I. What is New Age? 1. Meaning of the Expression and the Nature of the Phenomenon 2. The Problem of Unity in the Phenomenon and Its Social Impact - II. Some Historical Notes 1. In Search of a Beginning 2. The Progressive Self-Identity of the New Age Movement 3. The Idea of a "Planetary Conspiracy" - III. The Principal Doctrines Underlying the New Age Movement 1. An Anti-Dogmatic Relativism 2. All is One 3. The Human Being as Part of the Divine 4. The Destiny of the Human Being: The Awakening of a New Awareness and the Belief in Reincarnation 5. Spiritual Techniques 6. Revolution on a Planetary Scale... and Beyond - IV. The New Age and Contemporary Science 1. The Revolution of Common Scientific Paradigms 2. Alternative Medicine and Holistic Therapies 3. Interest in UFOs - V. New Age as a Contemporary Form of Old Gnosis: A Comparison of the Two Doctrines 1. A "Vexata Quaestio" from Long Ago 2. Criteria for a "Dynamic Comparison" of the Two Cultural Contexts 3. From the Rejection of Western Culture to the Self-Redemption of the New Gnosis - VI. The New Age and Christian Faith 1. Two Radically Different Conceptions of God, the Human Being, and Salvation 2. The Need for a Balanced Pastoral Approach.
I. What is New Age?
1. Meaning of the Expression and the Nature of the Phenomenon. The term New Age suggests a sense of renovatio mundi, a general change of mentality reflected in the various movements that have become both the authors and spokesmen of the phenomenon. There are other expressions, more or less equivalent, such as Nouvelle Age in French, and the “Age of Aquarius,” an astrological reference to the transition from the “old age” (that of the constellation of Pisces) to a “new age” (that of Aquarius, i.e., the constellation located just after Pisces on the solar ecliptic). Recently, some scholars specializing in new forms of religion have introduced the expression “Next Age” (originally coined by the advertising companies of large American car manufacturers to publicize a particularly innovative car) to indicate a sort of crisis in the New Agephenomenon leading to a rebirth of new forms.
Beginning in the 1980s, the expression “New Age Movement” (NAM) began to be used to indicate the global reality of New Ageand to underline the active and convergent roles of different groups and subjects in the building of the “New Era.” In reality New Ageis not a “movement” per se with clearly defined boundaries, nor can it qualify as a “sect” in the narrow sense of the word (even if it must be considered by those who study the phenomenon of sects), but rather it is an atmosphere, a mentality, a “net” that ties together various thought processes, some similar, some different. The sociological identity of the NAM, an expression which has had great success in North American advertising, has been defined as a “metanetwork” (a network of networks). This definition is interesting, especially if we consider the meaning of the word “network,”which can be understood as a spontaneous creation aimed at addressing and orienting the interests and choices of people, offering them possibilities either directly or via outside, established channels. The great quantity of internet sites dedicated to the New Ageor to its most popular themes confirms this definition. Indeed, the internet has become one of the main instruments of diffusion and growth of the movement itself. New Agecan be thought of as a metanetwork if we think of it in terms of a “cultural atmosphere” that collects, coordinates, harmonizes, fuses, or juxtaposes a number of needs that have as their common denominator a desire to be an alternative to the official institutions in all areas of society. Thus we can speak of the phenomenon in various areas of contemporary society: the medical field (“nature centers” and some aspects of “alternative” medicine); the world of consumer goods (products that are rigorously “natural,” as well as music, books, and vacation packages sold under a New Age label); and the more properly anthropological and “religious” world. It is this latter dimension I will here consider more closely and which has experienced the greatest variety of proposals (see below, V-VI). It is in this context that we find the problem of the relationship between the New Agementality and modern science (see below, IV).
2. The Problem of Unity in the Phenomenon and Its Social Impact. The term New Ageis therefore a sort of “umbrella” that covers a plurality of entities and ideas, ideas which are often very different but have a certain common denominator. However, when we consider the relationship between New Age,modern science, and the Christian faith, we are concerned directly with the doctrinal identity of the phenomenon. But the question arises of whether we can speak properly of cohesive New Agedoctrines? The question is doubly problematic from an epistemological point of view. On the one hand, we have the problem of sources (there is no “canon” of texts recognized as representing a global New Age mentality, nor are there single representative texts held in common by all those under the “umbrella”). On the other hand, the first affirmation we find in New Age books is precisely that there are no universally recognized dogmas. Although different authors use varying expressions to affirm the doctrinal relativism proper to New Age, their agreement on this point is universal. Therefore, we could say that there exists an “absolutized” relativism that offers quite a solid criterion to identify the doctrinal features common to various New Agegroups (setting aside, for now, the problem of the intrinsic contradiction of such a position, which also belongs to some philosophical schools). If it is quite difficult to point out what the various groups all say, it is much easier to point out what they all deny such as the affirmation that there cannot be “dogmas.” This helps us to delineate the emerging features of a doctrinal identity that, paradoxically, does not tolerate being confused with the currents of thought it rejects.
The social organization of this “movement” is very fluid with no hierarchically organized, uniting structure and no official reference points or recognized spokespersons, but the very fact of it constituting a metanetwork(a complex system of structures organized “as a net”) makes its ideas particularly pervasive. The often informal character of one’s initial contact with the New Age atmosphere, in fact, frequently induces one to “lower one’s guard.” It is often difficult for an individual to recognize the significance of the movement and to perceive the process of evolution that his or her mentality may be undergoing, an evolution which can very easily begin without the person understanding clearly where this influence could lead. In this respect, the words which open a “classic” New Age book, The Celestine Prophecy, are a good example of this process: “For half a century now, a new consciousness has been entering the human world, a new awareness that can only be called transcendent, spiritual. If you find yourself reading this book, then perhaps you already sense what is happening because you’ve already felt it inside. It begins with a heightened perception of how our lives move forward. We notice those chance events that occur at just the right moment, and bring forth just the right individuals, to suddenly send our lives in a new and important direction. Perhaps more than any other people in any other time, we intuit higher meaning in these mysterious happenings. We know that life is really about a spiritual unfolding that is personal and enchanting—an unfolding that no science or philosophy or religion has fully clarified. And we know something else as well: we know that once we do understand what is happening, how to engage this allusive process and maximize its occurrence in our lives, human society will take a quantum leap into a whole new way of life—one that realizes the best of our tradition—and creates a culture that has been the goal of history all along. The following story is offered toward this new understanding. If it touches you, if it crystallizes something that you perceive in life, then pass on what you see to another—for I think our new awareness of the spiritual is expanding in exactly this way, no longer through hype nor fad, but personally, through a kind of positive psychological contagion among people” (Redfield, 1994, p. 6).
In many cases an individual’s level of involvement may remain at a very superficial level, limiting itself, for example, to the sampling of some products or services. Even at this first level of involvement, however, more radical engagement may follow in a sort of descending spiral in which it is not easy to clearly distinguish “thresholds” that are being crossed. Thus, it is difficult to draw a “map” of New Age diffusion and even more difficult to estimate the number of people involved because such an estimate would depend on the criteria used. The margin of approximation would always remain very wide. To give a global evaluation of the impact of the New Age phenomenon in today’s culture, we could say there is a noticeable consonance between some psychological and doctrinal New Ageelements and some trends which seem to be emerging in the current mentality of advanced industrial societies, and that these trends tend to reinforce one another.
II. Some Historical Notes
1. In Search of a Beginning. The elusive, non-definability of the New Age phenomenon prevents us from pinpointing a single "birth date" for it because it unites multiple realities, each of which has an individual history and its own “precedents.” From the doctrinal point of view, I will later underline the profound analogies between the Gnostic mentality and New Ageculture (see below, V). From the historical point of view, however, it is not as if the New Age mentality can be traced directly back to Gnosticism (or that Gnosticism can be considered the “mother” of the numerous heresies that have arisen over the centuries) inasmuch as New Age is a phenomenon of the present day and ought not be examined solely by its similarities to past Gnosticisms. If, instead, we define New Ageas the central idea of the imminent advent of a New Era characterized by peace, prosperity and harmony, founded on a widespread, almost pantheistic, awareness, with significant allusions to astrology, then we can consider the work L’Ére du Verseau, published by the French esoteric Paul Le Coeur in 1937, as a representative precedent of what today we call New Age. It is worth noting that Paul Le Couer can himself be considered the heir of preceding esoteric traditions, though to treat them here would be going back to eras too distant from the historical-cultural environment of the phenomenon about which we are inquiring. Alternatively, we could assume as a starting point the birth of some of those who today are considered among the best known and undisputed points of reference for the New Agementality, and who could be considered the first “tip of the iceberg” of a phenomenon that was likely already present below ground but unable to emerge to the surface. We could then symbolically take the year 1962 as a reference point since in that year two important foundations were established; namely, the Community of Findhorn in Scotland by Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean, and the Institute of Esalen in California by Michael Murphy and Richard Price.
2. The Progressive Self-Identity of the New Age Movement. In the history of the New Age movement we can identify a second reference point beginning from the point in which a sort of “explicit self-consciousness” of the movement, understood as a metanetwork, began to take shape. From that point on we can speak of the New Age movement as a “net of net-structures” having among them true relations, explicitly perceived as such. In this respect, an important role was played by David Spangler who, at the end of the 1960s, began a significant popularizing effort through conferences and pamphlets. In 1973, part of the material he developed was collected in an important volume, The New Age Vision, published in Scotland by the Community of Findhorn. In those same years, the other label given to the movement, the “Age of Aquarius,” became popular as well, thanks in part to the famous musical Hair (1968) in which the song “The Age of Aquarius” explicitly mentions some of the key themes of the New Age mentality. At the beginning of the 1970s the first New Age“guides” were published including lists of bookstores, shops, centers of spirituality and alternative medicine, yoga schools, and whatever else was perceived to be in harmony with the renewal that the “movement” was expecting and advancing. In any case, we can historically ground the rise of New Agein the wide and complex cultural and generational crisis that passed (and, indeed, is still passing) through advanced Western societies following World War II. A variety of factors contributed to this historical transition, which gave rise to a great variety of “rupturing” movements that broke out, for instance, in the tumultuous events of 1968. These upheavals were fostered by numerous groups. Some were strongly interested in social issues while others were seeking an “escape” from a reality in which they felt out of place. Other groups were centered around both old and new versions of millenarian and apocalyptic sects. The result was an indefinite but consistent “network” of relations which united, more or less strongly, all those (single or organized) people who professed attitudes or beliefs that hoped to construct a “new cultural and social paradigm,” a hope that culminated in the New Age movement.
3. The Idea of a “Planetary Conspiracy.” The next step in the historical account is to take note of the idea that these various spontaneous movements, linked together by some common beliefs and feelings, are in reality many elements of the same mosaic and are parts of a more extensive design. The Aquarian Conspiracy is the title of a famous book by Marilyn Ferguson, published in 1980, which alleges (as evident by the title), that the New Age movement is intent on triumphing over the dominant culture and over traditional religions and in subverting their order and structures. The objectives of the “conspirers,” Ferguson argues, are twofold. The first consists in promoting the “personal transformation” of as many individuals as possible through a message aimed directly at the interior conscience of each person. The second objective is a “planetary transformation” achieved by influencing public opinion and altering the structures of society. In reality, this “conspiracy” is not to be imagined as if it were a sort of secret plot, coldly planned down to its minor detailsand implemented by the wise direction of occult centers of power. It is, rather, a phenomenon of vast proportion that spreads according to the proper manner of a metanetwork, both by spontaneous phenomena that arise from a certain cultural atmosphere and by actual “strategies” elaborated and advanced by some groups within the movement. In any case, it is evident that the attempt to realize a new “establishment”(a “New Age”) has been nourished by mysticism and occultism.
A phenomenon that can help us understand the way in which this mentality spreads is that of the New Age“communities” born in various parts of the planet. The first of this type of community was Findhorn, founded in Scotland in 1962. Analogous experiments have arisen all over the world, such as the community of Christiania, founded in 1971 on the outskirts of Copenhagen, which began as an unlawful occupation of an abandoned military area and today numbers about a thousand inhabitants. Arcosanti is an “ideal city” built in Arizona according to strict ecological criteria, able to house about five thousand inhabitants. In Italy there are the communities of Damanhur, near Baldissero Canavese in Valchiusella, founded in 1979 by Oberto Airaudi, and the Green Village of Cavallirio, near Novara, guided by Bernardino Del Boca. The city of Damanhur is a group of neo-pagan buildings that expanded noticeably in the 1980s, generating a number of parallel centers in other areas of Canavese. The community has a significant economic and commercial structure, including a publishing house, a travel agency, a sumptuous conference center, and sophisticated propaganda of its image and ideas. The aspiration of Damanhur is to become a true “city state,” having even its own mint.
Finally there are some authors, most of them sociologists, who tend to “downplay” the phenomenon. They present it as a movement with its own evolutionary trajectory, which seems to be already entering its decreasing phase. The commercialization of many New Agesymbols seems to indicate it is being absorbed into consumer society rather than it transforming society according to New Age ideas. For this reason certain groups have taken the name Next Age, thus intending to separate themselves from a New Age polluted by its relationships with consumerist society.
III. The Principal Doctrines Underlying the New Age Movement
1. An Anti-Dogmatic Relativism. I have already observed that one of the recurrent New Age doctrinal elements is the curt negation of any certainty affirmed in a dogmatic way: “The only dogma is that there are no dogmas,” to paraphrase some expressions widely used in the environment. Actually, this affirmation is often voiced without even mentioning its inherent contradiction, thus making us suspicious that—like every relativistic theory that pretends to be assertively radical—it is bound to self-destruct. Yet it helps us to better understand the common rationale of other New Agedoctrines such as a vision of the world in which each individual is the “measure” of truth, both in terms of content and in terms of the way in which one approaches his or her own subjective convictions (except for certain distinct convictions that are clearly “excluded” such as, above all, any belief in a religious revelation that may include dogmatic articles of faith).
It is worth observing that single elements of the New Agementality, taken individually, do not manifest any particular novelty. Many of the beliefs are found in Eastern religions and cultures, in other groups of the Gnostic-esoteric kind that entered Western culture in centuries past, and in the various “Movements of Human Potential” (for example, Scientology, or EST [Erhard Seminars Training] and The Forum, which were the originators of the “rebirthing” technique). What is characteristic of New Ageis the way in which all these elements are arranged into a whole and into a structure which has substantially convergent elements.
2. All is One. All that exists is nothing but a fragment of the one and same substance or reality. In other words, the world is constituted neither of inert matter nor of unconscious energy, but of a single reality, divine and aware, though impersonal. The terms used to designate this single reality, in fact, underline its impersonality: Principle, Mind, Power, Unity, and, most especially, Energy. This latter term is particularly suited to a number of metaphors in order to explain the structure of different levels of reality. Thus different degrees of one’s own “knowing” are different levels of energy and are part of the single cosmic energy, that is, they are part of a single “divine” reality. Various kinds of ecological mysticism can also easily be interpreted within such a framework. It is worth pointing out how such a conception of the divine, based on a radical, positively affirmed pantheism (which appears to exalt the precious and sacred character of every existing reality) ends by denying the divine itself, at least as our culture conceives of the divine. If all is divine in the sense of an immanent reality, then nothing is divine in the sense of a transcendent reality. One could even say that the point of departure of New Age theoriesshould not be sought at a theological or at a metaphysical or cosmological level, but rather at an anthropological level. This anthropological point of departure is closely united to various existential outlooks. Though these outlooks may differ from each other in some respects, they have a common denominator. All of them are based upon anthropological reflections that are holistic and lend themselves well to the kind of pantheistic theorizing that corresponds to the New Age vision of the “divine.”
3. The Human Being as Part of the Divine. The notion that the human being is part of the divine lies at the core of New Age theories. This is nothing but a logical consequence of the doctrine that “All is one.” From an existential point of view this perspective, especially in the West, has had a noticeable impact on the mentality and conduct of individuals. New Age thinking considers the human being to be formed as a “stratified” structure, a composition of various elements: physical, psychic, and pneumatic (in the strong sense of “spiritual”), along with an indefinite tapestry of mysterious relationships with the environment (understood as a living reality composed of multiple energies at different degrees of “awareness”). The awakening of consciousness regarding the nearness between human beings and the natural environment, which are each aspects of a single divine reality, is depicted by the almost “statutory” duty of the most famous New Age community, Findhorn. Starting from the biblical doctrine of human beings who are created in the image and likeness of God, an exponent of the movement affirms: “We have done everything possible to fulfill these words on the material plane without understanding the authentic meaning of them (cf. Gn 1:26-28). The earth and every living being has not had any other choice but to submit to our technical superiority. The idea of an intelligence, a spirit, or a divinity that acts in nature and gives order to all its happenings has been dismissed as a myth of the simple and primitive civilizations. Findhorn’s duty is to make this myth relived” (Giovetti, 1990, p. 71).
To give an idea of the context in which such a community operates, it is worth briefly mentioning its history. It was born in northern Scotland through the initiative of Eileen Caddy and a group of people who gathered around her including her husband, her children, and her friend Dorothy. At the beginning of her “spiritual mission” she was “called” by God himself—by means of clear and comprehensible words—who asked her to give witness to him by transforming the sandy dunes of that area into a luscious garden, with the help of the “positive energies” particularly abundant in that place. Among the peculiarities of such an experience, one highly indicative of the New Agementality, are the frequent communications between the organic farmers of Findhorn and the vital spirits (deva) of the different species of plants. We can hear the tone of such communications in the message that the “deva of pears” allegedly transmitted to Dorothy: “For you I am a being of great beauty, so that you may notice my reality, which is free and divine, and represents the perfect life. This little tree in the garden is my expression. You know naturally that interior beauty becomes more manifest in the moment of blooming, and also that fruit has a unique and particular form. However, you think that this tree can express me only in a limited way. Come closer and try to feel one with it, as the spirit of the tree feels it. Feel the love of the spirit for the tree; the spirit is the tree and we are all one. In this moment you are one with us. We believe that heaven leans towards the earth when you participate in our life: then our unity becomes even greater” (Giovetti, 1990, pp. 48-49).
4. The Destiny of the Human Being: The Awakening of a New Awareness and the Belief in Reincarnation. The path of the human being is a path of “awakening of awareness,” particularly the awareness of being part of a divine “whole.” In a universe that is nothing other than the expression of a unique, divine, and infinite Self, every criterion of objective validity loses all meaning. In the eyes of New Agers, the claim of objectivity is a deception which leads away from the only possible criterion of truth, which is the immersion of the self into that unique divine Self. This awakening of awareness is possible only if one embraces a new way of thinking. Thus we see the importance of the symbolic use that is made of the scientific discovery regarding the distinction between the left hemisphere of the brain (in which the functions relative to logical thinking are located) and the right hemisphere (responsible for the emotional, creative, and artistic dimension). Starting with the assessment that Western culture has always excessively favored “left brain thinking,” New Age practitioners advocate a new mental model, “right brain thinking” inviting people “to think with the right side of the brain.” This new mentality is characterized by a marked distance from the customs of Western culture in general, and from modern culture in particular. Experience and intuition become the fundamental criteria of certainty and truth, an experience and intuition, of course, of an “extra-conceptual” kind that pass over and deliberately reject the usual principles of rational knowledge.
It is from this context that the New Age doctrine of reincarnation of the soul emerges. On the one hand, it displays evident influences of Eastern religions, but on the other hand it manifests peculiar characteristics that define its physiognomy according to a completely “Western” model. In the first place, the doctrine of reincarnation in the New Ageenvironment does not evoke a sort of impersonal cosmic justice to which human beings are unwillingly submitted, but rather it recalls the very Western idea of a “second opportunity” to bring about that growth of interior knowledge which one life alone cannot fulfill. This notion evokes the idea of a journey of an indefinite length, so that if one life is not enough, one can have as many lives as needed, until the journey of maturity to global knowledge is complete. It can be clearly seen how such a conception of reincarnation is imbued with the illuminist-positivist myth of the unlimited progress of humanity, here transferred to the individual plane of an ethical, or more appropriately, of a “pedagogical” view, which considers individual progress to be growth in understanding until the point at which one’s own error is overcome. In the second place, as Julien Ries correctly observed, the doctrine of reincarnation encounters the widely spread secularized culture that is seeking new myths to substitute those in which many contemporary men and women no longer believe, new myths which are better suited to an individualistic mentality: “The stories of previous lives are new myths in which anecdotes of some bizarre sexuality and wild violence are mixed together. Everyone has the right to one’s own myth, everyone can conceive his own origin, his own destiny, his own reincarnations. Each individual can build his own myth of creation and make his own genesis. At the New Age marketplace,the sons of Aquarius find, in an ensemble of techniques, tour guides to lead them through their previous lives: auto-hypnosis, deep meditation, astral journeys, etc. With the help of these guides, the beneficiary of reincarnation can rebuild the history of his previous lives and, starting from them, create his present and actual self” (J. Ries, “New Age and Reincarnation,” Religioni e sette nel mondo, 1996, n. 5, p. 54).
5. Spiritual Techniques. Growth in the interior awareness of being a part of the divine reality involves the use of techniques that we can schematically distinguish in three broad categories: techniques to control the Self (with a certain alteration of consciousness); techniques that regulate relationships with others; and techniques to “communicate” with other levels of awareness. The first type of technique, of which a classic example is found in one of the representative texts of the movement (see MacLaine, 1983), is mainly based on controlling breathing and sensations, not excluding recourse to hallucinogenic substances and exercises aimed at producing alterations in the state of consciousness. Here is a story reported by Shirley MacLaine about one of her “mystical experiences” that took place in the exotic setting of a water spring in the Andes while the actress was soaking in sulphuric and effervescent water: “Slowly, I was aware that my heartbeat was pulsating in rhythm with my breathing. Somehow the rhythm of the two seemed in sync. Time slowly slipped away until I became unaware of it. The candle continued to flicker, but now it began to be the center of my mind. My whole body seemed to float too, not only my arms, but all of me. Slowly, slowly, I became the water and each tingling bubble was a feeling. I was totally conscious, aware of myself, yet a part of all of the water that surrounded me, almost as though the water wouldn’t be what it was without each bubble doing its part to sustain the whole of it. I felt the cool sides of the walls housing the warm water pool even though I was lost somewhere in its midst. I felt shadows and flickers and a slight breeze. But mostly, I felt the inside of myself. I seemed to be a moving entity oblivious of my control. Then I felt the interconnection of my breathing with the pulse of the energy around me. The air itself seemed to pulsate. In fact, I was the air. I was the air, the water, the darkness, the walls, the bubbles, the sound of the rushing river outside” (MacLaine, 1983, p. 268). The second group of techniques aims at controlling relational dynamics and corresponds largely to the methodologies adopted by different psychological schools such as that of Esalen, whose early role in the New Agescene I have already stressed. The third type refers to “spiritual techniques” that allow one to communicate with dimensions of reality different from the one in which we live our conscious life.
These last techniques are collectively called “channeling,” a sort of natural evolution of spiritualistic practices within the New Ageatmosphere (cf. Porcarelli, 1998). Indeed, the goal of New Agers is to understand, in terms of channeling,not only all the phenomena related to classical spiritualism but also every other form of “divine” manifestation in any religious context. All religious mystical experiences, they claim, are simply the many “faces” of a reality which, deep down, is substantially the same. Channelingaims “to make its own” all of the “mystical” phenomena of all religions from antiquity onward, explaining them as a manifold manifestation of the same divine principle that pervades everything and always tends to reveal itself. Differing from classical spiritualism, channelinginserts itself into a holistic perspective in which not only physically verifiable phenomena lose importance, but in which clear preference is given to “non-human entities”: collective spirits, “mysterious teachers,” angels, fairies, extraterrestrial beings, and pagan and non-pagan divinities. According to a “classical” text of modern channeling, written by Jane Roberts (Seth Speaks: The Eternal Validity of the Soul, 1972), the Self that we know is nothing but a fragment of our entire identity. These fragments of the Self are not tied together, like the beads of a rosary, but rather they resemble the layers of an onion, or the parts of an orange, interrelated through a single vital principle but developed into various realities that nonetheless originated in the same source. Nothing exists—rocks, minerals, plants, animals, or air—which is not penetrated by its own specific kind of consciousness. Each one of us is in continuous, vital agitation. We are physically made of conscious cells that carry within themselves the fulfillment of one’s own identity and that cooperate to form the corporeal structure which is our physical body.
6. Revolution on a Planetary Scale... and Beyond. If it is true that human beings are by nature part of the divine, how is it that not all people are aware of this fact? Humanity has one problem: It suffers from a sort of “metaphysical amnesia” which has made it lose sight of its own identity. Perhaps this is the most important belief that we find in the complex New Age panorama. It iscertainly the most “specifying” belief because it is the one from which the entire movement takes its raison d’être since it is based on the assumption that the personal transformation of human beings (by becoming conscious of their belonging to the One-All) will necessarily lead to a cosmic transformation whose signs are already evident and which coincides with the astrological era of Aquarius.
According to the astronomical phenomenon of the precession of equinoxes (which is not an astrological conjecture, but an astronomical reality due to the physical rotational movement of the earth), the points of intersection between the maximal circles of the Ecliptic and of the celestial Equator “precedes,” that is, slowly shifts in time, passing from one constellation to the other of the Zodiac. Interpreting this movement as a sort of “great year of the world,” about every two thousand years a sort of “new age” would begin. We find ourselves precisely on the border of such an epochal passage, from the “old” age of Pisces (which according to New Age thought is characterized by divisions, violence, and the endless exploitation of nature) to the “new” age of Aquarius (characterized by peace, brotherhood, respect for the environment, and interior harmony). In this age all the eschatological expectations of religions and cultures around the world will unite and harmonize: Each of them will be “resituated” in their proper places and understood in a new way, in light of a superior degree of “awareness.”
For such a “sweet revolution” to finally take place, the followers of the New Age movement insist that a great mobilization is necessary. A great number of people must embrace the Aquarian style of life and work to spread it until their number reaches a “critical mass” and they are able to effect a sudden and global transformation of the mental paradigm of all humanity. A “revolution,” as we usually understand it, will not be necessary, and violent action even less so. The progressive development of human thinking in those fields that the New Age considers “strategic”will be enough to bring about the desired effect. The most important of these strategic fields can be summarized. They include sensitivity to ecological problems (it is possible to see a link between the New Ageworld and the growth of powerful, earth-centered environmental movements); a pacifist culture opposed to any form of war and imperialism; and feminism, understood as a reaction to a culture which is too “chauvinistic” and whose features are all “old age” (characterized by violence, conquest, favoring rationality over creativity and emotionality, etc.).
IV. The New Age and Contemporary Science
1. The Revolution of Common Scientific Paradigms. The idea of a change in a cultural paradigm is tied to the introduction of some innovations that have had a momentous influence: the invention of the wheel, the inventions of writing and printing, the “Copernican Revolution,” etc. It is not difficult to understand how, in the New Ageenvironment, there is a tendency to believe a similar change of paradigm is occurring in the world of science. The ways in which we prove such a statement, however, must be carefully considered. Reflections of modern epistemologists such as Thomas Kuhn are read by New Agefollowers as a sort of “prophecy” of an imminent upset of the entire reference paradigm of modern science. The first expression of such an attitude can be found in what is called the “Gnosis of Princeton,”an expression used beginning around 1969 to designate certain scientists who initially gathered at Princeton University and who expressed holistic-type ideas. According to some authors, their cultural roots are similar to those of the hippiephenomenon, especially as influenced by Eastern philosophical thought and pantheistic ideas, though their style and methods are different, adopting in this case the features of an intellectual aristocracy. To synthesize this current of thought, a text by R. Ruyer demonstrates the features of the new gnosis as approved by its advocates: “The New Gnosis has tried to reduce myths to those which are necessary and at the same time to renew them with extreme sobriety. It has nothing in common with pseudo-scientific or ‘initiating’ fantasies. The sobriety of the New Gnosis is also such that it could be reproached for being only slightly distinguishable from pure scientism, and for suffocating, just as scientism does, any kind of religious resonance. […] It seems nevertheless that the New Gnosis, transposing the universe of science and posing it on the right side, allows us to look at it under a new light. It is the same thing yet it is not. […] The universe of the Gnosis is no different in any detail from the universe of science, but between the two universes there is the same difference that exists between a loved human being and a robot, which imitates the human perfectly but which we know does not feel anything” (Ruyer, 1974, pp. 295-296).
Among the most significant spokesmen of such a pantheistic revisiting of modern science we undoubtedly find the physicist Fritjof Capra, author of beloved works in the New Agemovement (The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism, 1975 and The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture, 1981). To understand the peculiarity of his approach we can look to his own words that open The Tao of Physics and in which he introduces his “mystical” experience: “I was sitting by the ocean one late summer afternoon, watching the waves rolling in, feeling the rhythm of my breathing, when I suddenly became aware of my whole environment as being engaged in a gigantic cosmic dance. Being a physicist, I knew that the sand, rocks, water and air around me were made of vibrating molecules and atoms, and that these consisted of particles which interacted with one another by creating and destroying other particles. I knew also that the Earth’s atmosphere was continually bombarded by showers of ‘cosmic rays,’ particles of high energy undergoing multiple collisions as they penetrated the air. All this was familiar to me from my research in high-energy physics, but until that moment I had only experienced it through graphs, diagrams and mathematical theories. As I sat on the beach my former experiences came to life; I ‘saw’ cascades of energy coming down from outer space, in which particles were created and destroyed in rhythmic pulses; I ‘saw’ the atoms of the elements and those of my body participating in this cosmic dance of energy; I felt its rhythm and I ‘heard’ its sound, and at that moment I knew that this was the Dance of Shiva, the Lord of Dancers worshipped by the Hindus. I had gone through a long training in theoretical physics and had done several years of research. At the same time, I had become very interested in Eastern mysticism and had begun to see the parallels to modern physics. I was particularly attracted to the puzzling aspects of Zen, which reminded me of the puzzle of the quantum theory. At first, however, relating the two was a purely intellectual exercise. To overcome the gap between rational, analytical thinking and the meditative experience of mystical truth, was, and still is, very difficult to me” (Capra, 2000, pp. 11-12).
It is interesting to note that although Capra subjectively reaches the certainty of what he affirms via his personal experience, the contents of his reflection are not presented as the fruit of a subjective perception of reality, but as the explanation of a sort of historical destiny of Western culture. Relying on persuasive language, the book runs through some aspects of Western cultural history which are interpreted as eclipsing a primeval mystical experience along with examining the history of 20th century science in which he highlights the progressive “crisis” of its scientific and deterministic paradigm. His arguments frequently quote texts from the great oriental religious traditions (Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, etc.), but the message common to all is, again, the heart of the New Agedoctrine: All is One. “The most important characteristic of the Eastern world view—one could almost say the essence of it—is the awareness of the unity and mutual interrelation of all things and events, the experience of all phenomena in the world as manifestations of a basic oneness. […] In ordinary life, we are not aware of this unity of all things, but divide the world into separate objects and events. This division is, of course, useful and necessary to cope with our everyday environment but it is not a fundamental feature of reality. It is an abstraction devised by our discriminating and categorizing intellect. […] The basic oneness of the universe is not only the central characteristic of the mystical experience, but is also one of the most important revelations of modern physics. It becomes apparent at the atomic level and manifests itself more and more as one penetrates deeper into matter, down into the realm of subatomic particles” (Ibid,pp. 130-131). To support his thesis, he takes some examples from physical observations and some phrases of Heisenberg, such as: “The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole” (Ibid,p. 139).
Along the same line of argument is a second book by Capra, The Turning Point (1981), whose title is taken from an Eastern text. The title corresponds to the name of a hexagram presented in the Chinese work I’ Ching. Capra’s book is divided into four parts. The first introduces the fundamental themes of the text. The second and third parts contain a historical analysis and rigorous criticism of the Cartesian-reductionist mentality. The fourth part proposes the author’s new vision of reality, that is, the “cultural revolution” capable of changing the world. After examining holistic medicine, transpersonal psychology, and systematic approaches to the economy and ecology, Capra argues that the “turning point” in which our civilization finds itself is actually the passage to a new “solar” era: “The transition to the solar age is really under way now, not merely in terms of new technologies but, in a broader sense, as a profound transformation of our entire society and culture. The shift from the mechanistic to the ecological paradigm is not something that will happen sometime in the future. It is happening right now in our sciences, in our individual and collective attitudes and values, and in our patterns of social organization. The new paradigm is better understood by individuals and small communities than by large academic and social institutions, which often tend to be locked into Cartesian thinking. To facilitate the cultural transformation, it will therefore be necessary to restructure our system of information and education, so that the new knowledge can be presented and discussed appropriately. [...] The new vision of reality is an ecological vision in a sense which goes far beyond the immediate concerns with environmental protection. To emphasize this deeper meaning of ecology, philosophers and scientists have begun to make a distinction between ‘deep ecology’ and ‘shallow environmentalism.’ Whereas shallow environmentalism is concerned with more efficient control and management of the natural environment for the benefit of ‘man,’ the deep ecology movement recognizes that ecological balance will require profound changes in our perception of the role of human beings in the planetary ecosystem. In short, it will require a new philosophical and religious basis” (Capra, 1981, pp. 408-412).
Essential to this “ecological” New Age vision is the “Gaia Hypothesis,” proposed in 1969 by James Lovelock, an English scientist, and by Lynn Margulis, a biologist at the University of Boston. Basing itself on some observations that could be interpreted as phenomena of homeostasis and self-regulation on a large, even planetary, scale, this hypothesis describes the Earth (always with a capital letter) as a sort of “living being” to which humankind should relate in an attentive and respectful way. The hypothesis has had some success especially at a didactic level—in elementary schools, for instance—because it facilitates the teaching of ecology to children. There are already attempts in some popular science works to spread this same paradigm on a global, even cosmic scale (cf. L. Smolin, The Life of the Cosmos, [New York: Oxford University Press, 1997]).
2. Alternative Medicine and Holistic Therapies. The history of scientific medicine began, as is known, with Hippocrates. Through the centuries innumerable remedies and therapies have been tried with different success. The phenomenon of “alternative medicines,” though, has more recent roots and grew from a reaction against increasingly invasive medical technologies, especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. One early exponent of these ideas was the Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1734-1815), who studied the therapeutic effects of the application of magnets to sick parts of the body under the supposition that illnesses were nothing but an internal “magnetic non-equilibrium” that could easily be “rebalanced” in order to obtain a cure. These studies on mineral magnetism were simply a starting point. Mesmer soon hypothesized about the existence of a diffused “fluid,” similar to that found in magnets, which is released by many human beings and particularly from the bodies of people who are especially predisposed (such as he considered himself to be) whom we could call “healers.” Convinced that he had established a scientifically irreproachable “curing” technique, in 1775 he send a record of his findings to the Academy of Sciences in Paris, to the Royal Societyin London, and to the Academy of Berlin, without producing any effect. Many years later, the founders of three well-known alternative medicines (Samuel Christian Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathic medicine; Daniel David Palmer, the founder of chiropractic medicine; and Andrew Taylor, the founder of osteopathy) would consistently appeal to him. Although it must be pointed out that their disciplines progressively merged into the traditional scientific environment while maintaining their specificity. Closely related to the New Agementality from its beginnings is the movement of Holistic Medicine, which explicitly reacts against the positivistic model of 19th century Western medical science that treats the human body as a machine, examining its single “parts” without considering the deep interrelations between the body (in its entirety), the psyche, and the spirit. Other schools of thought, all of them connected by a common reaction against the excesses of mechanistic positivism, have since emerged, though inspired by very different theoretical frameworks. The official American Holistic Medical Association, for example, among its accredited health institutions recognizes centers that maintain the doctrine of reincarnation and the reading of the “Akashic memory” as theoretical foundations of their own clinical practices.
Recourse to alternative medicine, however, cannot always be considered a New Age practice, since therapies offered by alternative medicine are related to widely varying philosophical and religious perspectives and have been gradually integrated into the practice of medicine as it is commonly understood today. Nevertheless, recourse to alternative medicine within a New Agecontext assumes an additional meaning when alternative medicine becomes an instrument of re-appropriating one’s corporeal being. One’s corporeal being is freed from the slavery of traditional medicine and engages in the “rituals” of alternative therapies, almost as if they are magical acts which will mystically bring about a growth in the “global awareness” that is the movement’s primary objective.
Capra himself, describing his vision of the world, includes a holistic approach to medicine, appropriating the traditions of unlettered cultures beginning with shamanism. After reviewing the Hippocratic approach and considering the characteristics of Chinese medicine, Capra asks himself how to “incarnate” a holistic model of medicine in our culture. In this vein he points to Japanese culture as an example of “zipper-like” mediation between the traditional and the alternative views. It is a culture, he emphasizes, that belongs to the oriental tradition and which now, a century after accepting certain features of the Western mentality, is rediscovering methods of healing more properly tied to its Eastern origins: “One striking difference between Eastern and Western approaches to health is that in East Asian society in general, subjective knowledge is highly valued. Even in modern scientific Japan the value of subjective experience is strongly acknowledged, and subjective knowledge is considered as valuable as rational deductive thinking [...]. One consequence of this attitude is a distinctive lack of concern about qualifications among East Asian doctors, supported by the doctors’ awareness that they are dealing with living systems in continuous flux for which qualitative measures are considered to be sufficient” (Capra, 1981, p. 319). Transferring these ideas into our own culture must begin with a criticism of the mechanistic model of the “old era” in order to prepare for the holistic model: “For the past three hundred years our culture has been dominated by the view of the human body as a machine, to be analyzed in terms of its parts. The mind is separated from the body, disease is seen as a malfunctioning of biological mechanisms, and health is defined as the absence of disease. This view is now slowly being eclipsed by a holistic and ecological conception of the world which sees the universe not as a machine, but rather as a living system, a view that emphasizes the essential interrelation and interdependence of all phenomena and tries to understand nature not only in terms of fundamental structures but in terms of underlying dynamic processes. It would be that the system’s view of living organisms can provide the ideal basis for a new approach to health and health care that is fully consistent with the new paradigm and is rooted in our cultural heritage” (Ibid,p. 321).
3. Interest in UFOs.The literature and associated phenomena that surrounds the reports of mysterious, extraterrestrial flying objects and encounters between humans and extraterrestrial beings are completely at home within the New Ageatmosphere. Once again, New Agers are not interested in the scientific aspects of the search for extraterrestrial life, or whether one should suspend judgment until reliable data exists. They are intrigued, rather, by a correlation between New Age mysticism and the stories and doctrines of different UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) movements.
A first example of this correlation is the group called Mark Age,founded in 1960 by Charles Boyd Gentzel and Pauline Sharpe, two mediums (clairvoyants) who claimed to be in contact with a “Hierarchical Board” made up of interstellar entities that would make use of flying saucers to govern the solar system in the forty years of passage (1960-2000) from the Age of Pisces to the Age of Aquarius. A similar group is the Heralds of the New Age who make us of channeling to receive messages from the deceased Gloria Lee, a medium who had worked in Mark Ageand let herself die during a hunger strike intended to force American authorities to pay attention to her extraterrestrial “revelations.” The most famous group, however, is the Raelian Movement, founded in 1975 by the French journalist Claude Vorilhon who referred to himself as Raël. Explicitly denying the existence of God, this group claims that human beings were produced in a laboratory by scientists (the “Elohim”) of a very advanced civilization, long ago, on another planet. Apart from a series of fantastic doctrines, including the belief that Satan was the leader of an opposing party on that planet, and that the biblical history of salvation should be read under the wise guidance of these extraterrestrials, the most characteristic element of Raelian doctrine is the notion that human beings have been guided through sophisticated electronic machinery by the same Elohim. The reward for the just, that is, those who let themselves be guided with docility, consists in a sort of “recreation” in a happy life on the Elohim’splanet, where the blessed Raël had the privilege of a sort of inspection visit. The report from his visit is described with many details, including intense sexual satisfaction that the benevolent extraterrestrials had permitted him to have. His followers are permitted maximum sexual freedom as the privileged “way” to reach harmony and peace.
The UFO movements, in a certain sense, reveal another side of the bizarre relationship between New Ageand modern science. In this case, there is no opposition to the spread of scientific research and technology but simply a sort of doctrinal transfiguration in which science is changed into science fiction. This changing of science into science fiction, however, isn’t done for entertainment in the way that many science fiction works are created. Rather, a science fiction is created that claims to represent real facts and events. Followers of UFO movements truly believe that the leaders of the movements have met extraterrestrial guides. The tension with modern science occurs when the borders of reality and fantasy are intentionally obscured, denying the followers of these movements genuine standards of scientific rigor.
V. New Age as a Contemporary Form of Old Gnosis: A Comparison between the Two Doctrines
1. A “Vexata Quaestio” from Long Ago. In order to obtain a balanced evaluation of the New Agementality it is helpful to consider a specific historical-epistemological question under debate today regarding the ideal matrix that underpins New Age thinking: Is it, or is it not, a type of modern Gnosticism? The question is not purely academic because the answer could result in a better explanation of the New Agementality itself. Readers who are interested in this issue can find more information about the doctrinal features of the principal Gnostic systems elsewhere (cf. A. Porcarelli, “The New Age: A Form of Modern Gnosticism,” Religioni e sette del mondo, 1996, n. 6, pp. 51-77). The treatment here will confine itself to summarizing three key features of Gnosticism. First, we see a “radical rebellion regarding evil” (if God is omnipotent and good, why does evil exist?), which fosters a substantially dualistic mentality expressed in different ways, from the “original” dualism of the Persian tradition to the “derived” dualism of the Syrian-Egyptian cultural area. The second is a deep “anti-cosmism” understood as a certain reaction against the classical vision of the Greek man, for whom the cosmos is ordered, harmonious, and substantially “good,” while for the Gnostics it is the fruit of a clumsy Demiurge. The third element is a “divinization of man” with the consequent notion of “self-redemption” that is realized by acquiring a “gnosis” (i.e., true knowledge): It is the awareness of being saved, by right and by nature, from the present condition of misery and called to a resplendent destiny. Modern interpreters of the New Age phenomenon discuss the Gnostic character of its doctrinal structure more or less clearly. If the first and the third features of gnosis are emphasized, then its affinity with New Ageis more evident; if the second feature is stressed, then the differences between the two are more obvious.
In one of his works Giovanni Filoramo, the preeminent Italian scholar on Gnostic culture, underlines explicitly “the structure and the Gnostic nature of New Ageconceptions,” referring precisely to that “‘ecological conscience’ or better, to that conscience of the ‘deep ecology,’ able to surpass the typical dichotomies of the traditional paradigm: matter-spirit, body-soul. The ‘spiritual conscience’ is then a ‘holistic’conscience, which recognizes the unity of the Whole because it is aware of belonging to it. […] The specific divinity of the human being consists, as a consequence, in the fact that he or she possesses by nature a divine spark, which relates it to the divinity of the Whole. There is, then, the necessity to reawaken, to recapture this dimension that the empirical and social self tends to make us forget” (1990, p. 38). Along a different line, Massimo Introvigne juxtaposes the “dualism” of ancient Gnostic systems to New Age “monism”: “Certainly there is no lack of connections and New Ageis situated in a climate that is more general than a modern ‘return to Gnosticism.’ However, if the systems of ancient Gnosticism are in one sense ‘monistic’—because our world and matter have a philosophically precarious existence—they are in another sense ‘dualistic’because the world and matter are considered the result of a ‘fall’ or of the creative activity of an inferior, if not malicious, God, the Demiurge. Matter and the world are therefore the kingdom of evil and darkness from which the initiated Gnostic must climb out of with much difficulty. […] Whereas New Age sees its ‘unification’ of spirit and matter as an alternative to dualism […] New Agecan still be brought into a greater notion of ‘neo-Gnosticism’: but provided it is noted that it is a form of Gnosticism whose psychological attitude toward the world, the body, and matter, is different from the approach taken by the majority of ancient Gnostic schools” (1994, pp. 98-99).
2. Criteria for a “Dynamic Comparison” of the Two Cultural Contexts. We might ask if, and in what terms, we can speak of the New Age mentalityas a kind of “return” to Gnosticism that, mutatis mutandis, tends to insert itself into our culture in the same pervasive way that ancient gnosis spread. As phenomena that “clash” with determined cultures, and against which they level strong criticisms, neither form of gnosis (ancient or modern) can be considered “in absolute” as a pure and simple phenomenological juxtaposition of its descriptive characteristics. They must be considered, rather, in a dynamic way and in a “relative” sense; that is, by taking into consideration the cultures to which they are dialectically opposed, in order to hypothesize a number of analogously intertwined comparisons between ancient and modern gnosis, each in relation to its respective culture.
In the first place, there are some relevant analogies at the level of the historical-cultural context. As in the world of late antiquity when the Gnostic sects operated, there arose a social, cultural, and religious crisis, so also today we find ourselves in a moment of crisis that began several decades ago. Our contemporary world emerged from opposing nationalisms and deep ethnic tensions, along with the tension resulting from the awareness that modern man could bring about planetary catastrophes. To this panorama can be added the conflict of great ideologies and the spread of relativism, both in the philosophical and religious fields, and an ever more individualistic mentality at all levels.
In the second place, there are analogies between ancient and New Age gnosis at a doctrinal and structural level. The fundamental differences between the two approaches are more apparent at the level of their forms of expression and symbols than at the level of their fundamental theoretical structures, which are composed of global visions of the world, profound structural similarities, and the principium redemptionis that in both instances is a form of “gnosis” (redemption through knowledge). The parallels could be thus visualized:
|Ancient Gnosis||New Age|
|Attitude toward the “Dominant Culture”|
|Deep uneasiness with the culture of the era, which is fundamentally expressed by philosophical visions of the world resting on the intuition of an “ordered and harmonious cosmos” supported by rational and intelligible laws||Deep uneasiness with the culture of the era, which is fundamentally expressed by an economic and scientific mentality that has lost a global vision and tends to “divide” and “dominate” what in nature is united and must be respected|
|Reaction against the culture of the era, a reaction that assumes the form of an “anti-cosmism” that is dualistic in character||Reaction against the culture of the era, a reaction that assumes the form of a monism “clashing” with modern Western scientism and opposed to it|
|Fundamental Theoretical Structures|
|Perfect harmony of the divine pleroma||“All is one” (by nature and by right)|
|The break up of that harmony by a “lesser god” who is thereby excluded from the pleroma||Today’s culture originated (as a historical fact) from division, it is fragmented and has lost sight of the original unity of the whole|
|The material world emerges as the consequence of this break up, corrupted and evil, where man (superior eon of purest divine nature) finds himself “prisoner” again||Today’s Western, Christian culture (emblematic of the Age of Pisces) results from this metaphysical oblivion and its fruits are hate, violence, tyranny, and destruction of the environment|
|A redemptive mission is necessary through an “awakening” by a superior divinity (e g., the Logos)||It is urgent to produce an “awakening of awareness” through the New Age “sweet conspiracy”: it will bring a radical change to the cultural paradigm|
|The soteriological result of gnosis is the return of human beings to perfect harmony in the Divine pleroma from which they came, and of which they are part by right||The soteriological result of this awakening of awareness will be the advent of the Age of Aquarius, characterized by peace, prosperity, harmony, and love|
|“Principle of Redemption”|
|Redemption is through gnosis, the “saving knowledge” that can be gained by initiation and that consists in the rediscovery of one’s own divine nature||Redemption is through “global awareness,” a “saving knowledge” which must be fostered by all those who have already discovered that “All is one”|
|The expressive forms of the saving gnosis mostly belong to a rich mythical and creative framework||The expressive forms of such an awakening of awareness (though without disdaining highly imaginative expressions) are typically an explicit criticism of the culturally determined aspects of the dominant paradigm|
3. From the Rejection of Western Culture to the Self-Redemption of the New Gnosis. The strongest similarity found both in Gnosticism and the New Ageis probably the deep rebellion against evil. This attitude is usually expressed in the rejection of the dominant culture, which for the Gnostics of the ancient world was represented by the great philosophical and religious systems of the Hellenistic age. For the New Agethe dominant culture is represented, on the one hand, by Western scientific culture (deeply rationalistic and virtually mechanistic), and on the other hand by traditional religions, especially Christianity. This strong insistence on the necessity of a profound change in mental paradigm as an essential condition for the advent of an era of peace and prosperity represents an absolute condemnation of the present culture. This judgment is not veiled at all and corresponds to a modern version of the anti-cosmism proper to ancient gnosis.
The second typical Gnostic feature is the promise of self-redemption through specific spiritual “techniques.” Through these techniques, subjects or their gurus always maintain “control” of the various stages of their interior growth, except when a conscious decision is made to reject techniques in order to affirm the mental paradigm that gives a privileged place to the instinctive and irrational dimension of experience. In this way, each experience can be assimilated and welcomed without the need for particular forms of self-criticism, and especially without the bother of giving an account of sin. As in ancient gnosis, in fact, the New Ageadvocate feels “guiltless” in his or her inevitable errors because they always stem from a lack of “awareness” of correct behavior. In any case, all experiences, even negative ones, help us to grow: If “one feels” like acting a certain way, one must spontaneously follow the impulse, since the consequent spiritual growth will also achieve the desired ethical improvement. In a pastoral letter titled Christ or Aquarius (Christmas 1990), G. Cardinal Danneels offers a lucid and timely analysis of the main features of the Aquarian mentality. He observes that, according to the New Age,man is in himself drawn to good, and strictly speaking he is not free since there are no good or evil acts. Man does not need revelation, or redemption, or any external help. On the contrary, says Danneels, Christianity speaks a totally different language. No esoteric recipe for salvation, no psychic flow of concentration, no communitarian effort of millions of consciences can save man. Our only way of salvation is faith in Christ, who has come and entered into our history “for us and for our salvation” (cf. Danneels, 1991).
VI. The New Age and Christian Faith
1. Two Radically Different Conceptions of God, Human Beings, and Salvation.Our previous reflections on the Gnostic doctrine of self-redemption that characterizes the New Agementality have already introduced us to an essential difference between the New Agementality and Christian faith. The idea of God that is proposed by the New Age movements, an impersonal and immanent god, is a direct denial of the personal and transcendent God that characterizes the great monotheistic religions in general, and Christianity in particular. (Texts of a pastoral character can be found in the anthologies edited by R. Macias Alatorre, 1996 and by the Working Group on New Religious Movements, 1995. Among Roman Catholic documents, see also chapter eight of the extensive study issued by the Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Jesus the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the New Age, Vatican City State, 2003). Regarding the mystery of the Trinity and divinity of Jesus Christ, various esoteric sects are united in embracing the (not very original) doctrine that redefines Jesus as a mere creature who is the result of a particular intellectual and moral evolution, a master, a guru, but not the savior of humanity. After all, if human beings are not sinners, and moreover there is no personal God, the only thing to be “saved” from is ignorance (understood as a defect in awareness) which we ourselves can accomplish, alone or with the help of a technique or guru. In addition, the doctrine of reincarnation directly denies the Christian vision of eternal life. In his pastoral letter The “New Age” Movement (Miami, 1992), Bishop Edward A. McCarthy notes that in these movements there is the total absence of a personal God, as well as the total absence of the idea of God’s Revelation through his son Jesus Christ, and there are no references to the mystery of the Incarnate Logos, to the Church, or to human freedom regarding good and evil.
Also on the behavioral plane the distance between the New Age mentality and Christian faith appears to be great. The mental paradigm of the dynamics of Christian prayer, for example, is radically reversed. While in Christian prayer the petitioner welcomes as a gift the relationship with a “You” who ontologically surpasses us and in whose hands we place ourselves, the New Age use of meditation techniques is intended, in a more or less automatic way, to “produce” spiritual effects. These effects produce, contrary to the Christian experience, a self-reference in relation to God, which is fatally transferred into an analogous self-reference in relation to others. Having denied the precept to love God above all things—even above ourselves—the New Age approach also rejects the second precept to love one’s neighbor as oneself since this relationship is “filtered” through one’s own subjective demands, that is, by the demands of one’s self-liberation. Thus one can adopt, for instance, a more or less constant disinterest in the other’s destiny. After all, since the others are following their personal treks to self-redemption that inevitably, sooner or later, will result in a happy fate, why worry about their temporary unhappiness? Their suffering is probably just “written” in the book of their destiny as a stage of purification from errors committed in the past.
2. The Need for a Balanced Pastoral Approach. The pastoral problems associated with New Ageculture concern two fundamental fronts: Clarity is needed regarding the respective identities of the Church and the New Age and a fruitful dialogue between the two must be sought. On the first front it is important not to gloss over certain difficulties. The fact that Christianity, as well as all other religions, is included in New Ageas one of the many forms of spiritual elevation—whose true meaning, by the way, is not the one affirmed by the Church, but the one which different gurus want to attribute to it—presents fairly significant problems. One issue is the phenomenon of “dual belonging;” that is, the self-identification of someone who considers himself or herself to be both a Christian and a follower of the New Age mentality. This approach is completely in tune with the logic of the New Age movement, but not at all with the logic of Christ. The peculiar nature of the New Age metanetwork opens up the possibility of a sort of “partial dual-belonging.” This would involve the synthesis of an (albeit lukewarm) Christian life co-existing with doctrinal elements belonging to the New Age spirit such as a belief in reincarnation and the notion that the world is a unique living being, holding as superfluous the mediation of the Church, its sacraments, and its ministers in the different stages of one’s spiritual life. From a pastoral point of view, it is necessary to clarify these more problematic points so that the Christian faithful may be aware of what is compatible and what is incompatible with their own identity. In this sense, the New Agerepresents a great challenge to Christianity, not only because it spreads with such great intensity but above all because it targets Christianity expressly, even though it may try to incorporate whole portions of the Christian patrimony, beginning with the Bible. Also, the New Agepresents itself as a new, planetary, universal religion, which supplants all preceding religions and brings them to perfection; the New Ageis extraordinarily adept at flattering the dreams of contemporary society (cf. Danneels, 1991).
Once the arena is free from any possible misunderstanding, pastoral work can then attempt to point out some possible convergences between elements of Christianity and the ideas of the Age of Aquarius. These possible similarities are not surprising since some New Age ideas derive from the Christian message, as is the case in many alternative religious movements. From a methodological point of view, it should also be considered whether or not the context of these comparisons ought to take place in inter-religious dialogue, given the syncretistic and subjectivist characteristics of the NAM, which assumes rather more the character of a sectarian, cultural atmosphere than that of a religion. In any case, it would remain a comparison and a dialogue regarding values shared by all “men of good will.” Among these values we could mention a greater respect for nature, a prudent concern for one’s health, the desire for a spirituality which is not limited by extrinsic or customary formalisms, and the hope for a world without conflict where it will be possible to have peace, equality, and brotherhood. Once the origin and ultimate reasons for these aspirations have been clearly defined, they can offer a profitable ground for dialogue. Even more important for Christian believers would be the opportunity to carry out an evangelization in order to reveal the genuine anthropological, cultural, and religious roots of these aspirations and to show how they are all fulfilled in the mystery of the Incarnate Word, a mystery that is grounded in the historical and existential path of every human being and in the meaning of the whole universe.
Abbreviations and complete titles of the documents
Pontifical Council for Culture, Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the New Age, February 3, 2003
Pastoral documents: G. DANNEELS, “Christ or Aquarius?” Pastoral Letter, Christmas 1990, Documentation Catholique, 3.2.1991, 73 (1991), pp. 117-129; R. MACIÁS ALATORRE (ed.) Sectes et nouveaux mouvements religieux. Anthologie de textes de l'Église catholique: 1986-1994, pref. by Jean Vernette, (Paris: P. Téqui, 1996); PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR CULTURE, PONTIFICAL COUNCIL FOR INTERRELIGIOUS DIALOGUE, Jesus Christ, The Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the New Age, 3.2.2003 (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2003); SECRETARIAT FOR PROMOTING CHRISTIAN UNITY, SECRETARIAT FOR THE NON-BELIEVERS and the PONTIFICAL COUNCIL OF CULTURE, Sects or New Religious Movements: A Pastoral Challenge, 7.5.1986, ORWE 19.5.1986, pp. 5-8; WORKING GROUP ON NEW RELIGIOUS MOVEMENTS (ed.), Sects and New Religious Movements: An Anthology of Texts from the Catholic Church (Washington, DC: USCCB Publications, 1995).
Studies on New Age and Religions: J. ANKERBERG, J. WELDON, The Facts on the New Age Movement (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1988); R. BOSCA, New Age. La utopía religiosa de fin de siglo (Buenos Aires: Atlántida, 1993); R. CHANDLER, Understanding the New Age (Dallas: Word Publishing, 1988); G. FILORAMO, L'attesa della fine, storia della gnosi (Roma: Laterza, 1987); G. FILORAMO, Il risveglio della gnosi ovvero diventare dio (Roma: Laterza, 1990); P. HEELAS, The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996); M. INTROVIGNE, Il Cappello del Mago (Milano: SugarCo, 1990); M. INTROVIGNE, J.F. MAYER, E. ZUCCHINI, I nuovi movimenti religiosi (Torino: LDC, 1990); M. INTROVIGNE, Storia del New Age, 1962-1992 (Piacenza: Cristianità, 1994); J.G. MELTON, New Age Encyclopedia (Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1990); E. MILLER, A Crash Course on the New Age Movement (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1989); A. PORCARELLI, Spiritismo (Cinisello Balsamo: San Paolo, 1998); P. POUPARD et al., “New Age 1” and “New Age 2,” Religioni e sette nel mondo, 2 (1996), nn. 5-6; J. Saliba, Christian Responses to the New Age Movement: A Critical Assessment (London: Chapman, 1999); G. SCHIWY, Der Geist des Neuen Zeitalters. New-Age-Spirualität und Christentum (München: Kösel, 1987); C. SINISCALCHI, Il Dio della California. La New Age cinematografica (Roma: Ente dello Spettacolo, 1998); R. STARK, W.S. BAINBRIDGE, The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1985); A.N. TERRIN, New Age. La religiosità del postmoderno (Bologna: EDB, 1993); D. TOOLAN, Facing West from California’s Shores: A Jesuit’s Journey into New Age Consciousness (New York: Crossroad, 1987); J. VERNETTE, Jésus dans la nouvelle religiosité (Paris: Desclée, 1987); J. VERNETTE, Le New Age (Paris: PUF, 1994).
Some New Age Books: W. BLOOM, The New Age: An Anthology of Essential Writing (London: Rider, 1991); F. CAPRA, The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels between Modern Physics and Eastern Mysticism (Boston: Shambhala, 2000); F. CAPRA, The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1981); M. FERGUSON, The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s (Los Angeles: P. Tarcher, 1987); P. GIOVETTI, Findhorn. Un modello di vita per l'uomo del Duemila (Rome: Mediterranee, 1990); J. KLIMO, Channeling (Los Angeles: P. Tarcher, 1987); S. MACLAINE, Going Within: A Guide for Inner Transformation (New York: Bantam, 1989); S. MACLAINE, Out on a Limb (Toronto: Bantam Books, 1983); J. REDFIELD, The Celestine Prophecy (New York: Warner Books, 1994); J. ROBERTS, Seth Speaks: The Eternal Validity of the Soul (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1972); R. RUYER, La Gnose de Princeton. Des savants à la recherche d'une religion (Paris: A. Fayard, 1974); D. SPANGLER, The New Age Vision (Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Publications, 1980); D. SPANGLER, The Rebirth of the Sacred (London: Gateway Books, 1988).