The term New Age has come to mean everything from the supposed manifestation of a range of Utopian possibilities to a virtual swear word used by hard-line rationalists and hardcore religious fundamentalists. Chris Erasmus takes a close look at what this term means and the how and why of its use.
If you want to smear someone in the mainstream media's collective mindset, call them a New Ager, as in 'so-and-so's New Age philosophy', which decoded immediately relegates them to the near-lunatic fringe. You know the sort: channellers who babble with the Intergalactic High Command and sundry discarnate beings bearing titles like 'Ascended Master' and 'Enlightened Cosmic Teacher'; or 'crystal-hugging' flakes, and 'spoon-bending con-artists' peddling pseudoscientific pop-psychology. The variations are numerous and such put-downs are mild compared to the warnings issued by those who see in what they call 'New Age' all manner of devilish phenomena disguised in theologically unsound and spiritually dangerous philosophy.
The problem with all this, putting aside the rampant ignorance and bigotry involved in such judgmental mindsets, is that there is some particularly woolly thinking around the whole notion of the 'New Age'.
So to get a clear picture, we need to begin at the beginning. The first person talking about the 'New Age' (by implication rather than using the actual phrase) was Jeshua, better known in the modern Christian world as Jesus. He spoke quite clearly on how all things are made new when one is reborn to the world of spirit. One does not wish to enter into a theological debate with Christian dogmatists over this, but such comments about how the world changes when one fundamentally changes one's viewpoint and relationship to it (given that the Kingdom of Heaven, as he put it, lies within) point directly to the 'New World' and the 'New Age' that Jeshua was promising.
A thousand years later, and there was another round of Apocalyptic thinking, part of which envisioned a New Age after the final victory of good over evil. Indeed, this formulation, putting aside the actual words New Age, has been around in much of Christian thinking since its beginnings. And it is still around today in various versions of Christianity in which some sort of struggle between good and evil culminates in both the Earth and Heaven made new.
But, for those who are taking a narrower view of what 'New Age thinking' is all about, the 'trouble', if that's what it is, starts overtly in the late 19th century with the Theosophists and some fellow travellers, like Aleister Crowley and his Order of the Golden Dawn.
The predictions that the end of the 20th century would see a new era in human experience (remember that famous song from the musical Hair, which goes: 'This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius,' complete with 'brotherhood and understanding' and 'mystic crystal revelations') are the focus of both those for and against the notion of 'New Ageism'.T
he problem for both sides is that they are arguing for and against a nonsensical idea. In short, there is no such thing as 'New Age' religion or philosophy or spirituality or anything else. The reason is that almost everything involved in what is, usually very loosely, called New Age, is neither new nor associated with any particular age, old or new.
Let me go at this from another direction which might help illustrate what I'm talking about.
Some years back, Silke, my wife, and I were visiting her parents, then living in Swellendam, over a weekend. Also visiting was an old friend of her parents from their Namibian days, a good and kind fellow who, with his wife, had become very enthusiastic 'born again' Christians of the pentecostal persuasion, following his retirement as a magistrate. This good fellow, concerned no doubt about our less than conventional views (we had had a discussion on the pros and cons of reincarnation and some of the research on Near Death Experiences by Dr Raymond Moody and Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross) subsequently sent us a book meant to warn Christians about the sundry dangers of 'New Age' beliefs and practises. Obviously, from that perspective a discussion on reincarnation was in itself putting our souls at risk, but more interestingly there was a comprehensive list of 'dangerous' practises to be avoided at all costs. These included everything from yoga and Eastern philosophies, through to vegetarianism, homeopathy and herbalism and literally any other complementary health practice in general use, like aromatherapy, acupuncture and reflexology. Even meditation was considered a no-no, despite the long history of its use in contemplative Christianity.
Actually, the list could have been summarised as 'anything we don't understand or which doesn't fit into what we can be sure is correct from a literalist interpretation of scripture'. Astrology and any form of divinatory system would clearly fall into the category of 'the Devil's works' (not my words).
On another occasion, and despite pressure from Silke to avoid making anyone feel uncomfortable, I did push this good gentleman who was so concerned for our endangered souls, as to the role of astrology in the Bible, given reference to Babylonian ziggurats and the Three Wise Men who, after all, were obviously astrologers or Magi. (Remember it's only in recent history that astrology and astronomy have become differentiated into two distinct fields of study and belief; previously, and certainly in Jeshua's time, they were one and the same).