Suffering and the Problem of Evil
Written by: Benjamin E. ZellerNew Age beliefs tend to deny or at least minimize the fundamental existence of evil. In this regard, the New Age parallels both its theological forerunner, the 19th century New Thought movement, and its culture of origin, the progressive, optimistic mindset of postwar America. The New Age partially derived from New Thought-which is itself a derivative of Christian Science-and it inherited the latter's position on the ultimate illusionary nature of evil. New Thought declared that evil, illness, and sin only exist because the human mind wills it so, and that one can overcome all these positions through the power of the mind. The New Age accepts this basic premise as well. Most New Age healing techniques seek to use the power of the mind to overcome the physical taints of evil and suffering.
Yet American culture, specifically the optimism and can-do spirit of the postwar era, also influenced the New Age's perspective on suffering and evil. The New Age's overall sense of optimism clearly follows in a long line of American progressivist thinking, most specifically the school of thought founded by Norman Vincent Peale called "positive thinking." This approach declares that suffering is merely a state of mind, and that one can overcome all obstacles through optimism and perseverance. The New Age movement draws upon this approach and declares that evil or suffering exist only because human beings let them exist. Ideally, human beings will develop themselves so as to overcome both suffering and evil, and thereby achieve a higher consciousness.
Groups and subcultures within the New Age exhibit the belief differently that evil exists only as an illusion propagated by unthinking minds. A Course in Miracles, one of the most popular channeled texts of the New Age, insists that the physical world itself represents merely a shadowy projection of the power of thought. Evil, good, suffering, and pleasure do not really exist in this worldview, at least not in the bodily physical way that most people assume. In this regard, A Course in Miracles clearly follows a long line of philosophical thinking that similarly denies the reality of this world. Other groups and texts within the New Age take a different approach. Those who focus on oracle traditions, such as tarot, astrology, or the I Ching, generally understand suffering as derived from failure to follow the appropriate path as described by the oracles, and evil as a general lack of balance as well as broader social failure to follow its proper path. Again, evil exists because of the human mind has caused it to be so.
Since New Agers generally believe that the human mind can overcome evil just as it produces it, they look to various practices in order to accomplish that goal. Most New Agers understand meditation as the most effective means of overcoming evil. Here New Age practitioners draw upon a rich tradition of meditation within Asian religions that also looks to the practice as a method of overcoming illusion. Many strands of Hinduism and Buddhism teach that the world is filled with maya, or illusion, and that the human mind can overcome this illusion through meditation. New Agers have utilized these Asian religious practices in order to similarly free their minds of the illusions of evil and suffering.
There is, one must admit, very little sustained attention to evil and the problem of evil in the New Age movement and rather far more focus on suffering and its causes. Though New Age practitioners disagree on the precise nature of suffering, the common bond that unites them is the concept of karma. Here the New Age again draws on the reservoir of Asian religion, albeit as transmitted through the 19th-century new religion Theosophy, which introduced the concept of karma to the American religious community. New Agers believe that karma explains why individuals suffer, and that achieving a proper understanding of karma as well as mastering the sort of karma that one accumulates leads to the end of suffering.
In keeping with the overall approach that humans create their own realities, the New Age worldview looks to karma as a means of explaining the nature of the human experience of the world. Though New Age understandings of karma vary, all agree that negative actions and thoughts lead to bad karma, and positive actions and thoughts lead to good karma. Karma therefore functions as the universal law of cause and effect that takes into account each person's actions. Like the Hindu or Buddhist concept of karma, New Agers understand karma as impersonal and automatic. But unlike many Hindu or Buddhist approaches that ultimately seek to minimize karma entirely, most New Agers hope to maximize their good karma so as to create a positive world for themselves. The more good karma that a person obtains, the better their experience of life, and the better their experience of future lives.
Karma explains another facet of the New Age understanding of evil and suffering, namely that human beings create their own suffering in order to learn spiritual lessons. Scholars call this understanding of suffering a pedagogical explanation for evil, since it looks to suffering as a form of teaching. According to this New Age approach, the world that the human mind creates forces individuals to experience events that will teach them greater spiritual truths, even if such experiences cause momentary pain. After many such experiences, individuals will obtain enough spiritual knowledge that they no longer require such lessons. Scholars note that from a psychological perspective, this approach to suffering ascribes an ultimate meaning to pain, and therefore enables New Age practitioners to understand their life experiences as meaningful. The overall New Age theory of evil and suffering therefore functions as a way of minimizing meaningless pain.
1. How is evil understood within the New Age?
2. Where does suffering originate?
3. How has the New Age movement adopted an Asian understanding of evil?
4. How has karma helped explain suffering within the New Age movement?