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Our Great Companion in Co-Creation
New Thought techniques will work with practically any theory of what a good God is like. But—like people since the most ancient times—New Thoughters have wanted to know what sort of deity is both revealed and hidden by the universe. It can be helpful to know just how varied are the ideas of what God is like.
Perhaps the best summary of them is the classification given by Charles Hartshorne and William Reese in their 1953 book, Philosophers Speak of God. Here they present the possible elements for constructing a theory of God’s nature and the possible combinations of them, to which I am adding some words about New Thought: E = Eternal (timeless), devoid of change; T = Temporal (in time), changing; C = Conscious, self-aware; K = Knowing the world; W = World-inclusive.
ETCKW = panentheism (all is in God, and God is in all, without identifying God and the universe with each other; having all the characteristics in some respects held by Plato, Sri Jiva, Schelling, Fechner, Whitehead, Iqbal, Radhakrishnan); the position of Process New Thought. EC = Aristotelian theism. ECK = Classical theism (Philo, Augustine, Aquinas, Leibniz). E = Emanationism (Plotinus); seemingly held by some New Thoughters. ECKW = Classical pantheism (all is God; Sankara, Spinoza, Royce); embraced by some New Thoughters. ETCK = Temporalistic theism (Socinus, Lequier). ETCK (W) = limited panentheism (James, Ehrenfels, Brightman). T (C) (K) = the Supreme as emerging consciousness (Alexander, Ames, Cattell). T = the Supreme as temporal and nonconscious (Wieman).
I simplified this into my IOUD ("inside," "outside," "upstairs," "downstairs") classification, in New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality, of which my wife, Deb Whitehouse, is co-author.
New Thought does not have so many views of God as Hartshorne and Reese found in the world’s religions, but it does have more than one. Its understandings of God have been evolving over the past century and a half.
Before there was a New Thought movement, there was Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, whose remarkable healing led to New Thought. He had an admirably simple understanding of God’s working in the world, in some respects much like that of the latest—process—form of New Thought theory. Quimby considered God to be Wisdom, our choosing of which produces healing. When we accept erroneous beliefs founded on Calvinistic theology or the "heroic" medicine of his day, we get illness. Quimby held that we, metaphorically, sow the positive or negative choices in our receptive "spiritual matter." Quimby scholar Horatio W. Dresser interpreted this as Quimby’s having discovered the subconscious or unconscious mind (long before Freud). Then in that fertile "soil" our ideas grow into the results that we find in our material conditions.
In the early years of the New Thought movement, few people were familiar with Quimby’s theory and practice, but they were surrounded by emphasis on impersonal scientific laws, Hegelian absolute idealism (all is one divine mind or spirit), and (especially after the World’s Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893) increasingly popular Hindu and Buddhist views. Understandably, New Thought absorbed such influences. Dresser argued that to consider everything to be God denied the individual freedom needed for ethics and indeed for our very existence. However, he was largely ignored, and many New Thoughters came to believe that God is not the ultimate (nonhuman) person, but is impersonal principle, acting in a mechanical, automatic way. They were unaware of philosophical developments that would show more clearly than ever before that one could affirm that all is mind or spirit without claiming that there is only one mind or spirit. It would become apparent as the 20th century progressed that one cannot coherently believe that there is only one mind. A consistent idealism (all is mind, spirit, experience) must be a pluralistic, realistic idealism (there are innumerable interacting minds). The ultimate pluralistic idealism is a form of Whiteheadian/Hartshornian process thought, although many of its followers are reluctant to call themselves idealists, lest they be confused with earlier sorts of idealists.
So what does God turn out to be in this pluralistic-process-personalistic idealism? God is the ultimate person. This does not mean that God is a human being, but rather that God is the reality who is most supremely self-conscious (self-aware), rational, and value-oriented (desires the good and acts in the direction of attaining it, promoting it). A person is an experience (feeling, thinking, desiring, deciding, etc.) or a series of experiences. Most experiences (another name for minds) are far below the level of self-consciousness. The highest part of reality, the coordinator of all of it, could not be less than the supreme, self-conscious, rational, value-oriented entity, exercising most fully what philosophers refer to as personality (not to be confused with a human persona). God could not be fully impartial if God were not fully personal. God’s complete reliability is a personal moral quality, not a mechanical one.
God is the ultimate wisdom, as Quimby realized. God is the ultimate lover, giving perfect possibilities, and receiving, perfectly preserving, and appreciating all that the many beings of the universe have made by combining God-given possibilities with the influence of the past. God is, in the words of Alfred North Whitehead, "the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness . . . the great companion—the fellow sufferer who understands."
God is the ultimate power, in the sense of being the single most powerful (but not omnipotent), most effective influence on everything. God’s power is the power of lure and persuasion, not of force. God is the soul of the universe, without being the universe, any more than you, as a soul or self, are your body, although you and the many parts of your body contain each other, as well as at least vaguely everything else. The universe is the body of God, and is contained within God (meaning that the supreme experience that we call God feels the many experiences that make up the universe). Each experience in the universe also feels God, and thus contains God. There is only momentarily developing experience—no enduring substance, nothing that could be divided or individualized or individuated as anything else. Space is simply coexistence of experiences, and time is the transition from one experience to the next. All interaction is by means of one experience’s feeling of earlier-developed feelings. This is the meaning of inclusion.
Through mutual feeling of God and every other experience, God is everywhere without being everything; and we also, by being felt, are everywhere. By feeling, we are encompassing all that ever has gone before us. We, of course, have a much weaker, less conscious sense of this than God does. Our basic awareness is a rather vague "extrasensory" feeling, of which our five universally recognized senses are specialized developments.
God is the co-creator of everything and the sole creator of nothing. In other words—essentially what Quimby was saying—each experience blends in various proportions the influences of God’s guidance and of already-developed experiences (the past). Both the universe (God’s body, in some form, vastly different from one epoch to another) and God always have existed. God’s guidance for each developing experience (and it develops for only a fraction of a second) takes into account the particular situation of the experience in question.
God wants for and from us only what will contribute most to the fullness of our living. This means living most enthusiastically in accordance with what God offers to us, as the best plans for our situations of the moment, as well as for the long-range good of all.