Source: A New Age Dawning
A New Age Dawning?: Coming to Terms with the New Age MovementDr Maurice Ryan, Senior Lecturer in Religious Education, Australian Catholic University, McAuley Campus, PO Box 247 Everton Park QLD 4053Encountering the New Age Movement
A number of recent commentators have pointed to a shift which has occurred in the Australian religious landscape over the past generation. Hilary Carey (1996) observes that, while religion has traditionally been a major determining factor in the lives of most Australians, this influence has been greatly lessened since 1960. Of the trends which she has observed occurring in Australia in the past three decades – increasing secularisation, the growth of Pentecostalism, and the increasing number of Christian sects – one of the most significant “has been the proliferation of alternative ways of believing associated with what is sometimes called the New Age” (Carey, 1996, p. 173). Gideon Goosen (1997) also has noticed the pervasive interest which some people are showing in the New Age Movement. Goosen wonders about what it is so many people are “searching for and what are they finding in this multifaceted movement? Obviously much that their local denominations are not providing. There is also a strand of dissatisfaction of many westerners with the rampant materialism in our society” (Goosen, 1997, p. 184). This growing Movement – scholars debate whether it is a cult, a sect or even a new religion (Peek & Tonti-Filippini, 1992, p. 223) – poses a number of challenges to established religious patterns in Western countries. Given its rising significance, religious educators require some context within which to examine the New Age Movement.
Religious educators will encounter the Movement in a number of ways: in the questions and statements of their students; in the life styles of their friends and colleagues; in the materials they use in their classroom teaching; and, even in the writings of some religious education theorists who have accepted some of the ideas of the New Age Movement and incorporated these in their published writings. The following discussion is designed to provide religious educators with information and perspective about this complex social phenomena. The table at the end of this paper lists some common practices which proponents of the New Age Movement advocate as the possible forms for seeking self-transformation.
Locating the New Age Movement
Because the New Age Movement is an eclectic social movement which encompasses a wide variety of forms, it is difficult to describe or define with accuracy and clarity. Attempts to generalise about core ideas and themes flounder amidst the diversity of interweaving strands which comprise the movement. It is best conceived as a constellation of ideas, practices, organisations and leaders which cohere around guiding themes and principles. The Movement can be likened to a series of criss-crossing threads rather than a single, formally structured organisation. At heart, its aims are noble: the attainment of personal health, happiness, meaning to life and the redemption of the global community. The term “New Age” can be traced to the writings of Alice A. Bailey in the 1920s, although the sources of the movement can be found in a variety of forms dating back to antiquity. While the contemporary New Age Movement draws inspiration from these ancient sources – and is in this sense not new – the most proximate foundation of the Movement was the counter-cultural groups of the 1960s.
The New Age Movement owes its impetus to the people who congregated in places such as the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, where in the 1960s psychotherapists, artists, scientists, and others gathered to create a movement to develop “human potential”. In other places around the world, such as Findhorn in Scotland, and Nimbin in northern New South Wales, people gathered to reject dominant modes of Western cultural life and to discover alternatives in communes, networks, and groups living in harmony with the earth. In part, these groups formed in reaction to upheavals and disconnecting influences experienced in the Western liberal democracies during the turbulent 1960s. Many of those who had attempted to change the world through political action and demonstration, turned instead to an inward search and a reconnection to the earth. The perceived failure of committed social involvement and political action to heal the ruptures of the Western world resolved itself for many in attempts to heal themselves and establish an alternative life style which would eventually bring about a change in social and political structures.
Contemporary Sources of the New Age Movement
While the New Age Movement is a product of the late 1960s and 1970s, many themes and ideas upon which it draws date back to antiquity, as well as to the scientific revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. For inspiration and ideological support, New Agers look to sources other than those which underpin dominant cultural values. These sources are varied and diverse; no one source could be said to be foundational for New Age thinking. Taken together, these sources represent a challenge to the dominant scientific and rational thought forms which have characterised modeern Western cultures.
Astrology has provided a guiding metaphor for the New Age Movement. Astrology teaches that evolution is cyclical. Approximately every 2,100 years, due to the “precession of the equinoxes” the earth appears to move backwards from one sign of the zodiac to another. Precise estimates of dates and times vary between astrologers, but it is generally accepted that the Age of Pisces is ending and the Age of Aquarius is about to dawn, ushering in a period of human harmony, mutual understanding and spiritual growth due to an integration of the masculine and feminine, which is co-operative, non-violent and intuitive. This is in contrast to the Piscean era of confusion and pursuit of material profit due to a reliance upon rational, Newtonian, capitalistic, competitive, violent, left-brained, masculine, and materialistic ways of thought and action. The idea of a new age dawning in human history and the metaphor of Aquarius have been adopted by many New Agers as central symbols of a time of transformation which is presently occurring.
Along with this shift in the astrological realm, some New Age thinkers have described a transformation in the psychological and spiritual realms. This notion is described as a paradigm shift and is promoted by New Agers as a way of understanding the dramatic change which they are experiencing. The notion of a paradigm was popularised by Thomas Kuhn in a work titled, The structure of scientific revolutions, in which he described paradigms as “universally recognized scientific achievements that for a time provide model problems and solutions to a community of practitioners” (Kuhn, 1970, p. viii). According to Kuhn, these interpretive patterns or paradigms strongly guide the community of practitioners in the methods, objects and outcomes of their investigation of problems or puzzles. Ultimately, however, a crisis is brought about in the community when new discoveries force a shift to a more comprehensive, embracing paradigm. Examples of similar revolutionary shifts have been associated with figures such as Copernicus and Galileo. New Agers argue that a paradigm shift is currently underway in the scientific community. A belief in shifting paradigms has a number of consequences for New Agers.
One consequence is an interest in the so-called New Physics. Contemporary physicists, such as Fritjof Capra, Paul Davies and Stephen Hawking, have taken up themes explored earlier this century by some physicists who postulated new ideas about space, time, mind and matter and brought a fresh focus to foundational questions about the beginning of the universe. They argue that the notion of the universe proposed by the scientists of the Enlightenment is inadequate for a full contemporary understanding of reality. Newtonian science taught that the universe is a collection of fundamentally separate objects. The New Physics proposes that inter-relationship and connectedness is the guiding characteristic of the universe: all created matter is involved in a complex web of relations between the various parts. The writings of many of these scientists can sometimes sound like an amalgam of scientific theorising and description, poetry and spiritual reflection (Edwards, 1992).
Another consequence is the sense that this paradigm shift is being experienced in all forms of human knowledge, especially medicine and the healing professions, the social sciences – especially psychology – and in the patterns of community organisation. Significant sources for New Agers on these issues are the writings of psychologists, C.G. Jung and Carl Rogers. The shifting paradigm means that previous divisions between disciplines and forms of knowledge are no longer relevant. New ways of knowing and acting need to be discovered to account for this shift. Every aspect of daily life will be affected by this paradigm shift.
Adherents of the New Age Movement criticise the predominant paradigm introduced into Western cultures by the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment world view is characterised by New Agers as replete with dualistic thinking, an over-reliance upon critical reason, and an excessive commitment to prediction and control offered by the scientific method. New Agers assert the primacy of reflective contemplation and sacred mystery over technical rationality. Against the Enlightenment notion of dualism and rationality, the New Age asserts the unity of all creation (Gascoigne, 1992, p. 27). New Agers believe in:
An impersonal divine energy or principle which undergirds all that exists, from which everything, including human beings, has been derived, and in which everything participates. It is this affirmation of the ultimate as a divine pattern and force (instead of a personal deity) which gives rise to the belief that each person is god or, more precisely, each person is essentially divine. The New Age ideology precludes a belief in a personal saviour such as Christians believe Jesus to be (Melton, Clark & Kelly, 1990, pp. 113-114).This unified view of all creation leads to a conviction that humans have many levels of consciousness, even though most people operate at the lower levels for most of the time. The guiding concern becomes, therefore, to awaken the higher consciousness which is possessed by each individual. With this awakening will come the achievement of the goal of human life: individual transformation. Of necessity, the New Age Movement stresses individuality, with multiple and loose relations between adherents. Because there are many paths to the one truth, the media for experiencing individual transformation are varied. New Agers might begin their transformation with an experience of re-birthing, meditation, astrology, crystal therapy, macrobiotic dieting, aromatherapy, massage, communication with a disembodied entity through a channel, or by means of spiritual guidance from a guru. Each individual is encouraged to explore a wide range of experiences until they find their preferred form for achieving their higher consciousness and personal transformation.
Ancient Sources of New Age Thinking
The New Age Movement seeks inspiration and ideas from ancient sources as well as the moderns. The wisdom of the ages, especially that wisdom drawn from esoteric, non-rationalist movements and thinkers is valued by New Agers. This retrieval of some of the traditions of antiquity has led many observers to point to the “old age” foundations of the “new age”.
One such tradition retrieved by the New Age Movement is gnosticism, the description given to the ideas of a variety of groups which had their genesis in the early Christian centuries. The majority Christian communities rejected gnostic groups as heretics, repudiating their claims to be searching for hidden spiritual knowledge through astrology and the alleged secret doctrines of Jesus Christ. This secret knowledge, according to the gnostics, was what saved a person rather than correct moral conduct or faith in Christ. Gnostic belief, as it is formulated in the New Age Movement, is an assertion that the initiative for redemption or salvation primarily comes from humanity rather than as a gift from God. Truth and knowledge about the higher worlds is possible by making contact with one’s innate divinity.
The medieval practice of alchemy – the craft of purifying metals – is another source of ideas and has provided the Movement with a number of metaphors. Those practitioners of alchemy in the Middle Ages who possessed a more philosophical and mystical dimension saw within their craft the possibility of a wider insight: the transformation of humanity from a leaden, impure state to a golden, pure condition in which it would be able to attain the Philosopher’s Stone or the Pearl of Great Wisdom.
A more recent source is Theosophy, a title constructed from the Greek which literally means “God wisdom”. The movement, known as the Theosophical Society, was established by Madam Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott in 1875. Its aim was to establish a universal ethic and promote the latent powers of the human soul. It drew on a range of world religions, particularly Buddhism and Hindu mysticism. While distinct from the New Age Movement, Theosophy has been a fruitful source of ideas for New Agers.
Belief in unitary consciousness links the New Age Movement with a variety of religious and philosophical systems upon which it draws to understand the social and historical shift which is presently occurring. One of these links is with animist or nature religions which see the whole created order as alive with spirits or divinities which inhabit the environment. This interest in animism leads New Agers to a regard for the religions of Native Americans and other indigenous cultures. Categories of interpretation and meaning characteristic of these religions find their way into the literature of the New Age Movement. New Agers value the capacity of many indigenous peoples to live in harmony with nature. Partly because the New Age Movement is most prominent in the United States, the spirituality of Native American communities has been given the greatest attention in New Age literature. The following Navajo song is indicative of the texts which are given prominence:
The thoughts of the earth are my thoughts.
The voice of the earth is my voice.
All that belongs to the earth belongs to me.
All that surrounds the earth surrounds me.
It is lovely indeed; it is lovely indeed (Millikan & Drury, 1991, p. 35).
Related to the interest of New Agers in primal religions is a concern for the insights and consequences of some aspects of feminist thought. Hilary Carey (1996) has described how these so-called post-Christian spiritualities have flourished:
Inspired by feminist spiritual writers such as Starhawk, Mary Daly and Rosemary Radford Ruether, post Christian spiritualites embraced a grand narrative which saw personal enlightenment and the potential for world peace to lie in the re-awakening of primal, usually female, energies. Favoured names for what were perceived to be the original spiritual forces of the planet were borrowed from native American, Indian, Celtic and Aboriginal sources and included Mother Earth, Gaia, Byamee or simply, the Goddess (1996, p. 179).Levels of Involvement in the New Age Movement
The New Age Movement differs from most other cultural movements in that there is no central headquarters, recognised significant leader, nor pattern of association. In fact, networks and loose associations characterise the organisation. Mailing lists are more likely to identify and link adherents than general gatherings or popular ritual celebrations. As with any religious or social movement, not all adherents share the same depth or kind of involvement. Adherents of the New Age Movement hold varying ideas about the aims and nature of the movement as well as about appropriate forms of involvement. The central idea which unites New Agers is an experience of transformation. New Agers have either experienced or are diligently seeking a profound personal transformation from an old unacceptable life to a new, exciting future. To various extents, New Agers have repudiated formerly held orthodoxies. Having experienced a personal transformation, they project the possibility of transformation onto all humanity. The Movement is animated by the hope and affirmation that a New Age is imminent, emerging in this generation. Within this general orientation, it is possible to distinguish a number of levels of involvement.
At a simple level, involvement in the New Age Movement could be confined to reading New Age books and magazines, or to wearing New Age jewellery or clothing. Some are attracted to the Movement by the promise of an alternative to traditional ways of life. The wearing of certain clothes and the use of new terms and speech patterns can mark a transition from previous patterns of life for many people. Included in this level of involvement are those who attend the multitude of prosperity consciousness workshops and training sessions designed to “empower”, “energise”, and “unleash the inner wisdom” in order to attain material success, especially in the business world. From the outside, the New Age Movement viewed at this level can seem glossy, commercial and materialistic. Indeed, many of those who remain attached to the New Age Movement at this level of involvement attract condemnation and disregard from fellow New Agers for the shallowness of their approach and their perversion of the ideals of the Movement. The claim is made that these people do not see the movement as a means of spiritual progress, but more as a way of financial prosperity. In defence of this attitude, some claim that material prosperity and spiritual enlightenment are compatible and desirable. Phil Laut (1989), author of the book, Money is my friend, argues that prosperity is a viable path to higher consciousness:
Having a prosperity consciousness enables you to function easily and effortlessly in the material world. The material world is God’s world, and you are God being you. If you are experiencing pleasure and freedom and abundance in your life, then you are expressing you true spiritual nature. And the more spiritual you are, the more you deserve prosperity (Laut, 1989, p. 14).Evidence of deeper levels of involvement in the New Age Movement can be seen in people who pursue an interest in holistic healing. New Age healing practices build on the premise of the multi-dimensionality of human personality. New Agers perceive much of the disharmony in the human body as an outcome of emotional, mental and spiritual disease. It is not sufficient merely to treat the symptoms of this fundamental disease; proper treatment requires a healing of the individual’s spiritual malaise. The distinctive contribution of New Age ideas to modern thinking on disease and cure is the assertion that:
There are “cosmic forces” available for healing, and that these forces may be called upon and utilized with very great benefit not only for individuals but for the healing of the nations, by those who are spiritually “attuned” to this reality (Spink, 1991, p. 42).Beyond these levels of involvement in a range of New Age practices, some New Agers may live out their commitment to personal transformation by abandoning the suburbs for life on a communal farm or in closer relationship with the land. These people incorporate the core beliefs and attitudes of the New Age Movement in their daily lives and strive to discover alternative forms of social organisation. Those New Agers who share a deeper level of involvement in the New Age Movement argue that, while the quest for transformation is necessarily individual, global transformation will occur when a “critical mass” of individuals experiences transformation. In this way, New Agers are able to defend themselves against the accusation of excessive personal concern to the neglect of social or communal involvement.
The prevalence of the New Age Movement supports the contention that the turn to the self in the spiritual journey has never been stronger in the Western liberal democracies. In ever increasing numbers, it appears that members of the Christian Churches are turning to the ideas and practices of the New Age Movement to sustain their religious quest. This is evident in the way that New Age writers infuse secular language with spiritual meaning and possibility. The heavy reliance on words such as synergistic, holistic, unity, oneness, transformation, personal growth, human potential, awakening, networking, and consciousness which describe the mission and shape of the Movement, imbue common experiences with religious possibilities. Embedded, also, in this kind of language is the promise, or at least the hope, in a better world about to happen.
Religious educators who wish to understand the New Age Movement must come to terms with its eclecticism; the Movement draws upon a wide range of sources and operates at a variety of levels of commitment. Furthermore, members of the Movement claim much in explaining its significance and function in contemporary culture: it is a spiritual quest; a way of capitalist expansion and profit; a means of enlightenment for organisational managers and those interested in self-improvement; as well as a new social movement which will thoroughly transform the existing order. The New Age Movement is fuelled by a growing disillusionment with Western technocratic society and a suspicion that modern people have lost the knowledge of how to live with dignity and grace. The hope for a better world is often directed away from the real world of disillusion or despair and instead toward either the private world of each individual, or beyond into the cosmos. The promise of reclaiming previously rejected forms of knowledge to respond to this challenge is attracting increasing numbers of people. Religious educators will be among those most able to observe the impact and implications of the New Age Movement.
An A-Z of New Age Practices and Interests
Acupuncture Ambient music Aroma therapy Astrology Aura balancing Bach Flower Remedies Bioenergetics Channelling Chiropractic Conflict resolution Creative visualisation Crystal therapy Dream analysis Energy conservation Environmental awareness Feldenkrais “Awareness through movement” Float tanks Fortune telling Gestalt Therapy Holistic health Holotropic Breath Therapy Macrobiotic dieting Massage Meditation Near death experiences Numerology Osteopathy Past-life recall Personality type indicators: Myers-Briggs Prosperity consciousness
Prophetic predictions, such as Nostradamus Re-birthing Reichian Therapy Reincarnation Relationships training Rolfing Self-actualisation Shamans
Silva Mind Control Spiritual gurus Tarot cards Unidentified Flying Objects Waste recycling Yoga Zen meditation
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Edwards, D. (1992). Made from stardust: Exploring the place of human beings within creation. North Blackburn: CollinsDove.
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Laut, P. (1989). Money is my friend. Cincinnati: Vivation.
Millikan D., & Drury, N. (1991). Worlds apart? Christianity and the new age. Crows Nest: ABC Books.
Peek, L., & Tonti-Filippini, N. (1992). Some trends in religious affiliation, cults and sects in Australia. Australasian Catholic Record, 69 (2), pp. 222-239.
Spink, P. (1991). A Christian in the new age. London: Darton, Longman and Todd.