College Preparation Part 2: The Rise of New Age Spiritualism

Two weeks ago, I posted about the death of postmodernism and what its death meant in regards to preparation for college. This week, I want to talk about the cultural rise of New Age spiritualism.

Part of the difficulty in talking about New Age spiritualism is the inherent difficulty in defining what it even is. Literally, it is a cosmically holistic worldview, and includes the belief that we are in an emerging Age of Aquarius, a product of the earth’s slow processional rotation (see the Broadway musical Hair for more on this – I’m only partially joking). But it is also much more than that. As Phil Johnson said, “The New Age movement is a diverse and eclectic approach to spirituality that stresses individual self-exploration through a variety of beliefs and practices borrowed from a wide array of extra-biblical sources and non-Christian belief systems, ranging from astrology to eastern mysticism to science fiction, and beyond.” He went on: “There are no dogmas, few demands, no sense of self-denial, and little need for faith. This is a kind of anti-religion: a spiritually oriented worldview for people with an intuitive sense of the sacred, but who are wary of organized religion. As a matter of fact, the so-called New Age movement is nothing like organized religion. It has no headquarters, no central hierarchy, no holy book, no recognized clergy, no common set of doctrines, and no confessional standards. It is not, technically, a religious cult or even a formal movement (which implies structure and membership and mission).” You can see the initial appeal to those who have been burned or are simply critical of organized religion and especially the evangelical church, which include, unfortunately, a significant portion of millennials. New Age spiritualism provides the ability to feel spiritual without all of the standards, requirements and structure of traditional Christianity.

The rise of New Age spiritualism is readily evident in pop culture, if you know how to identify its ubiquitous philosophy (which is, admittedly, sometimes difficult, for obvious reasons). One example of its ubiquity is in the field of alternative health and medicine. Many forms of aromatherapy, Essential Oils, chiropractic, meditation and use of crystals are influenced by and advocates for a form of New Age spiritualism. Most advocate for their practice by pointing out that it can “bring balance” or “energize your life force,” helps you achieve “harmony” or your “highest potential,” while touting the connection to “mind, body and spirit.” All are phrases co-opted by New Age spiritualism. The catchphrases are a result of the New Age belief in monism, the belief that God, the universe and everything in it are of one essence. Luke Hastin described monism as the “philosophical belief that everything can be explained in terms of a single reality or substance.” As Phil Johnson said, “New Age thought [accordingly] has little room for concepts of evil, sin and redemption. Those have given way to the therapeutic language of addiction and recovery, positive energy, holistic health, and notion of love as a tolerant and always-affirming state of mind.” Thus, these alternative health practices advocate for their products by touting their ability to bring harmony, energy, and a synthesizing of mind, body and spirit (which, to them, are all of one essence and thus capable of total synthesis). These alternative health practices are perhaps most unapologetically and obviously connected to New Age spiritualism when they tout their practices as capable of achieving spiritual progress (an increase in hope or joy etc.) in addition to the physical benefits (cracking your back, elimination of pain).

Another example of the rise of New Age spiritualism can be seen in art. Although most people who analyze the growth of New Age spiritualism do so in regard to music and paintings/sculptures, I want to focus on films (since I don’t really understand the New Age music analysis). Science fiction is often a huge platform for New Age philosophy, and thus its not surprising to see integral parts of blockbuster science fiction films to be essentially New Age evangelism, including Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and George Lucas’s Star Wars trilogy (both of which, of course, I love). It’s not too difficult, I hope, to recognize the musings about “the Force,” an energy source that binds all living things and indeed the entire galaxy together (i.e. a single reality or substance by which everything can be explained), as a Westernized and simplified version of Eastern religions and mysticism, which is also a pretty good description of New Age spiritualism. Of course, New Age spiritualism, after Westernizing various Eastern philosophies and religions, also borrows (to a lesser degree) from other religions, so we must include a Christ-like figure, a wise rabbi/priest, someone evil, and the idea of penance.

I could use more examples; “the westernization of various Eastern religions and philosophies” could have been the subtitle of The Matrix. Arguably the two best filmmakers of my generation, Paul Thomas Andersen and Terrence Malick, incorporate aspects of New Age spiritualism into most of their films. I say all of this not to decry pop culture, or even these specific examples of pop culture. I like most science fiction, and while I don’t understand Terrence Malick, I appreciate him, and I absolutely adore P.T. Andersen. I say this only as evidence that New Age spiritualism is a much more prevalent worldview in today’s society than postmodernism; as we prepare ourselves or our kids for college, that preparation should include the expectation that we will be confronted with New Age spiritualism more often than with postmodernism.

(Another example is the explosive rise of interesting in astrology, which is an integral part of New Age spiritualism, but unfortunately is a complicated topic that deserves its own post, which I may or may not analyze at a later time).

At the risk of sounding like a crazy fundamentalist or someone who looks for the Illuminati in every hip-hop song and George H.W. Bush speech, it must be noted that the growth of New Age spiritualism is often accompanied by a growth in the occult. Certainly this was true in the last lengthy period of New Age spiritualism, i.e. the 70’s and 80’s. As Paul Heelas pointed out, after the collapse of the commune movement, much of the hippy subculture became adherents of New Age spiritualism, which also managed to insert itself into the Jesus Movement #BlameCJ. Soon thereafter, there was a causally connected rise in the occult, as Marcello Tuzzi pointed out in Sociological Quarterly (“The Occult Revival as Popular Culture.”) In the late 1970’s, both Time and Esquire published issues devoted entirely to the rise of the occult. Is interest in the occult rising today, along with the growth of New Age spiritualism? If it is, we probably shouldn’t be too surprised; as Jeffrey Russell has pointed out, interest in the occult, from a broadly historical analysis, usually occurs after some form of social breakdown. The economic collapse of 2008, the continuing expansion of inequitable economic realities, and the rise of terrorism and concurrent fears of growing technological “spying” has created a culture of dissatisfaction with power structure and hierarchy and provides an environment in which the occult could theoretically thrive. Although, for obvious reasons, it’s difficult to analyze the degree to which interest or participation in the occult is growing in the U.S., it’s certainly growing. Most analysts of the Census Bureau and individual self-identification surveys across the U.S. believe that participation in Wicca or pagan cults includes about 1.5-2% of the population (a 1600% growth since 1990).

So how do we prepare for the New Age worldview our kids or we will undoubtedly encounter at college? Ummmm…..I don’t know. Ask your pastor? The only thing I’ll say is that the first step is in studying and analyzing New Age philosophy. Part of the difficulty in combating New Age spiritualism is the difficulty in identifying it. Very rarely will someone unapologetically categorize his or her philosophy or thoughts as New Age (mostly because they would disagree with the term itself). Therein lies much of the danger. But where we identify New Age spiritualism, we must be firm in our convictions that, as our pastor Benny Phillips said in his message this past Sunday (borrowing from R.C. Sproul of course), every idea has consequences. And the consequence of New Age spiritualism is, amongst other things, a loss of the concept of the divinity of Christ (because human nature is itself divine) and of the concept of redemption (since we don’t need to be redeemed, only reclaimed). Saying that your alternative health practice helps restore balance or achieve hope implicitly denies that hope is a gift instilled by the Holy Spirit on the basis of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our problem isn’t a loss of balance; our problem is sin, and while we agree that the solution is restoration, such restoration is possible not because you can crack our backs or sell us something that smells nice or get us to a state of meditation or visualization, but is possible instead based on the mediating, redemptive work of Christ. We are indeed in a new age, but its not the Age of Aquarius, it wasn’t ushered in by an astrological shift but by a crucifixion on a hill, and when we look to the stars, it’s only because we’re looking for a Rider on a white horse.

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