THE NEW AGE MOVEMENT
What is this about? How does eastern mysticism impact the new age movement? Or is it vice-versa?
Although atheistic humanism has been and continues to be an influential movement challenging the Christian faith at its core, in terms of sheer numbers atheism has never been able to win a large voluntary following in any society. The defunct Soviet Union and the still-Communist China are examples of nations where atheism was imposed on the people as the official state position (religion?) by ideologues for whom atheism as much a political statement as a spiritual one, if not more so.
A much more successful alternative worldview to atheism is pantheism. Whereas atheism denies that there is any God at all, pantheism holds that God is in some way the one reality in or underlying or manifested through all things. Pantheism is closely related to the concept of monism, according to which ultimately reality is one, not many. Pantheism has been understood and articulated in many different forms, the main difference being the extent to which the many different things of this world are regarded as real or as illusory.
In the United States it is clear that pantheistic thought is rising. In the survey discussed in the previous chapter, whereas only about 5 percent of Americans did not believe in God or did not know what they believed, some 12 percent of Americans professed to believe in a divine spirit or force rather than in a personal God. Most or all of these Americans evidently hold to a pantheistic worldview rather than a theistic one. Even larger numbers of Americans accept elements of pantheistic religious or philosophical thought. For example, for some time now roughly one in four Americans has believed in reincarnation, and the number may soon be closer to one in three. Therefore it is likely that far more than 12 percent of Americans have a worldview that is more pantheistic than theistic.
Worldwide, pantheistic religions have an even stronger hold, especially in the East, where they have dominated for about 2,500 years. Hinduism, which in its early history was crudely polytheistic and which retains polytheistic elements, from about 600 BC developed a more refined pantheistic worldview in which the gods were merely high forms of the one divine reality, Brahman, of which human beings and everything else are a part. There are roughly three-quarters of a billion Hindus in the world, most of whom live in Asia, though well over a million Hindus live in North America. Buddhism, which numbers over 300 million worldwide (almost all in Asia), throughout its history has been interpreted in both atheistic and pantheistic ways. Pantheistic beliefs in the divinity of nature and in spiritual powers latent in physical things have a long history in pre-Christian pagan Europe, beliefs that have enjoyed a revival throughout the West during the past two centuries. All told, about one-fifth of the world’s population appears to adhere to a pantheistic worldview, and the number may be considerably higher.
In the United States, less than two million people are actually members of Eastern pantheistic religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. The vast majority of the roughly 25 to 35 million Americans who espouse some form of pantheistic religion are either members of Christian denominations or have no commitment to any religious institution.
On the cutting edge of the growth of pantheistic religious belief and practice in America is what is commonly known as the New Age movement. Although this label appears to date from the early 1980s, it is not so much a new phenomenon as a further development of America’s long history of fascination with pantheistic thought. The roots of the New Age movement go back to the rise of alternative religions and philosophies in the nineteenth century. Among these were Transcendentalism, a philosophical and cultural movement associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson that emphasized idealist and intuitive thought, and the metaphysical cults, notably New Thought and Unity (a sect with origins in both Christian Science and Hindu thought). The Unity School of Christianity (and the related Unity Church) is essentially a New Age religion utilizing Christian terminology. But the nineteenth-century institution closest to a parent or grandparent of the New Age movement was Theosophy. Building on a growing interest in spiritualism (contacting departed spirits) in America, Helena P. Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in 1875. Out of the Theosophical Society came such related movements as anthroposophy and the Ascended Masters or “I AM” groups. All of these institutions and teachings have remained to this day and have contributed to the stream of mystical, generally pantheistic religious teachings and practices that have flowed together to become the New Age movement.
After the rise of the metaphysical cults, the theosophical groups, and other precursors to the New Age in the 1870s and 1880s, the next major impetus to the New Age movement came in the countercultural occult explosion of the mid to late 1960s and the early 1970s. The increasing secularization of the West in the postwar years created a spiritual vacuum into which rushed an incredible diversity of religious movements emphasizing spiritual experience. On the Christian side, the 1960s was the decade of the outbreak of Pentecostal experiences (speaking in tongues, prophesying, healing ministries, and the like) in the mainline denominations — what became known as the charismatic movement. During the same decade, millions of Americans turned to Eastern religions to find spiritual experiences. The Beatles produced such songs as “My Sweet Lord,” a song of devotion to Krishna, a Hindu god proclaimed in the West by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), better known as the Hare Krishnas. Numerous gurus and swamis came to America teaching the message of our oneness with the divine All in a form tailored for the West: Transcendental Meditation (TM), for example, essentially involved chanting to a Hindu god, but it was packaged and promoted as a scientifically proven stress-relieving relaxation technique.
The 60s and early 70s also experienced an explosive growth of interest in the occult. The occult became a multimillion dollar market, seen for example in occult bookstores selling tarot cards and other paraphernalia as well as books, or such occult-theme films as Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973). Certain new humanistic religions utilized the demonic categories, not so much because they believed in the Devil, but as a symbol of their anti-Christian perspective. These included Satanism (appealing mainly to men) and Wicca (appealing mainly to women). The latter actually has more mystical overtones, and is closely related to neo-paganism and goddess worship. By the 1980s some feminist theologians in mainline liberal church settings began taking interest in these alternative religions because their use of feminine images of the divine served the feminist agenda of displacing masculine, supposedly patriarchal or chauvinistic ways of thinking and speaking about God.
The New Age movement is, then, an incredible diffuse and variegated phenomenon in Western society, rooted in both Asian religion and philosophy and Western European paganism. It also makes connections with Native American religion, tribal religions of Africa, and mystical traditions of medieval origin within the monotheistic religions of the West. These mystical traditions include the Kabbalah in Judaism, the Sufis in Islam, and certain Catholic mystics whose thought tended toward pantheism. Those who are self-consciously part of the New Age movement probably number in the hundreds of thousands, but the number of Americans whose worldview is New Age or close to New Age is likely in the tens of millions. The significance of the New Age movement is less a matter of its conscious adherents as it is the fact that the movement represents the tip of the iceberg of a mega shift in Western, and especially American, society. Instead of seeing less and less of life in religious or sacred terms, the new direction is to think of all of life, and indeed all of existence, in a sacred or spiritual way. If secularization seemed to be crowding God out of the cosmos, the new sacralization represented by the New Age encourages us to equate God with the cosmos. What the old materialistic, secular humanism and the new spiritual, religious humanism have in common is the desire to find personal fulfillment and world harmony on our own terms — with God as a source of power or wisdom, perhaps, but not as the standard of truth and values or the ruler of the world. Thus the New Age movement is part of a larger trend in Western culture seeking to find religious meaning and fulfillment apart from submission to the transcendent Creator, Judge, and Savior of biblical Christianity.
There is no one New Age religion or organization to unify the movement. Nor is there any creed or formal principles or scriptures or any other documents that could be regarded as foundational for the New Age. Because of the non-centralized and amorphous nature of the movement, generalizations about what New Agers believe or what they do are notoriously difficult. Still, there are patterns of belief and a basic worldview that can be discerned as common to most of the groups and writings that consider themselves New Age. On the other hand, some Christian publications purporting to expose New Age groups grossly overgeneralize and label groups as New Age that is anything but New Age. Try to avoid such loose use of the term New Age while keeping in mind the bewildering diversity and far-reaching influence of New Age ideas and practices.
The main problem with such approaches to the New Age movement is that it misunderstands the basic structure and character of the movement. While Scripture does teach that false teachers and prophets will arise, it is at least highly debatable to claim that the Bible warns us to look for all false religion to merge into a single satanic system. The basic worldview of the New Age movement is pantheism, the belief that in some sense all of reality is ultimately One and Divine. Although the simplest definition of pantheism is that God is all and all is God, pantheism is actually understood and articulated in a variety of ways, most of which allow for some recognition or differentiation of the world and the multiplicity of things in the world. What is essential to pantheism is the idea that underlying the manyness which we perceive through our senses is a divine oneness that unifies all things and that can be accessed through religious or spiritual means.
In Eastern religion, pantheism has usually been understood in a life-negating way. The goal of religious practice in Hinduism, for example, is to escape the wheel of reincarnation which repeatedly traps our spirits in this inglorious life and to achieve freedom in perfect oneness with Brahman (God). Likewise, in Buddhism life is characterized as suffering (the first of the Four Noble Truths) and the goal of Buddhist discipline is to escape the suffering by achieving oblivion to the cares of this world. In Hinduism, and even more so in Buddhism, strict disciplines of self-denial are indispensable to the spiritual life.
By contrast, pantheism in the Western, New Age setting has been interpreted in a life-affirming way. The world is divine, the earth and its many living things are divine, and human beings themselves are divine. Every aspect of life is to be enjoyed. The difference is at its startlingly clearest in the matter of sexuality. Whereas sexual activity even in marriage is viewed in Hinduism and Buddhism as an impediment to spiritual progress, in New Age thought the divinity of all life is understood to encourage sexuality and even sexual freedom. Whereas Eastern religion endorses the same traditional morality found in Western culture (sex is for marriage only), New Agers view sex in extremely permissive ways and are almost universally supportive of the gay and lesbian “alternative lifestyle.” New Age art and literature often views God and the world in sensual, even erotic, terms.
The penetration of pantheistic thought in Western culture has been pervasive. Despite the enormous philosophical difficulties besetting any form of pantheism — and despite its clear contradiction of the Bible — many people simply find it easier to believe pantheism than monotheism. It is not that pantheism is more rational — many pantheists themselves would insist that rationality is misleading in matters of ultimate reality — but that pantheism is more comfortable. Many of us in the West simply find it more to our liking.
There is really not much difference in the popular mind between pantheism and what more technically would be called panentheism (the belief that God is “in” all things). Panentheism recognizes God and the world as distinct concepts, but then holds that God is the spirit or soul or divine energy or mind that fills and pervades and expresses itself in the world. On this view God and the world are interdependent, needing each other to form a complete reality. Thus the standard analogy for panentheism is the idea that a human being is both a spirit (or mind) and a body, with neither doing anything without the other. God is not a personal Creator of the world, but the divine potential of the world and of each one of us. Most people in the popular culture could not clearly distinguish pantheism from panentheism, and in most contexts the difference is of little practical significance. One of the most famous examples of pantheism in the popular culture is the religious philosophy of “the Force” in George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy, originally released from 1977 to 1983 and re-released with enhanced sound and visual effects in early 1997. Although the Force is never called God, those who believe in it and seek to use it are said to be followers of a “religion,” and the teacher of “the ways of the Force” is a 900-year-old “Jedi Master” called Yoda who functions much as a Zen Buddhist master.
Life creates the force, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter! You must feel the Force around you — here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere — yes, even between the land and the ship. The idea that we are really “luminous beings,” that is, beings of light, is a common New Age theme. The all-pervasive energy of the Force is evidently the same energy that powers the luminosity of our real selves. Here again a common New Age idea is suggested: not only is the cosmos God, human beings are Gods. Such language sounds contradictory from a Christian perspective (is God one or many?), but this paradox is common to Eastern philosophy and is carried enthusiastically in New Age thought. To say that all is God and that we are Gods really means the same thing in New Age thinking, because each of us is one with the All and is therefore God.