Thursday, December 11, 2008

The one where I bag out the new age movement

This posting is an assignment I wrote for the Postmodernism and New Age Spirituality class I took at Kingsbor this semester. Read on if you feel so inclined.

Geelong is much like any other town in Victoria, with a diversity of ethnic and socioeconomic groups, and a mixture of affluence and poverty. Certain areas of the city are popular with its more affluent residents. Pakington Street is one of the city’s most fashionable areas. In worldly terms, the people who visit this area and its upmarket eateries, cafes, and shops are well educated, successful and have comfortable lifestyles. My impression is that behind this fa├žade, perhaps we can discern a yearning for something of greater significance, and that some of these people have found that career attainment and materialistic consumerism have not brought them the fulfilment they sought, not to mention the need to find ways of coping with the stresses of modern life. People are looking for greater meaning and significance in the spiritual realm. To see evidence of this, we need look no further than the Universal Insights New Age expo, held in the Geelong West Town Hall over the Melbourne Cup long weekend.

Judging by their appearance, most expo visitors were affluent middle class people, which as I have observed previously, fits the demographic of most new age seekers. It was interesting to note the mix of singles, couples, and families with young children. As it was held in a small venue, it did not take long for the casual browser to peruse the variety of stalls. In the past I have visited similar events with the intention of learning more about new age beliefs, but also to try to carefully and tactfully share my Christian faith with others if the opportunity arose. From past experience, I have found that challenging their beliefs too strongly makes them defensive. On this occasion I decided to quietly observe instead, keeping my reasons for being there to myself.

I would like to describe some of what I observed. Numerous psychic artists were available to sketch a pastel portrait that is claimed to be the customer’s personal spirit guide. These psychic artists claim to be working under the influence of an unseen spiritual force. I briefly viewed some of this artwork, and noticed that these spirit guides were usually human, and often from different ethnic groups, but they might also take the form of an animal, such as a tiger or wolf. The belief in animal spirits is common in the animistic beliefs of various indigenous groups around the world. It is common to see elements of indigenous spiritualities appropriated for the Western world.

Pantheism is another key new age belief. This is the idea that God is everywhere and in everything. Rather than a Supreme Being, such as the God of Judeo-Christian belief, new age belief holds that there is a divine force that inhabits and penetrates all living things, binding them together, so that all is one. Crystals are purported to contain this universal energy, so that wearing a piece of crystal jewellery or having a crystal ornament in your home helps to create a sense of wellbeing and harmony. Pantheism is also the underlying belief behind many new age healing practices, such as Reiki, for example. I watched a Reiki session. The client lay down on a massage table, with a cloth placed over her eyes, while three Reiki healers placed their hands on the soles of her feet, waist, and around her neck. Perhaps she was being treated for a musculoskeletal condition.

An event of this kind, in which people are open to discussing spirituality, provides a fertile environment for the promotion of cults, such as Eckankar and Scientology. Considering the negative media coverage that Scientology has received, it is little wonder that books and other materials available from the Scientology stand went under the cult’s alternative name of Dianetics, as if to deliberately mislead the unaware. The Church of Scientology uses free stress tests as a recruiting tool. The tests are designed to reveal alleged personality flaws that can only be corrected through the Church’s lengthy and expensive auditing programs. On a more positive note, a group of Christians, known as the Community of Hope, has been an active presence at new age events for many years. This ministry has been quite successful in presenting the gospel to new age seekers, who would normally be unlikely to set foot inside a church building.

It can be confronting for a Christian to decide how to respond to all this. Christians understand that they are made in the image of God. We are not merely physical beings; we are also spiritual. To deny this is to deny a significant part of our humanity. It is this aspect of our humanity that compels these people to explore the spiritual side of life. At one level Christians can affirm that it is positive that people are looking for spiritual answers to life’s questions, and to find meaning and significance. On the other hand, there are many objections that Christians must raise against new age spirituality.

Stated briefly, there is undoubtedly a supernatural power at work behind the new age practices on display, including energy healing, tarot, clairvoyance, and psychic art. Regardless of whether or not new age practitioners realise it, this power is not benign, but actually very dangerous. That is why God forbids us from exposing ourselves to it. Nor is there in new age spirituality any notion or concept of sin and accountability to God for one’s actions, or anything that compels the individual to feel obligated to do anything to alleviate pain and suffering in the world. It seems largely geared towards enhancing the life of the individual, and makes no demands upon them.

Finally, the appeal of the new age is that it asserts that all expressions of spirituality are equally valid, being different paths up the same mountain, which the Christian cannot accept. The God of the Bible makes it clear that there is only one God, just as Jesus Christ, his son, made it clear that he is the only way to know God. We must come to God on His terms, and not our own. Christians are compelled to uphold this message; that the same God who created the universe provides humanity, uniquely created in his image, to have a relationship with Him through his son. In responding to new age seekers, we are also compelled to follow the advice that the apostle Paul gave to Timothy, and share our faith with them with gentleness and respect, so that they might come to realise the truth of the gospel, and in so doing, realise their need to come to a faith relationship with God. Making the wrong choices about our spirituality has grave consequences for our eternal destiny.


Anonymous said...

Hi Ross,

Very good article; articulate, intelligent and well written. Having said that where do you sit on the theological spectrum; fundamentalist, conservative or progressive (I know I can delete liberal).Having looked a little at New Age myself, not all of should be demonized. I think you are right in terms of the attraction of the well-heeled middle class, there is strong attraction in NA to those who have a lazy attraction to spirituality, and who are seeking an endorsement of the ego, those who have a much more grounded understanding of life tend to avoid anything that has consumerist elements built into it, even though they might not identify them as such, there is an inherent sense of honesty in what they do and as such have a more down-to –earth view of spirituality within this context Christianity comes into its own, this inherent sense of honesty is largely missing in New Ageism. I will be a regular visitor to your site

Ross said...

I consider myself to be theologically conservative. Thanks for visiting and leaving some comments.