The Sleep of Reason: Fantasy and Reality from the Victorian Age to the First World War
By Derek Jarrett
Publisher: Harper & Row
Pages: 233 pages
Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.
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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For humanists, the religious impulse is redirected from traditional religions toward a secularized system of values such as egalitarianism and bodily health.