In my Jesus People shared house days, I came home from work late one evening in 1976 to a morbidly obese baby-faced man of about 40 sitting at our kitchen table. Housemates and a few recognized frequent visitors were seated around him. I seem to recall he had a bad hairpiece, but at this distance I may have confused him with someone else. “Don’t worry about the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” he was saying. “That cult is dead in this town.” No one quite seemed to know what to say. “I claimed it,” he explained. “I claimed it last week in prayer.” That seemed my cue to nod to the troops and head up to my room.
Nor was he the only one. “Positive Confession” was a phrase, declaring that you were not sick. That would make it so. Saying that “I think I’m coming down with something” was chastised, because your very act of saying it was going to make it so. There were many flavors of this, from a relatively mild “Power of Positive Thinking” to full on “Name It and Claim It” theology. The Kenneth Hagin, RHEMA Bible Institute was particularly popular at the far edge of my crowd.
It was a derivative of New Thought, a 19th C mind-cure and mind-over-matter theology. It was related to Christian Science, Religious Science, Unity Church and had considerable penetration into not only fundamentalist but mainstream denominations. I knew lots of them, dropping their snuffly kids off at church nursery saying they weren’t sick: “Positive Confession!”
Ideas don’t descend automatically from one belief to the next. They are pushed about by the weather of the culture they are in. One can sense some Bishop Berkeley, who believed material substance existed only as ideas in the mind in the history, yet not everyone influenced by Berkeley came to believe that whatever they uttered in a particular fashion was bound to happen.
Today we are awash in people insisting that things are so simply because they have said them. An accusation of racism or sexism is sufficient evidence for conviction. Even more interesting is people declaring they are not male but female, solely on the basis of their internal impressions. My friend Dale Kuehne in his book Sex andthe iWorld shows that the idea of defining oneself without reference to the larger community is new, and alarming. The story of the 69 y/o man who wants a court to declare him 49 because he thinks that would be better for him (Australian, I think) is humorous, but how is that different from declaring oneself to be a different gender? What arguments would one advance that do not apply to both? Is the experience of gender different for different people? So too are age and time. Are there hard physical facts that ground one’s age to being born in a particular year? How is that different from the grounding of birth genitalia?
We have attributed these modern redefinitions of self to narcissism or immersion in one’s own fleeting needs and impressions, but that might have only been possible atop a philosophical foundation of immaterialism, and ultimately of New Thought. The ideas of Pirandello’s Right You Are (If You Think You are) and absurdist works like it (Stoppard’s “After Magritte” may be my favorite) have been in the air for a long time, even among the many who don’t know their origin. Can we declare things into being?