The Center for Spiritual Living, a brand new church in Forest Park, held its first celebration Sept. 7 at the First United Church of Christ.
Rev. Mike Gerdes, spiritual leader and co-founder of the church, described his denomination’s teaching as not being confined to Christianity but inclusive of all the world’s religions.
“We are a welcoming spiritual community that honors all paths to God, providing spiritual tools for personal transformation and helping make the world a better place,” Gerdes said.
To get a handle on this new phenomenon, it is helpful to understand the spiritual currents which have fed into this movement called New Thought.
In the mid-1800s, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau made famous an approach to things spiritual which became known as transcendentalism. Reacting against intellectual Unitarianism, the transcendentalists claimed that the way to know God is not through reason and logic but through, as one member of the movement said, “that faculty which gives him ideas and intuitions which transcend sensational experience.”
Like the Unitarians, transcendentalists rejected Christian doctrines like the trinity and sin, taught that humans are essentially good and believed in a god of love. They also preached that because God lives in every person, human nature is divine.
A news release issued by Gerdes illustrates the connection with transcendentalism. “We invite everyone to participate in the many expressions of the divine in us, through us, as us,” Gerdes said in his release.
The connection with intuition is revealed in the center’s emphasis on receptivity. Margo Ruark, Gerdes’ colleague at the center, explained, “If we are the image and likeness of God, that’s the part we embrace. It’s our job to clear away the clutter, so we can express that God nature more fully. Our receptivity to God’s goodness is what allows us to pray prayers that work.
“We know people who know a lot about doctrine, about the bible, who have even memorized the bible, but are they receptive, are they able to change and grow? The real upshot of our educational system is receptivity.”
Like the transcendentalists and the Unitarians who preceded them, New Thought doesn’t believe that Jesus was divine.
“We see him as the great example, rather than the great exception,” Gerdes said.
Ruark added, “Using our mind the same way Christ used his mind, that is the way, the truth and the life. It’s not the person Jesus. It’s what he was doing with his mind.”
A few decades later, William James applied his brand of philosophy, which came to be known as pragmatism, to the study of religion in a book entitled The Varieties of Religious Experience. In pragmatism, what is true is what works. Pragmatists avoid speculating about the nature of reality beyond what we can see. In The Varieties, therefore, James wasn’t interested in beliefs and doctrines as much as how the different religions in the world actually work. What kind of fruit, in other words, does a tree produce?
The Pragmatist’s emphasis on what works is evidenced in the Center’s frequent use of the term tools. Gerdes and Ruark aren’t going to try to convert you from anything to anything. What they want to do is teach you how to be more effective in whatever religious tradition you follow.
For example, on their Web site (www.thenewhumanity.org) they provide a list of 15 true-false statements entitled “How is your spiritual path working for you?” The statements include My spiritual path brings me indirect contact with God on a regular basis. I have more loving relationships because of my spiritual life. I feel prosperous and live richer because of my spiritual life. My spirituality enhances my health in visible ways. The self-survey ends with the statement: “If you answered False to three or more questions, you might want to give us a try.
At around the same time that William James was promoting the virtues of pragmatism, Mary Baker Eddy had written a book, Science and Health, which by 1875 had sold 400,000 copies. Contending that disease is caused by the mind alone, it was one of many attempts to somehow integrate religious experience with the findings of science.
Until July, Gerdes and Ruark’s denomination was known as Religious Science International, revealing the belief of what is now called International Centers for Spiritual Living that science confirms the truth of religion. “When you have a faith,” said Gerdes, “and then science catches up to demonstrate your faith, when it agrees with a religious principle, it’s as if all the heavens are shouting hallelujah.”
Although flowing out of the same spiritual/intellectual wellspring, New Thought is not the same as Christian Science. According to New Thought, the reason prayer works, in for example healing, is that the persons praying are getting themselves on the same page with God.
“When we do our prayer work [spiritual mind treatment to use the Center’s terminology], we are not trying to change God’s mind or get God to do something. What we’re trying to do is to align ourselves with the presence of Spirit. As we do that we begin to manifest those qualities of Spirit in our lives.”
Ruark put it another way. “We believe that prayer does nothing to God, but it does everything for us.”
In a series of lectures given in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1904, Thomas Troward attempted to pull all of the preceding currents into one coherent whole. He called it Mental Science, but it was much more than a discussion of psychology. Rather, Troward was trying to integrate spirituality, Pragmatism, metaphysics and science into one unified system.
“Emerson gave us the heart of our religion,” Gerdes explained, “and Thomas Troward gave us the science. He really explained why a change in your consciousness manifests itself in a change in your condition. He explains why that works.”
Beginning Sept. 10, Gerdes will be teaching an eight-session series on the Edinburgh Lectures of Thomas Troward. He noted that if people watched Wayne Dyer on PBS, they would have heard Trowbridge’s name mentioned often.
On the same day, Ruark will begin teaching a series called “The Spiritual Path” which will introduce students to “the background, history and beginnings of the Science of Mind, as well as to a new concept of God.”
Worship or celebration the Center for Spiritual living consists of Spiritual Mind Treatment (an affirmative prayer) Reading of Declaration of principles Inspirational Reading from Science of Life Book, the Bible or other inspirational text A 20 minute metaphysical lesson (sermon) Dialog–question and answers period as well as sharing of answered prayer Treatment, i.e. Prayer Work for anyone who wants it.