5 may. 2008

A conference on New Age and Christian spirituality

Consejo Pontificio de la Cultura

«Culture e Fede - Cultures et Foi - Cultures and Faith - Culturas y Fe». Revista trimestral (con artículos en español, francés, inglés e italiano). Vol. IX / N. 2 – 2001. Notitiae

A Conference on “New Age” and Christian Spirituality

The Chesterton Institute, at Seton Hall University in New Jersey (U.S.A.), sponsored a conference at the University of Saint Thomas in Houston, entitled “The Light Within. The New Age and Christian Spirituality”. Issue 1 & 2 of Volume XXVI of “The Chesterton Review” (February/May 2000) includes several of the talks given. Some contributors had been exposed to “New Age” techniques, and so were able to speak out of personal experience. The whole approach of the conference was to offer «a sympathetic examination of what the movement has to offer followed by a critique that invites its adherents to move beyond its limitations into the fullness of Christianity», as organiser Father Daniel Callam c.s.b. says in his introduction. «The challenge to the Church», he wrote, «is fully to present its rich spirituality to enquirers who will be repelled if they encounter what seems to be a lifeless husk of conventional religiosity».

As John Coates wryly points out in his article «Chesterton and the “Age of Aquarius”», given the eclecticism which is the hallmark of “New Age”, «a way to become wealthy quickly and legally would be to write a book which combined ancient civilisations, the Knights Templar, Glastonbury, Druids, Atlantis, the Ark of the Covenant, and the Holy Grail» (p. 30). He quotes a dictionary definition of “New Age”, which includes the following: «the end result will be the emergence of a new mind: consciousness will be all in all. New Age “teachings” are characterised by an emphasis on monism, relativism, individual autonomy and the rejection of the Judaeo-Christian emphasis on sin as the ultimate cause of evil in the world. Instead New Age posits lack of knowledge and awareness as the root of humanity’s problems» (p. 31). He goes on to apply Chesterton’s writings, particularly “The Blatchford Controversies” and “The Ballad of the White Horse”, to «the ideological core of the New Age», which he thinks would have been GKC’s natural target.

The talk by Harold O.J. Brown is an imaginative journey from Helen of Troy via Saint Helena to Helena Blavatsky, in other words, from classical culture to Constantine’s mother, who symbolises the submission of the classical systems to Christ, and on to the foundress of Theosophy. «Helena Blavatsky sought to stand at the end of Christianity, of the Judaeo-Christian world view, and even of the rationalistic-scientific world that has arisen within its boundaries. She stood at the beginning of the New Age» (p. 55). His question: «Which Helena will we embrace?» He acknowledges the fascination of New Age, but reacts to it as Irenaeus did to Gnosticism. «The New Age, like Gnosticism, is fascinating and in its multiplicity makes the Gospel seem simple and almost arbitrary. But, unlike the Asian religions from which it borrows, the New Age overall makes few demands of its adepts, downplays asceticism, imposes little in the way of strict morality». Brown reckons “New Age” really does bear out Chesterton’s celebrated maxim: «That a man does not believe in God… means that he will believe in anything».

Philip Jenkins offers a brief, but extremely informative, digest of the first century of “New Age”, showing the links between so many movements and associations which people often perceive as totally unconnected to each other. He sees it as «a major and deeply rooted component of the North American religious tradition» (p. 59). Here are the movements and associations he mentions: Renaissance Hermetic and Neoplatonist thinkers, Mesmerism, Swedenborgianism, Spiritualism (in the forms of Christian Science and New Thought), Theosophy, The World Parliament of Religions (Chicago, 1893), Vedanta societies, Alfred Pike’s esoteric and gnostic interpretation of Freemasonry, the Masonic Society of the Golden Dawn (London), Katherine Tingley’s Theosophical University and Raja Yoga College (Point Loma in southern California), Alice Bailey’s Arcane School in New York, the Order of Christian Mystics by the eclectic Homer Curtiss, the «New Age Bible» published in the 1880s by John Ballou Newbrough, the Aquarian Ministry founded in 1918 at Santa Barbara and so on. He indicates clearly the fund of ancient lore, esoteric traditions and even Christian elements that were mixed up with Asian religious doctrines and practices in an ensemble that was complete by the 1930s. «Whether or not they are conscious of these roots, contemporary New Age practitioners are tapping into an old and genuinely impressive cultural heritage» (p. 72).

Linda Woodhead divides religion into three strands: religions of life (including “New Age”), religions of humanity (like liberal Christianity) and religions of difference (including «evangelicalism and the Catholicism of the present magisterium» – p. 76). She tries to explore the apparent convergence between these three forms of religion, particularly the «turn to life», the most amazing example of which she thinks is the teaching of Pope John Paul II, particularly in his insistence on the themes of life, humanity and the defence of democracy and human rights. At no time does she suggest, however, that there is any kind of fusion between these three religious categories. A fascinating study to which she makes reference is Patricia Wittberg’s «Deep Structure in Community Cultures: The Revival of Religious Orders in Roman Catholicism», which was published in “Sociology of Religion” volume 58 (1997). Wittberg finds quite a profound streak of individualism, egalitarianism and creativity in places where they would have been hard to find some time ago. Generally, Woodhead succeeds in her attempt to show that there really is, in her terms, a «turn to life» in the Catholic Church. She gives a very honest description of her (Christian) view of “New Age”, and concludes that «Christians are currently faced by an almost overwhelming task, a daunting but also a unique opportunity. The task is that of re-imagining God and God’s Church in ways that remain fully open and attentive to Scripture and tradition but which also take seriously those factors which have led so many to turn to life. The outcome cannot yet be fully envisaged» (p. 92).

Joyce Little provides a lively reaction to the monism of Matthew Fox and creation spirituality, versus the trinitarian theology exemplified, above all, in the responses from Cardinal Ratzinger and the writings of Cardinal Danneels and Pope John Paul II.

Stratford Caldecott situates his talk on «The Transcendental Disunity of Religions» at a moment of cultural decline, which, he says, challenges us to be discerning. There have always been «attempts to assimilate Christianity to one or other model of world religions» (p. 117). At the moment, there is the United Religions, which could possibly include among its aims «a bland common-factor wisdom», and not really the «uniqueness of each religion» mentioned in the UR Draft Charter. This is portrayed as a rather crude effort in assimilation, compared with the ideas of Charles Upton, who claims his is not an attempt to create a «world fusion spirituality» or a common doctrine, but «true ecumenism» which is «the outer expression of the “esoteric ecumenism” of the Transcendent Unity of Religions». The latter term is consciously borrowed from the works of the late Frithjof Schuon. He is not encouraging syncretism or papering over the cracks, but unity in a war where the enemy is an alliance between «scientism, magical materialism, idolatry of the psyche and postmodern nihilism» (p. 122).

Upton’s point of departure is the metaphysics of the Traditionalists, who include [Frithjof] Schuon, René Guénon, Ananda Coomaraswamy and Seyyed Hossein Nasr. This group influenced Eric Gill, Thomas Merton and T.S. Eliot, and contemporary writers such as Alan Watts and Ken Wilber. Their realism, in the strict philosophical sense, may well be a point of dialogue with Catholic tradition.

1. The point of difference is the seriousness with which Christianity has always taken the physical Incarnation, the scandalous paradox that makes Jesus more than any prophet, more than any avatar.
2. We are not divine by nature, but are introduced into divinity by grace.
3. For Christians, relationship with the divine is not one of absorption, as is the case in “New Age” and Asian religions; it is one of love, which always essentially involves distinction. Traditionalists effectively deny this unique characteristic of Christianity, while claiming to respect religions in all their diversity.

Caldecott compares the present state of Christianity to that of believers at the end of the Roman Empire; now, as then, it is the mystery religions which attract, and all around is «a Gnosticism that promises secret initiations without humility» (p. 129). Christianity cannot be assimilated because Christ cannot be assimilated; in Him «God has done something new and different. Yet at the same time, aesthetics, mythology, psychology, and metaphysics are not left behind. I believe it is a task of the new millennium to reintegrate these with Christianity» (p. 132).

Philip Zaleski writes about Sophie; brought up as a Catholic, she has more recently «carved a spectacular zigzag through the spiritual marketplace, sampling meditation, chanting, crystal-gazing, yoga and just about all of the world’s great religions» (p.135f.). One good thing about the “New Age” «pudding» of ideas and practices is that it keeps the youngsters who fall under its influence vaguely within the orbit of spirituality and religion. One needs to recognise several things in “New Age” in order not to over-react: it is not monolithic; it is not a den of demons; nor is it a den of fools. Three main currents need to be taken very seriously, even if they reject being included in the broad term “New Age”. They are René Guénon’s “tariqa” or school of intellectual Sufism, Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy and «the Work», devised by Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. Zaleski concentrates on Gurdjieff, for the Work is very appealing. It is «physically, intellectually, and emotionally demanding, and dilettantes are strongly discouraged» (p. 140). It is a systematic awakening of people who are in a persistent catatonic state; it borrows metaphors from chemistry, biology and mechanics. Its main legacy in the Catholic world is the “enneagram”, an «occult symbol» introduced by Gurdjieff «as a post-modern tool for personality classification, a trendier, para-Catholic version of a horoscope» (p. 141). The Gurdjieff “Work” is a very serious and demanding formation technique. It demands a totally silent openness to the unfolding of the present moment (curiously like what Romano Guardini describes as the beginning of true liturgy). It takes holiness, hierarchy and hieratic art seriously, and Zaleski thinks contemporary Catholicism could learn a great deal from this. Indeed, the Church could learn from this seriousness to speak to the Gurdjieff “Work” and the “New Age” in a language they could understand and respect.

Carmelite David Denny had first-hand experience of Buddhism when he was an undergraduate. He tells his own story in a moving way. He goes on: «Thich Nhat Hanh, the great contemporary Buddhist teacher, tells his students that, in order to grow spiritually, they must “go home”. He means this in three ways» (p. 151), which are to return within themselves, to go to their families if there is a need for reconciliation, and, if they have left another spiritual tradition, to return there «and learn that although the church or synagogue is full of sinners who may have harmed and driven believers away, the tradition is also full of wisdom and holy men and women» (“loc. cit.”). But Denny wonders what returning Catholics will find when they seek wisdom and holiness in an average parish. He keeps this image in mind, in order to explore what “New Age” people might want from the Church. In this light he examines four characteristic teachings of “New Age”: the unity of all life, the higher self, the power of the mind and health, and «spiritual technologies». He suggests a Christian response in each case: earthy mysticism and «a strong Christian love for and commitment to the physical environment», a vigorous re-presentation of Christian theology’s doctrine of the eternal significance of every person, a refusal to surrender too easily and weakly in the face of suffering, and expertise on traditional Christian forms of prayer and meditation. «Movements such as the New Age spring up because the mainline tradition has forgotten part of its heritage. In our case, we did not merely forget “a part” of our heritage; we forgot its heart, the mystical fire at the centre of the Church» (p. 157). Denny suggests that dialogue with sincere God-seekers reveals forgotten truths.


“The Chesterton Review”, Vol. XXVI, No. 1 & 2, February/May 2000. The G.K. Chesterton Institute, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey U.S.A.


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