Because “New Age” Will Soon Be Old Hat, and the Church Will Still Be Standing

I read Cheryl Dickow’s Catholic Exchange article for 11/23/09 with interest and a shrug. “New Age,” the title frets: “Still With Us and Still Dangerous.” Still with us? Sure. Still Dangerous? To me, the New Age, now in reruns, is no more dangerous than, say, “2012″ or Britney Spears. You can judge for yourself about them.

I fully agree with Dickow’s opening premise: There are millions of so-called Christians who believe they don’t need the Church. God is everywhere, even at the beach. Who needs clergy, buildings, liturgy? In the college-educated, knee-jerk-liberal suburbs north of Boston, I am surrounded by people who think like this. Many of them buy this basic premise of today’s New Age, along with another fundamental tenet: “I create my own reality.”

But to me, who was a young adult during the tsunami of so-called “spiritual awakening” that characterized the late 1960s, when the parents and grandparents of today’s New Agers were channeling Eastern thought into the western mainstream, what passes for “New Age” today looks like just another publishing fad, a third-degree undertow of the tsunami, or what the Sufis (popular in the late 1960s) called the soup of the soup of the soup. Personally, I’m going to let it all wash out to sea. The Church will still be standing.

How do millions of Christians get duped into believing the ramblings of New Age messengers like the best-selling Neale Donald Walsch? The same way they get duped into believing the premise of films like “2012″ and listening to artistes like Britney Spears. It’s the media, stupid. Ten years from today, guaranteed, other gurus, blockbusters, and chanteuses will be running up even bigger numbers. The Church will still be standing.

Here’s my perspective. You have to go back to the First World War and the years following. Ha, ha, sorry—I’m not that old, but I’ve done my reading. It was after the first war that T. S. Eliot wrote “The Waste Land,” a description of the spiritual landscape in the 1920s, and Robert Graves wrote “Goodbye to All That,” a sad adieu to all the old certainties. The war’s terrible slaughter had left the West limp with disillusionment, and the old ways, all of them, had been shown to be moribund—apparently. Modernism was the vogue, and other isms like communism, socialism, and existentialism were in the ascendant. Catholicism? Outdated, ossified, impotent, unnecessary.

Across this landscape came mesmerizing figures from the East to fill the spiritual void that undeniably existed. Zen master D. T. Suzuki and Jiddu Krishnamurti, a sage identified by the Theosophical Society and schooled by Annie Besant, were two of the better known. Slightly less known but, for my money, far more compelling was George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (left). I spent the years of my 20s and 30s reading the Gurdjieff canon, and although this is not the place to expound on it, I will vouch for its meaning to me—even today. But here’s my main point: Virtually every “New Age” principle being foisted on the gullible today amounts to a watered-down rip-off of a very interesting Gurdjieffian idea.

One example cited by Dickow, “I create my reality,” is a third-degree simplification of the Gurdjieff teaching that one’s “level of being” attracts one’s life. The term “I” assumes one level of being; Gurdjieff made no such assumption. In his own allegorical way, he held with the dogma of original sin and the brokenness of our humanity.

Another example not cited by Dickow is the symbol Gurdjieff arguably originated, the Enneagram (left). At right now, you can purchase 314 books with “Enneagram” in the title. Virtually all of these are third- or fourth-generation imitators of what, in the original, is an extraordinarily robust visual summary of the Gurdjieff teaching.

It was in the late 1960s that the teachings begotten by Gurdjieff, Suzuki, Krishnamurti, et al., flowered in the hothouse of countercultural rebellion against certainties political as well as spiritual. These teachings went mainstream; when “my generation” wasn’t sucking on hookahs and listening to “White Rabbit,” or striking against the war in Vietnam, we were all agog over the spiritual news from the East.

We got over it. The joke of my generation is that we turned the world upside-down, then most of us went straight. The joke of the next generation, today’s “New Agers,” is that they thought they discovered what we had already sampled and many of us had abandoned, at least those of us who went to work for Goldman Sachs and had 1.7 children.

Something else happened in the next generation, however, which runs completely counter to the New Age: an evangelical revival of traditional Christianity in the most secular country on earth, the United States. With the remarkable force transmitted by the papacy of John Paul II, backed up by the genial teaching of Benedict XVI, the Catholic Church has been revitalized—potentially rediscovering the meaning of Vatican II and magnetizing such unlikely converts as . . . well, me.

So I’m not going to worry too much about the latest pablum being served up by New Agers, no matter how many books they sell. Ages will continue to come and go, but my money says, the Church will still be standing.

  • Owen

    Amen. I kinda thought New Age peaked in the 80s making it very not new.

  • Webster Bull

    Right on, Owen, and the term "peak" itself peaked in the 1960s with the final writings of Abraham Maslow! Who died in 1970.

  • Anonymous

    I'm afraid I can't agree with this. Banality is incredibly popular nowadays – don't ask me why.

  • Webster Bull

    Anonymous,From this morning's Office of Readings, Psalm 37 says, "Do not fret because of the wicked; do not envy those who do evil: for they wither quickly like grass and fade like the green of the fields./ If you trust in the Lord and do good, then you will live in the land and be secure. If you find your delight in the Lord, he will grant your heart's desire. . . . " And so on. My favorite psalm.

  • Yvonne

    Dear Webster, baby boomer Dale here. We went from the "Greatest Generation" to the worst. It's going to take a while to dig out of all the nonsense. I love Psalm 37, its going to my top 10! Now, which one do I throw out? Dale, Big Clifty, Ky.

  • Webster Bull

    Hey Yvonne, Please enlighten the newly converted. What means, Dale, Big Clifty, or Ky??? :-) Seriously . . .

  • Frank

    "See what I discovered: God made man simple, but they get lost in their many thoughts."-Ecclesiastes 7:29 The story is told that a disciple of Shmelke of Nikolsburg asked his rebbe to teach him the mystery of serving God. The tsaddik told him to go to Rabbi Abraham Hayyim, who in those days was still an innkeeper. The student did as he was instructed and took up residence in the inn for several weeks. During all this time he failed to observe any special indication of holiness in the man. He seemed only to attend to his business. Finally, in desperation, the disciple went up to the innkeeper and asked what he did all day. "My most important job," said Rabbi Abraham, "is to make sure the dishes are cleaned properly. I do my best to make sure that no trace of food remains on the dishes. I also clean and dry the pots and pans carefully so that they do not rust." "That’s it?" asked the student incredulously. "That’s it," replied the innkeeper. Whereupon the disciple returned home and reported what he had seen and heard to his master. "Now you know everything you need to know," Rabbi Shmelke said.

  • Webster Bull

    Great story, Frank. Thank you! There are tremendous things to learn from other traditions, with the emphasis on traditions. The Sufis, referenced in this post, have some powerful teaching stories, too.

  • Anonymous

    ……well, clearly those of you who went to Goldman Sachs and had 1.7 children didn't learn anything, or the world would not be in the state that it's in today..!I agree with you about the current level ofjunk publications, and i'm glad to hear you describeyour attraction to the work of Gurdjieff,and it's to nice that you also mention Krishnamurti.He has a lot to teach us today, and hislessons are still being discovered and learned.Spiritual growth takes work and intuition,and perhaps in past ages the church helpedinstill that love of wisdom in the generalpublic, and i hope it still does, but i believe that we can all discover spiritual truth all around us, in whatever way we can, if we remain open to the possibility, and keep our eyes open always.The levels of corruption and scandal in politics and in religious institutions only show how crucial it is for each one of us to do the work for ourselves, and not to expect someone else to do the job for us….- rob………

  • Webster Bull

    Thanks, Rob. I agree that Krishnamurti had a lot to offer, as did Gurdjieff. And I think too many Catholics look to "Sola Ecclesia" for their teaching, when there are, as Pope Benedict himself said, as many paths to God as there are people seeking him. And yes, we have too seek him, not enough to sit around waiting, though waiting matters too. As for "my generation," we thought we were really smart, but like the young kinsman in Beelzebub's First Descent to Planet Earth (if you know your Gurdjieff), we didn't know how to put the world back together after we had torn it apart. Sounds like you're of the younger, smarter generation, though? :-)