Esoteric (that is, inner, hidden) spirituality is going public. The official website of "The Secret" announces "a new era for humankind," kick-started by the sale of millions of copies of the DVD and book version, both of which were released last year. "The Secret" is now available on Amazon.com, but the core teachings behind it – a so-called law of attraction that turns your thoughts into things – are as old as ancient Babylon. So what explains the current rush?
Is it money? Author Rhonda Byrne claims her awakening began when she read a 1910 book by New Thought author Wallace Wattles called "The Science of Getting Rich." That influence shines in Ms. Byrne's work, which tantalizes us with the allure of wealth: "We can have whatever it is that we choose. I don't care how big it is.... Do you want to be a millionaire?" "The Secret" stands as the latest in a long line of promises to make us all spiritual and material millionaires. But there is more than money involved.
Is it a major change of spirituality? "The Secret" is the power of positive thinking on spiritual steroids. It is a new hybrid religion that joins the self-indulgent materialism of the West with the Hindu/Buddhist spirituality of the East. It takes principles and quotations from all religions and claims that guilt is passé, that the "law of attraction" is neither good nor evil, and that you deserve whatever you desire and attract to yourself. Such "revelation" arrives on the scene at the right time.
Sociologists tell us that modern society has turned away from the understanding of life as having established roles and a given order of things. What it's turned to is a perspective that makes the inner self the norm of behavior and gives high priority to subjective well-being. It turns out that material and spiritual well-being is just what the modern gurus also ordered.
Is it a choice of world- view? "The Secret" is not just a fluke commercial success or merely the latest version of the ever-popular human potential movement. It is one more proof that the "Christian" theistic West has, since the 1960s, adopted the old beliefs of pagan, pantheistic monism. Perennial philosophy – the belief that mystical metaphysics forms the core of all religious teachings – is now served up to the masses. Consider these "Secret" claims: "We are the creators of the Universe"; "You are God in a physical body."
Note what is happening. Such teachings arrogantly conflate human potential and divine potential, granting to creatures the powers unique only to God. This is the classic worship of self-creating and self-sustaining nature, necessarily eliminating God as its transcendent and sovereign creator. It is more than just consumer-oriented narcissism; it is a variant of the serpent's temptation in Genesis.
Scholars of religion identify two types of spirituality: (1) esoteric (inner) religion – the God within; finding truth within the human heart, since humanity is divine. This is the air breathed in "The Secret"; (2) exoteric (outer) religion that finds truth beyond the sphere of nature and humanity in the person of God, distinct from created things. Paul identified this spiritual confusion with remarkable clarity two millenniums ago in the first chapter of Romans: "Professing to be wise, they became fools ... who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator...." (New King James Version).
These two types of spirituality really do describe the two religious worldviews offered in our time. They both require faith and worship. They cannot be mixed because they are mutually self-excluding. You have to choose.
The age-old esoteric option, presented with such brilliant marketing skill in "The Secret," is tempting because it offers power, money, human divinity, and the promise of a humanly realized earthly utopia. But it fails to confront the fundamental challenges that certainly confront us: sin, suffering, and death.
The exoteric option, found in the revealed Word of Holy Scripture, offers something altogether different. It reorients our lives away from the desire to attract to ourselves, to the desire to give of ourselves. It doesn't "empower" our selves to achieve wealth and greatness. It calls us to "put off the old man with his deeds" and find renewal and redemption in Christ Jesus.
The overwhelming success of "The Secret" shows just how spiritually thirsty the world is today. The question is: Will it opt for esoteric hope in humanity or exoteric hope in God? Only one path truly quenches our real spiritual thirst.
• Peter Jones, director of Christian Witness to a Pagan Planet, is a professor at Westminster Seminary. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, and coauthor of "Cracking Da Vinci's Code."