The bad news of positive thinking
Pioneers: from Quimby to Murphy
The teaching of positive thinking (PT) is mostly spread through books (and now, of course, the internet). Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking), Robin Sharma (The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari), Napoleon Hill (Think and Grow Rich), Louise L. Hay (You Can Heal Your Life), Brian Tracy (Goals! How to Get Everything You Want - Faster Than You Ever Thought Possible) – they all have an enormous influence through their writing. Although some of these authors are already dead (like Murphy), almost regularly new prophets appear with their own bestsellers. It is now hip to become a mental, business or whatever trainer and help people to think in the right way.
Before we turn to the father of the movement I want to quote from Robin Sharma. This Uganda born forty-something Canadian became converted to spirituality and positive thinking, as he said, after pursuing his career as a lawyer. He calls himself a family man – a single-parent loving his children; he admires Mother Theresa. His "Monk" became a mega-bestseller, his books are flooding the bookstores. In these he varies the basic message of all PT proponents: replace undesirable thoughts with uplifting one. Sharma is constantly repeating thoughts like "expand your dreams" or "don't accept a life of mediocrity when you hold such infinite potential within the fortress of your mind. Dare to tap into greatness. It's your birthright." And in typical PT fashion: "Wipe our every thought of not achieving your objectives, whether they are material or spiritual. Be brave, set not limits on the workings of your imagination. Never be a prisoner of your past. Become the architect of your future."
This is a mixture consisting mostly of banalities and half-truths, but the packaging is almost perfect. Almost all these trainers are stressing spirituality. Sharma is even practicing his kind of Quiet Time like evangelicals! "One must devote an hour every morning to self-mastery and personal development. It's the holy [!] hour... During my holy hour I write my journal [sounds familiar again], read inspirational books [one of these is, probably, the Bible], review my goals and plans, and I simply make the time to think."
But let us now turn to Joseph Murphy (1898–1981), one of the fathers of the PT movement. His most important book is "The Power of Your Subconscious Mind". There are some 20 chapters in it on how our mind and body work, mental healing in ancient and modern times and, first of all, techniques on how to get what you want – health, wealth, success, relationship, happiness etc. The basic message is "you will become what you think", therefore think positive, and there will be positive results – "Change your thoughts, and you change your destiny."
This is achieved by different techniques, most important are positive visualization and auto-suggestion. "Unite mentally and emotionally with the good you wish to embody, and the creative powers of your subconscious will respond accordingly".
Murphy believes in a "universal spiritual power" in our mind, which he calls "the treasure house within you". "Miracles will happen to you, too – when you begin using the magic power of your subconscious mind". He often quotes from the Bible, tries to connect with biblical truth. But the Bible verses are used as pure formula, and the truth of God's word is most often distorted as in these sentences: "This miracle-working power of your subconscious mind can heal you of your sickness; make you vital and strong again. In learning how to use your inner powers, you will open the prison door of fear and enter into a life described by Paul as the glorious liberty of the sons of God [Rm 8,21]".
Murphy praises himself for his simplicity, his "down-to-earth practicality". He always presents "simple, usable techniques and formulas". Obviously, he is very fond of the superlative, since making distinctions is absolutely foreign to him. The "wonderful, magical, transforming power" of our mind will "liberate you completely from the limitations of poverty, failure, misery, lack, and frustration".
You will not find any negative word in his books, Murphy is always positive in all ways, stressing our "inalienable right to live, liberty, freedom and peace of mind", repeating over and over again that we "were born to be rich". Of course, he wants to evade from pure egocentrism and sometimes, concerning the final benefits of PT, can sound more 'generous’: "to bring forth spiritual, mental, and material riches, which will bless humanity in countless ways".
In Murphy's world sin, illness, suffering do not really exist. "There is no virtue whatsoever in poverty, which in actual fact is a mental disease, and it should be abolished from the face of the earth".
Christians are sceptical of sentences like this but then they are deluded again by Murphy's many advices which usually come along very religious. He encourages, for example, to "pray effectively": "Scientific prayer is the harmonious interaction of the conscious and subconscious levels of mind scientifically directed for a specific purpose... the realm of infinite power within you enabling you to get what you really want in life." He goes on: "the answer to prayer results when the individual’s subconscious mind responds to the mental picture or thought in his mind. This law of belief is operating in all religions of the world and is the reason why they are psychologically true".
Here prayer is not a communication between two persons – us and the infinite, almighty Person above, the Creator. Prayer is basically auto-suggestion, talking to oneself, it is happening just in us, our subconscious mind responds. And this is said to be a common psychological principle for all people, believer or not, and that is why it works in all religions.
Thus we must not be deceived by this kind of religious language. His re-definition of prayer is not the only example. In the text "Supreme Mastery of Fear" Murphy is asking "Who is your Lord and master this very moment?" Good question. And there is some truth in his answer, of course. "Your Lord is your predominant, mental attitude; it is your conviction or belief about yourself, people, and things; this Lord can be a tyrant." Then he says that "fear is a lack of faith or trust in God, which is a denial of His Omnipotence." He quotes Ps 27,1 "The Lord is my light and my salvation". Murphy even goes on and explains that "'the Lord’ referred to is the Lord God, or the law of God or good." But right now he turns everything all over: "To put the law of good into operation, thereby banishing fear once and for all, enthrone in your mind the thoughts of power, courage, and confidence. These thoughts will generate a corresponding mood or feeling, which will banish the arch enemy of your success and health."
This "Lord" is not the Lord of heaven and earth but it is, in the end, us, our thoughts on the throne (and/or an abstract, non-personal cosmic law). This is almost perfect twisting of the Bible! Again we see clearly that Murphy's message is a 'gospel’ of self-redemption. Yes, there is "faith" in his books all over, but you have to believe in yourself, in your own power.
Murphy was not the first who came up with this kind of teaching. PT has quite deep roots which we could trace until ancient Gnosticism. Here I just want to mention three of the important forefathers. They all belong to the broad movement of New Thought, comprising 'denominations’ like Christian Science, Divine Science, Religious Science, Mental Science, Unity, Higher Thought, Mind Cure and so on. They emerged in the USA in the second half of the 19th century and are all forerunners of the New Age movement. There is much overlapping between New Thought and New Age teaching.
New Thought started with Phineas Parkhurst Quimby (1802–1866), founder of Transcendentalism. According to Quimby, healing is a consequence of patients believing that a medicine or other treatment is effective; there is no casual connection between medical prescription and resultant cures. This sounds much like our principle from the first lecture. There I said that there is a connection between believe and result. But Quimby states that disease is only a mental problem and that health depends upon a mental cure only. He was the first to speak about the "science of healing".
In 1897 Ralph Waldo Trine (1866–1958) published his book "In Tune with the Infinite: Fullness of Peace, Power and Plenty" – a title in today's PT wording. He proposed a kind of rational magic, emphasized a technique of visualization that actually turns ideas into material realities. "Ideas have occult power", Trine said, they "are the seeds that actualize material conditions". He elevated mind to a divine status.
Most influential of all New Thought prophets was Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882). From 1835 through 1870 he was the most respected and influential religious teacher in the USA! Emerson was influenced by Emanuel Swedenborg, the 18th century Swedish mystic, Jakob Bohme and the Hindu writings Upanishads.
Emerson taught that the crucial component in religion is individual consciousness, not doctrine, creed or ceremony. He was very critical of the historical Christian doctrines, and the one he most consistently rejected was that of creation, of God and people as fundamentally distinct. In his pantheistic understanding of divinity, God is not a divine judge or father, but rather a spirit present in all physical objects. The individual is divine – "I am part or particle of God", Emerson said.
He accepted the fundamental teaching of the Eastern religions that all is One, monism, rejecting all dualism. In his essay "The Over-soul" Emerson wrote: "We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles". But in reality, "the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one", finally only "the eternal ONE" exists which is the universal soul.
Everyone is one essence with God; there is no objective God out there, only oneself. Therefore, as Murphy said, "The Self of me is God". This is the cornerstone of all New Thought (and PT) doctrine. If this is not the case, if there is a fundamental difference between us and God, if we are not God, then virtually every major point of their teaching is nullified.
"Nothing can bring you peace but yourself", Emerson said. Place your trust only in your self. New Thought proclaimed a religion of the Self. This message stuck, and thus Emerson became the father of all today's motivational speakers.
In New Thought all elements of PT are already there. The Declaration of Principles of the New Thought Alliance speaks about the "oneness of God and humankind", "the universe is the body of God, spiritual in essence, governed by God through laws which are spiritual in reality". "Divine Nature expressing Itself through us manifests itself as health, wisdom, love, life, truth, power, peace, beauty, joy".
The latest hype: "The Law of Attraction"
Every PT prophet is giving a certain spin to his or her message. So does Rhonda Byrne in her 2006 film "The Secret". Soon after that a book with the same title was published (in Lithuania "The Secret-paslaptis"). In the documentary Australian film producer and author Byrne (b. 1951) shows how we can achieve "all-powerful knowledge": "The Secret reveals the most powerful law of the universe and explains how anyone can use this law to create unlimited happiness, love, health, and prosperity in their lives", it is said on the film's webpage.
Byrne presents, as almost every PT proponent, a scientific explanation for her beliefs: "Let me explain how you are the most powerful transmission tower in the Universe. In simple terms, all energy vibrates at a frequency. Being energy, you also vibrate at a frequency, and what determines your frequency at any time is whatever you are thinking and feeling. All the things you want are made of energy, and they are vibrating too…"
It is true that in the brain we can detect electro-magnetic processes. But a single thought does not have a frequency, we are not sending a magnetic wave or "signals to the universe" – all this is purely nonsense. Like all New Age thinkers quantum physics is horribly misused, and Einstein's famous law of the equivalency of energy and mass is reduced to a simple "everything is energy" which than has to explain but anything. Yes, energy "is never destroyed", but that does not mean that as "we send it out, and it comes back".
On this faulty physics Byrne establishes her "Law of Attraction": "Here is the 'wow’ factor. When you think about what you want, and you emit that frequency, you cause the energy of what you want to vibrate at that frequency and you bring it to You! As you focus on what you want, you are changing the vibration of the atoms of that thing, and you are causing it to vibrate to You…" (see illustration)
So what we focus on in our thinking and feeling is attracted. If we think in the right way, "The Law of Attraction will give you what you want – all the time". Byrne gives an concrete example of what we can achieve by all this: "I never studied science or physics at school, and yet when I read complex books on quantum physics I understood them perfectly because I wanted to understand them." This is good news for all students! And it explains why she understands physics almost totally wrong…
So there is little warrant for this worldview, yet the Law of Attraction attracts an awful of people. Maybe it is because it lets us think so highly of ourselves: "You are God in a physical body. You are Spirit in the flesh. You are Eternal Life expressing itself as You. You are a cosmic being. You are all power. You are all wisdom. You are all intelligence. You are perfection. You are magnificence. You are the creator, and you are creating the creation of You on this planet." And the closing words of the book:
"The earth turns on its orbit for You, The oceans ebb and flow for You. The sun rises and sets for You. The stars come out for You. Every beautiful thing you see, every wondrous thing you experience, is all there, for You. Take a look around. None of it can exist, without You. No matter who you thought you were, now you know the Truth of Who You Really Are. You are the master of the Universe. You are the heir to the kingdom. You are the perfection of life. And now you know The Secret".
"What you think about, you bring about" – this is supposed to be good news. "We are the Michelangelo of our life", is said in the film. Again, this sounds great. But our reality is different. There are just a few people gifted as Michelangelo was. We simply do not have and cannot unleash this infinite potential in us – because it is not there. So in trying "to be a Michelangelo" we take upon ourselves a much too heavy burden. In the end the good news becomes bad news. But more on this later.
"The Secret" is made very professionally and demonstrates how gifted Byrne is – if not as a scientist, but as media producer and promoter. And she received help from very prominent figures like talk-master and TV celebrity Oprah Winfrey who endorsed the film openly. Therefore the book quickly climbed the bestseller lists in many countries (in August on no. 2 of the "Vaga" and the "baltos lankos" lists of non-fictional books; Sharma's "Monk" on no. 4 [resp. 6], Murphy's "Subconscious Mind" on 9).
We have to add that Byrne did not invent this kind of teaching. And she is quite frank about that. She told interviewers (and this is also said in the film itself) that her inspiration for creating the film and book was her exposure to Wallace D. Wattles's "The Science of Getting Rich". Wattles (1860–1911) was a influential New Thought writer who in his book explained how to become wealthy. Charles F. Haanel (1866–1949), author of "The Master Key System" (1912/17) and quoted in "The Secret", also made an important impact on Byrne (as on N. Hill, too).
Light from the East: from "Star Wars" to Chopra
A very important trait of popular spirituality is the belief in life (or bio-) energy. This belief has found access to all the media. In the Star Wars films, for example, we are told that "The Force" is an invisible energy that fills the universe, that flows in and around us. Obi-wan Kenobi says: "The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It's an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together."
In Taoism this energy is called Chi, it is the fabric of the universe. Disease arises from an imbalance or blockage of the flow of life energy in the body. This energy can be adjusted, activated, channelled in order to treat illness or maximize health. This is the background for virtually all healing methods from the East. Here I will concentrate not on the interplay of Ying and Yang, Reiki, Acupuncture or Feng shui, but on Ayurveda.
Ayurveda is proudly called "the oldest existing medical system", based on Vedism from which Hinduism derived. Ayurvedic theory states that all imbalance and disease in the body begin with an imbalance or stress in the awareness, or consciousness, of the individual. The body is viewed as the physical expression of an underlying abstract field of intelligence or consciousness, thus consciousness is the basis of physiology. Ayurvedic physicians use mental techniques to treat diseases, to reduce stress and to develop each patient's consciousness. Here we recognize the similarity to PT principles.
Probably the most influential propagator of Ayurveda in the West is Deepak Chopra, born 1947 in India, now a US citizen. Chopra is an endocrinologist by education. He wrote dozens of book like Quantum Healing, Creating Health, Ageless Body/Timeless Mind, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, The Wisdom Within (CD), How to Know God – titles which perfectly fit into the PT pattern.
Fundamental to Chopra's teaching is, of course, monism: "One is all, all is one". Synonyms for the One he calls "field of all possibilities", "pure consciousness", "pure potentiality", "field of energy". Chopra says:
"Your body is not separate from the universe...The larger quantum field, the universe, is your extended body. The physical universe is nothing other than the Self curving back within Itself to experience Itself as spirit, mind, and physical matter. In other words, all processes of creation are processes through which the Self or divinity expresses itself."
A dramatic shift or change, a quantum leap, in consciousness or awareness brings about healing or a least a significant improvement in one's condition. Chopra promotes meditation and an altered state of consciousness, "through regular practice we gain access to the infinite storehouse of knowledge, the ultimate reality of creation."
We have to tap into the "field of pure potentiality" to generate whatever version of reality we desire. The aging process is an illusion. The physical body, according to Chopra, is "a device for controlling energy. It can generate, store and expend energy." If we know how to rule this process "we can create an amount of wealth", "anything you want, anytime you want, and with the least effort". We can achieve total success which "includes good health, energy and enthusiasm for life, fulfilling relationships, creative freedom, emotional and psychological stability, a sense of well-being, and peace of mind."
In typical PT fashion Chopra proposes self-affirmations:
"I have the power within me to heal myself. I am awakening to this wisdom within me. Freedom, love and bliss are my natural states of being. The infinite flow of the universe is within me. My body is ageless, timeless and boundless. I am in touch with my divine nature every day... My body is a concentration of the energy of the universe. The knowledge of the universe is within me... My body is part of the universal body."
We are, at our core, perfect and divine.
Chopra even wrote a book with the title How to Know God. But its spirit is totally foreign to that of the famous evangelist. Even those "who do not consider themselves religious can have the direct experience of God", Chopra says. And he directly denies core elements of biblical truth: "the only character in the episode of Adam and Eve and the apple who seems to tell the truth is the serpent". According to Chopra, "you will be like God" is true and desirable, and this is logical: the serpent's invitation to become godly is the primary quest of monism.
How to Know God is a book full of Scripture twisting: "When Jesus said 'I am the light,’ he meant 'I am totally in God's force field’." Everything there has this positive spin, we are even without sin, because the concept of offending God is meaningless: "In the eyes of the spirit, everyone is innocent, in all senses of the word. Because you are innocent, you have not done anything that merits punishment or divine wrath... Everyone can get in touch with the seed of God that is inside."
Chopra is teaching Eastern non-dualism, and this also means that there are no categories such as right and wrong, good and evil. Therefore it is important "to get away from definitions, labels, descriptions, evaluations, analyses, and judgment, for all these create turbulence in our internal dialogue." We have to "create silence in our mind" by not judging.
What is left? When it comes down to the questions of everyday life he recommends: "the best for you to do is to ask your heart for guidance". This sounds familiar again. But such an advice is, first of all, not biblical – at least not without strict qualification: God can guide us through longings he puts in our heart, and he wants us to develop a heart for him, but we have to ask him and listen to him and his word. Chopra's advice is firmly placed, and we have to keep this very carefully in mind, in a monistic worldview which says that this heart is divine and therefore can give guidance.
Evangelical defectors: from Schuller to Osteen
PT was also quite influential in the evangelical movement. I will concentrate on two major proponents in our ranks who also, unfortunately, have turned the Gospel into bad news.
Pastor of the Chrystal Cathedral and TV-preacher Robert Schuller (b. 1926) coined terms like "power ideas" or "possibility thinking". He encourages Christians to see the "unlimited potential" of the church. "Achieve your true potential through power thinking" – together promise and exhortation.
Schuller thinks that pastors have to give optimistic, inspirational talks; they must not "try to preach heavy theology". Not "heavy" not only means not too complicated but also light in the sense of easy to accept. He once invited N.V. Peale to his church, and Schuller quotes from Peale's message: "What would Jesus Christ have to say to you if he could stand here and talk to you through me? Would he tell you what miserable sinner you are?.. No, I don't think so... I think he would immediately begin telling you what great people you can become if you will only let His Holy Spirit of faith, hope and love fill every ounce and fibre of your being".
Peale had a powerful impact on Schuller who came to the conclusion that we have to move from a "theo-centric" focus to a "human needs approach". Self-esteem became the centre, and this leads to a re-definition of sin: "Sin is an act of thought that robs myself or another human being of his or her self-esteem." This is nothing else but a serious distortion of biblical theology which defines sin as breaking God's law and offending him.
Schuller's message is supposed to be positive in its approach. But some book titles alone like "If It's Going to Be, It's Up to Me" or "Love or Loneliness: You Decide" reveal the heavy burden this teaching puts on us: in the end it's up to me; I have to decide. This is the result of a rejection of the theo-centric focus.
Joel Osteen is the Schuller of the baby-boomers. The 1963 born pastor of Lakewood Church in Houston (one of the biggest congregation in the world!) is now everywhere – in TV shows and on the bookshelves, smiling from the covers of his bestsellers (also on secular lists!) "Your Best Life Now" and "Become a Better You" (recently his wife Victoria joined him as an author with "Love Your Life - Living Happy, Healthy and Whole", and again these titles alone say a lot). Part of his success is his image of a charming next-door-neighbor who loves his family and always has something nice to say.
Osteen decidedly wants to focus on "the positive". The "positive" message he proclaims is this: Do better. Try harder. Believe you can succeed. In other words, you can change! Just do it! God will help you, of course, but you have to make it happen. Basically, God is there for you and your happiness. He has some rules and principles for getting what you want out of life and if you follow them, you can have what you want.
Osteen answers his critics in the following way: "I focus on the positive. Sin and punishment and all that isn’t my message. I want to help people and don’t want to beat them down all the time." Yes, there is no condemnation in Osteen's message for failing to fulfil God's law. On the other hand, there is no justification. There is an upbeat moralism that is somewhere in the middle: Do your best, follow the instructions I give you, and God will make your life successful. "You do your part, and God will do his part". "Sure we have our faults," he concedes, but "the good news is, God loves us anyway."
A "God-Loves-You-Anyway" gospel is the result of despising "heavy" theology. In this gospel there's no need for Christ as our mediator, since God is never quite as holy and we are never quite as morally perverse as to require nothing short of Christ's death in our place. God is our buddy. He just wants us to be happy, and the Bible gives us the roadmap. It is all about happiness here and now, not being reconciled to a holy God who saves us from ourselves. All gravity is lost, both the gravity of our problem and of God's amazing grace.
For Osteen hard struggle or fight is not the essence of the Christian life. "If you will simply obey his commands, He will change things in your favor." That's all: "…simply obey his commands." Reformed theologian Michael Horton comments:
"Everything depends on us, but it's easy. One wonders if he has ever had a crisis of doubt or moral failure that stripped him naked in God's presence. Osteen seems to think that we are basically good people and God has a very easy way for us to save ourselves—not from his judgment, but from our lack of success in life—with his help. "God is keeping a record of every good deed you've ever done," he says—as if this is good news. "In your time of need, because of your generosity, God will move heaven and earth to make sure you are taken care of."
"Encourage yourself in the Lord" – Osteen's blog entry from July 13th is based on 1 Sam 30,6 which the NIV (much better) translates "David found strength in the Lord his God". The preacher from Texas turns to the readers with the advice "to learn to encourage yourself." Of course he says true things too but then he sounds like any PT preacher:
"When times get tough and things aren't going your way and you feel like giving up on your dreams, deep down in your spirit there has to be a resolve, strength on the inside that says, "I refuse to settle where I am. I know God has a great plan for my life, and I'm going to keep pressing forward to become everything that He's created me to be."
But, some may object, Osteen is stressing the importance of having a "personal relationship with Jesus"?! Shouldn't that be enough? Can we say that he denies central elements of the Gospel? Indeed Osteen claims the evangelical label, but he also regards a Mormon like Mitt Romney as a brother in Christ. And one can get the impression from his messages that it is this "personal relationship" which actually saves us. In the end we gain God's favor and blessing through a series of works that we perform. God has set up all these laws and now it's up to us to follow them so that we can be blessed. Once again Horton's sharp evaluation:
"Though Osteen claims he has positive sermons, I believe he is proclaiming the most negative, unmerciful message possible! Osteen is giving people burdened by sin, guilt and despair more reason to despair... Osteen’s idea of "good news" is telling self-centred people to look for salvation in more narcissism! Osteen’s preaching is like giving sugar to a diabetic, telling people that the magic medicine will help them, when in fact, it is speeding up their death."
Osteen does not believe in the divinity of man or our soul, he is no monist or pantheist. In his Statement of believe he confesses the inerrancy of the Bible, the Trinity etc. But as Christians we must not be deceived too easily. The statement's last sentence says that God "intends for each of us to experience the abundant life He has in store for us". In other words, God's plan for us is prosperity. Compare this with the Westminster Catechism's first answer.
All kinds of PT teaching sound good but finally they are bad news for us. Recently I saw the book "Happiness in Your Hands – How to rule oneself and one's life" (my translation from Lithuanian) by Andrej Kurpatov. I don't know if this young Russian psychiatrist is a PT proponent but the title sounds like this. It is half-true. Self-control is a biblical virtue. But it denies the Lordship of God – it is he who is in control of our life. And it is no Good News at all – happiness and my life are not in my hands.
But what about the big success of all these preachers? In Osteen's case his almost magical success functions as proof that his message is true. May 40.000 visitors each week be wrong? But we have to keep in mind that numbers proof nothing, and that humans after the Fall are foolish and very often deny the truth. This is stressed both by Old and New Testament: "They say to their seers, 'See no more visions!’ and to the prophets, 'Give us no more visions of what is right! Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions... and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!" (Isa 30,10–11) "The time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching eras want to hear." (2 Ti 4,3)
Based on a lecture given at the Baltic Christian medical students summer camp, Aukštadvaris, July 15-19th.