Bloom (1992) traces American religion to Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was often quoted by Unity's Charles Fillmore and also happens to be called the "intellectual father of New Thought" by other scholars (Braden, 1963, p. 35). According to Bloom, Emerson's vision of the self as divine has become a pervasive belief in American religion. "The God of the American Religion is an experiential God, so radically within our own being as to become a virtual identity with what is most authentic (oldest and best) in the self. Much of early Emerson hovers near this vision of God" (p. 259). This belief is a main component of the Unity philosophy, which emphasizes the experience of God through the meditative act of connecting with the higher self or Christ spirit which is present in every person. Unity's teaching that Jesus was an example of how that Christ spirit could be manifested totally in human form follows Bloom's description of Jesus in the American religion: "Jesus is not a first-century Jew, but a nineteenth- or twentieth- century American, whose principal difference from other Americans is that he already has risen from the dead. Having mastered this knowledge, he teaches it to whom he will" (p. 65). In response to a question regarding who Jesus was, 43 percent of Unity respondents answered that he was God or the son of God; 22 percent said he was another religious leader like Mohammed or Buddha; and 8 percent said a combination of both answers. In addition, 25 percent either clarified their choices or wrote their own definition which pictured Jesus as a wayshower who set an example of what all people should be able to do. "Jesus is our brother and the first to fully express the Christ within. We are all capable of this — if only we would try" (respondent no. 15), wrote one 73-year-old man who is a Unity member. Similarly, a 26-year-old female member wrote, "Jesus Christ spiritualized his humanity, expressing to the highest his God-nature, as an example of what each of us can do" (respondent no. 16).
If, as Bloom contends, American religion has hearkened back to Emerson's view of the divinity of humanity, perhaps Unity is growing because it is able to unquestionably and publicly affirm that belief. The most conservative and charismatic churches, which are also growing, tap into this idea with the personal experience of God through the process of being saved. Although these churches teach that Jesus was the only son of God8, they also teach that believers must take Jesus into their hearts. Thus, the act of being saved is the act of inviting divinity to reside within them. Other conservative churches teach worshippers to cultivate an individual relationship with God which carries the idea of the divinity of humanity. For example, Cora, a Baptist who uses Silent Unity and Daily Word, said Unity's teaching of the Christ within does not contradict her religious upbringing.
Because we'd been in a Baptist church, you always had a relationship with God as individual. . . . It's always been expressed that you worship God, and that your soul was Christ. I remember once when a minister said that there's a God-shaped vacuum inside of everyone and all you have to do is look inside and you'll find it. So that was something I've heard all my life.
Many mainline churches, on the other hand, generally have no avenue in their theologies for expressing notions of the divinity of humanity to their general congregations. It is true that the idea of the divinity of humanity may be pursued by the more mystical members of the mainline faiths, and that it may not be rejected completely if the issue should arise. But because it does not hold a strong place in mainline theology, many churches may be ambivalent about what they should teach. It is this ambivalence which could contribute to a decline in attendance and membership, which will be addressed in the following chapter on church growth.
- One of the main charges of heresy against Unity stems from the teaching that everyone has a spark of God within them, and that Jesus Christ provided an example of what everyone should be able to do.
© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.