People often question why we include Norman Vincent Peale and his popular book, The Power of Positive Thinking, into the same category as other New Age-inspired self-help books that Catholics should avoid. Here are a few good reasons for our decision to do so.
First of all, The Power of Positive Thinking is riddled with New Age-inspired gimmicks such as the use of imagery and repetitious phrases that are a form of auto-hypnosis. If you train yourself to think a certain way, certain things will happen. In other words, if the mind can conceive it, a person can achieve it – which is precisely what the New Thought movement of the 19th century was all about. There’s nothing wrong with training yourself to think positively, but when you believe your thoughts can actually change reality, then you’ve crossed the line and are now making the mind into a god.
For example, Peale’s book encourages readers to believe in themselves and to have faith in their abilities. There’s nothing wrong with this attitude, but he takes it a step too far when he tells people to “formulate and staple indelibly on your mind a mental picture of yourself as succeeding,” and then to “hold this picture tenaciously,” regardless of how things seem to be going. The reader must be rid of all “fear thoughts” and to “never think of yourself as failing” as a way to stamp this image into the unconscious mind where it supposedly releases “untapped energies.”
“It works best when it is combined with a strong religious faith, backed by prayer, and the seemingly illogical technique of giving thanks for benefits before they are received,” Peale writes in one of this books. “When the imaging concept is applied steadily and systematically, it solves problems, strengthens personalities, improves health, and greatly enhances the chances for success in any kind of endeavor.”
Even if it’s against God’s will? I doubt it.
Statements such as these are why Peale drew such severe criticism, even in his own day. Episcopalian theologian John Krumm accused Peale of reducing God to a kind of force to be harnessed and of making Christianity self-centered rather than God-centered.
“Very little is said about the sovereign mind and purpose of God; much is made of the things men can say to themselves and can do to bring about their ambitions and purposes,” Krumm said.
His book was also full of unsubstantiated quotes and testimonies. A 1955 article published in The Nation by R. C. Murphy cited numerous examples of unnamed professionals mentioned in the book who supposedly supported Peale’s ideas but whose names were never given. They were simply referred to as “a famous psychologist” or “a prominent citizen of New York City.”
The mental health community also came out against the book, accusing Peale of luring the unwary into accepting his ideas through a combination of false evidence and self-hypnosis.
But there are other even more serious problems and inconsistencies with Peale and his work. For instance, he claimed to be a Christian minister yet he denied that the only way to achieve salvation was through Jesus Christ. During an appearance on the Phil Donohue show, he told his host: “It’s not necessary to be born again. You have your way to God, I have mine. I found eternal peace in a Shinto shrine … I’ve been to Shinto shrines and God is everywhere. … Christ is one of the ways! God is everywhere.”
He also taught that God was not a being. “Who is God? Some theological being? He is so much greater than theology. God is vitality. God is life. God is energy. As you breathe God in, as you visualize His energy, you will be reenergized!”
This is in direct opposition to how God revealed Himself in Scripture when He called Himself “I am who am” to Moses, clearly indicating that he was a Person, not a “thing”.
He was also a Freemason.
“There is, as I see it, nothing like Masonry,” he wrote in the Introduction to Freemasonry, a Celebration of the Craft. “It is unique in its fellowship which spreads over much of the earth, in addition to our own country. Moreover, this in-depth fellowship spans the years, even the centuries, running back into antiquity. To me it means a personal relationship with great historical personalities and, taken by and large, also with about the finest body of men whom it is possible to assemble anywhere.”
That he was anti-Catholic was evidenced in public statements he made declaring John F. Kennedy unfit to be president because he was a Catholic. “It is inconceivable that a Roman Catholic president would not be under extreme pressure by the hierarchy of his church to accede to its policies with respect to foreign interests,” and believed that the free speech rights of Americans were at stake should he be elected.
The New York Times reported in 1960 that the statement brought him resounding condemnation which damaged his reputation and caused his syndicated column to be dropped by dozens of newspapers. At one point he went into hiding and even threatened to resign from his church.
Peale, who was raised as a Methodist and was ordained as a Methodist minister in 1922 changed his religious affiliation to the Reformed Church in America in 1932 and went on to serve as pastor of the Marble Collegiate Church in New York City for the next 52 years. He became an enormously popular speaker whose ideas are said to have had a great influence on billionaire and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump among many other notables of his time such as Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. In addition to numerous books, he is also the founder of the popular magazine, Guideposts, which continues to promote his ideas. Peale died on Christmas Eve in 1993 of a stroke.