CHRISTIAN CRITICISM GIVES NEW AGE STATUS

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I have been working my way through Confronting the New Age: How to resist a growing religious movement, by Douglas Groothuis. It is a Christian perspective on New Age traditions and the growing influence of New Age on public spheres of life. He is critical of New Age and every other religion aside from Christianity (save maybe Judaism), as his beliefs are that salvation can only be gain through Christ. He covers a lot of ground in this book. It is organized and methodical. While I don’t agree with the majority of what he says, Groothuis raises some interesting points on the interaction of religions in America.

As far as criticism on New Age, Groothuis goes as far to say that New Age is of the Devil, (I suppose when your God is the only true god every other tradition must be of the Devil), “Yet they [New Age leaders] echo the deception of the serpent by teaching that we can save ourselves, that we need not cry out to God above and that we can heal the planet” (17-18). But in all his criticism, and there is much of it, Groothuis gives New Age the status of religion. This is a classification progressive academics are leery to assign to New Age. To be fair, many New Agers oppose the label of ‘religion’ for fear of the association with the patriarchy and hierarchy they identify and oppose in ‘world religions’. But New Age then is often passed over in discussions on religion and some gatherings spiritual in nature as it is somehow not a religion but a lesser spirituality.

But with the ‘religion’ label as the golden ticket, Groothuis brings New Age into the sphere of religion. Right on the front cover of his book he proclaims New Age as ‘a growing spiritual movement’. He also calls secular humanism a religion (146). Here he does this in a discussion on education and the question of what philosophies / beliefs should be present in public education. In this case, and in other spheres of life presented by Groothuis, it works to put New Age in the category of religion because it is then subject to the same restrictions as Christianity under the constitution. Christians then can easier say a New Age practice or ideology is against my religious beliefs because then you’re (supposedly) comparing apples to apples, rather than apples to oranges. Such restrictions would serve Groothuis’ agenda to eliminate or at least lessen the impact of New Age on American society.

It is not my hope to delineate where New Age belongs in the spiritual spectrum, under what label it to be categorized under. But to simply note the irony in Groothuis’ efforts to belittle and attack New Age, he actually manages to give it what some might consider the higher status of ‘religion’. It is almost comical that he has given New Age a status that many New Agers are reluctant to take on and religious academics are reluctant to assign considering the ‘world religion’ paradigm. As discussed, this label may make it easier for Christians like Groothuis to oppose New Age. Or perhaps his use of the term only illustrates the skewed understanding of this emic perspective.

 

Groothuis, Douglas. Confronting the New Age: How to resist a growing spiritual movement. 1988. Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press.

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FEMALE-FRIENDLY RELIGION

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Religion is another facet of life that has been used through history to justify men’s supremacy over women. Some argue that this patriarchy is created from manipulating faith traditions (such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism and Islam) in favor of sexist religious leaders and wider societal trends of inequality. With this argument comes the assertion that there is nothing inherently patriarchal about religion and that these manipulations can be undone or at the very least ignored. Whether the religion itself or various leaders are to blame, is not particularly relevant to the issue today in my opinion. Whatever is to blame happened so long ago that it has become absorbed into key pieces of religious texts (such as the Bible) that are central to their respective traditions today.

It is impossible to practice these religions, such as Christianity, without their androcentric texts or by omitting sexist portions of text. Some Christian denominations are working to counteract this by showing these texts in a different light as well as opening leadership roles to women, including ordination. But some feminists argue that these attempts are futile, the patriarchal core of these religions cannot be remedied. Instead they argue, women must create new faith traditions that not only accommodate equality but empower women (Shaw & Lee, 682). This is most evident in the resurgence of Pagan faiths such as Wicca. Not only does Wicca value men and women equally, but the divine is largely represented in a feminine light as the Goddess or Earth Mother. This invites and empowers female followers to explore their own spiritual nature and divinity.

The patriarchy in many organized / world religions and the call of feminists to start anew would explain the high number of women compared to men engaged in New Age traditions. Women feel pressed to search for equality and empowerment, while men are served well by the traditional gender roles common in organized religion and are content to express their spirituality through traditional means. Women’s desire for equality and empowerment is instrumental in contemporary religious shifts like the emergence of New Age traditions and the re-emergence of Paganism. Based on the disproportionate ratio of men to women in these traditions, it is reasonable to assert that gender plays a central role in New Ager demographics.

 

Shaw, Susan & Janet Lee. “Religion and Spirituality in Women’s Lives” in Women’s Voices Feminist Visions: classic and contemporary readings, 4th ed. Edited by S. Shaw & J. Lee. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies Inc., 2009, pp. 669-682.

THE SECULAR CIRCLE OF LIFE

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Religion helps people get a grasp on the big picture: ethics, morals, the meaning of life, and leading a purposeful life. Without the help of a faith tradition, with only secular society to guide you, it can be very difficult (through I don’t think impossible) to discern these things. In America I think this is extremely difficult due to the prevalence of capitalism in our secular society. In fact, the term capitalism may do more to describe American society than the term secularism.

For example, consider this commercial for Rocket Mortgage. It illustrates the cycle of life that many if not most of Americans lead. The cycle of selling, buying, working, earning and so on. The gist of this commercial is get a mortgage to buy a home which you will then need to fill with stuff, you will then buy stuff and boost the economy by creating work for people so that they can in turn buy homes which also need to be filled with stuff. The commercial concludes that propagating this cycle of ownership and consumption is the power of America. And so the wheel turns. For many this is the circle of life and it continues round and round. This is the life promoted by purely secular sources.

I find Americans’ understanding of value disturbing and quite sad. Making money means more than making relationships. Things become more valuable than time, and consumption become the center of their life (See my article “Equating Value to Money: Effects on Religious and Spiritual Involvement” for more on this). According to the ad, consumption is a primary source of power for Americans. Perhaps the reason religion is so heavily segregated and devalued in America is that people’s lives would begin to revolve around things that can’t be bought. Secularism is in the best interests of capitalists, whose success and riches largely depends on people trying to fulfill themselves with goods and consumption. If religion and spirituality were more mainstream, and more people looked within themselves for contentment rather than looking around at their belongings and in their bank accounts, the status quo of corporate greed would be threatened.

THE PURE & THE ECLECTIC

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New Age is often described as a hybrid or eclectic spirituality… a pick-and-mix religion. These terms do well at conveying the varied utilization of text, ideologies and practices of many faith traditions. However, these terms are often employed to separate and make negative connotations about New Age compared to the preferred ‘pure’ (and institutional) religions.

This dichotomy of hybrid and ‘pure’ is absurd in reference to religion. There is no such thing as a ‘pure’ religion. The world is not a sterile environment. It is full of over-lap and shades of gray. As discussed in last week’s article (“A Pagan Easter”), there are many instances of overlap between Christianity and Paganism, animism or other nature based traditions. According to Rothstein, “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” (315). While the mixing seen in New Age is done on an intentional, ideological basis, organized religions have done the same through historical and societal shifts.

The development between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is accepted. Each tradition builds on the ones that came before it, yet become distinct through the new meaning they create from existing texts, ideas and traditions. New Age does this intentionally, yet is considered only a hodge-podge of traditions. Rather than gradual shifts over time, New Age accomplishes this through its elaborate, organic structure and complex ideologies that accommodate and create new meaning from a multitude of religions. But this is often overlooked in favor of simpler and more sensational explanations: heresy, ramped individualism, self-gratification and consumption.

While New Age is very different from organized / world religions in many ways, the level of ‘purity’ is not a point of differentiation. There is no ‘pure’ religion (save perhaps some traditions of isolated tribes in the Amazon). This notion is damaging to New Age in both academic and public discourse, as misconceptions about ‘purity’ always leave New Age second to world religions. Organized religions seek out differences and look to emphasize them to enforce boundaries; while New Age looks to teardown boundaries through a holistic perspective. The risk them becomes homogenization of a ‘world religion’. But is this any more dangerous than the ignorance and bigotry that too often grows within boundaries?

 

Rothstein, Mikael. “Hawaii in New Age Imaginations: A case of religious inventions”, in Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religions, Volume 1: Handbook of New Age. Edited by J. R. Lewis & D. Kemp. Leiden: Brill Publishers, 2007, pp. 315-340.