None of this would be remarkable, except that he taught it as a minister who claimed to be a Christian. Yet as a Christian minister he denied that God was a being, saying “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!” (Plus: The Magazine of Positive Thinking). As a Christian minister he told Phil Donahue, “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 denied the very heart of the Christian faith and replaced it with his doctrine of positive thinking.
Many Christians critiqued Peale, including Episcopalian theologian John Krumm who saw that Peale had reduced God to a force and made 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.” Surprisingly, some Christians continued to embrace him. In 1966 Billy Graham said, “I don’t know of anyone who had done more for the kingdom of God than Norman and Ruth Peale or have meant any more in my life for the encouragement they have given me.”
Followers & Modern Adherents
The popularity of Peale’s teachings guaranteed his lasting influence. One of his most committed devotees, who patterned himself accordingly, was Robert Schuller, also a minister in the Reformed Church in America. Schuller restyled “positive thinking” into “possibility thinking,” but kept much of the core teaching intact. But Peale’s influence was much wider than that. His voice can be heard behind contemporary books like The Secret, which advocates the law of attraction, another way of speaking and believing reality into existence. His voice can be heard behind the Oprah Winfrey’s, Joel Osteen’s, T.D. Jakes’, and Tony Robbin’s of the world, along with a host of others who teach that the power of the mind, combined with some kind of faith, can change your life and change the world.
Mitch Howoritz points out, rightly I think, that this idea that thoughts are causative is one of the most important theological and psychological concepts of our time. Before Peale it was rare to hear phrases like “Nothing is impossible” or “Be all you can be.” But today we take such phrases for granted. It is not coincidental that the first chapter of Peale’s book is titled “Believe in Yourself.”