Psychotherapic Cults

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Psychotherapic Cults: Christian Science; Mind Cure; New Thought.  (1912) 
by James Henry Leuba
From The Monist, vol. 22 (1912), pp. 348-360.

PSYCHOTHERAPIC CULTS:[1]

CHRISTIAN SCIENCE; MIND CURE; NEW THOUGHT.


THE most noteworthy religious event since the Reformation is perhaps the appearance in the United States of a number of religious movements which may be grouped together under the designation of psychotherapic cults. The foremost of them is “Christian Science,” founded by Mrs. Mary Baker Eddy.

I hasten to add that the value of these cults does not, in my mind, belong to their “metaphysics,” considered as a philosophical system. It is the product of ignorant and ill-trained minds. Much of it defies logic and offends common sense. But the defects which in the eyes of many wholly damn these movements might conceivably be removed, and there would remain important elements of a new religious faith acceptable to the modern world.

I shall try to show that the psychotherapic movements in their essential teaching are popularized and distorted formulations, on the one hand, of important truths regarding the “power of thought” over body to which psychology has recently given added significance, and, on the other, of a non-theistic philosophy allied to the absolute idealism of modern metaphysics. Although they distort contemporary thought, they do not intend to oppose it. They wish rather to build upon it.

These new cults are forcible reminders of the fact that belief in a saving power is a condition of the existence of religion, and also that the desire for deliverance from moral and physical miseries and for the realization of ideals continues to be the motive of religious life, just as it was in the days of Gautama the Enlightener, and of Jesus the Healer.




The mind-cure books announce “the discovery of the might of truth in the treatment of disease as well as of sin,” “the vital law of true life, true greatness, power, and happiness.” They claim to be “systems of transcendental medicine,” or of “psychic therapeutics.” They purpose to minister to those who “would exchange impotence for power, weakness and suffering for health and strength, pain and unrest for peace, poverty for fulness and plenty.” They proclaim “the birthright of every man born into the world to be physically whole and mentally happy.” Their claims have an extravagant sound, but no more so than those made for “faith” by the New Testament writers who declared it would remove mountains and secure eternal blessedness after death. Nothing but vital experiences could have inspired the enthusiasm and the assurance with which these modern zealots proclaim the abounding efficacy of their “truth.”

If they call themselves Christians, it is not in the traditional sense. Of traditional Christianity they speak respectfully, but they want a new dogmatics. They say, “The time for thinkers has come. Truth, independent of doctrines and time-honored systems, knocks at the portal of humanity.”[2] In another of their aggressive little books one reads: “Unrest is universal. The old landmarks are disappearing . . . Creed and dogma are things of the past; religious ceremonial and form no longer interest the masses.”[3]

The impression these cults have produced on thoughtful religious people is well expressed in this passage:

Renan with his usual intuition declared that if it [the religion of the future] were already in our midst, few of us would know it.

“The prediction has proved true. The new religious movement Christian Science has spoken a language so foreign to cultivated ears, its interpretation of the Bible is so false, it is so obviously committed to errors, illusions, and aberrations of every sort, that the intelligent have been disposed to shrug their shoulders in contempt and to ignore it. And yet they have not been able to ignore it altogether. Every once in a while this curious superstition proves its existence with unexpected power. We see a hard-headed business man totally devoid of religious sentiment undergo a new kind of conversion which leaves him as devout and ardent as a Christian of the first century. An ailing wife or daughter whom no physician has been able to help, through some mysterious means is restored to health and happiness. The victim of an enslaving habit, apparently with very little effort and without physical means, sufferings, or relapse, finds himself free. We enter a home where the new belief reigns and we find there a peace to which we are strangers.

“All over the country solid and enduring temples are reared by grateful hands and consecrated to the ideal and name of Mrs. Eddy. And this strange phenomenon has occurred in the full light of day, at the end of the nineteenth and at the beginning of the twentieth century, and these extraordinary doctrines have propagated themselves not in obscure corners of the earth, among an illiterate and fanatical population, but in the chief centers of American civilization. Such facts may well cause the philosophical student of religion to reflect.”[4]

In these movements is restored the alliance between the art of healing the body and the art of healing the soul, which was always a leading characteristic of the higher religions during their period of greatest vitality. To the masses the most impressive aspect of religions has always been their power to heal the body. It was so in the early ministry of Christ and during the first Christian centuries. It is so now with these psychotherapists. And this revival acquires great significance from the fact that it can now be grounded upon the deeper understanding of the interrelation of mind and body, which we owe to modern science.

Speaking of the “four noble truths” of Buddhism, (Satyani), i.e., the four axioms or certainties: the existence of suffering, the origin of suffering, the emancipation from suffering and the path that leads to the emancipation from suffering, Kern says: “It is not difficult to see that these four Satyas are nothing else but the four cardinal articles of Indian medical science, applied to the spiritual healing of mankind, exactly as in the Yoga doctrine. This connection of the Aryasatyas with medical science was apparently not unknown to the Buddhists themselves” And concerning the twelvefold causal root of the evil of the world, the twelve Nidānas (causes), he declares that they stand to the four Satyas ‘in the same relation as pathology to the whole system of medical science.’ Now the four truths and the twelve causes are fundamental facts upon which Gautama’s scheme of deliverance is built.”[5]




My chief effort will be to get from the writings of the leaders of these therapeutic schools a clear idea of the power with which they expect to regenerate humanity, and then to consider its adequacy. Whatever their affiliations, these writers practically agree on the points that most interest us. I do not shrink from putting before my readers, to begin with, brief quotations from two of the most extravagant and crude of these authors; for even they find followers among people who prove themselves intelligent and sensible in the affairs of life.

T. Troward, a leader of Mental Science (not a disciple of Mrs. Eddy), late divisional judge in Punjab and Edinburgh Lecturer on Mental Science, teaches the existence of an unlimited, impersonal, though intelligent power, which man may press into service, or appropriate to himself. His view of man’s relation to that power is curious. The individual can call it into action and give it direction, “because it is in itself impersonal though intelligent.” “It will receive the impress of his personality, and can therefore make its influence felt far beyond the limits which bound the individual’s objective perception of the circumstances with which he has to deal. It is for this reason that I lay so much stress on the combination of two apparent opposites in the Universal Mind, the union of intelligence with impersonality . . . How do we know what the intention of the Universal Mind may be? Here comes in the element of impersonality. It has no intention, because it is impersonal . . . Combining, then, these two aspects of the Universal Mind, . . . we find precisely the sort of natural force we are in want of, something which will undertake whatever we put into its hands without asking questions or bargaining for terms, and which, having undertaken our business, will bring to bear on it an intelligence to which the united knowledge of the whole human race is as nothing, and a power equal to this intelligence.”[6]

I find it difficult to conceive an unlimited impersonal intelligence which has no intention and which individual intelligence may direct. But in fairness to the abstruse judge, I must add that this difficulty is no greater than that presented by Hegel’s conception of the Absolute Mind.

In the work of W. F. Evans we meet a consistent pantheism. He strives to give to his opinions an impressive background compounded of modern science, antique pantheism, and modern idealism. How vast and accurate is his knowledge will appear in the following passage. I quote it without apology as another instance of a type of conception apparently rational enough to be accepted by many intelligent people. “The soul of man is a part, so to speak, of the anima mundi, the soul of the world.” The power of the healing thought “issues from the spiritual world of which our minds are a part, for all ideas belong to that boundless realm of life.” “It is stored up in exhaustless and overflowing abundance in the bosom of nature . . . it can be controlled in its lower degrees of manifestation by the intelligent will of man, which is the highest form of its development and expression.” “This grand whole . . . the universal world of spiritual intelligence is called in Sanskrit, Addi-Budda. In the writings of Paul it is called the Christ . . . It is identical with what is called magnetism, and is also that which the philosophers have called the divine nous.”[7]

One of the ablest and sanest writers of New Thought, Ralph Waldo Trine, in a book which has passed its seventy-fifth thousand, also announces a pantheistic gospel of an infinite power at the service of man. “The great central fact of the universe is that spirit of Infinite Life and Power that is back of all, that animates all, that manifests itself in and through all; that self-existent principle of life from which all has come, and not only from which all has come, but from which all is continually coming.”

“This Infinite Power is creating, working, ruling through the agency of great immutable laws and forces that run through all the universe, that surround us on every side. Every act of our every-day lives is governed by these same great laws and forces.”

“In a sense there is nothing in all the great universe but law.” But the presence of laws indicates a force back of them. “This Spirit of Infinite Life and Power that is back of all is what I call God.”

“God, then, is this Infinite Spirit which fills all the universe with Himself alone, so that all is from Him and in Him, and there is nothing that is outside . . . He is . . . our very life itself.” “In essence the life of God and the life of man are identically the same, and so are one. They differ not in essence, in quality; they differ in degree.”

“. . . if the God-powers are without limit, does it not then follow that the only limitations man has are the limitations he sets to himself, by virtue of not knowing himself?”

The great central fact in human life, in your life and in mine, is the coming into a conscious, vital realization of our oneness with this Infinite Life, and the opening of ourselves to this divine overflow.” This means simply “that we are recognizing our true identity, that we are bringing our lives into harmony with the same great laws and forces, and so opening ourselves to the same great inspirations as have all the prophets, seers, sages, and saviours in the world’s history, all men of truly great and mighty power.”[8] He does not hesitate to use the term “God-man.”




Christian Science.


It seems almost incredible that one professing to be a Christian should teach the impersonality of the divine nature. And yet this is undoubtedly what Mrs. Eddy does, and in this respect she agrees with those from whom I have just quoted. The term that she prefers as a name for the Divine Power is Principle. As synonyms she uses Life, Truth, Love, God. In the earlier editions of Science and Health, it is written that God “is not a person, God is Principle.”[9] This is undoubtedly the standpoint of her later writings also. But in them, probably because of the pressure of adverse public opinion, she insists less than at the beginning of her career upon the impersonality of Principle, and the word “person” appears more frequently. “Once in 1898, Mrs. Eddy hints that God may be personal ‘if the term personality, as applied to God, means infinite personality,’ and Mr. Farlow in 1907 assures the Rev. Edgar P. Hill that Mrs. Eddy does believe that ‘God is person in the infinite sense.’”[10] I take the following passages from the same book: “Principle in her theology gathers up into itself all the concepts we habitually associate with God, except the most important—personality. Before her book appeared in 1875, she was telling her pupils, as two of them informed me, that they could make no progress till they had banished from their minds the thought of God as a person. She instructed Richard Kennedy ‘to lay special stress’ in healing patients on the impersonality of God. This is the commanding thought that rings through the first chapter of the first edition of Science and Health.”

“Mrs. Eddy’s pantheism is unnecessary, and yet its origin was inevitable in a mind as literal as hers. Quimby often spoke of God as Principle. In the Quimby manuscript from which, for several years, Mrs. Eddy taught, no sentence is more startling than the sentence ‘God is Principle.’”

“For more than thirty years Mrs. Eddy has been solemnly asserting that in 1866 she received a ‘final revelation.’ Now this ‘final revelation,’ which was finally as well as first expressed in 1875, in Science and Health, is saturated with thought that God is not a person. In the very first chapter we are informed that ‘God is Principle, not person,’ [I do not find that expression in the first chapter of the 1908 edition, but it is in No and Yes, published in 1909] that Jesus preached the impersonality of God, that the error of believing in the personality of God crucified Jesus, that the trouble with conventional Christianity to-day is that it makes God a person . . .’ (Pages 137-140).

On the other hand, in the seventy-third edition of No and Yes, published in 1909, a pamphlet intended “to correct involuntary as well as voluntary error,” we read: “Is there a personal Deity? God is Infinite. He is neither a limited mind nor a limited body. God is Love; and Love is Principle, not person. What the person of the Infinite is, we know not; but we are gratefully and lovingly conscious of the fatherliness of this Supreme Being. God is individual, and man is his individualized idea . . . Limitless personality is inconceivable . . . Of God as person, human reason, imagination and revelation give us no knowledge.

“When the term divine Principle is used to signify Deity it may seem distant and cold, until better apprehended. This Principle is Mind, Substance, Life, Truth, Love. When understood, Principle is found to be the only term that fully conveys the ideas of God,—one Mind, a perfect Man, and divine Science.”[11] This Principle, though not a person, “is intelligence.”

Although she wrote, “God is All in all,” and “All in all is God,”[12] she will not be called a pantheist. In the edition of No and Yes already quoted, she claims that “Christian Science refutes pantheism, finds Spirit neither in matter nor in the modes of mortal mind. It shows that matter and mortal mind have neither origin nor existence in the eternal Mind . . . For God to know, is to be; that is, what He knows must truly and eternally exist. If He knows matter, and Matter cannot exist in Mind, then mortality and discord must be eternal.”[13]

Her pantheism is in any case not materialistic, since she holds matter to be unreal, a deception of mortal mind. Hers is an idealistic pantheism, such as an ignorant person of a thoroughly optimistic temperament might evolve on the basis of imperfect knowledge of absolute idealism and from observation of the mastery of mind over body.

The writings of Mrs. Eddy’s disciples reflect the uncritical, pantheistic idealism of their leader. Their favorite phrases are such as these: “God’s presence is the presence of love;” “God is life everywhere present;” “One life fills all, it is the Perfect Life.”

The similarity of the essential aspects of New Thought and Christian Science to the mystical element in Christianity is evident. Both give clear expression to the anti-isolation motive, to a dynamic belief in oneness-with-the-whole, and both feel the essence of the cosmic plasma to be love. Man is steeped in all-embracing Love. He need only place himself in unison with the everlasting, all-comprehending life-force and the fulness of life will be his. How love can be an attribute of an impersonal power does not seem to give Mrs. Eddy one moment of uneasiness.

In their curative practices, the psychotherapic cults have the benefit of the recent discoveries concerning the effects of suggestion. Regarding their methods, I may say here merely that they tend to place the person, as do the practices of the other ethical religions, in a state of increased suggestibility, a state described in part by the words relaxedness, collectedness, monoideism, meditation, communion. This condition of the subject aids greatly in the realization of the expected benefits. The efficacy of these curative methods is sufficiently demonstrated by the wonderful extension of the movements. In every walk of life people bear witness to the saving grace that is in Christian Science or in New Thought. The forces of a new life have welled up within them; the burdens of existence have lightened, nay, have disappeared; and now they walk through life contented, hopeful, and aggressively benevolent.

The following is an example of what people find in Christian Science apart from the cure of disease:

“I accepted Science and Health without expecting it to offer more than a human theory about life,—even the name did not lead me to expect it to be religious; in fact, the chief incentive to my reading it at that time was the great kindness and sincere sympathy evinced by my friend, who placed a copy at my disposal . . . I started timidly at first, and prayerfully, lest it should be misleading, but before I had gone very far I experienced that wonderful spiritual quickening which is so often spoken of in our meetings. I wish I could tell exactly what the experience meant to me, the wonderful awakening I had; how old things vanished and all things became new. It seemed as if the burdens, perplexities, doubts, and fears had all suddenly rolled away; as if the sun had emerged from behind the clouds, and everything was again bright and beautiful.

“And what a feeling of strength, hope, and courage came! Those old troublesome questions, especially the question of death, were explained, and I felt a wonderful release to know that death was not of God. I read and reread the latter part of the chapter on Christian Science Practice, where that glorious truth is explained; it was so beautiful, so natural, and so true. There was such perfect joy to me in that freedom, that I used to declare over and over again, of those who had just passed from us (the members of our home circle), ‘They are not dead;’ and so free was I made from the old bondage, that never since then has the thought of that change affected me as it did before.”[14]

Unnecessary importance is attached by the critical public to the vagaries of Christian Science and of New Thought; for instance, to the denial of the reality of matter, and therefore of disease; to the wild hopes of some of their prophets that “the time will certainly come when the highly developed man will have the power to lay down or take up his life through a conscious knowlege of the laws of eternal being and the direct application of these laws to his own life.”[15]

When I say “wild hopes,” I speak as the prosaic man that I am. No less a philosopher than Bergson has expressed that same hope of overcoming death.

An apologist of the psychotherapic sects would be justified in making the following claims:

1. The salvation they promise is first of all for this life.

2. The soul is not saved independently of the body. The nefarious asceticism of older faiths is impossible on the principles of Christian Science.

3. Their ideal involves efficiency in the conduct of this life.

4. Their conception of salvation is free from anything miraculous. They dispense with the wonders of the Fall, of the self-sacrifice of a divine personage, and of salvation by his atonement.

5. They divert attention from the sense of guilt and suffering, and direct it to an immediately accessible healing and invigorating power.

6. Although they usually define the aim of life in terms of power, happiness, and love, they cannot fairly be charged either with insensitiveness to moral values, or with indifference to the ethical advancement of mankind.

7. Despite its extravagance, their “metaphysics” may be regarded as a formulation, crude and distorted, of a Weltanschauung made unavoidable by modern knowledge,—a Weltanschauung, opposed in several important respects to the traditional but no longer acceptable Christian philosophy.

8. These cults have proved their value by their results.

In estimating the chances of continued life of religious movements, one should bear in mind that vitally beneficial beliefs may carry a heavy load of error and even of absurdity. The Christian religion was not destroyed by the expectation of the second coming of the Lord and of the end of the world, by extravagant notions of the power of faith, by absurd or incomprehensible doctrines regarding the means of salvation, the resurrection of the body, and the like. There is enough substantial, practical truth in Christianity to bear the enormous doctrinal dead weight it carries even to this day. It may be possible for the psychotherapic doctrines to be purified in a reformation which would either remove entirely or drive into side-currents most of the offensive tenets.

J. H. LEUBA.
Bryn Mawr College, Pa.



Notes[edit]

  1. A discussion of other contemporary movements will be found in the author’s book, A Psychological Study of Religion: Its Origin, Function and Future, Macmillan, 1912.
  2. Mary G. Baker Eddy, Science and Health, 1908, Preface.
  3. Charles B[rodie] Patterson, A New Heaven and a New Earth, Preface. Google Book Search
  4. Elwood Worcester, Samuel McComb, Isador H. Coriat, Religion and Medicine, New York, 1908, pp. 8-10. Google Book Search
  5. Kern, Manual of Buddhism, Grundriss der indo-arischen Philologie und Altertumskunde, Vol. III, No. 8, pp. 46-47.
  6. T[homas] Troward, The Edinburgh Lectures on Mental Science, The Arcane Book Concern, 1909, Chicago, pp. 66-68. Google Book Search
  7. W[arren] F[elt] Evans, The Primitive Mind-Cure: Elementary Lessons in Christian Philosophy and Transcendental Medicine. Google Book Search
  8. Ralph Waldo Trine, In Tune with the Infinite or Fullness of Peace, Power, and Plenty, Thomas Y. Crowell and Co., New York, pp. 11-20. Google Book Search
  9. Mary G. Baker Eddy, op. cit., 3d ed., 1881, I, 67; II, 27.
  10. Lyman P. Powell, Christian Science, the Faith and its Founder, pp. 139-140. Google Book Search
  11. Eddy, No and Yes, 1909, pp. 19, 20. Google Book Search
  12. Eddy, Science and Health, 1898, p. 7.
  13. Eddy, No and Yes, pp. 15, 16.
  14. Christian Science Sentinel, Dec. 3, 1901.
  15. Charles B. Patterson, op. cit., Preface.


This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1923.

The author died in 1946, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 60 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.