New Age: Religion with a Designer Label

April 2013By James J. Thompson Jr.

James J. Thompson Jr. is a Nash­ville-area writer.

The Sleep of Reason: Fantasy and Reality from the Victorian Age to the First World War.  By Derek Jarrett. Harper & Row. 233 pages. $22.50.

Crystal Lies: Choices and the New Age.  By F. LaGard Smith. Servant. 162 pages. $7.95.

Evangelizing the New Age: The Power of the Gospel Invades the New Age Move­ment.  By Paul McGuire. Servant. 169 pages. $7.95.



One of the advantages of living in a cultural backwater like the South, as I do, is that, despite the pestiferousness of television and other transmit­ters of mass culture, it takes a while for the tomfoolery concocted in New York and Los Angeles to trickle down to lo­cal consciousness. Alas, cul­ture-lag has ceased to protect us from the New Age, for ev­en here in Nashville people burble about their astrological signs, diligently browse the bulging occult section in B. Dalton and Waldenbooks, and jam pricey seminars on chan­neling and meditation. Bubba, the pick-up artist at the Dew Drop Inn, has a new opening line: “Didn’t we meet in a ‘nuther life?” Jeane Dixon is at least as popular as Jerry Falwell in the South, and Vir­ginia Beach, seat of Pat Rob­ertson’s empire, also provides a home to the Edgar Cayce Foundation. When LaGard Smith arrived in Virginia Beach to appear on Robert­son’s “700 Club,” he found Shirley MacLaine in town to stage one of her spiritual Tup­perware parties for 800 people (at $300 a head).

Has the world suddenly gone wacko? Not to worry, for even a cursory survey of the New Age movement discloses that scarcely anything about it is new. Smith attributes its apparent novelty to “glitzy packaging,” and Paul McGuire, author of Evangelizing the New Age, asserts that “it is a compi­lation of old myths, of ancient Babylonian occult religions, Hinduism, and Buddhism, all dusted off and translated into high-tech Western scientific terms.” Derek Jarrett’s The Sleep of Reason reveals that much of what goes under the rubric “New Age” was racket­ing around among spiritually troubled seekers and questers a hundred years ago in both Great Britain and the United States. If Americans are going to drink old wine, they prefer to pour it from a new bottle that is decked out with a smart designer label; packaging is all in Madison Avenue’s land of Cockaigne.

Whatever happened to secular humanism, that fero­cious dragon that threatened to gobble up supernaturalism, dispel superstition, and estab­lish the reign of positivistic good sense? Wasn’t it only yesterday that evangelical au­thors like Smith and McGuire were bemoaning that the American Way was being subverted by secularists who proclaimed that “there is no god but Reason and Science is his prophet”? Formerly besieg­ed by humanists who believed in nothing transcendent, we now find ourselves, if one credits the evangelicals and fundamentalists, assaulted by New Age loonies who swallow anything and everything. Smith suggests that the New Age movement is rapidly su­perseding secular humanism. Unable to “satisfy the hunger of the human soul,” the secu­lar creed beaches its dupes on a barren shore. The New Age movement is especially attrac­tive to this stranded soul, be­cause it transcends rather than rejects his science, replacing his suffocating empiricism with a liberating “metascience” in which Zen converges with the hottest news in physics.

Derek Jarrett’s The Sleep of Reason is a muddled book (though fun to read because of its wealth of anecdote and vignette), haphazardly tracking a murky thesis about “reality” and “fantasy.” But Jarrett makes this much clear: Just as in our own era, so in the 19th century, the authority of sci­ence did not impede the flour­ishing of the occult or obstruct the luxuriant growth of super­natural oddities. The century witnessed a prodigious leap forward in scientific knowl­edge, especially in geology and biology, and inventors, tinker­ers, engineers, and industrial­ists forged a series of techno­logical innovations that elevat­ed machines to an enviable position as the glory of the modern age.

In the midst of this eruption of scientific and tech­nological progress, some weird things cropped up. Spiritual­ism thrived, and séances became a popular pastime for those who sought to contact souls who wandered the land­scape of the afterlife. Satanism seduced cultured and intellec­tually sophisticated individu­als, and the pagan gods re­appeared, with Pan and Dio­nysus in particular enjoying a renascence. Eastern religions burst into vogue, and such esoteric faiths as Theosophy and Christian Science estab­lished themselves in the most respectable circles. Science might banish the God of or­thodox Christianity, but it could not quench Victorian man’s thirst for fantasy. “The fact that thousands of people refused to believe that God was real is one side of the coin,” Jarrett avers; “the fact that almost as many refused to believe that Sherlock Holmes was fictitious is the other.”

To give Jarrett’s terminolo­gy a broader application, one can suggest that throughout the history of the West, “reali­ty” (science and reason) and “fantasy” (myth and the oc­cult) have been intertwined, as often co-existing peacefully as at odds with each other. We honor the Greeks for the gift of philosophical reason, but they also contributed, through Pythagoreanism, a numerologi­cal mysticism that has refused to fade into archaism. Plato might represent to many the founding of reasoned dis­course, but to others, his ideas, married to an esoteric tradition sprung from the East, meant Neoplatonism, with its seductive urge toward the mystic realm. Astrology and astronomy, chemistry and al­chemy, geometry and geoman­cy: These pairings have flowed side-by-side — boon compan­ions more often than sworn enemies. At least since the time of Zoroaster, Eastern ways of seeking the divine have filtered into the West, providing for some a fountain in which to dabble, for others a pool into which to plunge. The ancient Hebrew faith and Christianity alike proscribed trafficking in spirits, and sci­ence scoffed at the notion that ethereal beings existed, but this did not prevent belief in the spirit world from perdur­ing.

Over the centuries, dis­satisfaction with answers pro­vided by science, reason, and Christian faith has engendered a search for something more: a secret wisdom, a hidden truth, a veiled knowledge revealed only to initiates. In the early years of the Christian West this often took shape as Gnos­ticism, a heresy that continued to percolate beneath the sur­face of orthodox teaching throughout the Middle Ages. The historian Frances Yates, in several penetrating studies, has explained how Hermeti­cism (based on the supposed teachings of a legendary an­cient Egyptian seer named Hermes Trismegistus) united with Christian Cabalism to form the “occult philosophy” of the Renaissance. In The Ros­icrucian Enlightenment she examines the quest for illumination, especially through such arts as alchemy, that was rife in 17th-century Europe. Even in the 18th century, that most rational and skeptical of eras, magic and occult prac­tices did not cease to enthrall a substantial number of votaries.

Neither Smith nor Mc­Guire is interested in tracing the passage through time of the various beliefs and prac­tices that have resurfaced in the New Age movement. These men are combatants in a war, not dispassionate schol­ars. Of the two writers, Smith, a professor of law at Pepper­dine University, enjoys the wider reputation. Largely through his cogent and relent­less campaign to discredit Shir­ley MacLaine, Smith has emerged as evangelicalism’s most effective antagonist of the New Age. Smith and McGuire both intend mainly to warn of the surging influence of the movement, to uncover its mendacity and fatuousness, and to sketch the broad out­lines of a response to the New Age challenge.

Neither author evinces the jittery anxiety or conspiracy­ sniffing suspicion that too of­ten warps the vision of evan­gelicals and fundamentalists dedicated to battling enemies of the faith. One does not, for example, find either writer in­toning grim warnings about demon possession and Satanic machinations. Although they recognize that a demonic ele­ment exists in the New Age movement, they eschew wild “talk about the devil,” as McGuire phrases it. Both men radiate the imperturbable calmness and confidence of believers who are certain that nothing can defeat the gospel message.

Smith’s refusal to play the alarmist or sensationalist adds clout to a stern monition he pronounces. “Never before has a ‘Christian America’ been so severely challenged,” he warns. “Never before have so many people bolted from tradi­tional religions for a human philosophy which calls into question the very foundations of Christianity.” Smith can be forgiven a bit of exaggeration for effect. Certainly Christiani­ty has been “severely chal­lenged” in America in the past.

Why has the New Age movement been so successful in carving out a secure place for itself in contemporary America? Part of its appeal arises from the way it miti­gates the feeling of powerless­ness and futility that presses upon Western man in the late 20th century. Throughout this century the individual has suf­fered under the dehumanizing sway of government tyranny, corporate manipulation, and the bleak uniformity of mass society. The individual is daily reminded of his inability to control the elements of the broad world or even to regu­late the intimate workings of his quotidian life. The New Age movement promises, as McGuire points out, “that man can be god,” and that the individual, badgered and hu­miliated, can tap an exhaust­less fund of inner potential that will enable him to seize command of his destiny. This delusive guarantee is as old as mankind: Eat of this tree and ye shall be as gods. Better yet, not as gods, but be god. As Ramtha says: “You want to see what God looks like? Go and look in a reflector — you are looking God straight in the face!”

Most people who play with New Age toys do not articulate the central premise in such blunt fashion. Most of them do not apprehend the blasphemous pridefulness that swells at the heart of the movement. But they do like the fresh sense of self-de­termination that comes from their new-found faith. More than, say, politics or social activism, the New Age move­ment provides them with feel­ings of well-being, power, and mastery. They can also jettison all Christian impediments to the exaltation of man — sinful­ness, human frailty, and such — and absorb what McGuire calls the “pounding optimism” of the esoteric teachings. Dab­blers in the New Age like, too, the assurance of being “in the know,” as Smith puts it, the satisfaction of possessing an advantage over the benighted and ignorant. In this, propaga­tors of the New Age appeal directly to the ageless belief that a realm of secret knowl­edge exists to which only adepts win admission.

It is a truism to explain the New Age’s popularity by singling out the spiritual hun­ger of our era. Man is always spiritually hungry; it is part of his essential nature. The most awe-inspiring saints are often the hungriest of all. What is different today is that Ameri­cans as a people luxuriate in a material abundance never be­fore equaled in the history of mankind. Paradoxically, those who have the most are often most poignantly aware of the insufficiency of material pos­sessions. Perhaps this accounts for what Smith observed when he attended a session at the house of a prominent Los An­geles psychic. “The crowd of trendily dressed, upper-mid­dle-class Californians arrived in BMWs and Mercedes Benzes.”

No matter how spiritually famished they are, many Americans lack the leisure and money to indulge their taste for the playthings of the New Age. This stuff can get expen­sive, and it is no surprise, given Americans’ knack for turning a buck, that, as Smith comments, “The New Age has become big business.” Despite the widespread popularity of various elements of the New Age, the movement evinces a special appeal to well-heeled seekers. It is a religion made to order for yuppies.

What, then, must Chris­tians do? Smith rejects the strategy — call it the Chicken Little approach — that enjoys favor among many evangelicals and fundamentalists. Describ­ing this mentality, Smith comments: “Some of my fellow critics of the New Age move­ment…are convinced that the New Age movement is ushering in the Second Coming of Christ. They firmly believe that the New Age movement is a sign of the End Times; that New Agers are forming a conspiracy to unify the world through one world government based on New Age teaching; and that the goal is ultimate elimination of Christians and Christianity.” But if it accomplishes little to shriek that the End Is Near!, neither does it do much good to pursue a course of sweet reason. “The difficulty of hav­ing any meaningful dialogue with those who accept New Age philosophy,” Smith com­plains, “is their belief that we must abandon rationality.” One does not reason with a person who only feels.

Smith does not elaborate a detailed battle plan for Christians. As an individual soldier in the counterattack, he concentrates on exposing the deceitfulness, quackery, vil­lainy, and chuckleheadedness that infest the New Age movement. (Quite rightly, he refrains from charging that anyone who even so much as reads a daily horoscope is guilty of all, or even one, of these offenses.) To everyone involved in the New Age movement, Smith is deter­mined to clarify the alterna­tives. “In the end, what shall we choose: biblical truth or crystal lies?”

If Smith endeavors pri­marily to expose, Paul McGuire, identified on the cover of Evangelizing the New Age as a “feature film producer,” in­tends mainly to propose: to inform Christians of what they must do to frustrate the de­signs of the New Age. Signifi­cantly, he betrays not a trace of the premillennial hopeless­ness that induces many evan­gelicals and fundamentalists to cry doom upon this world. He exudes ebullient optimism, at his most jubilant proclaiming: “I believe that we are on the verge of a revival in which millions of people will be swept into the kingdom of God.” The sweeping in of saved souls will be accompa­nied by a sweeping out of New Age rubbish. McGuire’s opti­mism is every bit as “pound­ing” as that of the New Agers.

McGuire rallies Christians to beat the New Agers at their own game. Down with nega­tivism and up with the posi­tive! Does the New Age movement pledge “to empow­er us for success in all parts of our lives”? The New Agers are Johnnies-come-lately, McGuire retorts, for “this is exactly what Jesus promised to those who enter the kingdom of God.” Does Eastern mysticism “packaged as ‘management training’” offer the New Age executive “greater profits and productivity”? Well, Christians must demonstrate the rele­vance of “biblical truth” for getting ahead in business. Does holistic healing extend hope for an escape from physical maladies? The Chris­tian immediately counters by “announcing our God’s power to heal and transform.” Has the New Age movement “be­come synonymous with all that is healthy and positive”? Then, Christians “must communicate that God affirms abundant life.” McGuire soars to heights that might dizzy the most ar­dent New Ager. “Connected to the Spirit of the living God,” he exclaims, “we can have the powerful, creative inspiration necessary to recreate our lives and society.”

One hates to discourage such enthusiasm. McGuire has discovered a truth frequently forgotten by evangelicals and fundamentalists: Christians must strive, against seemingly insurmountable odds and in the face of crushing disap­pointments, to “redeem the time,” to borrow T.S. Eliot’s phrase. McGuire correctly notes that “Christians who adopt a retreatist position al­low the New Age to rush in and fill the spiritual vacuum.” But there are dangers in fight­ing fire with fire, and there are hazards galore in trying to outdo the New Age movement by advertising a cheery gospel of happiness, success, and (to use that ugly word much in vogue) “empowerment.”

The mishmash that com­prises the New Age movement is made to order for affluent, bored Americans nagged by vague spiritual yearnings. No doubt some people wracked with pains of mind and heart turn for relief to such ano­dynes as channeling and crys­tals. But I find it difficult to credit McGuire’s contention that “the vast majority of the people involved in the New Age movement are there be­cause of deep emotional pain.” The paramount appeal of the movement is not that it heals wrenching hurts, but that it radiates an aura of fashionable spirituality without demanding any sacrifice of abnegation from its votaries. It is fun, exciting, and chic, and, best of all, it does not interfere with getting and spending.

In his eagerness to foil the New Agers, McGuire veers toward propounding an evan­gelicalism designed for those who desire a faith that delivers much and demands little. Where is the forsaking of self? “Although Jesus does talk about the seed of corn dying in the ground and about the way to life through the cross,” McGuire writes, “he does not call us to wallow in weakness, depression, and failure. He calls us to believe that he has wonderful plans for us.” Of course, this is true, but in McGuire’s telling, these “won­derful plans” turn out to be similar to what people seek from the New Age movement: comfort, security, robust health, spiritual bliss, happi­ness, peace of mind. Perhaps all these properties are worthy of Christian aspiration, and pursuit of none of them should be deprecated as an indication of reprehensible self-­seeking. But can we warrant them as a sure thing — as inevitable blessings that God rains upon his followers? Christianity calls for a renunci­ation of self that often soars to the heroic. The New Age movement encourages one to concentrate upon the all-devouring self and to feed it unceasingly.

Except among Jesus-shout­ing blacks and whites (usually at the bottom of the social hi­erarchy and most often dwell­ing in the South), one hears scant talk of immortality among American Protestants and Catholics these days. Enlightened believers long ago dismantled hell, and more recently, they have grown uneasy whenever the subject of heaven comes up. Derek Jarrett argues that “the Eng­lish-speaking world of the nineteenth century did not put immortality on the same plane of reality as mortality but on a far higher one.” Part of his purpose in The Sleep of Reason is to chart the intellectual rev­olution that toppled immortali­ty from its superior standing. Do we need a counterrevolu­tion? At the very least, one might hazard to suggest, heav­en ought once again to receive its proper emphasis.

Why would anyone pro­pose such a retrograde notion? Simple: Christianity does not guarantee triumph in this life. It promises eternal existence with God and his saints, but in this world it assures little bliss — more often demanding suffering, self-denial, and cross-bearing. Our Lady of Lourdes, healer of broken bodies, said to Bernadette Soubirous: “I do not promise to make you happy in this world but in the next.” Con­trary to what McGuire implies, it is not always easy to follow Christ. I do not mean to deny the goodness of creation nor to denigrate the splendor of earthly existence. I refuse to concede the faith to the as­sortment of gnostics, Jansenists, fundamentalists, and oth­er despairers who would curse the created order for its imper­fections. But opposition to those who despise the creation must be balanced with recogni­tion that this goodness and splendor have been vitiated by the Fall. Proponents of the New Age effortlessly retail a positive message, for they have discarded the idea of flawed human nature. Nothing prevents the New Ager from expecting man to ascend to apotheosis. You can have it all here and now, promise the New Agers. But the Christian must caution that transfigura­tion awaits the day when man’s exile ends and he re­turns to full union with God.



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