Book Review - Unmasking the New Age

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1988, Volume 5., Number 1, pages 140-144. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - Unmasking the New Age. 

by Douglas R. Groothius. Inter-Varsity Press. Downers Grove, EL. 1986. 200 pages. $6.95.

Unholy Spirits: Occultism and New Age Humanism. 

By Gary North. 

Dominion Press. Ft. Worth, TX. $19.95. 

Reviewed by Herbert Schlossberg

Reenchanting the World*

“Do not seek to become a god.” - Pindar

Once we begin to see that we are all God, that we all have the attributes of God, then I think the whole purpose of human life is to reown the Godlikeness within us; the perfect love, the perfect wisdom, the perfect understanding, the perfect intelligence, and when we do that, we create back to that old, that essential oneness which is consciousness.

This is the religious philosophy being taught to students in the Los Angeles public schools, as part of a Federally funded project. Where is the ACLU now that we need it?

Kant has few readers outside of university philosophy departments, but his influence obviously extends to Los Angeles. Part of Kant’s legacy to the modem world is the iron curtain that seals off all reality into two compartments: that which can be known by the senses - phenomena - and that which cannot be known by the senses - noumena. The latter includes the objects we normally associate with the religious: God, spirit, immortal soul, and so on. One of the unintended effects of this effort was to provide an excuse for ignoring the noumenal world. What modem man cannot know through the senses, he feels safe in dismissing from further consideration. One of the first and most notable casualties of this masoning is the idea of purpose. The senses are silent on such topics. The response of Nietzsche and the existentialists was a sometimes stoical despair. The naive managed to keep up the cheerful scientism that characterizes the work of scientific publicists Eke Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan, but the official grin of 19th-century optimism is beginning to resemble the rictus of a corpse.

Coexisting with such thinking throughout much of the last century-and-a-half, especially in Europe, was the philosophy of Hegel. His all-pervading spirit was a sophisticated contra-Kantian development of what Aldous Huxley called the “perennial philosophy.” Thus pantheism was the religion - often unacknowledged - of a great many of those in the 19th-century intellectual classes who did not subscribe to scientism. Ernst Troeltsch, early in this century, surveyed the German Protestant church and found it to be largely pantheist in orientation.

This suggests that a simple-minded scientism, artificially and naively extended in time by the Asiniovs and the Sagans, was only a passing phase, that its inherent instability was such that it had to give way before long. It is remarkable that it lasted as long as it did, but that long life was largely a phenomenon of the English-speaking world. Writing in The Idea of Nature (1945), British philosopher R.G. Collingwood contended that its passing marked the end of a temporary aberration in intellectual history and a return to the mainstream of European thought

* This review is reprinted, with permission, from Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, April 1987.

There were prophets early in the century, who, observing the single-minded mania of the science-boosters, could see that it had to come to an end. Oswald Spengler, in his massive two-volume tome The Decline of the West, predicted that the prevalent materialism would become unbearable and that people would be impelled to toy with weird cults as a means of escape. Max Weber, in his three-volume Economy and Society, prophesied that phenomenal man would collapse into emotionalism and irrationality, which would be the prelude for the increase of centralized political power.

If we read the Humanist Manifestos of 1933 and 1973 or innumerable documents from educators, lawyers, political parties, professional groups, and journalists, we see that, by and large, they”re expressions of the Kantian phenomenal branch of modenism. They assume that history is self-contained; that legal and ethical norms are mere conventions; that salvation comes by human endeavor; that science has provided (or will provide) all that we need to know and to have; that there is no valid expression of the supernatural possible; that all meaning comes from human definition and, hence, is arbitrary. In other words, these writings are forms of what has come to be called in some circles “secular humanism.” This is what is on the way out. But what is going to replace it? Will it be the Christian alternative that it began displacing in the 18th century, or will it be something else?

Gary North, in Unholy Spirits, sees the crucial phase of the change in the United States as the mid-1960s. The open eccentricities of the counterculture provided the most visible manifestations, but the essence of the movement - not widely recognized at the time - was a rejection of the merely phenomenal in favor of the noumenal. As the leaders of a Satan-worshipping cult put it, “When people come in here, they’re expected to park their brains at the door.” It was the end of what Weber had called the "disenchantment of the world” - which had been mainly the contribution of Christian ideas in the West, the thinking which had made science possible. “Me spooks had returned, with a vengeance.

The remarkable thing was that it seemed to happen overnight. In the dim recesses had lurked philosophical idealism religious mysticism, Eastern religion, the remnants of witchcraft and other esoteric manifestations of the noumenal; but now, as if they had received the long-awaited signal that the Trojans were asleep, they sprang fully formed from where they had lain hidden. Hard as it is to believe, the spooks were joined by science. The work of Heisenberg and Planck had undercut the hard atoms and determinism of the Newtonian world view, replacing the old certainties with new uncertainties.

If physics - supposedly that hardest of the hard sciences - could foster mysticism then why be surprised that the social sciences should follow suit? Carlos Castaneda was able to use his alleged conversations with a Mexican shaman as the basis for a sympathetic portrayal in a doctoral dissertation that made witchcraft respectable. The popularity of his later books is convincing proof that the public caught up to - or did it lead? - the academics.

My favorite prophet in this noumenal change is the Harvard theology professor Harvey Cox. Cox is not the sort of seer who hears the voice of God or uses sheep entrails to divine the future. He”s an expert, rather, at doping out changing trends and recutting his philosophy to fit. Cox is the preeminent theologian of fashion. In 1965 he published The Secular City, his paean to secularity, to the phenomenal world which was leading us to an earthly paradise. Cox relied heavily on the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who argued that in the 20th century man would not need religion as a shield or as an explanation for reality. But Cox published his book at precisely the moment in history when it was being proved wrong. He repented swiftly and began work on The Feast of Fools, which appeared in 1969. The subtitle of this volume was, A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy, and that was a good indication that he had rejected the gray-flannel-suit mentality that had dominated his earlier book. Looking around at all the bizarre goings-on of the 60s - the denial of rationality and the exaltation of fantasy - Cox pronounced it good: For him irrationality had become a Christian virtue.

In retrospect, we can see that The Feast of Fools was only a way station. “Mere is, after all, a certain flimsiness, hence instability, to a position that says that human rationality is a function of our creation in the image of God, on the one hand, and denying the efficacy of reason on the other hand. To exalt the irrational on a basis that has some inner consistency, one would have to depart more frankly and decisively from the biblical roots. Cox did that in 1977 with the publication of Turning East: The Promise and Peril of the New Orientalism a frank exaltation of Eastern pantheism and a call for its incorporation into American religion and culture.

It is hard to say how influential these books have been, although it is certain they haven’t raised the stir that The Secular City did. In any case, Cox’s variety of prophet does not lead the way so much as show that the trail blazed by others has shifted direction. With the appearance in 1980 of Marilyn Ferguson’s The Aquarian Conspiracy, the movement had its own chronicler, who revealed that far from remaining an exotic plant, oriental thinking had become domesticated and made suitable for the tastes of Western sophisticates. Ferguson was also able to document the number of “normal” pursuits and institutions - like the corporation and the academic discipline - which had been permeated by New Age thinking.

The New Age religion did not have to rely on shamanism, witchcraft, and overt demonism. Now there were intellectuals like Erich Fromm, Carl Rogers, George Leonard, William Irwin Thompson, and Theodore Roszak - not to mention Shirley MacLaine. Respectable causes like holistic health and the human potential movement in psychology became havens for New Age thinking. The affinity between the new physics and pantheism brought in scientific recruits like physicist Frigof Capra of Berkeley. Consulting groups, such as the Pacific Institute, provided sanitized versions of mystical philosophy for corporations and government agencies including those of the intelligence and defense establishments. Perhaps sensing yet another arena in which they were being left in the dust, Soviet research teams have been focusing enormous resources on the paranormal, unconsciously inviting a redefinition of the term .scientific socialism.”

Naive souls might have expected to find the churches in the forefront in exposing this assault on the primary principles of Christian faith, but that has hardly been the case. The mainline Protestant denominations are lost in their accustomed sleep from which they awaken only to posture about sanctuary or apartheid. On the other hand, the Evangelicals have produced popular works alerting those willing to be alerted of the coming tide. British sociologist Os Guinness” interpretation of the counterculture of the 60s, The Dust of Death (197 1), and James Sire’s taxonomic study, The Universe Next Door (1976), had considerable material on the philosophic roots and the practical outworkings of the movement in their overtly mystical forms.

However, it was not until 1983 that there appeared the serious exposes of the New Age movement in its now characteristic forms - that is, the “secular” forms attractive to the educated middle class: Constance Cumbey’s The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow and Dave Hunt’s Peace, Prosperity and the Coming Holocaust. Hunt followed that two years later with The Seduction of Christianity, which was an exposition, naming names, of the ways in which New Age thinking had been infiltrating into Christian groups. Cumbey and Hunt would have reached wider audiences if their books were not tied to the apocalyptic premillennialism that appeals to so many fundamentalist groups.

By contrast, both Groothius and North write in the tradition of reformed Christianity. Unmasking the New Age is a straightforward, general survey of the movements manifestations in American society. Groothius” six identifying marks of the movement may be redundant but serve to illustrate the unitarian mentality of New Agers: (1) All is one. Differences are apparent only, without ontological standing. (2) All is God. The divine essence is everywhere and in everything. (3) Humanity is God. (Good news for the would-be divinities, who take their cue from The Next Whole Earth Catalogue: “We are as Gods and might as well get good at it."). (4) A change in consciousness. If we fail to see the unity of everything and understand our own status as gods, the fault lies in bad thinking. We can raise our consciousness on classic Asian religions, or for lazy Americans there are quick fixes like est. (5) All religions are one - all roads going to the same place and all that. Similarly no systems of thought are unique, and no religions either. So watch out when they talk of the "Christ event:” they mean something else. (6) Cosmic evolutionary optimism. The unfolding of the world divinity in history means everything keeps getting better all the time. Much of Groothius” book is a fleshing out of the promises of the six marks. He’s particularly good at showing the inroads of New Age thinking in the ordinary affairs of American life.

Unholy Spirits is a very different book. This fat tome, originally published 10 years ago under another title, has now been brought up to date with a good deal of fresh material. The first chapter alone, “The Crisis of Western Rationalism” is worth half the price of admission. The bulk of Unholy Spirits is taken up with extended treatments of some of the weirder aspects of the movement. North has read his Edgar Cayce, Carlos Castaneda, the androgyny propaganda, the meticulously documented and filmed instances of occult healing, Kirlian photographs, and so on. He has refused to get caught in the Kantian trap. Having rejected the old rationalism, now breaking up on the rocks, he also sees the disaster wrought by the mystical void. He’s done that by finding common ground for the worlds of flesh and spirit, a unifying conception for the One and the Many. And he finds it the same place Groothius does - in the orthodox Christian faith.

As the century wears on, that faith may once again resemble an embattled sect struggling against the forces of a bizarre and sometimes brutal pantheism.