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Religion Library: New Age

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

The concept of millennialism unites all forms of the New Age movement. In its broadest sense, millennialism entails beliefs about the end of the world as it currently exists. In general, religious movements take one of two possible views of millennialism: that the world as currently known will experience some form of cataclysmic destruction or degradation, or that the future will bring a new and better era to replace the current state of the world. Scholars call these two forms of belief catastrophic millennialism and progressive millennialism, respectively. Most New Age movements adopt a progressive millennial outlook that envisions a coming era of peace, awareness, or enlightenment. This belief, in fact, gave name to the movement itself: those individuals and groups that hoped to see a new age for the world came to be called the New Age.

Subcultures within the New Age differ on how the new age will occur and what characteristics it will possess. For example, New Agers who belong to UFO-oriented groups might look to the arrival of extraterrestrials to inaugurate the new age, and imagine a future filled with new technologies and cosmic enlightenment. By contrast, New Age practitioners who follow shamanic traditions might look to the creation of a more simple or natural society where humans live in balance with nature in small peaceful villages. Clearly these two visions of the new age differ. But they, and all other understandings of the new age within the New Age movement, share the common dream of a better world to come.

Some New Age traditions uphold a sacred narrative closer to catastrophic millennialism. At one point both the Ramtha School of Enlightenment and the Church Universal and Triumphant, two new religious movements within the broader New Age, prophesied imminent cataclysms and encouraged their followers to prepare for the worst. Yet in both cases, more progressive millennialism eventually took hold of the movement. Similarly, a subset of New Agers in the early decade of the 21st century looks to an imminent global apocalypse in 2012, coinciding with the turnover in epochs of the Mayan calendar system. However, only a minority of New Agers uphold such catastrophic millennial sacred narratives. Even in the case of the "2012ers," many look to that year as the dawning of a positive new era.

New Age movements tend to also uphold a narrative of declension, a belief that society and the world have declined from a past golden era. Many New Agers look to ancient societies as those golden eras, often highlighting such ancient cultures as the Incans, Egyptians, Vedic Indians, or North American Indians. In such cases, New Age practitioners invest those ancient societies with a belief that they possessed greater spiritual awareness or even spiritual technology than the present, and that the slow rise of the western world (and with it, western religion) has led to decline. Other New Agers look to ancient societies that historians classify as mythical, most notably the island of Atlantis described by Plato; Lumuria, a favorite utopia of the 19th century occult; or Shangri-la, a mythical golden land hidden on Asia's Tibetan plateau. Again, New Age practitioners understand those societies to have possessed vastly superior spiritualities, and sometimes sciences and technologies, that have become lost to present-day humanity. The New Age therefore looks to the dawning new age as a restoration of the past, making the movement a type of restorationism, i.e., a religion that seeks to restore a lost golden era.  

Science occupies an important place in the New Age sacred narrative. Most New Age movements consider themselves scientific, though few qualify under the academic definitions of science that stress empiricism, naturalistic explanations (i.e., no spiritual or nonmaterial causes for events), and rationalism. Rather, New Agers tend to adopt alternative scientific systems as part of their sacred narratives. These systems generally share a willingness to consider non-material, non-empirical, or non-naturalistic events, causes, and theories. New Agers often include such concepts as subtle energies, spiritual realities, or etheric qualities in their alternative scientific methods. Importantly, while these approaches often contradict western academic science, they may resemble scientific systems of Asia, medieval Europe, ancient culture, or the occult. The New Age narrative of declension explains why most westerners no longer hold to such alternative scientific models, just as the millennial narrative reveals a hope to shift society back toward such forms of science.

The final shared characteristic of the New Age sacred narrative, an evolution of consciousness, applies to both the individual and society. Individual transformation characterizes all New Age movements and subcultures. Since most New Agers uphold a form of reincarnation, they envision themselves on a long series of lifetimes wherein they must slowly climb from lower consciousnesses to higher ones. Similarly, New Age practitioners hope to bring society to a higher consciousness as well. Such a goal often is synonymous with the new age itself, and falls within the purview of the movement's progressive millennial narrative. Most New Age practices hope to assist or accomplish such evolution, either transforming the individual or society. Even New Age healing ultimately looks to evolution rather than merely to the restoration of health. Practitioners employ tools such as yoga, meditation, crystal work, sacred sex, or channeling toward this end.

Study Questions:
     1.    What is millennialism? How is it interpreted?
     2.    What are shamanic traditions? How are they similar to the New Age movement?
     3.    How is the year 2012 be interpreted by New Age practitioners?
     4.    Describe the relationship between the New Age movement and science.
     5.    How does the individual create a sacred narrative?

 
     
     
     
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