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Religion Library: New Age

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

The New Age tradition represents a special challenge for scholars of religion, since it lacks central organizations, leadership, texts, and even tenets. Most researchers of the New Age movement therefore resort to describing it, rather than defining it. Wouter J. Hanegraaff's New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (1998) has become a classic in the study of the New Age. In this text, Hanegraaff describes the New Age as a movement born in the late 1970s, in the United States and western Europe, which transcends specific organizations and sects, and is aware of itself as a movement. Such an approach allows Hanegraaff to include a wide variety of New Age materials in his study without needing to formulate a single definition of what belongs within the category.

Similarly, James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton begin their anthology Perspectives on the New Age (1992) with a frank discussion of the problem of boundary issues. In this text, Lewis introduces the notion of using a "family resemblance model" (a concept drawn from the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein) to describe the New Age, a model wherein members of the New Age subculture share certain traits with each other as a whole. Though Lewis does not finalize the set of New Age characteristics, he offers several possibilities, as drawn from the work of other scholars. These include such attributes as healing, eclecticism, optimism, psychic powers, and a desire to be modern. In the same volume, J. Gordon Melton envisions the New Age as a religious movement characterized by two central characteristics, that of social and individual transformation. Since a great many religions fit within that schema, Melton specifies a variety of specific historical roots as well. From even this precursory analysis, it is clear that defining the New Age is nearly impossible. Given the diffuse nature of the New Age movement, describing its attributes offers far more value than a rigid definition.

Beyond definition or descriptive questions, scholars have generally focused their analysis on understanding why the New Age emerged in the 1970s, and what it represents. Wouter J. Hanegraaff, working from a transatlantic perspective, has offered a fresh look at the New Age. He argues that the New Age movement fundamentally represents a new form of esotericism that criticizes what is generally considered the cultural and religious mainstream, namely the modern, scientific Christian western world. This approach has much to offer. The most fundamental overarching characteristic of the New Age is that it is not the Old Age. That is, the New Age envisions itself as a break from all that came before the 1970s. Hanegraaff's approach posits the New Age as a quintessentially postmodern movement, meaning that it attempts to move beyond the modern world's fixation with the rational, scientific, and technological (on the one hand), and the Christian mainstream (on the other hand). Many of the New Age's theological hallmarks, such as mysticism, impersonal theology, and reincarnation, represent a rejection of such features of the western world.