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The Challenge of the New Age: Where Lies the Real Challenge?

by Brian Incigneri

A sign of the times is the opening up of many “New Age” shops, selling things from crystals to books on Eastern philosophies. There is a real smorgasbord of products aimed at those who are “shopping around” for things spiritual. It suits our pluralistic, consumer age.

Yet it is also a sign of the spiritual confusion of our times. Many years ago, a work colleague of mine said that he didn't belong to any church. He was a “Calathumphian,” he said. I wish I had known the real meaning of the word at the time. “Calathumpian” comes from “calathus”, Latin for a rubbish bin, and it means that the person has retrieved all the ideas that other people have rejected and thrown out.

There is Nothing New in New Age

New Age spirituality is a mish-mash of everything that has been rejected by the Christian tradition, mixed with elements of Eastern religions. A consistent thread of New Age discussion is the rejection of Christian tradition.

Some involved with New Age things claim that they are also Christian, but the two are not compatible, as we shall see, involving very different views of spiritual realities. A difficulty for those who encounter New Age writings is that the terms “God,” “Jesus,” “Christ” and “Holy Spirit” mean very different things than is meant in Christian thought.

It is not that New Agers reject what is old; on the contrary, there is barely anything new at all in New Age thought, and most of it goes back to well before the Christian era — indeed, the older the better, and New Agers prefer such authorities as ancient “spirit guides,” who are supposedly tens of thousands of years old, for their spiritual wisdom, or they might seek Greek or Roman Gods, or native or “earth” spirits. The older the fount of wisdom is, the more likely it is to be true, it would seem.

The only ancient spirituality which is rejected is Christianity. Why is this so? If spiritual truths are to be found in the god Pan, are there not some spiritual truths to be found in the Christian tradition?

Rediscovering the Spiritual World

New Age Thought is a natural development for those who are the product of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment when, in the face of the triumph of the emerging sciences in the explanation of the physical world, and the tiredness and disillusionment that followed the long period of religious wars in Europe, there was a rejection of spiritual thought in favour of Pure Reason, with an often virulent rejection of traditional Christian religious authority.

But this movement reflects an important shift in Western thought — a new openness to the spiritual. Spiritual matters are on the agenda again. Time Magazine has devoted several cover stories to spiritual subjects in recent years (for example, 24 March, 1997: “Does Heaven Exist?”)

Those who pursue the New Age are essentially rediscovering the existence of the spiritual element of the human person and the reality of the spiritual world. They are not ready yet to consider that there might be truth in the spiritual tradition that is Christianity. Indeed, they will go to the ends of the earth to find an alternative.

But there is now a rejection of the idea that only Reason can be used in the finding of the truth about reality.

The rejection of authoritative religious statements certainly marks New Age thought. Although it is full of Masters and gurus of all types, the New Ager is ready to take a bit from here, and a bit from there, reserving the right to reject any element they don’t like. It matches our consumerist thinking well.

The New Age Supermarket

In the New Age Supermarket there are many products available, ranging from witchcraft and satanism to natural healing therapies and charms. It seems that it is just a matter of finding which spiritual aids are “just right for you.” The New Ager seems to pick out those that appeal at the moment and put them in their shopping trolley. On the next visit, they might choose a quite different thing: channelling, Hindu writings, UFO Phenomena, Out of Body Experiences, Anti-Gravity Research, Theosophy or Astrology. Others will stay with their choice if they find a spiritual lifestyle that suits them. A particular spirituality might appeal simply because of the attractive ancient myths and symbols employed.

A key aspect of New Age Thought, then, is that it does not really matter which items you choose in this supermarket. There is no right or wrong choice. It is not as if there is no moral right or wrong (although some tend to ascribe to this view), but rather that all ways are just means of entry into the spiritual world, which is good by definition. There seems to be no suspicion that there could be spiritual forces which could be harmful to the human being.

Is All One?

This viewpoint flows from the commonly-held New Age belief that “all is one” (monism), and that God is not a personal being, but that everything is God (pantheism), that is, each chair, tree, television set and human being is a part of this impersonal God. We are essentially no different from other things.

Where do these beliefs come from? They are hardly new, being older than Christianity, and they are thoughts that pervade much of Asian religious thought. In rejecting Western religious thought, these beliefs of some Eastern religions, together with the idea of reincarnation, have been taken on as foundational by New Age followers.

This philosophy is one that appeals to the modern person: the tendency since World War II to synchretise all religions, and to consider all religions as merely different expressions of the same truth, has blurred previous distinctions. The Enlightenment impersonalised God, reducing him first to the mere instigator of the mechanical universe as an uninvolved Prime Mover. It is a small step to move from a God who is not involved with the world, to one who is not a person at all, but merely a force, like the many forces discovered by the new authorities — the scientists — to be operating throughout all physical matter.

It is not only New Agers who have experienced a new consciousness of the essential oneness of all humanity, and of the interdependence of all living things. The rise in this Industrial Age of a deep concern for the well-being of the earth has enhanced this feeling of oneness with all matter. Earth itself, for some, is seen as a living being (Gaia) which is our Mother. Beyond the earth, there is a new awareness of the vastness of the universe, while Hubble shows us stars being born and reborn, with their nascent planetary disks. While astronomers are becoming more aware of the wonder of the changing universe, physicists have unified all matter with a growing understanding of fundamental particles and the interrelatedness of matter and energy.

Spiritual Energies and Healing

It is no wonder then, in this reaction against Reason Alone and the rediscovery of spiritual reality, that those seeking a spirituality would reach out for The One, The Other, Who is All. It blends well with our current world view.

So, too, does the interest in spiritual healing. The new earth-relatedness, combined with the openness to the spiritual world, has led to a renewed interest in natural remedies, spiritual healing through all sorts of spirits and guides, and the allied interest in Eastern forms of healing, from acupuncture to massaging and other physical exercises. The approach to healing is linked to the understanding that within each one of us there is a spiritual energy which must be harnessed, balanced, trained, healed and unified with the universe.

Spirituality, then, has become a matter of being united with the All.

Entering the New Age of Humanity

A further aspect of New Age Thought springs from the growing awareness through the last two hundred years that the universe is not static, but changes and develops. Our solar system, for example, seems to be a secondary system, formed from the debris of other stellar material (it has too many heavy elements for a primary system). The earth has evolved, and so have living things.

The term “New Age” springs from a hope — that humanity, and indeed the whole world is evolving to something better. The Age of Aquarius was popularised in the 1960's as a forthcoming time (no one was quite certain when) when humanity would enter a new spiritual age. In this new age, there would be a greater unity and harmony with each other and with the universe.

What Do We Hope For?

Yet all of this hope and all of this new spiritual awareness is centred on humanity only. The goal is to become a more god-like human being. Although seemingly spiritual, paradoxically it is really about human fulfillment and human potential in the material universe.

Shirley MacLaine misquotes the Bible and tells those who attend her seminars that Jesus said: “Be still and know that you are God” (he did not; Psalm 46:10 says “Be still and know that I [Yahweh] am God”), and people are ready to believe her. On the surface, it sounds familiar and it feels good. But most of us go on realising that we do not, and never will, control the universe.

For those who look to after-death realities, the goal seems to be reincarnation to another earthly existence which is more god-like, that is, with more power and control in their lives. Reincarnation is often described, for this reason, as “Soul Evolution.” The theory is that no new souls come into existence, but all souls are on the endless cycle of existence to a new material form. (Why does the earth’s population keep increasing, then? Were we all rocks once? Do we still retain that original identity?)

Eternal bliss (nirvana), when spoken of in the Buddhist sense, is so vague, and often seems to describe non-existence more than existence, while at other times it only precedes the beginning of the endless cycle of earthly existence again.

There is much talk within New Age circles of the “divine spark” withing each person, the old Gnostic idea, which has now been synthesised with the Eastern concept of becoming lost in the oneness of the impersonal God. It is indeed a recognition that human beings are somehow linked with an Other, and related to the Other, and a recognition that the human being must somehow lose their Self in order to achieve their spiritual destiny.

Yet this hope is surely not very satisfying. It hopes for the complete destruction of the Self, that is, the complete loss of identity, to become merged with an impersonal what?

New Agers seem to have rejected Christian hope in eternal spiritual life. Perhaps this hope seems impossible in this uncertain age. But in their yearning for fulfillment, and a striving for something greater, have the New Agers, in their throwing out the Christian tradition entirely, also thrown out the baby?

Christianity is Unbelievable for Many

When you read the writings of many New Agers, and even those who have become involved in witchcraft and satanism in their many forms, you can often detect a strong disillusionment with Christianity. Their understanding of it is highly coloured by a very distorted understanding of what the Bible is.

One satanist writes that he could not believe in a good God who would command Israel to kill others; he does not understand these texts as Israel’s understanding of God at the time. He writes of “the fulfillment of the fleshly life, the enjoyment of the here and now, and the liberation from the Judeo-Christian guilt” in a new “religion of the self.” This is ironic, as Christianity, not denying the reality of guilt, provides an easy way of becoming totally free of it.

The leader of the rock group Marilyn Manson, Brian Warner, says that their Anti-Christ Superstar album is helpful in that “it is killing off the old ways of thinking about God.” Is this because the “old ways” have never really been understood?

New Age writers often see the Church as having concealed the truth, but show that they do not have a good understanding of the Church’s history and the reasons for its teaching. There is never any attempt to address the underlying witness of the many who have been transformed into extraordinary human beings because of their Christian beliefs and faith.

With their very limited understanding of Christianity, usually seeing only its imperfections, and picking up very poor explanations from Christian and non-Christian sources alike, it is no wonder at all that New Agers have rejected it.

New Agers seem to be looking for fulfillment only in the secular sense, believing there is only life in this world (even if, through reincarnation, we do this many times). Have they, in their rejection of Christianity, also rejected as unbelievable the idea of eternal spiritual life?

The alternative they look to is not as attractive as it seems. In seeking a greater power in their lives through spiritual energies to be harnessed, they must sooner or later become aware that not everything is good for you spiritually, just as bad food will be bad for you physically.

The hoped-for outcome of their journey is not really very fulfilling, and an uncritical acceptance of all spiritual things is dangerous. There is a better and a safer way.

A Better Hope

The understanding of spiritual realities inherent in Christianity provide a far greater hope than lies in New Age Thought. This understanding is not based on a philosophy arising from human thinking, but from human experience. It was human experience of God that gave rise to the Bible and to formulations of belief by the Church. As with all writings about spiritual experiences, these are imperfect expressions of the spiritual realities behind them, and Christians must strive to explain in better ways those spiritual truths.

For Christians, it is essential to base our explanations on the experience of people through the ages. It is not that we discard reason; our religious beliefs must be integrated with the whole of our being, and we must seek to understand and explain them. For this our rational aspect is essential.

However, the Christian tradition essentially says: there is a Personal Being who keeps acting in our lives, and who is totally good. This being is a person, with a mind and a will, who acts of his own accord, but who is necessarily creative. He is Creator by name and nature, and constantly strives to bring goodness and life to his creation.

We are created by this Being, whom we call God, not just as material creatures or things, but as material/spiritual beings whose destiny lies with the spiritual world. Our material/spiritual life is just the first stage of our eternal life, and prepares us to live in the spiritual realm. To return from the spiritual world would be to go backwards, even if it were possible to become a different human being (each person is unique). If we choose to become spiritual, with God’s help, while we are in the material/spiritual stage of our journey, we can live the spiritual life forever.

The Judeo-Christian tradition is the story of God revealing himself, and of human beings growing in their understanding of what this God is like. For Christians, the ultimate revelation of spiritual realities is when “God loved the world so much” (John 3:16) that he became a human being (Jesus Christ) and showed us his nature. We discovered it was total, unconditional love, that is, working for the good of the other with no strings attached.

The experience of the first Christians was of an enormous breaking into our world of these spiritual realities. They encounter a man, Jesus of Nazareth, who healed people and worked powerfully among people in a most extraordinary way. They witnessed that he rose from the dead to a new form of life, and concluded that he was God, who had become a man. His rising to new life prefigured our own destinies, if we choose it. This new life was not one in which identity was lost, but in which identity was fulfilled — we become the persons we were created to be, in loving union with each other and the creator, and we begin a new stage of our lives, beyond our imagining.

The Christian Failure

Those who shop at the New Age Supermarket may have rejected Christianity simply because we Christians have been so poor at explaining the spiritual basis of our beliefs. The trappings of Christianity, and the messiness of interpreting the Bible, should not obscure the essential discovery of so many of the reality of a personal, loving, God.

We Christians have not explained our experience of God well enough. Have we shown others the joy and hope we find in God?. Have we effectively explained how this experience of God is ongoing?

The experience of those in Catholic Charismatic Renewal, as for many other Christians, is that this personal God pours out his grace and blessings freely every day, and that he heals today as Jesus did when he came among us.

The early Christians discovered that the same Risen Jesus was still present and active in their midst. They experienced his power at work among them. We know his loving presence today, working in our lives constantly and, in doing so, we know who we are, and we know our destiny. Our experience of his grace here is just a foretaste of what is to come for eternity.

New Age spirituality stresses gaining spiritual insight, wisdom and strength through our own efforts. One who believes in Jesus Christ knows that true fulfillment can only be found in allowing God to be involved in our lives. Our transformation has always been because of God’s initiative; Jesus showed that.

Being Love, however, he must have our permission to act (which is one reason why there is suffering in the world); he totally respects our free will. If we agree to it, and seek this loving God, he reveals himself to us more and more, and we discover his goodness.

Yes, we must lose our self, but in doing so we will discover our real self, as we discover the gifts he has given us, and the good qualities within us. Only one human being is said to have been God himself; the Buddha didn’t claim it, Krishna cannot be shown to have been an historical human being, and Mohammed said he was just a prophet. The conclusion of those who witnessed the earthly and risen life of Jesus Christ, was that they had experienced the power of God in him far more than could be possible through any human being.

The true New Age (as the early Christians realised) was when Jesus Christ came as the revealer of God’s love. This began a new age for all humanity. Unfortunately, many have not yet heard about it. The early Christians spoke of the next new age (“the age to come”) as being eternal life (Mark 10:30), a place of unthinkable blessing. There will be no other new age on this earth.

The only one who came from God, Jesus Christ, is the one who can most surely lead us on the way to our spiritual destiny. The Catholic Church teaches that you can reach your spiritual destiny through other religions (and New Age paths are religions, although less systematic and organised), but that only Jesus fully reveals the nature of God and the nature of human beings.

There are other revealers of spiritual truth, and other means of entering into this spiritual life, but why not learn from the real Master in the spiritual life?

The Real Challenge

The New Age is not a challenge to Christianity, as it does not have an integrated explanation of reality that can stand the test of time. The real challenge is for Christians to show that they are indeed living in the new age that came with Jesus Christ, and to believably explain what has been revealed.

The challenge is also for New Agers to examine again these age-old truths, to see through the historical trappings, and to come to the underlying core truths.

I ask those who seek the truth about reality through the New Age: are you spiritually open enough to look anew at what Jesus revealed?

Thomas was another seeker of the way to fulfillment; he once asked: “How can we know the way?.” Jesus replied: “I am the way” (John 14:5-6).

It is worth checking out, I can assure you.