Huston Smith, who may be claimed to be the last, great teacher of Christian metaphysics, died on December 30, 2016 at the age of 97. His book Why Religion Matters: The Fate of the Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief helped me understand why Unity will not survive without retaining its foundational teaching of Christian Metaphysics. I want to share with you why that is so.
Smith compares three views of reality that have dominated how humans perceive reality — traditional, modern and post-modern — and he defends the traditional worldview against it's suppression by scientism, consumerism and materialism in today's world. He is, as I claim, the last great metaphysician because metaphysics, as taught by Charles Fillmore, is rooted in the traditional worldview.
What follows is a short summary of the turning points in the history of Metaphysical Christianity and how metaphysics has played out in the Unity movement. This story, with conclusions from Smith's book, explains why Christian metaphysics and the viability of Unity is being killed off by two current trends in Unity: the distancing of Unity from its Christian identity and Unity's widespread adoption of New Age.
Traditional Metaphysics in Christian history
Metaphysics did not originate with Charles Fillmore. The foundation for this thing we call metaphysics originated with Plato, who believed in a universal realm of forms and ideas which had a Reality that is independent from both our thinking and our physical world. This concept penetrated early Christianity through Philo and other hellenists who wished to convey Jewish and Christian teachings to a greek-speaking world.
The Gospel of John and the letters of Paul are filled with subtle references to forms and ideas and other greek concepts that were easily comprehended to Jews living outside of Palestine. The Gospel of John opens with reference to "the Word" and the Letter to the Hebrews describes faith as the "substance of things hoped for." Later on, in the 3rd century, Plotinus declared that metaphysical ideas were "divine" and filled with "Intelligence." The monks of the desert in the 4th century devoted their life to contemplating the divine ideas they received from God in prayer. In the 5th century, St. Augustine taught that these divine ideas emanated from the Mind of God.
In other words, the very foundation of primitive Christianity was based as much on greek concepts as on the teachings of Jesus. The teachings of Jesus have many overtones of metaphysics as well, for example his I Am statements in the Gospel of John.
So understanding Jesus' teachings and the first five centuries of Christian history is not possible without an understanding of metaphysical concepts like the logos, substance, intelligence and the I AM. In summary, metaphysics is an original and authentic aspect of Christianity.
How Metaphysical Christianity lost out to the Moderns and the Evangelicals
By the time of the Reformation, Metaphysical Christianity had been an authentic and distinct part of historic Christianity for over 1,500 years. Metaphysical Christians were supported by the teachings of theologians like Augustine, Eckhart and Aquinas, the spiritual practices of mystics like the desert monks and the medieval monastics and the inspiration of spiritual reformers like Wycliff, Huss and Erasmus. They continued to teach that God is always sending forth divine ideas of life, substance and intelligence and that we have an innate capacity to receive and follow those divine ideas.
But Metaphysical Christianity eventually lost it's standing in western Christianity because of the challenge of Luther and Calvin. Evangelical Christians, taking their cue from these reformers, claimed that the soul of humanity is totally depraved and has no capacity to know or to conform to the divine ideas expressed by God. Evangelical Christianity, while acknowledging that divine ideas may have "Reality", taught and still teaches that we should look to the Bible or tradition for Truth. Metaphysical Christianity, as Eric Butterworth put it, "went underground."
It may be surprising to know that Evangelicalism has its roots in the modern worldview. If you think that Evangelicals are traditional, old-fashioned and ignorant, then you will be hard-pressed to explain their success in building huge mega-churches, their success as capitalists and (ahem) their success in dominating American politics. Emerging church critics accuse Evangelicals of being triumphalist, stiff and arrogant, captive to enlightenment rationalism and certain in their beliefs. While they talk tradition, they walk and act with pure, modern efficiency of a scientifically designed machine.
The Evangelical reformers, assured of the total depravity of man, went after the mystics and metaphysicians with a vengeance. Using all the tools of the scientific revolution, the traditions of the mystics and metaphysicians were suppressed by science, academia, the media and government, according to Huston Smith.
Metaphysical Christians, in the tradition of Erasmus, Kant, Hegel, Swedenborg, Emerson and Whitehead, fought back, but each was diminished or marginalized at the hands of modernist Evangelical forces.
Evangelicals so dominate western Christianity that we are now at the point where many Unity leaders are hesitant to identify themselves as Christian for fear of being labeled as Evangelical.
I sense a bifurcation of Unity into two camps: those who wish to maintain their identity as a part of the Christian church and those who distance themselves from Christianity and proclaim themselves as "spiritual" or "interfaith."It seems to me that those who wish to distance themselves from Christianity need to consider what will become of metaphysics and Unity's foundational teachings. They are rooted in a 2,000 year tradition.
It also seems to me that those who wish to maintain their place in Christianity need to be more assertive in reclaiming the term Christianity from it's mistaken association with Evangelicalism.
How Metaphysical Christianity lost out to the the Post-moderns and New Age
Another force that shaped Unity, besides Emerson and the Transcendentalists, was Mental Science and the teachings of Mesmer and Quimby. While the term "mental science" may sound modern and scientific, it was, in every way, an early Post-modern movement. Post-modernism is known for its rejection of authority and its suspicion of "meta narratives". Mental science was always based on quasi-science, rejecting the authority of both religion and medicine and was practiced by the those with little education.
Both Charles Fillmore and Eric Butterworth were less enthusiastic about the claims of mental science than they were about Transcendentalism. Butterworth praises Quimby in The Antecedents of New Thought but in his talk about Charles and Myrtle Fillmore he says that Mental Science does not lead to knowing one's true self. He says, in clip 142, "that to program the mind in a certain way to enable you to do certain things to remember things or to follow certain characteristics and so forth, is actually to make of yourself inadvertently the kind of automaton, self-automated."
In a similar criticism of mental science, Charles Fillmore says that mental science has lost its sense of God as a living reality. He says in Keep a True Lent 87 that man, having lost the conscious of the indwelling father as an ever-present reality, no longer impresses the subconscious mind with the supermind, but instead allows it to be guided by one's own conscious mind.
Mental science may be regarded as a forerunner of New Age in Unity and New Thought. Or at least a gateway into Unity for New Age. Huston Smith says the following about New Age:
"Because they lack seasoned guides, their unbridled enthusiasm for the Aquarian Age careens crazily, and conceptually the movement is pretty much a mess. Pyramids, pendulums, astrology, ecology, vegetarianism and veganism (we are back to religion as dietary restrictions); amulets, alternative medicine, psychedelics, extraterrestrials, near-death experiences, the archaic revival, channeling, neopaganism, and shamanism — these and other enthusiasms jostle one another promiscuously. And brooding over them all is Gaia — Gaia and the goddesses (both within and without). Flaky at the fringes and credulous to the point of gullibility — an open mind is salutary, but one whose hinge is off?
The New Age movement is so problematic that I would gladly leave it alone were it not for the fact that it has two things exactly right. First, it is optimistic, and we need all the hope we can get. Second, it adamantly refuses to acquiesce to the scientistic worldview. Instinctively it knows that the human spirit is too large to accept a cage for its home." (Why Religion Matters: The Fate of Human Spirit in an Age of Disbelief 161).
Early Christianity was comprised of two basic groups: the Jews in Palestine who kept the traditions and language of their ancestors and the hellenistic Jews, who were open to the influence of greek culture. The hellenistic Jews provided a gateway for Christianity to be overrun by Gentiles. In a similar way, Unity is comprised of traditional "Fillmorians" and Post-modern "New Agers." And the Post-moderns are a gateway for any and every sort of teaching that Huston Smith has described in New Age.
A few years ago, I wrote two pieces about the two major initiatives in Unity from 2009-2014: the branding initiative and the Transformation Experience project. Both, I believe, were based on a Post-modern agenda that was hostile towards traditionalist people in Unity. Huston Smith's book confirms much of what I have written.
No doubt there are many New Agers in Unity who look at the traditionals and say "good riddance." But I have yet to see any New Age movement successfully build a sustainable denomination of churches. New Age has grown by attaching and infiltrating established religion.
Those who wish to see Unity survive will need to defend its foundational teachings and begin to reclaim the term metaphysical from its inappropriate association with New Age.
The hinge is off in Unity.