The New Age Movement: The Self as god.
1997 by Jefferis Kent Peterson,I
The New Age movement is an eclectic religious movement that can be characterized by its lack of absolutes. Because anyone can believe just about anything and fit within the New Age community, it is an extremely hard movement to characterize by example. Many of the beliefs of the New Age derive from Hindu beliefs, but because eclecticism is the character of the movement, elements of Buddhism, Taoism, and other eastern religions also weave throughout it. Many leaders of the movement are self identified New Agers, but others are leaders of “traditional” eastern religions such as Hinduism.
David Smith has pointed out common beliefs that seem to predominate the movement as a whole. They are Pantheism, Reincarnationism, Esotericisim, and Relativism.1
To understand the rise of the New Age in Western culture, it is necessary to look at the sociological influences that have resulted in our shifting worldview. The New Age represents a radical transition from a Judeo-Christian worldview, which was the basis of Western society until recently, to a worldview spawned by ancient Oriental religions. The acceptance of an Eastern worldview by a large percentage of our populace has created an environment where Relativism and Tolerance have become the premier values of our culture. And with the rejection of a Christian standard for measuring metaphysical truth, our culture has lost a sense of any absolutes by which religions, morals, and beliefs may be judged. Thus, an agnosticism in the culture over the ultimate issues of faith created an environment where all ideas and religions can potentially be embraced as equally valid.
During the 1800’s, while the fires of revival burned among the populace in the United States, the rise of Darwinism as a scientific theory called into question the reliability of the Bible as an accurate history of Creation. At the same time, Enlightenment Rationalism in Europe created a climate of skepticism, where the historical, religious, and supernatural claims of the Bible were made subject to the Scientific Method of proof. In many quarters, faith did not survive the radical inquisition of religion’s cultured despisers. And what heretofore had been seen as the unity of theology and science (the latter affirming the orderliness of God’s purpose and power in Creation) became the great schism between faith and reason.2 Religion was classed as a superstition borne of ignorance, while science attempted to explain away God’s role in nature.
In spite of this great schism, it was the Christian assumptions about the rational order of the world which gave rise to scientific inquiry in the West. Those assumptions of rational order came from the belief in a God who is intelligible and orderly. That belief provided a ground for the advance of Scientific Empiricism, Materialism and Humanism, which came to predominate the worldview of Western society. The study of Creation did indeed reveal a material world that was orderly, which could be measured, and which followed discoverable laws of physics. But with the questioning of the truth of the Bible, society was left with the physical laws of matter, but with no Author. While Judeo-Christian morals and values still governed the laws of the land and the minds of the people, atheism and agnosticism seemed to take over in the realms of academia, politics, and the media. And an elite culture developed in the West that saw as its great purpose the irradication of religion and superstitious prejudices from the minds of the people.3 As religion took a beating in the public arena and in the courts, Humanism came to be the operative religion of the social whole.
From about 1940, as the first generation of John Dewey’s educational experiment came to political power, the society began to shed its Christian outlook and to adopt scientific humanism as its fundamental world view. Science, it seemed, had all the answers to explain the real world, while religion, a product of ignorance and fantasy, increasingly became a private and personal affair with no direct bearing on public life. As the social order lost a set of commonly held religious beliefs, Christianity was relegated to just one of many unprovable religious beliefs and superstitions. And as religion was separated into its private sphere, any claims it might make to ultimate truth were dismissed as a reflection of the superstitious nature of religious belief. Religion was denied a place of authority in modern culture, and it its place Science stood as the priestcraft of the modern world.4
It is interesting to note that the prevailing scientific outlook of the previous generation considered all religions a form of superstition equally devoid of empirical foundations. It was the presumption of the impartiality and independence of the scientific method which became so devastating to Christianity.5 For it did not appear that the rejection of religious thought was directed against Christianity per se, but against all religions equally. Christianity, like other religions, was considered a product of the primitive mind – a mythical worldview adopted to explain the unknowns of nature. This scientific worldview relegated the claims of all religious thought to the backwaters of public discourse. In addition, because of the wars and suffering caused by religions throughout history, Humanism saw its mission as the irradication of the religious impulse in humanity through the enlightenment of a good education. In so doing, Humanists hoped to make the world a better place.
Rather than fulfill this humanistic dream, the culture did not remain religiously neutral, nor did the religious quest cease in society. Instead, the vacuum, created by the rejection of Christianity as a majority force in the United States, was quickly filled by all manner of diverse religions, including the New Age, Islam, drug use, and the occult. It seems that people are basically religious. We all want to find some meaning in our lives, and we cannot live productively without it. Science however, cannot provide reason and purpose for the life of the individual because of its presumed agnosticism about metaphysical matters. Yet it is only the postulate of an ultimate design to Creation wherein mere matter can attain a transcendent purpose. Psychology has recognized this pursuit in humanity and has attempted to become a scientific substitute for religion, providing answers to life’s questions without reference to God but by pointing to human feelings and perceived needs. Yet the striving for meaning and purpose remains hidden beneath the surface and is not entirely satisfied by the answers given through the secular culture. As a result, New Age thinking is on the increase in society.
The rapid rise of New Age thinking in our culture and the precipitous decline in Christian morals has led many to wonder if this New Age movement is a unified conspiracy? From a merely human vantage point, the answer is probably “no.”6 With the decline of a Christian worldview, the natural human tendency to satisfy the religious impulse has created an openness in the culture to Eastern religious ideas and thought patterns. The desire to escape guilt and responsibility has opened the doors to a worldview devoid of judgment and of God as judge. The loss of a religious standard, mentioned above, has created a pluralistic climate which assumes the plausibility of all ideas. We shall see how these ideas fit into a consistent pattern of New Age philosophy below. But it should be noted that this New Age environment is indeed influencing our political, social, educational, and cultural life, and threatens to become the dominant view in our cultural and our laws!
The influence of the New Age is so pervasive that it appears to be a conspiracy, but it is not on the rise because people are trying to “take over” the United States, as such, but because so many people are accepting the relativistic standards of the New Age as a morally true and tolerant view of the world. So in the first instance, the New Age is not a conscious, global conspiracy of human powers instituted by premeditation. However, I do believe that in the spiritual realm, the rise of the New Age is satanically motivated and may be according to a demonic scheme (2 Cor 2:11) which desires to unify people in ignorance through their unbelief in Jesus and to make our culture completely anti-christian. There is too much similarity among the various religious movements to be purely accidental. How much control satan has in this is another matter, for it is only by the allowance of the Father that satan has any advantage. But what is common in all the devil’s impulses is a resistance to the truth of Jesus Christ. (2 Cor 10:5, Romans 1: 18-21, Acts 4:26), and in as much as human beings are swayed to agree with the devil’s impulses, they are being prepared for a deception that will eventually come upon all people who reject Jesus Christ .7 But we must always remember that it is God who allows the deception and who hems in the devil to predetermined limits of rebellion (Ps. 8:29).
Common Characteristics of the New Age.
We have spoken of the historical factors and present environment which have give opportunity to a New Age worldview. It would be helpful to identify common threads of belief and practice that signify such an allegiance of heart and mind among the movement. While there is no evidence of an overt conspiracy to all these New Age movements, there seems to be underlying principles which allow such an affiliation of diverse beliefs, practices, philosophies, and morals under one common umbrella.
1) Relativism – New Age practitioners repeatedly claim that all reality is a projection of the self’s wants, wishes, and beliefs. Individuals, as gods, create their own reality through the projection of emotions (like fear or joy) and thoughts of the mind. What Enlightenment Rationalists would call the real, material world, the New Agers might classify as illusion. But because “truth” is individualized, subjective, and a projection of inner consciousness and/or Karma – there is by definition no absolute truth applicable to everyone. There is no such thing as an objective reality or objective truth, and there especially is no absolute Creator God in the traditional Christian sense who is a source of ultimate definitions of reality.
2) Tolerance– because there is no single truth applicable to all, the only “loving” position that anyone can have towards others is to tolerate and accept diversity of beliefs and practices. Morals also vary from person to person, so homosexuality, fornication, and abortion may be right for one person but wrong for another. The only sin is claiming to know the absolute truth that is true for all, for that is the sin of intolerance. Christians, with their claims to know the only true God, are by definition, intolerant bigots; especially when they, with their views of morals informed by their scriptures, presume to promote those views for public governance.
The first two characteristics of the New Age movement, relativism and tolerance, can just as easily attributed to Liberal Political philosophy as to anything specifically New Age. But the foundation of Western Democracy in the Liberal and Utilitarian Ideals of Locke, Mill, & Hobbes created a political system that would embrace the encroachment of non-Christian theologies as soon as our culture abandoned its Judeo-Christian heritage.8 The remaining values are specifically religious.
3) Monism – the belief that all reality is one and that apparent differentiation between people and things, good and evil, are only aspects of an underlying essential unity of being.9 The movie trilogy Star Wars, and its espousing of “The Force,” as a type of Yin Yang power that flows through and governs the universe, is an excellent example of Monism.
4) Pantheism – the belief that all things are God, an expression of God, and/or that God is all things. The loss of the personal God is replaced by the idea of an “impersonal energy, force, or consciousness.”10
5) Humanity is God. Akin to ancient Gnostic thought or modern Christian Science, the New Age view of human sin is that sin is only an illusion brought about by human ignorance of one’s underlying divinity. The thought is that if we only realized we are perfect and that we are gods who create our own reality by our thoughts and expectations, then we would learn to control our world and end pain, suffering, and the illusion of sin.11 This view of the self as god creates license in much of New Age thinking, allowing every person to project and create their own reality through their thoughts and beliefs.
6) A Change in Consciousness. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of the New Age is the belief that through alteration of consciousness we are opened up to a Gnostic salvation, a salvation through knowledge of deeper truths, reality, and the escape from ignorance and illusion.12 This New Age search for altered mental states is a counterfeit to the Spirit who gives revelation of God. And the means by which New Agers seek insights into reality is through occult practices: going to demons to get “truth” rather than by seeking God.
There are many manifestations of this particular search, among which are Transcendental Meditation, Yoga, biofeedback, and visualization, and investigation of the paranormal senses. But perhaps the most dangerous practice of the New Age is called “channeling,” which is nothing but an invitation to demonic inhabitation. As practitioners invite “deities” and “Ascended Masters” (supposedly enlightened beings that have preceded us to a spirit world) to speak through them, they are unknowingly practicing abominations that invite satanic demonization (Deut 18:9-14). The various doctrines and beliefs that result from such unholy practices cannot reflect anything other than the corruption of sin. The tragedy is that the United States has become so open to such spiritism. In a country that previously prided itself on its scientific materialism, it is ironic to say the least that those beliefs that would have heretofore been labeled “superstitions” have come to dominate the religious landscape of the popular culture and have been accepted as a valid expression of religious ideals. God help us!
7) Syncretism. A persistent assertion of the New Age is that “All religions are One.” There is an implicit denial of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ as the Only Son of God by this commonly held tenet of the New Age. But few openly discredit Jesus. Many, many of the New Age practitioners claim to be followers of Jesus, or the “Christ Spirit.” At first such a claim creates an openness in the Christian community, but further investigation will reveal that the Jesus of the New Age bears no resemblance to the Jesus of traditional Christianity. The Christ consciousness that was in the man Jesus is seen to be available to all. Jesus is often redefined as a New Age Ascended Master. He is stripped of his significance as a Jewish Messiah and is remade in the image of a Gnostic exemplar. He is then classed as an equal of other enlightened masters such as Buddha, Krishna, Muhammed, etc.13 But the distinctive and exclusive claims of the New Testament about Jesus are always reinterpreted or ignored. Jesus becomes the god of one’s own liking rather than the one and only true Son of God who is revealed in human history.
8) A Cosmic Evolutionary Optimism. For some reason, in blatant denial of the marks of evil that have dominated the modern world, New Agers persistently give voice to a hope in a coming universal order of peace and tranquility, ushered in, not by the return of Jesus Christ, but by the raising of world consciousness and often by the revelation of a new Ascended Master on the earth. 14
As these views have worked like leaven into our culture, the invasion of new ideas and new consciousness has spread into empirical areas of study where formerly they would have been dismissed out of hand. But it is with great regularity that unwitting teachers, fresh from a conference or from college, implement innovative techniques for learning that correspond to a New Age worldview. They often have the children sit on the floor and visualize or practice Eastern relaxation techniques. We have had to battle in our schools on numerous occasions where the teachers, usually non-Christian and sometimes hostile to our interference, have wanted our children to participate in some New Age consciousness raising. Since these teachers invariably do not understand their psycho-somatic techniques as religious in nature, they do not see either the danger nor understand our concern or objections based upon our Christian principles and convictions. Yet we are hearing of reports throughout the country on a regular basis of this very same conflict of worldviews between Christians and the public schools.
Even the science of medicine has felt compelled to investigate holistic medical practices, some of which are not bad in themselves, but when coupled with Eastern religious explanations, these practices become bearers of more than just empirical evidence,15 they become media for inculcation of Eastern theologies.
In conclusion, the pluralism of our modern world, with its loss of consensus and its loss of a comprehensive worldview, places the Church in the United States in exactly the same position the early church faced when it encountered the pluralism of the Roman Empire. The lack of meaning in and the moral decay of the culture provided an open door for the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ as the Only way. The lack of conviction of our secular age creates an opportunity to witness whereby we can bring clarity and perspective to an age that is despairing of understanding or direction. Not all will receive, that is true, but the fault of Relativism is that people being to understand that if all things are true, then nothing is true. And this lack of moorings creates a deep seated anxiety in the populace that only totalitarianism or Christ can fill. We have our work cut out for us. Let us not fail to take advantage of the opportunity God has created for us.
1 A Handbook of Contemporary Theology, by David L. Smith, Bridgepoint Books, SP Publications, 1192, p.277.
2 The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, By Mark A. Noll, Wm. B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Mich., 1994, pp. 15-19, 24
3 Humanist Manifesto I, 1933; also Humanist Manifesto II
4 Thesis of the book, The Emerging Order, God in the Age of Scarcity,by Jeremy Rifkin with Ted Howard 1979, G.P.Putnam Sons.
5 20th Century Theology, by Stanley J. Grenz & Roger E. Olson, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill, 1992, p. 21.
6 Unmasking the New Age, by Douglas R. Groothuis, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Ill, 1986, pp. 33-35.
7 And then the lawless one will be revealed, whom the Lord Jesus will overthrow with the breath of his mouth and destroy by the splendour of his coming. The coming of the lawless one will be in accordance with the work of Satan displayed in all kinds of counterfeit miracles, signs and wonders, and in every sort of evil that deceives those who are perishing. They perish because they refused to love the truth and so be saved. (2 Thessalonians 2:8-10, NIV).
8 “Androgyny and Popular Culture,” by Jefferis Kent Peterson, (esp. Section II on Philosophical and Political Roots which shows how the Liberal assumptions of political theory led to an understanding of the State as agnostic on matters of morals).
9 Groothius, p. 18.
10 Ibid.,p. 20.
11 Ibid., p. 21
12 Ibid. pp., 22-27.
13 Ibid., p. 28.
14 Ibid, pp. 29-33, and the theme of The Aquarian Conspiracy, by Marilyn Ferguson, J. P. Tharcher, 1980.
15 New Age Medicine, by Paul C. Reisser, M.D., Teri Reisser, & John Weldon, Global Publishers, Chattanooga, TN, pp. 53-62.