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Drawing a Bigger Circle

You probably learned in high school geometry that around any circle a bigger circle can be drawn. Long before high school, you were aware that we work with circles of all kinds. We form circles by holding hands with others, or we draw circles with chalk or lime. We use circles to enclose certain people or things, or to shut out certain people or things. Sometimes circles just grow bigger by themselves, as they come to include more and more people or things.

We use circles in abstract ways, too, to depict the extent of our knowledge, or to show relationships, as in Venn diagrams. A big circle might enclose smaller circles, concentric or not, or circles can overlap, partially or totally.

In progressing from childhood to adulthood, all of us go through stages of physical, mental, and moral growth. The same is true of our growth in faith. Theologians James Fowler and Sam Keen, in discussing the stages of development through which we all go on our journey of faith, or trust, use circles frequently in their descriptions. According to Fowler, "Progress can be made in individual lives as faith winds out in a widening circle of development to include broader ranging, more conscious, and more differentiated kinds of trusting and knowing" (Life Maps, page 10). As young adults, each of us is inside a rather small circle that represents our world of beliefs, formed with and with the help of people we trust, and pretty much accepted without question.

Gradually, we become aware that there are other circles of people and beliefs, different from ours, separate from ours, and perhaps somewhat threatening. Most adults get no farther than that, say Fowler and Keen, but some gradually begin to emerge from their own circles, to stand apart from them and view them along with other people's circles. Rather rarely, some people go farther still, explore broader beliefs, and come to understand what it feels like to belong to some other circle as well as one's own, to think in terms of "a community identification beyond tribal, racial, class, or ideological boundaries," as Fowler puts it. Keen calls such people outlaws, because they go outside community, outside the limits of the self, transcend them. It requires courage to break free from the security of the familiar community that has become confining, like a too-small pot for a rapidly growing plant. If outlaws continue to grow spiritually, they become lovers/fools, according to Keen, or universalizing, in Fowler's terminology. They have transcended the small circles and drawn a huge circle that includes them all.

Lovers have experienced our interconnectedness, our oneness. As Keen observes,

The lover can say "all is one" and know what s/he is talking about. It is only after the tragedy of disease, evil, and death has been wrestled with that authentic love begins to emerge. I suspect the "wisdom" of twenty-year-old children who have had no encounter with the raw side of life. When they say "all is one," they don't know what they are talking about. . . . You cannot lose an ego that you have not constructed. (Life Maps, page 123)

Because the lover has walked the same path, he or she can look back with understanding at the person who has not yet progressed so far on the journey.

But oneness does not mean monolithic oneness, the loss of our own identities by melting into one great amorphic blob. Outlaws and lovers still have their own identities, their own boundaries; they're just wider and less limiting than the old boundaries. We might think of them as permeable boundaries. I suspect that the New Thought movement is exceptionally well supplied with outlaws and lovers, people who have travelled farther than most on the journey of faith. But outlaws and lovers can help others along the path only by leading them, not by sliding back down to their level of development. Outlaws and lovers are very clear about what they stand for. They have indeed transcended their limited selves, but that does not mean that they lack distinct character and boundaries.

Author Stephen Covey, in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, discusses the need to establish True North, the set of time-tested, time-honored principles that guide all we do, principles that he believes—and New Thoughters would agree—come from God. Being principle-centered is being effective in whatever one does. If we encounter people who are not principle-centered or not on the spiritual path at present, we can love them, embrace them, welcome them into our circle if they wish to come in, but our circle does have a circumference, a boundary. We do have principles.

As New Thoughters, we do stand for certain specific things, most notably, belief in one Power: a good God who is everywhere present, and a universe made up of ideas rather than material "stuff." We believe in the power of the mind to heal, but not in a magical, work-my-will-on-the-world way. Our mind-power is God-centered; it is the practice of the presence of God for practical purposes. All of the New Thought founders came from Christian backgrounds and believed in the teachings of Jesus, though there is plenty of room in our circle for varying beliefs about Jesus and for other spiritual leaders as well. No one has to leave another circle of beliefs to come into our circle, as long as those beliefs center on one good omnipresent Power in a universe made of ideas, mind, or spirit. Atheists and dualists put themselves outside our circle. We are making clear where the boundaries are; we are not kicking anyone out.

The most severe and cogent criticism of New Thought has been that in recent years it has lost the character ethic, which it originally had in abundance. The character ethic includes such qualities as loyalty, integrity, perseverance, and dependability. The character of New Thought is not what philosopher Tom Morris calls "chirpy cheerfulness," nor shifting beliefs like a weathervane to match the prevailing breeze, just to get along with others. Rather, it is the positive things that you continue to tell yourself when the going gets tough. It is the habits that you install so that you can depend on them when you encounter difficulties. It is the centering on God at all times, no matter what. In an effort to improve communication with other people, there has been much emphasis on the personality ethic, which is certainly important and necessary, but a pleasing personality is no substitute for strong character. Character has to come first. Good character includes getting very clear on one's principles and living by those principles consistently. God, the source of our principles, is always at the center of our circle.

New Thought is frequently confused with New Age, and it does have some common roots. Many people belong to both groups. New Agers, like New Thoughters, are searchers. But not all New Agers have found a God-centered spiritual path, and many are distracted by magical thinking and occultism. New Thoughters are frequently mystics, and mysticism often blends with a certain amount of occultism, but much occultism leads away from a God-centered life. Unity co-founder Charles Fillmore warned, "Do not dabble in the occult." There is no reason to believe that death confers instant wisdom, and we need to be as discriminating about accepting information that purports to come from dead human beings as we would about information from live ones! Someone has wisely suggested that one be wary of any channel other than oneself.

Clearly we should trust our inner knowing, for in the last analysis, we with God's enlightenment are the experts on our own lives, and we decide what we will believe, but it behooves us to be humble enough to double-check our understanding against other fine minds who have spent their lives studying a particular field. This is as true in putting together our religious beliefs as it is in putting together what we decide to believe about physics or chemistry. Knowledge does change and grow, and our beliefs need to be overhauled periodically.

We are not being loving by compromising our principles. We are not showing tolerance by being unclear about what we stand for. We are not embracing universal oneness by accepting contradictory nonsense uncritically. And we are not growing spiritually if we fail to use our heads along with our hearts.

New Thought can and should be the heart and soul of the new age that includes New Age. Let's draw a circle big enough to embrace both. But let's make sure that that circle is centered on God, "in whom we live and move and have our being."