Wanting to Have Your New Age Cake and Eat It Too
Michael York
Principal Lecturer, Bath Spa University College


Is there such a thing as a New Age Movement? Is there such a thing as New Age spirituality? Are we talking here of a real and identifiable phenomenon, or something closer to an artificial construction created by scholars, the media, advertisers or all these? The answers to these questions depend of course on how we chose to define such terms as `movement' and `spirituality' let alone `New Age' itself. In this paper, I propose to approach the term `New Age' as a label to suggest not only how the expression came into being but also who is most likely to employ it. A label is by default superficial, but this identifying marker can in turn be helpful, benign, contentious, inflaming or even, simply, misleading. Labels or banners are what help us choose between alternatives, they are also things we can rally around in the fury of battle, righteousness, vindictiveness and revenge, and they serve to our propensity to pigeonhole and write-off something that we simply wish to dismiss. The question concerning the New Age label per se has both etic and emic dimensions. Is there something really there behind the label and how did it develop? And, secondly, how is the label used by those who identify with it as adherents? In the fusing of boundaries that would appear to be both intrinsic to New Age spirituality and the cause of its overt ambiguity to academics and others, an intentional non-clarity would seem to be a clever means to have one's cake and eat it too.



I want to begin by asking the question: why are we as academics studying the New Age? Whether we are believers or non-believers, participants or observers, our own individual frameworks invariably shape how we approach any given religious practice. Consequently, my own understanding of the New Age movement, spirituality and/or identity as a researcher, sociologist and student of religion is conditioned by my personal perspective on things – regardless of any endeavour to be objective and unbiased I may have. Therefore, it is with this precondition in mind that I wish first to sketch my own outlook in order to contextualise whatever I have to say on New Age religiosity, my perception of it as a real and identifiable phenomenon. I am well aware that Jim Lewis has difficulties with my use of the term `New Age’ as a proper noun rather than as a modifying adjective, and I am also well aware of Steve Stutcliffe’s argument that New Age is not a `movement’. In many respects, the `New Age strategy’ is one of keeping open-ended structures and boundaries in order not to let any transcendental origins becloud more materialistic agendas – whether the self and bodily well-being or the earth and her ecological preservation. As a spiritual origin, New Age frequently appears to want anything and its opposite. As frustrating as its inherent ambiguity may be to academics who wish to study it, the fuzziness of New Age identity and endeavour – however ethereal it strikes its Neo-pagan rival may be a subliminal stratagem allowing adherents to have their New Age cake but eat it too.

The New Age phenomenon as I see it, regardless of how fast it may appear to be growing, is still a minority position. It may even champion the democratisation of religion, but this does not in itself give it any majority hold on Western society. But this very issue of consensus is the dominant one of our times – especially in the aftermath of 911. The majority position is not always the `correct’ one – as anyone who were to look at America today would definitively see. In Complexity Theory, this possibility relates to the concept of `lock-in’, namely, when a less good or archaic idea, practice or institution becomes the norm despite there being a more advantageous alternative – e.g., the QWERTY/AZERTY arrangement of the keyboard, the VCR over Betamax, the majority mind-set currently flourishing in the United States, etc.

The question before the world at present is whether America is a proof of democracy. It is as clear as it could ever be that the next American presidential race will not be a political contest but instead a determination of the survival of democracy itself as a political option. America has the great illustration of Rome forever as the model of what not to be. Yes, Rome came from the most glorious of origins, it created the greatest of achievements, it bequeathed many of the things we cherish today, but she lost both her monarchy and her republic. Need we follow that same route? If we answer no, what do we do to insure that we do not? All the military might in the world is not the answer. Resorting to the use of weapons to govern entails the maintenance of a surrounding but crumbling dike forever – forever until the user dies.

We are now at a crossroads in which we must move beyond the military, beyond terrorism as well, to make the world we should have and the one we all should want to have. Do we want democracy to fail? That is the question! – not only for the United States of America but for all the world of today. But democracy is a numbers game – complicated in addition by the realisation that the greater number is no less immune to making mistakes, to opting for the detrimental, the injudicious or the incorrect. Between them, Christianity and Islam represent the majority of world opinion. But this is a world opinion that is divided even between itself – each component with its own agenda or agendas. At the end of the day, the decisive condition for New Age identity is the wish for a golden age, a time of equality, balance, opportunity and freedom. This wish which lies at the core of New Age concern is yet a minority position, a minority galvanisation, a minority understanding, but increasingly the choice before us all today is a simple one: either we go for the new age or we all sink down into the abyss together. And this choice rests on whether we consider that we are sacred as a species, or whether we are sacred only as a group, an ethnicity, as some sectarian division that is less than the whole.

Now, what I have just said is the preface to my talk. It is to furnish the context within which I am attempting to make an analysis. And it is clearly a countercultural perspective. In my youth, I was very much engaged with the Haight-Ashbury event of San Francisco, but however much I once enjoyed an emic insight into hippiedom, in time, as I have grown increasingly older, whether I have wanted to or not, I have come to see – or been forced to see – the counterculture more as an outsider. But, in addition, my time-conditioned perspective has allowed me to perceive the centrality of the counterculture as parent to both the New Age and contemporary Western pagan phenomena. But whilst we might see the lineage, we need also fathom the outcome.

The perplexity involved in attempting to understand New Age phenomena, however, has divided practitioners and scholars alike. There is no general consensus over what exactly New Age is, whether it is a movement or not, whether a congeries of separate movements, whether a cultural phenomenon, a cultural emblem, a codeword for post-1960s popular religion, a `fake’ etic formulation/projection, or even a genuine spirituality. But while the theoretical debate continues, we have an increasing empirical body of study on which to ground the debate through such works, among others, as those of Steve Sutcliffe on Findhorn, Dominic Corrywright on the Schumacher-Resurgence nexus, Hildegarde Van Hove in Belgium, or Nick Wilsdon on the Guatemalan community of San Marcos La Laguna.

Moreover, I believe one of the best elucidations of the social composition or various levels of engagement with the New Age corpus of ideas and practices has been furnished by Hildegard Van Hove (1999:294-296) when she identifies the `true’ New Ager as someone who believes that a New Age is dawning and that working on the self is the way to engage with it. Van Hove places the `true’ New Ager at the core of the phenomenon. Next in order of centrality is whoever may be considered the intense participant or what Van Hove understands as the spiritual seeker. These in turn are embraced by the self-expressionists for whom authenticity becomes the central value. Broadly speaking, the issues of self-development and authenticity delineate the Human Potential Movement, and Van Hove, by visualising a schema of concentric circles of engagement, is placing the central features of New Age spirituality within the HPM as a whole. But finally Van Hove includes as her broadest category that of the client. Here she places the `beginner’ – the person who takes a course or workshop, purchases a New Age book or acquires a New Age product (a crystal, a chakra diagram, a goddess figurine, maybe only incense). This diffuse band of people are, for Van Hove, New Age consumers – less committed to self-development, spiritual seeking or belief in the Aquarian New Age per se, but they constitute the bulk or largest number of people who are associated with the New Age complex in one manner or another.

Another helpful insight into New Age identity I believe has been furnished by Wouter Hanegraaff (1996) who signals out such esoteric elements as holism, evolutionism and the insistence on the coming era as one of emotionality, sensitivity and spontaneity. Moreover, he recognises the increasing secularisation of spirituality within the New Age context that concomitantly coincides with an increasing spiritualisation of psychology. This last leads to what is now frequently referred to as the transpersonal. But a fifth element that Hanegraaff considers for New Age, despite its transcendental origins, bias and/or agenda, is its this-worldliness – however weak in form that may be.

When I began my own studies of the New Age movement in the mid- to late-1980s, I was particularly curious over the possible relationship between New Age and contemporary Western paganism: their similarities, overlaps, contrasts and interactions. I approached New Age from the start as “a blend of pagan religions, Eastern philosophies, and occult-psychic phenomena” (York, 1995:34). At that time, pagan figures, at least in Britain, tended to welcome the `New Age’ label: Vivianne Crowley, Zachary Cox, Marian Green, etc. New Age religiosity was seen not only as a spiritual-social ideal, but also as a home within which pagan desires and aspirations had an encouraged place.

However, in time, through encounters with people like Shan Jayran, Monica Sjoo and an increasing consensus within such pagan/magical venues as the Talking Stick, I became aware of a purposeful self-distancing on the part of pagans from any sort of New Age identity. As head priestess of the London-based House of the Goddess, Shan described New Age as ungrounded and `airy-fairy’. She relayed in particular a New Age event she attended in which Matthew Manning led a visualisation that encouraged participants to vent their rage against someone or something they hated. When the group’s emotions had been prodded to reach an emotional peak of animosity, Manning suddenly asked that each person `forgive’ his or her hated other and let their anger dissipate and vanish. Shan argued after the fact that this was typical of New Age and that it is dangerous to build up such negative energy and then simply release it without first properly grounding the vortex that had been created.

Monica Sjoo took this repugnance over New Age even further and found in the writings of Alice Bailey an unbridled as well as racist attitude toward light and the luminous that rejoiced over the development of the nuclear bomb as an ultimate consequence of New Age’s emphasis on brightness as a moral virtue. Neo-paganism, especially through its co-emphasis on both the light and the dark, came to repudiate perceptions of New Age as imbalanced and non-holistic. A chief expression for me was when Vivianne Crowley re-released in 1996 her popular 1989 Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age as Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium. In time, I came to see the two phenomena as separate movements, natural allies perhaps, but orientations with different practices behind them and definitely different agendas or goals.

In my own desire to understand what are the differences between New Age and pagan forms of spirituality, I turned to their respective theological underpinnings. My seminal inspiration came from Catherine Albenese’s Nature Religion in America from the Algonkian Indians to the New Age in which she distinguishes between two separate paradigms, namely, `Nature as illusion’ and `Nature as real’. I have in time come to recognise that the essential thrust of paganism is this-worldly and one which centres on and celebrates the physical or tangible as divine sui generis. The earth becomes mother, something cherished and something primal. In contrast, gnosticism is transcendent. Nature is something to penetrate or dispel in order to reach `the real truth’ that it masks. Consequently, manifest reality, if not an illusion in and of itself, is something at least that is secondary and ultimately worthless. It is understood as the furthest emanation from the original One, the Good, the Pure, the Beautiful. The gnostic goal, therefore, is to `re-ascend’ the ladder of being to re-gain or re-merge with the original state of grace from which we have fallen. Physicality is understood as imprisoning. It is māyā and Brahman or Plato’s Ideal is untouched and separate from it.

In fact, in my own understanding of the world’s religions, I have come to understand Albenese’s divide between `Nature as illusion’ and `Nature as real’ as the central theological distinction between them. Christianity, for instance, and despite its historical antagonism with Gnosticism that it condemned as heresy, by postulating or affirming a transcendental God that is ganz andere `wholly other’, is still subscribing to what is essentially a gnostic position. The manifest cosmos is a creation ex nihilo and, unlike in the pagan understanding, not a natural evolution of the matter-energy matrix.

But apart from the nuances and distinguishing that can be done with the major world religions, whether Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc., the gnostic underpinnings of New Age thought and practice are readily discernible in themselves – to such an extent that New Age spirituality would appear to be a modern-day recasting of ancient Gnosticism. Gnosticism itself refers to various pre-Christian pagan, Jewish and early Christian sects that stressed the value of revealed divine knowledge (gnosis) as the vehicle for attainment of spiritual redemption. Among Greek philosophy and Hellenic mystery cults, the Orphic cults are the exemplary instances of gnostic perception. Christian Gnostics became particularly active in the second century C.E., and much of the doctrines of Christianity was formulated in reaction against the understandings of the Gnostics. Revivals of Gnosticism have occurred since the time of the Alexandrian conquests of the fourth century B.C.E. into the 12th and 13th centuries C.E. with the ascent of the Albigenses or Cathars in Languedoc. One of Gnosticism’s fullest expressions was established by the Persian prophet Mani who lived in the third century C.E. Similar to Manichaeanism is the Islamic Gnostic sect of the Mandeans who originated in Jordan and still exists in Iran and Iraq.

As a religious understanding, Gnosticism is a dualistic orientation that identifies the spiritual as the good and contrasts it with matter as evil. It embraces the soma sema concept of the body being a tomb. Accordingly, the cosmos has become a vast prison that is subject to the rule of the Demiurge and his seven archons. These have enslaved the human spirit and prevent the divine spark of the human soul from returning to God despite the body’s death. Because true knowledge of God is obscure or hidden, salvation is possible only through mystical revelation or gnosis. This last might be brought to humanity through the efforts of a saviour or special prophet. But Gnostic salvation is also frequently considered as the product of individual meditation, the practice of various austerities or other techniques.

Gnosticism has been condemned as heresy by the Christian Church almost from the beginning. Despite the persecution of adherents well into the Middle Ages, Gnostic influence is to be seen in Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism as well as in the alchemical efforts of C.G. Jung. As a generic adjective, “gnostic” refers to the transcendental religions that view life as a “fall” and matter as ultimately either illusory or valueless. In contrast to pagan religiosity that views life and evolution as an open-ended cyclic process that originates in the matter-energy matrix, the Gnostic orientation seeks to “escape” the tangible and “return” to some original source or pre-existent state. In paganism, consciousness is an emergent; in gnosticism, however, it is an a priori reality. From this perspective, and despite the ecclesiastical condemnations, much of the official dogmas of Christianity and the other Abrahamic faiths as well as of Buddhism and Vedantic Hinduism may be seen as gnostic.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Gnosticism has seen a revival in the form of American New Thought. As a development primarily through the teachings of Emma Curtis Hopkins and, subsequently, those of her students, New Thought stresses the power of the mind along with the illusions of the material world. In 1914, the International New Thought Alliance was formed from the various groups created by Hopkins’ students: Myrtle and Charles Fillmore who founded Unity in Kansas City, Melinda Cramer who began Divine Science in San Francisco, and Ernest Holmes who developed the Institute of Religious Science in Chicago (now centred in San Diego as the Church of Religious Science). The Alliance produced a Declaration of Principles that was revised in 1957 but remains similar to the idealistic thought of Christian Science. Its differences include having no specifically Christian affirmations while it affirms belief in God as Universal Wisdom, Love, Life, Truth, Peace, Beauty and Joy. In other words, God is generally understood in non-anthropomorphic terms. The Declaration affirms the universe as the body of God, the human as an invisible spiritual dweller inhabiting a body, and that humans continue to grow and change after death. Whilst remaining affirmative of Christian Science’s common idealism, New Thought nevertheless assigns a more positive role to the body and the material world. Matter is not regarded as mortal error but as a manifestation of spiritual reality. Nevertheless, in conformity with the broad outlines of Gnosticism itself, the tangible is still something that is secondary in ultimate importance and veracity.

Both Hopkins and Mary Baker Eddy were students of Phineas Quimby. But whereas Eddy’s Christian Science continues to this day to be led by lay people, New Thought groups tend to have ordained ministries. Nevertheless, the movement as a whole remains decentralized and promotes – even celebrates – diversity of opinion. But without losing the healing emphasis of Christian Science, New Thought has developed an equal emphasis on prosperity. It reasons that poverty is as unreal as disease. Consequently, its students are taught to live out of the abundance of God. In general, New Thought advocates the more universal position that acknowledges the value of all religious traditions. In the early part of the 20th century, a retired judge and New Thought lecturer, Thomas Troward, introduced new psychological concepts – specifically, the differentiation of the mind into objective (waking consciousness) and subjective (unconscious) aspects. In this manner, he opened the New Thought movement to the concept of the dynamic subconscious that was missing in both Eddy and Hopkins.

While Christian Science rejects Phineas Quimby’s adherence to magnetic healing as well as New Thought’s abandonment of Eddy’s essential Christian orientation, both movements look to a manifestation of the Truth they teach in the individual’s life. This is usually referred to as a “demonstration.” To move from sickness to health is to demonstrate healing. To move from poverty to wealth is to demonstrate abundance. While Christian Science rejects New Thought’s emphasis on prosperity, it also rejects the latter’s openness to various psychic and occult practices. Nevertheless, both movements advocate the role of a practitioner to aid in demonstration, that is, of a professional who has been trained in the arts of healing prayer. While they are different and use slightly different techniques, all the New Thought churches with the exception of the Unity School of Christianity provide their memberships with the assistance of healing prayer specialists. Some New Thought practitioners specialise in the manifestation of abundance. Unity, the major exception, has no practitioners but does have licensed Unity teachers who nevertheless function in a similar fashion.

Among the portfolio of New Thought groups, those which are chiefly significant for New Age include Unity, Divine Science, Religious Science, the Adventures in Enlightenment Foundation (Terry Cole-Whittaker) and Miracle Experiences, Inc. (A Course in Miracles). Whilst most New Thought is to be found in America, New Thought groups exist throughout the world. Much of the New Thought – New Age international impetus is now led by the formation of A Course in Miracles study groups. In Japan, a significant New Thought presence is found in the movement of Seicho-No-Ie. Among New Thought North American denominations, Unity is the largest followed by Religious Science and then Divine Science. Approximately 350 institutions belong to the New Thought Alliance.

Roughly concurrent with the development of Quimby’s magnetic healing, Eddy’s Christian Science and Hopkins’ New Thought, we see in America the rise of Spiritualism. The origins of the movement are multiple, but its formal inauguration occurred with the “shenanigans” of the Fox sisters in Hydesville, New York in 1848. Nevertheless, there is a long antecedence to contemporary psychic experience that stretches across the ancient civilizations of the Fertile Crescent and Greece to the Puritan and Wesleyan counter-reactions against Deism in the late 1600s that denied the validity of any intercourse with spirit entities. In its American development, Spiritualism may be understood as a religious-philosophical thought and practice that studies psychic phenomena and explains these in terms of discarnate spirits that have an interest in the living. Essentially, the focus of Spiritualism is on extrasensory perception (ESP). In the 1930s, J.B. Rhine at Duke University established four basic types of ESP: telepathy or mind-to-mind (subconscious-to-subconscious) communication; precognition or seeing into the future; clairvoyance or perception of the world beyond the senses and without the aid of any other mind; and psychokinesis or mind over matter. Spiritual healing is generally understood as a subcategory of this last, that is, a form of psychokinesis. Astral travel, on the other hand, that is, experience of the conscious self outside the body, appears to be something not subsumed by these main four divisions of psychic activity.

The general concerns of spiritualism, however, deal with mediumship, and this would appear to be clairvoyance and/or telepathic communication with beings that are not of this world. In the Bible, there are incidents of telepathy, precognition, clairvoyance and psychokinetic healing. The communication of Saul, the Israelite king, with the ghost of Samuel through the “witch” of Endor is a famous mediumistic incident. Likewise, during the transfiguration, Jesus’ conversation with Moses and Elijah is another significant mediumistic event. In more recent times, the visions, angelic communications and astral travels of Swedenborg have become foundational to the later developments of Spiritualism, New Thought and Theosophy.

But along with Swedenborg, the other significant forerunner of Spiritualism and what emerged earlier as the New England Transcendentalist Movement is Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815). Though denounced by the French Academy in 1784 and dying in disgrace, Mesmer’s students took his philosophy of magnetic healing and hypnotism to Great Britain and the United States. In America, Andrew Jackson Davis (born 1826) came into contact with a travelling Mesmerist teacher and subsequently developed clairvoyant capabilities and a propensity to perform magnetic healing. He claimed to have had visions of both Swedenborg and the Greek physician Galen. Davis taught that the individual progresses after death through the higher spheres (“Summerland”) toward God. His teachings and writings during the last 30 years of his life became formative to the development of Spiritualism.

The years between 1880 and 1920 are considered the era of the great mediums. Important spiritualist books appeared as supplements to the works of Swedenborg and Davis. These include John B. Newbrough’s Oahspe (1881/2) and Levi H. Dowling’s Aquarian Gospel of Jesus Christ (1908). The study of spiritualism from a more scientific perspective led to the formations of the Society of Psychical Research in London in 1882 as well as the American Society of Psychical Research in 1884. The National Spiritualist Association of Churches was organized in the United States in 1893 with its headquarters in Washington, D.C. In its 1930 Constitution and Bylaws, Spiritualism is defined as “the Science, Philosophy and Religion of a continuous life, based upon the demonstrable fact of communication by means of mediumship, with those who live in the Spirit World.” It is this belief in personal survival of death, which can be demonstrated by mediumship, that distinguishes Spiritualism from other psychic groups.

In general, spiritualists accept an unending development of every individual in a glorious hereafter. They see the cosmos as friendly, and they reveal affable conversation between earth dwellers and their beloved in Summerland. Spiritualists seek guidance from the spirits of those who once lived as humans on earth. They uphold a spiritual democracy and expect salvation for everyone. Opposing any notion of morose soteriology, they understand cosmic design in terms of humanity’s enjoyment of freedom, love and joy.

The New Age movement can in many respects be seen as an outgrowth of American spiritualism and especially of spiritualism’s offshoot in theosophy. In New Age, however, spiritualism’s mediumship has been replaced by channelling. Unlike spiritualism whose primary focus is to prove post-mortem survival, New Age has developed a greater concern with spiritualist metaphysics. In other words, its desire is to understand the spirit world itself as well as the spiritual nature of life on earth, and it seeks this knowledge through contact with evolved spirits rather than simply departed loved ones. This last is essentially the contribution of Theosophy.

Theosophy, in contrast to American Spiritualism, is less interested in contacting the departed loved ones of family and friends and seeks instead to commune with Ascended Masters that collectively it terms the Great White Brotherhood. The second distinguishing feature of Theosophy is its rich incorporation of Eastern spiritual notions: karma, reincarnation, akashic world, ascended masters, etc. Theosophy, in short, becomes a spiritual tradition that combs the truths of the orient and incorporates them into a western system of thought. In many respects, it is the direct precursor of today’s New Age Movement, and, in fact, as Mary Farrell Bednarowski would have it in her 1989 New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America, New Age is essentially an updating of Theosophy and a re-casting of it into the contemporary spiritual idiom.

In contrast to Bednarowski, I have come to understand the New Age phenomenon more in terms of New Thought than Theosophy and see the latter as a variable cosmetic feature. In this, I am probably also differing from Wouter Hanegraaff (1996:96f) whose New Age sensu stricto is rooted in the Theosophical and Anthroposophical traditions of Britain. Whilst Nicholas Campion questions Hanegraaff’s non-consideration of Theosophy in the United States as well as the fluid interchange of esoteric ideas across the Atlantic, like myself, he welcomes an understanding that comprehends New Age in wide and restricted senses – even if one or both of us may differ on what an essential or sensu stricto New Age identity is. Nevertheless, theosophy is part of what is often called the Ancient Wisdom tradition. By the end of the 19th century in both England and the United States, a number of Spiritualists became less interested in making contact with the spirits of the deceased or in demonstrating “proof” of life after death and, instead, claimed to be bearers of occult wisdom (“hidden” wisdom) that they declared to have received from various teachers all descending from a long lineage dating to the obscure reaches of time. In some instances, the wisdom teachings are traced to ancient, hidden texts that have recently been found. In theosophy itself, the transmission of occult knowledge is usually made through the efforts of special people who, through spiritual training, have gained the ability to enter occult realms where they are taught directly by spiritual masters.

Theosophy itself developed with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky. Upon her death, the theosophical mantle passed to Annie Besant (1847-1933) who, with the guidance of Charles Leadbeater (1854-1934), came to recognize and promote Jiddu Krishnamurti as the physical vehicle of the Bodhisattva Avatar as world teacher. However, by the late 1920s, Krishnamurti rejected the notion that he was a spiritual messiah. Meanwhile, Theosophy itself underwent a number of schisms with two rival societies (the Theosophical Society in America and the Theosophical Society of America), along with their respective European and Indian extensions, contesting for leadership.

The objectives of the original Theosophical Society founded in New York were to form a nucleus of the Universal Brotherhood of Humanity without distinction of race, creed, sex, caste or colour; to encourage the study of Comparative Religion, Philosophy and Science; and to investigate the unexplained laws of nature and the powers latent within humanity. Blavatsky’s cosmology forms the basis of theosophical thought. Theosophy teaches that spiritual progression comes through occult practices, reincarnation and spiritual masters. These practices include meditation and yoga. Reincarnation is understood as the presentation of repeated opportunities in which to overcome lower plane attachment. One’s future life will reflect the spiritual achievements of the present life. But it is the help of the masters that for theosophists is the most important.

Theosophy remains at the centre of the Wisdom Tradition. While its gnostic and mystical form of Christianity has heavily infused contemporary forms of both Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, Theosophy has also spawned a number of offshoots that themselves fall within the orbit of the modern-day New Age movement. These include Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophy, the Krishnamurti Foundation, Alice Bailey’s Arcane School and World Goodwill, the Ballard’s “I AM” Religious Activity, Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s Church Universal and Triumphant, Benjamin Creme’s Tara Centre and even, to an extent, Edgar Cayce’s Association for Research and Enlightenment among others.

So it becomes clear that New Age and contemporary Western paganism divide on identifiable theologies. It is on this basis that I have had differences with analysts like Paul Heelas, M.D. Faber, Lowell Streiker, John Newport, Alex Wright, etc. who appear to consider paganism a subset of New Age spirituality. Certainly since the 1980s/early 1990s there has been vociferous distancing of Wiccans and pagans from any association with a New Age identity. What has become problematic for me in my focus on paganism is the frequent denunciation by ethnic pagans (Romuva, Heathenism, Santerìa and Candomblé) of modern-day witches as New Age – eclectically compiling personal forms of spirituality, insensitive appropriation, operation on a basis of `what feels right’. Especially from the vantage of Afro-Latin practice with its rigorous apprenticeship, emphasis on `eldership’, formalised etiquette and proscribed rules and regulations, much contemporary paganism does indeed seem New Age. Whilst I continue to argue with my ethnic comrades that contemporary paganism owes much of its present-day viability and acceptance to the inroads that have been achieved by Wicca and that Wicca is indeed pagan and not New Age, internal doubts have continued to nag and force me to ask why is the Wicca described by ethnics not New Age.

Certainly in terms of ecological protest and concern for the environment, paganism’s `nature as real’ in contrast to New Age’s `nature as illusion’ presents a political agenda that is commensurate with paganism rather than with New Age transcendentalism? As a quest for the ideal behind the apparent, for the `higher self’ above the phenomenal self or ego, for `Spiritual Truth’ beyond empirical realities, New Age has not exhibited an obvious eco-activist propensity despite the social agenda championed by Marilyn Ferguson in her The Aquarian Conspiracy. But this being said, there does indeed appear to be a shift within the New Age nexus that is becoming increasingly cognizant of Gaia-based holistic issues.

This aspect of Alternative and/or New Age spirituality recently explored by Dominic Corrywright, for example, that explores the deep ecology of sustainability and renewable resources, reveals a dimension hitherto either neglected or not readily apparent. Corrywright examines both the UK-based Schumacher College on the south coast of Devon near Totnes and the periodical Resurgence – both linked by Satish Kumar, former academic director of the former and editor of the latter. Corrywright is interested in network spirituality and employs a “web model” to understand what elsewhere is more broadly formulated by Luther Gerlach and Virginia Hine as the segmented-polycentric-integrated-network or SPIN. But the key point that is uncovered is the emphasis on the relationship between nature and the divine in such residential course centres as Findhorn Foundation, Schumacher College, Esalen Institute, Naropa University, Monkton Wyld Court, Holly Hock Farm, Shenoa Retreat Center, Gaia House, the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, Auroville, the Krishnamurti Centre, Bija Vidyapeeth, Cortijo Romero, etc. and increasingly in such periodicals as Resurgence, Kindred Spirit, Positive News, The Ecologist, Open Exchange, What is Enlightenment?, Natural Awakenings, the New Age Journal for Holistic Living and so forth. Some of these journals are more exclusively centred on environmental reform, whilst others are more typically New Age in focusing on the evolution of enlightenment but are nevertheless devoting more and more space to Green politics and ecological news. And following in the wake of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, key New Age spokespeople such as Marilyn Ferguson, Satish Kumar, Matthew Fox, Starhawk, William Bloom, Rupert Sheldrake, Stephen Gaskin and John Robbins among others stress environmental consciousness as an integral part of spirituality. Satish Kumar captures the shifting trend when he replaces the standard New Age triad of mind, body and spirit with one comprising `soil, soul and society’ – thereby introducing the notion of “reverential ecology” to the social and spiritual dimensions of Alternative spirituality. As Corrywright puts it, “The addition of solidity – in soil and society – provides a foundation for the non-anthropomorphic approach to the environment” (JCR – forthcoming).

Consequently, the division of New Age and paganism on the basis of respective attitudes toward the earth is becoming increasingly questionable. Whilst a theological distinction is discernible in principle, in the actual play-out of practice, any gap on the ecological front appears to be continually diminishing. Recently, I have been compiling an index for a forthcoming Historical Dictionary of New Age Movements (Scarecrow Press) and was struck by the comparative mention of individual referents. I found on a numerical basis alone there to be five categories of frequency: category one with a single or a few pages on which the term appears, followed by such terms as astrology, Alice Bailey, Helena Blavatsky, channelling, Ram Dass and Sufism as suggesting people or themes of even greater significance. However, beyond these, the areas of Buddhism, Spiritualism, Gnosticism, paganism, shamanism, Native American spirituality, reincarnation, visualization and Human Potential as well as the Church Universal and Triumphant, the Great White Brotherhood, Edgar Cayce, Maitreya, Christ and/or Jesus are even more numerous. In the penultimate category, I found as virtually the most significant throughout the New Age Movement or movements, the terms meditation, yoga, Hinduism, Theosophy, New Thought and Christianity. However, beyond all these, the single term that appears the most throughout the book is `healing’.

I believe that this revelation or confirmation tells us what in essence the New Age concern is about. Beyond all those components that we have come to associate with or as the New Age phenomenon – including Hinduism, Theosophy and New Thought, the central focus is that of healing. Restoring balance and health to the body and the mind are well-known emphases within the Human Potential origin of New Age, and this undoubtedly extends to the more spiritualised concern with the soul. But as New Age continues to mature, its centre of attention would appear to be expanding if not shifting steadily toward the healing of the planet as well. In other words, despite its gnostic and transcendental legacies, remedial effort to the degree that it is fully honest comes to recognise the role of the environment in the well-being of both the individual and the community of which he or she is a part. And, moreover, to the degree that the ecological becomes a growing priority within the New Age matrix, the fusion of its agenda with that of the pagan is increasingly evident.

The innovation that is associated with both New Age and paganism is that, for the most part, neither movement nor expression has any recognised authority for determining who is or is not an adherent. Instead, this is left up to the individual himself or herself. And as William Bloom has discovered, New Age spirituality is about a championing of human freedom – a rejection of anyone or any institution mandating what the individual must believe and/or practice. Instead, it is about self exegesis. And this applies equally to contemporary Western paganism as well.

What both New Age and contemporary pagan concern have in common, what renders them natural allies even if they may have radically different theological foundations, is a resistance to the over-rational regulation of our society. The over-emphasis that we all face in the West today on accountability has progressed to the extent that there is less and less leisure and less and less give-and-take to life. New Age effort may be seen as an endeavour to develop a psychic address for the individual that is different from his or her IRS taxpayer or Social Security number. Whilst I increasingly encounter people who label themselves `New Age pagans’, that is as pagans who believe in or work for the establishment of a golden age of the future, the New Age metaphor is more generally associated with the New Age orientation rather than with pagan practice per se. Where New Age focus differs from the largely Christian milieu out of which it has been born is on the notion of a new age being born rather than on the individual himself/herself being reborn.

But that being said, I am still increasingly struck by the fuzzy, permeable boundaries between New Age and Neo-paganism. Certainly, for New Age, the role of astrology not only as a tool for understanding the self but in providing the rationale for the New Age of Aquarius as a literal or quasi-literal expectation has been central. For paganism, with its geo-centric framework in which the individual is the pivot by which the angles of the stars and planets are determined, there is at least the potential for much astrological development.  In a 1994 paper entitled “Astrology: From Pagan to Postmodern?,” Patrick Curry seeks to understand the hostility of the Church to astrology. He concludes that the monism and universalism of Christian monotheism are anathema to the pluralism and relativism of astrology. Curry (1994:71) speaks of the astrological commitment “to a multiplicity of gods or truths, and … to the ineradicable importance of personal participation, perspective and context. … [As] a pluralist and relativist practice, astrology really is pagan, irrational and superstitious.”

Curry continues by recognising that astrological divination, as a concern not with prediction but with intervention, is an enterprise that is “situated, local and participatory; [its acts of divination] produce not one big Truth but many little truths” (1994:73f). From this understanding, Curry argues that together Christian authorities, secular rationalists, Marxists and scientists as believers in a single determining reality are opposed to the `underdog’ position of polytheistic pagans and relativistic postmodernists alike. Curry (1994:75) concludes that neo-pagan polytheism might be the natural religion of postmodernism, a worldview of many truths and “not a new consensus but a new lack of consensus” (1994:74).

What has struck me most in Curry’s analysis, however, has been his recognition that pluralism is transforming the fundamental premises of modernism. In many respects, the Church’s drive to squelch differing opinions and understandings, along with scientific methodology and rationalism’s attempt to reduce all difference to “the logic of the same” (Martin 1992) conform to implications behind the archetypal hero Herakles’ effort to vanquish the many-headed Hydra.  Herakles’ destruction of the Water Serpent was the second of his twelve labours. If the multiple heads of the Hydra, however, are understood allegorically as the exegetical truths of paganism, relatively independent and different, the myth could be understood eventually as an allegory of the Church’s attempt to annihilate its spiritual predecessor. The Hydra itself is immortal, and for every head that is cut off, two would replace it.

The twelve labours of Herakles are frequently interpreted as the twelve monthly or zodiacal divisions of the year and indicative of the solar-hero’s annual round. Subsequent to its defeat, the Hydra was placed in the sky by the gods in that part of the celestial expanse that Aratus named `the Water’ – containing Pisces the fish, Cetus the whale, Capricorn the sea-goat, Delphinus the dolphin, Eridanus the river and Pisces Australis the southern fish as well the Hydra and all governed by Aquarius. The constellation of Aquarius is that of the aquatic bearer pouring water from an urn. In Egypt he was understood as a river-god who holds a measuring rod for determining the rise of the Nile’s waters. By the middle ages he was re-interpreted as John the Baptist and compared to the Babylonian image of a man pouring water whilst holding a towel. However, this “simple change from a river-measuring rod to a towel” has been claimed to degrade “Aquarius from a River-god entity to an attendant in a bath house” (Brady, 1998:305f). So much for Christian reinterpretation; in fundamentals, it is Christ himself who, superseding Herakles, becomes the conquering hero who destroys the multiple truths or heads of ancient paganism. But, curiously, although claiming that “The widespread New Age conviction that one creates one’s own reality is appealing, but illusory,” the Pontifical Council for Culture and Interreligious Dialogue titles its report wherein this statement appears as “Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the `New Age’.” Nevertheless, despite the non-Vatican supported but Christaquarian reinterpretation of Christ as the way-shower par excellence rather than the cosmically necessary atoning redeemer, pagan writer Marian Green (1987:135) identifies the Aquarian Water Bearer as the Grail Carrier “who has found the vessel of rebirth and brought it into the world that its redeeming waters may be poured out for all in need.” When it comes to Aquarius, he seems to be up for grabs by just about everyone.

The one common theme found in both contemporary Western paganism and the New Age movement(s) is that there is no single authority of truth. For one, neither orientation possesses any decisive mechanism for determining who is and who is not a member. Truth, belief and practice are to be decided by the individual alone. Consequently, both Neo-paganism and New Age have emerged as spiritualities indicative of the pluralism of contemporary times. In a metaphorical sense, they are the Hydra reborn.

My current way of thinking is now to see New Age thought as a sub-sect of pluralistic paganism. Whilst there are many who would disagree – especially among those who identify as pagan (e.g., Rowan Fairgrove who considers that `new age’ is correctly pronounced to rhyme with `sewage’), there is no provision within contemporary paganism that is authoritative. The two spiritualities share an emphasis on self-determination, possess an inclination toward appropriation of ideas and practices from other religions, are anti-bureaucratic and institutional, seek spiritual restoration, the experience of enchantment and exploration of innovative practices, and, increasingly, an increased cherishing of ecological recovery and balance. If New Age this-worldliness is weak, it ultimately differs from contemporary paganism’s strong this-worldliness essentially by degree rather than by kind. Furthermore, the two orientations are together united in their quest for recognition and survival vis-à-vis both traditional mainstream Christianity and any tendency toward a scientistic monopoly. In the New Age metaphor of a New Age, it is the precession of the vernal equinox into the sign of Aquarius that becomes indicative of the new Age of Aquarius as a hoped for era of tolerance and diversity. Curiously in this context, Hercules as belligerent champion is being replaced by the more gentle Ganymede, the cup-bearer of the gods. In Aquarian symbolism, the Hydra whose name means `water’ is no longer slain but is now carried instead by the water-bearer and poured forth for the benefit of, presumably and hopefully, all humanity. In New Age expectation, the New Age itself is an idea whose time has come. In its pagan context, it is a multitudinous plurality, a vibrant Hydra comprising the source of life, that is in its very foundation democratic in principle, in workable viability and by collective insistence.



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