Postmodernism and New Age: the subtle connections

Ruth is smart, beautiful, young, and compassionate. She has attended college, holds an attractive job, and for her age surprises others with her spirituality. Spirituality in a secularized age that is so deeply entrenched with the magic of technology?

Be not surprised. Ruth has found a new kind of “spirituality.” While she may use the technological advances as a matter of routine, she is not beholden to science or its magic. From that magic she has jumped to a mystery—the mystery of mysticism, of the fascinating world of Eastern religions where the “I” can achieve its maximum potential without the help of reason or the God of the Bible.

Ruth has made a quantum leap. As a child of Postmodernism, she denies history, time, the God of the universe, and the ultimate meaning of the Cross. But she is not bad morally or ethically. She has now embraced the values of a New Age. The leap is subtle, inviting, and often seems satisfying. She is happy.

And so is the devil.

Ruth is not alone. In the past few years, thousands like her, children of Postmodernism, have become followers of the New Age. They may have been raised Methodists, Catholics, or even Seventh-day Adventists. The fact is that the New Age has become a wide-spreading religious phenomenon, attracting thousands of weary and rootless followers of traditional Christianity.

This article will deal with four questions: What is postmodernism? What is New Age spirituality? Is there a relationship between the two? What cautions should we take against these subtle dangers?

What is postmodernism?

Postmodernism is not one worldview, but a combination of them.1 Federic Jameson, professor at Cornell University, defines one sure sign of postmodern thought as “historical deafness.” The postmodern person refuses to think historically, and as a result is in a difficult position to even define what constitutes an “Age.”2

A key symptom of postmodern thought, then, is the denial of time as an explanatory dimension of events. In contrast, the Bible views historical events as linked teleologically, proceeding with meaning, purpose, and direction. The biblical view of time is governed by a philosophy of history whose over-arching theme is the cosmic controversy between Christ and Satan. This view of time has recognizable milestones: Creation, the Fall, the covenant, the Christ event, the work of redemption, the investigative trial, and the second coming of Christ with its assurance of an end and a new beginning. Postmodernist “historical deafness” denies the relevance of the biblical-historical line and the truthfulness of its major events. Thus, if history has no longer any value, neither do the facts that determine it.

Postmodern thought is preoccupied with the present, sensing no need for historical roots or for a beckoning destiny. This irrelevance of history and destiny produces a superficiality that permeates postmodern culture with its principal icons: a life torn between the compulsions of technology and the rhetoric of the marketplace; a new emotional soil dominated by the concerns of the present; and an irrationality originating in the rejection of modernity and its blind faith in science. The result is what J. F. Lyotard3 calls a negation of the “narrative teachers”—rational programs “that sung the hopes and faith in the liberation of humanity.”4

Thus, while Postmodernism may have suffered a radical loss in what it has rejected, it has set up for itself impressive socio-cultural projects, supported by strong political-religious girders. These global projects, under the euphemism of a “New World Order,” are strongly ideological (how ironical that Postmodernism can choose an ideology, even as it denies the ideology of history) and give economics a central role.

Of course, the postmodernist ideology of economics cannot stand on its own. It must put on the garment of democracy in political matters and pluralism in religious matters. The stage is thus set for fusing into one hegemonic movement those ideas whose religious and cultural meeting place is none other than the New Age.

Postmodernism, in order to be credible, must assume anthropological and social constituents. The first takes advantage of the hedonistic tendency of a post-industrial, technological society and offers to meet the constant search for pleasure by putting an end to the “ethics of duty.”5 The second is accomplished by an “institutional unhooking at all levels: political-ideological, religious, familial, etc.”6 Postmodernism is thus characterized by a fragmented view of reality, an operational orientation, anthropocentrism, and relativism.

In its zeal to attack secularism and the cold rationalism that brought on modernity, Posmodernity highlights the role of emotions, feelings, and the imagination. The social and cultural effects of modernity are clearly in evidence: a dying natural environment, alienated humans, an increase in crime and poverty, a lack of individual and national identity. But in the face of these, what has Postmodernity to offer? A counter-cultural movement with its immediate and non-deferred gratification, an irrationality manifested in new forms of knowledge, sexual freedom, and social anarchy.7

Meanwhile, science also changes its paradigm and abandons the rational-empirical model that aspired to universality and absolute objectivity of knowledge. As a result, it acquires a probabilistic character, depends more than ever on the eye of the observant, and is no longer firm and secure in the continuum of the past and the present. Such a stance leads scientists to find themselves to be no different from the person on the street as they face the mystery of reality. The impact of such a position can easily be detected in pseudoscientific concepts such as alternative medicine and astrology, for example, which are shared by Eastern mysticism.

Thus in postmodern counter-culture, the New Age movement finds a favorable soil to take root and grow.

What is New Age?

Among the early embracers of the New Age are stellar figures from varied disciplines, such as Abraham Maslow, Gregory Bateson, Margaret Mead, Carl Rogers, Aldous Huxley, Paul Tillich, and Shirley MacLaine, among others. One author, Marilyn Ferguson, a true architect of the New Age,8 announced in her book The Conspiracy of Aquarius the abandonment of the previous “Age of Pisces” and the entry into an astronomical age governed by a different and universal conscience.

The New Age assimilates the Eastern worldview into its own socio-cultural context. At a time in history marked by spiritual anxieties,9 New Age offers religious mystique in a charming garb: horoscopes, meditations, crystals, and Eastern mysticism.10 At its core, New Age has a religiosity that mixes suggestions, magic, reverence for nature, and a search for the new and anomalous, offering an “authentic” spiritual experience.

But what are some of the primary characteristics of this New Age phenomenon? First, it is extremely diverse. It includes aspects as wide ranging as spiritualism, theosophy, occultism, astrology, transcendentalism, and mental healing.

Second, it includes trends in contemporary sociological movements, such as the anarchism and hedonism of the 1960s, an embrace of Zen philosophy, naturalist romanticism, oriental mysticism, and an experimental lifestyle of drugs and sex, all leading up to a utopic experience.11

Third, the New Age has reversed the rebellious and polemic trend of the 1960s to present itself as a meaningful and integrated experience that affirms the potential of the individual, allows a bourgeois lifestyle, and provides a religious guise for such activities.

Fourth, the New Age is religious in its pretensions. But the religion exists in a relativistic environment in which nobody presumes to have all the truth. It is the religion of good wishing and love, which exerts few demands and offers only rewards. It has no room for the Cross, for divine grace, or for human accountability, such as biblical Christianity calls for.12

Fifth, the New Age, in line with the anti-historical stance of Postmodernism, is a destructurizer of reality. It achieves this by means of its two concepts: karma and reincarnation. At the basis of karma lies “the immovable conviction that there is no unmerited happiness and no unmerited misery, that each man shapes his own fortune down to the smallest details.”13 Whatever happens occurs because of karma; it is the governing force of life. Reincarnation, another New Age tenet, denies the reality of death and affirms the immortality of the soul. Human life never dies but moves from existence to existence, in different forms and levels of consciousness, until it reaches the ultimate stage of being equal with God. Good works is the key to upward progression in reincarnation.

Postmodernism and New Age

Having looked at some of the basic claims of Postmodernity and the New Age, and having noted how the former provided the soil in which the latter could take root, now we are ready to see some links between the two. And there are several.

First, although each are anchored in its own worldview, they share an anti-rationalism that denies the relevance of teleological history and affirms the supremacy of the present.14 This “methodical irrationality” is, perhaps, the basis for other elements constituting the paradigms of Postmodernity and the New Age.

Second, both share a certain pseudo-religious appeal. The truth, ever so light, of the New Age is a perfect ally of postmodern ethics, which are ever so weak. This new spirituality of our times offers to its adherents the security of religion and the freedom of Postmodernity. The potent combination of the two rejects all past legacies and all normative value systems. Without any pretension of permanency, they loose themselves in all cultures, sowing distrust toward anything that is basic and fundamental in human life. This distrust is perceived politically and socially as a strong predominance of dissent that replaces the previous “modern” consensus. A society governed by dissent is quickly made chaotic and insecure. If anything goes, what then is fair? What is ethical? What is normative?

Third, there is the nexus of humanism and religion. The New Age and Postmodernism offer a humanistic vision of truth and life that takes into account all religious and cultural thinking in order to achieve a universal harmony. While it has no use for the Christian command to view life from the perspective of a universal controversy and seek the higher ground of a redemptive lifestyle, the New Age does not hesitate to quote the Bible, use biblical illustrations, and in some contexts seems almost Christian. It also does not hesitate to tap concepts from other religions that help in its search for universal appeal and its religious offer of “inner peace.”

Fourth, New Age, functioning in a world of Postmodernity, ceaselessly works toward a consensus whose base is distinctly permissive and whose contents definitely point toward the deification of humanity, the sanctity of nature, and the eternal survival of the soul. Thus it can be characterized as an utopia of the present—an aspiration that modern humanity has not achieved, but would like to. This glorification of the human, so central to the New Age, completes the circle initiated by naturalism and secularism, whose roots go back to the Renaissance and the post-medieval world.

Fifth, both Postmodernity and the New Age wander between the agnostic heritage of the atheist and the neopantheistic preoccupation of the Eastern mystic. It is agnostic because it possesses a religious glaze of tolerance that is founded in indifference toward true Christian experience; it is pantheistic because it finds the sacred in a deification of humanity and nature. Both postures are intermingled, and in that mystic mixture the New Age adherents seem to find their fulfillment.

The values of Postmodernity are anchored in an absolute immanence. This postmodern version of agnosticism attempts to replace that failure of knowledge of the divine with a search of what is holy in itself: “You will be as God,” said the serpent in the Garden of Eden, and Postmodernity and the New Age seem to say, “You are the god.”

New Age sympathizers will argue that theirs is a return to a true spirituality, which surpasses all the known forms of religiosity and brings the human back to God and nature. Let’s not be fooled. The New Age offers no such thing; it is simple Neopantheism, leading the human to self-glorification.

Christians, beware!

After seeing the arguments, the attractions, and the assertions of Postmodernity and the New Age, as Christians what should we do? Beware is a good point to start. The dangers are as real and as alluring as in the Garden of Eden, and there are at least four significant points to remember:

1. All is valid in the New Age. What matters most is the maximum realization of human potential and the human’s intimate union with the wholeness of nature.

2. The New Age rejects all that is basic to true Christianity. It ignores the reality of the human predicament: the problem of sin. And as such, it has no use for the great Christian truths as the need for human reconciliation with God, the absolute necessity of the incarnation, and the Cross.

3. The New Age is a pseudo-religion. While rejecting the fundamental truths of God’s Word, it attempts to establish a new universal religiousness in which men and women can achieve their full potential without God. The key is human power and potential within. Away with any notion that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23)! Down with the truth that all need the power and grace of God to be freed from sin!

4. The alluring power of the New Age and similar forms of counterfeit spirituality will increase in the future, and the only safety lies in grounding ourselves firmly in God and His Word. There is no substitute. Shallow Christians are easy prey for the New Age.

As Christians, we do have a responsibility to ourselves, to God’s good earth, and to our neighbors. But that stewardship is not a monopoly of the New Age. Even as we assume that stewardship and meet its demands, we must never let it come in the way of our most fundamental responsibility and privilege—that constant communion and loving relationship with the Creator God who is personal and holy, and who motivates us to serve others prompted by His love. He lives, and because He lives, so shall we.

Fernando Aranda Fraga teaches and coordinates research at Universidad Adventista del Plata, Argentina. His address: 25 de Mayo 99; 3103 Libertador San Martín, Entre Ríos; Argentina. E-mail address: uap@uap.satlink.net.

Notes and references

  1. José Rubio Carracedo, Educación moral, postmodernidad y democracia: Más allá del liberalismo y del comunitarismo (Madrid: Trotta, 1996), p. 91. See also “The Challenge of Postmodernism,” College and University Dialogue 8:1 (1996), pp. 5-8.
  2. Fredric Jameson, Teoría de la Postmodernidad (Madrid: Trotta, 1996), pp. 9, 11.
  3. J F. Lyotard, Le Posmoderne expliqué aux enfants (Paris: Éditions Galilée, 1986), pp. 29-31.
  4. Manuel Fernández del Riesgo, “La posmodernidad y la crisis de los valores religiosos,” en Gianni Vattimo et al, En torno a la posmodernidad (Barcelona: Anthropos, 1994), p. 89.
  5. See Gilles Lipovetsky, Le crepúscule du devoir: L’ éthique indolore des nouveaux temps démocratiques (Paris: Gallimard, 1992)
  6. Fernández del Riesgo, p. 89.
  7. See Gianni Vattimo, Credere di credere (Milan: Garzanti, 1996)
  8. See Russell Chandler, Understanding the New Age (Dallas: World Publishing, 1988)
  9. See Jean-Claude Guillebaud, La trahison des Lumières: Enquête sur le désarroi contemporain (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1995)
  10. Fernández del Riesgo, p. 90.
  11. Roberto Bosca, New Age: La utopía religiosa de fin de siglo (Buenos Aires: Atlántida, 1993), pp. 37-41.
  12. Bosca, p. 46.
  13. James Hastings, ed., Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, (1980), vol. xii, p. 435.
  14. See Humberto M. Rasi, “Fighting on Two Fronts,” College and University Dialogue 3:1 (1991), pp. 4-7, 22-23.