The New Age phenomenon utilizes materials from a variety of cultures and traditions. This amalgamation, and the idea structure they are situated in, is central to New Age as a distinct phenomenon. But there has been some question concerning how these materials are used and what the implications are for the relationships between New Agers and other religious / spiritual / cultural groups. With the emphasis today on diversity, tolerance and multiculturalism, does New Age’s use of various traditions keep in line with these trends? Or does it break these norms? If so, does breaking these trends have positive or negative implications?
Here, Horie expresses some of the concerns surrounding New Age’s use of others’ cultural / religious / spiritual materials, “… while New Age stimulates hybridizations, it cannot help the essentialization of religion as a cultural resource. There is also a danger of cultural destruction and exploitation, since only part of a religion may be extracted from its original context…” (115). Based on my own observation of New Age phenomena, I find this statement accurate in that the negative effects discussed here have the potential to take place. But they certainly have they certainly are not true overall.
In the above statement, I also find traces of mainstream culture that has either forced its way into New Age phenomena over time or was brought in unconsciously at the beginning. (For more on this see my article “A Secular New Age Or A New Age Secularism”). Davila discusses how the multicultural trend essentializes cultures (183). These same forces may be at play in New Age circles as well. However, in my experience, many New Agers fight essentialization by referring to traditional texts and emphasizing the complex nature of the traditions they draw from. Similarly exploitation may be an expression of capitalist impulses. Anything with demand is marketed to sell, with profits not necessarily making it to those with the largest part in creating the product. But this too is met with resistance in New Age circles as followers become more Earth conscious and work to find new ways to consume less. Lastly is the issue of context. I feel this, of all of the factors identified by Horie, is the most concerning. While the complexity of traditions may be expressed, they are inevitably viewed through a Western perspective and unfolded with New Age ideology. For example, “… oriental conceptions have been adapted only to the extent that they could be assimilated into already existing, Western frameworks” (Hanegraaff, 45). These conceptions are not adapted in their pure form, but given new meaning in the process. I wouldn’t call this a ‘bad’ thing, but it needs to be recognized. I think taking things from their original context may be a reaction to the neat categories of secularism. New Agers look to break down secular and religious boundaries, but also reduce the separation between various religious and spiritual traditions, in favor of a more holistic system.
I find the issues raised are relevant to New Age, but I don’t think they should be taken as proof of New Age’s inability to be a positive spiritual tradition for its followers. It is true that amalgamation provides the opportunity for essentialization and exploitation. But this same scenario also provides the opportunity to make new connections and develop a deeper understanding of traditions outside of one’s culture. New Age is not necessarily special in this regard. “All religions are negotiated cultural phenomena which only have come into existence because human beings created them in a variety of cognitive and social transitions. Very often this process means relating to the religious systems of other people” (Ivakhiv, 315). All religions and spiritual traditions come into being through this process. None are pure of others’ influence.
New Age is scrutinized because this process is happening now. This relating and negotiating will be in living memory for many years to come. It will take some time before people will grow up accepting it on the basis that it is the way it’s always been. Another reason for criticism is that New Age acknowledges its sources rather than claiming everything as its own. This is not common among recognized ‘world religions’. Such openness is novel, but relating to other traditions is not. The negative effects discussed earlier are not absolute and are largely reflections of the wider societal trends that New Age would, in my opinion, do well to resist. While the amalgamation process is not unique to New Age, the process itself is more indicative of New Age than any other tradition.
Davila, Arlene. “Latinizing Culture: Art, Museums, and the Politics of U.S. Multicultural Encompassment,” in Cultural Anthropology, 1999. 14(2), pp. 180-202.
Hanegraaff, Wouter J. “The New Age Movement and Western Esotericism,” in Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion, Volume 1: Handbook of New Age, by J.R. Lewis and D. Kemp, 2007. Leiden: Brill Publishing, pp. 25-50.
Horie, Norichika. “Narrow New Age and Broad Spirituality: a comprehensive schema and comparative analysis,” in New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion, by S.J. Sutcliffe and I.S. Gilhus, 2013. Acumen, pp. 99-116.
Ivakhiv, Adrian. “Power Trips: Making Sacred Space Through New Age Pilgrimage,” in Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion, Volume 1: Handbook of New Age, by J.R. Lewis and D. Kemp, 2007. Leiden: Brill Publishing, pp. 263-289.