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.