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The Law of Attraction

Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. -- Jesus of Nazareth

I know someone who is bright, well-educated and hard-working, with a real knack for self-promotion.  Yet in his entire life he has never had two cents to rub together.  I am mystified why nothing has panned out for him.  He has dreamed about making it big since he was little.  He has always had a sure instinct for the next big thing but has never quite been able to clinch the deal.  Instead, his life has been a series of get-rich-quick schemes that always seem to leave him just a little bit poorer.  Now he is no longer young and is dogged by poor health.  I worry what will become of him.

I think about this person whenever I hear about the so-called law of attraction, the idea that you can bring good things into your life just by planting the thought firmly in your mind.  Oprah Winfrey, one of its chief proponents, assured viewers of her daytime talk show that you can create the life you truly want just by thinking the right thoughts.  You can make more money, fall in love, land your dream job, even lose weight (the latter a recurring theme on Oprah’s program). 

My luckless aquaintance would hardly seem to offer much of a testimonial for Oprah’s claims.  However, the law of attraction supposedly works both ways, like opposite poles of a magnet.  Positive expectations lead to positive outcomes in your life, and negative expectations are likewise self-fulfilling.  If you are not rich, haven’t landed your dream job or can’t seem to shed those extra pounds, maybe you just haven’t allowed those positive affirmations to sink deeply enough into your subconscious.

In its latest incarnation, the law of attraction has been marketed as “The Secret,” with a best-selling DVD and two companion volumes suggesting the wisdom of the ancients has been unearthed after centuries of being suppressed.  In reality, this particular “secret” has been shouted from the rooftops for a long time, providing much of the impetus for the self-help publishing phenomenon that arose in this country at the turn of the last century.  Its intellectual roots are in the so-called New Thought movement, which melds elements of faith healing, transcendentalism, Hinduism and apostolic Christianity.  The law of attraction is often described in quasi-scientific terms as operating like a magnetic force, with positive thoughts locking onto positive elements in the universe that vibrate at the same frequency.   

The law of attraction is easily scorned for its shallowness.  When anything bad happens in one’s life, regardless of the circumstances, is it somehow our fault?   Was it negative thinking that prevented Van Gogh from selling any of his paintings in his lifetime?  Does an epidemic disease represent a collective failure of positive thinking?    Did the Jews of Europe “create their own reality” when they were exterminated en masse by the Nazis? 

In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James criticized the “mind-cure movement,” as he called it, for denying the reality of evil, among other failings.  Yet Jesus of Nazaeth, who can hardly be accused of denying the reality of evil, seemingly embraced the basic tenets of New Thought in much of what he said and did.  Ask and it shall be given you, he promised.  Whatever you ask in prayer, believe that you have received it, and it will be yours. He told people if they had faith as big as a mustard seed, they could move mountains.  He healed people with a touch and sent his disciples out to do the same.  This was not some New Age huckster at work but the founding figure of mainstream Christianity. 

So what, if anything, sets Jesus apart from the latter-day apostles of positive thinking?  To begin with, we must distinguish between thinking about what you want and asking in prayer.  The distinction is often overlooked even by people who think they are praying.  “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions,” the Apostle James scolded.  Even Jesus did not presume to ask for things on his own account: “For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me.”  On the last night of his life, knowing that he would soon be taken away and killed, Jesus in anquish prayed, “Yet not as I will, but as you will."  This points to the real secret of the universe, although it is more nearly a paradox: As soon as we abandon any pretense of will, heaven and earth align to do our bidding.

James 4:3

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