The Unity Influence on Getting Things Done
In a conversation with David Allen for a profile that ran in this month’s Wired, I asked him how seriously he took the doctrines he encountered during the spiritual quest that led to him becoming a minister in the Movement for Spiritual Inner Awareness, founded by a Los Angeles-based mystic named John-Roger.
Allen replied that, for him, doctrine was beside the point. He took his experiences seriously.
“People reify these experiences and take them for the truth,” he said, “but they are only important as a working hypothesis. Let’s pretend this is true, and measure the results.”
His answer reminded me of something Sir John Templeton, the billionaire mutual fund pioneer, said to me during an interview a few years ago on the topic of science and religion. Templeton was funding the famous prayer study supervised by Herbert Benson at Harvard. Templeton’s hope was that science would demonstrate the pragmatic benefits of faith. The results of the study were not yet in when we talked, but I pressed Templeton on the potentially subversive effects of his experiment. Did he think believers would accept science this as a yardstick? Say a person found out his prayers were less effective than he had believed?
“We never say yours is less effective,” Templeton quickly replied. “We say, would you be interested in something more effective? Then they’re on your side.”
Religion, in this view, is not divine authority but verifiable technique.
Templeton is a Presbyterian. Allen, a minister in MSIA. But their approach to religion shares a common root. Both are spiritual heirs of Charles and Myrtle Fillmore, great innovators in the “new thought” movement in Christianity, and founders of the Unity Church. The Fillmores emphasized the power of prayer to improve physical, emotional, and financial health. Prayer activated a divine spirit within the believer, while meditation, positive thinking, and visualization techniques were used to gain prosperity and happiness.
The Unity influence on Templeton is direct and he has acknowledged it frequently. The Unity influence on David Allen comes by way of Alexander Everett, a pioneer of the human potential movement. Everett, born in 1921 studied to be a Unity minister and was deeply engaged with Unity ideas. He moved to San Francisco in 1970 and founded Mind Dynamics, a quasi-spiritual enterprise that used positive affirmations and meditation to help attendees attain their personal goals. Mind Dynamics was a tremendous success. Among Everett’s students were John Hanley and Robert White, who founded Lifespring, and Werner Erhart, who created EST. Lifespring and EST, in turn, were key sources for the Insight training seminars, launched by John-Roger a few years after he founded the Movement for Spiritual Inner Awareness. Through all of these channels, Allen has had the benefit of more than a century of experiments in “practical” belief.
The pragmatic strain in religion that characterizes Unity and its descendants is not confined to California, nor to the new religions and quasi-religious sects I’ve mentioned so far. The Mormons have it, as do many of the most successful evangelical leaders, from Aimee Semple McPherson in the twenties to Rick Warren today. But through Unity, the pragmatism that had found philosophical voice in William James and John Dewey, was formed into an explicit religious doctrine suited to popular use.
The question of ultimate reality, in these systems, barely counts; what’s important are certain behavioral habits, along with an open, relaxed, optimistic frame of mind. “Belief” or “faith” is a description of a mental posture, not an assertion of metaphysical truth. But in this case, why doesn’t doctrine disappear altogether? Why not go all the way to atheism, and enjoy pragmatism in its purest form?
That’s a question that still interests me, and I’ll post a few notes in the next entry.
Profile of Templeton from Wired:
Sir John’s Divine Gamble
The American Religion (link)
The Unity Movement (link)
James R. Lewis and Gordon Melton, eds.,
Perspectives on the New Age (link)
Sir John Templeton
Possibilities for Over One Hundredfold More Spiritual Information (link)
Storming Heaven: The Lives and Turmoils of Minnie Kennedy and Aimee Semple McPherson (link)