Extraordinary or "paranormal" phenomena and apparently miraculous healings abound in the New Age movement. But what exactly is the challenge they represent, and how should the Church respond?
The term "New Age" is used to refer to a worldwide movement that believes a new age is dawning in the history of mankind, an age not necessarily of material prosperity but of "higher consciousness." In the 1960s, this began to be called the "Age of Aquarius," after the constellation which, astrologically, succeeds Pisces in supposedly determining the character of our historical epoch. New spiritual influences, we were told, were coming into play during the latter part of the twentieth century, spreading peace and enlightenment across the earth.
How did this movement come about? The material optimism of the late Victorian period, with its myth of inevitable progress through evolution, had been severely shaken by the experience of two world wars. It began to revive in the fertile soil of a post-war generation sheltered by relative prosperty (in the West) and "liberated" (in imagination) by the rapid development of new technology, from television and electric guitars to spaceships and the Pill. One manifestation of this new optimism was the United States moon program, and the growth of a scientistic subculture that believed all problems could be solved by a combination of technological creativity and money. But the declining support for institutional religion and conventional morality also went hand in hand with a desire to discover meaning and values for oneself, starting from scratch. The new "Church of Science" did not have the capacity to satisfy everyone.1 An original naive experimentation with drugs, with lifestyles, with communes, and with self-made religion among the hippies of the 1960s prepared the way for involvement in more established alternatives to institutional Christianity, such as occultism, spiritualism, theosophy, the imported Eastern religions and humanistic psychology, with all their various offshoots and hybrids.2
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1. The New Age movement is not against science per se, but materialism: it accommodates quite readily both the "new physics" and the "new biology." See, e.g., Marilyn Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy (Los Angeles: Jeremy Tarcher, 1980).
2. A still important study of spiritualism by Herbert Thurston, S.J., The Church and Spiritualism (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1933), argued the case against Christians involving themselves in such practices. The opposite point of view is put by Morton Kelsey in The Christian and the Supernatural (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1976), for whom "Psi" is a "natural phenomenon of the human psyche" which "can be used for the glory of God and the enrichment of human life."