NOTES ON GNOSTICISM — PART V
The New Age Movement: No Effort, No Truth, No Solutions

April 1991By Christopher Lasch

Christopher Lasch is Watson Professor of History at the University of Rochester and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. His latest book is The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics. The above article is part of a series on gnosticism. Part I appeared in our October 1986 issue, Part II in our December 1990 issue, Part III in our January-February 1991 issue, and Part IV in our March 1991 issue. Further installments are being contemplated.

The New Age movement — the latest contribution to our long history of bizarre spiritual fads and panaceas — invites a mixture of ridicule and indignant alarm. Not just the degradation of piety but its blatant commercialization prompts the suspicion of large-scale religious fraud. “There’s no Better Business Bureau” for spiritual shoppers, laments the philosopher and theologian Jacob Needleman. “Let the buyer beware.” Several counseling centers now serve those who claim to have been victimized by New Age cults. “It’s a manipulation of spiritualism,” says the director of one of these establishments, “that plays on people’s vulnerabilities to make money.”

The mind-cure market is booming, and patent medicines for the soul fetch a high price. Secondhand goods, for the most part, make up the traffic in salvation: the power of positive thinking, communications from the spirit world, astrology, miracle cures, mind over matter. But these wares — well-worn with use — find no lack of new buyers, many of them unaware that they are investing in reconditioned equipment.

Some of the old staples have been slightly updated. The medium now advertises herself as a “channel” for messages not only from departed friends and relatives but from complete strangers like Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior who conquered the lost civilization of Atlantis and now predicts earthquakes in California, floods in Florida, and the imminent collapse of urban life. Atlantis itself has acquired a newly discovered sister city, Lemuria, founded, we are told, by a race of beings from space and later destroyed. The mystical properties of crystals are no longer confined to the medium’s crystal ball. Worn next to the skin, placed under the pillow during sleep, or strategically positioned at certain chakra points on the body, crystals can transmit the sacred “information” stored in them, encourage “positive thoughts and healing energy,” inspire “lofty and prophetic dreams,” or connect you with your “source.” These observations come from Katrina Raphaell’s Crystal Enlightenment, part of a small library of books, magazines, and newsletters on the subject.

Notwithstanding these additions to the spiritual pharmacy, most of its stock remains curiously old-fashioned, except that it is now sold in shopping malls, as it were, instead of at the corner drugstore. Such are the highly touted “cultural revolutions” of our time: The ambience changes; the ideas stay the same. Old landmarks fall to the bulldozer, but the new temples of commerce house the same old commodities, most of them shabby and second-rate, lacking any intrinsic value and therefore destined for immediate obsolescence.


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