Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, a remarkably popular author and lecturer in the 1980s, begins his newest book boldly: "In and through community lies the salvation of the world."
If he sounds like an evangelist, that's all right; Peck won't deny it.
Nor will he deny that he has a grand mission in "The Different Drum," published this month by Simon and Schuster and already No. 7 on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list. Peck claims his ideas on spiritual growth and community building--if applied broadly--would facilitate gradual disarmament and the creation of a world government.
Final Mystical Stage
Such goals are articulated best, he says, by people in the final stage of spiritual development, which in his case amounts to a mystical Christianity. This fourth and final stage is typified by being part of caring communities, a commitment to more than oneself and the ability to relish and cope with paradoxical situations.
If that sounds less than modest, try this: "I sometimes say that perhaps the biggest political problem there is in the world is how 5% of us who comprehend paradox can communicate with the 95% who don't."
Peck said in an interview this week that one "subministry" he has is "fighting against simplistic, one-dimensional thinking." He similarly told a seminar in Santa Monica on Saturday that he lectures frequently "to try to correct the amazing one-dimensional thinking that goes on in this country."
Had his first, enormously successful book, "The Road Less Traveled," been published about 30 years ago, rather than nine years ago, Peck mused, it would not have "gotten anywhere" because of a less sophisticated public. The number of fourth-stage people was only about 1% some 50 years ago, he estimated. "The population is improving."
Jargon-Free Best Seller
As it happened, the paperback version of "The Road Less Traveled," published in 1980, caught on through word of mouth and has sold 2.25 million copies. Described as a broad-minded, jargon-free mixture of psychology and spirituality, the book has now spent 190 weeks on the New York Times best-selling soft-cover book list, at last count from Simon and Schuster.
The book's greatest appeal reputedly has been in the Bible Belt states. Peck concludes that is because he endorsed spiritual values while not giving pat answers heard from preachers.
"A remarkable number of them (his readers), probably over 50%, are either in therapy or have had psychotherapy, either through traditional sources or some things like Alcoholics Anonymous," Peck said.
The author, now 51, grew up in New York City in a secular household with "rugged individualist" parents who "neither desired nor trusted intimacy." He rejected his first name, Morgan, because he disliked his father's nickname for him, Morgie. He started using his middle name, encouraging others to call him Scotty.
He graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1958 and received his MD from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in 1963.
For nine years he served in the U.S. Army, resigning as a lieutenant colonel from a consulting psychiatry post in the Surgeon General's office and leaving Washington disenchanted after trying to remedy what he saw as the ills of government. From 1972 to 1983 he was in private psychiatric practice in rural Connecticut where he still lives.
His scientific training makes him ambivalent about a segment of his new-found following, the eclectic New Age movement. A recent cover of the New Age Journal exults, "M. Scott Peck Calls for New American Revolution."
Santa Monica Seminar
" . . . And I am!" Peck commented to New Age aficionados at the Santa Monica seminar sponsored by the Hermes Project, a Malibu-based group that espouses community building, "ancient wisdoms and emerging ideals," among other goals.
Later, Peck said, "There are things about the New Age movement that are really good. The part that is dangerous is a lack of discrimination and discernment and scientific rigor."
But if Peck is cautious about some of his admirers, some of them who were enthralled by "The Road Less Traveled" are unhappy with his now-frequent references to Jesus.
For between writing his first book in 1976-77 and his next book, "The People of the Lie," published in 1983, Peck gradually moved out of his 23-year exploration of Eastern religion, particularly Zen Buddhism, into a commitment to Christianity.
"I found myself thirsting for a less abstract and a more flesh-and-blood kind of God," Peck said. "I entered Christianity through the back door; well, perhaps the top door, through Christian mysticism. I was a mystic first before I was a Christian."
He was baptized by a Methodist minister in an Episcopal convent in 1980.
Evil as Personality Disorder
Yet it was his later participation in two exorcisms and his claims to have seen Satan in the face of the "possessed" patients that provided the basis for "The People of the Lie." Peck argued that psychiatry should recognize a distinct type of personality disorder to encompass people he called evil.
The evil people are at Stage 1 on his spiritual development ladder, he said. They work hard at appearing good to others, but are characterized by a will to do only what is best for themselves.
Mentally healthy adults "submit themselves one way or another to something higher than themselves, be it God or truth or love or some other ideal," Peck wrote.
But Peck has been criticized for being too "extreme" and "rigid" in another passage:
"There are only two states of being: submission to God and goodness or the refusal to submit to anything beyond one's own will--which refusal automatically enslaves one to the forces of evil. We must ultimately belong either to God or the devil."
'Forces of Darkness'
Peck reaffirmed his statement partially this week by saying that people who refuse to submit to anything higher than self contend that they enjoy ultimate freedom, but "in fact they automatically become enslaved to the forces of darkness."
However, Peck also said his statement was not an extreme one because "there are all kinds of 'in-betweens' where sometimes people submit themselves to something higher and sometimes they don't."
In "The Different Drum," Peck describes two intermediate stages. He says that Stage 2 in spiritual growth is an institutional stage to which he says the majority of churchgoers and believers belong. God is usually an external, transcendent Being; the faith tends to be legalistic, he indicated.
Stage 3, he says, is a skeptical one involving an active search for values and meaning. People who might be called secular humanists are in this stage, Peck said. In that sense, he said, they are more spiritually advanced than fundamentalists in Stage 2.
People in Stage 4 are distinctive in loving mystery, he claimed. "People go into religion for different reasons--some to approach mystery, some to escape mystery," Peck said.
The four stages of spiritual growth are somewhat analogous to his four stages of community-making, and Peck's implication is that spiritually advanced people can spread the principles of community.
The stages of achieving community, which Peck says may take only two days and may be accomplished with groups of up to 400 people, are these:
1. Pseudocommunity. The group attempts to purchase community cheaply by pretense. They are nice with one another but hide tensions and differences.
2. Chaos. The group attempts to obliterate differences, not out of love but to make everyone normal.
3. Emptiness. Perhaps after feelings of failure, people empty themselves of suffering and pain.
4. Community. "A kind of peace" develops as individuals allow themselves to be vulnerable. The atmosphere is lively and intense. "The agony is greater but so is the joy," he wrote.
Scores of Workshops
Since 1981, Peck wrote that he has conducted scores of community-building workshops. "Each and every group was a success . . . unlike the sensitivity group days when community seemed to be a hit or miss sort of affair."
One purpose is to "move them along," to create "a safe place" where they can change, he said.
One stage of therapy, not unique to Peck's system, is the "almost invariable disarming" effect of confessing weaknesses or worries to others. "They are most likely to respond, 'You seem like an authentic person. I'm tired and scared and lonely too. Of course I'll help you in any way I can.' "
Peck, in this instance and others, extrapolated the group therapy experience to the international arena.
"So it is also with the relationships between nations. It is our international policy to be as invulnerable as possible. Of course, it is the policy of all other nations also to be invulnerable. But these are policies of hopelessness. They offer no possibility of peaceful relationships, much less world community," he wrote. Without unilateral initiatives in arms reductions, there is no way out, he declared.
Though Norman Lear, George McGovern and James Armstrong, a former president of the National Council of Churches, have praised "The Different Drum," Peck concedes in the book that many will regard his proposals for national and international peace as naive. He says he also expects reviewers to be critical.
A postscript at the end of the book pleads for financial support for his Foundation for Community Encouragement, formed in late 1984 and based in Knoxville, Tenn.
"My biggest personal reason for developing the foundation was to become disposable," Peck explained this week. "In a sense what I have become is a highly successful evangelist. I belong to a sort of hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-swearing school of evangelism," he added, noting that his smoking habit surprises some admirers who remember his words on self-discipline.
"And what happens to successful evangelists, be they Jim Bakker," he said with a smile, "or Robert Schuller, is that they tend to build these big huge machines around them with thousands of employees. I wanted to see my work go on, but couldn't bear to see all these people dependent on me and then the evangelist dies, or commits an indiscretion, and the whole machine dies. I didn't want that kind of responsibility. Someday I want to be free to retire, free to have a stroke, free to commit an indiscretion."