Futurists John Naisbitt and Patricia Aburdene (1990) argue in Megatrends 2000 that Unity "is about the closest thing to organized religion in which the eclectic modern New Ager could feel comfortable" (p. 283) What they call "the largest nondenominational church outside mainstream religion" (p. 283) fills the 3,000 seats of Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall in New York City for weekly services. They note that the Unity Church in Seattle doubled membership in the four years before 1990, and its area chapters have a 25,000-strong mailing list. Naisbitt quotes a Seattle Unity spokesperson as describing the church as "not really a New Age church, but a very liberal church that allows its members to investigate other religions" (p. 283).
Unity's pamphlet New Age, New Thought: A Unity Perspective explains the movement's philosophy of openness and respect for all religions and philosophies while also making it clear that Unity does not accept everything that an individual who worships with Unity accepts.
The fact that Unity leaves one free to accept as much or as little as is helpful does not mean that Unity does not have a teaching; the freedom of the individual is a tenet of Unity's teaching. Although Unity feels that different teachings and beliefs may be helpful to different individuals, this does not mean that Unity accepts these different teachings as its own. (Unity Movement Advisory Council, n.d., p. 6)
This dichotomy of freedom for the individual within an organization which places limits on its teachings can be traced back to Charles Fillmore's disagreements with the International New Thought Alliance in 1905. "The New Thought Federation is attempting to carry this load of thought diversity, and I can see no success in it. There are too many lines of thought to harmonize. When I hear what to me is rank error set forth by New Thought speakers, I protest, and say, 'If this is New Thought, I must find a new name for my philosophy'" (Freeman, 1965, p. 104). Fillmore's disapproval was aimed at spiritualism, which would be called channeling today, along with astrology, numerology, tarot cards and similar practices which would fall into the New Age category.
Although the Unity School of Christianity officially and historically distances itself from such New Age concepts as crystals, astrology and channeling, the open philosophy and lax organizational structure allow individual members, as well as individual churches, to delve into any imaginable topic. While the message is more consistent in Unity School, the churches have greater latitude for what they teach, depending on the minister and the community. For example, Dell deChant (1993), a Unity minister and professor at the University of South Florida, surveyed ten percent of Unity churches and found that the majority offered programs that are either not included in or are antithetical to the original Unity teachings. Among these offerings are classes in A Course in Miracles, a popular book and philosophy which was channeled and therefore is labeled New Age. But Rosemary Fillmore Rhea (1996), granddaughter of the founders and an administrator for Silent Unity, said in an interview that most of the teachings of the Course are compatible with what Unity teaches, regardless of its origins, and regardless of what label it carries.
The philosophies of New Thought and New Age have many similarities as well as differences, which are outlined well in New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality by C. Alan Anderson and Deborah G. Whitehouse (1995). Many of the similarities stem from the basic belief in both philosophies that people are inherently good rather than evil. This leads to an optimistic philosophy in which all things are possible. In addition, both philosophies teach that individuals co-create reality with God and that God can be found within each individual. One of the major differences between Unity and New Age is based upon different interpretations of this last tenet. Since God can be found within the individual, Unity teaches that students should turn within and develop a relationship with that innate divinity rather than seeking spiritual guidance from other entities through channeling. "If Unity has one cardinal teaching, it is that the true spirit of God, to which we all should turn and listen, is within us. The way to God is not through a channel or any other intermediary. You must make the quest for yourself and in yourself (Unity Movement Advisory Council, n.d., p. 11).
In communities, however, churches are defined as much, if not more, by the people who participate as by its theology. If a Unity church attracts a large following of people who also practice astrology, or work with crystals, or participate in anything else which is considered New Age, the community may perceive that Unity church as a New Age church. The risk in this situation is the loss of Unity participants who, like Charles Fillmore, wish to stick to the practical Christianity which forms the basis of the philosophy. In the survey for this research, 48 percent of all respondents (67 percent from the retreat and 39 percent from Albuquerque) agreed to the statement "I consider myself to have a "New Age" philosophy. On the other hand, 22 percent of the total (17 percent from the retreat and 25 percent from Albuquerque) disagreed. This diversity opens up the potential difficulty of balancing the feelings of these two groups. A good example of what could happen is found in Maria, who grew up in Unity but no longer attends a Unity church because she says it is too New Age.
Now the way they talk about spirituality almost makes it sound weird. I guess I would be a liberal, but not wild. I come from a background where certain things are done. There are certain ways of acting. You know, you don't put your feet on the table; anything doesn't go. . . . I did not feel that the Unity church was the right place for me.
© 1997, Rebecca Gittrich Whitecotton
All rights reserved by the author.
Reprinted with permission.