ARE WE LIVING IN A NEW AGE?
by Jason Barker
This postindustrial, postmodern age is a time of social upheaval. In the midst of unprecedented affluence and technological progress, North Americans struggle with low self-esteem, occupational stress, familial disintegration, and increasing varieties of physiological ailments. These problems, combined with a growing distrust of organized religion, are creating a spiritual vacuum; 58 percent of respondents in a 1994 survey indicated that they feel a distinct need for spiritual growth.1 Unfortunately, many people are attempting to fill that need by adopting beliefs and practices of the New Age.
The New Age is becoming an increasingly prevalent part of American culture. Eastern studies programs in many universities have seemingly legitimized the alternative religious groups based on eastern religions. Popular music, literature, and movies frequently present a pantheistic religious worldview (see definition below) in commercially acceptable formats. The New Age currently generates more than $1 billion annually. For example, sales of books by Llewellyn, one of the premier New Age publishers, have jumped 20 percent in each of the last eight years.2 Teen Witch, a how-to manual on witchcraft for teenagers, has been through four printings and sold 50,000 copies.3 These publications are just a sign of the increasing acceptance of the New Age in mainstream North America. Russell Chandler, former religion journalist for the Los Angeles Times, claims that 40 percent of Americans believe that all is God, 36 percent believe astrology is scientific, and 25 percent believe in reincarnation.4
The growing influence of the New Age movement raises several important questions: What is the New Age movement? What are some of its characteristics? Should Christians be concerned about the New Age?
What is the New Age?
It is important to note that the term “New Age Movement” is somewhat of a misnomer. There is actually no New Age Movement, because a movement usually has a core set of beliefs with an identifiable leader or leaders. The New Age may more properly be called the New Age Movements: a number of separate groups that tend to be categorized according to their differences from the mainstream world religions. This becomes particularly important when labeling a belief or practice as “New Age;” while many New Age devotees may very well adhere to the belief or practice, it is also a given that many others will not. The New Age is ultimately a collection of diverse movements that revolve around the central belief that humans are capable of shaping reality and establishing truth; the theories regarding the ways in which reality and truth can be shaped are as varied as the groups espousing them.
What Are the Characteristics of the New Age?
While understanding that the New Age is incredibly diverse, it is also possible to identify several characteristics that are common to many adherents.
Despite the fact that many New Age adherents describe God in personal terms, their god is nonetheless far from a personal being. The New Age god instead is typically a variation on the Hindu concept of “Brahma,” an impersonal oneness beyond all distinctions, including personal and moral distinctions. Because Brahma is the impersonal force of existence itself, the entire universe is seen as being part of the indivisible Brahma. This belief, that God is all and all is God, is called pantheism. New Age adherents frequently use the term pantheism interchangeably with monism. When discussing God with people in the New Age, it is important to remember that monism actually refers simply to the belief that all things are of the same substance, whereas pantheism refers more explicitly to the belief that all things are in reality a single deity. Thus, to say that the New Age is pantheistic means that New Age teachers generally believe that they, their students, and all the things around them are part of the indivisible God. An example of this can be seen in the bestselling book Conversations with God, in which Neale Donald Walsch states, “The first step in finding that we are not apart from God is finding that we are not apart from each other, and until we know and realize that all of us are One, we cannot know and realize the we and God are One.”5 A further example can be seen in a 1998 poll in which 23 percent of respondents believe that nature is sacred in and of itself;6 this belief frequently manifests itself in Gaia worship (i.e., worshipping the divine “Mother Earth,” a single living organism of whom humanity is merely a part).
In contrast to the impersonal god of the New Age, Orthodoxy maintains that God transcends His creation, and therefore He is distinct from creation.7 Thus, while the New Age views nature as inherently sacred, Orthodoxy proclaims that nature is good because it was created by God.8 Colossians 1:16–17, one of the great biblical confessions of the deity of Jesus Christ, states the relationship of God to creation: “For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible, whether they be thrones, or dominions, or principalities, or powers: all things were created by him, and for him: And he is before all things, and by him all things consist.”
Members of the New Age typically believe that Jesus was a normal man who realized that he, as well as all other humans, is God. This realization, called the Christ-consciousness, is the goal to which all people are to aspire.9 Many individuals believe that Jesus achieved this realization while traveling to the Far East during the years between his bar mitzvah and his baptism, learning the esoteric secrets of the Orient from gurus in India.10 Jesus Christ is now one of the “ascended masters,” an elite group of gurus who reach across the astral plane to guide humans toward realizing their Christ-consciousness.11
Orthodoxy clearly refutes the New Age view of Christ. The Bible summarizes Christ’s life from the age of twelve until beginning His ministry at 30: “Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.”12 This increased favor occurred not in an ashram in India, but in the town of Nazareth in which Jesus worked as a carpenter.13 The most explicit refutation of the New Age belief that Jesus became the Christ after visiting India can be found in Luke 4:16, which explains that Jesus “came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up: and, as his custom was, he went into the synagogue on the sabbath day, and stood up for to read.”14 This passage leaves little room for doubt that Jesus Christ spent the years before beginning His ministry in the province of Galilee.
Furthermore, rather than simply developing his Christ-consciousness, Jesus is uniquely the Christ. He is God, through Whom all things were made,15 and He alone is God in human flesh.16 Christians should be prepared for the New Age interpretation of Philippians 2:5–6: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God.” Many in the New Age believe that all humans can, by having “this mind” (i.e., the Christ-consciousness) in them, become “equal with God.” It is important to show such individuals the following verses in Philippians, which state that not only did Jesus humble Himself by becoming human (rather than working until He realized His divinity), but also that the Father and Son are to be worshipped by created humanity.17
As stated above, New Age teachers claim that humans are divine. The only difference between a human and “God” is that the human has not achieved his or her Christ-consciousness and realized the unlimited potential of humanity. The goal of the human life is thus to “awaken to the god who sleeps at the root of the human being.”18
The Bible condemns the belief that humans are divine. The first of the Ten Commandments states, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me;”19 God clarified the meaning of this commandment when He said, “There is no god with me.”20 The gods proclaimed by the New Age are created by humans and thus are “no gods.”21
Many New Age adherents will attempt to prove that humans are divine by referring to the biblical passages that state, “Ye are gods.”22 A look at our Lord’s use of Psalm 82:6 shows the fallacy of this interpretation. The three passages in which “ye are gods” is used are actually disapproving toward the people being addressed; these human rulers have fallen under the condemnation of God because of their unethical actions. In John 10:34 Christ is using the a fortiori argument that, if one can say of unjust rulers that “ye are gods,” then it is still more appropriate to proclaim Jesus as being the unique Son of God.23 The statement “ye are gods” therefore cannot be honestly used to claim that humans are equally and fully divine.
Morality is at best underplayed in the New Age, largely because the New Age teaches that “sin” is a misconception of the Judeo-Christian religious traditions. Instead, “sin” and “evil” are simply part of the cosmic law of cause-and-effect, which both Hinduism and the New Age typically label as karma. Good and bad are cosmically balanced, with good actions resulting in positive energy, and bad actions resulting in the opposite. Because salvation is unnecessary, the New Age focuses on two basic principles:
Enlightenment: Almost all New Age adherents believe that humans must become enlightened to the fact that they are intrinsically divine (i.e., achieve Christ-consciousness).24 Thus, almost all of the practices associated with the New Age (e.g., meditation, channeling spirit guides, using crystals, creative visualization, etc.) are intended to help participants to achieve enlightenment. Once a person is enlightened, he or she will allegedly have no problems because they will realize that they are God and that the different things causing them problems are part of Maya (the Sanskrit term for the illusion that there are things apart from Brahma).
As shown above, the Bible does not support the belief that humans are divine. Furthermore, the practices used by New Age adherents to “realize their divinity” are also frequently condemned by Scripture. For example, the practice of channeling spirit guides is implicitly forbidden in the passages in which God condemns witches, mediums, and necromancers.25
Reincarnation: Many New Age practitioners believe that enlightenment is achieved over the span of many lifetimes. The lifetimes enable individuals to eradicate their bad karma through good actions, until enough positive energy has been accrued to enable the individual to attain enlightenment. Many in the New Age believe that the early Church taught reincarnation, but that the Council of Nicaea removed the Scriptures that supported the doctrine.26
In contrast to the doctrine of reincarnation, Orthodoxy has always affirmed the biblical teaching that “it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.”27 Sin does not result in an accrual of negative karma that must be worked off through reincarnation — sin results in death.28 If humans could attain perfection through the work of reincarnation, then salvation would no longer be through the grace of God.29 Instead of the bleak prospect of countless lives spent attempting to attain perfection without divine assistance, St. Paul assures Christians that salvation is a gift given to those “who are created in Christ Jesus.”30
The claim that the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea removed the concept of reincarnation from the Bible is easily disproved. The Council, which was heavily documented, was convened to address the Arian controversy (Arians believe that Jesus Christ was created by God the Father). In a total denunciation of the Arian heresy, the Council proclaimed that Jesus Christ is “Light of Light; true God of true God; begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father.” Contrary to the claims of some New Age teachers, the concept of reincarnation was not addressed at the Council of Nicaea.
Should the Church be Concerned?
The Orthodox Church, of course, will never become a New Age group. Priests will not proclaim that they are God during the middle of the Divine Liturgy, nor will parish newsletters begin printing astrological charts. Nonetheless, there are reasons for Christians to be concerned about the New Age. George Barna, president of the Barna Group, a company that surveys American religious beliefs and practices, states,
America appears to be drowning in a sea of relativistic, non-biblical theology. We are living…amidst the dilution of traditional, Bible-based Christian faith. Millions of Americans are comfortable calling themselves ‘Christian’ even though their beliefs suggest otherwise. For a majority of Americans — especially born again Christians — to reject the existence of the Holy Spirit [Barna conducted a survey in which 55 percent of Christian respondents denied the existence of the Holy Spirit], reflects either incredible ignorance of the basic teachings of Christianity, or a pick-and-choose mentality in which people only believe those teachings from the Bible which they like or understand.31
The New Age is a danger to the Church because of the ability of adherents to reinterpret Orthodox teachings and practices to support their New Age affinities.
Reinterpreting Scripture and Church History
Episcopal priest Morton Kelsey has been instrumental in reinterpreting Scripture and Church history to support the New Age. For example, he claims,
You can find most of the new age [sic] practices in the depth of Christianity…Clairvoyance and telepathy can be found in the Book of Acts…There is the ecstatic experience of speaking in tongues which gave people the same kind of experience that is described today as kundalini [an Eastern term describing the “serpent force,” or universal energy, that flows through humans from the base of the spine]. We have all these things in the New Testament which modern Christianity has blocked out and ceased practicing.32
Many New Age teachers will claim that the true Christianity of the early Church was Gnosticism, which taught, among other things, that matter is evil (which the New Age implicitly teaches through its emphasis on pantheism) and salvation is gained through mastering secret teachings and practices (as can be seen in the various paths to enlightenment).33 Kelsey even claims that St. Clement of Alexandria was a Gnostic teacher;34 the support for this claim is, however, quite spurious.35 A book advocating Gnosticism as true Christianity based upon the Nag Hammadi manuscripts (a collection of pseudepigrapha and gnostic writings discovered in Egypt in 1945) called The Gnostic Gospels was a huge bestseller in this decade.
Some New Age groups already claim to be both Gnostic and Orthodox. For example, in the South, the Apostolic Orthodox Church in Boerne, TX, claims to continue the Gnostic teachings allegedly carried by St. Thomas to India.36 The Gnostic Orthodox Church, which was previously located in Oklahoma before moving to Nebraska, makes a similar claim;37 this latter group even presented itself as an Orthodox monastery to Christians in Oklahoma City and Tulsa.
Adopting Orthodox Spiritual Practices
Many groups are already adopting some of the elements of Orthodoxy, such as iconography, creating an atmosphere that looks Orthodox, but lacks the truth of Orthodoxy. For example, a church in Boston offers “post-contemporary worship services” in which incense is burned and electronic images of icons are flashed on screens, all while a rock band plays “grunge” music.38 The Church Universal and Triumphant creates artwork for their spiritual practices that have some artistic similarities (albeit technically inferior) to iconography, but are far removed from the spiritual significance of true icons. Some groups are now offering courses in writing icons as an exercise in creative meditation.39
Perhaps the most significant and influential area of the New Age is the human potential movement. Teachers such as Marianne Williamson (a promoter of A Course in Miracles, a book allegedly revealed by Jesus Christ), Deepak Chopra (a former assistant to the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of Transcendental Meditation, a New Age religious group rooted in Hinduism), and others teach that people are hindered from personal success and total fulfillment only by the limitations in their minds. The message of these teachers is simple — acknowledging that you are without limits will give you limitless potential.
This message of unlimited human potential comprises the foundational message underlying countless bestselling books, sell-out workshops, appearances on such national television programs as Oprah, and even a growing number of public school curricula. The human potential movement has been particularly successful, however, in the business community. For example, AT&T, General Foods, Connecticut General Life Insurance Company, and Blue Cross / Blue Shield have used personnel programs based upon Transcendental Meditation.40 Similarly, many companies in the 1970s and 1980s participated in the est (later the Forum) workshops of Werner Erhard, whose platform was the pantheistic belief that “when I get in touch with my self and you get in touch with your self, we will see the same self…Self is all there is. I mean that’s it.”41
It is true that many people are either unable or unwilling to fully exert themselves in their endeavors due to fear or negative thinking. Nonetheless, the belief that humans have limitless potential is directly opposed to the Orthodox teachings regarding humanity’s dependence upon God. Christians know that fulfillment in this life, and salvation into eternal life with God, stems from the same principle stated in the blessing given by Moses to Aaron and his sons: “The LORD bless thee, and keep thee: The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”42
The New Age is unquestionably a major force in North American society. Because many of the core teachings of the New Age are frequently repackaged in more widely acceptable format (e.g., changing the concept of pantheism from “you are God” to “you have limitless potential”), Christians must practice discernment to know when they are confronted with a false spirituality. At the same time, the hunger for spirituality that currently exists in North America provides Christians with an excellent opportunity, using the openings that the New Age frequently provides for such a conversation, to share the gospel message with individuals who are outside the Church.
31. George Barna, “Angels Are In — Devil & Holy Spirit Are Out,” Data and Trends, April 29 (1997) [Online]. URL http://www.barna.org/PressAngels.htm.
33. See Jason Barker, “Heresies: Then and Now,” [Online]. URL http://www.orthodoxstudies.org/cults/heresiesthenandnow.htm.
35 See “Clement of Alexandria,” The Catholic Encyclopedia [Online]. URL http://www.knight.org/advent/cathen/04045a.htm.
36. Gnostic Christian Church Directory [Online]. URL http://home.sol.no/~noetic/GCCC.htm.
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