When going to a New Age orgy, be careful who you take home

Last weekend I had a glimpse of the future. I spoke at a New Age festival in Holland, a country where just 39% of people belong to a religion. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey released this week, that’s where we’re heading too. Thirty years ago, 68% of Brits said they belonged to a religion. Now it’s just 52%, of which less than half are Anglican. We are about to become a post-religious society. So what does that look like?

Well, a post-religious society is not the same as a secular materialist society. The festival I went to was run by Happinez magazine, which caters to the ‘spiritual but not religious / wellness / Mind Body Spirit’ market. That demographic is apparently booming in Holland – Happinez magazine is doing very well, and the festival attracted thousands.

It was held in a disused armoury in the fields outside of Utrecht. You crossed a bridge, passed the barbed wire and cannons, and suddenly you’re in a New Age Disneyland. Initially, the festival seems very Buddhist – you walk through a tunnel lined with Buddha statues, and there’s a Buddha on every stage behind me when I speak. Yet I don’t think many people there would call themselves Buddhist (only 1% of the Dutch population does).

Instead, alongside the forest of Buddhas, you can find many different spiritual philosophies- there is a yoga stage above a lake, there are talks on guardian angels, there is crystal healing, Reiki, astrology, NLP, vegetarianism, aura photography, gong healing. The thinking here is not ‘either / or’ but ‘both / and’. Everything is thrown in together.

It’s easy to criticize the New Age from a Christian perspective, and many Christians do. It’s just a spiritual pick n’ mix buffet, some might say. Maybe so. But if there is a free market in spirituality, that, surely, is a consequence of the Protestant Reformation. It was Luther who challenged the central authority of the Church and turned instead to his own inner conscience. Luther invented the New Age, and no sooner had he done so than a bewildering forest of different churches sprouted (there are now 30,000 Christian denominations).

Another Christian criticism of the New Age is that it’s selfish. It’s obsessed with wellness, happiness, personal flourishing. It ends up in one long pampering session, with scented candles and healing oils. A far cry from St Simeon the Stylite and the other ascetics of Christianity, who understood that this life is a vale of tears and happiness is only possible in the after-life.

And yet…modern Christianity is not so far from the New Age in its focus on health and wellness. Today the fastest-growing denomination in global Christianity is Pentecostalism and neo-Pentecostalism, which arose in the early 20th century in the US, out of a culture that was generally obsessed with wellness and the healing power of the mind. This obsession led to late-19th-century Christian healing movements like Christian Science and the Seventh-Day Adventists (including John Harvey Kellogg, wonderfully depicted in The Road to Wellville), and also to more New Age movements like Mind Cure and New Thought. Pentecostalism, with its belief in hands-on healing, arose around the same time as a similar wellness movement, and has a similarly positive attitude to the body. For all these movements, closeness to God is expected to lead to success, happiness and wellness here on Earth, as well as in the afterlife.

Another Christian criticism of the New Age is that it’s self-absorbed. It’s an expression of Romantic individualism, which began as the philosophy of a few Bohemian intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th centuries before becoming the ruling philosophy of an entire generation in the 1960s. According to this philosophy, life is a search for the ‘real me’, for personal authenticity and creativity, which comes before anything else – family, community, tradition, God.

Yet, again, modern Christianity is not so separate from this wider culture of expressive individualism. It’s also often a search for self-acceptance (through the acceptance of God), an attempt to free oneself from the baggage of the past, to free your creative spirit. Notice to what extent young Christians are into the ‘authentic folk’ of bands like Mumford & Sons, or the Lumineers. It’s a sort of hipster Christianity, all about finding the real, true, creative, fulfilled you. There’s a similar sense that personal experience always trumps rules and written authorities. It’s all about what ‘resonates’.

But there are obvious differences between Christianity and the New Age too. The New Age is much more Romantic about sex, much less uptight about sexual experimentation, sex before marriage, same-sex relationships. It’s also more Romantic about drugs, more hip to the idea that some drugs can induce spiritual or at least creative experiences. It’s more Romantic in its veneration for nature, for environmental justice, for the welfare of other animals. There’s not much concern for animal welfare in the Bible. And it’s more Romantic – more Rousseau-esque – in its rejection of western traditions and veneration of developing-world cultures, whether that be Native American chiefs or Amazonian shamans.

A shamanic workshop run by Moonfeather: http://www.moonfeather.co.uk

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the New Age is its hatred of authority. This may be a product of the Reformation, but the New Age has taken it to an extreme. Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials is a perfect expression of the New Age spirit – the central Authority of the church is evil, and is opposed by a loose alliance of witches and shamans. Shamanism is particularly popular with New Agers, because it has no organization, no hierarchy, no authorities or even scriptures, nothing to which you must submit your will.

Yet sometimes the naive rejection of western power structures (ie churches) can lead to people becoming even more subjected under new religious movements. Nothing a white European male tells you could possibly be true, yet somehow, if an Indian guru like Osho tells you not to think but to obey his commands unquestioningly, that’s perfectly acceptable.

And the flipside of this Baby-Boomer horror of authority, this refusal to submit your will to any power structures, is loneliness. You are out there on your own, trying to figure everything out for yourself, with no comrades committed to the same path to encourage you on. And this lack of organizational structure perhaps explains the New Age movement’s lack of philanthropy and charitable activity. Any philanthropic activity – like opposing slavery, for example – takes organization. But organization means power structures, and power structures are corrupt.

Perhaps the old Christian criticism that the New Age is a spiritual marketplace is not so far from the truth. The most striking thing about the Happinez festival is the sea of stands selling endless trinkets, candles, crystals, water-purifiers, icons, statues, birth-charts, yoga mats, prayer-beads, weekend retreats. And what are the ‘heroes’ of the New Age – Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Anthony Robbins, Rhonda Byrne – if not multi-million-dollar corporations? You can hear the cash-tills ring with each new spiritual insight. The 11 truths of the Celestine Prophecy. Ka-ching! The 12th insight of the Celestine Prophecy. Ka-Ching again! Conversations with God. Ka-ching! Further Conversations with God. Ka-ching again! Keep talking, God, this is a profitable conversation.

One of the many stands selling trinkets at the Happinez festival

One big thing, perhaps, the New Age got right. And that is the sense that there is beauty and wisdom in other spiritual traditions, Christianity does not have a monopoly on God and (shock horror) not all non-Christians are necessarily going to Hell. I know that saying this means I’m not a proper Christian, and yet I find hope in the words of Pope Francis, in his letter to atheists published this week, where he says ‘each of us finds the truth and expresses it from our own history and culture , from the situation in which we live…The truth being ultimately one with love, it requires humility and openness to be sought, welcomed and expressed’. I believe Christ embodied that love, and to follow Christ is to try to love God and one another. That, to me, means some Muslims, Jews, Hindus and atheists might be better followers of Christ than a particularly fulminating Christian.

Nonetheless, the risk of seeing the wisdom in every spiritual tradition is that you end up committing to none of them. The New Age can become like a swingers’ orgy, where you have a fling with everyone but never commit to anyone. As a result, you never reach the intimacy and love that comes from long-term commitment.

And, like at any orgy, you need to be careful who you go home with. The Christian warning against spiritual experimentation and dabbling in the occult might seem particularly paranoid and primitive to us. What’s a bit of Ouija between friends! You only had to look at the assorted peddlers of the occult to realise they were not in possession of great demonic power. Yet let us speculate, for a moment, that we’re not alone in the multiverses, that there are many other beings out there, not all of which necessarily wish us well. If that’s the case, there’s something to be said for being a little careful about who we go home with at the orgy.

Comments:

  • Olly says:

    Hi Jules,

    I definitely agree that Protestantism was the original source of eclecticism and a personal take on religion and spirituality, and that Romanticism had a big influence too. A few things though:
    “Perhaps the defining characteristic of the New Age is its hatred of authority.”
    - I don’t think that’s true really. There are gurus galore who demand total obedience, and all sorts of highly authoritarian groups, within the extra-religious spiritual world. Buddhism is famously hierarchical. I see what you are saying – there is a rebellious, left-leaning and even anarchic spirit in modern spirituality, but there is much surrender and submission within some quarters too.

    “Christianity does not have a monopoly on God and (shock horror) not all non-Christians are necessarily going to Hell. I know that saying this means I’m not a proper Christian”
    - It may you are not a proper HTB Christian, but that is only one definition. In liberal Anglican circles, or in Unitarian or Quaker circles, you find very different definitions that would fit your own more pluralistic views.

    “And the flipside of this Baby-Boomer horror of authority, this refusal to submit your will to any power structures, is loneliness. You are out there on your own, trying to figure everything out for yourself, with no comrades committed to the same path to encourage you on.”
    - I would agree that taking a more individual path is potentially lonely (if you get it wrong and end up in a kind of narcissistic funk), but many people who dip into contemporary spiritual seeking often anchor their spirituality in a liberal Western or Asian religious tradition, and so have that centre of gravity to come back to, and a community with it. For me that is Quakerism, despite my many other spiritual wanderings. And there are groups for just about everything now to give some kind of support. There are hundreds of meditation groups in London now, all there to give support to the seeker on his or her journey, if need be. However as it happens, I am increasingly realising that solitary worship or meditation can be the most spectacularly connecting pursuit, if pursued daily and diligently (I have only recently got the hang of that).

    “And this lack of organizational structure perhaps explains the New Age movement’s lack of philanthropy and charitable activity.”
    - I think that is a really interesting issue, and quite a surprising one actually. The history of the spirituality movement, ever since Emerson, is one of a fascinating link with social justice and ethical causes, from women’s rights to civil rights to animal rights to organic farming to environmentalism. It’s true that this won’t come in the form of financial aid, but more in the context of activism. And there’s no chance of starting a war in the name of spirituality in the meanwhile. That book ‘Restless Souls’ that I mentioned is pretty good on the link between social activism and spirituality.

    As for shamanism – I think its popularity partly stems from its radically experiential take. After a journey, it’s like…WHAM, incorporate THAT experience into your personal ontology. It shows you that you have entire worlds within you, ready to be explored.

    Lots of other thoughts, but that will do for now. Look forward to chatting soon!

    • Jules Evans says:

      Hi Olly

      Yes, there’s a paradox there – on the one hand, ‘religion’ is condemned as a rule-based power structure, on the other hand, when you’re seeking outside of established religious structures there’s the risk of finding yourself in a extremely hierarchical cult.

      Agree with you about the ease of finding groups for just about anything, but how strong are the bonds in those communities? I’m not sure. I write this as someone who has very happily (or…fairly happily!) been an individual seeker all my life, and who may in a year or two find myself sick of the more collective religious life. So…I’m just expressing this view at this particular stage in my own journey. There is, of course, a negative side to a more collective religious life as well – one can feel on the fringes of your collective, or that your own views or sexuality are not accepted by it, or one may end up even rejected by it.

      Re the New Age and social activism, definitely the Quakers are non-hierarchical but that hasn’t stopped them being great campaigners. I’ll need to read the book you mentioned to find out more.

      I write the bit about there being many different paths to God with some trepidation, because I wonder if believing that doesn’t dilute one’s intensity and commitment…The old liberal-but-relaxed versus committed-but-somewhat-fanatical conundrum. I am definitely liberal and relaxed but also not very spiritually strenuous!

      All best

      Jules

  • Wilko van der Veen says:

    This article exposes a very bad knowledge of Christianity. Christianity is about Jesus Christ, Who died for our sins and rose again after three days… If you believe that you will be saved. Read the bible to get it confirmed…

  • Jules says:

    Well you’re DEFINITELY saved so no worries there Wilko

  • Tom says:

    I believe that Jesus was the guy, Christ the soul.

    I believe that, long before Martin Luther, Jesus, like Buddha and Socrates, was “New Age.”

    I believe that “Christ consciousness,” “Krishna consciousness,” “the Buddha light”…that it is all the same, it is all Light, it is all Consciousness, Awareness, which is what we all essentially are, but that our very humanity, just like everything else that makes up Creation, is fully divine, too.

    “You are the Light of the World! ” Jesus told uneducated fishermen whom he had gathered around him. NO different from their human teacher, Jesus…Christ. Well, perhaps not quite as far along the path of Enlightenement, but no less, no different – essentially Light, Consciousness. Sinless, Shameless, Fearless Light.

    Having traipsed around the countryside for year after year after year (three, anyway, apparently) with those apostles and disciples of his, possibly largely supported by rich, married, widowed and/or single women, he seems to have become pretty worn out, perhaps thoroughly burnt out and discouraged.

    I think he may have been constantly and repeatedly disappointed by the very slow progress he was making in empowering his apostles to go heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers and drive out demons in his Holy Father’s name, just as he himself did.

    Again and again they showed themselves to be of little, if any faith – faith not even as great as a mustard seed.

    They failed to heal the son who was falling in fire and falling in water.

    Peter sank through the waves…and later renounced Jesus three times. Such a man at that time could hardly have been counted on to turn Jesus over to the authorities if begged to by Jesus, as perhaps Judas actually was…

    I think he may have been rejected by his own family, who thought he was crazy.

    http://answers.yahoo.com/question/index?qid=20111118192350AA7Ot3e

    Three of the four canonical gospels make no mention of any family member’s having attended the crucifixion. John’s alone does.

    Tellingly, when he has three times begged his (remaining) closest three, Peter, James and Andrew, to stay awake and to pray with him on his last night, such is their stamina, such is their faith, such is their loyalty, and such is their love for him…they still let him down.

    If THIS were not the ultimate proof positive, at least to one very worn out, sick, tired and emotional Jesus that all his preaching, all his teaching, all his healing, all his miracles and all his patience, compassion and love had proved insufficient, and that, again to his tired, world-weary and worn-out mind, that something really spectacular – such as a willing, uncomplaining crucifixion – was called for – as well as that his hard, slogging time on Earth was through – then what else could possibly be?

    Okay, maybe Judas’s betrayal. But I still tend to believe that Judas was the only one whose faith and loyalty and trust were great enough to do what Jesus told him DID need to be done, and to make it look credible.

    What evidence is there that Jesus got ragged, tetchy and fed up towards the end?

    1. Well, following various skirmishes, he finally picks a real fight with the Pharisees, one which really amounted to suicide-by-cop, as he must have known, I guess.
    Interestingly, if the unresolved faults or deficiencies we perceive in ourselves are those we tend most to detest in others, and so find hardest to forgive in them, then perhaps Jesus had a degree of guilt about how his own travelling, preaching and teaching was funded when/if he became angry with the Pharisees for their own fundraising efforts.

    2. Apparently, he asks the lads to pinch an ass (or a colt) for him.

    3. He curses a poor old fig tree.

    4. He prays this cup be taken from him, if possible, “if it be Your will…”

    5. He repeatedly rouses and gets impatient with his closest remaining (and presumably also stressed-out) apostles when they fail to stay awake and pray with/for him.

    6. When Pilate asks him perfectly reasonable questions, rather than giving straight answers, he ?sullenly plays the victim, the martyr.

    7. He demands why his father (presumably his heavenly one, and not Joseph) has forsaken him.

    I write all this in the awareness that every time I stub a toe or bang a shin, and the pain shoots through me, I am again humbled (or is it humiliated?) into thinking how bravely and selflessly Jesus suffered and how pathetic a creature still I am in comparison. And yet I know that his message is that I am his equal, and that we all are, and that none of us ever was or is capable of Sin, once we know this…

    I write this in the understanding that to teach that Jesus was divine in some way we are not all divine , this belittles all his “superhuman” efforts to enlighten us during his teaching days and massively belittles his extreme sacrifice in choosing to die as he did, demonstrating that even those immediately responsible for his execution were not his enemies and that he bore them no ill-will, but understood that, like all men, they were doing their very best AT THE TIME, given what they knew/understood/perceived.

    I write this in the understanding that Jesus begs us all to love one another as he did, KNOWING we can, for we are all equally as human, equally as divine as he was/is…and can and will do things “greater” than he did, also.

    I write this in the understanding that to teach that Jesus was divine in some way we are not all divine also massively belittles us all, and suggests that we cannot possibly act towards one another and love as Jesus did.

    And so I assert that traditional Christianity (like the old Scribes’ and Pharisees’ Judaism at the time of Jesus) has indeed got Jesus’ “New Age” message wrong, upside-down AND inside-out, and so has served to perpetuate “sin,” “sinfulness,” shame, and “evil” on this planet, which Jesus, according to those same churches, came to end.

    Jesus’ Good News? Everyone is always doing her/his best; there IS no Sin; Heaven, the Kingdom of God is here on Earth, if we but allow it to be, pray that it comes, accept that it already is – right NOW.

    The Good News of the Gospel according to the Roman Catholic Church I knew? You are born sinful. You remain sinful. You are born to suffer here on Earth and, most likely, after death, too, and possibly infinitely and for all eternity, so all-merciful is your Ever-loving Creator.

    Christianity, like other churches, has played the role not of devil’s advocate, but of Satan himself, if, as I understand, Satan is Fear, telling pluperfect children of God that they are NOT pluperfect, not perfect, but intrinsically flawed…but need only eat of their, those churches’ – fruit (paying for it of COURSE), to become less flawed, become less repulsive to God, more Godlike.

    Jesus begs us to be as small children, to be like shameless little children.

    What do WE do?

    We teach shameless little children Shame, so that they become like us, instead.

    Sweet “Julian” of Norwich knew this, too: there can be nothing from God which is not, ultimately, infinitely good. As we grow we grow to realize this more and more and more.

    Love.

    Tom.

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