The “power of positive thinking”—a phrase made famous by Norman Vincent Peale’s famous 1952 self-help book by the same name—has been, in various forms and ways, the long-time mantra of the modern self-help movement. There is a belief that people can accomplish anything, so long as they set their minds to it and pursue it with requisite passion and focus. But for Catholics, this smacks of Pelagianism, the fourth-century heresy that claimed humans can become perfect without the assistance of divine grace.
A new book sets out to present the proper approach to willpower, avoiding the self-help nonsense while building on the the rich patrimony of Christian thought, tradition, and spirituality.
The book is The WillPower Advantage: Building Habits for Lasting Happiness (Ignatius Press, 2020). Co-authors Tom Peterson and Ryan Hanning show that the way to happiness is to unite our wills to the will of God, and to work in cooperation with his grace to transform ourselves, and then the world.
Peterson is a former advertising executive, host of the popular EWTN television series Catholics Come Home, and founder of the apostolate Amen Alleluia, which is being launched in tandem with this book in order to help people grow in virtue. Hanning has taught philosophy and historical theology for the last fifteen years, and currently teaches at the University of Mary, in Bismarck, North Dakota, and assists the Catechetical Institute at Franciscan University of Steubenville.
Peterson and Hanning recently spoke with Catholic World Report about their new book.
Catholic World Report: How did the book come about?
Tom Peterson and Ryan Hanning: One day after coming out of the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I recalled the words of absolution from the priest, “go and sin no more” and asked myself “how am I going to do that!” The quest began to find a means to move closely live the Gospel, Beatitudes and 10 Commandments. We wrote the book for ourselves and are now sharing these findings with people of good will who want to live God’s will.
CWR: Explain the title—what do you mean by the “willpower advantage”?
Peterson and Hanning: When we surrender our will to God’s will, becoming docile to the Holy Spirit, we gain His power to have an advantage, and build habits (virtues) for lasting happiness. We wanted to reclaim the proper use of willpower, which means using our will to direct our desires and actions towards those things that make us truly happy.
The goal is not a strong will or a weak will, but rather a good will.
CWR: In what ways is the book co-authored? How did you each contribute?
Peterson and Hanning: The concept of the book was Tom Peterson’s idea, after years of evangelizing people through our apostolate of Catholics Come Home. With the skeletal concepts and stories in rough outline, Dr. Ryan Hanning, a colleague and friend for over two decades, added his theological expertise as a PhD and professor, adding a significantly deeper structure to build upon the basic concepts.
Both authors worked collaboratively to insure the final book was theologically sound and full of essential information, yet easy to understand and apply.
CWR: You write that the book is “neither pop psychology nor watered-down Christianity”. What sort of harm come about from pop psychology and watered-down Christianity?
Peterson and Hanning: They are not the Truth from God. Only when we live God’s truth will we find true and lasting happiness and eternal life.
Pop psychology tends to focus on symptoms and not address the root cause of the issues that rob us of peace and joy, offering quick fixes that don’t help us grow in virtue.
Watered-down Christianity tends to compromise the saving power of the Gospel, which reminds us that we are his beloved sons and daughters. And we are called to turn away from sin and cooperate with his grace to become the person he has made us to be – the husband, the wife, the father, the mother, the son or the daughter that our families, communities and Church so desperately need.
CWR: Part 2, “The Habits That Bring Life”, focuses on virtues and how they can enrich our lives and help us to live out the life God is calling us to. How will living the virtues help us?
Peterson and Hanning: Christ came that we would have life and have it to the full. The virtues are the habits that help us live in right relationship with God, with each other, and with the world around us.
Virtues are the opposite of vices. Virtues free us, and make us more of who we our called to be. Vices enslave us, and make us less of we are called to be. When we build the virtue “muscles” in our lives, and get into the habit of repeating these virtues, we begin to replace the vices and become more free and ultimately happier, holier and more Christlike.
CWR: Our society often puts great emphasis on willpower, in the sense of being able to do it all without any help (especially divine help). This stinks of Pelagianism—how does your book fight against this approach to willpower?
Peterson and Hanning: Jesus loved us first. We can’t earn his love, or the free gift of salvation that he offers us. But we are called to accept his gift, return his love, and cooperate with his plan for our salvation. The scriptures consistently remind us that the Christian life takes work. Real work. Carrying our cross, turning the other cheek, being generous, forgiving others, laying down our lives for our friends, etc.
On one extreme is Pelagianism, a heresy that says we can avoid sin and fix ourselves without God’s grace. On the other extreme is an apathy that says it is grace alone, without any participation or cooperation from us. But the truth is much more beautiful than either of these extremes. God invites us to participate and cooperate with his grace. As a loving Father he invites us to discover our mission and align our will with His will for our lives. As St. Peter writes “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Peter 1:5).
CWR: What do you hope readers will get out of the book?
Peterson and Hanning: We ultimately hope readers will find lasting happiness and eternal life by building habits that strengthen virtues and eradicate vices which rob us of peace and joy. This ultimately happens when we cooperate with God’s grace and live according to his holy will.
We also hope that the book reintroduces readers to the wisdom of the scriptures and the saints in regards to overcoming the challenges that we face.
CWR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Peterson and Hanning: One of the keys to growing in virtue is knowing yourself. Perhaps a phrase attributed to St. Augustine says it best. “Know yourself, and thy faults and thus live.”
God has created each of us with a particular temperament, and also a specific set of gifts and talents. These strengths can become virtues and help us to serve others and glorify God. However, our weaknesses left unchecked can become vices. The WillPower Advantage builds on the wisdom of the saints to provide a practical guide and plan to help each temperament grow in virtue.
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It’s probably inadvertent, but there seems to be a little confusion here between the natural virtues — temperance, fortitude, prudence, and above all, justice — the capacity for which is inherent in human nature as reflected from God’s Nature, and the supernatural virtues of faith, hope and, above all, charity, for which the capacity is infused by God into human nature. The supernatural virtues fulfill and complete our supernature, but are necessarily built on the foundation of the natural virtues that fulfill and complete our nature. Bypassing the natural virtues is, as Fulton Sheen explained in his last book, Treasure in Clay, a serious error, and is the mistake the modernists have been making, as Sheen pointed out in his first book, God and Intelligence. Charity fulfills and completes justice, it does not replace it. Conformity with our understanding of God’s Will discerned by faith must never contradict what we can prove about God’s Nature reached by reason. Something is right not because God SAYS so (or because we think He said so), but because God IS so.
This, as Heinrich Rommen, a student of Fr. Heinrich Pesch, S.J. noted in his book on the natural law, is what William of Ockham did in his philosophy, separating the Will discerned by faith, from the Intellect discerned by reason, thereby paving the way for modernism and pure moral relativism. As the Fathers of the First Vatican Council declared to refute the separation of the Will from the Intellect, knowledge of God’s existence and of the natural law can be known by the force and light of human reason alone. This was reiterated in the Oath Against Modernism and again in Humani Generis. Faith is above reason, but cannot contradict it. Too great an emphasis on the Will of God supported by charity without justice is what Msgr. Ronald Knox termed “enthusiasm,” and declared that it causes division and disunity. In what is possibly his greatest book, Saint Thomas Aquinas: The Dumb Ox, G.K. Chesterton focused on this very problem, calling it “the double mind of man,” by means of which we can both believe and disbelieve at the same time.
The above comment only makes me want this book more. Thank you for this interview.
Dr. Peale’s book on the Power of Positive Thinking tied in his suggestions to scriptures, to God. It is not what this author stated, ” There is a belief that people can accomplish anything, so long as they set their minds to it and pursue it with requisite passion and focus.” Dr. Peale was telling people that turning to God, with praying they could help themselves overcome some problems.