I thought it would be appropriate for me to write about an entire body of spiritual literature that has attracted and inspired me: “New Thought.” There are innumerable books in this body. I certainly haven’t read them all, and never will. But they have many significant points in common; reading them all is probably unnecessary. I offer a sample below.
“New Thought” is a mental, or spiritual healing movement that began in 19th century America, and continues today. Among its more famous extant branches are Christian Science, Religious Science, Divine Science, Jewish Science, Unity School of Christianity, the writings of Joel Goldsmith (and his program, “The Infinite Way”) and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Dr. Norman Vincent Peale’s “Positive Thinking” teachings as well as many of the underlying teachings of “New Age” healing. Hundreds, if not thousands of inspirational books have come out of this movement. Shakti Gawain’s bestseller “Creative Visualization,” is another recent, famous example.
Modern rabbis and interfaith ministers will almost certainly derive inspirational ideas and practices from somewhere in “New Thought,” even when not recognized or identified as such.
The influence of the “New Thought” movement has pervaded American music, literature, and culture for over 100 years. The history, philosophy and breadth of the movement was researched and detailed in Braden’s excellent work, “Spirits in Rebellion.” More recently, Ellen Umansky wrote a well-researched book on the history of the Jewish Science movement, “From Christian Science to Jewish Science.”
In a general way, all “New Thought” writers teach that we live in a universe “saturated,” as it were, with Divinity. Some writers, Mary Baker Eddy, for example, teach that only Divinity exists (very much in keeping with Vedanta – the non-dual branch of Indian philosophy).
We are constantly interacting with this Divinity, or Divine Mind or Divine Substance, whether we know it (or acknowledge it or like it) or not. “New Thought” therefore urges a careful, reasoned, approach in what we choose to think and do. The results, or effects of our thoughts and acts, are “automatic;” a matter of “scientific Law.” “New Thought” seems to differ in this from the more familiar Jewish/Christian religious approach, in which a personal “G-d” either “rewards” or “punishes” us. It seems closer to the Vedic concept of “karma.” Yet, in a parable based on an event in the life of King David, the Besht teaches that “man” actually judges himself, rather than his/her being judged by “Heaven.” “Judge not, lest you be judged” is common to both Judaism and Christianity. So, the “New Thought” teaching might not be as far-removed from tradition as it would seem at first glance.
All “material” conditions – sin, sickness, poverty, disharmony, etc. – are the result of our own incorrect perception and thought of a world in which Divinity seems separate or even absent. We can exchange these “old,” mistaken thoughts for correct, accurate “New” ones, by affirmatively introducing thoughts of the “truth” of Divine Presence to our minds. If we do so correctly, the presenting negative conditions will gradually or suddenly resolve themselves, or even disappear entirely. Where there was sickness, only health will be seen – because, in “New Thought” phraseology, only health will be “known.”
Affirmations” and “visualizations” are among the methods employed for “changing thought” and “applying truth,” but are most effective when practiced with an understanding of the underlying “New Thought” spiritual paradigm.
Mary Baker Eddy’s “Science and Health with a Key to the Scriptures” is in a class by itself, even within this branch of literature. It is a beautifully written book, although not easily understood on first reading. Many times, I’ve simply enjoyed her prose – spiritual ideas expressed in an English that catches the visionary spirituality of a biblical prophet/poet. I came to understand why she had developed the “reading rooms:” the spiritual method she taught required people to change their thoughts by daily, or at least frequent, exposure to her affirmative spiritual ideas. “Reading rooms” are places where only “truth” is thought about. I have read her writing many times, and found it very purifying. Her church members can choose not to use conventional medical interventions, but there’s a hospital-like place in Riverdale, NY, where Christian Scientists can go for extended care. The “treatment” involves regular viewing of videos, and/or hearing of daily readings from “Science and Health.” Not being a Christian Scientist myself, I was honored some years ago to be permitted to volunteer to go from room to room, reading the passages specified for that day. In addition to its spiritual status, I also consider “Science and Health” to be one of the great, unrecognized gems of American literature.
“The Science of Mind,” by Ernest Holmes, another “New Thought” classic, is a thoroughly lucid presentation of one “New Thought” approach. It’s easier to read and grasp than Mrs. Eddy’s book, but has a similar purifying quality. I thought that it also described his method, or technique, with less complication than she had in her works. The strength of his own confidence in the teachings comes forcefully through in his words; I found it irresistible. He writes as someone who “has been to the mountain,” and is telling you what he saw. His report projects the strength of the personal experience behind it.
“Jewish Science” literature originally included the writings of 3 rabbis: Alfred Geiger Moses, Morris Lichtenstein and Clifton Harby Levy. Of the three, only Rabbi Lichtenstein’s is still available. After his passing, his wife, Mrs. Tehillah Lichtenstein, took over leadership of his group, and wrote a body of essays of her own. An anthology of some of these was published in the mid-1980’s, under the title, “Applied Judaism.” The thrust of the “Jewish Science” movement, beginning with Rabbi Moses, was to present “New Thought” truths – considered the most spiritually advanced of their day – with reference to “Jewish,” rather than “Christian” sources. It is as intensely inspiring as all other “New Thought” writings, but at times, also resembles certain branches of Hasidic writing: HaBaD and Breslav come immediately to mind.
The major difference between “New Thought” and other spiritual literature, is that it’s inextricably bound up with “application.” Although some of the underlying ideas might be very parallel to older Jewish teachers – the Besht, for example, or even Maimonides – “Jewish Science/New Thought” demands “application.” If, after you’ve read a “New Thought” book, you don’t feel inspired to “apply the truth,” chances are you didn’t quite understand what you read. I’ve read Rabbi and Mrs. Lichtenstein’s writings over and over again, for more than 25 years. They’re as inspiring today as they were the first time I read them – if not moreso. What’s more, the Rabbi’s writings are now almost 100 years old – and are still the best Jewish-American inspirational literature I know of. Mrs. Lichtenstein’s essays, always deeply moving, are best understood in the context laid out by the Rabbi, to whom she always referred as her “teacher.” In the 1980’s, I received some training as a Jewish Science Practitioner from Doris Friedman, who had been trained personally by Mrs. Lichtenstein. I have applied these teachings in my own life for many years. In July, 2006, I wrote a term paper for a course in Jewish Social Philosophy and in May, 2007 I wrote a Master’s essay for my MSW program (Wurzweiler School of Social Work @Yeshiva University) on “Visualization”, based largely on Rabbi and Mrs. Lichtenstein’s teachings. That alone should convey the esteem in which I hold both the Rabbi and his wife, and their teachings.
Joel Goldsmith, although born Jewish and given a Reform Jewish education under the famous rabbi, Stephen Wise, later became a Christian Science Practitioner, and, after that, an independent spiritual teacher in his own right. His books, especially “The Infinite Way,” were bestsellers for years. His organization still exists, although finding them requires a bit of searching. I’ve attended evenings where we listened to tapes of him speaking on spiritual subjects. He writes and speaks with no less lucidity, confidence and power than Ernest Holmes, but writes of even higher goals than spiritual healing or rectification of “wrong” appearances. He’s also somewhat “radical,” even in a “New Thought” context. He doesn’t believe in a “method” per se; simply a “knowledge of truth,” that might take different forms for different people (or for the same person, at different stages). As with other “New Thought” literature, I’ve found myself going back over his books multiple times.
In a kind of “reverse engineering,” “New Thought” literature helped me to understand more about Hasidic literature. I came to see its inspirational qualities much more clearly; I could understand the furor Hasidic books had caused in a more Orthodox, European environment. As a result, I can now read Hasidic literature – especially that of Rebbe Nachman of Breslav – for inspirational and devotional purposes, more than philosophical or historical ones. I see its simplicity, rather than its complexity.
“New Thought” also gave me the model of a consistent “program” of spiritual growth. As a teacher, this was important to me. We often tell people to “have faith,” but don’t give them a means to develop it. “New Thought” combines a definable set of spiritual principles that can be gradually learned and demonstrated in practice, with dynamic experience of the Divine by interaction via “treatments,” “affirmations,” “visualizations,” etc. The result is not only “healing;” it’s the growth of faith and a comprehensive spiritual outlook. For many people, “New Thought” practices are a life-long commitment. That’s as it should be.
As a writer myself, “New Thought” has helped clarify my ideas, and helped me to find and to write in my own affirmative voice, with greater confidence.