1. WHAT SORT OF REFLECTION?
The following reflections are meant as a guide for Catholics
involved in preaching the Gospel and teaching the faith at any level within the Church. This document does not aim at providing
a set of complete answers to the many questions raised by the New Age or other
contemporary signs of the perennial human search for happiness, meaning and salvation. It is an invitation to understand the
New Age and to engage in a genuine dialogue with those who are influenced by
New Age thought. The document guides those involved in pastoral work in their
understanding and response to New Age spirituality, both illustrating the points
where this spirituality contrasts with the Catholic faith and refuting the positions espoused by New Age thinkers in opposition to Christian faith. What is indeed required of Christians is, first and
foremost, a solid grounding in their faith. On this sound base, they can build a life which responds positively to the invitation
in the first letter of Saint Peter: “always have your answer ready for people who ask you the reason for the hope that
you all have. But give it with courtesy and respect and a clear conscience” (1 P
3, 15 f.).
1.1. Why now?
The beginning of the Third Millennium comes not only
two thousand years after the birth of Christ, but also at a time when astrologers believe that the Age of Pisces – known
to them as the Christian age – is drawing to a close. These reflections are about the
New Age, which takes its name from the imminent astrological Age of Aquarius. The New
Age is one of many explanations of the significance of this moment in history which are bombarding contemporary
(particularly western) culture, and it is hard to see clearly what is and what is not consistent with the Christian message.
So this seems to be the right moment to offer a Christian assessment of New Age
thinking and the New Age movement as a whole.
It has been said, quite correctly, that many people hover
between certainty and uncertainty these days, particularly in questions relating to their identity.1 Some say that
the Christian religion is patriarchal and authoritarian, that political institutions are unable to improve the world, and
that formal (allopathic) medicine simply fails to heal people effectively. The fact that what were once central elements in
society are now perceived as untrustworthy or lacking in genuine authority has created a climate where people look inwards,
into themselves, for meaning and strength. There is also a search for alternative institutions, which people hope will respond
to their deepest needs. The unstructured or chaotic life of alternative communities of the 1970s has given way to a search
for discipline and structures, which are clearly key elements in the immensely popular “mystical” movements. New Age is attractive mainly because so much of what it offers meets hungers often left
unsatisfied by the established institutions.
While much of New
Age is a reaction to contemporary culture, there are many ways in which it is that culture's child. The Renaissance
and the Reformation have shaped the modern western individual, who is not weighed down by external burdens like merely extrinsic
authority and tradition; people feel the need to “belong” to institutions less and less (and yet loneliness is
very much a scourge of modern life), and are not inclined to rank “official” judgements above their own. With
this cult of humanity, religion is internalised in a way which prepares the ground for a celebration of the sacredness of
the self. This is why New Age shares many of the values espoused by enterprise
culture and the “prosperity Gospel” (of which more will be said later: section 2.4), and also by the consumer
culture, whose influence is clear from the rapidly-growing numbers of people who claim that it is possible to blend Christianity
and New Age, by taking what strikes them as the best of both.2 It
is worth remembering that deviations within Christianity have also gone beyond traditional theism in accepting a unilateral
turn to self, and this would encourage such a blending of approaches. The important thing to note is that God is reduced in
certain New Age practices so as furthering the advancement of the individual.
New Age appeals
to people imbued with the values of modern culture. Freedom, authenticity, self-reliance and the like are all held to be sacred.
It appeals to those who have problems with patriarchy. It “does not demand any more faith or belief than going to the
cinema”,3 and yet it claims to satisfy people's spiritual appetites. But here is a central question: just
what is meant by spirituality in a New Age context? The answer is the key to
unlocking some of the differences between the Christian tradition and much of what can be called New Age. Some versions of New Age harness the powers of
nature and seek to communicate with another world to discover the fate of individuals, to help individuals tune in to the
right frequency to make the most of themselves and their circumstances. In most cases, it is completely fatalistic. Christianity,
on the other hand, is an invitation to look outwards and beyond, to the “new Advent” of the God who calls us to
live the dialogue of love.4
The technological revolution in communications over the
last few years has brought about a completely new situation. The ease and speed with which people can now communicate is one
of the reasons why New Age has come to the attention of people of all ages
and backgrounds, and many who follow Christ are not sure what it is all about. The Internet, in particular, has become enormously
influential, especially with younger people, who find it a congenial and fascinating way of acquiring information. But it
is a volatile vehicle of misinformation on so many aspects of religion: not all that is labelled “Christian” or
“Catholic” can be trusted to reflect the teachings of the Catholic Church and, at the same time, there is a remarkable
expansion of New Age sources ranging from the serious to the ridiculous. People
need, and have a right to, reliable information on the differences between Christianity and
1.3. Cultural background
When one examines many New
Age traditions, it soon becomes clear that there is, in fact, little in the
New Age that is new. The name seems to have gained currency through Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, at the time
of the French and American Revolutions, but the reality it denotes is a contemporary variant of Western esotericism. This
dates back to Gnostic groups which grew up in the early days of Christianity, and gained momentum at the time of the Reformation
in Europe . It has grown in parallel with scientific world-views, and acquired a rational justification through the eighteenth
and nineteenth centuries. It has involved a progressive rejection of a personal God and a focus on other entities which would
often figure as intermediaries between God and humanity in traditional Christianity, with more and more original adaptations
of these or additional ones. A powerful trend in modern Western culture which has given space to New Age ideas is the general acceptance of Darwinist evolutionary theory; this, alongside a focus on hidden
spiritual powers or forces in nature, has been the backbone of much of what is now recognised as New Age theory. Basically, New Age has found a remarkable
level of acceptance because the world-view on which it was based was already widely accepted. The ground was well prepared
by the growth and spread of relativism, along with an antipathy or indifference towards the Christian faith. Furthermore,
there has been a lively discussion about whether and in what sense New Age can
be described as a postmodern phenomenon. The existence and fervor of New Age
thinking and practice bear witness to the unquenchable longing of the human spirit for transcendence and religious meaning,
which is not only a contemporary cultural phenomenon, but was evident in the ancient world, both Christian and pagan.
1.4. The New Age and Catholic Faith
Even if it can be admitted that New Age religiosity in some way responds to the legitimate spiritual longing of human nature, it must
be acknowledged that its attempts to do so run counter to Christian revelation. In Western culture in particular, the appeal
of “alternative” approaches to spirituality is very strong. On the one hand, new forms of psychological affirmation
of the individual have become very popular among Catholics, even in retreat-houses, seminaries and institutes of formation
for religious. At the same time there is increasing nostalgia and curiosity for the wisdom and ritual of long ago, which is
one of the reasons for the remarkable growth in the popularity of esotericism and gnosticism. Many people are particularly
attracted to what is known – correctly or otherwise – as “Celtic” spirituality,5 or to
the religions of ancient peoples. Books and courses on spirituality and ancient or Eastern religions are a booming business,
and they are frequently labelled “New Age” for commercial purposes.
But the links with those religions are not always clear. In fact, they are often denied.
An adequate Christian discernment of New Age thought and practice cannot fail to recognize that, like second and third century gnosticism,
it represents something of a compendium of positions that the Church has identified as heterodox. John Paul II warns with
regard to the “return of ancient gnostic ideas under the guise of the so-called New
Age: We cannot delude ourselves that this will lead toward a renewal of religion. It is only a new way of practising
gnosticism – that attitude of the spirit that, in the name of a profound knowledge of God, results in distorting His
Word and replacing it with purely human words. Gnosticism never completely abandoned the realm of Christianity. Instead, it
has always existed side by side with Christianity, sometimes taking the shape of a philosophical movement, but more often
assuming the characteristics of a religion or a para-religion in distinct, if not declared, conflict with all that is essentially
Christian”.6 An example of this can be seen in the enneagram, the nine-type tool for character analysis,
which when used as a means of spiritual growth introduces an ambiguity in the doctrine and the life of the Christian faith.
1.5. A positive challenge
The appeal of New
Age religiosity cannot be underestimated. When the understanding of the content of Christian faith is weak, some
mistakenly hold that the Christian religion does not inspire a profound spirituality and so they seek elsewhere. As a matter
of fact, some say the New Age is already passing us by, and refer to the “next”
age.7 They speak of a crisis that began to manifest itself in the United States of America in the early 1990s,
but admit that, especially beyond the English-speaking world, such a “crisis” may come later. But bookshops and
radio stations, and the plethora of self-help groups in so many Western towns and cities, all seem to tell a different story.
It seems that, at least for the moment, the New Age is still very much alive
and part of the current cultural scene.
The success of New
Age offers the Church a challenge. People feel the Christian religion no longer offers them – or perhaps
never gave them – something they really need. The search which often leads people to the New Age is a genuine yearning: for a deeper spirituality, for something which will touch their hearts,
and for a way of making sense of a confusing and often alienating world. There is a positive tone in New Age criticisms of “the materialism of daily life, of philosophy and even of medicine and psychiatry;
reductionism, which refuses to take into consideration religious and supernatural experiences; the industrial culture of unrestrained
individualism, which teaches egoism and pays no attention to other people, the future and the environment”.8
Any problems there are with New Age are to be found in what it proposes as
alternative answers to life's questions. If the Church is not to be accused of being deaf to people's longings, her members
need to do two things: to root themselves ever more firmly in the fundamentals of their faith, and to understand the often-silent
cry in people's hearts, which leads them elsewhere if they are not satisfied by the Church. There is also a call in all of
this to come closer to Jesus Christ and to be ready to follow Him, since He is the real way to happiness, the truth about
God and the fulness of life for every man and woman who is prepared to respond to his love.