm them positively to one who does not understand idealism, without discriminative interpretation, is unwise. The greatest of human teachers voiced this sentiment in exact terms.
That the primary causes for physical conditions are inherently mental is true, but it does not follow that the body can be changed “while you wait” by a superficial change in the mind. Logic is good, but it is subject to abuse. Because a man can lift three hundred pounds it does not follow that he can lift three thousand, even though the principle be the same. Idealistic statements, true in a certain sense and of great utility when understood, may be harmful and repulsive when made to a “realist”; for to him they are lies.
As a consequence of general erroneous impressions regarding the claims of the present evolution of metaphysics, the New Thought, there is probably hardly a writer or teacher of the principles of mental causation who has not often had presented a supposed “poser” something as follows: “How about poisons, stimulants and contagions?”
The few suggestions here presented are designed for the benefit of extremists on both sides. Let the advocates of a practical idealism on their part remember that but few occupy their standpoint. Ideals are abstract realities now; their outward actualization must be gradual and this should always be made clear. If Paul attained such a spiritual consciousness and control as to render the bite of a viper harmless, it does not follow that every one who has started in the New Thought can or should cultivate the intimacy of that kind of a reptile. Can every writer be a Shakespeare or every speaker a Demosthenes? The law of spiritual accomplishment may include perfect immunity from harmful viper bites; but only the rarely developed expert can grasp it, the law, as an efficient weapon and wield it, the force, with perfect dexterity. But the degree to which each one can utilize it will ever grow toward his ideal, even though on the present plane of existence he may never reach it. Let one’s responses to sceptical inquiries always be fitted to the questioner’s plane of observation.
Turning briefly to those who think the well-known effects of poisons, stimulants, and contagions disprove the law of mental causation, and hold that their physical phenomena are due to chemical or direct potency per se, let us reason together a little below the surface.
The physical body, one second after it has been laid aside by the conscious and subconscious man or mind (a process called death), is utterly unresponsive to poisons, stimulants and contagions. May it not be fairly inferred that former responsiveness came through the subconscious mind rather than merely by direct physical contact? The principle in the case was clearly the seeming intermediary. While immediately after “death” all the physical constituents remain intact, that through which outside agencies — as occasions — gained their potency has been removed. In other words, the cause has gone. Causes and occasions must be discriminated. The former are always within, and, expressed in a common term, may be called susceptibility. Occasions are from without, and are only convenient opportunities. They have no absolute power as entities, and can only exert such an influence as susceptibility has conferred upon them. But, to man’s personal sense, susceptibility has installed itself as that which has laws of its own; and he is their subject and victim.
Suppose that ten persons are equally exposed to smallpox. Two respond to it, and eight do not. To the eight who did not “take it,” it was not a contagion at all, but simply a nonentity. The two who presented a fertile and ready-made soil had unwittingly produced susceptibility. Through the subtle processes of the imaging faculty, man — for himself — is a creator. Disease, therefore, is his own contrivance. He has erected certain limits, which, though not in the moral economy, he calls laws, and is obliged to do them homage. This is illustrated in many places where the principle is never suspected.
A certain immunity from smallpox doubtless comes from vaccination. In reality, the operation is a contrivance which tells upon the subconscious mind. There is an abiding inner sense of protection from the disorder. Whenever the attention of the conscious mind is called to the subject, a spontaneous auto-suggestion of immunity wells up from within. It amounts to a kind of steady, hidden faith, and is reinforced by surrounding belief and
acceptance. The clay of the body is but the passive and expressive incident in the transaction. But its psychological elements are, of course, a terra incognita to the medical practitioner who performs the “operation.” If water could be surreptitiously substituted, the inoculation would be much more safe and cleanly and equally effective. . . .
To lessen general and even personal responsiveness to poisons, stimulants, and contagions, is a gradual and seemingly very slow work, as we count time. It is entirely a question of degree or of susceptibility transformed by almost imperceptible stages. But, until the time does arrive when the widely subjective law of their potency is positively repealed, common sense would indicate that they be let alone.
The germs of disease have no power per se, but an inviting and fertile soil on every hand confers potency upon them. Quarantines are therefore necessary so long as the present state of collective consciousness regarding germ-causation continues. The foregoing hints may aid some inquirers in the way of an intelligent discrimination between real causes and frequent occasions, and show that strict metaphysical principles are thoroughly logical and in accord with common sense. . . .
[The following is condensed from an essay on “Environment” written for The Higher Law, October, 1901, in response to a frequently stated criticism of the New Thought, namely, that it ignores man’s natural environment.]
An elastic subject truly! It may compass but a human mood, or it may include all “out-doors,” Perhaps the term does not stand for quite the same to any two individuals, so that some attempt at definition is necessary in order to find common ground.
If we stretch environment to the utmost, it may take in the entire cosmos, outside of self. . . . The sum total that can be contained in the individual consciousness is made up of the ego and the non-ego, . . . The individual is the actor; while, in general, all else is acted upon. Relatively, he is positive, while environment, with an exception noted later, is negative. But yet there is reciprocity. In a sense what is objective reacts, or, literally, acts back. Action from the center is normally intelligent and subject to self-control; but conventionally, reaction from without is assumed to be beyond guidance. Just here is found the vital significance and heart of the new philosophy, as distinguished from the thought of the past. Can we in considerable degree shape reaction, or must we take it as it comes? Every man has an environment; and now what will he do with it? Will he dominate it or be its subject? And, if the former, how can he bring it into adjustment? Although no two environments are quite alike, the process of control — if control there is to be — must be one and the same.
“Everything is against me,” says one: “all things work together for my good,” says another. In themselves the things in each case may be quite alike, but in relative realization both . . . views may be correct. Can we, then, dictate to environment as to how it shall act back? If so, it logically follows that we are its potential creators. . , . We need continually to bear in mind that the objective, the physical world without is elastic, responsive material. It is not made up of the hard aisles of fate or the solid surface of events; but, viewed more deeply, is in a state of flux. It is the melted wax awaiting the seal, or the soft clay inviting the cunning hand of the potter.
The ego is the vital center of a system of wires, stretching out in every direction; and over them vibrations are ceaselessly going and coming. Everything, be it person or circumstance, star or flower, heat or cold, is transmitting its message. Can we in any degree transmute or modify its quality?
Let us state a law which may seem somewhat abstract, and then consider to what extent it may be wrought into concrete living. Our incoming messages, in quality and tone, will be duplicates or echoes of those which we send out — love for love, hate for hate, joy for joy — a mirror-like reflection. If we dislike a person, the sight or even the thought of him distinctly repeats it back. . . . Environment for many generations having seemed like a fixed quantity, can be practically transmuted only by degrees. But the fact that it can only be changed through growth does not invalidate the divine law. We have built up a sensuous law to the contrary, and our emancipation must be gradual. It is best that it should be so. Every accomplishment comes through education and cannot be poured in, in the mass.
What about our human environment? In a word, life touches us on every side. It is not mere lives, of individuals, but a solidarity. . . . The ideal of our consciousness of human environment seems to be that all men should see themselves in others — “you in me, and I in you.”
Take . . . our own subconscious realm. Here is a fertile and prolific field where we are both sowing and reaping every day. It lies just before us; and we cannot turn away our gaze from it, even if we would. It only need be noted that we create its quality, and this is a matter of supreme importance.
Our brief survey would be incomplete without a positive recognition of the transcendent and crowning Reality. It is not irreverent or pantheistic to hold that God is the spiritual totality of our environment. The greatest thought that can be contained in the human consciousness is its relation with the Infinite. What an expansion in this concept in the recent past! The tribal, the national, the anthropomorphic, and the far-away deities are outgrown ideals; and God “in whom we live, and move, and have our being” is the present and future inspiration. But with this last ideal we must beware of any dilution of the divine character, which is transcendent Wisdom, Goodness, and Love. Divinity is positive. God must not be sentimentalized or cheapened in consciousness, but lifted higher. While He is in and back of all things, it would be pan- theism to say that everything — as we behold it — is God. Immanence and transcendence are complementary aspects. To rate Him as “principle,” as that term is generally understood, is unworthy; and such a concept will never fill the void in the human constitution. God is God; and “principle,” “ether,” “cosmos” will not define Him.* (*Mr. Wood here wisely avoids the two extremes approached by later New Thought devotees, some of whom say unqualifiedly — perhaps thoughtlessly— “I am God”: while others, borrowing from “Christian Science,” reduce the idea of God to that of an impersonal “principle.” — Ed.) While, therefore, in a sense, He has the relation of environment, He is incomparable with any other of its classifications. He is active: they are passive. He is positive; they are negative. We impress them, the other parts of our environment, but receive impress from Him. We project our ideals upon them, but are to be consciously moulded by our ideal of Him. However unknowable He may be in the abstract, our highest ideals of Him represent Him to us, and, with ever-expanding measure, must be a finality. These are always above our present level of realization, and we are to be plastic to them. Our relation with the divine is therefore unlike that which is existent with all other parts of our environment. In more general terms, we should be negative, or receptive, toward everything which is consciously above us, and positive toward all else. The opposite poles of man’s being thus work together in the accomplishment of his spiritual evolution. All environment is auxiliary, if relation be rightly adjusted.
[Granted that our environment is, to us, largely what we believe it to be; and that suggestion can foster faith in vaccination, in medicines of various sorts, the question would still hold over, What of those forces, in the environment we call “nature,” which operate according to precise laws, ascertainable by physics and chemistry, regardless of all human suggestions whatsoever? Does suggestion really change anything in nature, or merely offset certain otherwise inevitable effects for the moment? — Ed.]
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The Spirit of The New Thought
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