RELIGION LIBRARY

New Age

Origins

Influences

The New Age movement draws from a rich repository of alternative spiritual traditions in the western world ranging from metaphysics to mysticism, uniting these disparate influences under a common banner of self- and world-transformation. Chief among those spiritual traditions that served as influences for the New Age are three 19th-century new religious movements that scholars group together as "metaphysical traditions": New Thought, Theosophy, and Spiritualism. As the New Age developed, it not only drew theological concepts from these traditions but also new adherents from their organizations. Many of the first New Age gatherings developed directly out of these groups, most notably the early study groups for the New Age text A Course in Miracles, which met in the New Thought centers operated by the Unity School of Christianity. In addition to these three 19th-century precursors, the Asian religious traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism and the concurrently-developing transpersonal psychology movement also served as influences in the New Age movement. The 19th-century natural foods movement, with its emphasis on purity, internal cleansing, and unorthodox medical treatments, overlapped considerable with New Thought, Theosophy, and Spiritualism.

The 19th-century new religious movement known as New Thought splintered from Christian Science during the 1880s, eventually spreading throughout North America and Britain. Like Christian Science, New Thought declares that the spiritual rather than physical comprises the fundamental nature of the world, and that the power of the mind can change that world. Consequently, New Thought teaches a form of spiritual self-development that aimed to develop the human being and construct a better reality. Practices tend to emphasize healing, spiritual evolution, and the development of prosperity. The largest of the New Thought denominations during the 20th century, Unity School of Christianity, helped birth the New Age movement by hosting many initial gatherings of New Age practitioners. Both of the cardinal theological perspectives of New Thought-the power of the human mind and practices of self-development-flowed directly into the New Age.

New Age's second major influence, Spiritualism, similarly developed during the 19th century. Spiritualism aimed to prove scientifically the postmortem continuation of human existence through the direct communication with the spirits of the departed. It also championed progressive social reform, most notably feminism. Though Spiritualist séances often focused on bridging the divide between the living and their departed friends and family, over time Spiritualist mediums increasingly spoke for the spirits of great spiritual saints and teachers. The New Age did not directly borrow specific Spiritualist mediumship techniques, such as trance writing and voice alteration, but made use of the underlying assumptions that a living human being might speak for a great spiritual master. Like New Thought, the New Age also drew adherents from Spiritualism. During the 1970s, many professional mediums even began to refer to their practices as New Age channeling rather than Spiritualism.

Theosophy, New Age's third 19th-century influence, contributed an interest in world religions, comparative mysticism, and an evolutionary mindset to the New Age movement. The Theosophical movement aimed to unite all religious seekers under what they called a single "brotherhood of humanity" dedicated to free religious exploration. In practice, Theosophists sought to introduce concepts drawn from Asian religious traditions, such as karma and reincarnation, to the western religious world. Through the prevalence of Theosophical periodicals and regional Theosophy Societies, these ideas filtered through to the New Age. Twentieth-century New Agers continued to look to Theosophy co-founder Helena Petrovna Blavatsky's (1831-1891) Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888) as sources of religious inspiration and truth. Specifically, Theosophy's notion of a series of past lives that progressively lead toward an evolution of self-awareness became a major part of the New Age worldview, which envisions human development as just such a progressive evolution. As with the other two 19th-century influences, members of Theosophical societies and reading groups often adopted New Age identities during the 1970s and 1980s.

Several 20th-century influences also contributed to the New Age. Most notably, the dispersion of Hindu and Buddhist texts and the arrival of Asian religious missionaries during the late 1960s and early 1970s contributed a set of theological categories and practices to the New Age. The Indian yogi Swami Sivananda's (1887-1963) books on yoga practice and his disciples' world tours brought the practice of yoga to the West, where it became one the hallmark features of the New Age. Hindu and Buddhist meditation techniques similarly influenced the New Age, introduced by a wide variety of gurus, sensai, and swamis who taught on American and European shores during the 1960s and 1970s. Though some Americans would join particular Hindu or Buddhist sects, notably the Gaudya Vaishnavism of the Hare Krishnas and numerous Japanese Zen lineages, many more New Age practitioners adopted individual practices and concepts from these Asian traditions.

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