An Approach to the New Age
Centre for Faith & Culture, Plater College, Oxford
This booklet was originally written for CRUX. It was intended mainly for those who know little of the New Age movement, and who may fear it as a growing threat to Christianity. It is for that very reason that I have made use of the term “New Age”, which in another context would be most unhelpful, for several of the groups, movements and individuals here brought under the umbrella of New Age would themselves reject the label as applying to themselves, and to use it in serious dialogue with them would be impossible. I have suggested that such dialogue is necessary, and that it would be helpful even to Christians, opening up hidden vistas and forgotten mysteries of their own faith. The Centre for Faith & Culture is committed to this work as part of its continuing research. For details see www.secondspring.co.uk.
Many Catholics and Evangelicals believe that through a vast, worldwide conspiracy known as the “New Age” movement, Christians are being systematically diverted from the essentials of their faith, becoming easy prey for one false prophet after another. Eventually the Antichrist himself will come, claiming the titles of Christ, Mahdi and Maitreya, offering world peace under the banner of a syncretic world religion.
Is there a conspiracy at work? New-Ager Marilyn Ferguson reminds us in her classic account The Aquarian Conspiracy (Routledge, 1981) that to “con-spire” means to “breathe with” or to share the same inspiration. On that definition, even Christianity is a conspiracy - perhaps the greatest conspiracy of them all: the conspiracy of the Holy Spirit. St Paul teaches us that a cosmic war is raging between invisible forces: our enemies are the principalities and powers of darkness (Eph. 6:12). Very well, we should fight with all the spiritual weapons at our disposal. But they must be spiritual weapons. Clarity must be joined to charity, and faith to hope rather than fear. The Devil has much to gain from a witch-hunt.
In my view – which some will regard as hopelessly naïve - the New Age (or “New Consciousness”) movement is less a reaction against Christianity than it is a reaction against a materialist and practically atheist society and way of life. That this reaction has not led to a widespread renewal of traditional religion is something for Catholics to ponder. And that is all I aim to do in the pages that follow: to examine a few of the issues the movement raises for Catholic and other mainstream or orthodox Christians.
What is the “New Age”?
The umbrella term “New Age” was first popularized by Alice Bailey in the 1930s, founder of an offshoot of the Theosophical Society (itself begun in New York in 1875 by the Russian-born occultist H.P. Blavatsky). It was picked up again by Baba Ram Dass (alias Richard Alpert) and others in the 1960s, when it became popularly identified with the coming astrological “Age of Aquarius”. In that Age, it was prophesied, mankind would finally “come of age”, renouncing the use of force and establishing a new world order of peace and harmony, an era of higher or cosmic consciousness and universal love.
If the origins of the term and to some extent of the movement lie in modern occultism, social and cultural conditions at the end of the last century played their part by enabling exotic alternatives to Christian belief to flourish. The progress of science, though impressive, had left many people dissatisfied. Hungry for some kind of spiritual fulfilment which neither science nor Christianity seemed able to offer, they were easily attracted to spiritualism and the Theosophical Society. The movement quickly divided and sub-divided (Krishnamurti, Steiner) and other influences came to bear (Jung, Teilhard, yoga, ecology, feminism). The scriptures of other religions, alongside the writings of Jewish Kabbalists, Christian mystics and previously obscure Christian heretics, became more widely available in translation. In the wake of Swami Vivekananda and the Vedanta Society, new gurus appeared from the East (Gurdjieff, the Maharishi, Bhagwan Rajneesh). A wave of interest in Zen Buddhism (Alan Watts, D.T Suzuki) and Sufism (Pir Vilayat Khan, Idries Shah, Frithjof Schuon), prepared the ground for exiled Tibetan rinpoches and the Dalai Lama himself to create centres of Buddhist meditation and ritual in the West - even entire monasteries, like Samyé Ling in Scotland.
Meanwhile, as the corrosion of Christianity continued apace, leading physicists became interested in mysticism and even Chinese philosophy (Shroedinger, Jeans, Planck, Capra). The “new physics” inspired similar developments in chemistry (Prigogine) and later biology (Sheldrake). Beginning in California, humanistic psychology flowered into the “human potential movement” (Maslow, Perls, Assagioli). The popular fascination with mediumistic phenomena and spiritualism so prominent at the end of the nineteenth century re-emerged under the cloak of parapsychology (the academic discipline founded by J.B. Rhine in the 1930s), and rather less respectably as the 1980s fashion for “channelling” (Ramtha, Lazaris, Seth). An interest in the native traditions suppressed by European colonialists, and in the use of hallucinogenic drugs led (through the writings of “anthropologist” Carlos Castaneda and others) to the rediscovery of shamanism. Indeed, Paganism and Wicca (witchcraft) are now regarded by many academics as a significant religious minority, with as many as 20,000 exponents in the UK alone.
In Eastern Europe, partly because the prevailing ideology in the Soviet Union was materialist, parapsychology flourished, and with the suppression of Christianity the ground was prepared for the explosion of religious sects and occultism that took place after the fall of Communism. An additional factor was the influx of Western New Age ideas, sometimes presented in the form of management training and business seminars for aspiring entrepreneurs. While Catholics and Orthodox argued about the return of Church property, wealthy sects including the long-established Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses did their best to fill the religious vacuum among the young.
Some New Age Ideas
In England, a leader and inspirer of the New Age movement for much of his long life has been Sir George Trevelyan (nephew of the well-known historian), the founder of the Wrekin Trust - one of a number of important New Age centres that include Findhorn and Dartington Hall. In A Vision of the Aquarian Age (Coventure, 1977), he sums up much of the New Age world-view:
“Behind all outwardly manifested form is a timeless realm of absolute consciousness. It is the great Oneness underlying all the diversity, all the myriad forms of nature. It may be called God, or may be deemed beyond all naming.... The world of nature, in short, is but a reflection of the eternal world of Creative imagining. The inner core of man, that which in each of us might be called spirit, is a droplet of the divine source. As such, it is imperishable and eternal, for life cannot be extinguished. The outer sheath in which it manifests can, of course, wear out and be discarded; but to speak of ‘death’ in relation to the true being and spirit of man is irrelevant” (pp. 5-6).
Implied here is one of the most popular beliefs of the movement: reincarnation. As Sir George expresses it: “The soul belongs properly to higher and purer spheres. It incarnates for the purpose of acquiring experience in the density of earth matter - a necessary educational phase in its development. Such incarnation, of course, entails drastic limitation of a free spiritual being. Birth into a body is, in fact, more like entry into a species of tomb” (p.6). He explains the anthropology that lies behind this belief as follows: “More precisely, we must recognise man as a threefold being of body, soul and spirit.... The immortal ‘I’ is neither the soul nor the transient personality. In order to descend into the density of the phenomenal world, it must clothe itself, so to speak, in a protective sheath.” The “soul” is therefore the sheath or “astral body” which the eternal “I” draws about it in order to experience the psychological level of reality. (It also draws around itself an “etheric” body of vital forces to hold together the physical body.)
In orthodox Christianity, the unique personality constituted by the unity of a human spirit or soul with the body it animates is not “transient”, but is promised an eternal resurrection. But Sir George writes: “If the earth plane is indeed the great training ground of the soul, it is unlikely that we should come here only once. One lifetime is hardly sufficient to reap all the harvest of experience that earth can offer” (p.36). He traces the idea that the earth is a school for reincarnating spirits back to G.E. Lessing, in a book published in 1780. The idea has always been popular in the far East, but there it has traditionally been associated with lack of detachment, and so seen in a negative rather than a positive light - a subsequent human incarnation being regarded as extremely unlikely. Sir George comments that “it is fitting for our western minds that evolutionary thinking should colour our understanding of reincarnation. Consciousness evolves from age to age, and this consciousness is carried in individual souls. Each, therefore, can enter the stream of earth life as a creative deed to lift the race as a whole one step further” (p.38). Thus the doctrine of reincarnation (in the form now held, apparently, by a quarter of the European population) is not simply an idea taken over from Oriental religion, but an application of the idea of progressive evolution to a dualistic theory of the human soul.
It is also a manifestation of one of the underlying motivations of the New Age movement, namely the desire for transformation or self-realization. The idea that “I” have many lifetimes in which to learn from my mistakes and discover my identity with the “God within” can seem immensely attractive - especially if the apparent alternative is either to vanish after a brief span on earth, or to be judged for ever on the basis of decisions taken in ignorance (a popular misinterpretation of the Christian doctrine of the afterlife.) The desire for self-improvement or spiritual healing also lies behind much alternative or complementary medicine, as well as the therapies devised by the successors of Freud, Jung, Adler and Frankl. Humanistic psychology also draws upon any number of other influences for its inspiration, from Gnosticism and alchemy (Jung) to Gurdjieff (the enneagram) and Theosophy (past-life therapy).
In line with the “holistic” perspective of the New Age, similar principles to these must apply to the healing of the whole earth. The science of ecology, and the realization that irresponsible industrialization may have irreparably damaged the earth’s ecosystem (major concerns of the hippies in the 1960s), have to a large extent taken the place of the Cold War and the arms race as a topic of near universal concern. Within the New Age movement itself, the transformation of the individual through therapy or changes in diet and lifestyle is linked to transformation of the planet, through the restoration of balance in the “earth-energies” and the creation of a new, sustainable and environmentally friendly civilization. Generally, the aim is to achieve this not by a “top-down” restructuring of the global economy, but through the spiritual influence of example, invocation or prayer.
The confluence of environmentalism with the feminist idea that the ecological crisis is due to the historical predominance of patriarchical structures and the “rape of the earth” (eco-feminism) leads many in the New Age to promote matriarchal forms of religion and society. A Mother-Goddess - sometimes known as “Gaia”, the personification of Nature and of the living planet - takes the place of the Father-God and his Son, and a female priesthood develops to represent her, the role of the priestess usually being one of invocation and healing rather than sacrifice. All of this in turn leads to a corresponding movement among men, also linked to the revival of shamanistic traditions and the appropriation and reinterpretation of ancient myths and folktales (Joseph Campbell, Robert Bly)
Throughout the New Age movement a similar dynamic is apparent. Modernity is perceived as, in one way or another, diseased - whether the cause is identified as industrialization or materialism or patriarchy, or all three together. The world is regarded as an organic whole in need of healing, and any “therapy” must start at the level of the individual. (Many of the assumptions of the diagnosis are quite compatible with Christianity. As is well known, ecology has long been a concern of Pope John Paul II; and in his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae he calls for a “new feminism” which “rejects the temptation of imitating models of ‘male domination’”.)
The Search for Authority
Much New Age literature is concerned with the search for a spiritual teacher or guru, to whom submission must be made for the sake of reaching the ultimate state. Tales of an encounter with true authority form, of course, a venerable tradition in every religion. One classic example would be in the Tibetan Life of Milarepa, whose teacher Marpa puts him through a series of demanding and dispiriting ordeals before giving him the initiation he craves. Similar examples abound in the legends of the Desert Fathers and the Christian saints. But although the New Age can accept the idea of individuals possessed of spiritual authority (either self-authenticating or proved by supernatural powers), it tends not to accept the notion that an institution, such as a Church, may be similarly endowed, or may by the same right of genuine authority require sufficient proof of humility from the seeker of ultimate truth.
Not that the authentic teacher needs to appear in the flesh. One of the most commercially successful channelled teachings allegedly from an invisible entity is to be found in the Course in Miracles, a series of books which have sold in the hundreds of thousands since their publication by the Foundation for Inner Peace in 1975, and have generated an extensive secondary literature. The author identifies himself with Christ: "I am the only one who can perform miracles indiscriminately, because I am the Atonement." He continues: “You have a role in the Atonement which I will dictate to you. Ask me which miracles you should perform. This spares you needless effort, because you will be acting under direct communication.... Lead us not into temptation means ‘Recognize your errors and choose to abandon them by following my guidance’ ” (p.7).
According to some New Age authors, then, “the Christ” who spoke through Jesus of Nazareth was the highest of true teachers, and still works invisibly on earth (not, of course, through the Church). In a work called Esoteric Christianity (Theosophical Publishing Society, 1905), Annie Besant writes: “The historical Christ, then, is a glorious Being belonging to the great spiritual hierarchy that guides the spiritual evolution of humanity, who used for some three years the human body of the disciple Jesus...who drew men to Him by the singular love and tenderness and the rich wisdom that breathed from His Person; and who was finally put to death for blasphemy, for teaching the inherent Divinity of Himself and of all men” (pp. 140-141).
More recently, and from a very different point of view (influenced by G.I. Gurdjieff), Prof. Jacob Needleman in his book Lost Christianity (Doubleday, 1980) writes of an “intermediate level of Christianity” that can produce “real change in human nature, real transformation”. The official guardians of Christianity, he explains, have continued to teach us what Christ wanted us to do (to love each other, and so on), but they omitted to transmit the intermediate teachings that would have given us the power to do. As a result, the religion of Christ has been reduced to the empty promulgation of moral rules no one can obey, softened by an equally vacant sentimentality. What we need is to discover those who have the authority to teach the methods of putting Christianity into practice.
Such views are representative of a large body of opinion to the effect that Christianity must have lost something vital in the early centuries - and it is with the claim to have rediscovered or reconstructed this “lost Christianity”, to have discarded the husk but found the kernel of living truth, that many New Age groups begin. Against it must be set the view of many converts that it is precisely in Christianity that they have been able to find the practical spiritual help that was so lacking in the New Age. They have found it not only in the ancient monastic tradition of practical spiritual guidance, but in the practice of a regular life of prayer anchored in the sacraments and the continuing real presence of Jesus Christ. Such converts may form a valuable resource for pastors and Church authorities seeking to understand the attraction of alternative spiritualities, and to develop a suitable and compassionate response.
The Cage of Modernity
What I have been attempting to describe as if it were a unified “movement” is not, of course, anything of the sort. It is certainly highly unstable, and has a tendency to break up in at least three main directions. Some members tend to lapse back (or move on) into more traditional religious allegiances, becoming Buddhists, or Christians, or Muslims. A second group consists of those who are “captured” by one of the extreme religious sects or new apocalyptic cults (ranging from Scientology and the People’s Temple to the Unification Church). A third group simply merge back into the mainstream culture. By this I mean that the New Age has a tendency to become big business. Pop stars (e.g. the Beatles), film stars (e.g. Shirley MacLaine), and Wall Street yuppies have all helped to promote it. Chains of shops appeared, selling books, crystals and records of New Age music. Publishers responded to a growing market by investing heavily in the production of new titles, employing “New Age” as a marketing device. In fact, this was a major factor in the rapid growth of the movement during the 1980s. However, the very success of New Age products was taken by many in the movement itself as evidence for the growth of the new global awareness.
The New Age “festivals” or “fairs” that took place during the 1980s expressed very clearly the “coming of age”, not of mankind, but of the New Age itself as a self-conscious movement. This was the spiritual quest married to consumerism: a marriage arranged and consummated in America but soon on honeymoon in the rest of the world. The compatibility of the two partners, after all, runs very deep. Life in a market economy (mirrored in the thinking of postmodernist intellectuals) dissolves the sense of personal identity by increasing mobility, instability and consumer choice. For the armchair tourist, culture itself becomes a commodity. The Existentialist philosophers had claimed that “existence precedes essence”, that we are what we choose: the modern consumer lives out that understanding in everyday life. When the consumer embarks on a spiritual quest (the search for a deeper reality or transcendent unity), it naturally tends to take the form of a review of different religious options and belief systems, with a view to choosing an alternative lifestyle that will suit his individual tastes. The deeper level where all is one corresponds to the all-embracing unity of the market economy, and the radical plurality of the available ways to God matches the goods on display in any shopping mall or supermarket.
A Brief History of Individualism
The New Age movement, despite the fact that is woven of influences from the far past and the Far East, can therefore be called a phenomenon of the modern West: in its essence it is a revolt by modernity against itself. Its origins lie in the Reformation and the Enlightenment. The Protestant Reformation favoured subjective judgement (private interpretation of Scripture) over the external judgement of Church authority, while the succeeding “Age of Reason” broke even with the authority of Scripture. Thenceforth, the hero of the story was always a man of genius, an individual, someone who thinks for himself - an artist in his garret, a scientist in his laboratory, a Leonardo, a Galileo, an Einstein.
Christianity had introduced into history the idea of the infinite worth and immortal destiny of each human person. A growing concern with human subjectivity - the consciousness and inviolable conscience of the individual - was therefore both inevitable and desirable. Unfortunately, this concern was diverted into an increasingly narrow bed by the Nominalists and those who believed only in the world revealed by the senses. Galileo’s separation of primary from secondary qualities and Descartes’ mathematicization of nature contributed to the progressive elimination of the sense of levels of reality, and consequently the sense of divine creation and providence. Reducing the intellect to discursive reason and empirical demonstration also resulted in a lack of concern with the interiority of things - whether this was the metaphysical interiority of nature, opening on to the horizons of divine purpose and the beauty of cosmic Wisdom, or the psychological interiority of human persons, opening on to spiritual kingdoms above and below the conscious mind. The acting person became a mere individual, determined solely by external relations, even as the world of matter was being similarly reduced to a series of indivisible particles impacting upon each other like billiard balls. By the beginning of the twentieth century, with the rediscovery of the unconscious by Freud and the splitting (at first conceptually, and later physically) of the atom, this mechanical model of the universe had begun to break down. But the natural sciences had long since emancipated themselves from theology and philosophy, and so the new scientific approach did not immediately result in a recovery of either Christian cosmology or Christian psychology.
Meanwhile the cult of the individual led to extremes such as the fetishism of “art for art’s sake”, and to the aberrations of free love and revolutionary violence. For in the end, no self-respecting individualist would accept the authority of objective truth. “True” could only mean true “for me”, or true “because it works”. The same applied to all other values; to beauty and goodness as well as to truth: it was all a matter of subjective taste. Thus what was really enthroned in the Age of Reason was not in fact Reason at all: it was the Self, and the Age of Self is nothing but an Age of Unreason.
The New Age - understandably and rightly, in my view - attempts to overcome the split between mind and matter, and in this way to overcome the isolation of the spiritual Self in a world of material forces. But in general it remains trapped in the modernity shaped by Galileo and Descartes: trapped, that is, between the two poles of the opposition. Either it remains dualistic, and - like the Gnostics - seeks to escape from the oppression of matter through some kind of spiritual liberation (reincarnation culminating in reunion with the divine consciousness), or it tries to turn materialism on its head by absorbing matter into mind, declaring the very distinction to be unreal (spiritual monism). These two paths can also be combined by making dualism merely a preliminary, a “lesser truth” destined to be left behind in the higher stages of spiritual enlightenment.
The New Age can partly be understood as a reaction, or set of reactions, to the atomic individualism of post-Enlightenment modernity, and to the social fragmentation and alienation associated with this. In its negative aspect, it presents a picture of the Self desperately battering against the bars of its own cage - the Self unable to worship itself, trying to find a way out, but constrained by one or other unexamined assumption of modernity. It seeks to submit to an authority, but will no longer look in the one place where genuine authority is to be found. It seeks love, but it cannot bring itself to make a commitment. It seeks to respect and venerate nature, but at the same time it wants to escape the constraints of nature. It wants to become immortal, but at the same time it wants to evolve into something different from itself. It wants to know everything, but not by becoming humble enough to learn. It wants to be free, but not by having to make a decision.
Catholicism and the New Age
The Roman Catholic Church became more vulnerable to some of these influences in the period after the Second Vatican Council (1962-5). The Council was an essential preliminary to the long-term reintegration of Christianity - the overcoming at source of the historical divisions of Christendom, in order to open the way for a new global evangelization. The idea seems to have been that the Church would open herself to the modern world in order to absorb, understand and ultimately transform the cultural ferment around her. But the more immediate result of the Council was perhaps inevitable: previously sheltered Catholic universities, schools and seminaries were exposed to the forces of secularization for the first time. The heresy of “Modernism”, which had been held at bay or driven underground during the first half of the century now took maximum advantage of the Church’s openness. Wherever possible, the sense of mystery and of the supernatural was undermined by this-worldly banality and a superficial if well-intentioned activism - even within the liturgy itself.
In the period after the Council, then, Catholics hungry for spiritual experience began to turn to Yoga, Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and neo-pagan rituals that promised at least some measure of self-transcendence. Some tried, with greater or lesser success, to adapt for Christian use some of the insights and techniques of the Eastern religions (Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, John Main). Others eventually left the Church altogether - as was the case, for example, with Matthew Fox. This renegade American Dominican argued for a reinterpretation of the Christian tradition that would place emphasis on God’s “Original Blessing” of the creation in the first chapter of Genesis rather than on the doctrine of Original Sin. Influenced by feminism as well as “deep ecology” he was equally open to various forms of Western paganism and nature-religion, including Wicca (Starhawk).
The influence of the Eastern religions and New Age movement on Christian spirituality has naturally become a focus of controversy within the Church. In an address to the Bishops of the United States on 28 May 1993 (reported in L’Osservatore Romano, English edition, 2 June 1993), Pope John Paul II spoke of it in the most balanced and measured of tones:
“It is not an exaggeration to say that man’s relationship to God and the demand for a religious ‘experience’ are the crux of a profound crisis affecting the human spirit. While the secularization of many aspects of life continues, there is a new quest for ‘spirituality’ as evidenced in the appearance of many religious and healing movements which look to respond to the crisis of values in Western society. This stirring of the homo religiosus produces some positive and constructive results, such as the search for new meaning in life, a new ecological sensitivity, and a desire to go beyond a cold, rationalistic religiosity. On the other hand, this religious re-awakening includes some very ambiguous elements which are incompatible with the Christian faith.
“Many of you have written Pastoral Letters on the problems presented by pseudo-religious movements and sects, including the so-called ‘New Age Movement’. New Age ideas sometimes find their way into preaching, catechesis, workshops and retreats, and thus influence even practising Catholics, who perhaps are unaware of the incompatibility of those ideas with the Church’s faith. In their syncretistic and immanent outlook, these parareligious movements pay little heed to Revelation, and instead try to come to God through knowledge and experience borrowed from Eastern spirituality or from psychological techniques. They tend to relativize religious doctrine, in favour of a vague world-view expressed as a system of myths and symbols dressed in religious language. Moreover, they often propose a pantheistic concept of God which is incompatible with Sacred Scripture and Christian Tradition. They replace personal responsibility to God for our actions with a sense of duty to the cosmos, thus overturning the true concept of sin and the need for redemption through Christ.
“Yet, in the midst of this spiritual confusion, the Church’s Pastors should be able to detect an authentic thirst for God and for an intimate, personal relationship with him. In essence, the seach for meaning is the stupendous quest for the Truth and Goodness which have their foundation in God himself, the author of all that exists. Indeed, it is God himself who awakens this longing in people’s hearts. The often silent pilgrimage to the living Truth, whose Spirit ‘directs the course of the ages and renews the face of the earth’ (Gaudium et spes, n. 26), is a ‘sign of the times’ which invites the Church’s members to examine the credibility of their Christian witness. Pastors must honestly ask whether they have paid sufficient attention to the thirst of the human heart for the true ‘living water’ which only Christ our Redeemer can give (John 4:7-13). They should insist on the spiritual dimension of the faith, on the perennial freshness of the Gospel message and its capacity to transform and renew those who accept it.
“Saint Paul tells us that we must ‘seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God’ (Col. 3:1). To neglect the supernatural dimension of the the Christian life is to empty of meaning the mystery of Christ and of the Church: ‘If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied’ (1 Cor. 15:19). Nevertheless, it is a sad fact that some Christians today are succumbing to the temptation ‘to reduce Christianity to merely human wisdom, a pseudo-science of well-being’ (Redemptoris Missio, n. 11). To preach a version of Christianity which benignly ignores, when it does not explicitly deny, that our ultimate hope is the ‘resurrection of the body and life everlasting’ (Apostles’ Creed) runs counter to Revelation and the whole of Catholic tradition.”
The Scandal of the Incarnation
Indeed, if we follow the Pope’s instructions and example, and look more closely at the original message of the Gospel as it was understood by Church Fathers and mystics well before the modern period, we find something that does not quite fit the consensus of New Age thinking. The Incarnation has always been hard to take: a “scandal” to Greeks, to Gnostics and to the followers of other religions alike. The Christian emphasis on a particular man of flesh and blood, his gruesome death and empty tomb - unless interpreted as a purely symbolic narrative - strikes them as absurd or even unwholesome. Yet it is in this emphasis on the physical Incarnation that the foundation of Christian mysticism can be discovered. And here, I think, we can rediscover the most authentic Christian way out of the modern dilemma. Certainly, if we do not take this as our starting point, any use made of the elements of other traditions is likely to result in a dilution or distortion of the distinctive contribution of Christianity.
Right from the start, of course, the Jewish religion attributed great importance to history. It was after all founded on history: the Covenant and its periodic renewal; the liberation from slavery in Egypt; the giving of the Law through Moses. The Jews also believed that history would come to a conclusion: the restoration of David’s kingdom by the Messiah. For Christians, the life of Jesus of Nazareth was the continuation, and the beginning of the fulfilment, of Israel’s long history. The precise Christian claim is easy to state, but difficult to grasp: that Jesus, who was the long-awaited Messiah, was a human being, a man, but also God: a divine Person, the Second Person of the Trinity. In him, the Creator of the cosmos became (and will eternally remain) a man of flesh and blood like us. “The Christian is immersed in wonder at this paradox, the latest of an infinite series, all magnified with gratitude in the language of the liturgy: the immense accepts limitation; a Virgin gives birth; through death, he who is life conquers death forever; in the heights of heaven, a human body is seated at the right hand of the Father” (John Paul II, Orientale Lumen, 1995, n. 10).
For dualists and monists alike, this claim is scandalous. If true, it means that Jesus is more than any Jewish prophet; more than (to use the Indian term) an “Avatar”. The Supreme Reality has not merely revealed itself on earth as though in a mirror, but has stepped, like Alice through the Looking Glass, into the very realm of shadows. It has done more: it has brought the realm of shadows back with it to the real world, the “truly real” world of the Absolute, or of God’s Eternity. The implication of the Resurrection and Ascension, linked to the Incarnation, is that no event in the earthly, historical life of Jesus can ever be “over and done with”. The elements of his life no longer lie in the past, in historical time alone, for they have been raised up with his human flesh to God’s right hand.
These facts change our destiny. Our highest aspiration is no longer to be liberated from the body in order to merge our particular spirit with the universal Spirit. There is a higher destiny than nirvana: it is “salvation”, the Beatific Vision, the marriage of heaven and earth. In that case, Christianity does not offer less than the other religions, but more. When the Church Fathers wrote that “God became man so that man might become God”, they did not mean that we will one day awaken to the fact that we were God all along. They meant that we were not God, but may become so: God by grace not by nature. Once divinized through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, the divine nature in which we share is undivided, and yet we remain eternally distinct from every other person, human or divine. Through losing ourselves in the contemplation of the Beloved, we will receive an eternal identity in the Communion of Saints.
Notice in particular how, if the cosmic relationship of Self and Other, of Subject and Object, is to be transcended, as oriental religions and the New Age believe, “eternal life” must consist of extinction - the extinction of a raindrop in the ocean. This is a unity of absorption: the Lover is absorbed into the Beloved. But at that point love itself comes to an end: loves turns out to have been merely a longing for unity with God, which is now satisfied. There is no Lover any more: only the Beloved. But while a Christian may agree that duality - the separation of Self and Other - is not the end of the story, only a Christian knows the “happy ending”. The Incarnation has revealed a distinction in God between Father, Son and Spirit. The message is that Lover and Beloved can “live happily ever after”. Love does not merge with the Self into the Other, but preserves them in relationship. In place of the unity of absorption, Christianity places a mystery of unity without confusion, and proclaims that love need never come to an end (1 Cor.13:8). Our relationships are the most important things about us; love is the way, the only way, to enter into eternal life.
The Continuing Challenge of the New Age
The New Age is growing for a combination of negative and positive reasons. The negative reasons: many people are repelled by the face of Christianity they see around them and in the history books. They consider that Christians throughout the ages have been responsible for religious wars and persecutions, and that even among today’s believers a majority seem to be only nominally or culturally Christian, lacking any visible spirituality or moral integrity beyond the average. To set against this, there is evidence within the Church of genuine sanctity, often of an heroic nature, and frequently attested by miracles. However, sanctity (in the Catholic tradition particularly) is associated in the minds of many with an extreme asceticism, and a cult of sentimentality, that they find repulsive.
There are also positive reasons that might attract someone to search out alternatives to Christianity. A need for healing, or just a desire for freedom and adventure; a need for community and greater participation (do-it-yourself rituals are a common feature of New Age spirituality). A sense, too, that the Truth must be greater than any human words can express, which goes with a preference for mythology, storytelling and poetry over seemingly prosaic dogma. Above all, perhaps, a hunger for a higher level of consciousness than that of the everyday mind, so preoccupied with trivial affairs, and for first-hand religious experience, for access to invisible worlds and beings, rather than second- or third-hand accounts. (Many of these features are found within the Charismatic movement - which could be seen as the Holy Spirit’s answer to many of these concerns of the New Age movement.) But there are less noble motives also: the attraction of becoming part of an elite group, of sharing a secret knowledge, of becoming special, of acquiring supernatural powers.
The enormous growth of the New Age movement in recent times is partly caused by misguided attempts to demythologize and “de-mystify” Christianity. It seeks a transforming contact with mystery (that which transcends us) and with the supernatural - a hunger for true love, for beauty, for healing, for saints and miracles: for poetry not prose. It therefore appeals to the imagination in a way that Christianity in a period of cultural decline finds it increasingly hard to do. The New Age could almost be described as the revenge of the imagination on Western Christians, who in their obsessive emphasis on reason and the will, on naked truth and virtue, have tended to regard feeling and the imagination, if not as actually demonic, then as an irrelevance or a distraction. Writers such as George MacDonald, Coventry Patmore, G.K. Chesterton and the “Inklings” (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams) are modern exceptions, but outside the Romantic movement prose has reigned over poetry, despite the perennial tradition of the great “poet-theologians”, from St Ephrem and Romanos to St Thomas Aquinas, Dante, St John of the Cross and Gerard Manley Hopkins.
To end this brief survey, I have chosen a poem from Gertrude von Le Fort’s collection Hymns to the Church (translated by Margaret Chanler and published in 1942 by Sheed & Ward). For it is within the Church and her saints that the wisdom can be found that so many are seeking in the New Age movement.
Your voice speaks:
In my arms I still carry flowers from the wilderness,
the dew on my hair is from the valleys of the dawn of mankind.
I have prayers that the meadows lend an ear to,
I know how storms are tempered, how water is blessed.
I carry in my womb the secrets of the desert,
on my head the noble web of ancient thought.
For I am mother to all earth’s children:why do you scorn me,
world, when my Heavenly Father makes me so great?
Behold, in me long-vanished generations still kneel,
and out of my soul many pagans shine towards the infinite.
I lay hidden in the temples of their gods,
I was darkly present in the sayings of their wise men.
I was on the towers with their star-gazers,
I was with the solitary women on whom the spirit descended.
I was the desire of all times, I was the light of all times,
I am the fullness of all times.
I am their great union, I am their eternal oneness.
I am the way of all their ways,
on me the millennia are drawn to God.
Hans Urs von Balthasar (ed.): The Scandal of the Incarnation: Irenaeus Against the Heresies (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1990). Selections from St Irenaeus with commentary by Balthasar bring out the contemporary relevance of the Patristic polemic against Gnosticism.
Louis Bouyer: The Christian Mystery: From Pagan Myth to Christian Mysticism (T&T Clark, Edinbugh, 1990).
Olivier Clément: The Roots of Christian Mysticism (New City Press, London, 1993). A brilliant synthesis of Patristic teaching. Perhaps the first book to be recommended to anyone who wishes to learn about Christian spirituality.
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation (Catholic Truth Society, London, 1990). Criticizing the reliance on “techniques” of prayer.
Manfred Hauke: Women in the Priesthood? A Systematic Analysis in the Light of the Order of Creation and Redemption (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1988). Includes much relevant material on the feminist strands of New Age thought.
William McNamara, O.C.D.: Christian Mysticism: The Art of the Inner Way (Amity House, New York, 1981).
Francis Martin: The Feminist Question: Feminist Theology in the Light of Christian Tradition (T&T Clark and Wm Eerdmans, Edinburgh and Grand Rapids, 1995). Important for insights into aspects of the Enlightenment, against which much of feminist (and New Age) theory is a semi-conscious reaction.
Ted Peters: The Cosmic Self: A Penetrating Look at Today’s New Age Movements (Harper SanFrancisco, 1991).
Cardinal Paul Poupard with Michael Paul Gallagher: What Will Give Us Happiness? (Veritas, Dublin, 1992).
Christoph Schönborn, O.P.: From Death to Life: The Christian Journey (Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1995). Includes a helpful Catholic perspective on reincarnation.
This Version: 26th June 2002
Copyright ©; Stratford Caldecott 2002