Robert M. Price possesses two theological degrees, has taught world religions to college students, ministered as a parish priest to a progressive congregation, and writes and edits fantasy fiction. He is therefore uniquely qualified to assess and critique current spiritual fads and pop mysticisms.
Many of today's pop mysticisms affirm some aspect of a system commonly called "New Thought." New Thought has its origins "in nineteenth-century America with Phineas Parkhurst Quimby and Mary Baker Eddy, inspired in some measure by Ralph Waldo Emerson" (21). New Thought should not be confused with New Age beliefs and practices: "[O]ne may embrace New Thought belief without accepting the larger worldview of the New Age (including pyramids, reincarnation, sunken continents, crystals, channeling, flying saucers, etc.), so may one learn much from New Thought without imbibing the philosophical assumptions its advocates have used to support it" (21).
Though he hints at it along the way, by the end of the book it is clear that Price is an advocate of New Thought. The previous paragraph summarizes his convictions. He embraces New Thought but rejects its metaphysical wrappings. The last thing he wants is to be labeled as New Ager. To Price, the insights of New Thought have to do with psychological insights and not metaphysical systems. Price wants nothing to do with a metaphysic that would introduce a genuine spiritual element to the equation. This would undermine his commitment to modern rationalism.
Price is concerned that those who imbibe of contemporary pop mysticism's will "find themselves only half satisfied as with junk food that is momentarily tasty but lacks real nourishment. I cannot help thinking that the historic treasures of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, the Kabbalah, and so on, would do people more good" (13). I am grateful Price admits that most pop mysticisms are bastardized versions of more well-rounded religious systems. When the whole system is rejected, the individual pieces lack the proper grounding and force to sustain a healthy and integrated spirituality.
Seeking to save the husk of the truth while removing the metaphysical shell, Price begins to assess and critique pop mysticisms.
He begins with Rhonda Byrne's The Secret. It is clear that Price values the psychological insights of "the law of attraction," "positive thinking," and "visualization." However, he despises the metaphysical shell of "frequencies" and "vibrations" that Byrne has wrapped these concepts in.
Price condemns Byrne for heartlessly blaming victims for their own suffering. Since we create our own reality through the law of attraction, people who suffer great tragedies - for example, the Jews during the Nazi Holocaust - must be to blame for bringing their suffering upon themselves. Byrne could not maintain "the desired illusion that the individual controls his or her own universe" if she admitted that some people suffer innocently at the hands of evil people or that impersonal catastrophes do occur (45). Price wishes that Byrne would recognize "that 'the law of attraction' and 'visualization and manifestation' are simply rules of thumb for achieving one's goals and not a totalizing explanation for all events" (45). Price believes that Byrne's arguments would be more effective and less open to criticism if she would drop the bogus physics and pseudoscience. She is making "a sound and clever psychological point" but shrouding it in metaphysical terms that invite criticism.
Many pop mystics are guilty of incorporating the same tactics used by Creation Scientists "who seek to translate religious dogma derived from scripture into cosmetic, seemingly 'scientific' terms so as to smuggle dogma into science classes, or at least to win for it the prestige due to science" (51). Deepok Chopra consistently incorporates misleading (pseudo)scientific idioms to give credence to his Advaita Vedanta Hinduism. Likewise, the movie, What the Bleep Do We Know? hides its TM-propaganda under the ruse of physics.
Pop mysticisms veer from the traditions they steal from by advocating their system as a means of manipulating reality for personal benefit. True spiritual transformation - whether it is christlikeness, enlightenment, cosmic consciousness, etc. - is not about enhancing your golf game, or making life more comfortable. Price laments that Americans have "hijacked Buddhism, the discipline of extirpating self and ego, and turned it into one more pop self-realization therapy" (75). The same could be said of hijacked forms of Hinduism, Judaism, and Christianity.
After critiquing Helen Schucman's A Course in Miracles and examining Schucman's disciples Marianne Williamson and Eckhart Tolle, Price wonders if the author's experience is more to blame for their conclusions than a thorough search for truth. He suggests that they are "theologizing" their unhappy love lives. After a summary of many "bizarre and romance-dooming nuggets of advice" from A Course in Miracles, A Return to Love, and The Power of Now, Price concludes:
I suspect that their authors' love lives have been unsatisfactory, and they are committing the great sin of designing the future in the shape of the past. But on another level, they are again safeguarding the padded cell view of reality they elsewhere espouse: they are alone in a delusional world of their own making in which they are God, hence all that they say is infallible, and so are you, so what looks good to them must be good for you, too. But finally, the two levels are one: they have chosen solipsism as a neurotic protection strategy, and that is nowhere clearer than in these whispered words of anti-romance. For to be open to receive love makes one dangerously vulnerable, and Williamson's fear of rejection is palpable on the page. Again, her metaphysics is no antidote to fear, as she promises, but rather a desperate defense against it. She is not offering armor against the blows of what she fears. She is offering a numbing anesthetic to take away the pain. And that numbness she mistakes for peace. Just like frostbite. (171-172)
Neale Donald Walsch rejects the inspiration of the Bible, but has no problem demanding complete obedience to the revelation he has received in Conversations with God: An Uncommon Dialogue. In this tome, readers "hear God echoing their own unvoiced skepticisms" (175). Walsch's God tells people to reject the Holy Bible so that they can affirm their own experience. But this "puncturing religious pomposity turns out to be quite ironic, since eventually we are going to find that Walsch takes his yellowpad oracles as seriously as fundamentalists take the Bible and expects the reader to do so as well. Walsch, it seems, is flippant and irreverent to traditional deities, not so much to his own" (175). Walsch is so convinced that his book is necessary to reveal truth and counter deception that he writes, "You can undo the teaching by reading and re-reading this book. Over and over again, read it. Until you understand every passages. Until you're familiar with every word. When you can quote its passage to others, when you can bring its phrases to mind in the midst of the darkest hour, then you will have 'undone the teaching'" (183-184).
Price counters the anxious paranoia of The Celestine Prophecy in which life becomes "a puppet theater, a blank screen for symbolic communications from an unseen realm" (209). "Redfield is prescribing a condition of anxious paranoia where random events are to be treated as divine portents, somehow to be deciphered. Such a world is a Skinner box with oneself as the lab rat. One comes to live in fear of missing some message God must have sent through some chance encounter or circumstance" (209).
Price's helpful critiques stem from his methodology. Price seeks to employ the same methodology used by Carl Jung. "Jung thus employed himself... in stripping various esoteric doctrines of their metaphysical wrappings and making them objects of psychology. By this he did not intend a project of reductionism but rather a strict principle of psychological application of metaphysical statements" (229).
This same methodology also has its shortcomings. Price rejects metaphysics of all kinds - not just New Age or New Thought, but classical Christian metaphysics. Price believes "that there was very likely no historical Jesus, but that the character was based on a sectarian Jewish adaptation of pagan god-men such as Dionysus, Osiris, and Attis" (234). Price gives precedence to the marginal and late Gnostic strain of Christianity, allowing it to trump the Gospels: "I do think that Gnostic sects predated Christianity and that Catholic-Orthodox Christianity is a secondary form of the faith, combining elements from Gnosticism, Mystery Religions, and hero cultism" (235). Price's radical rejection of classic Christianity is exposed when he says of those who believe in the real existence of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rachel, or Leah: "One is tempted to doubt either the honesty or the sanity of anyone who would make such statements" (258).
Therefore it is not surprising that when he finally covers a specifically "Christian" pop mysticism, his biggest problem is its belief in God. Price argues that Joel Osteen's Your Best Life Now is "readily recognizable as New Thought, pure and simple" (266). This alone should give Christian readers pause and cause for concern. Then Price states that his only problem with Osteen is his "residual belief in God" (266). "Insofar as Osteen retains the literalized mythology of "God" as a personal manipulator of circumstances, an answerer of prayers, and a providential will, he creates hobbling problems and paradoxes" (270). A personal God may present trouble in Osteen's system, but this is no cause to abandon a personal God. Truth be told, a personal God with a personal will creates all kinds of problems for any metaphysical system. But Price's answer to this is simple: Remove God and remove metaphysics by reducing everything to the psychological.
Price sheds insights on the strengths and weaknesses of today's pop mysticisms. He is in a unique position to analyze these writings with flair, finesse, and not a small amount of fun. But Price's rejection of metaphysics leaves him with little more than positive thinking, personal affirmations, and visualizing success. This may help a little along life's journey, but it leaves one empty in the end. When God is lost, ignored, or rejected, one wonders why one maintains the title "Christian," or how one can in any way admit they are teaching "theology." Wouldn't it be more accurate to say one is teaching "psychology" - and leave it at that? Creating one's own reality may have its advantages now, but eventually we all have to face true reality, and all the positive thinking and visualization in the world will not be enough to hide us from the God with whom we have to do.
Quotes excerpted from Top Secret: The Truth behind Today's Pop Mysticisms by Robert M. Price
© Richard J. Vincent, 2008