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What Is the New Age Movement?

Source: Catholic Answers via catholic.com

Image: Michelle Arnold is an
apologist at Catholic Answers.

New Age is a term that encompasses a broad spectrum of spiritual, philosophical, and theological thought developing in the West since the eighteenth century, mainly in counterpoint to (if not in direct reaction against) the rationalism of the Enlightenment. New Age suggests that adherents are seeking to usher in a new phase in human history (i.e., a “new age” or new epoch) through their spiritual practices and their philosophical and theological developments of traditional Western religious thought and practice.

It’s important to note, though, that these practitioners aren’t necessarily members of a specific religious institution or involved with an organized religious movement. Rather, the ideology is brought into existing belief systems and social structures. We might say that it’s more personal than institutional. In Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life, a 2003 document from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, the New Age movement is described as “a loose network of practitioners whose approach is to think globally but act locally”:

Because [the New Age movement] is spread across cultures, in phenomena as varied as music, films, seminars, workshops, retreats, therapies, and many more activities and events, it is much more diffuse and informal, though some religious or para-religious groups consciously incorporate New Age elements, and it has been suggested that New Age has been a source of ideas for various religious and para-religious sects.

Although there are earlier antecedents going back to the Enlightenment, much of New Age thought owes its origin to the Theosophy movement of the mid- to late nineteenth century. Theosophy is an esoteric religion that was formulated mainly by the Russian occultist philosopher Helena Blavatsky. In much the same way that Scientology was created from the writings of L. Ron Hubbard, so Theosophy was the brainchild of Madame Blavatsky, as she was called.

According to the Theosophical Society of America, which continues to promulgate Madame Blavatsky’s work, Blavatsky “traveled all over the world in search of wisdom about life and the reason for human existence. Eventually, Blavatsky brought the spiritual wisdom of the East and that of the ancient Western mysteries to the modern West, where they were virtually unknown.”

Basically, Theosophy is the pursuit of “knowledge of the Real, both in the universe and in human beings, by means of a holistic spiritual practice that includes study, meditation, and service.” Adherents of Blavatsky’s ideas believe, among other things, that “there are no mechanical laws,” “human consciousness is in essence identical with the ultimate Reality,” and that there is a “gradual unfolding of this Reality within us [that] takes place over a long period of time through reincarnation, which is one aspect of the cyclic law that is seen everywhere in nature.”

Many modern followers of New Age practices probably have never heard of Blavatsky and don’t consider themselves to be her disciples. But the roots of many New Age ideas, including a belief that reality is defined by human consciousness and a belief in human development through reincarnation, can be traced to Blavatsky’s works. In fact, some historians credit Blavatsky with popularizing modern occultism in toto, and all that sprang from it. Her biographer Gary Lachman observed that he “discovered that many of the paths I traced led back to Blavatsky. It seemed clear that practically everyone . . . owed something to her.”

Although Blavatsky may be considered by many scholars to be “the mother of modern spirituality,” what we know in Western society today as the New Age movement got its start in the countercultural movement of the 1960s. Music historian Andrew Grant Jackson traced the origins of the twentieth century movement to the popularity of the Beatles.

It was George Harrison’s songs espousing Hindu philosophy and featuring Indian musicians, and the Beatles’ study of Transcendental Meditation, that truly kick-started [in the U.S.] the human potential movement of the 1970s (rebranded New Age in the 1980s). In this way, the musicians helped expand the freedom of religion that the United States was founded on to encompass options outside the Judeo-Christian tradition.

Because the New Age movement is highly individualistic and its adherents are found both within and outside traditional religion, the movement has been uniquely dependent on the commercial success and visibility of its gurus. From the 1980s onward, starting with the bestselling books of actress Shirley MacLaine, many of the fads of the New Age movement have been driven as much by Madison Avenue as they have been by spiritual ideals, a phenomenon noted in Bearer of the Water of Life as “a celebration of the sacredness of the self . . . [which] is why [the] New Age [movement] shares many of the values espoused by enterprise culture and the ‘prosperity gospel.’”

Is the New Age movement a religion? The late Jesuit theologian Fr. John Hardon defined religion as “the moral virtue by which a person is disposed to render to God the worship and service he deserves,” and noted that the word is “probably [from the] Latin religare, to tie, fasten, bind, or relegere, to gather up, treat with care.” These days, religion is often confused with philosophy or spirituality, both of which can be part of religion but are not synonyms for the word.

Many New Age adherents are members of organized religious institutions, including the Catholic Church, but the New Age movement is not institutional or organized. What adherents subscribe to is better defined as a philosophy or spirituality.

Philosophy, according to Fr. Hardon, is “the science in which natural reason, apart from divine revelation, seeks to understand all things by a knowledge of their first causes.” St. John Paul II called philosophy “one of [the] noblest of human tasks” and said it “is directly concerned with asking the question of life’s meaning and sketching an answer to it.”

New Age adherents hold to certain philosophical principles, which we’ll get into in more detail [later in the booklet]. Here, we’ll look at what the Church has said about New Age philosophy. In Bearer of the Water of Life, it is characterized this way:

An adequate Christian discernment of New Age thought and practice cannot fail to recognize that, like second and third century gnosticism, it represents something of a compendium of positions that the Church has identified as heterodox. John Paul II warns with regard to the “return of ancient gnostic ideas under the guise of the so-called New Age: We cannot delude ourselves that this will lead toward a renewal of religion. It is only a new way of practicing gnosticism—that attitude of the spirit that, in the name of a profound knowledge of God, results in distorting his Word and replacing it with purely human words. Gnosticism never completely abandoned the realm of Christianity. Instead, it has always existed side by side with Christianity, sometimes taking the shape of a philosophical movement, but more often assuming the characteristics of a religion or a para-religion in distinct, if not declared, conflict with all that is essentially Christian.”

Gnosticism is an ancient heresy, predating Christianity. Like the New Age movement, it was not so much institutional as it was personal, being brought into established religious movements by individuals seeking hidden knowledge. The Catholic Encyclopedia sums up gnosticism as “the doctrine of salvation by knowledge”—not public divine revelation, as understood in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but hidden knowledge revealed only to initiates (CCC 66–67).

Insofar as New Age practitioners promote avenues to hidden knowledge, it can be a form of modern gnosticism. This doesn’t necessarily mean that practitioners must be initiates in a secret society; like Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophical Society of America, groups may be public and open. But what they claim to have is knowledge that wasn’t revealed in public divine revelation to God’s prophets and Christ’s apostles.

Spirituality is the means by which an individual relates to the transcendent. It can also refer to man’s immaterial soul, which is spirit, or [according to Fr. Hardon] “the property of being intrinsically independent of matter at least in essence and in some activities.” New Age practices generally are a form of spirituality in the first sense, that of the individual relating to the transcendent. It’s in this sense that many religious skeptics will say that they are “spiritual but not religious.” They value practices and ideologies that they believe will bring them closer to the transcendent, but they tend to spurn the obligations of conscience (doctrinal beliefs and disciplinary practices) that go with being involved in an organized religion.

In answer to whether the New Age movement is a religion, Bearer of the Water of Life states:

The expression “New Age religion” is more controversial, so it seems best to avoid it, although New Age is often a response to people’s religious questions and needs, and its appeal is to people who are trying to discover or rediscover a spiritual dimension in their life. . . . At the heart of New Age is the belief that the time for particular religions is over, so to refer to it as a religion would run counter to its own self-understanding. However, it is quite accurate to place New Age in the broader context of esoteric religiousness, whose appeal continues to grow.

This is an excerpt from Michelle’s new booklet, 20 Answers: New Ageon sale now from Catholic Answers Press.

Header image: Joanna Kosinska via unsplash.com


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