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.

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