Wednesday, April 2, 2008

New Thought and Suffering

“The word "good" has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.”
~ Gilbert K. Chesterton

The New Thought movement originated in the latter half of the 19th century. In 1902, the American psychologist William James called it the 'Religion of Healthy Mindedness' because of its emphasis on curing disease and creating external reality through one's thoughts. At about the same time, Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung referred to it in his book, Modern Man in Search of a Soul, calling it a religion whose time has come. Jung meant that modern people were abandoning dogmatic religion and seeking scientific spiritual principles based on pragmatic results. I am an unapologetic student and follower of New Thought teachings. Several New Thought principles helped me to stop being a victim, to take personal responsibility for my life and to pay attention to my thoughts as being creative or destructive. That being said, no religious movement is complete. We are always evolving or degenerating. Thankfully, his is a reognized principle of New Thought. One area that New Thought needs to address more fully, in my opinion, is that of suffering, pain and evil. The internationally recognized sociologist of religion, Peter Berger, has noted that the success of a religous venture is always measured by the way it addresses the issue of suffering.

In the following essay I will be critical of some New Thought approaches to suffering as only a devoted follower can be. Someone recently reminded me that New Thought honors suffering, and I completely agree. However, after twenty years of grateful involvement in the movement, I have noticed some discomfort around the the subject.

Yes, New Thought does honor suffering, and each church and minister has his or her own approah. However, I have experienced a general trend which sees most if not all of our suffering as unnecessarily self inflicted. This position is blatantly stated in the runaway best seller, The Secret, which I have evaluated elsewhere. There is often a tacit if not unconscious separation between God the Good and humanly caused suffering which is not a part of the ideal Universal plan. As Holmes says, "The world is beginning to realize that it has learned all it should through suffering and pain. Surely there can be no Intelligence in the Universe that wishes man to be sick, suffer pain, be unhappy and end in oblivion. Surely if God or Universal Intelligence is imbued with goodness, then It could not ordain that man should ultimately be other than a perfect expression of Life." SOM, p.107

Most New Thought teachers place a lot of emphasis on free will as the primary if not sole cause of all suffering, essentially creating a metaphysical chasm between God's Good world and humanly caused suffering. These teachers emphasized, as did Holmes, that we suffer because of free will and conscious choice. There is clearly some truth in this as our attitudes, actions and ideas bring pain into our individual and collective experiences. But is free will the solution to all suffering, chaos and destruction?

Free will never explained the chaotic nature of the wild cosmos which began with a Big Bang, and with 125 billion galaxies filled with colliding debris fields as the means to creation, or the earthly tsunamis and myriad 'natural disasters' which kill countless millions apart from any free choice. The Universal Cosmic Intelligence appears to be filled with exploding stars, meteorite crashes into planets, dark chaos and laws which cause injury or fatalities to living beings without the free will choice of those beings. The millions of dinosaurs and other species that have gone prematurely extinct were not destroyed because they had bad thoughts.

I never could accept the metaphysical speculations that people who were killed by natural disasters made a choice before they incarnated to die this way. These disasters were occuring long before humans evolved. The free will explanations for all pain and suffering seemed nearly identical to the doctrine of original sin I was taught in the Christian seminary. The Christians blamed all problems on Adam and Eve, New Thought blames it on the ego. Where did that rascal ego come from? And were there not disasters and chaos before the human ego showed up?


It seems to me that if the Universal Intelligence created math and science problems to be solved, problems which caused me no end of suffering in high school and college, then It could also create life problems for the same end - to be overcome with a view to achieving some soul-making purpose. This is the position of Sri Aurobindo, “The discords of the world are God's discords and it is only by accepting and proceeding through them that we can arrive at the greater concords of his supreme harmony, the summits and thrilled vastnesses of his transcendent and his cosmic Ananda (Divine Joy).” The Adventure of Consciousness, p. 163

Eckhart Tolle writes that without suffering we would “not evolve as human beings and would remain shallow, identified with the external form of things. Suffering drives you deeper. The paradox is that suffering is caused by identification with form and erodes identification with form.” A New Earth, pp. 101-102

Jesus recognized that horrific events were a necessary part of God's world of soul-making, and people would be held responsible, "Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to fall (suffer)! Such tests must come, but woe to the person through whom they come." Matthew 18:7

Buddhism begins its whole system of teaching with dukkha, or displocation, the prerequisite for getting conscious and achieving enlightenment. This sounds a lot like Carl Jung's comical obervation that we spend the first half of life growing and ego and the second half deflating it. The Buddhist might say we spend the first few lifetimes achieving 'endarkenment' that we might seek enlightenment in the next several incarnations.


In some of my New Thought classes, I felt there was a neglect, if not outright denial, of the necessity and normalcy of such problems. Even Jesus said that some sufferings are not the result of any human will, but that the 'work of God' might be made manifest (John 9), and he seemed to be quoting God's words to Moses in Exodus 4:11 which say that God "makes people blind and deaf as well as seeing and hearing." And I do not believe it is true just because it's in the Bible, but New Thought teachers put a lot of stock in Jesus' teachings, as do I.

I see life as a soul-making process which includes the so called positive and negative as equally normal and necessary. That does not mean that we should seek, create, remain in or glorify pain and suffering – but neither should we deny that it is a central piece of the Creative Design for soul-making. I can agree with Holmes when he writes that there 'can be no Intelligence in the Universe that wishes man to be sick, suffer pain, be unhappy and end in oblivion,' but I see two separate ideas in his statement. No Intelligence may 'wish' for humans to suffer, just as no algebra teacher may 'wish' for her math student to agonize over the algebraic formula. But it has nothing to do with the teacher's wishes or personal feelings, and everything to do with the nature of a learning course which requires some amount of struggle in order to advance to the next level.

I see Spiritual Mind Treatment as a means to remind us of our Union with God the Good even when we feel disconnected - to *affirm healing, prosperity and wholeness – and to give thanks, then to let go of the outcome as Jesus did in the garden of Gethsemane, surrendering to the perfect will of God the Good even when it meant crucifixion. Yes, the resurrection did follow - but prior to that outcome, Jesus apprehended the Good through a mind founded on faith while in the midst of unimaginable suffering. As Aurobindo says, " is only by accepting and proceeding through them..."

See Part II

*The word affirm is etymologically related to the Indo-European root word dharma (foundation), which morphed into adhere and eventually affirm. The idea seems to be that an affirmation is adhering, by faith, to a universal, purposeful foundation.

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