Astrologers claim to see meaning in the stars, and some assign significance to certain “ages” that they believe change out about every 2,000 years. These twelve ages relate to the twelve signs of the zodiac. There may be little to no consensus in this esoteric field as to when these supposed ages begin or end, and exactly as to what they mean. Some astrologers insisted that this so-called New Age began in the late eighteenth century. Others believed it began in the mid-nineteenth century. Still others believed it began in the middle of the twentieth century. Some specified Valentine’s Day 2009 to be the actual date it began. And yet others imagine that it has not yet begun. But what significance was assigned to this new epoch?
Alice Bailey (d. 1949) was an esoteric occultist and astrologer who claimed to be telepathically connected to a “Tibetan” spirit. Alice Bailey abandoned the Christianity of her past as a Jewish inheritance, and turned instead to the Far East for her “spirituality.” Bailey claimed to be channeling a Tibetan spirit guide who, she insisted, was the co-author of her many books. Alice Bailey wrote about the Age of Aquarius, and her books were published through her Lucifer/Lucis Publishing Company. In them, she predicted the spiritual evolution of humanity from Aryans (or enlightened individuals) in a “New Age.” She all but coined the term “New Age,” so she is sometimes called the founder of the movement.
This so-called New Age related to the zodiac sign of Aquarius. It followed the Age of Pisces. Some New Age mystics equated the Age of the Pisces with Christianity, as an early sign of Christianity was the fish and fish are the symbol for Pisces. They believed the post-Christian Age of Aquarius might be an evolutionary “enlightened” age where even family structures would break down. The 1967 rock-opera “Hair” opened with the song “Aquarius.” In the song, the hippies sang these words, “When the Moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter aligns with Mars, then peace will guide the planets and love will steer the stars. This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.” They went on to imagine what this New Age was going to be like, singing, “Harmony and understanding, sympathy and trust abounding, no more falsehoods or derisions, golden living dreams of visions, mystic crystal revelation and the mind’s true liberation.” It was, of course, a hallucinogenic drug-induced utopian vision that never manifested, but it was a strong idea that still lurks in the hearts of folks today.
So, the accompanying New Age movement was an eclectic “spiritual” notion that sought to replace Christianity – a faddish mixture of the arcane and the novel – a potpourri of old ideas that might include Jesus in the mix, but not in any orthodox way. It might also combine tenets from, and elements of, Astrology, the karma and reincarnation of Buddhism and Hinduism, Taoism, Gnosticism, Yoga, Zen and Transcendental Meditation, hypnotism, Sufism, the Spiritualism of Dr. Mesmer and others, Theosophy, channeling spirit-guides, pantheism, psychic healing, holistic medicine, massage, chiropractic therapy, herbal medicine, healing crystals, psychedelic drugs, Jungian psychology, feminism and the goddess movement, neo-pagan religions, earth worship, some elements of occultism and other aspects of thought into countless different combinations of amorphous belief systems. While defying any systematic structure, this movement was following Helena Blavatsky (d. 1891) who thought she could form a synthesis of the essence of all world religions.
Consequently, this is more of a movement than it is a monolithic system, as there are almost as many doctrines as there are New-Agers. This is because the individual is paramount in this movement, as is that individual’s personal growth. His/her self-improvement is essential. Thus, theoretically, everyone can become something of his/her own guru or shaman. Some believe that nothing is real outside of their true selves. Consequently, the wide diversity of thought and the unsystematic approach to thinking makes it difficult to pin down intellectually. In the U.S., the New Age religious movement spread in the hippy communes of the 1960s and 1970s and has become more and more focused on the west coast of California.
The beat generation of the 1950s was bohemian, and this subculture was often inclined towards the religions of Buddhism or Hinduism, Transcendental Philosophy, and Communism. The beatniks of the 1950s in New York’s Greenwich Village and in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district coined the term “hip” or “hipster,” and those words evolved into the word “hippy.” Hippies were the next evolution of the youth subculture in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In some ways, the hippies were a quasi-religious movement, rejecting organized religions and embracing astrology, neo-paganism and Wicca, Buddhism and Hinduism. Some fought to legalize LSD arguing on the right of “freedom of religion.” Hallucinogenic drugs were used to go on a “trip” and that took on a quasi-religious meaning for some hippies. Hippies also rejected family and family structures. They sometimes chose to live in communes and celebrated what they called “free love” (which meant sex without consequences or commitment or marriage). These ideas spread through popular rock music, and through the new folk music that was heard in their coffee houses in Greenwich Village, New York, and Berkeley, California. Midtown and Little Five Points in Atlanta became the places to be for many southern hippies.
But once that hippy counterculture began to die out, the New Age movement went more mainline and became more of an industry of books, with actress Shirley MacLaine being just one if its many proponents. Today, the New Age sections in small town bookstores can be almost as large as the sections on Christianity. Yet most Americans still get the “doctrines” of the New Age through music, mass media, pop culture, and talk shows, as many pop musicians and entertainment people promote these New Age ideas through their art.
Where rock and folk music were the initial promoters of these ideas, the New Age spawned its own musical genre of easy listening, too. Today’s “New Age music” is likewise just as eclectic as the rest of the movement. Meant to help one relax from a stressful world, to inspire positive feelings and help one to meditate, this ambient music might combine indigenous music from all around the world with synthesizers and sounds of nature. New age music even latched on to Catholic chant as an inspiration and tried to synthesize Christianity into the new world religion, co-opting folks like St. Hildegard von Bingen and trying to turn her into a New Age mystic. New age music was seen as a positive alternative to the often dark and angry themes and assaulting rhythms of heavy metal or rap. Those forms of pop music seemed to want to usher in anarchy or revolution, but New Age music, by comparison, sought to help the listener find inner peace.
As Catholics, there are some things we need to be on the lookout for with regards to the so-called New Age movement. First of all, the New Age movement is everywhere, and it is squishy. I suppose that sounds paranoid, but it is true. It comes to us through music and television and talk shows, through science fiction and social media. It seeps in through self-help books and through our gyms. It is taken piecemeal in bits and pieces by uncritical thinkers and passed on through countless ways. It comes to us from all directions, and it is so unsystematic it is almost impossible to refute, because it is so mutable and amorphous. To try to propose Christian doctrine to a person whose ideas about “spirituality” are so vague can just be exhausting. As Catholics, we tend to respect old things (even old religions), but New Agers claim to revive old religions in part, and combine them in so many impossible constructs that they really are creating something altogether new out of old bits, so it is hard to take it seriously. Of course, we don’t want to be disrespectful, and we know these people can be sincere, but their beliefs really are confusing.
Secondly, there is the whole devil thing. I mean, it is one thing to encounter a pagan culture and bring it to Christ. Christians are, for the most part, descendants of old pagans. Our ancestors long ago were evangelized by some roaming band of Catholic monks who made it their mission to bring our ancestors to Christ. That was then. This is now. Neo-paganism is going backwards. It is bringing confusion to order. It is baptized Christians rejecting Christ. It is anti-Christian. So, whereas before the missionaries could use parallels in the old pagan religions to help draw our ancestors into the Church, this New Age paganism seeks to find parallels in the Christian religion to help draw us out of the Church. It is dark at its core. What are we to make of these so-called channeled “spirit guides” who speak to these modern day gurus of the New Age movement? Are they imaginary, or are they diabolical? We need to recognize that the devil is sneaky. He mixes truth with lies, but his ultimate plan is to divide and confuse us, and tempt us down a path towards isolation from God.
Third, are we even speaking the same language? What do we all mean when we talk about “spirituality?” If by spirituality, the New Ager means
- receiving inaudible messages from dead Tibetan monks talking about Aryans; or
- tripping on LSD; or
- combining this or that part of the world’s religions into his/her own personal belief structure; or
- witchcraft; then
it seems to me Catholics have a very different understanding of the word “spirituality.” For us, a spiritual person is a prayerful person who is also a holy person. That would be a person filled with the Holy Spirit. There are no doubt different spirits out there, but for Catholics, we’re usually trying to live in the Spirit that comes from Christ Jesus. Moreover, “spirituality” in the case of the New Age proponent is a clever way to avoid saying “religion.” When we want to make our own path, we talk about New Age “spirituality,” but for Catholics, we are part of a religion that has deeply spiritual components and traditions, but which is a lot more than just something that seeks happiness or self-fulfillment.
Fourth, we might remember that Catholics aren’t American conservative Protestants. Some Catholics might be American and they might be politically conservative – fine. But Catholicism is so much greater than that. Our Catholic Faith, if lived out properly, is deeply spiritual. We have communes of our own you know (called monasteries). We don’t worship the earth, but we rejoice in the beauty of the created world and try to be good stewards of all that God has bestowed on us. We have our own sexual revolution (called celibacy). We pray to saints and we have incense and candles and chant and sacred languages and cool icons and art. We have pilgrimage places, and ancient books filled with great wisdom. We have spiritual teachers and doctors of the Church who have written about meditation and prayer. And our religion is really old (not pseudo old, but really old). We should have no inferiority complex before any religion (old or new) and we should not pretend to be up-tight Calvinists (stripping our own tradition in a white suburban modern church) and then allow the New Agers to steal our stuff! Moreover, we don’t need a new “world” religion, because we already have one.
We need to be secure in our own religion and tradition so that we don’t run from it, or let some New Age proponent try to tell us what we are and are not. We need to know for ourselves what we are and are not. We need to start reading our Bibles, studying our Catechisms, and appreciating our own history and traditions more. Catholicism is a treasury of riches, but most Catholics barely even enter into the treasury to see how deep its riches go. Dive in! If you read Teresa of Avila or Catherine of Siena, you won’t feel the least bit deprived for never having read The Secret of Shambhala: In Search of the Eleventh Insight.