The inner voice is key to teachings of Unity

February 14, 1993|By Angela Winter Ney | Angela Winter Ney,Staff Writer

Six women and two men sit in a circle in a business-park office off Ritchie Highway, talking about reality.

Two are therapists. One is a schoolteacher. Several are younger and look uncomfortable. They take turns reading from "A Course in Miracles," a manual produced from the psychic experience of a New York psychiatrist, who in the late '60s claimed to have received the dictation from an inner voice that, she said, identified itself as Jesus Christ.

"I do not perceive my own best interests. My thoughts do not mean anything. Nothing I see means anything," are phrases the voice dictated, pausing occasionally -- sometimes in midsentence -- when the psychiatrist had other business. Readers are instructed to repeat the phrases on certain days over a period of months.

This is Unity, a group praised by its members as an open-minded, refreshing experience, but criticized by some mental health professionals as destructive to mental health.

Unity portrays itself as a "return to primitive Christianity," says Marilyne Hayes Pritchard, a minister at Severna Park Unity church. The movement has no dogma, she explains, and "everyone is drawn to what speaks to them. Whatever is good is what moves you on your path."

In fact, the group has a long list of teachings it does not accept. Unity denies the existence of a personal God, denies that humans sin and need salvation, and teaches that humans are divine -- canceling out most of the historic Christian creed.

Wide range of ideas

The group embraces a wide span of activities and ideas. Experience in a Unity group can range from talk about letting the Holy Spirit guide you -- which does not mean a member of the Trinity, but an inner voice found by squelching your ego -- to a session with someone who claims to channel the voice of a dead person, to placing a teddy bear at the church.

About 75 people have met as a Unity study group in Anne Arundel County for nearly 30 years. In the past six, the group has become a full-fledged church with about 120 members. In

Maryland, Unity groups also exist in Baltimore, Silver Spring and Gaithersburg. There are two centers in Washington, D.C., one with 500 members.

Unity was founded more than a century ago by Charles and Myrtle Fillmore in Missouri, where the faith still exists as a school on 1,400 acres near Kansas City. The couple emphasized positive thinking and taught that religion is a do-it-yourself project. Today, there are 500 Unity churches worldwide, including a number of foreign countries.

Nationally, the churches range from home study groups to a 10,000-member church in Chicago. A Michigan church has nearly 8,000 members, while an Atlanta Unity has about 6,000, said Ed Reifer, pastor of the Baltimore Unity church. The Baltimore group has more than 150 members, he said.

Members say Unity attracts educated people and those disillusioned with mainstream churches.

Lindsey Ruddell, for example, had not attended church for decades. "This was the first place I found that was perfect for me," she says. "Many of those who come have Catholic backgrounds like me, they knew there was something greater than themselves, but had problems defining it through the traditional church.

"A lot of traditional churches may consider us New Age," she says, referring to a loose rubric of popular psychic beliefs. "I don't have a problem with that. We call ourselves a New Thought church, but it's not a new thought at all; these are ancient teachings."

Many of the concepts introduced in the manual Unity uses for its discussion groups are drawn from traditional Hinduism and Buddhism. The bookstore in Unity's lobby offers a collection of books about reincarnation, inner healing, crystals and Zen.

World is an illusion

A mix of psychology and Eastern religion, with a layer of Christian terminology, the course admonishes readers that this world is an illusion and our goal is to "unloose our attachments to this world." Ms. Ruddell says, "We believe that we are all God. We see God as a principle rather than a person."

While many Unity ideas are similar to other New Age groups, what brings the church criticism from cult-watchers is its claim to be Christian. Cynthia Kisser, executive director of Cult Awareness Network (CAN), says Unity practices deceptive advertising by using Christian terms but changing their meanings.

"Even though they use traditional Christian language, they mean something quite different," she said, adding that the Miracles manual is "the type of tool that a cult could have a field day with."

But the group is primarily a theological cult, she said, as opposed to groups such as the Unification Church, which recruits heavily and separates members from nonmembers. CAN has received no complaints by families worried about a member's involvement in Unity, Ms. Kisser pointed out.

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