Had I been born in the northeastern region of the United States the better part of two centuries ago, I would likely have been a subscriber to the Transcendental Club. With Ralph Waldo Emerson as one of the three founding fathers of the movement, it came into being basically as a protest against the nation’s general state of spirituality. Though today’s New Thought movement is often seen as the offspring of the transcendentalists, I believe the Transcendental Club could as easily reincarnate now in protest of the spiritual state of this supposedly enlightened movement.
Transcendentalists believed that society’s institutions, specifically those of a religious and political nature, corrupted the purity of the individual. Their guiding spiritual principle was that of God within the individual, that an active cultivation of the awareness of this universal presence was key to self-reliance and ultimately success in all areas of life. In my opinion, today’s New Thought movement gives lip service to this principle but has largely abandoned it as central. The proof is in the fact that while New Thought produces its share of celebrities, it does not produce true spiritual leaders. Its celebrities are masters of the cliché and feel-good sound bites that promise wealth, health and happiness. But these are simply repackaging and parroting thoughts they have drawn, not from their own inner spring, but from the well of others. If they were not selling God, they would be selling some other profitable commodity.
What we are calling spiritual leaders could as easily pass for simple bureaucrats trained to build and manage organizations. Focus has been withdrawn from the individual and turned on the community. “As individuals we are strong,” the argument goes, “but as a collective we are mighty.” The collective may indeed accomplish things an individual alone cannot. But the collective can never accomplish the single most important objective available only to the individual: spiritual enlightenment. One cannot win this prize by joining a movement. Nor can it be attained by climbing the ladder into that sacred inner circle of power within the movement.
While there is the perception that the closer one lives to headquarters the more enlightened one must be, the sad reality is often the opposite. Conformity is the key to rising through the collective. The spiritually self-reliant individual is an unwelcome nuisance.
Emerson believed that the transcendental movement, which began roughly in the 1820’s, was all but dead by the 1850’s. Though there have been many revivals and various incarnations of this movement, it is a likely inevitability that all movements born originally from the principle of the individual’s oneness with God will ultimately implode by placing greater value on the individual’s oneness with the movement. Considering the ever-growing plethora of distractions of our device-centered world, touting oneness with people is a much easier sell than advocating the experience of oneness with God. Going alone, thinking alone and seeking light alone may, after all, be the cause of a missed text or tweet.
I am not pessimistic about the spiritual health of the world. Movements come and go. Organizations rise and fall. Each individual’s oneness with God remains an absolute certainty, a changeless beacon that will never cease emitting its guiding light, pinprick that it may be. Mass appeal will always have mass appeal. But the direction the crowds run never alter our fundamental spiritual architecture. Each one, in his or her own time and way, will turn from shining rhetoric of the within to the actual experience of God that eternally awaits.