In a chapter of her excellent book Bright-Sided titled “The Dark Roots of Optimism,” author Barbara Ehrenreich argues that the roots of the self-help movement are found in what the new movement stood against. The beginning of the Self-Help movement arose out of a rejection of the pervading world-view of the time, Calvinism.
Calvinism is what the Puritans and the Pilgrims shared in common. The early days of the Congregational Church had Calvinism as its theological foundation. Same with the Presbyterian church, the Reformed Church, and even some Baptist traditions.
Calvinism can best be explained with an acrostic that is famously used. TULIP. Yep, using the name of a beautiful flower to describe a rather unbeautiful theology.
T = Total Depravity – the human self is marked by sinfulness from cradle to grave
U = Unconditional Election – through no fault or condition of their own, a select few are marked for salvation
L = Limited Atonement – Christ died for this select few alone
I = Irresistible Grace – Those of that select few will not be able to resist God’s grace
P = Perseverance of the Saints – The select few will live eternally in heaven
This setup had a sordid effect on how people lived. Everyone wanted to think they were part of the Elect, part of the Chosen few, those included in the crowd of the saved. And they wanted to show their neighbor they were indeed part of the elect, the chosen, the saved. How might we know someone is part of the elect, the chosen, the saved? Well, they will live upstanding, pure lives. They’d work hard and behave well.
You know the term the Protestant Work Ethic? Well, it comes from the time Calvinism ruled. If you were part of the elect, the chosen, the saved, you naturally worked hard and long. Your work ethic was the badge displaying your membership in Calvinism’s Elect.
Now, we are not just talking physical work here. We are talking mental work, the hard work of self-examination and self-monitoring. If you were part of God’s elect, the chosen, the saved, it is only natural you will think the right ways and do the right things in every aspect of life, rising above your sinful nature.
Life in the Calvinist world of 17th and 18th century America meant this – you waged a constant battle to prove to yourself and to others that you are part of the elect, the chosen, the saved. You constantly were on guard as you worked hard to exhibit that your sinful nature had been reformed by God’s goodness.
Calvinism goes back to something we touched on last week. A certain interpretation of Adam and Eve’s departure from the Garden of Eden.
Beginning with Augustine in the 4th-5th centuries, Adam’s sin was deemed the Fall. Calvin said beginning with Adam and Eve’s sin, the human soul became darkened with sin to the point of total depravity. The human self is as a result so completely degraded that we are born with the cancer of sin. Calvin says without God’s help, that cancer of sin will kill us. Because of this cancer of sin, we are naturally sinful, our wills are naturally toward sin meaning without God’s help we will choose the way of sin. Knowing we are separated from God, knowing we are no longer in Eden.
Yes, this is a dark root. Calvinism offers a completely negative view of the human self.
Beginning with the Unitarians in the early 1800s, this negative view was soon rejected in favor of a more positive view. Unitarianism rejected Calvinist’s first point and thus everything that followed. William Ellery Channing famously declared in 1819 in introducing Unitarian Christianity to the world there is goodness in us not total depravity.
But Unitarianism was just the first step in the exit from Calvinism. Unitarianism spawned Ralph Waldo Emerson and Transcendentalism which came to prominence in the late 1830’s. Transcendentalism was Unitarianism on low-grade steroids. It posited that not only was the human self good, but that the human soul and God’s soul were connected. The human soul is in fact the fullest expression of God. There is a oneness, a unity shared between the divine and the human self. Christ as the fully realized human on earth is a picture of what we can be if we let go of our ego and cultivate the true self.
Transcendentalism led to what is called New Thought. New Thought is Unitarianism on very powerful steroids. Humans in New Thought are basically copies of Christ, we are meant to be. Sure, we may not know it or may not actualize it, but we are little Christs, divine beings on earth. We just need to claim this reality.
New Thought has an interesting history. It is actually a very important part of our history. For some sense of historical context, Christian Science and the Unity Church are progenies of New Thought.
New Thought begins with a man named Phineas Parkhurst Quimby. Quimby was, as Ehrenreich describes it, “a self-educated watchmaker and inventor in Portland, Maine,” which is just 150 miles from here. Quimby had a fascination with metaphysics – things beyond the material world – , health, and spirituality. “He filled his journals with his ideas about “the science of life and happiness.”
His most famous disciple would become even more significant historically. Her name is Mary Baker Eddy. Mary Baker Eddy was born and raised in Bow, New Hampshire just some 75 miles from here. She became a patient of Quimby’s in the 1860’s and saw her chronic illnesses dissipate. She became a proponent of Quimby’s New Thought philosophy and eventually one of its greatest prophets. In 1879, she founded the Church of Christ, Scientist, in Tilton, NH. The name of the church is telling. Like Calvin interestingly, Quimby and Eddy tied their understanding to Christ and the Bible. Christ is the healer. The Christian scientist is the one that taps into the Christ within to heal him or herself.
As Ehrenreich writes, “New Thought seemed almost designed as a rebuke of the Calvinism many of its adherents had been terrified by as children.”
New Thought, NT, the New New Testament in a way, saw God as benevolent (all-loving), as imminent and omnipresent (present here, now, and everywhere), as omnipotent (all-powerful). The big difference New Thought argued for is their focus on God not as personal being per se but as the all-powerful Spirit or Mind moving and living in the universe.
As for humans, New Thought says, because we are Spirit first and foremost, we are an extension of God who is Spirit. New Thought says there is only One Mind, “infinite and all-encompassing. And humanity is “a part of this universal mind, is a part of God.”
As for the question of the Fall and the existence of sin, well, sin is simply wrong thinking, an error in our outlook, a deluded understanding that we are not perfect and whole like God.
The job of the New Thought practitioner is to correct our wrong-thinking, our erred outlook, our deluded understanding of things by tapping into “the boundless power of the Spirit [of Christ].”
The ramifications of this was not just spiritual. Disease and illness were, according to New Thought, a result of wrong-thinking and could be cured by correct-thinking.
This idea was especially poignant and alluring at the time. Stress-induced illnesses and diseases were everywhere. Calvinism’s negative worldview was not benign. It effected people’s minds and their bodies, their mental and physical health. In fact, there were names for this stress and oppression induced illness – invalidism and neurasthenia (weakness of the nerves).
New Thought spoke to this endemic of stress and nervousness related illness. Christian Science goes as far as saying illness is a creation of the mind. Correct our thinking and outlook, cure the illness. No drugs required. Positive-thinking gives way to positive things – health, wellness, wealth, high self-worth - coming your way.
As you may see, the self-help movement has its beginnings here. The Power of Positive-Thinking of Norman Vincent Peale, The “If you can dream, you can do it” of Robert Schuller, the Law of Attraction and Motivational Speaker Guru-ship of Wayne Dyer and Anthony Robbins, the Prosperity Gospel of Kenneth Hagin and Joel Olsteen – they can all be traced back to New Thought.
Now, I have problems with some of New Thought philosophy. It doesn’t reach a good balance, in my opinion. In fact, it is more like Calvinism than we think, all of which I will talk about next week.
I end by saying one thing I think New Thought was integral in bringing us – it helped end the stranglehold Calvinism had on us. The TULIP Calvinism gave us was not the tulip we needed. New Thought helped us to see this and helped put Calvin’s TULIP to pasture. For this, we should be forever grateful.