Christian Science and New Thought

In the September 13 issue of The New Yorker magazine, Kelefa Sanneh writes about The Secret in “Power Lines: What’s behind Rhonda Byrne’s spiritual empire?” In typical New Yorker fashion, Mr. Sanneh spends several pages attempting to reveal the secrets behind The Secret, “the film that made Byrne a star — a spiritual leader, even” and the book of the same title that sold “more 19 million copies worldwide.”

Mr. Sanneh paints a colorful picture from the Oprah Winfrey show in 2007:

“My guests today believe that once you discover the Secret, that you can immediately start creating the life you want, whether it’s getting out of debt, whether it’s finding a more fulfilling job, even falling in love,” Winfrey said. “They say you can have it all, and, in fact, you already hold the power to make that happen.” After Winfrey interviewed the film’s creator, a former television producer from Australia named Rhonda Byrne, she paid “The Secret” her highest compliment. “Watch it with your children,” she said, looking into the camera, narrowing her eyes for emphasis.

As has been widely reported, the seed for The Secret was planted when Ms. Byrne’s daughter gave her a book about the “law of attraction, which decrees that thoughts have physical power, and that thinking about something is the way to get it.” According to The Secret’s official web site, “The Secret teaches us that we create our lives, with every thought every minute of every day. Living The Secret offers tools and ideas to help you live The Secret and create the life of your dreams.”

Thankfully, I’m not here to debate the validity or likelihood of that claim. Why am I blogging about The Secret then? Keep reading, please.

Mr. Sanneh traces the history of The Secret back to the 19th century and a movement derived from Ralph Waldo Emerson called New Thought. “Emerson’s treatise was a work of philosophy but also, avowedly, of self-help,” he writes. “One of the progenitors of the movement” was Phineas Quimby, who believed “sick people could be healed solely by the belief that they would be.” He continues:

By the eighteen-eighties, the “mind cure” movement had spread widely, although Quimby’s best-known patient and disciple, Mary Baker Eddy, the future founder of Christian Science, later insisted on the central importance of Biblical scripture, as well as her own writings. In this, she separated herself from her New Thought rivals, who viewed the existence of religious institutions as a hindrance.

And that’s when I breathed a sigh of relief. He got it right! Mrs. Eddy’s devotion to the Bible and her reliance on God as the only Mind — and therefore the healer, as opposed to the human mind of “mind-cure” — is what distinguishes Christian Science from New Thought. And they are so often confused, it seemed essential to applaud publicly when the distinction is clearly and accurately made in the mainstream press — specifically, in “The New Yorker. Yes, The New Yorker.” Hence, this blog.

Robert Peel, in his widely-respected three-volume biography of Mary Baker Eddy, wrote of her connection with New Thought in the early 1900s:

In popular thought Christian Science had taken on much of the coloration of the buoyant, optimistic America in which it had surfaced. It was widely regarded as a variant, if not the prototype, of the current success philosophies — and psychologies — that appealed so powerfully to American businessmen. But to Mrs. Eddy, with her roots deep in New Testament Christianity as well as New England Puritanism, success was not to be confounded with salvation. Prosperity might come as the result of demonstrating the love of God for his entire creation, but wordly success on a materialistic basis was far from being a sign of spiritual grace.

In that respect, Mrs. Eddy’s teachings differed radically from the popular New Thought….

I’m grateful to Mr. Sanneh and the editors of The New Yorker for presenting this opportunity to clarify, once more, that  Christian Science is not a part of New Thought and New Thought is not a sub-set of Christian Science. They differ in premise and intention. That was true in the early days of both movements and it remains true today.

Christian Science is now and always has been rooted in the Bible and the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Thanks, Mr. Sanneh.

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