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Pontifical Council for Culture; Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue
Jesus Christ the bearer of the water of life

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2.4. “Inhabitants of myth rather than history?: New Age and culture

(43)Basically, the appeal of the New Age has to do with the culturally stimulated interest in the self, its value, capacities and problems. Whereas traditionalised religiosity, with its hierarchical organization, is well-suited for the community, detraditionalized spirituality is well-suited for the individual. The New Age is 'of' the self in that it facilitates celebration of what it is to be and to become; and 'for' the self in that by differing from much of the mainstream, it is positioned to handle identity problems generated by conventional forms of life”.(44)

The rejection of tradition in the form of patriarchal, hierarchical social or ecclesial organisation implies the search for an alternative form of society, one that is clearly inspired by the modern notion of the self. Many New Age writings argue that one can do nothing (directly) to change the world, but everything to change oneself; changing individual consciousness is understood to be the (indirect) way to change the world. The most important instrument for social change is personal example. Worldwide recognition of these personal examples will steadily lead to the transformation of the collective mind and such a transformation will be the major achievement of our time. This is clearly part of the holistic paradigm, and a re-statement of the classical philosophical question of the one and the many. It is also linked to Jung's espousal of the theory of correspondence and his rejection of causality. Individuals are fragmentary representations of the planetary hologram; by looking within one not only knows the universe, but also changes it. But the more one looks within, the smaller the political arena becomes. Does this really fit in with the rhetoric of democratic participation in a new planetary order, or is it an unconscious and subtle disempowerment of people, which could leave them open to manipulation? Does the current preoccupation with planetary problems (ecological issues, depletion of resources, over-population, the economic gap between north and south, the huge nuclear arsenal and political instability) enable or disable engagement in other, equally real, political and social questions? The old adage that “charity begins at home” can give a healthy balance to one's approach to these issues. Some observers of New Age detect a sinister authoritarianism behind apparent indifference to politics. David Spangler himself points out that one of the shadows of the New Age is “a subtle surrender to powerlessness and irresponsibility in the name of waiting for the New Age to come rather than being an active creator of wholeness in one's own life”.(45)

Even though it would hardly be correct to suggest that quietism is universal in New Age attitudes, one of the chief criticisms of the New Age Movement is that its privatistic quest for self-fulfilment may actually work against the possibility of a sound religious culture. Three points bring this into focus:

– it is questionable whether New Age demonstrates the intellectual cogency to provide a complete picture of the cosmos in a world view which claims to integrate nature and spiritual reality. The Western universe is seen as a divided one based on monotheism, transcendence, alterity and separateness. A fundamental dualism is detected in such divisions as those between real and ideal, relative and absolute, finite and infinite, human and divine, sacred and profane, past and present, all redolent of Hegel's “unhappy consciousness”. This is portrayed as something tragic. The response from New Age is unity through fusion: it claims to reconcile soul and body, female and male, spirit and matter, human and divine, earth and cosmos, transcendent and immanent, religion and science, differences between religions, Yin and Yang. There is, thus, no more alterity; what is left in human terms is transpersonality. The New Age world is unproblematic: there is nothing left to achieve. But the metaphysical question of the one and the many remains unanswered, perhaps even unasked, in that there is a great deal of regret at the effects of disunity and division, but the response is a description of how things would appear in another vision.

New Age imports Eastern religious practices piecemeal and re- interprets them to suit Westerners; this involves a rejection of the language of sin and salvation, replacing it with the morally neutral language of addiction and recovery. References to extra-European influences are sometimes merely a “pseudo-Orientalisation” of Western culture. Furthermore, it is hardly a genuine dialogue; in a context where Graeco-Roman and Judaeo-Christian influences are suspect, oriental influences are used precisely because they are alternatives to Western culture. Traditional science and medicine are felt to be inferior to holistic approaches, as are patriarchal and particular structures in politics and religion. All of these will be obstacles to the coming of the Age of Aquarius; once again, it is clear that what is implied when people opt for New Age alternatives is a complete break with the tradition that formed them. Is this as mature and liberated as it is often thought or presumed to be?

Authentic religious traditions encourage discipline with the eventual goal of acquiring wisdom, equanimity and compassion. New Age echoes society's deep, ineradicable yearning for an integral religious culture, and for something more generic and enlightened than what politicians generally offer, but it is not clear whether the benefits of a vision based on the ever-expanding self are for individuals or for societies. New Age training courses (what used to be known as “Erhard seminar trainings” [EST] etc.) marry counter-cultural values with the mainstream need to succeed, inner satisfaction with outer success; Findhorn's “Spirit of Businessretreat transforms the experience of work while increasing productivity; some New Age devotees are involved not only to become more authentic and spontaneous, but also in order to become more prosperous (through magic etc.). “What makes things even more appealing to the enterprise-minded businessperson is that New Age trainings also resonate with somewhat more humanistic ideas abroad in the world of business. The ideas have to do with the workplace as a 'learning environment', 'bringing life back to work', 'humanizing work', 'fulfilling the manager', 'people come first' or 'unlocking potential'. Presented by New Age trainers, they are likely to appeal to those businesspeople who have already been involved with more (secular) humanistic trainings and who want to take things further: at one and the same time for the sake of personal growth, happiness and enthusiasm, as well as for commercial productivity”.(46) So it is clear that people involved do seek wisdom and equanimity for their own benefit, but how much do the activities in which they are involved enable them to work for the common good? Apart from the question of motivation, all of these phenomena need to be judged by their fruits, and the question to ask is whether they promote self or solidarity, not only with whales, trees or like-minded people, but with the whole of creationincluding the whole of humanity. The most pernicious consequences of any philosophy of egoism which is embraced by institutions or by large numbers of people are identified by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as a set of “strategies to reduce the number of those who will eat at humanity's table”.(47) This is a key standard by which to evaluate the impact of any philosophy or theory. Christianity always seeks to measure human endeavours by their openness to the Creator and to all other creatures, a respect based firmly on love.


43)“To be an American... is precisely to imagine a destiny rather than inherit one. We have always been inhabitants of myth rather than history”: Leslie Fiedler, quoted in M. Ferguson, op. cit., p. 142

44)Cf. P. Heelas, op. cit., p. 173f

45)David Spangler, The New Age, Issaquah (Mornington Press) 1988, p. 14

46)P. Heelas, op. cit., p. 168

47)See the Preface to Michel Schooyans, L'Évangile face au désordre mondial,
op. cit.
This quotation is translated from the Italian, Il nuovo disordine mondiale, Cinisello Balsamo (San Paolo) 2000, p. 6

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