This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 18, number 4 (Spring 1996). For more information about the Christian Research Journal, click here.
In setting forth his views on spiritual and mental health, Dr. M. Scott Peck has captivated the attention of Christians and non-Christians alike. The best-selling author of The Road Less Traveled and other books on spirituality and psychotherapy claims that true salvation or mental health comes to persons — whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, or atheist — as they set aside prejudices of the past and strive toward fulfilling their own potential to save themselves. In his teaching Peck denies practically every major doctrine of Christianity while advocating an unbiblical morality.
Though M. Scott Peck’s name may not be immediately recognizable by everyone, multitudes have heard of his best-selling book The Road Less Traveled. This book has sold more than five million copies and has been on the New York Times “Bestsellers list for a record 600-plus weeks. Peck’s ideas have enjoyed widespread exposure through his books, interviews, and public addresses throughout the country. The high praise that is frequently lavished on Peck was expressed by popular television talk-show host, Oprah Winfrey, when she said, “Few writers have touched more lives than Dr. Peck, and few messages have empowered more people.”1 He has been compared to well-known evangelicals Chuck Swindoll and James Dobson.2
Morgan Scott Peck was born in an affluent family on New York City’s Park Avenue. His parents were “rugged individualists” who neither desired nor trusted intimacy.3 His early education was at an uppercrust private academy, which he left at age 15. Contrary to his parents’ desires, Peck quit the Phillips Exeter Academy due to excessive unhappiness4 and finished at a Quaker prep school in Manhattan.
While studying world religions at the Friends Seminary, Peck encountered and later embraced Zen Buddhism. This was the beginning of his spiritual journey. Peck remembers himself as a “freakishly religious kid,”5 but he was not at all taken with Christianity, which he considered mere “gobbledygook.”6
His purported conversion to Christianity occurred in 1980 prior to the publication of his second book, People of the Lie. He had a nondenominational baptism, and was discipled by a Roman Catholic nun. “I entered Christianity,” he said, “through Christian mysticism. I was a mystic before I was a Christian.”7 In People of the Lie he provides an account of his conversion: “After many years of vague identification with Buddhist and Islamic mysticism, I ultimately made a firm Christian commitment….My commitment to Christianity is the most important thing in my life and is, I hope, pervasive and total.”8
WHY IS PECK SO POPULAR?
Peck wrote The Road Less Traveled at a propitious time. Whereas psychotherapy stood at a distance from the average person — wrapped in “scientific” jargon and devoid of a spiritual dimension — Peck offered solutions in a nonscientific and easy-reading style. He addressed the spiritual cravings of Americans who apparently were not being satisfied through the church or their culture.
Over the past few decades many Americans have sought after a spiritual meaning to life. In fact, one study revealed that 58 percent of adults in this country “feel the need to experience spiritual growth.”9 In keeping with this, 25 percent of the titles on the December 1994 New York Times Bestseller list were on spiritual matters,10 albeit primarily from a psychological rather than a theological perspective.11
People come to Peck with numerous debilitating emotions like fear, anger, loneliness, guilt, and grief. He offers them relief. As a matter of fact, Peck promises that “we can solve all problems” with total discipline.12
PECK’S INFLUENCE AMONG CHRISTIANS
Surprisingly, Peck and his writings have had a strong influence on many Christians. Contemporary Christian magazine said his book People of the Lie is “enthralling, frustrating, controversial, paradoxical, revolutionary — People of the Lie may well be one of the most significant new works in recent memory” (emphasis in original).13
Not only has Peck been praised in the media, he is also a frequent speaker in Christian churches, as well as in New Age meetings.14 Since cowriting The Less Traveled Road and the Bible15 I have discovered that various Christian schools use Peck’s books in classes and Christian counseling centers give them to counselees.
Christians have not been very discerning regarding Peck’s teachings. Simply because Peck uses Christian terminology, or offers some legitimate solutions, many Christians have embraced him and his books without reservation. Using that same criteria, however, Mormon material should be accepted because it has helpful information on the family. Likewise, Jehovah’s Witness literature should be accepted because it argues against materialistic evolution. Certainly as much discernment and caution should be exercised with Peck’s works as is used for cultic material.
WHAT HELP DOES PECK OFFER?
In Peck’s thinking every individual needs to develop mental health. People are at different stages of this development. Peck has labeled these identifiable stages this way: Stage 1, chaotic/antisocial; Stage 2, formal/institutional; Stage 3, skeptic/individual; and Stage 4, mystic/communal.16 He indicates that he has passed through the first three stages and is now in the final stage.17
Stage 1 comprises most young children and approximately one in five adults.18 Adults in this group are “people of the lie” who appear incapable of loving others and are thus antisocial.19
Stage 2 consists of individuals who conceive of God as “almost entirely that of an external, transcendent Being.”20 These people are barely better off than the criminals represented in Stage 1. They are fundamentalists/ inerrantists to Peck. They believe in a “Cop” in the sky who directs their lives. They need authority and they blindly follow the church.21
Stage 3 is composed of persons who are generally more spiritually developed than those content to remain in Stage 2.22 It is made up of atheists, agnostics, skeptics, and doubters. These men and women are active truth-seekers.23
Like Peck, people who have achieved stage 4 have graduated to the “mystic/communal stage of spiritual development.”24 Peck writes, “Mystics of every shade of religious belief have spoken of unity, of an underlying connectedness between things: between men and women, between us and the other creatures and even inanimate matter as well, a fitting together according to an ordinarily invisible fabric underlying the cosmos.”25 Here Peck reveals himself as a believer in the Eastern religious world view known as pantheistic monism: all is one and one is all; God is all and we are God.
For the Christian, however, salvation includes the forgiveness of sins, the gaining of power over sin in this life through the Holy Spirit, and an eternity with God apart from the presence of sin. Such a vision does not appear in Peck’s view of salvation. For him salvation is merely gaining mental health. In speaking of the need for the world to be saved, Peck says, “Demanding rules must both be learned and followed. But there are rules! Quite clear ones. Saving ones. They are not obscure. The purpose of [The Different Drum] is to teach these rules and encourage you to follow them…For that is how the world will be saved.”26 The rules Peck suggests may certainly be helpful in gaining some level of mental health or living one’s life productively, at least if interpreted in the context of a biblical world view. But they provide virtually no basis for eternal life or freedom from the guilt of sin. Let us now look at some of the ways in which Peck seeks to lead people toward “salvation” or mental health.
THE MEANS TO THE MENTAL HEALTH
Much of what Peck says in his discussion on mental health is helpful, if not original, since much of it is found in various portions of God’s Word. The problem is that Peck’s system of thought, taken as a whole, ultimately leads a person down the wrong road.
The first part of Peck’s solution for difficulties in this life is to develop discipline. Rather than running from problems, people must confront them: “This tendency to avoid problems and the emotional suffering inherent in them is the primary basis of all human mental illness. Since most of us have this tendency…most of us are mentally ill to a greater or lesser degree, lacking complete mental health.”27
There are four basic tools for discipline: (1) delaying gratification, (2) acceptance of responsibility, (3) dedication to truth, and (4) balance. If these approaches are used to confront pain or difficulty, the end result is personal growth.
Delaying gratification is “a process of scheduling the pain and pleasure of life in such a way as to enhance the pleasure by meeting and experiencing the pain first and getting it over with.”28 In other words, when one is faced with two alternatives, one should deal with the painful one first and then enjoy the pleasurable one.
According to Peck, the clear truth that we should accept responsibility for our actions is “seemingly beyond the comprehension of much of the human race.”29 Instead, many people are determined to skirt their problems or blame someone else.
The third tool of discipline (or technique for dealing with the pain of problem-solving) is dedication to the truth.30 This tool must be employed continually if our lives are to be healthy and our spirits are to grow. Such dedication to truth sounds good, but further reading of Peck makes one realize that his truth is a moving target; we must change our views of life as we adjust to new realities.31
Peck’s own experience illustrates the developing of new realities and new truth. He moved from a vague adherence to Hinduism and Buddhism (The Road Less Traveled) to a fervent belief in some form of Christianity (People of the Lie) to embracing New Age thought with all of its relativistic views of truth and morality (The Different Drum).
Part of Peck’s rejection of absolute and objective truth has to do with his rejection of parental and church authority.32 Moreover, Peck says, everyone must come up with his or her own truth through personal experience. We should not accept a hand-me-down religion.33 Paul and Jude, however, taught that Christians throughout history are to hold in common a specific body of doctrine (1 Cor. 15:1-11; Jude 3).
The fourth technique Peck suggests in developing discipline is balance, which refers to the ability to negotiate “conflicting needs, goals, duties, responsibilities, directions, et cetera.”34 Balance requires us to be flexible, adjusting to changes in our surroundings.
What is the motivation that will put into action the discipline expressed in the four techniques above? This leads us to one of the more helpful portions of The Road Less Traveled. In Peck’s discussion of “falling in love,” he demonstrates that this act is generally nothing more than a physical attraction that must give way to real love.35 True love is not based on emotions. So far so good. But what is “love” according to Peck? Unfortunately, genuine love in Peck’s understanding is selfish and self-replenishing. He says, “I never do something for somebody else but that I did it for myself. And as I grow through love, so grows my joy, ever more present, ever more constant.”36
In line with this thinking Peck denies that loving is sacrificial in nature: “The issue of masochism highlights still another very major misconception about love — that it is self-sacrificing….Whenever we think of ourselves as doing something for someone else, we are in some way denying our own responsibility. Whatever we do is done because we choose to do it, and we make that choice because it is the one that satisfies us the most. Whatever we do for someone else we do because it fulfills a need we have.”37
Peck’s idea of love is obviously quite foreign to the Christian view, which teaches that true love is sacrificial, nonselfish at its heart. Biblical love seeks another person’s good, not our personal spiritual growth, though such growth might be a natural consequence. Like the Good Samaritan whose only thought was the person for whom he had compassion, Jesus, the greatest “Good Samaritan,” died for us while we were yet sinners, apart from any selfish desires (Rom. 5:8).
On the issue of religion, Peck believes everyone has religion and that it is helpful for spiritual growth. Most importantly, he says, we must develop our own religion and move beyond our parents.38 The key, however, is not to be dogmatic about religious views.39
Peck is nondiscriminatory in regard to religion. In seeking God, he says, any religion will do: “There are an infinite number of roads to reach God. People can come to God through alcoholism, they can come to God through Zen Buddhism, as I did, and they can come to God through the multiple ‘New Thought’ Christian churches even though they are distinctly heretical. For all I know, they can come to God through Shirley MacLaine. People are at various stages of readiness, and when they’re ready virtually anything can speak to them.”40
If Peck were merely saying that God can use one’s past religious experiences to lead one to the truth of Christianity, then I would have no quarrel with him. But Peck is open to all these religious views as being adequate to bring “salvation.”41 The Bible, on the other hand, reveals that there is only one road to God, through the person of Jesus Christ (John 14:6; Acts 4:12). And this salvation is made possible by the grace of God.
Grace is a beautiful biblical teaching. The Bible sets forth the utter inability of sinful human beings to perform any acts that make them worthy of God’s salvation, but then couples with this truth the teaching of grace. The unmerited favor of God, apart from any human works, puts believing human beings into a proper relationship with their Maker.
Peck, on the other hand, views grace variously as one’s health, unconscious events like dreams or idle thoughts, and serendipity or synchronicity in which seemingly accidental and unrelated occurrences are actually meaningful events that affect our lives.42 All of these things enable us to move to higher levels of spiritual growth. He says of this grace that it is a mysterious force that comes to us to help us along the road to spiritual growth,43 not as a gracious gift from God but something we earn: “Essentially, I have been saying that grace is earned. And I know this to be true.”44
Peck has turned grace into an impersonal force (in harmony with his impersonal God) which acts on our behalf to help us move toward spiritual growth. This teaching is totally foreign to the biblical view of God bestowing undeserved favor on wretched and rebellious sinners, made possible by the sacrificial death of Christ on the cross.
WHAT DOES PECK BELIEVE ABOUT THEOLOGY?
Peck believes the goal of humanity is to eventually become unified with unconsciousness (God) by our loss of self-consciousness, which is essentially Eastern mysticism joined with Jungian psychology. He says, “Since the unconscious is God all along, we may further define the goal of spiritual growth to be the attainment of godhood by the conscious self. It is for the individual to become totally, wholly God….The point is to become God while preserving consciousness….It is to develop a mature, conscious ego which then can become the ego of God.”45
The Meaning of Evil
While Peck’s ideas in The Road Less Traveled got him a hearing from the general public, The People of the Lie provided the means by which he began to build a bridge to the evangelical movement. Evangelicals were endeared to him by his comments in People about embracing the Christian faith as well as the Christian doctrine of sin. Unfortunately for his readers (and for Peck), his concept of sin dances around the biblical view, but never comes to grips with it. The Bible represents sin as rebellion against God and falling short of God’s standards of righteousness (1 John 3:4; Rom. 3:23). Because of this, physical and spiritual death entered the world (Rom. 5:12ff.), creating the need for the cross (Acts 2:22-24; 1 Cor. 15:3-4).
What is sin to Peck? At bottom it is laziness or avoiding legitimate suffering: “I have said that the attempt to avoid legitimate suffering lies at the root of all emotional illness,” and “ultimately there is only the one impediment, and that is laziness.”46
The original failure of Adam and Eve (mythical figures to Peck) was not rejection of the law of God but failure to enter into a debate with God, to question His authority, to communicate with Him on an adult level,47 and “to consult or listen to the god within them.”48
Peck’s Pantheistic God
Peck’s God is little different than the pantheistic view of God expressed in Eastern thought. God is not a truly personal being (though Peck sometimes speaks of God in terms that sound as if He is) but is rather the totality of the unconsciousness of which human beings and all other living and inanimate things are a part. Since Peck now has adopted process thought, which holds that there is constant change in God,49 his ideas are difficult to track. Wendy Kaminer says of Peck, “Even Peck’s most avid readers would probably have trouble explaining his ideas” about God.50
At times Peck speaks of God as “He” and sometimes as “She.” He even calls God “it,” though this pronoun is usually reserved by him for the Devil.51 However, even when Peck uses personal terms for God, we should understand that his fundamental understanding of God is that of an impersonal universal consciousness. When Peck speaks of God as “He,” he is speaking figuratively of the penetration of God into our lives.52 It is this conception of God that causes Peck to speak of God as sexual.53
The Bible presents Jesus as God and thus one with the Father, yet incarnated as a man, thus making Him one with humanity. The early Christian creeds recognized this full and true deity and full and true humanity existing in the one person of Jesus Christ. We cannot take away from either nature without becoming heretical.
To Peck, however, Jesus is little more than an Eastern mystic on a par with other great world religious teachers.54 He never calls Christ his Savior, and he really doesn’t believe that Jesus’ life — and especially His death — have more purpose than to be an example of how we need to move toward spiritual growth.
According to Peck, Jesus shows us the way to salvation. He doesn’t save us. As Peck says elsewhere, “Becoming the most we can be is also the definition of salvation.”55 Despite Jesus’ admirable qualities which we should emulate, Peck says, Jesus was usually frustrated, depressed, anxious, scared, rude,56 and prejudiced.57 At one point in his writing, Peck intimates strongly that Jesus was a bisexual who had relations with both Mary Magdalene and John, the beloved disciple.58
The Jesus portrayed by Peck is hardly deserving of the adoration and worship given to him over the centuries. He certainly is not worthy of the millions who have suffered distress and even death for him. He is no Savior and, in fact, he — like everyone else — had to save himself. By contrast, the Jesus of the Scriptures is the sinless Son of God who gave His life freely for humanity and will come again to judge those who refuse His call.
The Bible Is a Book of Myths
Though Peck claims to have been a Christian since 1980, he still believes the Bible to be a flawed book. The Bible “is a mixture of legend, some of which is true and some of which is not true. It is a mixture of very accurate history and not so accurate history. It is a mixture of outdated rules and some pretty good rules. It is a mixture of myth and metaphor.”59
For Peck, persons who take the Bible as the inerrant Word of God actually detract from the Bible60 and “strangely misuse”61 it. He appears to adopt the view that the only options open to the Christian are to either take the Bible in a rigidly literalistic way or to accept it as errant and often mythical.62
Peck’s views on Scripture strike at the very foundation of Christianity and cause all Christian doctrines to be clouded with uncertainty. Space will not allow us to interact with his inaccurate and ill-informed understanding of biblical accuracy and legitimate methods of interpretation. Suffice it to say that if the events described in the Bible did not occur, then Christians are fools in a fake religion, dedicating their lives and eternal destinies to a God that does not exist (see 1 Corinthians 15:1-19). Jesus and His apostles have one testimony: the Bible is the very Word of God and does not err (John 10:35; 2 Tim. 3:16-17; 2 Pet. 1:19-21).
Peck’s “Preferences” on the Afterlife
Peck’s views on the afterlife are nebulous and generally noncommittal. He says he is open to reincarnation, but he is not passionate about this view since the Christian alternatives to explain the afterlife are possible.63
Peck is most agreeable to the idea of heaven and believes that it is open to everyone, regardless of sex, race, or religion. He believes this is so because God loves variety.64 On the other hand, hell, as a place of judgment from God, is outright rejected: “I simply cannot accept the view of Hell in which God punishes people without hope and destroys souls without a chance for redemption.”65 Rather than hell being a part of the afterlife, he believes that hell is here on earth. Evil people, he avers, in fleeing the voice of their conscience create their own hell,66 one from which they can escape, if they wish.67
Though he rejects hell, he does like the idea of purgatory and assigns to it a psychiatric quality: “I imagine Purgatory as a very elegant, well-appointed psychiatric hospital with the most modern and highly developed techniques for making learning as gentle and painless as possible under divine supervision.”68 Hardly the normal view of purgatory!
Lastly, Peck says that he finds “distasteful the traditional idea of Christianity which preaches the resurrection of the body.”69 He holds this position because he believes the resurrection is a limitation on the person and that souls are able to live independently of the body.70
What Is a Christian?
Since Peck now says that “Christianity is the most important thing” in his life and is, he hopes, “pervasive and total” within it71 it is important to ask what he means by being a Christian. When a patient asked him this soon after his claimed conversion to Christianity, he remarked that at the core of the Christian faith is some “strange concept of sacrifice.”72
Even now, more than 15 years after his supposed conversion, Peck admits that he doesn’t know what it means to be a Christian.73 The best definition he has been able to give is that a Christian is one who “will be for Jesus a pleasant place of shelter.”74 The “who” includes just about anyone of any religion, whether Muslim, atheist, or agnostic.75
PECK’S ADVOCACY OF IMMORALITY
One of Peck’s strengths is his attempt to be honest and open. Certainly this reflects a biblical perspective. The willingness to lay one’s life open to others is commendable — but only when honesty is joined with repentance. The latter is not the case with Peck.
Peck rejects most of the moral standards of biblical Christianity, not to mention even conventional societal standards. He calls himself a “hard-drinking, hard-smoking, hard-swearing” evangelist.76 He clearly lives up to this reputation, since many believe that he is an alcoholic,77 and he admits his addiction to cigarettes78 and “uppers.”79 He also takes pride in his use of profanity80 and pornography.81 Peck also believes that homosexuality reflects God’s love for variety.82
In his recent book, In Search of Stones: A Pilgrimage of Faith, Reason and Discovery, Peck reveals various extramarital affairs. He apologizes for some of these, but not all. As reviewer Wayne Boulton says, “Shouldn’t we be suspicious when the language of heroism is applied to someone’s extramarital affairs?”83 There is a place for forgiveness and restoration, but simply excusing sinful activities with “Well, at least I was honest about them” does not do much. It would be like a rapist or bank robber wanting to be exonerated because he admitted his crime. There are repercussions to sin. Peck needs to admit this.
M. Scott Peck presents an important challenge to those concerned with defending the Christian faith. Certainly it would be rare for Christian magazines, churches, colleges, counseling centers, and individuals to defend the heretical teachings of a cult. Yet Peck, who shares the same heretical teachings as the cults, has been touted as a hero. This poses a conundrum in the minds of those who are committed to presenting God’s truth. How can we confront the cults when the church embraces a heretic? The fact that Richard Abanes and my recent book is the first major analysis of Peck’s thinking shows that the Christian community has not taken him seriously enough. Certainly I wish for Peck to come to know the Savior, but I also desire for the Christian community to gain spiritual discernment and maintain fidelity to the Word of God. This the Christian community has failed to do by promoting someone who manifests neither the proper understanding of orthodox Christian doctrine nor basic Christian morality.
- Oprah Winfrey Show, on ABC (8 December 1993), written transcript as quoted in Warren Smith, “M. Scott Peck: Community and the Cosmic Christ,” SCP Journal, 19:2-3 (1995), 21.
- Wendy Kaiminer, I’m Dysfunctional, You’re Dysfunctional: The Recovery Movement and Other Self-Help Fashions (Redding, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1992), 129.
- John Dart, “Spiritual-Growth Evangelism: Path to World Peace?” Los Angeles Times, 17 June 1987, 1.
- Russell Miller, “The Road Warrior,” Life, December 1992, 74.
- Diane Connors, “M. Scott Peck,” Omni, October 1988, 126.
- Dart, 4.
- M. Scott Peck, People of the Lie (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983), 11.
- Barbara Kantrowitz, “In Search of the Sacred,” Newsweek, 28 November 1994, 52.
- Eugene Taylor, “Desperately Seeking Spirituality,” Psychology Today, November–December 1994, 56.
- Dennis M. Doyle, “Traffic Jam on the Spiritual Highway,” Commonweal, 9 September 1994, 18.
- M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1978), 16.
- Peck, People, backcover endorsement.
- Miller, 74.
- H. Wayne House and Richard Abanes, The Less Traveled Road and the Bible: A Scriptural Critique of the Philosophy of M. Scott Peck (Camp Hill, PA: Horizon Books, 1995).
- M. Scott Peck, Further Along the Road Less Traveled (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993), 119-26.
- M. Scott Peck, The Different Drum (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987), 188.
- Ibid., 188-89.
- Ibid., 190.
- Ibid., 189-90.
- Ibid., 191.
- Ibid., 191-92.
- Ibid., 192.
- Ibid., 21.
- Peck, Road, 16-17.
- Ibid., 19.
- Ibid., 32.
- Ibid., 44.
- Peck, Further Along, 66, 166
- Ibid., 194.
- Ibid., 66.
- Ibid., 94.
- Ibid., 160.
- Ibid., 115-16.
- Ibid., 195-96.
- Ibid., 222.
- Ibid., 155.
- Ibid., 154.
- Peck, Road, 236, 243.
- Ibid., 261.
- Ibid., 306.
- Ibid., 283.
- Ibid., 133, 271.
- Ibid., 272-73.
- Ibid., 273.
- Peck, A World Waiting to Be Born (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 297.
- Kaminer, 127.
- Peck, People, 197, 198, 206.
- Ibid., 12.
- Peck, Further Along, 230.
- Peck, World, 21.
- Ibid., 12.
- Ibid., 75.
- Peck, Further Along, 160.
- Peck, World, 77.
- Peck, Further Along, 107.
- Ibid., 169.
- Ibid., 173.
- Ibid., 171.
- Peck, People, 67.
- Peck, Further Along, 171; People, 67.
- Peck, Further Along, 169.
- Ibid., 168-69.
- Ibid., 169.
- Peck, People, 11.
- Peck, Further Along, 199.
- Peck, People, 11.
- Dart, 4.
- Miller, 74, 79.
- David Sheff, “Playboy Interview: M. Scott Peck,” Playboy, March 1992, 44.
- Peck, Further Along, 69.
- Ibid., 211; Sheff, 44.
- Sheff, 56.
- Peck, World, 17.
- Wayne G. Boulton, “Stones in the Road: M. Scott Peck’s Travels,” Christian Century, 22-29 November 1995, 1126-27.