NEW AGE: A GREEDY SPIRITUALITY?

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One of the biggest criticisms of New Age spirituality is its ‘commercial nature’. Taves and Kinsella identify shopping / the spiritual market place as one of four major characterizations attributed to New Age in scholarly literature (84-85). As far as looking to define the essence of New Age, I don’t think this judgement holds in regards at all to tangible goods. Every ‘World Religion’ has revenue raising products such as books, CDs, and decorative items that increase the wealth of companies or individuals. The main target of the criticism toward New Age greediness centers around services and education. Some may take donations for providing services (such as readings and healings), but you are more likely to find a determined price list. Similarly, knowledge is passed through paid classes and programs.

The criticism gets the most traction with the assumption that the motivation behind all this is money. In my experience, the prices simply allow New Age service providers to live (and not particularly lavishly). Whatever faith you follow, money is necessary in our world. People cannot teach or nurture others if they cannot support themselves in the most basic ways. When that support moves well above and beyond basic, that is another story. Determining what constitutes as ‘basic’ would be difficult considering people of different backgrounds, especially those from developing nations compared to those from the developed world.

From a consumerist point of view, there is nothing bad about spending money on such products if what they receive in return is ‘worth it’. Similarly, those in New Age that find energies significant, find monetary exchange as a way of creating balance. They believe that to receive something you must give something. In this lofty ideology, ‘mundane’ money can work as part of that exchange. It is simply give and take, action and reaction.

A benefit of this system, is that there is little question where funds are coming from. The ‘consumer pays’ method is relatively transparent. In other faiths, the wealthier members typically contribute more to compensate and carry members with lower incomes. There is nothing wrong with this method. I find it admirable. But it is important to remember there is no such thing as a free lunch. And with New Age’s monetary flow, it’s easier to know where money is coming from. Scholarships are sometimes made available for New Age events and workshops, but the contributors are usually identified. Not so much for the sake of ego as transparency.

In the discussion of New Age commercialism, it is important to remember that there is no overarching doctrine dictating that followers must spend money in prescribed ways. There are admittedly more subtle pressures from followers and leaders alike, but the choice is ultimately the seeker’s. It is possible to be an active member in the New Age community with little cost. People can study and move along on their journeys independently. The decision where to allocate funds is left to followers, they have total control, they have the choice.

Perhaps in this way New Age is consumeristic in the way members are given a plethora of choices. But the greed often attributed to New Age is ill-placed. As a whole, service providers in the sector of alternative spiritualities are not looking to swindle followers out of their money. They are looking to make a fair exchange. Sellers in the New Age market place are looking to provide something of spiritual value to those seekers that feel called to experience.

 

Taves, Ann & Michael Kinsella. 2013. “Hiding in Plain Sight: The organizational forms of ‘unorganized religion’”, in New Age Spirituality Rethinking Religion. Acumen Publishing Limited.

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PARTICIPANT OBSERVATION IN FAITH

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Those involved in the interfaith movement will spout the benefits of sharing and experiencing faith across religious boundaries. Such benefits include creating a more peaceful world, as well as deepening the experience of one’s own faith. For example, “You don’t know your own religion if you don’t know another, you can’t understand your own religion. You get a much better perspective on what religion is about, on who God is, by understanding how others see God…” (Kirkwood, 168). And yet many religions operate in a world of mutual exclusivity. Respecting another’s tradition is one thing, but participating in another’s traditions often crosses the line. This can be seen as a betrayal to one’s faith, and even a sin against God. How do we foster genuine respect through understanding if we keep other religious groups at arm’s length?

We can get some inspiration from the evolution of methodology in the social sciences, namely anthropology. The field started with ‘armchair’ anthropologists analyzing distant cultures with only the reports of others, namely merchants and missionaries. Their results were largely inaccurate and biased. Later anthropologists started traveling to study their subjects in person, though their analysis were often rather anglocentric. Finally, with thick description and participant observation we approach the anthropology of today. Today’s researchers often walk a very thin line between an insider than can be trusted with information and an objective outsider. Working to find balance in these circumstances encourages holistic and in-depth results.

Similarly, people of faith can move past tolerance to understanding with a bit of participant observation. This is essential for people of faith in this global world. We can no longer remain enclosed behind religious walls and cloak the diversity outside under a blanket of ignorant tolerance. Like anthropologists we must participate in other faiths to understand them. We must read their sacred texts, go out and see how others pray, worship with them, feast and celebrate with them. This will give us a more holistic view of the world we live in, and give us a new lens to view our own faith with. Seeing the commonalities and points of differentiation between spiritual systems, we can appreciate our traditions in new ways and worship and pray with new fervor.

To insiders the reason for mutual exclusivity is often wrapped up in the concept of sin. Functionally I believe the reason is no more complex than survival. By keeping other faiths at a distance you ‘preserve’ and ‘protect’ the faith. But this is attempted in vain. Religions do not reside in a vacuum, but in the world. They aim to keep out what might taint the faith. But they might simultaneously keep out that which will revitalize and strengthen their respective faith. Discernment is a must in this endeavor. But this endeavor is a must.

 

Kirkwood, Peter. The Quiet Revolution: The emergence of interfaith consciousness. (Interview with Sister Joan Kirby in September 2006.) 2007. Sydney, NSW: ABC Books.

 

THE PROGRESSION OF ‘TRUTH’ THROUGH BALLS AND STRIKES

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A picture can be black and white, shades of gray, or even full color. Truth is often thought of as black and white, but is it? A university professor of mine favored a baseball allegory to explain changing theoretical approaches through recent decades. In the pre-modern era, an umpire would say, ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes, I call them as they are.’ A modern umpire would say, ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes, I call them as I see them.’ An umpire from the post-modern school of thought would say, ‘There’s balls and there’s strikes, they’re nothing until I call them.’ In this simple allegory we can see the progression of how truth is conceptualized: From an absolute truth that exists independent of the observer, to truth being completely dependent on the observer’s experience of it, until we finally arrive at the observer holding all the power as they create truth.

Curiously enough, in my largely informal but highly integrated observation of New Agers, I have witnessed all three methods of thought put to use. The pre-modern notion of absolute truth is exhibited in the way New Agers often strip away the structures of organized religion in the interest of discovering the raw wisdom and spirituality that lies at the core, suggesting these elements exist independent of followers, nay-sayers, or resultant social constructs. Often the layers of meaning contributed by organized religion throughout history are thought to taint or water-down the faith rather than enrich it. Yet there is also evidence of the modern approach: letting one’s experiences dictate the individual’s understanding of truth. New Agers are encouraged to explore many different traditions in search what ‘speaks to them’. They take what beliefs and traditions ‘serve them’ and leave behind the rest. They search for ‘their truth’, led by their own experiences.

Even the post-modern is evident in New Age, especially in the genre of self-help. New Age logic affirms that you can become whoever you want, and dreams can become reality; all through the power of our thoughts and the strength of our will. The Buddhist principle of emptiness is one example I’ve heard frequently in New Age circles. Nothing has a nature of its own; the observer dictates the nature. A person or a situation is not bad, good, scary or loving on its own; the observer assigns such characteristics. In this school of thought all power lies with the observer. Your world can change if you change how you regard it. Truth can change from one person to the next with varying worldviews.

I hope to learn more about this progression of thought: pre-modern, modern, and post-modern. But more so to explore how elements manifest in the New Age milieu, and how these different theoretical structures are reconciled in this highly complex and loosely organized system.

ONE YEAR OF MUNDANE & DIVINE

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This is the 52nd post on Mundane and Divine, which means that at one per week(ish), this post marks the end of Mundane and Divine’s first year! If you are looking to catch up, or just a recap, here are short summaries of the posts so far.

“PEACE BE WITH YOU”

Where secular humanists once fought off religious influence, religion is fighting to not become secularized. Based on my interactions in Australia, this post reflects on the expanding grasp of secularism and the resultant struggles of religious schools.

“RELIGION V. SPIRITUALITY: BIBLICAL INSIGHT”

Traditionally, spirituality was a component of religion. But in recent times these terms have become the antithesis of each other. As many identify as, ‘spiritual but not religious,’ we are must come to terms with new conceptions of these terms with concern to religious identity. This article examines the use and understanding of the labels ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ and looks to traditional texts such as the Bible to shed light on contemporary language.

“POLITICAL CORRECTNESS: MORE THAN JUST A FILTER”

Political correctness often keeps the issues that matter obscured. People keep silent on real and pertinent issues for fear of being seen as racist, sexist or (God forbid) politically incorrect. Rather than being tackled, problems are side-stepped in favor of less controversial causes. This is a commentary on the damaging effects of political correctness.

“CONVERSION V. ALTERNATION”

No longer are people of different religious backgrounds separated by geography or national boundaries. Very few homogeneous communities exist. Even those who live isolated in the physical world can often not escape the ever-widening grasp of media. Today almost everyone is exposed to religious and spiritual traditions different to their own. This piece looks at modern trends in belief transitions considering today’s global world.

“BEYOND TOLERANCE”

The only understanding tolerance provides is the understanding that we must put up with something to maintain society’s status quo. Tolerance breeds silence. In that silence, issues compound and hatred can run unchecked. Here I argue that something deeper than tolerance is necessary to create a world that is not only peaceful on the surface, but all the way to the core.

“THE CATEGORIZATION OF ACADEMIA”

Complex and multi-faceted issues should be at the center of academic work. If an issue or phenomena is studied, explored and analyzed from one disciplinary perspective, much could be lost through the narrow scope. This piece argues that the over-development of academic disciplines stifles research.

“A SECULAR ALTERNATIVE TO RELIGION: HUMANISM”

There are many religion-based organizations focused on providing charity, but religious and cultural differences can get in the way. The Secular Humanist perspective does well to avoid this problem. Its universal and unbiased nature is a great strength. However, I do not see Secular Humanism as the perfect solution. Like any other philosophy or ideal it has challenges to face.

“SCHOLARS AND SUBJECTS: TWO PERSPECTIVES”

Themes deemed significant by subjects must be given ample attention by researchers. This is imperative to gain an emic perspective and develop an understanding of subjects’ belief and decision making systems. In the early days of social research, scholars imposed their reasoning for beliefs and actions over the reasoning of their subjects. In the field of New Age research especially, I fear this ineffective and damaging trend is alive and well. Balancing scholarly interests with areas of importance identified by subjects will yield more thorough and unbiased studies.

“SECULAR AND NEW AGE OVERLAP”

In the secular age, New Age has flourished. It seems to be the religion / spirituality of secularism. Here I explore why New Age fits so well in secular society

“A SECULAR NEW AGE OR A NEW AGE SECULARISM”

There is no doubt New Age has many characteristics that are often considered secular. But these similarities leave us to wonder, along with the growth of New Age in the secular age, what exactly is the nature of the relationship between New Age and secularism? This question is unfortunately much like the chicken or the egg dilemma. Did the similarities come about because New Age, as we know it today, grew up out of a largely secular mainstream society? Or does the holistic and seemingly boundary-free nature of New Age provide an opportunity for secularism to encroach upon and transform New Age to closer align with its ideals?

“ON CHARLIE HEBDO”

The attacks on Charlie Hebdo rocked the globe as another example of religious extremism. But it also left many questioning intercultural relations in France and in our global world. What could spark such an attack? If the attack was a symptom of a larger problem, then what was the cause? Offensive depictions of the prophet Mohammed published by Charlie Hebdo are the obvious cause and are no doubt the primary spark. This fact has lead to extensive debate on the freedom of speech. How far is too far with freedom of speech? Does such a limit exist?

“SECULARISM: SOCIETY AND THE INDIVIDUAL”

Another point scholars still debate on, and leaves religious leaders wondering, is the nature of secularism. What started the ideology and what continues to drive it to such prominence in the Western world? A natural starting point is colonial America, where ‘freedom of religion’ was implemented as a reaction to persecution experienced in the old world. Secularism as we know it is still a far cry from the initial concept of freedom of religion, but I believe the seeds were planted here. By removing religion from the official list of offences, people started to get acclimatized to such separation, as superficial as it may be.

“GOD STORIES: SEARCHING OUT THE DIVINE IN THE MUNDANE”

Today, with religion being cloistered behind closed doors it seems other instances of spiritual experience are being pushed out of everyday life as well. Secular society tells us there is not room for the divine in the mundane. One Episcopal parish is fighting this mutually exclusive arrangement through what they call, ‘God stories.’

“THE RELIGIOUS PLATFORM AND WOMEN”

In the days before secularism, religious institutions were often heavily involved in societal operations. Though leadership roles were often off limits to women, the church or temple was a public place for women to voice concerns and seek advice and recourse.

“DEATH THE EQUALIZER”

With all we have learned since the enlightenment, with as far as science has come, it is impressive that religion remains in the face of reason. Potential reasons for this resilience are plentiful but I will focus this article on one. A rather basic reason: the lack of knowledge concerning death and the afterlife. In this area, science has added little knowledge and given few absolute answers. This time science cannot provide the certainty that often threatens to push religion aside.

“NEW AGE: RELIGION, SPIRITUALITY OR SOCIAL MOVEMENT”

New Age is often viewed as an alternative to traditional or ‘world religions’. In the public arena the debate tends to center around the ‘spirituality’ – ‘religion’ dichotomy. But in academia it becomes more complex when trying to assign research on New Age to a field of study. This article will explore a variety of view-points on how New Age should be categorized.

“CHURCH SURVIVAL THROUGH INNOVATIVE MEANS”

As congregations dwindle and money gets tight, many Christian churches are looking for ways to survive. Many have accepted that things will never be as they once were. Religion no longer has a central place in society or in the lives of most individuals. No amount of fundraising or member recruitment efforts is going to change that. Instead, they are looking for creative, and non-traditional means of survival.

“THE STRUGGLES OF LATINO / LATIN ARTISTS & NEW AGERS: A COMPARISON”

I recently read an article by Arlene Davila about the struggles of Latino and Latin American artists. Among other things, Davila discusses how current cultural factors such as multiculturalism and the Euro-centric art world affect issues of identity and recognition or visibility. I was struck by the similarities to New Age’s situation. Both groups have a precarious position in relation to their wider framework that affects what identity is portrayed and what identity is perceived, as well as their visibility.

“ORGANIZED RELIGION & SECULARISM: THE NEW AGE RESULT”

There is an idea of New Agers as rebels against organized religion. That their ‘alternative’ structures and practices are a direct response to undesirable characteristics of organized religion. This article reflects on my personal experience with ‘New Agers’ and concludes that this is often not the case. Instead secularism is criticized.

“CULTURAL APPROPRIATION”

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. This article discusses the dynamics of cultural appropriation in New Age circles.

“EQUATING VALUE TO MONEY: EFFECTS ON RELIGIOUS AND SPIRITUAL INVOLVEMENT”

There is a reason people say, “The best things in life are free.” There is a lot of truth in that statement and most people recognize and are willing to admit that. Here we can see that value and money are two separate things. The principle works both ways as well, the best things in life are free and some of the best things we can do, earn us nothing in the way of money. It is not a new or novel idea, but it is one quickly forgotten in the daily grind. I argue that forgetting this is having an adverse effect on people’s involvement in religious and spiritual activities.

“THEORY OVERUSE”

There are few if any theories in the social sciences considered perfect. All have exceptions. However, this field thrives on shades of gray. It should be expected that its theories will not be in black and white. This article explores the prospect of relying on theories too much in academia, and middle of the road alternatives.

“ASKING QUESTIONS YOU DON’T WANT THE ANSWERS TO: WHAT IS CHURCH FOR?”

When was the last time the Church asked people what they were looking for in a church or what they hope to get out of church? It seems like an obvious answer: fellowship, become closer to God… But when was the last time the Church asked? The answers may be surprising… perhaps that is why no one has asked because they are afraid of what they would hear.

“THE SPIRITUALITY OF EATING”

Rather than focus on the spiritual and practical reasons for such dietary rules, I want to focus on the act of eating as a spiritual act. This includes ritual eating and supposedly mundane, everyday eating. Religion provides information on how we fit into the world and instruction as to how we should behave in the world. Eating helps facilitate our relationship with the world.

“HYBRID SPIRITUALITIES: CURRENT TREND OF INEVITABLE RESULT?”

New Age traditions are often criticized for being heterogeneous. Some call it the pick-and-mix religion, taking elements from various religions out of their original context, and creating new meaning with them. Under these circumstances many fear that the essence of these religions will be lost if not retained in their ‘pure’ form. Is this a relevant fear? Is there anything that can be done about it?

“CROSSING OCEANS AND BOUNDARIES: POPE FRANCIS IN AMERICA”

Pope Francis’ recent visit to the U.S. showed that his popularity spans many boundaries. Catholics and non-Catholics alike, were intrigued by his visit and had great interest in what Francis had to say. Taking a wider scope, Pope Francis’ ability to span religious boundaries, illustrates how elements can be adapted and appreciated from a faith tradition one may not ‘belong’ to.

“WHY YOGA IS FOR EVERYONE”

Yoga has increased in popularity in the Western world. Many see it solely as exercise. There is no doubt yoga is good for the physical body, but it can do much more. I think it is the mental and spiritual benefits of yoga that has given rise to its popularity. There are plenty of exercise crazes but none have endured like yoga, because yoga’s benefits go far beyond the physical.

“THE MELTING POT V. THE SALAD BOWL”

America’s history and diversity are often described with the melting pot symbol. The many different cultural and religious flavors mingle and combine to create one delicious dish… in theory. But perhaps there is a better alternative.

“A RETREAT INTO SILENCE”

In silence we can come back to our roots, recognize all the unnecessary extras that clutter up our lives, understand what is truly important, reprioritize, and decide how we want to participate in the fast paced society we live in. Here is a reflection of a solitary retreat I went on.

“(EXTRA)ORDINARY CHRISTMAS”

Jesus’ debut, and his ability to straddle divinity and humanity throughout his life, illustrates how the mundane and the divine meet.

“THE NEED FOR A PLURALISTIC WORLDVIEW”

In the global village, people are encountering more and more diversity in their daily lives. I am confident that slowly and gradually, people are replacing fear and ignorance with curiosity and understanding, with regards to different cultures and religions. We see evidence of this happening at a shallow level in the growing importance of political correctness and in the ‘tolerance’ battle cry. But a pluralistic worldview would provide a deeper change.

“CHRISTIAN PREDISPOSITIONS: PLURALISM AND HOLISM”

Drawing on the trinity, I argue Christians are predisposed to recognize the various expressions of the divine in other faith traditions and are more than able to take on a pluralist perspective while staying rooted in their own faith.

“RESISTANCE TO SECULARISM: NEW AGE AND FUNDAMENTALISM”

While their beliefs and practices strongly oppose one another, New Age and Fundamentalism both promote themselves as better alternatives to Western, secular society. They are two sides of the same coin.

“CATEGORIZATION: THE ‘RELIGIOUS’ AND THE ‘SECULAR’”

In our categorized society, there are activities regarded often as one or the other. They are placed in neat little boxes of meaning, though people do not hesitate to help themselves to the contents of multiple boxes. I will juxtapose the activities of these two categories, religious and secular, to illustrate similarities and points of differentiation that may affect people’s decisions when navigating these categories.

“RELIGION’S OWN WORST ENEMY”

Here I argue, that in recent decades there has been a far more prominent factor in the deteriorating reputation of religion: religion itself.

“FAITH COMMUNITIES”

It is the up to people of faith to invite and bring people to church. To be gracious and welcoming, to share all the benefits of being part of a faith community. Whether it be church, temple or study group, people are missing out on what these faith communities have to offer: acceptance, forgiveness, divine presence in one another and love. Who couldn’t use a bit more of that?

“COMING TO A SPIRITUAL LIFE THROUGH CRISIS”

What is it about crisis that propels people into a more spiritually mindful life? When people have been shook down to their foundations, they look for the divine in their ramshackle lives to build themselves back up again. It seems natural that when things in one’s ‘mundane’ life are faltering, to look deeper to the divine for purpose, strength or hope.

“NEW AGE: SCATTERED SEEDS TO A LIFE OF ITS OWN”

The continuing and increasingly prevalent factors discussed here have given New Age ideas a foothold in society. These ideas no longer exist solely in individual followers but have a life of their own.

“ACADEMIC WRITING: ON SCHOLARSHIP”

I argue that factors in academia have made academic writing cumbersome and perhaps take away from its primary purpose.

“FAITH & CONTROL”

A reflection, “The opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is control.” – Richard Rohr

“WORLD SABBATH”

I attended the World Sabbath at Fort Street Presbyterian Church in Detroit with high hopes and it delivered. I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The music and dancing enlivened my spirit, and the prayers offered in song and in so many different languages lifted me up. It was also an opportunity to hear about interfaith efforts, which was both encouraging and sobering with how much work is yet to be done.

“RELIGION & POLITICS: ON THE CAMPAIGN TRAIL”

I’ve explored how this separation is created and maintained through both direct and implicit implementation of secularism; and commented on how rigid this separation can be. However, I feel we are currently witnessing one of the greatest exceptions to American secularism: election season.

“EMPTY PEWS: THE ROLE OF CHOICE AND ABILITY”

Twice this past Sunday I was confronted with the question, “Why don’t people go to church?” It wasn’t always this way. What has changed? These questions have endless answers from academia, religious leaders and the curious public. This myriad of answers paints a complex picture that reflects the nature of religion in secular society. But the two answers I heard on Sunday were simple and practical. The answers I heard focus on the role of choice and ability in declining levels of religious involvement.

“A PAGAN EASTER”

Social media is the ultimate place for clashing opinions. Over Easter weekend I saw a battle on Facebook over a post about the pagan roots of Easter. The post pointed out that Easter coincides with pagan fertility celebrations and that symbols like eggs and rabbits are closer to these fertility roots more than Jesus’ resurrection. This upset a Christian Facebooker and back-and-forth comments ensued. This negativity does not belong in any celebration, be it Christian or Pagan. This should be an opportunity for making connections and learning about the history of one’s respective religion.

“THE PURE & THE ECLECTIC”

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.

“THE SECULAR CIRCLE OF LIFE”

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. This is a critique of society today, and more specifically a super-bowl ad.

“FEMALE-FRIENDLY RELIGION”

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. And instead argue for the creation of female friendly religions.

“CHRISTIAN CRITICISM GIVES NEW AGE STATUS”

With the ‘religion’ label as the golden ticket, Groothuis brings New Age into the sphere of religion.

“NEW AGE HYPOCRISY”

For Groothuis it is okay to put Christianity above other religions as his ideology claims exclusivity, but for New Agers to do so it is hypocrisy.

“FREEDOM OF RELGION AND PUBLIC EDUCATION”

Groothuis spends the majority of his book squaring off with New Age from a conservative Christian perspective. But in his discussion on education in America, he raises some good and critical points relevant to Americans of all faiths. And even those without faith, the American tax payers who fund public education.

“EXCEPTIONS: AN INTERESTING AUSSIE FAMILY”

I’ve had many Aussies tell me that Americans are more ‘religious’ than themselves. Which makes this family quite the rare exception to secularism in Australia, and in my opinion an especially refreshing exception.

What a year it has been! Stay tuned for more!

 

 

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.

ACADEMIC WRITING: ON SCHOLARSHIP

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My interests (religion, spirituality, secularism, culture and social science) take me through a wide variety of literature. From self-help and personal narratives written by leaders and teacher of various traditions, to analyses and essays written by the academics that study them, not to mention sacred texts. All of these genres have their own distinct styles. The style of academic writing is off-putting to many, which is unfortunate as, in my opinion, the vast majority of Americans desperately need intellectual stimulation and challenge.

I argue that factors in academia have made academic writing cumbersome and perhaps take away from its primary purpose: to make new connections between existing ideas and create new knowledge. My background is anthropology and it is from this field I draw from most, though I see much of the same trends occurring in other social sciences as well as in religion and philosophy.

Citing the work of others is an essential writing tool for supporting claims, providing diverse perspectives for a well-rounded discussion, connecting thoughts to the wider field of study, and confronting the antithesis of one’s argument. But is seems the emphasis has shifted from utilizing citations as a writing tool to utilizing them as the means to prove and exhibit the writer’s level of scholarship. In today’s system, academics must continually prove their scholarship to get published by academic journals and presses, which is essential to career advancement. The unintentional and unfortunate result is that the focus of academic writing becomes establishing the author’s scholarship rather than contributing to an academic discipline by creating new knowledge or new ways of understanding.

This flawed system has been discussed by those it effects: academics. An acceptable solution has not been presented yet, though there are many (often controversial) attempts underway to revamp academia. Unfortunately, I do not have the cure-all answer. But I do suggest that academic publishers give more weight to the ideas presented than the extent the author can cite other academics. Do not misunderstand, I find scholarship to be an important part of academic writing, especially in establishing the caliber of the author. I simply argue for the criteria by which works are evaluated to be reprioritized, for the weight given to these criteria to be re-delegated. I am confident that this would allow for more innovative writing and perhaps expand readership. Authors could then write pieces of interest to not only other academics but to the educated and curious public as well.

 

THEORY OVERUSE

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In the world of social science, anthropology, sociology and the like, there are plenty of theories to go around. The spectrum reflects the progress of academia and intellect through the ages as well as trends of the times. Some are now considered out of date, perhaps because they have been disproven or are simply out of fashion. Some are considered more accurate or applicable than others. There are few if any theories in the social sciences considered perfect. All have exceptions. However, this field thrives on shades of gray. It should be expected that its theories will not be in black and white.

Some fail to see the value in using theory. What is the point when they all have a limited scope and are riddled with exceptions? The suggested alternative is to simply preform studies without applying any theory to methodology or analysis. Instead, studies become detailed accounts of specific phenomena. I don’t see a problem with this. However, theories provide the opportunity to put findings and new ideas into a larger framework. This allows the researcher to make comparisons and connections, creating a more complete understanding of the phenomena and the world it is situated in.

The largest issue concerning theory is that there is a tendency to apply a theory to every situation or phenomena one comes across. We build theories up in our minds to be grand, over-arching answers. When the truth is, the world is too diverse for any such thing. If a theory cannot answer all, then it is discarded and then the next one is tried, then the next one, then the next… until we decide theories are pointless altogether. As Marvin Harris puts it, “Explanations of lifestyles are like potatoes chips. People insist on eating them until the whole bag is gone” (pg. vi). Instead we need to recognize and accept the limits of theories while taking advantage of the focused yet wider scope and fresh perspectives theories can provide.

Harris, Marvin. Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The riddles of culture. New York: Random House, 1978.