08 December 2008

The Rise and Decline of New Ageism

New Age spirituality is Anti-Christian
Part 4 (the last) of a series
by Phil Johnson


he New Age movement began to ferment in pop culture in the 1970s, an offshoot of 1960s counterculture. As we have noted, it was introduced to millions at the end of the 60s by means of a popular song heralding the dawning of the age of Aquarius. Belief in the New Age grew quickly and somewhat quietly in the 1970s to become a major force by the end of the decade.

The movement first seemed to catch the attention of the major mass media in America when actress Shirley MacLaine stepped forward at the end of 1983 to become its best-known and most colorful proponent with the release of her book Out on a Limb. The book (dramatized in a 1987 television miniseries starring the actress herself) chronicled Ms. MacLaine's quest for New Age enlightenment and self-discovery, as she dabbled in the occult arts, had an out-of-body experience, attempted communication with spiritual and extraterrestrial beings, and explored various new-age fads such as crystals and channeling. She described how in one of these channeling experiments a being who identified himself as "John," who said he had lived on earth in the time of Christ, told her through a medium, "You are God. You know you are divine" [Ibid., 209]. MacLaine believed the message. In a book two years later, delving even more deeply into her New Age interests, she wrote, "I am God, because all energy is plugged in to the same source. We are each aspects of that source. We are all part of God. We are individualized reflections of the God source. God is us and we are God." [Shirley McLaine, Dancing in the Light (New York: Bantam, 1985), 339.] "I am God in Light" was the mantra she said she chanted during her yoga exercises. [Shirley MacLaine, Going Within (New York: Bantam, 1989), 57.]



MacLaine may have done more than any other single celebrity in the 1980s to popularize the New Age movement, but her eccentricities and her apparent willingness to believe almost any superstition also helped spark something of a popular backlash against the culture of the New Age. The expression New Age when used in popular media and entertainment began to take on negative connotations of gullibility and shallowness. The trendiness of New Age culture became the brunt of derisive comedy sketches and the luster faded from the movement.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of books from both evangelical and secular critics attacked New Age ideas as unbiblical, unsound, dangerous, and sometimes just plain ridiculous. Constance Cumbey's The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow: The New Age Movement and Our Coming Age of Barbarism [Shreveport: Huntington House, 1985] was one of the first books to critique the New Age movement from an evangelical perspective. Cumbey (an attorney and an evangelical Baptist) portrayed the New Age movement as a vast and well-organized conspiracy—ultimately a plot to bring the Antichrist to power. Her sensational claims appealed to many, and a few writers, including Dave Hunt, [Understanding the New Age Movement (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1988)] echoed Cumbey's conspiracy theory.

Several more sober Christian apologists who took on the New Age movement were highly critical of Cumbey's conspiracy theory. These included Douglas Groothuis of Denver Seminary [Unmasking the New Age (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity, 1986)]and Elliot Miller of the Christian Research Institute [A Crash Course on the New Age Movement: Describing and Evaluating a Growing Social Force (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1989)]. These authors pointed out that there is scant credible evidence of any highly organized, centrally-coordinated plot for the New Age movement as an organized entity to take over governments or destroy established religious structures. Christians should oppose New-Age ideologies, but they need to do it on spiritual and biblical grounds. Because the conspiracy-theory mentality itself demands such a high level of blind credulity, it may in fact be a hindrance to effective apologetics work, they pointed out.

Influential secular books analyzing the New Age movement included Marilyn Ferguson's The Aquarian Conspiracy. [Los Angeles: Tarcher, 1980] Despite the impression given by the title, this book is nothing like Cumbey's treatment. Ferguson was wholly sympathetic to most of the ideals of the New Age, and the kind of "conspiracy" she described was open and more or less coincidental, rather than the sort of clandestine and dark scheme Cumbey envisioned. The Aquarian Conspiracy was nonetheless one of the first popular volumes to reveal the widespread influence of New Age ideas, and its title may have inadvertently raised some alarms about the aims and intentions of the burgeoning movement.

Another important (and more recent) book on the subject from a non-evangelical perspective is The New Age Movement: Religion, Culture and Society in the Age of Post Modernity, by Paul Heelas [Oxford: Blackwell, 1996]. Heelas gives a careful and dispassionate history of the growth and development of New Age spirituality in a critical but academic context. A still more recent scholarly book worth mentioning from a non-evangelical perspective is Steve Sutcliffe's Children of the New Age, [Oxford: Routledge, 2003] in which New Age spirituality and terminology are subjected to thorough deconstruction in vigorous postmodern fashion.

Evangelical publishers, who in the late 1980s and early 1990s were producing critiques of the New Age movement at a rate faster than most people could possibly read, have turned for the most part to different genres of books. In the wake of the astonishing success of a few mega-bestsellers like The Prayer of Jabez, Wild at Heart, and The Purpose-Driven Life, Christian publishing has seemed to favor books that are non-polemical. Furthermore, with the Emerging Church movement lately becoming the focus of so much dialogue and debate within the evangelical movement, the New Age movement seems to have all but faded from the agenda.

Is The New Age Just Old News?

Some Evangelicals might be tempted to think interest in New Age spirituality is waning—that the movement itself is on the decline. But that would be a mistake. According to data published by George Barna, people holding New Age beliefs already outnumbered evangelical Christians a decade ago. Survey data released in 1996 showed that 20 percent of American adults followed New Age teachings. About half that number could be classified (even in the broadest possible terms) as biblical Christians.

ReligiousTolerance.org, an Ontario-based nonsectarian website that collects and publishes survey data regarding religious trends of all kinds, says that today, "Interest in new religious movements (e.g. New Age, Neopaganism) is growing rapidly. In particular, Wiccans are doubling in numbers about every 30 months" ["Trends Among Christians in the U.S."].

The New Age movement is by no means a dying influence. If anything, many New Age beliefs have simply become so mainstream that they no longer seem as unconventional or as spiritually menacing as they once did. Both the language and the ideology of the New Age have gradually become so familiar in the culture of American religion that evangelicals simply don't pay much attention to the New Age anymore. The whole subject has the feel of yesterday's news.

Meanwhile, the Emerging Church movement and other postmodern streams of influence within the evangelical movement are challenging historic evangelical convictions with the same kind of epistemic deconstruction that gave rise to the New Age movement in the first place. The Emerging Church movement has raised the serious question of whether certainty of any kind is warranted by Christian belief. The authority of Scripture, the importance of doctrinal clarity, the exclusivity of Christ, the reality of divine wrath against sin, and the objectivity of revealed truth have all recently come under fire within evangelicalism in the context of "the Emerging Conversation."

Few would deny that the evangelical movement itself has grown increasingly superficial and pragmatic while moving away from its historic doctrinal moorings. Evangelical churches today are often more concerned about their philosophies of ministry than about their statements of faith. [cf. Elmer L. Towns, An Inside Look at 10 of today's Most Innovative Churches (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1990), 249] Unfortunately, evangelicals too often follow the trends of secular society rather than confronting the culture.

As a result, the contemporary evangelical movement has become more susceptible to mysticism, relativism, and subjectivity. Evangelicals are more likely than ever to regard intuition as divine guidance, and less certain than ever that Scripture is authoritative and objectively true. As these trends, together with streams of feminist and postmodern influences, gain more and more momentum in evangelical circles, the evangelical drift actually seems headed in exactly the same direction as the New Age movement.

George Barna noted in 1996 that as American religion becomes more diverse and syncretic, many people are seeking "a new perception of religion: a personalized, customized form of faith views which meet personal needs, minimize rules and absolutes, and bear little resemblance to the 'pure' form of any of the world's major religions" [Barna, 130]. That very thing now appears to be happening at an accelerating pace within evangelicalism. Evangelicals have shown a willingness to embrace and absorb almost any trend from popular culture, while casting off their historic distinctives. The evangelical movement appears to be abandoning every safeguard against the tide of New Age influences.

In a 1992 symposium titled New Age spirituality: An Assessment, Andrew Canale wrote,
[New Age author David Spangler] suggests that it is possible to have inclusive visions that value all people and strive to bring them to community and hope. His is a "high road" view of the New Age, a longing for a compassionate world in which hunger and poverty are alleviated, creativity is invited, deep change allowed to unfold, and exclusivity rejected. None of these values is inconsistent with Christianity. In fact, Christianity at its best lives by the same principles. Viewed in this light, Christianity and the New Age movement need not compete. Rather, they need to cooperate with each other for the sake of the desperate ones. ["The Cry of the Desperate: Christianity's Offer of a New Age," in Duncan S. Ferguson, ed., New Age Spirituality: An Assessment (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1992), 6.]

Evangelicals accustomed to the postmodern climate of today may very well find it hard to resist an argument such as that. The appeal for dialogue, the quest for common ground, and the plea for peace with New Age spirituality are all perfectly consistent with the approach to handling religious differences many evangelicals have already begun to favor.

But those committed to biblical authority and historic evangelical principles will likely see things differently, and remain vigilant.

Phil's signature

22 comments:

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"The appeal for dialogue, the quest for common ground, and the plea for peace with New Age spirituality are all perfectly consistent with the approach to handling religious differences many evangelicals have already begun to favor."

Eg. World Council of Churches, National Council of Churches, National Association of Evangelicals via Richard Cizik.

"But those committed to biblical authority and historic evangelical principles will likely see things differently, and remain vigilant."

Amen. Let this last group be Salt and Light within the Church and outside the Church.

P.S. Salt and Light often require confrontation and conflict. Eg., OT Prophets, John the Baptist, Apostle Paul, and Jesus.

jeff said...

Phil,

This was a very informative and thought provoking post. Any exclusive claims of Christianity are seen as hostile and biggoted by many in the culture today. But these doctrinal truths are what gives Christianity its power. Take those away and you are left with a "mushyness" that doesn't contain enought truth to set the sinner free. Jesus said that the gates of Hell would not prevail against His Church, but I wonder how close to the end we are getting. Thanks and God bless.

Ebeth said...

If it is not off topic, where do you see Open Theism fitting in?

donsands said...

Kenneth Copeland says he is a little God. He actually said the Lord told him that he could have been the Messiah.

Sounds similar to new age doesn't it.

Thanks for this series. Excellent.

BJ Irvin said...

I'm preparing a Sunday School lesson for a College and Career class on Colossians 2.8-23, this post series is timely and Paul's words are a good call to arms for us all:

Colossians 2.8-10

8 See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. 9 For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, 10 and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority;

wordsmith said...

MacLaine is a perfect example of the self-centeredness of the typical New Age acolyte. If she really believed her outrageous claim to divinity, you'd think she'd have her hands full healing people suffering from incurable diseases. Instead, that hoaxster is interested in nothing more than shooting off her mouth and fawning over the praises of men.

How anyone gets taken in by this stuff is beyond me, but it proves the adage: if you don't stand for something, you'll fall for anything. Come to think of it, that adage is also perfectly illustrated by the emergers. Having jettisoned Sola Scriptura, the emergent/emerging church is content to latch on to any wind of doctrine that crops up like crabgrass.

Officer said...

For me it's all been just the same old TV-gnosticism stuff: not a sampling of culture, belief, or history at all but merely the byproducts of a fallen human heart that grasps at anything but God.

SolaMommy said...

"[New Age author David Spangler] suggests that it is possible to have inclusive visions that value all people and strive to bring them to community and hope. His is a "high road" view of the New Age, a longing for a compassionate world in which hunger and poverty are alleviated, creativity is invited, deep change allowed to unfold, and exclusivity rejected."

Wow, sounds like what a lot of people voted for in this last election...and what Rick Warren and the Emergents are working towards. Most of the "Christians" I know are totally on board with this stuff. They are blinded to the origins of it. So sad.

Stefan said...

At the level of recent pop culture, I'd think that the Beatles' interest in Maharishi Mahesh Yogi back in the late 60s was another big inroad for "alternative philosophies" into mainstream popular consciousness.

Officer said...

Emergents would perhaps scorn a lost, dull-brained hippie new ager for deceiving themselves in lifting their fallen blind flesh up to the level of God.

But how much worse is it to drag God down to being like us?!

Yet the sin of these is worse; they make a God over whom they can be sovereign. Hey, that attitude sounds kind of familiar....

PS: my verification word was 'ariesth.' Would've also been fun in a discussion of Arius.

NothingNewUnderTheSun said...

Phil,

Great post.

I agree that conspiracy theories surrounding the New Age movement(s) have not served the church well. I think it better to point out that humanity's sinful nature inherently wants to worship itself and worship power at the same time. Our sinful nature does need to be orchestrated by some grand conspiracy of secret world leaders, our sinful nature only needs to be allowed to do what it wants (and when it wants) without being subjected to God’s objective truth.

In my opinion, the New Age movement(s] collective sinfulness has been greatly assisted in huge leaps in information technologies over the last 25 years. This interconnectedness via digital communications and the internet has allowed neo-pagan beliefs to be easily spread and greatly reinforced. Even heretical New Age Jesuit Priests like Teilhard de Chardin hoped for something like this 60 years ago.

For those not familiar with the heretical Jesuit Priest named Teilhard de Chardin or his views on collective consciousness, the Wired magazine article below is a good place to start.http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/3.06/teilhard_pr.html

SolaMommy said...

Officer: "Emergents would perhaps scorn a lost, dull-brained hippie new ager for deceiving themselves in lifting their fallen blind flesh up to the level of God.

That's the kind of people they seek to attract...just to tell them they're okay the way they are.

Frank Turk said...

I can't believe you used the phrase "Dave Hunt" in a sentence.

JackW said...

I can't believe he recycled cat graphics into two posts in a row.

... and that it worked!

Sillie Lizzie said...

As a former New Ager myself, I can second the fact that Constance Cumbey's "Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow" was the first lifeline thrown to me from the Christian world.

But her conspiratorial view didn't really stick with me once I realized it was too heavily skewed towards what SATAN is doing, rather than what GOD is doing. So I ditched that part. That being said, please allow me to point out a few things.

First, a "conspiracy" need not be "heavily centralized" or "monolithic" to be a conspiracy nevertheless, e.g. drug cartels, gangs. They often compete and even develop rivalries as well.

Also, a conspiracy need not be secret as to its organization, if it simply keeps its deepest goals, methods and motives a closely guarded secret for only the enlightened few, e.g. the Masons.

It is a fact that the New Age was heavily influenced, spread and perpetuated in this country through the efforts of the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. I crossed paths with them repeatedly. The problem with Groothius, Miller, et al. is that they "spiritualized" away the whole New Age phenomena, clouding it in ideological obscurity, compartmentalizing it in such way that the main public players promoting it were "OUT OF SIGHT". One wonders about that - it clearly served someone's ends :-)
Thus, the New Age was reduced to a touchy feely internalized and strictly individualized kind of "problem", and the players were never really confronted by the institutional churches.

Furthermore, and in some defense of Mrs. Cumbey, Mme. Helena Blavatsky claimed in her book "The Secret Doctrine" that FreeMasonry as well as infiltration of the Christian Church, would be key instruments to be used by the "Custodians of the Plans" to advance the New Age. Certainly, these are institutions even if decentralized, as opposed to a strictly individualized approach.

As one commenter has already pointed out, their goals were certainly advanced through the efforts of the WCC/NCC/NAE etc. and that is a SHORT list of "liberal irreligion" indeed!! Then there were the pagan players in the "open conspiracy", e.g. Alice Bailey's Lucis Trust/Lucifer Publishing, Theosophist Societies, etc. Today, they are too numerous to count.

In this sense perhaps, could the existence of a "conspiracy" have been alleged.

Sillie Lizzie said...

To "Nothing New Under the Sun" --

Quite a few New Agers actually have propagated the belief that the Internet actually does represent the interconnected "collective consciousness" of mankind! ;-)

Russ said...

The hypocrisy of "inclusivists" and the "non-absolutists" would be hilarious if it weren't so fatally diabolical, the "inclusivists" of course being very EXclusive of any who disagree with them, no matter the clever word spin to evade detection, and then of course the delusional ABSOLUTE certainty there are no absolutes by the latter, both not only making their absurd assertions with straight faces but becoming most irate to have their deranged egotistical nonsense pointed out, a glaring manifestation of 1 John 1:10 sadly comparable to the John 3:16 conference for those who can see the comparison, all positions ultimately boiling down to the simple matter that either God is God, or I am, Adam having chosen the latter as have all of his race ever since but for the undeserved mercy of The Sovereign Blessed forever (Romans 1:25; 9:5) on His undeserving unprofitable elect servants. Luke 17:10.

NothingNewUnderTheSun said...

Sillie Lizzie:”Quite a few New Agers actually have propagated the belief that the Internet actually does represent the interconnected "collective consciousness" of mankind!”


Technology does have the ability to breathe life into philosophies that would not be able to exist on their own and it’s no surprise the artificial/digital world is hostile towards Biblical Christianity.

The internet is going to evolve into a very different beast over the next decade or two according to Wired Magazine’s editor-at-large Kevin Kelly (link to video below):

http://www.kk.org/2008/11/web-100.php

He even calls the next-generation Internet the 'One Machine' and/or Socialism 2.0

NothingNewUnderTheSun said...

Sillie Lizzie: “Also, a conspiracy need not be secret as to its organization, if it simply keeps its deepest goals, methods and motives a closely guarded secret for only the enlightened few”

The odd thing is that most of these New Age (neo-pagan) autocrats are very open about their intentions:

www.charterforcompassion.org has the backing of the technology industry (Google founders and etc) and Hollywood elite in which they are urging people worldwide to help craft a framework for harmony between all religions.

An excerpt from Nicholas Carr’s book 'The Big Switch’ about “a new apparatus of control”:

http://www.nicholasgcarr.com/bigswitch/excerpt3.shtml

“Galloway explains, the connection of previously untethered computers into a network governed by strict protocols has actually created “a new apparatus of control.” Indeed, he writes, “the founding principle of the Net is control, not freedom - control has existed from the beginning.” As the disparate pages of the World Wide Web turn into the unified and programmable database of the World Wide Computer, moreover, a powerful new kind of control becomes possible. Programming, after all, is nothing if not a method of control. Even though the Internet still has no center, technically speaking, control can now be wielded, through software code, from anywhere. What’s different, in comparison to the physical world, is that acts of control become harder to detect and those wielding control more difficult to discern.”

Hanani Hindsfeet said...

Ironically I note that I originally found the teampyro blogspot through Constance Cumbey's own blog, via Ingrid Schleuter's Slice of Laodicea (if memory serves me correctly).

I've always been more interested in Cumbey's insights on the political developments in the European Union, especially concerning Dr. Javier Solana...however her new age studies do seem to overlap with this area of interest at different times.

I think that whether there is a mass masonic/new age/secret society conspiracy or not - the spirituality that is being introduced worldwide is a prepatory phase for something very evil.

Even if indulging in secret conspiracies can be taken too far at times, awareness of the new age movement is important: if for no other reason than to keep it out of our congregations as much as possible.

Sillie Lizzie said...

"Nothing New Under the Sun":

You said: "The odd thing is that most of these New Age (neo-pagan) autocrats are very open about their intentions:"

Well that is the surface part, much like the Masons who purport merely to doing good deeds and acts of service, but in reality they lead apostate men into deeper levels of occultic bondage under a system of works salvation. Ultimately, they wind up in service to Lucifer, cursing Adonai.

And so it is with the New Age. As I discuss in my own personal testimony, there comes a time when one is confronted with the spiritual reality that Satan exists, whether they call it "white vs. black magic", or the "light vs. dark side of the Force", "yin/yang", it doesn't matter. There is recognition that spirituality entails a duality of light/darkness, they embrace him as an entity or a force, as an angel of "light" or as the prince of darkness, or as a spirit guide or god of this or that... whatever. But they are not ignorant that the gods of their happy choosing come with the god of the dark side. There is a point of no return, a line that is crossed, and it results in demonic possession. Its outward forms and representations may vary, but inwardly there is no denying the knowledge of having chosen to serve something beyond oneself, like an addiction one cannot ever get free of. I stared into that darkness and by the grace of God was snatched out of it. Read my story.

Anyway, that is the part that they DON'T openly declare...and that is what makes it a sort of "conspiracy". A spiritual conspiracy of devils to be sure, but aided and abetted by flesh and blood real human beings.

The secret they withhold is that flirting with the occult delivers one into ultimate bondage to evil. And of course, the angel of light denies or never reveals that he IS evil, or that his rebellion fomented ours from the dawn of human history.

Just a thought. :-)

And by the way, these things are not difficult, but profoundly simple. If one but embraces the simplicity of Genesis 3, it all comes clear. I think one of the reasons that the "church" has failed to confront the New Age is because it embraced the fundemental lies of evolution over special creation, and in so doing, denied the true causes of the Fall, and the deceit of the devil. Much New Age occultic falsehood is built on a spiritualized evolutionary foundation. When God led me to reject evolution in favor of special creation, my occultic beliefs collapsed in the twinkling of an eye. And that was FOUR YEARS before I came to know Christ!

That's when the repentance came about ... :-)

Alex said...

Phil,

This was a great series. Thank you for your insights and your sharing of knowledge. Your writing always helps in my very volatile college campus.

Thanks,

AY