What is New-Age Spirituality?

Part 2 of a Christian analysis of the New Age Movement

In this blog, I will be giving a brief survey of the New Age Movement, or metaphysical religion. I will by no means intend to be comprehensive or exhaustive. I will try to lay out a few fundamental tenants of the movement just to give a concise map so one can understand the worldview a little better. For a more extensive look at the movement and its history as a whole, I would recommend looking at Patheos‘ library page on the New Age, or pick up A Republic of Mind and Spirit by Catherine Albanese (2008).

In her book, Albanese summarizes the NAM in displaying its four prominent emphasis’: A concern with powers of the mind, reliance on ancient or supposedly ancient cosmologies, a concern with “energies”, and a therapeutic concept of salvation that emphasizes physical and mental healing.


Origin

The term “New Age” was popularized in the 70’s and 80’s by Mark Satin’s New Age Journal and New Age Politics (1976), as well as Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980). But it was actress Shirley MacLaine’s book Out on a Limb (1983), and its subsequent television series (1987), that galvanized the movement from the fringe to its own established subculture. The term “New Age” refers to the expectation that all of humanity is on the verge of entering into a new age of being awakened to our true nature, our true spirituality.

The NAM grew out of previous movements as New Thought, Theosophy, Spiritualism, and the Occult. Most of which drew from eastern mysticism, early Greek gnosticism, and esotericism. The NAM, however, is a form of Western esotericism, offering a critique of Western culture.


God

The NAM rejects the idea of a personal knowable God in any kind of theistic sense. In its place they affirm that there is an energy, a consciousness, a divine presence that permeates everything and is within everything, including ourselves – leading to monism: the belief that everything is one and connected, like an intricate nervous system [1].


Ultimate Reality

Ultimate reality is the cosmic consciousness that binds everything together and is manifested in the individual. Thus, human beings are the essence of prime reality; we are, quite literally, partakers, creators and controllers of the divine energy around us, present in, and part of the entire universe.

This is similar to the Eastern view of pantheism, the view that God and creation are one and the same thing, however it differs in its emphasis. Eastern teaching has its famous aphorism, “Atman is Brahman.” “Atman” is the individual soul, whereas “Brahman” is the essence, the Soul of the cosmos. “‘Atman is Brahman,’ a phrase from the Hindu Upanishads, is the pantheistic counterpart and contrast to the opening declaration of the biblical book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Instead of drawing a bold line between God and his creation, the Hindu text declares them to be one and the same.” [3] There is no delineation between the individual soul or consciousness and the cosmic soul or consciousness. While Eastern teaching most heavily influences the NAM, it differs from the Hindu and Buddhist emphasis. “In essence the East says, ‘Atman is Brahman,’ putting the emphasis on Brahman. That is, in the East one loses one’s self in the whole…In the New Age the same sentence reads in reverse: ‘Atman is Brahman.’ It is the single self that becomes important.”[4]


Individuals Create Reality

John Lilly explains what it means when we reach the highest state of consciousness,

We are creating energy, matter and life at the interface between the void and all known creation. We are facing into the known universe, creating it, filling it…I am the creation process itself, incredibly strong, incredibly powerful…I am one of the boys in the engine room pumping creation from the void into the known universe; from the unknown to the known I am pumping[2]

The individual self then is not merely a part of creation, but is sharing in the Great Mind that is creating and sustaining it. Lilly believes that when we achieve the highest level of consciousness we become God himself, creating the reality we see. [5] Shirley MacLaine, writes, “I could legitimately say that I created the Statue of Liberty, chocolate chip cookies, the Beatles, terrorism, and the Vietnam War…And if people reacted to world events, then I was creating them to react so I would have someone to interact with, thereby enabling myself to know me better.” [6] This is why the NAM often affirms that you can heal yourself of sickness simply by changing your thoughts. This view is not on the fringe of the NAM, it is affirmed by many prominent leaders such as Deepak Chopra [7], Marianne Williamson [8], Laurence LeShan [9], David Spangler [10], and numerous others. 


Mysticism vs. Rationality

This leads to a profound exaltation of the individual, but it is an exaltation that is not achieved through rational deductions, but through mystical experience. Aldous Huxley, quoting C.D. Broad, writes, “Each person is at each moment capable of remembering all that has ever happened to him and of perceiving everything that is happening everywhere in the universe.” [11] Our brain, Huxley says, knows this amount of information would overwhelm us, so it serves as a kind of “reducing valve”, hindering the amount of knowledge we take in. Huxley continues, “According to such a theory, each one of us is potentially Mind at Large.”[12] This means that for us to achieve the highest form of consciousness we must transcend beyond rationality, “Like Eastern pantheistic monism, the new consciousness centers on a mystical experience in which time, space and morality are transcended…Moreover, like the East, the new consciousness rejects reason (what Weil calls “straight thinking”) as a guide to reality.” [13] These mystical experiences are achieved through meditation (most common), yoga, drug-induced trances (less common), or what some writers explain vaguely as “spiritual enlightenment” – it all is very similar to Buddhist meditation.


Morality

As far as morality, since the individual is the cosmic consciousness there is therefore no divine lawgiver (as in theism), so we are free to order our life however we see fit. In fact, most NAM leaders teach that the very categories of “good” and “evil” are mere illusions and must be transcended. Shirley MacClaine, John Lilly, Aldous Huxley, and Deepak Chopra argue that morality is a mark of lower states of consciousness. [14] In a debate on Nightline with a Christian over the subject of Satan’s existence, Chopra is asked a question about how he would react to forgiving someone who has committed murder. Chopra does not answer the question directly, but simply states that what we call “evil” can always be explained simply by understanding cultural and contextual influences on the person. [15] Eckhart Tolle, one of Oprah’s favorite thinkers, eloquently explains that the traditional understanding of morality is built on the “Ego, the false sense of self,” and we must transcend beyond the Ego and when we do true morality “arises from within”.[16] However, Eckhart doesn’t go on to explain what that morality actually looks like. The closest he gets is, “One could say that all you need to do is to be in that state of love, which is not conventional love, but the recognition of non-separation, recognition of the ultimate Oneness of all beings.”[17] But, again, the definition remains murky.

It should be noted that despite the vague basis for morality, many in the NAM lead what most people would consider to be moral lives, and repeatedly encourage others to lead lives of “love” – albeit, while rarely ever specifying what that means. This could do to in part to the NAM frequently borrowing many teachings from various religions, particularly Jesus and the Buddha [18], or because it was grown within the atmosphere of Western Individualistic ideals, like the dignity of the individual, helping the weak, forgiving your enemy – all of which stem from theistic roots [19]. However, most people amidst the NAM would simply say that we must love and care for one another because we all are connected.


Evil and Suffering

As stated previously, the NAM grew out of the 19th century New-Thought movement, a movement deeply influenced by the optimism and progress that marked the 1800’s – thus, the NAM inherits its views on evil and suffering from its predecessor. “New Thought declared that evil, illness, and sin only exist because the human mind wills it so, and that one can overcome all these positions through the power of the mind…This approach declares that suffering is merely a state of mind, and that one can overcome all obstacles through optimism and perseverance. The New Age movement draws upon this approach and declares that evil or suffering exist only because human beings let them exist.” [20]

There is very little written by NAM authors on the nature of evil per se. Rather, since we are all creators of our own reality we are then responsible for the existence of what we perceive as “evil”. As stated above, the NAM rejects the categories of “good” and “evil”, but borrows from Buddhism and Hinduism’s concept of “maya”, or “illusion”. Things that are commonly labeled as “evil” are nothing more than an illusion, a projection of our own consciousness, and thus need not be feared. Some proponents of the NAM also adhere to the doctrine of “karma”, the cyclical idea of reaping and sowing good or bad acts; therefore, suffering is simply a means of atoning for past wrongs done, in this life or the other.


Salvation

With no concept of “sin” or a God who must be pleased, the NAM instead seeks “salvation” through self-improvement and an evolution of their consciousness. This can be done through meditation, psychics, energy healers, or by tapping into a past life. While Hinduism and Buddhism stress the importance of losing the sense of self in Nirvana or Atman, thus ending the cycle of reincarnation, the NAM seems to emphasize the continuous cycle of reincarnation as a means of evolutionary self-progress. Thus, the NAM teaches that death is not something to be feared, but is just another step on the path of achieving a higher state of consciousness. [21]


In total, the NAM is a perfect cocktail for a Western people: it promises absolute autonomy to its adherents (much like atheism), but does so without robbing them of an encounter with something transcendent (much unlike atheism); it rails against the materialistic mindset of “living for the dollar”, without embracing ascetic monasticism or rigorous self-denial.

But is it true? In my next blog I will offer a critique from the Christian worldview.


[1] Sire, James W., The Universe Next Door 5th Edition (England: Inter-Varsity Press, 2009) Pg. 181

[2] Lilly, John, Center of the Cyclone (New York: Julian, 1972) Pg. 210

[3] Sire, The Universe Next Door 5th Edition Pg. 149

[4] Ibid. Pg. 182

[5] Lilly, Center of the Cyclone, pg. 51, 110.

[6] MacLaine, Shirley, It’s All in the Playing (New York: Bantam, 1987) Pg. 173

[7] Chopra, Deepak, The Third Jesus (New York: HarperOne, 2008), Pg. 120

[8] Williamson, Marianne, “What You Think Is What You Get,” O: The Oprah Magazine, Semptember 200, 139.

[9] Leshan, Laurence, The Medium, the Mystic and the Physicist (New York: Viking, 1974), Pg. 155).

[10] Spangler, David, Revelation: The Birth of a New Age (Findhorn, 1971) Pgs. 110, 121

[11] Huxley, Aldous, The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell (New York: Harper & Row, 1963) Pg. 57

[12] Ibid., Pg. 23, “Mind at Large” is Huxley’s phrase for the invisible universe, only accessible through an altered state of consciousness.

[13] Sire, The Universe Next Door, Pg. 180

[14] MacLaine, Dancing in the Light, Pg. 202-3; Lilly, Center of the Cyclone, Pg. 20, 171, 180; Huxley, Doors of Perception, Pg. 39; Chopra, Third Jesus, Pg. 209.

[15] “Does Satan Exist?” Nightline Debate, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vg3-pwIP0X4

[16] Tolle, Eckhart, “Questions for Eckhart: Morality”, http://communicate.eckharttolle.com/news/2010/12/12/questions-for-eckhart-morality/

[17] Ibid. Paragraph 4

[18] Note that Deepak Chopra has written two whole books entirely on Jesus, The Third Jesus and Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment.

[19] See Larry Siedentop’s Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism (First Harvard Univ. Press, 2014) where he makes the compelling case that the entire notion of individual value, liberty, and freedom in the West, did not rise from secular humanism as is commonly assumed, but is due to the influence of Christianity.

[20] Zeller, Benjamin E. “Suffering and the Problem of Evil” Patheos. Web, http://www.patheos.com/Library/New-Age/Beliefs/Suffering-and-the-Problem-of-Evil

[21] Ibid., http://www.patheos.com/Library/New-Age/Beliefs/Afterlife-and-Salvation?offset=1&max=1

 

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