Marianne Williamson and the perennial American delusion

In the run-up to the last American presidential election, the Republican Party surprised us all by featuring among its large field of primary hopefuls a candidate who seemed utterly unsuited for politics while incarnating certain extreme American traits and articulating certain extreme views. We all know how that turned out.

This year, the Democratic Party gives us Marianne Williamson. And while she, too, seems unlikely to get very far in the proceedings, who knows? For she, too, seems both a very unlikely political success while declaiming extreme values widely shared among the American people—and among many Canadians, too.

What are those values?

Williamson stands in the long tradition of American positive thought, the “mind over matter” conviction that you can have what you want if you just want it confidently and concretely enough. The universe literally can be bent to your will. Only believe!

In some cultures, this sort of teaching was kept secret—literally esoteric. Only initiates could find out that the world was not, in fact, the material stuff we all naturally think it is, but is in fact essentially spirit or—in a term more acceptable to those in our age of quantum mechanics—“energy.” Recognizing the true essence of things was the great knowledge—in Greek, the gnosis—that freed one from material encumbrances to enjoy a higher life.

Williamson’s teaching, drawing on the bestselling book by Helen Schucman, A Course in Miracles (1976), is therefore simply the newest packaging of gnosticism, a religious impulse that has coursed through a variety of religions around the world for millennia.

To be sure, this particular form of gnosticism is particularly suited to our age. It does not call us away from the material world to a better, spiritual one, but instead tells us that there is just one cosmos of energy that we can then manipulate by force of will. So you can have all the spiritual rewards you want plus all the material rewards you want as well—just by choosing to have them.

Proponents don’t put it quite that way, to be sure. They speak instead of good attitudes, good beliefs, good intentions, and good actions. All of those, however, emerge from choices we make. We can have everything we want and be whomever we want to be by…wanting them the right way.

This outlook has a long history in America. Indeed, Yale scholar Harold Bloom called gnosticism the quintessential American religion. We can master the world by dint of right thinking and applied effort. Nothing finally will stand in our way.

Ralph Waldo Emerson offered an openly atheistic version of it, New Thought worked the mystical margins, while Mary Baker Eddy gave us “Christian Science” (which is, as the old joke goes, neither “Christian” nor “science”). In the twentieth century, Norman Vincent Peale domesticated the teaching for Christian consumption as “positive thinking,” and TV preacher Robert Schuller repackaged it as “possibility thinking” in our own day.

Tony Robbins has sold it to the business world. Joel Osteen now preaches it as “your best life ever.” And it was Oprah Winfrey who put it in everyone’s living room a decade ago as she touted Rhonda Bynes’s book, The Secret (2006).

Indeed, this teaching continues to show up in Christian circles. Oprah’s background in American churches exposed her to the “health-and-wealth” teaching—the “name it and claim it” challenge to “have faith” and you can have everything else—that prevails in much contemporary Protestantism both here and, especially in Pentecostal and charismatic circles, around the world.

But The Secret isn’t new, and it isn’t a secret. And now we have Marianne Williamson representing it in mainstream American politics.

Some people might wonder about the compatibility of this view with Christianity—as well they might. The soothing answer, however, is what you would expect if you know Oprah’s general take on things. There is nothing in this teaching to contradict the essence of any of the world’s great religions. For those who believe in a God who orders the universe, this idea is just a description of the way God does so. For those who don’t believe in such a God, The Secret and its ilk are just descriptions of the way things are.

Indeed, for those who wonder about heaven and hell in this view, the advice comes back that we should concentrate on the here and now, escaping the hells our negative thoughts have created for us and achieving the heavens on earth we desire.

To be sure, it is standard psychological wisdom that certain kinds of negative thought habits really do cause one to fail in life, and certain kinds of positive thought habits help one succeed. Whether in the form of Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology or the cognitive therapy of David Burns’s Feeling Good Handbook, good thoughts replace bad ones in ways that clearly improve people’s lives.

Contrariwise, anxiety and anger have been linked numerous times to heart disease, high blood pressure (no kidding), digestive disorders (ditto), and other terrible physical consequences. Presumably, then, dealing well with anxiety and anger would lead to greater physical health. Here’s to proper positive thinking.

But Williamson & Co. add spiritual toxins to the mix. The first is the religious relativism that denies all the distinctives of the world’s religions and affirms instead a generic spiritual “essence.” This teaching, which purports to respect all faiths, in fact insults most of them as it shears off any particular tenets they might hold about, say, the unique inspiration of the Qur’an, or the special covenant God made with the Jews, or the efficacy of the Noble Eightfold Path, or the atonement of Jesus on the Cross. According to this gnosticism, the special knowledge that alone matters is the essential spirituality of all things and your ability to direct it to what you want. That idea, however, is not at all what Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism, or Christianity actually teaches.

This mind-over-matter teaching is itself, therefore, a particular religious option among many, not the Lowest Common Denominator of all religions. You can’t believe Marianne Williamson and Jesus (or Moses or Muhammad or the Buddha) at the same time.

The second poison is the focus upon self-will. It’s all about me and it’s all up to me.

From a Christian perspective, however, that’s not true. It’s about much more than me. It’s about God, and the world, and me, and it’s up to God, and the world, and me. I am a dependent and interdependent being, and I need to call on God to help me, and I should draw on the world’s resources in gratitude and faith, or I will perish.

The nastiest poison is the third: blaming the victim. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for empowerment, for self-respect, for teaching about responsibility and opportunity that helps people free themselves from traps of perpetual servitude–economic, political, sexual, or psychological.

But this teaching basically says that your problems are your fault as the flip side to its message of hope. And that’s the last thing anyone should say to addicted prostitutes in Baltimore or Bangkok, or to widows and orphans in refugee camps around the world.

The fourth danger is the refusal to admit that we in fact have to make trade-offs in life. We can’t have it all, do it all, or be it all.

Christianity in particular puts the matter starkly: You have to die in order to live. You have to be willing to sacrifice your money, your health, your family, your dreams, your beauty, and even your life itself if required by discipleship to Jesus. Yes, the reward for such sacrifice is greatly worthwhile: everlasting life of unimaginable goodness. But it is indeed a sacrifice—of everything—to God’s service. Christians follow a crucified Lord, and there is absolutely no crucifixion in Marianne Williamson’s way of thinking—except of bad thoughts!

Indeed, the entire scheme she preaches is merely wishful thinking, and wishing don’t make it so. The universe is not, in fact, standing quiveringly ready as a genie eager to fulfill your wishes.

But the actual God who exists is standing ready to welcome you into reality, where there is forgiveness, and freedom, and power, and hope, albeit by way of the valley of the shadow of death. For all of her charm and for all that she does indeed get right, Marianne Williamson does not, in fact, stand for the way of love, but the way of delusion. Real Love, however, stands ready to receive any of us and all of us.

And that’s a decision far more important to make than even the choice of the next American president.

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).