New Age Spirituality

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New Age Spirituality

The New Age movement in America can be best understood as both a discourse community and a new social movement. As a discourse community, New Age denotes a group of people who embrace a shared core of social and religious values and speak about those values in a common language. As a new social movement, New Age denotes a loose grouping of individuals who have broken with the dominant capitalistic and Judeo-Christian ethos of late-twentieth-century America and who seek a new way of approaching personal spirituality, the natural order, gender, work, consumption, and the body.

Although the movement takes many different shapes and is continually changing, it is possible to delineate five features that distinguish it from other religious systems. The first of these is a generally optimistic view of humankind's future. Many New Agers believe that humanity is on the cusp of a planetary spiritual transformation, a kind of quantum leap in evolution that will occur at the level of human consciousness. This transformation will entail, among other things, a dawning awareness of the oneness of the human family, the intimate relationship between humanity and nature, and the innate divinity of all people.

A second characteristic of New Agers is their adoption of an ethic of self-empowerment that focuses on the realization of innate spiritual capacities as a prelude to both personal and planetary transformation. For many in this movement, it is necessary to go beyond established social codes and belief systems to realize a deeper wisdom and truth at the core of the self. This aspect of New Age religion embraces alternative healing therapies from across cultures and focuses on the holistic health of body, mind, and soul.

A third feature is the movement's attempt to reconcile the realms of religion and science in a higher synthesis that enhances the human condition both spiritually and materially. New Agers are not content to follow a purely materialistic science that is devoid of spiritual insight; at the same time, they are not willing to accept traditional religious doctrines that are clearly at odds with empirically verifiable scientific facts. The New Age movement looks forward to a society that reunites the deepest wisdom of both science and religion.

A fourth feature of New Agers is their eclectic embrace of a wide array of traditional and nontraditional spiritual beliefs and practices. New Agers are perennialists in the sense that they accept the existence of an ageless wisdom at the heart of the world's great religious traditions, and thus believe that all religions are a common treasury of spiritual practices that can be used as needed by contemporary seekers. Exclusivist claims to truth by traditional religions and national or ethnic elitism are soundly rejected by members of this universalizing movement.

A final characteristic of New Agers is their rejection of outer forms of authority, whether it be traditional religious hierarchies, political leaders, or academic experts. A cardinal tenet for New Agers is that truth lies within the individual and that it must be experienced personally if it is to remain uncontaminated by conventional ideologies and dogmas. Most New Age teachings encourage seekers to test any belief or practice against the standard of their own intuition. These teachings thus assume that within each person is a sacred reality that can know clearly the truth or falsity of any religious claim. Many New Age forms of spirituality promise to facilitate access to this "inner voice" or spiritual self.

Spirituality can be defined as beliefs and practices that attempt to bring a person into harmonious relationship with a sacred realm or being. The different forms that New Age spirituality takes can be confusing at first sight. The Seeker's Guide: A New Age Resource Book, for example, includes among its listing of practices goddess spirituality, biofeedback, meditation, Celtic Christianity, Kung Fu, acupuncture, sacred dance, rebirthing, past life regression, and sacred drumming. Although most of these practices existed long before the modern New Age movement began to emerge in the 1960s, what links them together is their challenge to the materialistic, patriarchal paradigm of modern Western industrialized culture. Each practice is regarded as a way of breaking through conventional social and psychological conditioning and of opening a person to the possibility of a deeper experience of relatedness to self, society, nature, and the sacred.

New Age spirituality generally accepts the existence of a universal energy that differs from more common forms of energy such as heat and light. This universal energy is believed to undergird and permeate all existence and has been called many names in different cultures, including prana, mana, odic force, orgone energy, and ch'i. For New Agers this energy is a natural energy that follows natural laws like electricity and is part of a subtle realm of vibration that sustains all life-forms.

New Agers use specific spiritual practices to bring themselves into dynamic relationship with this energy, thus allowing themselves to act as conductors and receptacles for it. Techniques for accessing "universal energy" for healing include Reiki, bioenergetics, acupuncture, acupressure massage, crystal healing, and exercises derived from Tantrism. In Reiki, for example, practitioners work with a "vital life energy" that flows through all living things and can be activated to heal conditions of physical disease or imbalance. Crystal healing involves using various kinds of crystals that are believed to transmit subtle energies. The crystals are worn around the neck or placed over sensitive points on the body that need healing.

Another characteristic form of spirituality in the New Age movement is channeling. This modern adaptation of traditional Spiritualist mediumship and shamanic trance aims to allow the channeler to become a vehicle through whom noncorporeal beings communicate with the human realm. To enter the special trance state, channelers disengage their minds from involvement with the sensory world of time and space. This state of disengaged attention is said to allow spirit entities to use the channel's physical faculties to counsel and heal those in need. The more wellknown channelers, such as J. Z. Knight, organize weekend seminars during which they make themselves available to answer both personal and general metaphysical questions in a group setting.

Another important mode of New Age spirituality is related to the experience of death. New Agers believe that consciousness pervades the universe and that personal consciousness does not end with the death of the physical body. However, they are more interested in what the individual can learn from the death experience itself than in the learning that might take place in nonphysical realms. The works of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross on assisted death and dying, and texts such as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, have gained popularity in the New Age movement as guides for spiritually informed dying.

Another important facet of New Age spirituality involves neopagan rituals and beliefs. Those who participate in these rituals tend to draw on relatively localized traditions, such as Native American tribal religions, Celtic and Druidic paganism, and modern Witchcraft (although many Witchcraft practitioners reject the "New Age" designation). Some New Agers participate in Native American–inspired sweat lodges, vision quests, and drumming circles. Others are drawn to neoshamanic techniques such as chant, fasting, and ritual ingestion of mind-altering substances such as psilocybin mushrooms or peyote. By entering an altered state of awareness sometimes referred to as the "dreamtime," the participant hopes to experience contact with his or her deepest self and to unleash the forces of self-actualization.

In contemporary Witchcraft, participants celebrate seasonal festivals to experience a sense of connection with the gods and goddesses of nature. They also practice magic to gain personal empowerment. In a reversal of conventional Christian practice, the feminine aspects of selfhood and nature take precedence over the masculine, the physical and natural are accorded greater importance than the spiritual, and the human self is experienced as intrinsically good rather than fallen and corrupt.

New Age neopagans of all stripes often prioritize direct action as part of their spiritual path. For example, they may practice appropriate technologies; teach at New Age schools, institutes, and research centers; participate in protests against corporate environmental degradation; vote for ecologically friendly political candidates; or fight for animal rights.

New Agers often draw on the New Thought tradition in their practice of visualization and affirmation. In both of these practices there is a privileging of the faculties of imagination and creative thought and a belief in the inherent powers of the mind to manifest desired conditions. For many New Agers, daily meditation includes dynamic affirmations of health and prosperity and detailed imagining of a natural environment restored to its pristine state. The New Age movement has spawned a series of books and magazines that teach people to harness mental powers to create successful businesses, personal affluence, and fulfilling relationships. Researcher Paul Heelas has detailed the profusion of specialized training, businesses, and publications that have been inspired by New Age insights. Businesses ranging from IBM to General Electric and Pacific Bell have hired New Age consultants to conduct training for their workforce. Such training is designed to make employees more productive, managers more responsive and sensitive in their communications, and the workplace itself a more humane and nurturing setting.

New Age spirituality has not been without its critics, both from within and outside the movement. New Age theorist David Spangler, to cite one example, criticizes New Agers' tendency toward narcissism and a shallow, pastichelike spirituality. He also points out, however, that New Age spirituality is to be commended for its respectful attitude toward indigenous religious traditions and its attempts to resacralize humanity's view of nature. The former Dominican theologian Matthew Fox takes issue with the New Age movement's tendency to deny the shadow side of human nature—particularly the human capacity for evil and cruelty—and its upper-class elitism, which sometimes fails to take practical action to address the suffering of oppressed people. He is more positive about the movement's active search for a mystically informed cosmology and anthropology that transcends traditional Christianity's preoccupation with sin, guilt, and salvation.

While acknowledging its tendency toward becoming a kind of "designer spirituality," a form of spiritual practice based on personal whims and preferences, the New Age may constitute, in its more profound manifestations, a promising alternative spirituality for an emerging global culture. At its best, this spirituality points the way toward a rediscovery of personal responsibility, an affirmation of human potential, a realization of the importance of emotion in fully human relating, the establishment of a spiritually based ethic of ecology, an openness to innovative healing methods, and the first stirrings of an awakening to a universal human kinship that transcends long-standing ethnic, religious, and political animosities.


See alsoCeltic Practices; Channeling; Dance; Dreams; Ecospirituality; Fasting; Goddess; Healing; Lazaris; Macrobiotics; Native American Religions; Nature Religion; Neopaganism; New Religious Movements; Quantum Healing; Reiki; Shamanism; Spiritualism; Spirituality; Theosophy; Visualization; Wicca.

Bibliography

Heelas, Paul. The New Age Movement. 1996.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. 1997.

Lewis, James R., and J. Gordon Melton, eds. Perspectives on the New Age. 1992.

Ferguson, Duncan S., ed. New Age Spirituality: An Assessment. 1993.

Phillip Charles Lucas