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Religion Library: New Age

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

The New Age movement promotes an extremely positive view of human nature. Though different subcultures within the New Age possess unique perspectives, most uphold the belief that human beings possess divine essences within themselves. This position develops from the overall pantheism and monism within the New Age movement. Like other pantheists, New Agers believe that the divine exists throughout the world. But human beings, as sentient living creatures, possess the ability to understand their natures and therefore to explore and develop them. Most New Age practices therefore center on self-development.

Within New Age thought, the specific understanding of human nature varies. The strongest interpretations of pantheism posit that each individual is not just part of the divine, but is divine itself. New Age popularizer Shirley MacLaine has represented this position in her Out on a Limb (1984) and Going Within: A Guide for Inner Transformation (1989). Famous for her declaration “I am God,” MacLaine offers a typical example of this form of the New Age view of human nature. Though critics read MacLaine’s statement as extreme egotism, within the New Age movement it represents a recognition of the divine within each being, since all individuals can similarly claim that they are gods. Importantly, New Agers possess numerous spiritual practices and techniques designed to safely bring a person to this realization, with meditation, psychic readings, and channeling some of the most common. New Agers acknowledge the tremendous gulf between stating that oneself is god and realizing that all beings are gods. Ideally, the New Age tradition claims, the recognition of all beings as god leads to a holistic philosophy of respect and tolerance.

Somewhat less strong that MacLaine’s pantheism, many other New Age practitioners uphold a belief in a collective unconscious or “overmind” that unites all beings. Here the New Age draws on the influence of transpersonal psychology and the work of Carl Jung (1875-1961), who proposed such a concept in his work. Jung’s disciple Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) helped spread the concept within the American New Age movement, hosting lectures at the New Age center of Sedona, Arizona, and penning numerous books on the topic.  According to this New Age understanding of human nature, though individuals possess unique characteristics, a single collective unconscious unites all people into a shared whole. This unconscious combines human fears, desires, and hopes, but most importantly for the New Age, connects us all into a network of life that represents the sum whole of consciousness. Within this New Age approach, the collective unconscious functions as an impersonal god that encompasses all of humanity. New Agers believe that through developing self-understanding and awareness, one becomes in tune with this whole, and closer to recognizing the divine within.

Though numerous other understandings of human nature exist within the New Age movement, all agree that some form of the divine exists within the self, and all similarly look to practices of self-development as central to cultivating knowledge of that divine essence. This fact reveals one of the most important commonalities across all New Age approaches: the New Age possess a strong belief in individual human evolution. Evolution within the New Age worldview does not mean biological evolution in the Darwinian sense. Rather, New Agers believe that individual human beings ideally evolve over their lifetime (and multiple lifetimes), achieving greater and greater awareness of their divine natures.