Thursday, July 13, 2006

"New Age Spiritualities" published in Dictionary of Contemporary Religion in the Western World (InterVarsity, 2002)

[I have written hundreds of pages on the New Age worldview and alternative spiritual movements and practices over the past twenty years. While this is not now my main ministry or academic concern, it strikes me that many are still unaware of the nature and power of New Age ideas among us. Thus, I hope this entry will encourage people to carefully assess what often passes as "spirituality" today.]


The term “New Age,” as in New Age spiritualities or the New Age movement, has a variety of meanings. Christians have sometimes spoken of the new age inaugurated through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. In the past few decades, however, “New Age” has been used to describe a social movement (or network), as well as a family of spiritual approaches to life involving both doctrine and religious activities that are taken by most analysts to lie outside the bounds of orthodox Christianity. The popularity of the term “New Age” reached its height in the 1980s. Many now opt for “new spirituality” or merely “spirituality.” However, “New Age” is still used, and not merely pejoratively.

New Age ideas and practices came to the fore through the countercultural revolt in Western nations in the 1960s, but their roots go further back to the nineteenth century movements of Transcendentalism, the Mind Science churches, and the Theosophical Society. Those associated with the New Age often controversially claim to continue an ancient esoteric tradition frequently suppressed by traditional religiosity and secular philosophy.

As a social movement, the New Age has no one leader, organization, or official creed, although celebrity enthusiasts abound. In the 1980s, actress Shirley MacLaine chronicled her conversion to New Age thought in several best-selling autobiographies and multiple media appearances, which helped bring the New Age perspective into the limelight. Some New Age oriented writers, such as Marilyn Fergusan, refer to the New Age as a network of like-minded organizations and individuals who share a concern for human and planetary transformation through spiritual experiences focused on the potential of the untrammeled self. The New Age will dawn when people turn away from both atheism and the restrictive dogmas of traditional Western religions, and instead embrace ideas and practices that free the self to realize its divine possibilities. This is sometimes correlated with the astrological claim that we are moving into the Age of Aquarius. In this sense, New Age spirituality can be loosely described as millenarian and messianic, with different people expressing different eschatologies. Although the New Age as a movement is composed of many different groups, New Age partisans may congregate at psychic and metaphysical fairs, for special spiritual events (such as the much-hyped Harmonic Convergence of 1987), or at sacred natural sites such as Sedona, Arizona (thought to be a center of mystical energy vortexes), or Stonehenge in England.


Although New Age spiritualities are eclectic, syncretistic, and somewhat flexible with respect to beliefs, some common themes consistently emerge. Paul Heelas rightly claims that “the most pervasive and significant aspect of the lingua franca of the New Age is the that person is, in essence, spiritual.” Although a Christian would agree with this, Heelas goes on to specify what the New Age view takes the spiritual self to be. “To experience the ‘Self’ itself is to experience ‘God,” the “Goddess’, the ‘Source’, ‘Christ Consciousness’, the ‘inner child’, the ‘way of the heart’ or most simply and, I think, most frequently, ‘inner spirituality’.” In other words, the self is the spiritual center of the universe. Ted Peters captures this notion in the title of his critique of the New Age: The Cosmic Self. This view of self challenges the claim of monotheism that a transcendent, personal, and moral Creator stands above and beyond the created self, which should submit the Creator’s authority.

Like Christianity, the New Age world view repudiates materialistic secularism, deeming it reductionistic and unfit to accommodate our spiritual natures and possibilities. Unlike Christianity, it deems monotheism as overly authoritarian because it shackles the self to the concepts of finitude and sin and fails to see Christ as uniquely God incarnate. The world view of recent influential New Age thinkers (although they may not like the designation), such as best-selling author and medical doctor Deepak Chopra and mystic-scholar Ken Wilber, is generally pantheistic and monistic. This is representative of much, but not all, of New Age spirituality. In pantheistic monism, the Deep Self or True Self or Higher Self is one with the divine essence, however infrequently experienced. Chopra, much influenced by the nondualistic Hinduism of Transcendental Meditation, holds that this awareness of divine oneness is the source of spiritual and physical health. Wilber, influenced by Zen Buddhism, works on a more theoretical level, claiming that he has synthesized both Eastern and Western traditions across a broad range of disciplines. The emphasis on monism leads many New Age teachers to erase any ultimate ontological separation between God and creation or between good and evil. New Age teachers also affirm belief in reincarnation and an openness to paranormal experiences such as past-life regression, ESP, telepathy, telekinesis, spirit contact (or channeling), UFO encounters, and so on.

However, New Age spiritualities are not uniformly pantheistic and monistic, and even these perspectives come in different varieties. Some New Age adherents may adopt panentheism, a world view that affirms that while God is in everything and everything is in God, God in some sense transcends the cosmos. This is the view of New Age celebrity Matthew Fox, a former Catholic priest who became an Episcopalian to escape the censure of the church. Furthermore, while pantheism classically affirms an impersonal and amoral deity, many New Agers influenced by the monotheism of Judaism and Christianity inconsistently attribute personal qualities (such as love and purpose) to the impersonal/amoral divine force, principle, or consciousness. This tendency is found, for example, in the writings of Marianne Williamson, a popular New Age writer and speaker in the US. Others involved in New Age spirituality may be almost polytheistic in their insistence that we “create our own reality,” yet invoke the notion of universal deity and cosmic oneness in other contexts. Some traces of dualism can be found in New Age thought as well, especially those schools of thought influenced by Gnosticism, which rejects matter as illusory, evil, or less real than spirit.

The experience of New Age spirituality is often deemed more important than mere beliefs. This experientialism is found in the use of such consciousness-expanding therapies, as yoga, visualization, chanting, meditation, and the group experiences offered through seminars such as Werner Erhard’s est (later called the Forum). These “psychotechnologies” (Marilyn Ferguson) claim to empower people to cut through their sense of limitation and finitude in order to reach the “God within.”

Heelas has noted that New Age practitioners of many stripes employ religious traditions in a “detraditionalized” way. That is, they select elements from various Eastern mystical and Western occult and pagan traditions that suit their individual, interior needs. The ultimate authority on spiritual matters is the self, not some external source, whether church, society, or holy writ. Christopher Partridge refers to this orientation as “epistemological individualism,” which is often (paradoxically, some might say) wedded to a metaphysical monism.


In its cobbled-together eclecticism, New Age spirituality is akin to postmodernism--an approach that rejects fixed boundaries, foundations, and established definitions in favor of alternative, fungible, and rather ad hoc social and personal arrangements. However, the religious traditions to which the New Age typically appeal are premodern, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and ancient paganism. To further complicate matters, New Age adherents may be considered modernists in at least three senses: (1) Despite monistic claims, they retain a focus on the individual and autonomous self’s sense of meaning and purpose, thus opposing the postmodernist notion of the decentered self wherein the self dissolves into contingent social structures. (2) New Age spiritualities maintain a commitment to the idea of cosmic progress by claiming that we are moving into a superior New Age, which is often understood as the result of “spiritual evolution.” The idea of social progress is anathema to postmodernist sensibilities, since it smacks of a positive modernist metanarrative or totalizing ideology. (3) Some New Age theorists, such as physicist Fritjof Capra in The Tao of Physics and subsequent writings, claim that the discoveries of modern physics substantiate the metaphysical claims made by ancient eastern mystics. Whether successfully or not, this strategy seeks rational support for mystical views from modern scientific knowledge, which it takes to be reliable and objective. Therefore, it seeks legitimization from a source of knowledge taken to be authoritative by modernist thinking.


Many of the first critiques of New Age spirituality came from conservative Protestant writers who saw the perspective as unbiblical and even demonic in some of its aspects. These polemical approaches ranged from the sensational and apocalyptic accounts that tied the movement into end-times prophecy, to the more apologetic and theological treatments that assessed the New Age world view logically and biblically. Similar treatments by conservative Roman Catholics followed, sans apocalypticism. More liberal writers of both traditions often hailed the New Age as reinvigorating spirituality, albeit in heterodox ways. Skeptical, modernist critics condemned the New Age as superstitious and retrograde, since they took it as dismissing critical rationality and the advances of secular, modernist society. Since the early 1990s, a growing number of nonreligious, scholarly books and journal articles have appeared which describe the phenomenon historically, sociologically, and psychologically.


1. Robert Basil, ed., Not Necessarily the New Age: Critical Essays. New York: Prometheus Press, 1988.

2. Marilyn Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1980.

3. Douglas Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age: Is There a New Religious Movement Trying to Transform Society? Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1986.

4. Paul Heelas, The New Age Movement. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

5. Christopher H. Partridge, “Truth, Authority and Epistemological Individualism in New Age Thought,” Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1999:77-95.

6. Ted Peters, The Cosmic Self: A Penetrating Look at Today’s New Age Movements. New York: HarperCollins, 1991.

7. Ken Wilber, A Brief History of Everything. Boulder, Colorado: Shambhala Press, 1996.


nancy said...

The article states, "Chopra, much influenced by the nondualistic Hinduism of Transcendental Meditation, holds that this awareness of divine oneness is the source of spiritual and physical health."

It seems that Trappist monk Thomas Keating would concur in part with Chopra, or at least with regards to the necessity of a prayer form that can induce an altered state of consciousness and feeling of oneness with the Divine. In commenting on the benefits of centering prayer, a method that he developed, and the subsequent contemplative state(altered state of consciousness and oneness jollies) that is induced , Keating states "contemplation is not the reward of a virtuous life; it is a necessity for the virtuous life" (Intimacy with God, p. 118, emphasis is Keating's).

Douglas Groothuis said...

Nancy is right. New Age theology is often sold as Christianity. Keating and his ilk use the Christian vocabulary, but they don't use the Christian dictionary (the Bible).