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Religion Library: New Age

Sacred Space

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

New Age thinkers have tended to focus far more energy on issues of sacred time than they have sacred space, a fact reflected in the name of the movement itself. But it would be a mistake to ignore the place of space in New Age thought. The movement possesses a strong sense of a sacred geography that identifies certain spaces as more sacred than others. Those spaces include long-lost mythical continents, sites held as sacred to various world religions, and places that New Agers have recognized as special because of their believed levels of energy or association with the history of the New Age movement itself.

The first category of New Age sacred spaces, that of lost lands, only exist as sacred spaces in religious narrative and myth. To call them myths is not to disparage their reality for New Agers, only to note that New Age practitioners invest meaning in these spaces not because they possess physical proof as to their exact locations, but because they represent powerful symbols in their worldviews. Among such spaces, the lost continents of Atlantis and Lemuria predominate in New Age discourse, though New Agers with interests in ufology or extraterrestrials sometimes discuss lost planets as well.

Lost continents have long fascinated humanity, with the story of Atlantis reaching as far back as the Greek philosopher Plato whom scholars credit with its origin.  Atlantis has foremost served as a symbol of an advanced ancient civilization, and during antiquity and the Middle Ages writers discussed it as an ancient land that possessed both great technologies and wisdom. Seventeenth-century scientist Francis Bacon's New Atlantis fused the Atlantis myth with that of utopian literature, describing Atlantis as an ideal society ruled by science and progress. In the 19th century, Theosophy and other occult movements incorporated Atlantis into their worldviews. The Theosophical movement also introduced the concept of the lost continent of Lemuria, a one-time scientific theory explaining mammal migration, to the lexicon of the 19th-century New Age. Theosophists envisioned both as ancient civilizations characterized by spiritual enlightenment and development.

The New Age inherited its view of Atlantis and Lemuria from Theosophy, and New Agers look to these lost continents as center points in their sacred geographies. Actress and New Age author Shirley MacLaine wrote of her visions of past lives on Atlantis, and numerous New Age channelers claim access to beings that either resided in Atlantis or Lemuria or visited and can now describe the lost continents. In all cases, New Agers understand the mythical islands as real places that hosted thriving advanced civilizations. Though ancient, the Lemurian and Atlantan civilizations possessed central features of what practitioners look to in the dawning new age, for example an emphasis on spiritual self-development, mastery of the secrets of crystals, and knowledge of inner truths.  Atlantis and Lemuria serve as powerful symbols of what New Agers seek to accomplish in their own immediate futures.

The second category of New Age sacred geography includes sacred places of the world's religious traditions. New Age practitioners look to these sites as sacred for two reasons. First, New Agers generally value ancient religions, since they hold that ancient societies possessed clearer understandings of spiritual truths than modern cultures. Second, the New Age has drawn particular concepts from specific ancient religions, and therefore practitioners tend to value those religious traditions. For example, New Agers have looked to Egyptian religion, pre-Christian Druidry, and pre-Columbian South American religions as spiritual source traditions. This explains why New Agers have tended to consider the pyramids of Giza, Stonehenge, and Machu Picchu as sacred places.

This tendency to incorporate the sacred places of other traditions into New Age sacred geography has resulted in conflict in cases wherein the religions that first considered the sites sacred still exist and utilize the sites. California's Mt. Shasta provides the most vivid example. The valleys surrounding Mt. Shasta have long served as homelands for several Native American tribes, with the Shasta tribe itself most notable. All of the Native American groups living in these valleys consider the mountain a sacred site, and many perform rituals on its slopes. Yet starting in the 19th century, several precursors to the New Age movement looked to Mt. Shasta as a sacred site as well, believing it to have once been inhabited by a spiritually superior race in ancient times. As the New Age developed, it absorbed these beliefs. The 1987 Harmonic Convergence used Mt. Shasta as one of its gathering sites, with the result that subsequent New Agers now include the mountain in their catalogs of sacred geographies. Tensions occasionally erupt between Native American groups and the New Age practitioners whom the Native Americans accuse of appropriating their sacred spaces.

The final category of New Age sacred spaces features places that highlight a historical connection to the New Age itself and have now become pilgrimage centers in the movement, often because New Age practitioners associate them with higher levels of energy or consciousness. Generally these places hosted early communities or gatherings of New Agers, and have subsequently developed into retreat centers, seminar sites, spas, and other businesses catering to New Age spiritual seekers. Sedona, Arizona provides the most notable example. Famous for its striking red rock formations and as a resort destination for the rich and famous, in the 1980s Sedona became a center for several New Age teachers. Alternative religious movements had already looked to Sedona as a spiritual center, with UFO religions and psychics having been present for decades. Like Mt. Shasta, Sedona hosted a 1987 Harmonic Convergence gathering, and subsequent New Age practitioners have come to see the site as particularly sacred. Many believe that a series of invisible energy lines intersect under the red rock formations of Sedona, while others describe it as a land of vortexes, natural eddies in the cosmic energy flow that make it particularly powerful. The large number of New Age practitioners present in Sedona has led many to label it the capital of the New Age movement.

Study Questions:
     1.    Why does the New Age movement focus more on sacred time than sacred space?
     2.    What are the sacred lost lands?
     3.    Why do New Age practitioners look to the world’s religions’ geographical spaces for the sacred?
     4.    How does pilgrimage transform a space into a sacred site?

 
     
     
     
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