In Defense of New Age

A historian argues that it’s time to reclaim and reform alternative spirituality

Mitch Horowitz
May 1, 2018 · 14 min read

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My mother-in-law, Terri Orr, retired several years ago as an associate dean at Harvard Medical School — she’s a remarkable woman for many reasons, but among them she’s a seeker in certain New Age and mystical ideas not often associated with the ranking echelon of Harvard’s administration. In addition to being a devout Catholic, Terri is interested in the channeled text A Course In Miracles, and she’s dedicated to both the Twelve Steps and to variants of positive-mind metaphysics.

Her second husband, Jerry Packer, a Jewish man, also from Harvard, was a lawyer and quite conservative. When Jerry was going through some life changes, he found his way to a popularization of A Course In Miracles called Love Is Letting Go of Fear by psychologist Gerald G. Jampolsky. Jerry told me one night, very energetically, how much the book had helped him. I was touched to hear this, not only because I’m interested in people’s experiences with New Age texts, but also because Jerry was conservative in every way, yet he enthused over how a modern mystical work changed his life (he specifically used that phrase).

Later that evening, while Jerry was clearing the dinner dishes, my mother-in-law came up to me and said lovingly but with wry humor that the book hadn’t made living with him a picnic: “It may have changed his life, but it certainly hasn’t changed mine!”

This is often how popular religious and mystical teachings play out in people’s lives. A reader or seeker encounters a psycho-spiritual book, lecture, weekend seminar, or audio program, and feels absolutely flooded with discovery. In such cases, a person sometimes feels permeated by a kind of divine influx, a phrase used by Swedish mystic and scientist Emanuel Swedenborg and later adopted by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Those around them, with whom they’re in relationships, don’t always feel or recognize the change. But, to the individual, these experiences can be profound, and, in fact, sometimes are.

I’ll define New Age shortly, but let me note that its books and ideas often arise when a writer or channeler reports a transcendent communique or transmission, that is, an experience of gnosis, which he communicates to others. Most religious traditions, old or new, begin this way. Over time, a canon of literature, liturgy, and practices develop around the experience. Not infrequently, faction splits occur and someone breaks off to start a parallel movement. This pattern plays out repeatedly in religious history. In fact, several years ago there were competing groups who saw themselves as custodians of A Course In Miracles, and they were fighting a copyright battle in federal court. The judge remarked that for people whose entire theology is based in forgiveness, the claimants didn’t seem to be doing a good job of it. But we are human, and these struggles occur within every religious movement.

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A Course In Miracles scribe Helen Schucman (1909–1981)

Much of the material that is now considered New Age began through an experience of gnosis, of a perceived higher transcendent awareness. Very often, an individual like Columbia University research psychologist Helen Schucman, who acted as the scribe and channel for A Course In Miracles, or Edgar Cayce, a celebrated medical clairvoyant in the first part of the twentieth century — Cayce coined the term channel in a spiritual sense — will receive a message, either from within or without, and people come to agree that the individual experienced some kind of new covenant, dispensation, or scripture. Readers of A Course In Miracles often regard it as a text of almost scriptural importance — Schucman identified the voice in the work as Jesus. Those who follow the Big Book, or Alcoholics Anonymous, a work that didn’t come from any divine transmission — although it did begin with the experience of Bill Wilson recovering in a hospital and having a religious or spiritual awaking — also regard it as a work of near-scriptural significance (though it’s not a substitute for any sacred text). I respect that outlook very deeply.

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AA cofounder Bill Wilson (1895–1971)

I respect such modern teachings, and the veneration in which followers hold them, because you can often measure the results of these ideas in the conduct and day-to-day experience of the individual. This has been largely neglected and written out of much of our journalistic and scholarly consideration of new religious movements. In 1970, philosopher Jacob Needleman published The New Religions, which was largely a book of field work. Needleman’s book is structured around interviews with participants in various new religious movements, such as Transcendental Meditation, Zen, different yogic and vedantic schools, and so on. I think most journalists, scholars, and historians have neglected this kind of religious field work; that is, of talking to and interacting with participants in these movements. This has left a huge gap of understanding in our culture, to the extent that probably few terms in American life today are considered as demeaning or as much a mark of frivolity as “New Age.” People flee from the label. It’s almost like being called a fundamentalist. No one will claim it.

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Needleman’s 1970 classic

I lay claim to the term New Age, and define myself by it. Since many journalists and scholars neglect proximity to practitioners of various New Age methods and teachings, it has become easy for them, for reasons I’ll consider, to equate the term with everything that is fickle, unserious, trendy, and immature in spiritual life. Yet there are labels I refuse to cede entirely to the critics. I also regularly use the terms occult, positive thinking, and ESP. I do so because I believe these somewhat sullied terms possess historical integrity; they mean something, and help define historic movements and modalities. If such terms are misunderstood, then I say labor to make them understood.

There exists a polarity today in how New Age is defined. It’s described on one hand, often within the mainstream, as a mishmash of shallow and trendy spiritual ideas. On the other extreme, sometimes from within its own ranks, people say that New Age is perennial wisdom, that it’s a term to describe ageless insights — “New Age is old age,” you will hear. I think it’s none of those things. I do not believe it’s useful to describe a culture or movement from its polarities. In another outlook, some even argue that New Age cannot be described; that it’s so amorphous it’s like trying to grab smoke. But New Age can be described, and simply: It is a radically ecumenical culture of therapeutic spirituality. It’s that plain. The movement is very broad, and includes a wide array of spiritual, physical, and healing-oriented modalities — but, in short, that’s what it is: a radically ecumenical culture of therapeutic spirituality. The term New Age grew popular in the 1970s, partly through the influence of the monthly New Age Journal. In its earliest use, the term was benign or honorable. But it soon took on negative connotations within the larger culture. Part of the reason, in addition to the lack of hands-on proximity of those writing about it, is that New Age culture has generally done a poor job of producing scholars, journalists, and formidable public voices from within its own ranks.

I was discussing this issue recently with religion scholar Catherine Albanese. We both noted that other new religious movements, particularly Mormonism and Christian Science, have produced significant scholars; and institutionally those movements possess impeccable record keeping, beautiful libraries, and a strong command of technology. If you visit the Mary Baker Eddy Library maintained by the Christian Science Church in Boston, for example, you will enter a first-class library; it ranks with any in the world in terms of archival practices and tech. Brigham Young University maintains outstanding digital archives, which put within easy reach documents that would have been extremely difficult to find a generation ago. By contrast, if you attend a weekend seminar at a New Age center, you’ll be lucky if the greeter at the door can tell you where the bathroom is. I’m being glib, of course, but there is a serious problem of accountability and professionalism within New Age growth centers and media. (And the bathroom story has occurred.)

Now, there are extremely well-run growth centers. The Edgar Cayce center in Virginia Beach, called the Association for Research and Enlightenment, is managed impeccably well, at every level. The Theosophical Society of America campus in Wheaton, Illinois, is remarkably well run. So is the Esalen Institute. But those are among a handful of exceptions.

Generally speaking, and I have no wish to name names, there is a poorly developed culture of both intellectual search and, frankly, administrative competence within the New Age. I am ill at ease saying that because I have located myself within that culture for about twenty years as a writer, speaker, publisher, and seeker. And, believe me, I have traversed the map. Until recently, I was vice-president of a publishing division at Penguin Random House that specialized in metaphysical books. I’ve written on alternative spirituality within both mainstream and New Age cultures, spoken on it coast to coast and internationally, so I hope you won’t think I’m venturing a casual opinion. I have been out there. And the New Age does, by and large, have a poor atmosphere of intellectual inquiry, as well as business and administrative acumen. The question is: why? Why are other new religious movements, like Christian Science and Mormonism, distinguished by far greater levels of professionalism and study? Are the critics correct that we are just a carnival of trendy and fickle religious ideas, and hence attract fuzzy-headed participants?

I cannot conclude that the critics are right. I simply cannot conclude that, because I’ve seen too many examples to the contrary. And I’ve seen too many instances where the therapeutic and spiritual ideas and methods that emerge from New Age culture prove meaningful in the lives of a wide range of people. Moreover, New Age ideas have opened our culture to many things held vital by large numbers of people, which wouldn’t have found a foothold in America if not for the platform and launchpad that New Age has provided. Almost anything having to do with natural medicine or alternative health, for example, be it macrobiotics, acupuncture, hatha yoga, Transcendental Meditation, or any kind of mind-body stress reduction, first entered society from the margins of what would have been called New Age.

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The Maharishi with the Beatles and their wives in 1968. Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The founder of Transcendental Meditation, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, ventured to California in 1959 — occult explorer Madame H.P. Blavatsky predicted in 1888 that the West Coast would be the birthplace of the New Age — and he began teaching Transcendental Meditation, which is now widely practiced and accepted. At the time, people were able to make sense of this man, and his cultural transmission, because they were already involved in various proto-New Age and alternative spiritual subcultures. They had some familiarity with figures like Madame Blavatsky and Swami Vivekananda, and thus sufficient orientation to understand: “Oh, this is a man bearing wisdom from the East — let’s see what he has to teach.” There existed a cultural capacity to receive this figure. This kind of episode occurs again and again in American religious history. Since mid-century, various alternative spiritual offerings got picked up, popularized, remade, and, very often, exported again — and these ideas and practices usually entered society through the fringes of New Age culture, even if they didn’t have their inception there.

I am sometimes asked: “Don’t you find it irritating that there is such a poor intellectual climate in New Age? Don’t you find a lot of weirdos? Aren’t there a lot of flakes?” My response is that you must be willing to put up with some of that if you want to be in proximity to the staging ground where innovation occurs. Innovation often enters society from its periphery, and you don’t know where it will go. If Steve Jobs grew inspired to wage a technological revolution, in part, by imbibing psychedelics and studying vedanta and Zen, how did such things become available to a suburban kid growing up in a tract house in Northern California? These things didn’t fall from the sky. They came from somewhere. They required a staging ground, and an incipient audience, however small, to usher them into the mainstream.

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Steve Jobs thinking different. Photo by Ralph Morse/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

Hence, it’s inadequate to say, “Oh God, the New Age is just an aquarium of weirdness.” It’s not an aquarium; it’s a channel, it’s an inlet — and a lot passes through it, some of which blossoms across America and other parts of the world. Alternative ideas require an entry point, and that’s what New Age is.

Given all that, why isn’t there a better culture of inquiry within the New Age? That is, a more mature and rigorous style of thought, discourse, historical study, and writing? I think it has something to do with how successful the New Age has been in taking a sledgehammer to conventional concepts of hierarchies. Hence, someone like Helen Schucman, a research clinician who claimed to be an atheist (although the story is more complicated when you peel back the layers), or a Southern Bible-Belt kid like Edgar Cayce who grew up in rural Kentucky, or any number of the people whose names are widely known or obscure, can lay claim to the mantle of prophecy. The New Age has been so effective in practicing a style of anti-hierarchy and personal gnosis, that, as a byproduct, it has disproportionately attracted people who prefer not to, or find it difficult to, function within professional and administrative norms. That doesn’t mean this population is a majority, but it’s well represented.

I view this situation as a side effect of the culture’s success. If we define gnosticism, in the classical sense, as a syncretic, un-hierarchical, widely dispersed, somewhat elastic, ecumenical form of spiritual seeking, encompassing many sects and variants, with no top-down seat of authority, it is possible to conclude that New Age, in a way, replicates that attitude and outlook, though without a direct family tree of connection. As blunt as I’m trying to be in this essay, and as admittedly general as I’m being, one cannot get carried away with a negative analysis of the New Age. It’s vitally important not to slide over to the obfuscating polarity of concluding: “Oh, the New Age is a bunch of woo-woo silliness.” Yet this polarized attitude prevails in the mainstream, and has for some time.

I was moved recently to hear a presentation at Rice University by religious studies professor Gregory Shaw, in which he spoke of the enduring influence of Emerson and the Transcendentalists. I noted at the time that if it weren’t for New Age culture, many new editions of Emerson and Thoreau wouldn’t get published and read, since those figures, and others from world literature, such as the Persian poet Rumi, have experienced a renewed vogue within New Age. Greg shrewdly quoted the early twentieth-century social critic G.K. Chesterton whose 1908 book Orthodoxy bemoaned the impact of the new spirituality: “That Jones shall worship the god within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.”

When we first hear things like that from a cultural icon like Chesterton, it sounds like a knockout blow against any kind of free-floating conceptions of contemporary spirituality. It seems like a staggering punch against what we’ve come to call “cafeteria religion.” Such a statement appears to topple the notion that a spiritual search can involve eating off multiple and self-selected plates, which devolves, Chesterton warned, into Jones worshiping Jones.

Unfortunately, the New Age hasn’t produced many people to respond to Chesterton’s outlook, which is now widely echoed, including by New York Times columnist Ross Douthat and others who consider themselves rapier critics of New Age. Yet in actuality, it’s easy to rebut the charge of delusion or narcissism. Because the knockout punch, if you want to enter a debate of ideas, invites a counterblow — and Chesterton left himself open to an enormous one, without even realizing it. Since Chesterton set the template for how many social critics continue to view New Age, I’ll use a contemporary example to respond to his sentiment.

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The social critic Barbara Ehrenreich recently wrote a book called Bright-Sided, which was a polemic against the culture of positive thinking, which Barbara is convinced is laying waste to our nation. She sees the notion that thoughts are causative as deteriorative and unrealistic, economically and socially. Barbara promoted her book several years ago on The Daily Show, when it was hosted by Jon Stewart. Stewart asked her about religion or spirituality making a difference in people’s lives: “If Jesus makes you stop drinking, isn’t that okay?” Now, I think Barbara is, in some ways, very unfamiliar and shallowly read in her subject, which I’ve considered elsewhere, but she is nonetheless extremely quick witted. She replied: “ No, I never think delusion is okay.” The audience applauded and they quickly moved on. But here is the rub: How do you determine whether something is delusion, which to me means a catastrophically ruinous illusion, other than by measuring it through a person’s conduct of life? The Conduct of Life was the title of one of Emerson’s last essay collections.

Only by measuring an individual’s experiences, in terms of his or her conduct, can you reach a reasonable, empirical, rational judgement of whether an ethical, religious, or philosophical system proves beneficial in someone’s life. And there are certainly ways of measuring such things: recovery from addiction, recovery from diseases — whether emotional, physical, or psychological — the ability to see through projects in life, the ability to act with a sense of personal agency, the maintenance of relationships, the maintenance of careers, the maintenance of some kind of financial self-sufficiency, and the ability to stay out of the legal system. These are some measurements.

Now, an individual’s entanglements in life have many contributing factors. There are political factors, economic factors, environmental factors, and so on. But if the serious person testifies that Jesus, or Universal Force, or Divine Influx, or whatever you may call it, has helped him stop drinking, and there exists a “before and after” which empirically bears that out, then you have a testimony to the effectiveness of a philosophy in a person’s life. Calling that a delusion, or Jones merely worshiping Jones, is subjectivity. It’s like saying, “Chocolate ice cream is evil.” It just means nothing. It’s not a statement at all. It’s not a knockout blow. It’s irrelevant.

I contend that to understand New Age as a gnostic and spiritual expression, students, scholars, journalists, and observers must place themselves in closer proximity to what they’re studying. Moreover, I call upon my friends in the New Age movement, of which I am a part, to take seriously the crisis of intellectual inquiry often found within New Age. I call out the New Age movement to produce some of its own scholars and significant public voices, so that when a Barbara Ehrenreich or G.K. Chesterton starts to rail against Jones, there is someone to defend Jones.

This article is adapted from the author’s talk at Rice University’s Gnostic America conference. You can hear Mitch’s complete talk, and the question-and-answer session that follows, here:

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"Treats esoteric ideas & movements with an even-handed intellectual studiousness"-Washington Post | PEN Award-winning historian | Censored in China

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