NEW AGE THINKING
If we are Gods, the question naturally arises as to why most of us are unaware of our divinity. In New Age thinking the answer is that we have forgotten who we are. How this divine amnesia occurred is explained in a variety of ways, though usually it is thought that living in these material bodies itself induces the forgetfulness. For some New Agers, living without the conscious recollection of our Godhood is part of the experience of this life which we chose. Many New Agers believe that we are reincarnated many times in order to gain a diversity of experience that will enrich us even though we live each life one at a time. The variations are potentially endless, and New Agers generally don’t argue these questions with one another. Diverse and even contradictory beliefs are for them part of the mosaic, a testimony to the fact that each of us creates his or her own reality, that we are indeed our own God. The only view that New Agers find offensive is the monotheistic claim that God is a transcendent, person being external to, or distinct from, our world and ourselves.
Why do New Agers take offense at monotheism? On one level, of course, anyone who thinks of himself or herself as God is likely to be annoyed at those who deny them this status. Christians are quite right to see the New Age worldview as inherently idolatrous. But New Agers also reject monotheism because they associate it with beliefs and values that they believe are destructive to our world and human life. One very important area in which New Agers press this claim is their concern for the environment.
The New Age movement is a major religious expression of the countercultural trend the bloomed in the 1960s and which at its core represented a radical rejection of the materialistic culture of the West. Crucial to this counterculture was a concern for the environment — what was known as ecology. Environmentalists have been warning for decades that we are polluting our water, air, and soil, destroying our ozone layer, destroying habitats for wildlife species in rain forests and other places, hunting whales and other species to extinction, and in general rushing headlong toward the destruction of our own world.
Many environmentalists have argued that the Christian belief in a sovereign Creator God who authorized the human race to exercise dominion over nature is responsible for the West’s “rape” of the global environment. If this is so, it follows that a key to saving the planet is to abandon the biblical view of God for an ecologically sensitive one — a view that regards the earth itself as alive, as divine, and all living things as manifestations of God. The doctrine of an external, original creator, who set the universe in motion at a certain time in the past, creates a consistent dualism between creation/mind and nature/matter throughout Western culture. Ecology would suggest, in contrast, that spirit, soul, consciousness, and creativity are part of the mystery of evolution, not outside the process, and that creation is ongoing, not simply an epic event in our past.
Much of the New Age critique of the West’s anti-environmental theology has been shaped through interaction with Native American religions. In Native American thought the Earth is commonly regarded as sacred or even divine, and American use of the land is criticized not merely for threatening our own ecosystem but for violating sacred places and sacred things, and for failing to respect the rights of the animals, all of whom are regarded as sacred as well. A not so subtle example of this message occurred in Disney’s animated feature Pocahontas (1995). In the Academy Award-winning song “Colors of the Wind,” Pocahontas chides the Englishman John Smith for his materialistic view of the earth: You think you own whatever land you land on; the earth is just a dead thing you can claim; But I know every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name.
Technically, this view of all things as possessing their own spirits is known as animism. Attributing life to rocks as well as trees and animals may seem extreme, but in much Native American thought, and now in New Age belief, the Earth itself is viewed as a living organism and as divine. This view of the Earth as divine is closely related to the popular idea of Mother Nature. The choice of “Mother” rather than Father is deliberate and important: in New Age religion feminine images of the divine are preferred over masculine images. New Agers prefer to think of us as birthed by God, not made by God. The Earth as “Gaia” is regarded as a divine mother, sustaining our life, but requiring our love and affection and respect (or worship) in return.
Orthodox Christians have responded to the concerns of environmentalists (and even admits to the existence of what he calls “green fundamentalists,” that is, environmentally responsible evangelical Christians), but judges their response inadequate and essentially supportive of the status quo. In his view there are only three positions possible on the human race’s relationship to the environment. First, we may view ourselves as “lords of the universe,” exercising “lordly dominion” over nature and using and disposing of whatever we find in nature as it suits our purpose. Second, we may view ourselves as “stewards of nature,” responsible to make the best use of nature we can without destroying it. This may sound better than the lordly stance, but it assumes a “paternalistic” superiority of humanity over nature that is arrogant and scientifically untenable. A stewardship model still allows human beings to regard nature as something to be used. The third approach, is to view human beings as having “kinship with nature,” a model that sees humanity and the rest of the species of life in the earth as “interdependent.” If on the view of the Lords and Stewards of nature we may do what we want with the salmon, for instance, on the interdependency model “we are kin to salmon.” Stewardship in Christian usage makes human beings servants of God and therefore does not permit them to do with creation what they will. Genesis does not authorize human beings to destroy the environment or annihilate species of life. “Dominion” does imply that human beings have a priority or unique place in the created order, but that need not be applied in the abusive way it undoubtedly has been.
There is something strangely inconsistent about the New Age mystical, romantic view of nature. On the one hand, we are told that human beings should think of themselves as part of nature, interdependent with the rest of living things and the earth itself. On the evolutionary view of earth life accepted by New Agers as a given (even if they see some immanent divine principle guiding the process), human beings are no less a part of nature than the salmon, who are our kin (if not exactly our brothers). Every part of nature helps every other part of nature, and together the whole is rich and beautiful and good. This romantic view of nature as inherently good and self-sustaining is eloquently expressed in the animated Disney film The Lion King (1994). In this film the lion Mufasa instructs his cub Simba about the importance of respect for all living things, and answers the obvious objection that lions eat some of those living things: Everything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope. . . . When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so, we are all connected in the great circle of life. Yet, at the same time, we are warned that the human race is in danger of becoming the species that actually destroys its own world. We are warned that alone among all the living things in the universe, human beings exhibit a wanton disregard for their habitat and for other living things. This concern is expressed in The Lion King in parable form, with lions, as the strongest animal in the wild, representing the human race. When Scar, a self-centered lion with no respect for other life (he is seen playing with a mouse before eating it, for example), manages to become king, he temporarily upsets the circle of life by allowing the hyenas unrestricted access to the pride lands. The message is clear enough: Human beings who exploit the earth with no regard for the ecological consequences are no better than a pack of hyenas.
But it begs a more obvious question, if a more difficult one arises: Aren’t hyenas part of the circle of life? Or, to put the matter in a non-metaphorical way, aren’t the selfish, greedy Western capitalists who are accused of seeking to exploit the land (and who are, we would agree, at least partly guilty as charged) part of the circle of life? How, in the romantic picture of all living things from the grass to the antelope to the lion as part of a lush and self-sustaining interdependent ecosystem, directed if at all by an immanent living force of harmony and love, does part of that system rebel and threaten the destruction of the whole?
The idea of the human race as a threat to weaker animals is expressed in yet another animated Disney film, this one the much earlier Bambi (1942). In the chilling words of Bambi’s mother explaining to her young son the reason for the animals’ fear: “Man was in the forest.” While the film Bambi cannot be described as “New Age,” the ominous view of what “Man” has become in relation to nature is one that strikes a chord with New Agers. But again, why is the human race — or at least the greater part of it — like this? Why does every other animal take its place without resistance in the circle of life except humanity?
This is a question to which no sensible answer seems possible in the context of the New Age worldview. If all is God, and we are God, then why would we choose to threaten our own environment? Why would God threaten the life of God? In short, if all is God, why is there evil? Pantheism may seem comforting to some, but it has no reasonable or even plausible answer to this question. Only if the world is not God, but is a realm created by God in which creatures are free to rebel, can the stark reality of evil be explained.
New Age attempts to explain evil are generally far-fetched and often are nothing short of ludicrous. On New Age premises we all choose our physical life; we create our own reality, and each of us makes choices that will contribute to the whole. But why would anyone who is God choose to become Adolf Hitler, or Jeffrey Dahmer? And how can we say that the terribly destructive acts of such persons are anything but evil? Yet one of the principal answers of New Agers to the problem of evil is to deny that it exists. Since we create our own reality, nothing will be evil for us unless we believe it to be evil. This is the message of such New Age books as A Course in Miracles, a book of New Age psychobabble purporting to have been “channeled” to its author, Helen Schuchman, by Jesus himself. How strangely inconsistent with the teaching of the real Jesus, who could say plainly, for example, that “a good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things”.
If New Agers naively view themselves as God and blindly deny the obvious reality of evil in the human heart and the human race, then it is not surprising to find them completely distorting the teachings and significance of Jesus Christ. For them he is an example of how to live like a God, not our sovereign God come down to redeem us from our pretensions to Godhood. The New Age movement gladly confesses Jesus to be God, but then goes on to explain that, of course, so am I and so are you! What is most shocking is that this way of looking at Jesus is gaining a foothold in Christian churches, particularly in the mainline denominations where the desire for unity with people of all religions and an antipathy to the exclusive and sovereign claims of the biblical Christ are leading more and more liberal churchgoers to heed the siren call of the New Age.
While no one strategy provides a foolproof response to this New Age heresy, perhaps one of the most important ways of answering such errors is to use a kind of “intellectual shock therapy.” Every horrific tragedy in the news is another graphic illustration of the reality of evil. Every time a child is killed by a stray bullet or a drunk driver, we should ask if that child chose to die that way. Every New Ager with children (there are a few) should be asked why they try to protect their children from a world which the children are creating for themselves. Every New Ager outraged at the intolerance of the so-called Religious Right should be asked why they virtually demonize a whole religious and cultural community if we are all God and we all create our own truth. C. S. Lewis once wrote that our world is “incorrigibly plural,” a truth that flies in the face of the monistic, pantheistic world view of the New Age. He might also have added that our world is incorrigibly other. It refuses to be what we expect, confronts us with sometimes unpleasant realities, and simply does not conform to our will.
Someone once said that the two most important truths are that there is a God and that we are not him. To these we may add a third: There is a world, and it operates by God’s rules, not ours. To confess these fundamental truths is the beginning of wisdom, and this is what the New Ager and so many others in our society desperately need to hear.