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Q & A with Brian C. Wilson, PhD, Author of "John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age"


Who was John E. Fetzer?

John E. Fetzer was born in Indiana in 1901 and spent most of his life in the small Midwestern city of Kalamazoo. He was a pioneer broadcaster who brought the first radio station to southwest Michigan in the late 1920s. Fetzer was a very good businessman who made millions by expanding his holdings from radio into television, recording, and then cable. He was also the owner of the Detroit Tigers baseball team for almost thirty years beginning in 1956. By the time he died in 1991, he had been listed in Forbes magazine as one of the 400 wealthiest people in the United States.

However, the most interesting thing about John Fetzer—one that is not well known—is his life-long spiritual search, which led him from traditional forms of Christianity to an exploration of a variety of metaphysical religions culminating in the New Age. The result of his search was that Fetzer used his wealth to found the Fetzer Institute and the Fetzer Memorial Trust to further his spiritual ideas.

What exactly did Fetzer hope to accomplish with the Fetzer Institute and the Memorial Trust?

After a lifetime of deep study and practice of numerous metaphysical traditions, Fetzer had an unshakable faith in the reality of spirit and the monistic (all is one) nature of the cosmos. Thus, one of the goals of the Institute was to help people to become more conscious of who they really are, which he believed would lead to the spiritual transformation of the world. Despite his deep faith in the reality of spirit, however, he had the soul of an engineer and wanted to reconcile science and spirituality. His second interest was to investigate the interconnectedness between science with spirituality, thus creating the spiritualized science that he felt was so necessary for global transformation to the New Age. In a nutshell, then, the mission of the Fetzer Institute and the Memorial Trust is to discover both the new spirituality and the new science that will work harmoniously to, as he put it, improve “the human and cosmic condition.”

What did Fetzer mean by “spirituality”?

For Fetzer, spirituality is a recognition that all is spirit, which he conceptualized as an eternal, conscious energy that, if one were open to it, would inevitably lead one back to the “great central source,” which some choose to call God. In the United States, this kind of spirituality goes under the rubric of “metaphysical religions,” of which the New Age movement is the latest example.

What got Fetzer interested in metaphysical traditions and alternative spirituality in the first place?

Fetzer came from a Christian family and was baptized a Methodist. In his teens, his mother became a Seventh-day Adventist (SDA), a very conservative if not fundamentalist Christian denomin-ation that believes that the end of the world is soon. After a few years, however, Fetzer began to question SDA’s doctrines, feeling that they didn’t fulfill him spiritually. Eventually, Fetzer broke with SDA, but this left him searching for a new worldview that would allow him the spiritual independence he craved. He soon found himself in Indiana attending Spiritualist Camp Chesterfield. Here he encountered not only Spiritualism, but the camp’s bookstore stocked a wide variety of books on a whole range of metaphysical traditions. After this, he was hooked. From then on, Fetzer never stopped exploring metaphysical traditions and alternative spirituality generally.

What were some of the metaphys-ical traditions that Fetzer was interested in and practiced?

It is truly remarkable the number of metaphysical traditions that Fetzer studied over his lifetime—he never stopped his spiritual seeking! After encountering Spiritualism at Indiana’s Camp Chesterfield, Fetzer also studied, among other things, Theosophy, New Thought, and, after becoming a Freemason, Hermeticism and Rosicrucianism. Later in the 1970s, he began to practice Transcendental Meditation (TM), becoming friends with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and advising him on media relations. He was also one the first people to be given a copy of A Course in Miracles, which he found extremely profound and useful. Finally, in the 1980s, he was initiated into the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (M.S.I.A.). In the last years of his life, Fetzer hired a caregiver who is an adept in Surat Shabd Yoga, the root tradition of M.S.I.A., which he practiced literally until the hour of his death.

In what sense was Fetzer a “new ager?”

Most people think of new agers as simply people who dabble in Tarot readings or crystals and such like things. However, scholars who have been studying the rise of the New Age movement in the second half of the 20th century, see it as a bone fide new religious movement whose serious practitioners—like John Fetzer—had serious ideas and serious goals. The most important of these goals was based on the idea that individual spiritual transformation would catalyze the evolution of global consciousness and lead to the complete spiritual transformation of the world—the New Age. Fetzer never lost sight of this larger goal, and it is in this sense that Fetzer was a new ager.

What did Fetzer believe was the relationship between science and spirituality?

Fetzer speculated that science and spirituality could be two sides of the same coin. As a radio pioneer, Fetzer was fascinated by radiated energies of all kinds. As a young man, his reading of the work of the great electrical genius Nikola Tesla suggested to him that “energy waveforms,” like radio, might indicate the existence of “more subtle forms” we might experience, but can’t measure yet. Could empirical energy and subtle energy be part of the same spectrum or are they wholly different? Could subtle energy emanate from God, whom Fetzer called “the Father of radiation?” Up to his day, however, science had focused exclusively on the material world. It would only advance to the next level, Fetzer argued, when scientists recognized and studied scientifically the subtle and spiritual dimensions that complemented material dimensions, thereby creating a thoroughly spiritualized science.

What did Fetzer believe was the connection between mind/body/spirit and health and wellbeing?

Fetzer believed that health and wellbeing were intimately connected with all three—mind/body/spirit—and he was an early champion of what’s now called holistic health. While Fetzer never denied the reality of organic disease and the need for biomedicine, he felt that biomedicine could only advance and become more effective if it recognized and used the power of the mind and grounded itself in the reality of spirit.

Did Fetzer’s spirituality help him to become a business success?

As an inveterate reader of the classics of New Thought, Fetzer was convinced of the “power of positive thinking,” and in an essay written during the turmoil of the 1960s, he blamed the country’s problems at least in part on the pervasive negativity that had infected all segments of society—negativity that could only be treated by individuals using meditation, affirmation, and the use of the creative visualization. Beyond this, however, Fetzer understood that mind, body, and spirit were all forms of vibrating energy vibration and therefore the key to health and wellbeing was in harmonizing these vibrations. For this reason, Fetzer believed that energy medicine held out the hope that instruments could be designed to diagnose and treat such disharmonies, virtually eliminating most disease quickly, effectively, and at little cost.

Why did Fetzer rely so heavily on spiritual advisors and channelers?

Although John Fetzer believed that all people had psychic abilities, he was convinced that some people were naturally more gifted than others in this regard. He judged himself as only having modest abilities, and was always dissatisfied with the quality of his psychic and mystical experiences (indeed, at one point he even tried LSD under a doctor’s supervision, but was so put off by the experience that he never tried it again). It is for this reason that, beginning with his first trip to the Spiritualist Camp Chesterfield, Fetzer sought out the advice of people with recognized psychic reputations, be they mediums, astrologers, psychics, or channelers. Fetzer, however, was always careful to weigh critically what he was told and discounted many a pronouncement by those he regarded as “phonies.” Late in life, when he was in the process of building his Institute, Fetzer relied heavily on the wisdom of the channeler and psychic, Jim Gordon. Fetzer also created a company of friends and colleagues called the “Monday Night Group” or the “Spiritual Advisory Core Council” to help him work through and evaluate Gordon’s channelings in order to fashion collectively the Institute’s earliest mission and goals.

For Fetzer, what was the spiritual meaning of wealth?

For Fetzer, money was to be used in the service of good, since business success and wealth are magnified through spirit if used for love and service. It was for this reason that in the 1980s, when Fetzer was beginning to wind down his business activities and sell off his holdings, including the Detroit Tigers, he used his fortune to endow the John E. Fetzer Institute and the John E. Fetzer Memorial Trust.

Why did Fetzer keep his spiritual search a secret until late in life?

Fetzer’s interest in metaphysical religions began in the 1930s, but not only was he a private man by nature, he was also doubly circumspect about his study of these traditions because he was afraid it might jeopardize his business success in religiously conservative west Michigan. Fetzer had a marked ability to compartmentalize his professional life from his spiritual life, an ability that served him well in his desire for professional respectability. Because of this, however, the details of Fetzer’s spiritual search have not been fully documented until now.

What were some of the early projects funded by the Fetzer Institute in the 1970s and 1980s?

John Fetzer had long been interested in psychic phenomenon such as ESP, PK, and the survival of personality after death, so when he decided in the 1970s to begin major funding of projects, most of these projects had to do with parapsychology. Parapsychology was an “unorthodox science” that since the days of JB Rhine at Duke University had achieved a modicum of academic respectability and promised to prove the reality of spirit with some scientific rigor. By the end of the decade, however, Fetzer had become frustrated with the pace of this research. This, and the fact that his health was failing, shifted Fetzer’s priorities to another form of psi research, energy medicine, that is, the harnessing of subtle energies to conquer human disease, whether physical, psychological, or spiritual in nature. To this end, Fetzer entered into partnerships with, among others, the Menninger Clinic and the Association for Research and Enlightenment (ARE) Clinic to pursue a variety of energy medicine projects. Fetzer focused on the frontier about the nature of reality, and would have moved beyond that to stay on the leading edge.

What has the Fetzer Institute and the Memorial Trust been doing to further Fetzer’s legacy and mission?

In the years after his death, the Fetzer Institute has grown and its programs have evolved and diversified. Most recently, the Fetzer Institute has funded programs exploring the “power of love and forgiveness” in “building the spiritual foundation for a loving world.” Meanwhile, the Fetzer Memorial Trust remains committed to Fetzer’s vision of a new spiritual science by administering the Franklin Fetzer Fund, which is designed to encourage continued exploration of “the frontiers of scientific knowledge and to advance breakthroughs towards scientific views of reality that are integrated and relational.” The memorial Trust is also carrying out an extensive legacy program to preserve Fetzer’s spiritual story for future generations, including the new book, John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age. Its web portal www.infinitepotential.com hosts content to help explore the interconnectedness of science and spirituality.

What attracted you to Fetzer’s life story?

There are several factors that led to my interest in John E. Fetzer and documenting his spiritual search. As a professor of comparative religion, one of the goals of all my work has been to understand the imaginative processes by which religious worldviews are constructed and evolve. That’s why I study new religious movements, because here we can see the evolution of beliefs and practices in the very recent past with the greatest possible clarity. I’m also interested in studying the biographies of specific religious innovators, especially “amateur theologians,” because I’m fascinated with how the particular events in a life impact the formation of new and original worldviews. And finally, another of my goals is to better understand the development of metaphysical spirituality in the Midwest, which has often been overlooked in favor of the spiritual glamor of places like California.

What are your own spiritual beliefs?

When people ask me this question, I tell them, comparative religion is my religion! What I mean by this is that, while I am fascinated by religion and spirituality, I’m not a particularly religious person, and remain—if this is not too much of an oxymoron—a fairly agnostic, but opened-minded seeker.

Brian C. Wilson, PhD, is the author of John E. Fetzer and the Quest for the New Age. He is a professor of American religious history in the Department of Comparative Religion at Western Michigan University. To download a FREE CHAPTER of his book and learn more about how John E. Fetzer explored the interconnectedness between science and spirituality, visit www.infinite potential.com


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