1. The term “New Age” has largely fallen out of favour in most circles. The preferred expressions include “new spirituality”, “do-it-yourself spirituality”, “self-spirituality” – or as lots of bookstores now designate it “mind-body-spirit”.
2. New Age has so saturated mainstream culture it has ceased to be a fringe phenomenon – this parallels the civil rights and women’s movements of the 60s and 70s that started on the margins until their concerns and jargon are now part of the fabric of mainstream social discourse.
3. New Age now expresses itself in different trajectories:
a. A monist approach which might partake of a pantheist view (but this is not the only form the monist vision entails). Monism can be expressed as “substantival” (there is only one real substance to the universe) or “attributive” (there are many objects that exist in one ultimate category). Another monist version is neo-Buddhist, and represents a mix and match amalgamation of concepts and practices drawn from across the classic Buddhist traditions (Tibetan, Vipassana, Zen, etc). Others are panentheists (there is one personal God and all of reality is inside God’s “body”). Other key elements here include the notion of spiritual evolution where one progresses in successive lives to become spiritually complete. One other influential motif is David Bohm’s construct of the hologram as a model of the universe. Both spiritual evolution and the hologram offer conceptual models on which participants can interpret reality and give direction to their lives. But care must be exercised in these abstractions (are we describing projections onto new age of our own making rather than really describing what’s out there?). Practitioners are more inclined to ask “does it work?” not “is it true?” In other words, people are not necessarily developing doctrines and adhering to them, but more sampling psycho-technologies that facilitate personal growth and healing.
b. A neo-gnostic approach – this reflects the influence of Jung’s psychoanalytic theory and his views of gnosis. In this stream of thought one can also note the interest in disembodied beings and the current angel craze. There is also a grass roots interest in the ancient gnostic writings. The neo-gnostic thought tends to eschew dualism for a more holistic understanding of the world. So in contrast to ancient gnosticism, there is a celebration of both spirit and matter, and women are not denigrated as inferior beings.
c. A neo-pagan approach – this reflects the eco-spirituality of the neo-pagan and mother goddess streams. This spiritual trajectory can be seen in rural counter-cultural communities known as the Rainbow Tribes (USA), the New Travellers (UK) and the Ferals (Australia). However neo-pagans are also found in urban areas either forming covens or acting as sole practitioners. Some neo-pagan shamans participate in the Rave Culture owing to its emphasis on altered states of consciousness and its socio-political resistance to globalization.
d. Hermetic approach – this relates to the esoteric spiritual traditions like the Qabalah, alchemy, astrology, tarot, and an interest in the ancient Hermetic writings (Hermes Trismegistus). A forerunner of this is the nineteenth century British group the Order of the Golden Dawn.
4. Cultural Signposts
Some obvious signposts of this spirituality can be seen in books, magazines, TV, movies and the Internet. Some of the most influential authors include Fritjof Capra, Deepak Chopra, Shakti Gawain, Louise Hay, Shirley Maclaine, James Redfield, Anthony Robbins, Neale Donald Walsch and Marianne Williamson. The book A Course in Miracles offers a neo-Vedantic and Gnostic reinterpretation of Jesus’ teachings. It has sold in excess of one million copies and spawned a corpus of interpretative and devotional literature (Gerald Jampolsky, Love is Letting Go of Fear, Kenneth Wapnick, The Meaning of Forgiveness and Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love).
Popular women’s magazines also reflect the grass roots interest in do-it-yourself spirituality with columns devoted to astrology, feng shui, psychic readings and tarot. Alternative Lifestyle and psychic festivals are another indicator: Whole Life Expo (USA), International Festival for Mind Body Spirit (Australia and UK), Magick Happens, Mardi Grass Fiesta and Down To Earth ConFest (Australia), and Nambassa (New Zealand).
On television elements of these things crop up obviously in interviews with celebrities like Deepak Chopra on Oprah Winfrey’s show. Some of the raw myth-making material has been reflected in The X Files and Star Trek Voyager. In motion pictures The Matrix springs to mind as it reflected Christian, Buddhist and gnostic ideas
Robin Williams’ film What Dreams May Come touches on various ideas about death and the afterlife. Negative near death experiences (NDEs) cropped up in an episode of The Sopranos, positive and negative NDEs occurred to Bart Simpson in The Simpsons, and the Kiefer Sutherland/Julia Roberts film Flatliners also touched on NDEs. Aspects of myth and folklore also crop up in TV shows like Buffy and Charmed, but neither of these shows accurately depicts neo-pagan/ wiccan/ mother goddess spirituality. (The Craft was likewise a total distortion of wicca). The film Stigmata picked up on the ancient gnostic texts. The Truman Show dealt with issues concerning ‘what is reality?’, ‘who is in control and does anyone care?’
Another signpost: the Self-Development courses, many of which are used in both the corporate world and among professional athletes. These courses tend to emphasize the power of the self to rescript one’s thoughts and destiny by affirmations, out-of-body experiences, altered states of consciousness etc. Examples include Landmark Education (the successor to Werner Erhard’s The Forum), Harry Palmer’s Avatar, and the seminars of Anthony Robbins and Wayne Dyer. Harry Palmer was originally a member of the Church of Scientology and broke away. The Avatar course is premised on the idea that beliefs determine one’s experiences, and hence if one re-engineers their beliefs, then one’s life’s experiences will radically change. Unlike many other New Age/Human Potential courses where the emphasis is on making affirmations to reprogram the mind, Palmer’s approach concentrates on applying various techniques to eliminate the mindset that constricts beliefs.
In conclusion, this phenomenon represents the democratisation of spirituality. Participants have discovered that they can draw upon a diverse range of spiritual practices and techniques to give direction to their lives. They can create their own rituals, rites and ceremonies without recourse to institutional forms of religion like church, mosque and synagogue. It is a self-spirituality that casts itself as unfettered by the polarities of doctrine and rationalism. This spirituality puts an emphasis on the notion of holism and healing – of seeing things in an integrated manner and finding both personal and global transformation holistically. It is a cultural expression of disenchantment with mere mechanistic and materialist solutions to life’s problems, and seeks to resacralise the secular world through esoteric thought and practice.
Suggested Recent Sources:
1.1 Academic perspectives
Nevill Drury, Exploring the Labyrinth: Making Sense of the New Spirituality (Continuum, 1999)
Although Drury holds a master’s degree in anthropology, he writes at a very readable accessible level. Drury himself is an advocate for the new spirituality and has been a prolific author on the esoteric and occult traditions. Drury’s book is a good introductory text that describes and charts the various contours of this spirituality.
Wouter Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998)
This approaches New Age from the standpoint of phenomenology. It is a very densely worded academic analysis but repays careful reading.
Graham Harvey, Contemporary Paganism: Listening People, Speaking Earth(New York: New York University Press, 1997)
Harvey’s text approaches the subject of modern paganism phenomenologically, and is a useful primer. One weakness is Harvey’s inadequate treatment of the racial purity views of certain pagans in the Odinist tradition.
Paul Heelas, The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity (Oxford, UK & Cambridge MA: Blackwell, 1996)
This book offers a sociological charting of new age trajectories, and is written at an academic standard.
Ronald Hutton, The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1999)
This is a major groundbreaking study on the emergence and development of neo-pagan and Wiccan thought in the United Kingdom. Traces the antecedent ideas and seminal figures to shape this spirituality from the 1800s to the present.
Michael Niman, People of the Rainbow: A Nomadic Utopia (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1997)
A study of the “Rainbow Tribes” of North America who pursue an alternate lifestyle expressed through an eco-spirituality.
Steven Sutcliffe and Marion Bowman, eds., Beyond New Age : Exploring Alternative Spirituality (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000)
This volume offers phenomenological studies on New Age worth exploring.
1.2 Christian perspectives
Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson, Jesus and the Gods of the New Age(Oxford: Lion Publishing, 2001)
This is a practical handbook on how to minister with those who are into this spirituality. It recreates dialogues between the authors and devotees in the context of New Age festivals, and demonstrates by these case studies how conversations can proceed towards the Gospel blending contextual mission principles with apologetics. It marks a fresh departure from earlier evangelical literature that was characterized by the debunking or demonisation of new age – what sociologists call “boundary-maintenance”.
John Drane, What is the New Age Still Saying to the Church? (London: Marshall Pickering 1999)
The book offers some analysis of New Age, but then proceeds into reflections on what this spirituality says back to the church – the theological and missiological challenges it represents.
John Drane, Cultural Change and Biblical Faith (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2000)
This is a collection of previously published essays examining questions of apologetic method, theological issues, missiological questions etc. appertaining to New Age and the phenomenon of post-modernity (essays like: “Methods and Perspectives in understanding the New Age”; “Ancient Gnosis for a New Millennium”; “Death of Diana, Princess of Wales: Missiological Lessons for the Church”; “Cultural Change, the Church and the Future Shape of Christian Ministry” etc).
John A. Saliba, Christian responses to the New Age movement (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1999)
This is a Catholic scholar’s survey of how Christians in Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant traditions have reacted to New Age. Offers his own dialogical approach to new age. This is useful for being alerted to critical reflections about where Christian literature may go astray in misunderstanding New Age or in failing to effectively
communicate outside church circles with devotees.
John Newport, The New Age Movement and the Biblical
Worldview (Grand Rapids: Eerdman,s 1998)
This book is problematic due to its over-reliance on quoting sources from other evangelical books, rather than directly from primary sources, and it is sadly a cut-and-paste work in many parts where passages have been plagiarized. Other criticisms of Newport’s book have been raised in Irving Hexham’s review of recent literature on New Age (“Books and Culture: The New Age Is Over”), which can be accessed at Christianity Today‘s site:http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1999/150/22.0.html
The following list of Internet sites is a small selection of sources including sites that advocate new age spirituality, academic sites, and Christian sites. Each site is briefly annotated.
2.1 New Age Sites
This is the official web site for James Redfield, author of the new age novelsThe Celestine Prophecy, The Tenth Insight etc. This site offers a snapshot of the ideas Redfield crystallized in his novels and non-fiction books and provides access to articles by Redfield and his associates.
http://hometown.aol.com/adearling/enabler/index.htm [new URL http://www.enablerpublications.co.uk/ – 21-08-2016]
This is the site of Enabler Publications, which is an alternate publishing house in the UK co-ordinated by Alan Dearling. It features a number of important monographs by Dearling and others pertaining to Britain’s alternate culture, particularly the New Travellers.
This is the site for the US periodical Gnosis Magazine, which was very influential in the 1980s and 1990s. It is a defunct publication but this site gives access to various important articles.
This is an Australian site that acts as a directory of information on various topics such as New Age, astrology, crystals, UFOs, pagans, spiritualist churches. Has useful introductory articles on these topics and provides links to a variety of other sites. This is a good place to start with in discovering how practitioners see their spirituality.
http://pagan.drak.net/publinks [no longer existent – 21.08.2016]
The National Pagans at the Pub site in Australia contains articles and information about pagan gatherings in the pub in both Australia and overseas. A useful starting point to discover what pagans believe and practise and has useful web links to other pagan sites.
Website no longer accessible on 22 April 2002.
This is the official site for Harry Palmer’s Avatar programme and features articles and products for sale.
The official site for the US alternativee spiritual lifestyle exhibition known as The Whole Life Expo.)
2.2 Academic Sites
CESNUR – the Centre for Studies on New Religions – is an academic site run by Italian sociologist Massimo Introvigne. CESNUR approaches the study of new religious movements, including new age, from phenomenological and sociological standpoints. Articles are in English and Italian.
www.come.to/confest [no longer existent – 21.08.2016]
This reproduces the doctoral thesis of Graham St. John, which was a study of alternative culture and spirituality via a particular rural lifestyle gathering known as the Down To Earth ConFest. The thesis is entitled Alternative Cultural Heterotopia: ConFest as Australia’s Marginal Centre (PhD Thesis, La Trobe University, 2000). The thesis includes on-line links to various primary sources on alternative culture in Australia, Britain and the USA. St. John approached his study as an observer-participant.
The Journal of Esoteric Studies is an academic e-journal devoted to the study of the esoteric beliefs and practices with essays on historical figures such as John Dee and topics like alchemy.
http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/nrms/newage.html [new URL (PDF): http://www.wrldrels.org/ARTICLES/NEW%20AGE/New%20Age%20Transformed.pdf – 21.08.2016]
An article “New Age Transformed” by J. Gordon Melton, which describes the phenomenon of new age, its contours and historical antecedents, and current forms of expression. This is located at the web site administered by Dr Jeffrey Hadden of the Department of Sociology at the University of Virginia. The rest of the site has academic profiles on a variety of new religious movements, controversies and methodological issues.
TheMarburg Journal of Religion is an academic journal with essays in English and German. A search of its contents discloses essays on New Age, neo-pagans etc.
http://www.unomaha.edu/~wwwjrf/ [new URL: http://digitalcommons.unomaha.edu/jrf/ – 21.08.2016]
The Journal of Religion and Film is an academic journal exploring religious and spiritual themes, motifs and myths in contemporary American cinema.
The Ontario Consultants for Religious Tolerance is concerned with promoting understanding and tolerance, and its contributors include a Christian, a Wiccan and those of non-faith commitments. The site offers historical and phenomenological information about religious movements – world religions, new religious movements, New Age etc. – and includes bibliographical data. Also provides links to other sources and specifically identifies web sites that the consultants believe disseminate misinformation and intolerance towards religious movements.
2.3 Christian Sites (or about Christian approaches)
This is an evangelical Christian site administered by the Dutch counter-cult apologist Anton Hein. The site is organized as an alphabetical index of information about individuals and cults, including New Age, with critical commentary appended. The site gives many links to other web sites Christian and non-Christian. All materials are in English at a non-academic standard.
http://religiousmovements.lib.virginia.edu/cesnur/cowan.html [no longer existent – 21.08.2016]
This is an academic paper delivered by Dr Douglas Cowan of the University of Kansas. It is entitled “From Parchment to Pixels: The Christian Countercult on the Internet”. Cowan, who is an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada, lectures on the sociology of religious movements and wrote a doctoral thesis in 1999 at the University of Calgary analysing Christian counter-cult apologetics. This paper, although not strictly dealing with New Age, illuminates the sociological and ideological issues Cowan finds undergirding the approach of evangelical counter cult web sites. The paper is thus useful background reading in understanding some of the Christian responses to new age.
www.dci.dk/ [no longer existent – 21.08.2016]
The web site of the Dialog Center International in Denmark. Danish Lutheran scholars concerned with dialogical approaches to mission with new religious movements established the Dialog Center. The founding director is Dr Johannes Aagaard. This site gives access to two on-line periodicals and articles on various movements, including New Age, from a Christian perspective. Information is available in Danish, English, German and Russian.
www.christaquarian.net/ethesis/thesis2001.pdf [now redirects to the website of the Journal of Alternative Spiritualities and New Age Studies, http://www.open.ac.uk/Arts/jasanas/ – 21.08.2016]
This file requires Adobe Acrobat reader to access. It is a thesis entitled The Christaquarians? A Sociology of Christians in the New Ageby Daren John Kemp. It is Kemp’s doctoral thesis, which was awarded at King’s College, the University of London. Kemp approached his sociological thesis as an observer-participant within certain distinct Christian churches/communities in England whose response to New Age spirituality differs from “boundary-maintenance” reactions that characterise a lot of other Christian responses.
http://jesus.com.au/library/wicca/story.html [new URL: http://mattstone.blogs.com/christian/2008/11/wiccans-and-christians.html – 21.08-2016]
This links to an article by Philip Johnson, “Wiccans and Christians: Some Mutual Challenges”. The article seeks to correct misconceptions Christians have about Wicca, and then briefly charts eight theological issues where Wiccans and Christians could have fruitful dialogue.
This links to an article in the periodical Reality Magazine, which is published by the Bible College of New Zealand. Nicola Hoggard Creegan, a lecturer at BCNZ, wrote a popular article entitled “Christians and the New Pagans”. It briefly profiles neo-paganism with suggested areas where Christians and Pagans can meaningfully interact with each other.
The Watchman Fellowship is a US evangelical ministry concerned with new religious movements. Articles about New Age on a non-academic level are available here.
This note has been written by Philip Johnson (Sydney, Australia). He is a Lecturer at the Presbyterian Theological Centre in Sydney and an Adjunct Lecturer at Morling Baptist Bible College in Sydney.