Perhaps it’s the ex-smoker Catholic in me, or perhaps it’s the adolescent rebellion I never experienced at 16 now occurring at the age of 33 but I feel a certain aversion, almost revulsion towards the New Age ideas with which I grew up. Indeed our bookshelves were full of everything from Buddhism to reincarnation, to astral travel, to mediums and psychic channels: all the woos in wooville as it were. When I went to college I added my own books on Wicca, tarot reading and astrology. I devoured all of Sylvia Browne’s poorly executed writing, repetitive as lentils (except when it wasn’t self-contradictory). I knew all of the lingo, could cast a chart with ease and even throw your cards for you if you asked (and usually did for friends and the occasional paying customer.) The only thing I never got into was Yoga or Hinduism, and that was mostly because I’m too uncoordinated to twist my fat arse into some poetically named position and because I enjoy eating our “animal co-beings” too much.
But I find that New Age ideas are not these pleasant, happy spiritual concepts I drank in so regularly as a child and a young woman. There’s a sinister side to them I never perceived before, a glossing over of and discarding of reality in the name of pleasant lies. New Age spirituality draws from many traditions, Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and pre-Christian paganism, however it disintegrates the religions it claims by ripping strands from them and bleaching out their discomfiting parts. Indeed, Hinduism, Buddhism, Paganism and Christianity are hardly recognizable under the New Age lens. Reincarnation, a tenet of Hinduism, is accepted but not as it used to be conceived, as a torturous cycle of repetitions guided by indifferent and impersonal forces, but rather as a kind of “learning process” in which one experiences life after life in order to gain wisdom, guided by a loving deity who receives you at the end of your life when you go back “home” to heaven. Christianity gets rid of all that uncomfortable “sin and hell” stuff (ya know, the stuff Jesus actually talked about) and becomes about “Christ Consciousness.” Paganism loses that whole “lets try and appease these capricious and volatile gods so they will stop playing with us the way cats bat around mice before they eat them” thing and becomes about crystals, five syllable Celtic names, dancing in a circle at solstice and making essential oils from your own garden. These “uncomfortable” parts represent human beings´ authentic experience of life as filled with moments of pain, of death as an uncanny contradiction. They represent human beings´ attempt to account for these experiences in light of our awareness of the eternal, to overcome them when we´re in them, and to hold them at bay when we´re not.
Indeed, the New Age involves a kind of “Pleasantville” filtering out of the challenges of religious life. It is Care Bears spirituality, steeped in a euphemistic language that is the spiritual equivalent to “darn” and “heck”. If the Jesus of the Gospels, says “sin, damn, hell, blood” the New Agers of the world cover it up with ”ego, negative energy, undeveloped state of consciousness, spiritual essence.” It is an immature spirituality, not in the sense that it is new and progressing, but rather that it rejects the pain of maturation in the name of a false childhood. This explains why the New Age is invariably narcissistic. Every New Age practice is designed to confirm the “wonderful specialness” of the practitioner. The astrologer´s fine conjunction of stars dote him with such an array of positive attributes that he doesn’t have to go through the real work of developing virtue. Every person who goes into a hypnotic trance to find out about their past lives discovers they were a king or queen, never a laborer or a peon. Casting their numerological signs reveals each one a Messiah or Magus, without the crucifixion of the former nor the long, lonely apprenticeship of the latter.
But there is one element of the New Age movement which is most insidious, which only became clear to me after becoming Catholic, and that is its status as an agent of the Culture of Death. John Paul II, in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae describes the Culture of Death as one which “encourages an idea of society excessively concerned with efficiency…a war of the powerful against the weak: [in which] a life which would require greater acceptance, love and care is considered useless, or held to be an intolerable burden, and is therefore rejected in one way or another. A person who, because of illness, handicap or, more simply, just by existing, compromises the well-being or life-style of those who are more favoured tends to be looked upon as an enemy to be resisted or eliminated.”
The Culture of Death doesn’t merely manifest itself in genocides and eugenic policies of “weeding out the weak”, it comes, not as soldier with a bloody machete, but as a soft-voiced nurse with a deadly dose of morphine in a syringe. Its platform is not to purify the human race but to “avoid suffering” by euthanizing the terminally ill and the elderly, by aborting babies who be born into poverty or who have some kind of congenital defect. It turns “quality of life” into a weapon against life itself, taking on the guise of compassion and tenderness, pushing death as the remedy for pain.
The New Age does spiritual PR work for this culture. It promotes reincarnation, thus diminishing the relationship between soul and body. The belief of many in the New Age movement is that the soul pre-exists the body and occupies several bodies over the ages as a means of “advancing” in wisdom. The soul enters the body at some point during gestation but only becomes “locked in” at birth. Once the earthly lifetime ends, the body is discarded as an old suit of clothes and the soul returns to it’s real home in heaven. From that vantage point abortion and euthanasia can’t be really seen as morally problematic. Heck, even murder becomes little more than having the shirt stolen off your back. The idea of prolonging a life, of giving birth to and raising a defective child seems absurd and almost cruel. Better to just “send them home” as it were.
Relatedly, the New Age promotes its own version of “Universalism”, the belief that everyone goes to heaven. A favourite meme of New Agers is “You’re not a human being having a spiritual experience, you’re a spiritual being having a human experience”, interpreted to mean that you are an eternal being from heaven temporarily inhabiting a physical body and you will return to heaven when you die. Some New Age writers such as Sylvia Browne go into great detail about what this “other side” looks like and how life transpires in such a place. All paint it as, of course, paradise, although Browne makes it sound like a celestial retirement community with book clubs and tennis tournaments. This image of heaven as both origin and guaranteed destination, without the problematic ideas of Judgement or any type of purgation contributes to the overall “cheapening” of life lived on Earth. If heaven is such a great place which you are guaranteed to go no matter how you live or die, than dispatching a baby or an ill or elderly person becomes like sending them on a cruise. In fact, when I was neck deep in the New Age I used to long for death, not because I was depressed or suicidal, but because such a vision was so enticing, I wanted to go there.
What are the implications of such a conjunction of beliefs? That taking a life through murder, euthanasia, abortion or suicide is not the moral violation the soul feels it is, but rather just another part of the cycle of life, a form of liberation or a “learning experience.” Similarly, grief, that terrible country where one encounters the cold unnaturalness of death, is minimized in an offensive manner. The reason we experience grief is because life matters, because the “person, body and soul” who was with us is now gone. We feel this as a terrible injustice, as a deep “wrongness” in the universe. But the New Age would try to fill it full of tranquillizers, making it “pleasant” and “nice,” so that we would befriend it, even as it eats us and our loved ones.