Despite my naturally pedantic approach to language, I find that there are a few words or phrases that remain stuck on my tongue and in my head. My lifelong struggle against cliché and bad habits is tainted by this clutch of problematic symbols that like Pauls thorn, seem to resist my every effort in the battle to say what I mean and mean to be as fresh, new and creative as is humanly possible. One such phrase is “New Age”.
I first became aware of it while at the start of a journey which took me to the heart of charismatic evangelicalism, almost 30 years ago. What I remember this pejorative usage implying was false, relativistic, disembodied and uncommitted spirituality.
These are a few things from popular culture which in my experience are deemed “New Age”:
- Dreamy Celtic vocals and Vollenwieder harp music,
- Any spirituality which identified strongly with nature,
- Symbols like mandalas, rainbows, fractals or the Ying-Yang,
- Interfaith points of view,
- Any Eastern thinking at all (except for Watchman Nee),
- Jungian views of the psyche, dream analysis, the collective unconscious,
- References to star signs and horoscopes,
- The Healing Arts,
- Mysticism in general,
- Almost everything that did not affirm a literalistic, absolutist reading of the Protestant Bible.
It’s time to deconstruct the catch-all. James Herrick’s book “The making of the new spirituality – The eclipse of the Western Tradition” is excellent as a reference for the strands of culture, thought and religious tradition which have influenced our notion of New Age. Note though that I am not a fan of his axe-grinding, anti-“revealed word” agenda, but his historical scholarship is extremely useful.
Following are examples of Modern Western people and traditions Herrick enumerates (expanded slightly by me):
- The hermetic tradition, Kabbalah, European mysticism and Astrology,
- Biblical criticism,
- The Mind as Divine Healing force,
- Science replacing religion as arbiter of truth,
- The New Physics – relativity, quantum, chaos, superstring and systems theory,
- Darwin and Natural selection,
- Teilhard de Chardin and mystical evolutionism,
- Science Fiction (including UFO’s) as a replacement for traditional eschatology,
- Pantheism in the Western world,
- The Re-emergence of Gnosticism,
- Modern Shamanism, occultism, theosophy, and spiritualism,
- One world religion and Cosmic Christ consciousness.
We would do well to understand all on their own terms, if we are to reappraise the meaning of New Age. It must be noted that the precedents for these span many centuries back into our history, and are not as some would expect, a mere 3 or 4 decades old.
And to further expand, allow me to add the following trends:
- The fallout of the 1960’s – hyper-individualism, expressive libertarian culture, rebellion and revolution, drugs as a path to enlightenment,
- The rediscovery of earthy, bodily rhythm (over abstract, cerebral harmony, which “died” around 1950 after a reign of some 1200 years) as the dominant musical foundation – rock, world music and electronica,
- New awareness of Eastern wisdom from Hinduism, Buddhism, Sufism, Taoism: chakras, emptying, ecstatic and trance states,
- The embrace of primal cultural wisdom such as Ubuntu, Native American Spirituality and Mayan prophecy,
- And expansion of our idea of Sacred Texts beyond the Christian cannons,
- Recreation and Entertainment as Sacred – Trance music and Rave culture,
- Virtual Reality as a path to transcendence,
- Technology and information as a connecting and unifying force,
- Ecological activism,
- Romantic, sentimental, popularist spiritualities,
- A shared, global, consumerist dream,
- The new “evangelical” atheism as well as the apophatic (negative theology) trends from within Christianity.
Now the real work for those in and around the post/evangelical tradition is to appraise these factors in the light of faith, and revelation. For us, this will undoubtedly mean reconciling the Bible and our reading it, with the challenges to this from these traditions.
I am not going to attempt this here; all I wish to do is provide a starting framework for dealing with the matter of The New Age intelligently, creatively, wisely and non-defensively. But here are a few posts which begin to take on some of the specifics:
- Darwin, Teilhard de Chardin, Sacred Evolution, An audio conversation with Philip Clayton (author of “Transforming Christian Theology“)
- OM: re-imagining the Logos – might “OM” be significant to Christianty?
- Does emergence equal global religion?
- Eternity, Evolution and Emergence.
By deconstructing and reconstituting our understanding of The New Age, I would hope to build up our faith and keep abreast of the changing times without resorting, like the proverbial ostrich, to burying our heads in the sands of cliché. That approach will only ultimately lead to ignorance, irrelevance and an inability to relate to this Gods world in the 21st Century.