From New Theology to New Thought
Hi Friends —
The following is from chapter 9 of a book that will be coming out soon, Credo of a Metaphysical Christian: 25 Insights into Metaphysical Religion and Unity Ministry from the founder of TruthUnity.net. Portions of this were sent out a few days ago, on Christmas Eve. But I'm sending out the full chapter now because, to the best of my knowledge, it's entirely new material for people in Unity. That is subtle way of saying that I'm going out on a limb. I will be grateful for your candid replies.
As said in the previous chapter, metaphysical Christians look to the Greek concept of Mind, Idea and Expression as their primary meta-narrative. There is, however, another equally important strain of western thinking that flows into metaphysical Christianity, that which was initially called the New Theology but which we would refer to today as liberal theology.
The New Theology came to be a theological response to three overwhelming developments: Isaac Newton’s new understandings of the laws of physics in the 17th century that challenged our understanding of the heavens, the geological discoveries of the 18th century that challenged our understanding of the earth and the biological discoveries of the 19th century that challenged our understanding of humanity and life.
These challenges gave rise to what Sydney Ahlstrom refers to as “The Golden Age of Liberal Theology”1 which embraced what these new understandings had to say and recognized them as simply new revelations of truth. The effect was that theological explanations of how the cosmos worked, how the earth was created and how human beings came to be were replaced by scientific and historical explanations. Modernity, which had begun 400 four hundred years earlier, came into fruition in the second half of the 19th century. Truth was no longer revealed by God and interpreted by theological authorities. Truth now rested in scientific discovery and the controlled experiment.
Religious authority shifted from theologians to sectarian groups inside the church, such as the Unitarians who split from Congregationalist who had kept calvinist beliefs and to those outside the church, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Robert Ingersoll who had left the church altogether.
Liberal theology found its natural home in two places — in the theological seminaries, most notably the most prestigious Congregational seminary, Harvard, and in independently published books and magazines, such as Lyman Abbott’s The Outlook and, as I will argue, Charles Fillmore’s Unity publications.
From New Theology to New Thought. New Thought, Unity and its theology of metaphysics is not normally associated with what we call today liberal theology. There are certainly important differences. But Sydney Ahlstrom’s chapter concludes by noting that there were also significant differences within liberal theology itself. Ahlstrom writes,
On the issue of revelation, thinkers parted ways over interrelated questions as to the authority of Scriptures, the Church, and formal creeds. Related to all of these concerns was the question of Christ’s nature and mission. Here as in the controversy over religion, two distinctive tendencies emerged. The “Evangelical Liberals” were those determined to maintain the historical continuity of the Christian doctrinal and ecclesiastical tradition except insofar as modern circumstances required adjustment or change. Biblical study remained central, “Back to Christ” became a familiar slogan [and] the term “Progressive Orthodoxy … very accurately expresses the purposes of the Evangelical Liberals.
… [on the other hand] “Modern Liberalism” may be used to designate a much smaller group of more radical theologians, men who took scientific method, scholarly discipline, empirical fact, and the prevailing forms of contemporary philosophy as their point of departure. From this perspective they approached religion as a human phenomenon … Emerson could be regarded as a prototype … William James [is a] more famous example.
My point in citing this observation by Ahlstrom is that what we know today as New Thought and metaphysical Christianity aligns very well with this description of Modern Liberalism. But we also see Evangelical Liberalism in Charles Fillmore’s quixotic insistence upon the “Jesus Christ standard” and in the importance he placed on metaphysical Bible interpretation.
Further, think for a moment about how the word science has been used in New Thought and Unity. Is it not fair to say that science has been our “point of departure”? Did not Unity start out declaring itself Christian Science? Further, does this not mean that our “point of departure” is for our religious authority, not necessarily for our religious practice?
As I implied in chapter 7, Metaphysics and Mysticism, authority in religious matters can be a real problem, unless you are a metaphysical Christian. In the world of science we have no difficulty recognizing that authority rests with proven truth. But most of mainstream Christianity continues to place authority in churches and traditions, which evolve over time, and in the opinions of theologians, who change much more rapidly. Let me stress that there are no authorities in metaphysical religion.
I recently wrote a piece entitled “Eight ideas in The Supernatural that you won’t find in mainstream Christianity”. It introduces a lecture by Lyman Abbott, a Congregational minister and advocate of the New Theology. The lecture was given in 1898 and it lists eight ideas from the New Theology that aligns very well with New Thought. And it makes the case that these ideas influenced our founders.
Lyman Abbott came to my attention when I observed that Emilie Cady quoted him in Lessons in Truth. She says “‘We talk to God; that is prayer. God talks to us; that is inspiration’ says Lyman Abbott.” Here are the eight ideas from Abbott’s lecture, with my interpretations:
1. God is not apart from nature and life, but in nature and life. Metaphysically understood, nature and life are not created, but rather they are expressed, by God, through divine ideals. This punctures the duality of heaven and earth, the supernatural from the natural. There is one presence.
2. Creation is continuous. As Eric Butterworth says, the Eternal is forever begetting the only begotten and our only obligation to God is to allow God to be God in us.
3. All events are providential. Many people do not know that providential means the protective care of God or nature as a spiritual power. Abbott declares that God’s providence is in all things, all events, all people. There is one power.
4. Revelation is progressive. God reveals divine nature to humanity as humanity has the capacity to accept it. In earlier times this was through revelation, in modern times has been through discovery, and in more recent times it is through our ability to not only understand but to understand in compassionate ways. But in all times, revelation comes as consciousness is expanded.
5. Forgiveness is through the law, not in violation of it. Forgiveness does not erase the penalty of sin (shame), nor the effect of sin (disease) but rather releases the desire to hold on to sinful conditions, thereby releasing the cause of shame and disease. Forgiveness is obtained through a transformation of human desire, not confession.
6. Sacrifice is the divine method of life-giving. Sacrifice, for Abbott, is continuing to love regardless of the state of that which is loved. Sacrifice does not give life by vicarious suffering but rather by the transformation of the subject of our love.
7. Incarnation is not consummated until God dwells in all humanity. We are more than creatures made in the nature and image of God. We are, as Abbott says, manifestations of God, known to metaphysical Christians as begotten. As begotten children, God’s presence dwells.
8. Jesus Christ is seen to be the first-born of many brethren. Abbott reminds us that there may be differing degrees of divinity, but only one kind. That kind of divinity that dwelt in Jesus also dwells in each of us. Our task is to raise it up.
The reason I created this web page is because I believe the ideas contained in the New Theology reflect ideas about the nature of God and humanity that flowed in to New Thought, Unity and metaphysical Christianity.
Further, these ideas remain vitally relevant today. They can help us understand not only evolution, but also many forms of change we are confronted with today — changes in climate, changes in world order, changes in race relations, changes in sex relations, changes in our understanding of gender.
How metaphysical Christianity contributes to the historic Christian faith. Ahlstrom concludes his chapter discussing the significance of liberalism. He writes,
The single most vital fact therefore, is that the liberals led the Protestant churches into the world of modern science, scholarship, philosophy, and global knowledge. They domesticated modern religious ideas. They forced a confrontation between traditional orthodoxies and the new grounds for religious skepticism exposed during the nineteenth century, and thus carried forward what the Enlightenment had begun. As a result, they precipitated the most fundamental controversy to wrack the churches since the age of the Reformation.
I find two interesting things coming out of what Ahlstrom is saying. First is that there is nothing non-Christian about having science as a starting point for religious authority. Any Catholic or Evangelical theologian who tries to place Unity’s teachings outside of the historic Christian faith ought to challenge much of mainstream Christian denominations as well, particularly Congregationalists and Episcopalians. Those who impune Unity as a sect or cult are disingenuous. They ought to pick on a denomination their own size.
Second, if it may be said that the New Theology attached the churches to modern science then it may also be said that metaphysical Christianity has attached the churches to the foundations of science — Greek metaphysics. As I have previously said, we begin our spiritual claims by asking “do you believe in geometry, in medicine, in ethics?”
That is vitally important to we who live in a postmodern, post-Christian culture because it places the foundational authority of our claims not in “what we confess” and certainly not in “what we feel” but rather in what has brought to western civilization modern medicine, advanced science and democratic government. In other words, it may be rightfully claimed that Greek metaphysical teachings about the ultimate reality of God is the counterpart to much of our modern understanding of life.
Are you an ethical, experiential or philosophical metaphysical Christian? Before I move on, I want to highlight another observation Ahlstrom has made about the New Theology. He writes that there were fundamental disagreements among liberal theologians on two large issues: on the nature of religion and on the nature of revelation.
First, there were moralists who, quoting Walter Rauschenbusch, insisted on “the fundamental truth that religion and ethics are inseparable, and that ethical conduct is the supreme and sufficient religious act”. We see these moralists today in those who advocate for “spiritual social action.” Ahlstrom goes on to say that there were also those who placed ethics within the “context of a more comprehensive effort to deal with the general phenomenon of religion”. We see these types in those who, like Charles Fillmore, believe that human progress and justice will come only when we have transformation of the individual.
But Ahlstrom goes on to say that of those who stress individual transformation there are two types. One group were those “who stood in the tradition of Scheiermacher and William James (not to mention the Puritans and John Wesley), who put great value upon ‘being religious’ and upon analyzing religious feeling. For them the religious consciousness and Christian experience were central, and in philosophy they often tended to intuitionism, subjectivism, and mysticism” (My emphasis). A second group, says Ahlstrom “was less interested in experience (thought they might treasure it deeply and build upon it) than in metaphysics and the philosophy of religion” (Again, my emphasis).
I don’t believe we could find a better illustration that distinguishes the mystical and metaphysical perspective we find today in metaphysical Christianity. That is to say it just may be that we in Unity today could place ourselves in one of three general categories of metaphysical Christian, which Ahlstrom calls the “ethical, experiential, and philosophical”.Where are we today? This book opens with asking What are we? It concludes with asking Who are we? It might be appropriate to ask at this point Where are we? As I said in the Introduction, we must place New Thought in its proper context as a 19th and 20th century expression of metaphysical Christianity, an authentic and distinct expression of historic Christianity that predates both catholicism and evangelicalism.
We need to keep in mind that the shift from the Galilean ministry to the start of the Roman Christian era was about 250 years. The same can be said of the shift to the dark ages, the shift through the dark ages, the middle ages, the flowering of Roman Catholicism, the Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation, and, most recently, the discoveries of the astronomers, the geologists and the biologists. 250 years is a thumb estimate of how long it takes to see the shift to a new era in religious thinking.
If so, we may be half way to seeing the fruition of the movement begun in the 1890s by Emma Curtis Hopkins and her students. Maybe. Statistically, it’s not likely to happen. But it might, and it could.
A shift into an era of metaphysical Christianity will need to be both spiritually meaningful and strategically focused. What I mean by spiritually meaningful is embracing the mystical experience, which is discussed in the next section, Humankind’s Relationship with God. What I mean by strategically focused is garnering enough commitment to be disruptive, which is discussed in the section after that, Ministry as Administrative Consciousness and Skills.
Let me conclude by saying that my mission in TruthUnity is to see metaphysical Christianity grow in the human marketplace of ideas. I have always looked at the long game, and I still do.
December 26, 2021
- Ahlstrom, Sydney. A Religious History of the American People, Yale University Press, 1972. pp. 763-84.