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).
- 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.
My friend David on the latest media coverage of that interesting chappy David Icke:
This quotation sums up some of the difficulties with the term ‘spirituality’… one of my most hated terms:
“It is not always easy to say what ‘spiritual’ means; the label is used to flatter anything from earnest introspection to beauty treatments, martial arts to support groups, complementary medicine to palm reading. Moreover the descriptions of spirituality given by respondents seem to have little to do with the supernatural or even the sacred; it appears to be a code word for good feelings, the emotional rather than the material. Not even a quarter of those from a sample in Kendal, England defined their core beliefs about spirituality in terms that were either vaguely esoteric (‘being in touch with subtle energies’) or religious (‘obeying God’s will’). The rest said that it was love, being a decent and caring person, or something similarly terrestrial (Heelas and Woodhead 2005). A proportion even described it as ‘living life to the full’, on which basis some pop stars might qualify as spiritual masters.”
From Voas, David. 2010. Quantitative Methods. In Religion and Youth, ed. Sylvia Collins-Mayo and Pink Dandelion, 202-207. Surrey: Ashgate, p. 206.
The question of what religion is, how we define it, where we find it, and how pervasive it is in people’s everyday lives is a question which plagues the discipline of Religious Studies. One interesting attempt to deal with this is set forth by Kelly Besecke in her 2005 Article “Seeing Invisible Religion: Religion as a Societal Conversation about Transcendent Meaning”. (Sociological Theory 23, June 2005, pp. 179-196). This post attempts to set forth her argument, contextualise it, and engage with some of the questions it raises.
The core of Besecke’s argument is that that “contemporary sociology conceptualises religion along two dimensions: the institutional and the individual” (Abstract), and this is a problem for her because the cultural dimension of religion is lost in this dichotomy.
She begins by illustrating the contemporary “religious conversation [occurring] in the United States”, and highlighting bestselling book titles, book clubs with names such as “Spiritual Pathways” and “Wisdom Tea”, talks & workshops, magazine articles and song lyrics which exemplify a “growing societal conversation about… “spiritual matters”” (179-80).
The point that she wishes to make from this initial depiction of the “milieu” is that we can
“look at such phenomena through a… lens… that highlights, instead of individuals and institutions, the important social role of interaction and communication. Seen through this “communicative” lens, the “spiritual matters” [sections of book stores look…] less like individualism in a narrow sense, and more like American society talking to itself about meaning” (181).
That, in a nutshell, is her theory.
She then proceeds to dissect and expand upon a work by Thomas Luckmann – The Invisible Religion – with which she generally agrees, but only up to a significant point. Luckmann importantly defines religion as primarily a meaning system or symbolic universe, and not as a social institution. (182-3):
“Symbolic universes are socially objectivated systems of meaning that refer, on the one hand, to the world of everyday life and point, on the other hand, to a world that is experienced as transcending everyday life.” (Luckmann, 1967:43)
In this sense it is easy to see how religion can be viewed as part of culture… which does indeed meet people in their daily life, but transcend it also.
- Think of African Independent/Indigenous Churches, which are distinct entities in their own right, incorporating much of local culture, custom, rite and practice, and would potentially be denounced by many “orthodox” “Western” Christians, as un-Christian
- But then think of Christianity as an overarching whole…
Besecke stakes her claim strongly:
“Religious meanings and other meanings are in the same general category – “meaning” – they are all symbolic representations, they are all culture. Religious meanings are a type of meaning; if culture is shared meanings and practices, then religion is shared meanings and practices that point people to a transcendent reality. In this sense, religion is to culture as Meaning is to meaning.” (184)
Here she is claiming, in line with Luckmann, that religious meanings, consisting of symbols such as God, Tao, Christ, Brahman etc are “the topmost layer of th[e] hierarchy of meanings that constitutes a society’s culture” (184).
At this point I couldn’t help but wonder: In what way are religious meanings the pinnacle of culture? I assume from the context in which she writes this that she means that conversations about ultimate concerns are the highest point of our cultural development, and in some way the most important questions for the vast majority of people… What about the scientific “worldview”, which many would see as a higher level of the hierarchy of meanings:
“I prefer to say that I believe in people [not God], and people, when given the right encouragement to think for themselves about all the information now available, very often turn out not to believe in God and to lead fulfilled and satisfied – indeed, liberated – lives.” Richard Dawkins (The God Delusion 2007 )
A second important consequence of “religion’s cultural nature is what Luckmann calls its “objectivated” status” (184):
“By describing religious meanings [as] “objectivated”, Luckmann opens the way to understanding meaning as a public phenomenon; as something that is not just for individuals, but for societies. […] So religious meaning is not just an individual phenomenon; neither is it just an institutional phenomenon. […] Religion exists in the social world as culture exists in the social world – via shared meanings and practices.”
To me this rings very true, especially in contemporary Britain where most people won’t participate in any formal worship, or may not even give much thought to their own personal faith… but will still participate in the culturally normative religious practices… Christmas, funerals and weddings, memorial services, “praying” for success/people…
This idea can also be seen in contemporary critiques of religion as well… Here we see Stephen Fry divorcing religion from religious institution:
“I have no quarrel, and no argument, and I wish to express no contempt for individual devout and pious members of [The Catholic] Church. It would be impertinent and wrong of me to express any antagonism towards any individual who wishes to find salvation in whatever form they wish to express it. That to me is sacrosanct as much as any article of faith is sacrosanct to anyone of any church or of any faith in the world.”
Stephen Fry (Intelligence Square Debate on the motion “Is the Catholic Church a Force for Good in the World?”). Around 2mins in to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvDz9_5me74&feature=related
This is the point where Besecke leaves Luckmann’s argument behind. Luckmann argues that in late modernity, religion became increasingly privatised. However, whilst this is arguably the case, her problem is with his statement that “Religion today [is] essentially a phenomenon of the private sphere” (1967:103). She believes this characterisation has been picked up by almost all sociologists, but rarely challenged, with the notable exception of Jose Casanova’s Public Religions in the Modern World.
There are three tendencies of this characterisation:
- The limitation of the public sphere to religious, political and economic institutions
- The assumption that authority has moved from the institutions to the individual
- “For many scholars, “private seems to be shorthand for “socially inconsequential” (186).
The problems are fairly easy to see here: what is it that people talk about, blog about, listen to, read, think… are these private or public? And who has authority? And in what way are they inconsequential?
Besecke and I agree here: “Much of the religion that has been interpreted as privatised religion or religious individualism is remarkably “public” in the more common-sense definition of the word” (187).
- This brings to my mind the idea of New Ages seekers: the role of a seeker is embedded in social relationships – pairs, groups, audiences and networks…
- To what extent could any religion be designated private? Even a hermit who had never had any contact with anyone… regardless of the fact that through our observation and/or questioning their religion would cease to be private… even if it could be observed without interfering, their religious ideas would have been based upon influences from the physical world… from outside…
- However, there always is a private dimension… all Christians will have a different conception of Christianity… this may even be impossible to get at empirically as they may give identical answers to questions… so does this mean religion is inherently private?
Besecke then proceeds on a largely “common-sensical” description of how important communication is to culture, which I think you’ll appreciate during discussion. It is largely summed up by Bella et al (Habits, 1985:27): “Cultures are dramatic conversations about things that matter to their participants”. However, she importantly points out that “empirical studies of communication have focused almost exclusively on communication that takes place in church, in seminary, or in interviews with individuals who identify as members of a particular church”… sermons, statements by religious leaders, conversion tactics etc [see as Wood (1999) Lukenbill (1998) Wittberg (1997) Bouma and Clyne (1995) Caroll and Marler (1995), Wuthnow (1994)] … But these are completely missing the point!
She proposes a definition of religious culture as “a societal conversation about transcendent meanings” (190)
“Communication is what makes God socially real” (190)
A question I would throw out there at this point is that conversation implies something two way… if there is a seeker who is engaging with reading material, DVDs, CDs and attending lectures etc., but not talking to others, what is this? And on p. 192 there is another problem. Besecke’s fieldwork included a living room discussion event, The Mystic Heart, where a small group (50 or so) got together to talk generally about “mysticism”. In assessing this through her “communicative lens”, Besecke writes: It is religion, it is people talking with each other about transcendent meaning.” What about atheistic discourse? Pub chats? Philosophy? In all of these cases people can be talking about religion… about transcendent meaning… but in no sense of the word “religion” can they said to be in any way being “religious”.
It is true that Besecke has taken the burden off institutional religion: “they now can be understood as important interlocutors, perhaps important nodes or centres for a society-wide conversation about transcendent meanings, rather than bearing the burden of having to be religion in an otherwise secular society” (192). But it may possibly be too wide…
Importantly, for the secularisation/re-enchantment debate:
This allows religion to be found in a whole host of places where it would not normally be looked for, which definitely rescues religion from the Secularisation Thesis.
“if we… recognise the social power of communication, then the secularity of a society would be measured by the extent to which members of that society are communicating with each other about transcendent meaning. Put differently, […] religion can influence a society by permeating its social institutions, by shaping its individual members, and by influencing the character of its culture through communication.” (193)
This brings to mind Colin Campbell’s Toward a Sociology of Irreligion (1971). He proposes the idea that thorough irreligiosity leads to seeing religion as totally irrelevant… not even a conscious rejection (39). If society were totally secular, “the irreligious message would be ignored as much as the religious” (124)… this is clearly not the case…
Hopefully I have demonstrated that Besecke is clearly on to something here… but that whilst finding religion in conversations about “transcendent meaning” is sometimes possible, and certainly a worthwhile enterprise, these conversations are by no means sufficient to “be” religion, in any sense of the word, and that they sometime can be as far away from religion as Nick Clegg is from his pre-election promise to keep his promises.