Catholic and Evangelical Reponses to the New Age

According to Daren Kemp, Christians were “among the first to recognise the existence of a New Age movement.” In the 1970s, Christian critiques of the New Age “did much to disseminate knowledge among the general public” (2004:133) and to some extent this is still the case today, where many Christians “have only second-hand knowledge of [New Age]” (Kemp, 2007:462). In this post, I aim to critically compare two contemporary Christian responses to New Age – the official Roman Catholic report Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the “New Age[JCBWL] (2003), and John Newport’s evangelical study, The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview (1998). These texts were chosen because they are notably absent from Saliba’s (1999) excellent study of Christian responses to New Age and because of their extensive attention to the writing of prominent scholars of New Age.

It is worth acknowledging that, due to the interdenominational nature of the evangelical movement, it is not possible to find a document comparable to JCBWL, which delineates the official position of the church. Newport’s text cannot be assumed to speak for all evangelical Christians (just as that there will be Catholics who do not subscribe to JCBWL). Discussion of each text focuses on four main themes: the motivation/perspective of the authors; perceived positive aspects of New Age; negative assessments of New Age; and proposed methods for Christian engagement with New Age.

Before commencing this discussion it is necessary to define what I mean when I refer to New Age. The Catholic document defines the New Age Movement as “a multifaceted cultural tendency” which is “spread across cultures, in [many varied] phenomena”. Expressing concerns to not refer to a New Age “religion” the report states that New Age is not so much an organised “movement” as “a loose network of practitioners(ibid). The authors recognise that they are dealing with “very complex and elusive phenomenon” and acknowledge that many New Agers abjure the New Age label (ibid). Whilst Newport’s title refers to a New Age Movement, most of his discussion is based around a clash of worldviews which he defines as “vision[s] of life and the world that help us to make sense of life [… and are] rooted in beliefs that are ultimate in character” (1998:41). For Newport, New Age expresses “diversity and fluidity in membership” and is characterised by an emphasis on personal transformation and universalisation of religion (ibid:35-39). These understandings of the New Age are generally in agreement with current scholarship. George Chryssides, for example, declares that “the [New Age] is certainly not a religion”, as individual interests tend to exceed any single religion and reject a “single religion[‘s claim to a] monopoly of answers to spiritual questions” (2007:19-20). And Christopher Partridge confirms both reports’ attempts to present a unified New Age by acknowledging that despite a “lack of homogeneity […New Age] worldviews do connect at certain points” (2007:232). Many subtle criticisms could be levelled at this broad delineation of New Age, however for my purposes it should suffice to acknowledge the broad agreement between both documents and current scholarship.

Kemp describes the Catholic report as “unprecedented […] in its objective and well researched approach to [New Age]” (2003:196.n.1). Even a cursory glance at the text reveals that it is not simply repeating the “second-hand paranoia” of a similar statement issued by the Irish Theological Commission in 1994 (see Kemp, 2007:462). The writers are aiming at reliability and objectivity, claiming that their intent is to provide “reliable information on the differences between Christianity and [New Age]” and that ““it would be unwise and untrue to say that everything connected with the [New Age Movement] is good, or […] bad”. Similarly, although approaching his book “from an evangelical perspective,” Newport admirably desires to “give both Christians and [New Age] advocates alike a better understanding of both sides” (1998: xv) and states that “there is value in dialogue” (ibid:51).

However, it is unlikely that the ideals of both texts will be attainable. JCBWL clearly defines its audience as “those engaged in pastoral work” with the intent “that they might be able to explain how the [New Age Movement] differs from [Christianity]”, whilst Newport’s motivation is to “provide a basis of study for churches, colleges, seminaries and lay people” (1998: xv). These religious biases inherent in the texts will understandably limit their objectivity.

Except for a section entitled A Positive Challenge, JCBWL has little to say on the positive aspects of New Age. This states that: “The search which often leads people to the [New Age] is a genuine yearning […]”, and identifies positive New Age “criticisms of ‘the materialism of daily life, of philosophy and even of medicine and psychiatry; [… and] the industrial culture of unrestrained individualism” (citing Massimo Introvigne, New Age & Next Age (2000), p. 267). However, it has previously been stated that the attraction exerted on some Christians by these criticisms/themes “may be due […] to the lack of serious attention in their own communities for themes which are actually part of [Catholicism]”. Therefore any positive affirmations made about New Age seem to be implicit affirmations of Catholicism.

Newport also highlights numerous positive aspects of the New Age Movement in his attempted dialogue: Various alternative medical practises promoted by New Age are praised (1998:52) and the New Age theme of spiritual transformation is seen as a sign of God (ibid:604). The New Age is even used as a criticism of Christianity, with Newport highlighting three key accusations posed by the New Age Movement (ibid:51-52), and acknowledging that Christianity “has not been, as a whole, ecologically sensitive” (ibid:309). However, as was the case with JCBWL, Newport contends that these positive aspects are only “half right” and that they “can be found in biblical spirituality – [… their] proper context” (ibid:142). The apparent reluctance of both texts to ascribe anything positive to New Age in its own right seems to be due to a fundamental conceptual issue on the part of the authors.

Considering JCBWL, this issue is encapsulated in two key factors. New Age is understood to be a result of “the growth and spread of relativism, along with an antipathy or indifference towards the Christian faith”, and “represents something of a compendium of positions that the Church has identified as heterodox”. This view is compounded with a statement from Pope John Paul II, defining New Age as “only a new way of practising gnosticism” (Kemp, 2003:162). Thus New Age is seen as fundamentally incompatible with Christianity, making it “[im]possible to isolate some elements of [New Age] religiosity as acceptable to Christians, while rejecting others”. Throughout the report, various attributes of New Age belief are systematically debunked. New Age health practises are defined as “an Eastern formula in Western terms”; the “real” distinction between Creator and creation has apparently been “wrongly” conceived by New Age; and New Age views on the perfectibility of humanity are identified with Nietzsche. This systematic condemnation based around dogmatic issues (Saliba, 1999:141) is unsurprising, given the supposed incompatibility of New Age and Christianity.

The issue in Newport’s text is different, but results in a similar treatment. Newport writes:  “the [New Age] worldview predict[s] that it will replace modernism, or secular humanism, and what New Agers call the outdated, propositional, non-fulfilling, compromising biblical worldview” (1998:597). The New Age is therefore identified with the biblical worldview’s opponents who have been “undercut[ting] its dominance” since the seventeenth century (ibid:597). Newport is arguing on one side of this dichotomy and thus readers should be unsurprised at his unwillingness to ascribe positive affirmations to New Age in general. Newport systematically considers various aspects of the New Age worldview and either defines these elements as already present (more authentically) in Christianity, or as incompatible with it. However an additional undertone, identified by Saliba in other evangelical writings, is a “fear” that New Age poses a “serious threat to Christianity” (1999:45): New Age is described as catching unsuspecting Christians (Newport, 1998:xv); “cross[ing] taken-for-granted boundaries and infiltrat[ing]” Christian groups (47); and “hijack[ing] various images, practises and insights” (51). Such language is notably absent from the Catholic report, and suggests that Saliba’s conclusion that Catholic responses “are less hysterical in tone than many of the responses that have stemmed from […] evangelical sources” (1999:176) carries some weight.

Whilst the negative emphases of both documents cannot be denied, they do offer some positive advice for Christians encountering New Age. Catholics are cautioned to “look for the marks of genuine Christian spirituality” but, as in Newport’s book, are encouraged to promote “care for the earth as God’s creation” and to “make the most of the riches of the Christian spiritual heritage”. JCBWL emphasizes that the best thing individual Christians can do is “offer a good, sound presentation of the Christian message” (ibid) rather than point out the faults of New Age beliefs, which Newport describes as not “unlike a commitment to witness (1998:598-9). Thus it seems that the encounter with New Age can serve to strengthen the faith of some Christians, but can prove a stumbling block for those who may not realise “that the [New Age] worldview is contrary in most of its teachings to a basic biblical perspective” (ibid:xv).

Whilst neither of the documents briefly discussed here can be considered definitive in their representations of Roman Catholic and Evangelical responses to New Age, they do provide an interesting comparison. Both responses are well researched, and admirably aim at constructive dialogue. However, it appears that due to their distinct conceptions of New Age as irreconcilable with Christianity, both reports are only willing to see positive aspects in New Age if these are already representative of Christianity. At times, Newport’s text unfortunately confirms Saliba’s conclusion that evangelical responses are generally “a process of self-affirmation” which tend to degenerate “into a senseless diatribe or an emotional harangue” (1999:77), and JCBWL, “while eager to promote the approach of dialogue adopted by Vatican Council II, frequently end[s] up taking an apologetical and condemnatory stance which does not contribute to dialogue” (ibid:176). These documents are, however, an encouraging development from earlier writings which were generally “marred by misunderstandings and apprehension” (ibid:28).

References:

  •  Chryssides, George D., 2007. “Defining the New Age” in Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis (eds), Handbook of New Age, Leiden/Boston: Brill, pp. 5-24
  •  Kemp, Daren, 2003. The Christaquarians? A Sociology of Christians in the New Age, London: Kempress Ltd.
  •  Kemp, Daren, 2004. New Age: A Guide, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press
  •  Kemp, Daren, 2007. “Christians and New Age” in Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis (eds), Handbook of New Age, Leiden/Boston: Brill, pp. 453-472.
  •  Newport, John P., 1998. The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview: Conflict and Dialogue, Cambridge/Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans.
  •  Partridge, Christopher, 2007. “Truth, Authority and Epistemological Individualism in New Age Thought” in D. Kemp and J. Lewis (eds), Handbook of the New Age, Leiden: Brill, pp. 231-254.
  •  Pontifical Council for Culture/Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, 2003. (JCBWL) Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the “New Age.”.
  •  Saliba, John A., 1999. Christian Responses to the New Age movement: a critical assessment, London: G. Chapman.
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About Chris

Scholar of religion/nonreligion... PhD Student (Lancaster University), blogger, singer, actor, thinker... Northern Irish living in Scotland. Co-founder of The Religious Studies Project. Director at the NSRN. Baritone masquerading as a tenor. Vegetarian for no particular reason.

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