01 December 2008

The Background of the New Age

New Age spirituality is Anti-Christian
Part 2 of a series
by Phil Johnson




he expression "New Age" refers to a belief that earth's history is currently in a major transition pertaining to the signs of the zodiac. As a matter of fact, the position of the earth relative to the constellations does actually shift slightly over time, owing to a kind of slow wobble in the earth's axis. This phenomenon is known to astronomers as "the precession of the equinoxes," in which the position of sunset at the vernal equinox gradually moves in a westward circle, at a rate that would make a full rotation approximately every 25,800 years. As the shift occurs, the backdrop of the sun at sunset moves almost imperceptibly from one constellation to another, in rhythmic transitions that occur roughly every 2,000 years.

One such transition occurred around 4,000 BC, as the location of sunset at equinox moved out of Gemini and into Taurus, the bull. Then around 2,000 BC, Taurus gave way to Aries, the ram. About 2,000 years later, the backdrop of the equinox moved out of Aries and into Pisces, the fish. And a similar transition is currently underway as the precession of the equinoxes moves the sunset-point from Pisces to Aquarius.

New Agers generally believe that this movement through the constellations marks the ages of human history and religious belief. During the age of Taurus, the bull (which lasted from antediluvian times until the era of Moses), calf worship was popular. The shift to the age of Aries, the ram, supposedly accounts for the rise of Judaism, with its stress on the ritual sacrifice of rams and sheep. And the dawn of Pisces, the fish, corresponds to the start of the Christian era. That is supposed to explain why the fish has always been one of the church's favorite symbols and remains so today. In the words of one New Age writer, "Our theology is not played out so much in books and literal earthly dramas, but rather in the heavens as the Sun makes it's [sic] passage through the signs of the Zodiac."

So the most basic of all New Age ideas is rooted in astrology—specifically, a belief that human history is now at the dawn of a whole new era: the Age of Aquarius. That, of course, was the message of the opening song of the 1967 Broadway musical, Hair, a song that became, in effect, the anthem of the New Age and first introduced millions to the concept.

New Age spirituality is a postmodern phenomenon with gnostic, pagan, and metaphysical roots. It is impossible in such a short blogpost to trace all the spiritual tributaries to such a diverse movement, but it should be noted that the New Age is a direct successor to some of the metaphysical cults that became popular in the nineteenth century, including New Thought, Swedenborgianism, Theosophy, Science of Mind, and Christian Science. New Age practitioners liberally borrow language and ideas from all those sects, freely adapting and reshaping them according to personal preference.

Jungian philosophy is another major factor in the popularization of New Age spirituality. Jung, of course, coined the concepts of "the collective unconscious," "the god within," and mind-expansion techniques. Wouter Hanegraaff wrote that Jung "sacralized psychology, by filling it with the contents of esoteric speculation. The result was a body of theories which enabled people to talk about God while really meaning their own psyche, and about their own psyche while really meaning the divine. If the psyche is 'mind', and God is 'mind' as well, then to discuss one must mean to discuss the other." [Wouter J. Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought, (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996), 513.]

Wouter Hanegraaff's reference to "esoteric speculation" hints at another major stream of New Age influence: gnosticism. The fundamental idea that unites all gnostic and New Age thought is a belief that the key to real understanding lies in some mysterious, ancient body of hidden knowledge available only to enlightened minds. Normally, the way to gain enlightenment is by being initiated into whatever group claim to be guardians of the secret knowledge.

Add a distinctly postmodern brand of subjectivity to this eclectic blend of astrological, metaphysical, psychological, and gnostic influences, and you can begin to get a sense of the milieu in which New Age spirituality has flourished. It would probably be fair to characterize the rise of the New Age movement as the spiritual side of the postmodern paradigm shift.

Phil's signature

19 comments:

DJP said...

...as the precession of the equinoxes moves the sunset-point from Pisces to Aquarius

You mean... this really is "the dawning of...."?

Oh my. I hope I don't have that song going through my head all day.

Willem Bronkhorst said...

In the midst of all this turmoil I wish the emergents, aptly, I think: "Gesundheit!"

December Sun Blog said...

This was very helpful, and informative to see how oddities like Christian Science fit into the new age formula as well.

Personally speaking, my only experience with new age (if this counts) is my collection of Enya cds which, if anything, offer a nice (if lyrically undiscernable) background noise while working.

Everyday Mommy said...

Okay...ditto Dan...I can hear the Fifth Dimension singing, "Harmony and understanding..."

That Everyday Mommy...she's deep.

NothingNewUnderTheSun said...

Phil:”Add a distinctly postmodern brand of subjectivity to this eclectic blend of astrological, metaphysical, psychological, and gnostic influences, and you can begin to get a sense of the milieu in which New Age spirituality has flourished.”

All true, but I would also add that particular ‘technologies’ can also be an intrigal cog in the ‘New Age spiritual machine’ as well, since technology can breath life into philosophies that would not exist otherwise.

Example: The ‘One Machine’

To see the video of it explained visit - http://www.poptech.org/popcasts/popcasts.aspx?lang=&viewcastid=37

donsands said...

Well done. New Age is something we need to reckon with for sure. We need to understand it, and take it serious.

But at the same time, when people like Shirley MacLaine preach: "Be still and know that you are god", there's the other side to this.

"Well it's a Great-Big-Stupid world
Dumb dumb da dumb dumb baby it's a stupid world
It's a great big stupid, great big stupid
Great big stupid world" -Randy Stonehill

atruefaith.com said...

Wouter Hanegraaff's reference to "esoteric speculation" hints at another major stream of New Age influence: gnosticism. The fundamental idea that unites all gnostic and New Age thought is a belief that the key to real understanding lies in some mysterious, ancient body of hidden knowledge available only to enlightened minds. Normally, the way to gain enlightenment is by being initiated into whatever group claim to be guardians of the secret knowledge.

Phil, now there's an area for needed analysis. Neo-Gnosticism, or Gnostic idealism, percolates through every new idea that is put forth today – the idea that there is a kind of hidden transcendence to be found in the treasure trove of hidden knowledge just waiting to be tapped if we would only put our minds and souls to it. We see this kind of mindset not only in philosophy and religion, but in science today as well. And don’t even get me started on how multiverse theories have tapped into this kind of subtle arrogance.

Stefan said...

Phil, that was a very good, concise history of the modern New Age movement.

If we consider some other influences that have fallen under the New Age rubric—alchemy, the Kabbalah, miscellaneous forms of occultism—we can trace many of them back for millennia, and many of them to the same Egyptian or Babylonian locus that forms much of the backdrop of the biblical history of redemption.

"New Age" thinking is, in a sense, as "Old" as the Fall from the Garden of Eden.

On a side note: Did you ever notice how one of the ways that detractors (or esoteric misinterpreters) of Christianity or Old Testament Judaism deride (or twist) them is by painting them as belief systems controlled by a group of priests with some kind of (or trying to protect some kind of) secret knowledge available only to initiates, by which to maintain power? Sounds very much like a projection of the old Gnostic way of seeing things, doesn't it? If every belief system is a body of secret knowledge that only the enlightened can master, then from the point of those enslaved to such belief systems, Judeo-Christianity must fall into the same window of thought, or it doesn't make sense (to them) at all.

Marie said...

Thanks for posting this, Phil. I was glad to see you mentioned Jungian psychology - I have just finished a blog entry on why secular psychology and Christianity don't mix, citing Jung, Freud, Maslow, Ellis and others. Most of the earliest psych-field "pioneers" dabbled in the occult.

Here's where it gets really scary, though. The inroad that the New Age has made into "Christian" counseling is unbelievable. Visualization techniques, hypnosis, the "Human Potential Movement", positive/negative confession, as well as belief in a reservoir of repressed memories in a "subconscious" have all been somehow incorporated and are practiced by many Christian psychologists. The whole "inner healing" philosophy smacks of New Age philosophy to me.

I am currently working on a chapter on the difference between "Christian" and nouthetic counseling....the New Age influence upon the former cannot be ignored.

ThirstyDavid said...

So, if I'm a Pisces born during the setting of the age of Pisces, is there any special significance in this for me? I must look into this.

DJP said...

Sounds fishy.

(ba-dum bum)

Mesa Mike said...

I think something's gonna happen soon. The heavens have given this signal just tonight!

That's the Moon, Jupiter and Venus doing the threesome thing.

Solameanie said...

You mean Phil is doing yet another Frank and derailing a meta with references to The Fifth Dimension? Oh, well. At least Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis are supposed to be Christians now.

As to the New Age, isn't it interesting that this subject was the rage in the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially as various apologists warned about its influences in the church. For some reason, it seemed to fall off the radar screen. Now it's blipping echoes again, no doubt thanks to the so-called "contemplative" movement within evangelicalism.

This stuff morphs and adapts like the Borg.

Live As If said...

DJPDJP said...
You mean... this really is "the dawning of...."?

Oh my. I hope I don't have that song going through my head all day.


Gee thanks. Now I have that song going in my head! Get it out, get it out !!!! :-)

What an awesome set of information, Phil. I was raised in the Christian Science church and it was interesting to see it lumped in with New Thought, et al. I can still remember how hard it was to try and "get" what was being taught: it just seemed so complicated and at the time I felt so inadequate but now I see it really was complicated, unlike what the gospel teaches, which is really simple (thankfully!)

Live As If said...

heh. been awhile since i've done any html coding - sorry for the goofy formatting of my last post..

puritanicoal said...

I bet that challenging married church members to have sex for seven days straight falls into all of this somehow.

Marie said...

For some reason, it seemed to fall off the radar screen. Now it's blipping echoes again, no doubt thanks to the so-called "contemplative" movement within evangelicalism.

Contemplative spirituality is definitely a big part of it, (popularized by folks like Richard Foster and Brennan Manning), but the New Age never really went away. It just went mainstream and didn't always identify itself as "New Age". Some examples....the proliferation of yoga, reiki, therapeutic touch; visualization and 'possibility thinking'; inner healing and channeling (note the popularity of books like "God Calling", "A Course in Miracles" and "Conversations with God") and the self-help gurus like Oprah ("Every morning I embrace the inner light); Gary Zukav and Eckbart Tolle etc.

Ray Yungen's "A Time of Departing" shows how the New Age has flourished in the past 25 years and has become so assimilated into society that it has invaded the Church (especially in the form of contemplative spirituality, as Sola pointed out). Dave Hunt's "The Seduction of Christianity" also discusses the subject. It's the logical end of downplaying dogma and embracing extreme ecumenism.

Becky, a slave of Christ said...

Thanks for such a well laid out progression of this history, Phil. I dabbled with aspects of the New Age movement before I was saved and am grateful the Lord intervened.

My husband and I are taking the Historical Theology I video course from The Master’s Seminary, at our church, and Gnosticism is one of the topics covered; your post is a timely addition to what we are learning.

I have been reading (in Olson’s-The Story of Christian Theology) about the progress of coming to grips with theology that the post-apostolic believers went through. Even though the respected of men of that day had some things right, they had some things very wrong--to the point of heresy.

Today, doctrine is understood, truth is available, yet in too many churches it is not taught. Because of this, it is tragic to think how many baby Christians are going through the same theological struggles, coming to false conclusions, essentially attempting to reinventing the wheel, because men in the pulpit are recklessly negligent. Is it any wonder false doctrine is abundant?

John said...

Thanks for an excellent post. Given the writings in 1 Jn., etc., do you think the New Age movement is a real danger to the truly regenerate, or is it more of a watershed revealing those who are only nominal Christians? Or am I thinking too black and white?