New Age: "Me"-Mired Mysticism
by James Hitchcock
March 6, 2003
Traditional religious belief is now attacked on the one hand by the skeptical rationalism spawned by science and on the other by a flourishing religiosity which is extremely credulous -- beliefs about gods and goddesses, magic crystals, and astrological signs. The latter phenomenon has been dubbed "New Age" and has recently been criticized by the Holy See.
Although skeptical rationalism and New Age religiosity might seem to be incompatible, there are people who somehow profess both. They reject Christian beliefs, such as the resurrection of Jesus, as incredible, even as they affirm other beliefs which are even less credible from a rational standpoint.
This contradiction arises from what a sociologist has called the "pornography of religion". Religion is natural to human beings, who seek for meaning in the universe. But if religious beliefs are suppressed, eventually they come back in twisted ways.
The Holy See defines New Age as a kind of pantheism, in which the cosmos is seen as a unified whole animated by "Energy which is also identified as the Divine Soul or Spirit." Believers in New Age think they posses a timeless knowledge which most people lack and that through certain techniques they can ascend to higher levels of existence.
New Age makes use of elements of various religions, such as some of the meditative methods of Hinduism and Buddhism. It is no longer necessarily a sign of Catholic faith to wear a cross or a medal, since some New Agers have appropriated those symbols for their own purposes. They are likely to be admiring of American Indian religion, without necessarily knowing very much about it except what is politically correct, such as the supposed Indian belief that the earth is alive and should be treated as a person.
New Age flourishes only in the Western world, showing that it is primarily an attempt to fill the spiritual emptiness which plagues us because of skepticism. New Agers are interested in Eastern mysticism but are usually ignorant of the rich Catholic mystical tradition.
This provides a major clue to the phenomenon, which is that its practitioners, in good secular fashion, want to "liberate" themselves from what they see as restrictive beliefs. If Catholicism has a rich mystical tradition, it also reminds people of grave moral responsibilities. It talks not only about union with God but about sin and the need for redemption.
New Age craves the free-floating "freedom" which our culture extols, and it offers people the consolations of religion without religion's demands. It is the ultimate "cafeteria" religion which allows people to take whatever they want from the various spiritual traditions and to leave what they do not find attractive. It is, the Holy See explains, a religion of "self-fulfillment, self-realization, self-redemption", in which the death of Jesus on the cross can have no real meaning.
Christianity insists that Jesus is the only savior, whereas New Age tends to see Him as merely one teacher among many. But "exclusivism" now grates on some people's ears, and they are quick to condemn what they regard as the only sin -- not being sufficiently "open" to others.
But it is not only Christianity which makes that claim. Even religions like Hinduism, which appear to be capable of absorbing a variety of spiritual traditions, point the believer along particular paths to be followed rigorously. The words "disciple" and "discipline" are of course from the same root, and every authentic spiritual tradition has always held that the aspirant to wisdom must put aside personal desire and subjective experience, in order to follow unfamiliar, possibly uncomfortable, paths. I suspect that authentic Hindu and Buddhist masters disdain New Age as much as does the Holy See.
New Agers in turn condemn traditional religions for their "exclusivity", and they do so of necessity, because most New Agers do not submit themselves to the teachings they seek to appropriate. They can "worship" strange gods, and make use of magical paraphernalia, because such things are merely comfortable emanations from their own imaginations.
Christian mysticism, according to the Holy See, "implies an attitude of conversion, a flight from 'self' to the 'you' of God". It is unfortunate that many sincere spiritually minded people now no longer recognize that the ultimate object of their worship is really themselves.
James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University, writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in the diocesan press. His two-volume book on religion and the Supreme Court has just been published by Princeton University Press. E-Mail: Dr. James Hitchcock
Note: Vatican: A Christian Reflection on the New Age:
The Pontifical Councils for Culture and for Interreligious Dialogue jointly issued a document on "New Age" February 3. Access on the Vatican web site.
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