“Can you be spiritual and not religious?”
“Yes. Yes you can.”
“So it’s possible to be both and? You don’t have to separate them?”
“No, no you do not. Look, there are plenty of people who experience God on the back of a horse every Sunday who just won’t ever come to church. And that’s fine.”
“Wow – so, you don’t need people to come to your church? You don’t want people to come to your church?”
“I want people to experience God, the grace of God, and I think we should just let them experience that however God’s grace leads them.”
“And you can do that apart from religion?”
“Wow! What kind of preacher are you?” She laughs incredulously, pointing at his clerical collar.
“I’ll tell you what I want, Oprah. I want to turn the human race into the human family…I want them to experience the energy of God.”
Oprah Winfrey, day-time television talk host turned media mogul, has become well known for her spiritual beliefs. She liberally shares them via her various media outlets and publications and has become a leader of sorts of a new kind of spirituality that has found a place in affluent, Western America. As trust and participation in institutional religion in America has receded over the years, America’s spiritual hunger has persisted, and many are lining up to fill their spiritual cravings at what was once a fringe movement of the 60’s: New Age spirituality.
The social elites in power during the 60’s foresaw a religionless future, imagining our “salvation” would come by the advent of science, technology, and psychotherapy. But that hasn’t happened at all. Breakthroughs in science, medicine, and technology have shot forward with stunning speed, but they still haven’t been able to answer the deepest, most meaningful questions and longings we have. If anything, our new access to boundless information, social networking, and technology have made us hungrier spiritually – even if we have become less religiously affiliated. And in our spiritually starved, increasingly distracted, hopelessly self-centered, morally relativistic, epistemologically skeptical society of the West, I am convinced that the New Age movement (NAM), not secularism, will become the new ark upon which our society tries to leap upon. In other words, the next generation of Americans are not looking more and more like Richard Dawkins, but more and more like Mrs. Winfrey.
The conversation above between Oprah and a liberal Episcopalian priest gives a small taste of the worldview of the New Age movement. The New Age movement is a worldview that syncretizes Eastern mystical teachings from Hinduism and Buddhism, pagan animism, esoteric Gnosticism, and the West’s emphasis on the individual, human progress, and (at times) scientific progress. It can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what the NAM is because it is so amorphous and varied. It is an expansive set of beliefs that can be adopted, in part or whole, by affluent TV stars, philosophers, members of institutional religion, soccer moms, or occultists.
As Christians, we should become familiar with religious/cultural trends like this for a number of reasons: (1) If we are to evangelize to our neighbors, we should understand their worldview. (2) If we are to raise our children wisely, we should be discerning about cultural/religious trends. (3) While this may seem odd to some, it is actually much, much more prevalent in our society than we may think. A generic belief in a “God/energy” that connects all of us together is the soup de’jour of many Americans today.
So, in a series of blogs, I hope to introduce the basics of the NAM, what is praise-worthy about it, what is flawed about it, and how Christianity provides a better alternative to it. As a Reformed guy, these kind of things typically are not addressed in the circles I run in, but the Reformed community throughout Church history has always sought to serve the Church by correcting false teaching when it arises, so this isn’t new. The NAM is different because it is so peculiar, but as we will see, much of its thinking has influenced those who sit in our pews, and (Lord help us) some who stand in the pulpit.