• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

Oprah’s Secret: New? Old? Good? Bad?

Oprah Winfrey’s latest spiritual sensation is The Secret. Her talk show has featured it prominently, her website presents a lot of material on it, and she directs us to those who are now marketing The Secret through webcasts, DVDs, and other media that more than coincidentally recall The Da Vinci Code.

The Secret promises a better life for everyone. Testimonies abound from those who have found business success, romance, marital happiness, emotional and physical healing, and weight loss (not to be despised) through applying The Secret. So should we, as the advertisements proclaim, prepare for “a new era for mankind”?

The first thing to say about The Secret is that it isn’t new, and it isn’t a secret. The Secret is simply the latest version of “mind over matter.”

In some cultures, yes, 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 the age of quantum mechanics–“energy.” Seeing the spiritual essence of things was the great knowledge–in Greek, the gnosis–that let one free oneself from material encumbrances to enjoy a higher life. Thus The Secret is simply the newest packaging for gnosticism, a religious impulse that courses through a variety of religions around the world and that has been making a comeback in our own time.

To be sure, this particular form of gnosticism is particularly suited to our age in that 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 of The Secret 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. The Secret therefore simply is that we can have everything we want and be whomever we want to be by force of will.

Some viewers are recorded on Oprah’s website as raising questions 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, The Secret is just a description of the way God does so. For those who don’t believe in such a God, The Secret is just a description 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.

This way of viewing things has a long history in America. Indeed, Yale professor Harold Bloom calls gnosticism the quintessential American religion. We can master the world by dint of positive thinking and applied effort. Nothing finally will stand in our way. Ralph Waldo Emerson was openly atheistic about it. Mary Baker Eddy gave us “Christian Science.” Norman Vincent Peale domesticated it for Christian consumption as “positive thinking.” And Robert Schuller repackaged it as “possibility thinking” in our own day.

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Oprah Winfrey touts it, because her 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.

What makes The Secret so troubling, from my point of view, is that it is a stew of the good and the bad, such that the good is genuinely nourishing, while the bad is genuinely toxic.

There are several positive things, in fact, one can say about The Secret. For one, 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. Cognitive therapy–particularly in the useful popular form of Dr. David Burns’s Feeling Good Handbook–is all about forming good thoughts to replace bad ones.

For another, we can see the intertwining of religion and social consequences in lots of spheres, whether the economic and social improvement experienced by millions of poor people in Latin America who embrace Christian ethics regarding alcohol, responsible work, and family loyalty (as seen in David Martin’s scholarship); or in the long-observed paradox of monastic and Mennonite wealth: self-denial, thrift, and hard work often lead to riches.

Anxiety and anger have been linked numerous times now 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.

So I’m all for proper positive thinking.

What is spiritual lethal in this concoction, however, is actually several poisons, and–ironically–they all have to do with choice.

The first is the religious relativism that denies all the distinctives of the world’s religions and affirms instead a generic spiritual “essence”–which they really don’t have. This teaching, which purports to respect all faiths, in fact insults most of them, because it shears off any particular teaching they might have 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. “All that stuff doesn’t matter,” according to The Secret. “What matters is the essential spirituality of all things, and your ability to direct it to what you want.” And that is not what Islam, or Judaism, or Buddhism, or Christianity actually teaches. Nowhere close.

So you have to choose. The Secret is a particular religious option among many, not the Lowest Common Denominator of all religions.

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

Um, no. From a Christian perspective, 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 draw on the world’s resources in gratitude and faith, or I will perish. I don’t have that much power.

The third is the poison of 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 teaching is just disgusting when one considers the cases of so many people who have been damaged and oppressed and who still are–and can do little about it. How do you preach The Secret to young, addicted prostitutes in East Vancouver or Bangkok? How do you preach it to widows and orphans in Darfur refugee camps?

The fourth also has to do with choice, and it is the refusal to admit that we in fact have to choose and in particular that we have to make trade-offs in life. We can’t have it all, do it all, or be it all. Christianity in particular puts it 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. But it is indeed a sacrifice–of everything–to his service.

The Secret, therefore, is wishful thinking that does not correspond to the way things are. Some of it does, yes, which is why people can honestly testify to good things resulting from it. But some of it does not, and down that blithe spiritual path lies disastrous confrontation with a world that will not simply conform to our preferences.

The last point I want to make, though, is not critical of The Secret. It is critical of us Christians. By God’s grace to us, we know better, we know Christ and his gospel of new life, and yet often we have failed to speak to the spiritual realities so skillfully addressed by proponents of The Secret.

There is a lot of pain out there, and a lot of pain in here, too, and a lot of frustration with techniques and habits and outlooks and ideas that aren’t working. People don’t embrace something new unless what they currently have is inadequate. I take it for granted that the gospel is not inadequate. So it must be our preaching, and our worship, and our churches, and our families, and our books, and our youth groups, and our marriage seminars that are failing to offer people the light they need.

To be sure, some people embrace The Secret because they really don’t want to worship Jesus as Lord, don’t want a Saviour, don’t want to be conformed to a tradition, don’t want to depend on others. They want to be in control and run their lives and be “spiritual” strictly on their own terms. Okay.

But lots of people embrace The Secret, I daresay, because they want hope, and power for living, and freedom from the past, and forgiveness–and where else can they get that? Where else, indeed?

UPDATE: Check out this powerful presentation of the danger and immorality of advocating “positive thinking.”

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