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Unity and Early Christianity

by Keith Akers

Not all of the religion of Jesus has been "lost" to modern Christianity. Unity School of Christianity, a New Thought denomination initiated by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore around the beginning of the twentieth century, is important because it recovers three critical pieces of early Christianity, as reflected in Jewish Christian Ebionism. Charles and Myrtle Fillmore probably did not do this consciously, after a careful historical study of early Christianity; rather, they simply acted in the conviction that what they were doing was in accordance with the divine plan. Nevertheless, the fact that these elements seem to be found in early Christianity, and in the modern Unity movement, but were disapproved of by the established churches is very interesting. These elements are (1) vegetarianism, (2) the "Christhood of the believer," (3) the priority of divine experience over written documents.

Vegetarianism

Charles and Myrtle Fillmore were vegetarians and saw vegetarianism as an integral part of their teaching. When they founded Unity School of Christianity, they chose not to make vegetarianism a requirement, but it was recommended. There are conflicting reports as to whether Charles may, later in his life, have eaten fish on some occasions. However, there is no dispute that Myrtle Fillmore was consistently vegetarian throughout her life.

Charles and Myrtle intended to follow the Adventist model in so far as dietary recommendations were concerned: to teach vegetarianism, without requiring it. The Seventh-day Adventists — some of whom the Fillmores knew and talked with — faced a similar dilemma. Today, only about one-third to one-half of all Adventists are vegetarian, but the Adventists continue to recommend vegetarianism to their members and vegetarianism is taken very seriously.

Unity today has largely, though not entirely, rejected the advice to be vegetarian. The counsel to abstain from killing animals for food has disappeared from the Unity statement of faith. This statement originally said in part:

"We believe that all life is sacred and that man should not kill or be a part to the killing of animals for food; also that cruelty, war, and wanton destruction of human life will continue so long as men destroy animals."

This striking assertion was not offered casually. For years Unity ran a very popular vegetarian restaurant. For over a quarter of a century the newsletter Weekly Unity devoted one page out of eight to vegetarianism. Sometimes an entire, lengthy issue would be devoted to vegetarianism: this happened both in February 1911 and in June 1915. Charles Fillmore was writing on vegetarianism as early as 1903, and as late as 1928, Weekly Unity stated:

"Unity School does not insist that its followers be vegetarians but it advises them to do so. . . . Unity School advocates vegetarianism for humane reasons also." (September 15, 1928)

Vegetarianism was very much part of the early Christian movement, as I have made clear elsewhere. When Jesus went into the temple to disrupt the animal sacrifices there — an act which led to his arrest and crucifixion — he was expressing the same sentiments which Charles Fillmore had when he wrote, "why should man dye his hands with the life-blood of beings that resent the carnage, and cry out and bellow in terror when his cruel knife is raised against them?"

The Christhood of the Believer

The question of whether Jesus was the Messiah was, we can imagine, hotly debated between supporters and opponents of Jesus in early Christianity. Unity has a different slant on this issue. In the pamphlet, Twenty Questions and Answers About Unity, the following response is given to the question about the divinity of Christ:

"Unity teaches that the spirit of God dwelt in Jesus, just as it indwells every person; and that every person has the potential to express the perfection of Christ, as Jesus did, by being more Christ-like in everyday life." (emphasis added)

In this perspective, what makes Jesus divine — the perfection of Christ — dwells, at least potentially, not only in Jesus but in everyone. In early Christianity, the idea of "Christ" or "Messiah" refers to "the anointed one." The early kings of Israel were anointed; for example, Samuel anoints Saul as the first king of Israel, signifying that the king has divine sanction to rule. In a similar way, calling Jesus the "Christ" (a Greek term for the Hebrew "Messiah") indicates that early Christians felt that Jesus was anointed and was therefore their supreme spiritual leader.

For Unity, it is the indwelling of the spirit of God that gives authority, and this indwelling is available to all. It is not something reserved for the unique, holy Son of God; it is for all believers. This same point of view can be found in early Christianity, among the Ebionites. According to Hippolytus, in his work The Refutation of All Heresies,

"The (Ebionaeans allege) that they themselves also, when in like manner they fulfil (the law), are able to become Christs." (7.22)

The Recognitions of Clement contains a similar statement about the Christ:

"Him [Jesus] first God anointed with oil which was taken from the wood of the tree of life: from that anointing therefore He is called Christ. Thence, moreover, He Himself also, according to the appointment of His Father, anoints with similar oil every one of the pious when they come to His kingdom." (1.45)

There is an important corollary to this idea, which is the rejection of original sin. Unity, and indeed all New Thought churches, reject the idea of original sin — that we are somehow inherently sinful at birth. The Ebionites likewise rejected original sin, in a somewhat different way, by reformulating the whole idea of sin occurring in the Garden of Eden. It was not until many generations after Adam that sin entered the world; it did not happen in the Garden (Recognitions 1.29-30, Homilies 8.15). "Evil" comes into the world because of ignorance, "which is the worst of all demons" rather than because of an evil force (Recognitions 2.25, 4.8), and indeed even the devil himself may ultimately be saved (Homilies 20.3)! Unity likewise says simply "Evil's origin is ignorance" (Twenty Questions and Answers About Unity).

The individual who realizes his or her own divine nature, therefore, has the Christ-spirit just as much as Jesus himself. During the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther used the idea of "the priesthood of the believer," meaning that every person was his own priest, he did not "need" a priest (or any other earthly institution) in order to get in touch with God. Borrowing from Luther’s terminology, I refer to the divine indwelling of Christ as "the Christhood of the believer" — everyone is his or her own Christ, reflecting Jesus’ own words, "the kingdom of God is within you." The first Christians did not think that we needed to go through Jesus in order to get to God. After Jesus had left the earth, in the upper room at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came directly to all the believers. To the early Christians, the answer to the question of whether the Christ has come, or even whether or not Jesus is the Christ, is superfluous: the believer is the Christ.

Divine Experience or Written Documents

For Unity, God is the sole power in the universe; there are not competing good and evil powers between which we must choose. This shapes Unity’s approach to scripture — which, interpreted uncritically, seems to abound with descriptions of competing good and evil powers. Allegorical interpretation of the scripture is a prominent feature of Unity thinking. Charles Fillmore engaged in it extensively. The scripture reveals truth to us, but it cannot simply be read out uncritically; the individual must interpret the meaning of the scripture in light of divine understanding. For Unity "Holy Spirit, working individually through those who study Scripture and listen within, is the final authority in spiritual awakening" (Twenty Questions). Thus it is not the written documents which are the authority, but the Holy Spirit.

The Ebionites took a similar, though not identical, approach. There is no suggestion that the Ebionites used allegory; but they did evaluate scriptures in accordance with their experience.

"Everything that is spoken or written against God is false. . . . If He [God] lies, then who speaks truth? . . . If he loves war, who then wishes peace? If he makes evil things, who makes good things?" (Homilies 2.40, 2.43)

In short, the appearance of a text in the scripture is, of itself, not the final authority. That authority must be sought elsewhere. Elsewhere in the Homilies, a criterion is suggested for evaluating which are the true scriptures:

"Whatever sayings of the Scriptures are in harmony with the creation that was made by Him [God] are true, but whatever are contrary to it are false." (Homilies 3.42)

We see, once again, a parallel between Unity’s teaching and that of the Ebionites. Since (for Unity) there is only one power in the universe, evil is ultimately an illusion, and therefore what is in harmony with God’s creation is an expression of God; what is not in harmony with the creation, is not from God. The written text is not the final word; it must be interpreted in the light of God’s creation.

Conclusions

We certainly shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that Unity and Ebionism are completely in harmony. There are stylistic and other differences between Ebionite Christianity and Unity. The Fillmores did not consciously study and imitate Ebionite Christianity; they simply acted on inspiration from the light within. Nevertheless, we have here an example of two movements — one ancient, another modern — which both grasped key elements of Jesus’ teachings which are conspicuously missing from most of modern Christianity.

November 26, 2001