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Mapping areas of affinities, mutual concerns and eventuallly spiritual conflict
Sep 02, 2004

Mapping areas of affinities, mutual concerns, and eventually spiritual conflict

In the former part of the document we had an overview of the spiritual reality of our world. Now we will look at specific areas of concern to a major part of the alternative spiritualities, asking if we may find some points of contact for the Gospel, if we on the creational or human level have some common interest, or if we find ourselves engaged in a spiritual conflict.

What is it then, this new religious or spiritual awakening, and what are the roots of it?

In the danger of over-simplification these short sentences may summarize some characteristics of the new spiritualities:

• Spirituality is contact with the Source, Love, Father-Mother-God, All that Is. • Spirituality is about personal development, spiritual experience as a process, and to find one’s inner guru. • A spiritual philosophy and spiritual leaders have to be authentic; authenticity is based on personal experience. • Spirituality has to work; the force or the energy is crucial. • Men and women need tools / instruments / methods for growth and for finding their own spiritual, psychic, and energetic potentials, eventually acknowledging their own divine self (divine spark), their consciousness as an aspect of the Universal Consciousness. • Spirituality has to be relevant, in the personal field (healing, therapy, spiritual and personal development), and in the global field (new life style, ecology, holistic thinking and way of life).

Another way to define this almost indefinable movement is made by Wouter J. Hanegraaff in his book “New Age Religion and Western Culture. Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought”. E.J. Brill. Leiden. New York. Köln, 1996.

New Age is many different groupings, therapies, methods, spiritualities, teachers, and networks. But New Age nevertheless has some common goals and aspirations due to fact that it arises out of a spiritual milieu, ”the cultic milieu”, which understands its practices, ideas and experiences as alternatives to dominant religious and cultural trends.

Hanegraaff quotes Colin Campbell to describe the cultic milieu, comparing cults with the cultic milieu:

”Whereas cults are by definition a largely transitory phenomenon, the cultic milieu is, by contrast, a constant feature of society.” Cults arise out of the cultic milieu. However different the cultic movements are, their spokesmen ”have a common cause in attacking orthodoxy and in defining individual liberty of belief and practice. Arising from this there is a prevailing orientation of mutual sympathy and support, such that the various cultic movements rarely engage in criticism of each other… Since this tradition emphasises that the single ideal of unity with the divine can be attained by a diversity of paths it tend to be ecumenical, super-ecclesiastic, syncretistic and tolerant in outlook.” (Hanegraaff p. 15)

In the first part of his conclusion Hanegraaff defines New Age as cultural criticism:

”All New Age religion is characterised by a criticism of dualistic and reductionistic tendencies in (modern) western culture, as exemplified by … dogmatic Christianity, on the one hand, and rationalistic/scientific ideologies, on the other. It believes that there is a ’third option’, which rejects neither religion and spirituality nor science and rationality, but combines them in a higher synthesis. It claims that the two trends which have hitherto dominated western culture (dogmatic Christianity and an equally dogmatic rationalistic/scientific ideology) have been responsible for the current world crisis, and that the latter will only be resolved if and when this third option becomes dominant in society.” (Ibid. p 517).

The second part of his conclusions concerning New Age is that it is a secularised esotericism with historic roots in the renaissance, the radical reformers, romanticism and occultism. From renaissance come the inspirations from Neoplatonism and hermeticism, the interest in astrology, magic and alchemy and the theosophical speculations. Hanegraaff writes:

”It adopts from traditional esotericism an emphasis on the primacy of personal religious experience and on this-worldly types of holism (as alternatives to dualism and reductionism), but generally reinterprets esoteric tenets from secularised perspectives. Since the new elements of ’causality’, the study of religions, evolutionism, and psychology are fundamental components, New Age religion cannot be characterised as a return to pre-Enlightenment worldviews but is to be seen as a qualitatively new syncretism of esoteric and secular elements.” (Ibid. pp 520-521).

The esoteric legacy is crucial, if we want to do theology in dialogue with the holistic movement or neo-spiritual milieu, especially in defining the inner meaning of creation, its wholeness as living nature and as a network of internal correspondences, understanding creation and every single creature as signs of a greater reality. I will attempt to give some guidelines below for such an “esoteric” theology, challenging New Age and its roots in Christian esotericism, and challenging the Church to find its esoteric legacy.

The final conclusion of Hanegraaff is:

”The New Age movement is the cultic milieu having become conscious of itself, in the later 1970s, as constituting a more or less unified ’movement’. All manifestations of this movement are characterised by a popular western culture criticism expressed in terms of a secularised esotericism.” (Ibid. p 522).

Not all of the new spiritualities will rightly be put under the New Age umbrella or the above outlined characteristics.

Some people are definitely Christian in their spirituality, but do not any longer feel at home in churches, they have become exile Christians or Church leavers, but never the less have a spiritual life and often meet with like minded persons.

Other people have a secular spirituality. They will often be reluctant to share their experiences; they have a feeling of being on a journey, a quest. They do not feel at ease with the personal God out there of Christianity, but rather have the conviction that there is “something there”, which they hesitate to define, because it seems to be “deeper than God” and communed with in a way “more profound than prayer”. Sometimes the name of this “something there” is “the universe”. Some construct their own “theology” or world view. The problem of suffering, poverty and injustice is a counter evidence of the existence of a (good) God. Some have experiences with the dead, and some even have an awareness of being in the presence of evil.

Others turn to specific religions, e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism and Indian Gurus. Often their version of the Eastern religions is eclectic and very Western.

Mapping areas of affinities, mutual concerns, and eventually spiritual conflict

The new spiritualities in the above sense cover at least these three areas, Holism as alternative Culture, Holistic anthropology, worldview and ethic, and New Age religion or holistic spirituality. Each of these areas contains points of contact for dialogue and for working together, issues of common concern, but also conflicting views and practices. In the following we may ask more questions than bringing answers, because this is the phase we are in today if we shall find our way to be witnesses of Him who is the way, the truth and the life.

New Age as culture criticism.

New Age is culture criticism and one front is as said above scientific reductionism. Bloom summarises it thus:

“The environmental crisis, the general anxiety and alienation that many people feel, the mechanization of life, the disenchantment of the sacred - all of this seems to be the fault of a reductionist, mechanical and uncaring science. Worst of all, if this kind of mechanical science is used as a model for understanding human nature, it actively rejects humane and spiritual insights.

New Science on the other hand has a different foundation. Subatomic and quantum physics have replaced mechanistic logic with an understanding and methodology that is far more fluid and relativistic. The new scientific world-view embraces unpredictability as a major feature of life and it recognizes that solid boundaries are, beneath their superficial appearance, plastic and permeable…

The new insights in science… have been particularly appreciated by people with a holistic approach who see the new scientific paradigm as revolutionary, liberating and humane…”

New Age as culture criticism of course affects the church since dogmatic religion is as readily attacked as reductionist science. But we will not put aside criticism lightly. Of the foundational teaching of the Church is not up to any modification, but the way in which we present it has to be reconsidered, making room for an experiential approach. But material reductionist science is not a friend of Christian spiritual practice or a Christian understanding of God, man and creation, even though Christian have often sided with reductionist science, sacrificing some biblical truths and practices, e.g. the healing ministry of the Church has forgotten the charismatic dimension of healing, and instead concentrated its efforts in healing mission to a medical approach.

Christians would act wisely if we sided with people engaged in the work for world peace, justice, and right human relations, for the protection of nature for animal rights, and for a sound ecology. Is it really out of order for Christian to see them selves as sharing nature with the Earth, the lives living on her and our fellowmen, and to long for the healing of Earth, nature and mankind? What would be withheld from our fellow creatures if we withdrew from the world - perhaps out of fear of the “demons” in New Age occultism or of being associated with superstition? We would then prevent ourselves from sharing our insights in the creative work of God through God’s Word and God’s Spirit. We need to be present to guard the insight that God is the Creator and we God’s creation against every tendency to make any creature an idol.

Holistic anthropology.

The alternative spiritualities answer the question, what is a human person? thus: We are a consciousness, originating from the universal or ultimate consciousness, by some called by the name of God. We are consciousnesses on a long journey, leaving the plane of love and unity, descending as it were into a more and more dense form of existence, until we begin to free ourselves from density, evolving into higher vibrations of energy on our way home to the plane of love and unity. The universe or God is experiencing itself through this process. The long journey of the individual consciousnesses takes many incarnations. In our present incarnation our consciousness is clothed in several bodies: the physical body, the ethereal body, the astral body, the mental bodies. In the ethereal body we find seven energy centres, the chakras, the middle of which is the heart chakra mediating between the physical-astral world and the spiritual world. From the heart chakra upwards is a channel, the antahkarana, to be build, producing at-one-ment between soul and personality. This is one way of describing a New Age anthropology. The overall view is that man is more than his body.

In the field of anthropology, worldview and ethic we have many items to discuss with new agers. What is the difference in speaking of man as an aspect of the Divine, a divine spark or consciousness and of speaking of humans as created in the image and likeness of God to participate in the divine nature through Christ? How do we respectively understand the microcosmic character of the human person or humanity? How do we support a holistic orientation in spirituality and practical life without, as some parts of New Age, ending up in a monism that leads to relativism in the areas of morals/ethic and the question of truth? How do we support a holism that in fact values the body and the created world as holy face to face with a world view which tends to subordinate matter to spirit and understands the world of perception or the world of the body as mere illusion? Is it possible to add a realism to optimistic evolutionism sharing with new agers the experience of the effect of sin, and how may we present conversion, confession of sin and forgiveness in a way which will not lead into a life of induced guilt and the heavy weight of judgements, and which will not diminish the responsibility of every human person for his/her own life, but rather a renewed freedom to be who we are and to serve one another in the energy of God’s love?

New Age religion or holistic spirituality.

This is a very broad issue. Much of the new spirituality is influenced by the theosophical movement, from which comes the notion of the ascended masters, who - according to theosophy - have preceded us on the path of evolution and now in the different energies or rays emanating from God further the spiritual development among humans, when the invocations of humans evoke their response. These masters are the government of the inner world. What may seem confusing to Christians are the mixed company of male and female masters from the most diverse religious and spiritual traditions. The Buddha and the Christ represent wisdom and love, and Christ will reappear as Maitreya (the coming Buddha); Jesus has another office in the hierarchy, and is not Christ as in Christian faith, but he was overshadowed by the Christ from the baptism in Jordan; he served in the aura of Christ so to say.

But there are other traditions than theosophy. With roots in the spiritualistic movement we among the new spiritual practitioners and searchers find mediumistic or spiritualistic practices or clairvoyance, we meet the practice of channelling, whether it is channelling energy for healing or messages from the unseen world or masters, adepts or persons from the past.

The new spiritualities go hand in hand with feminism. The old religions have excluded women from influence, but a holistic movement cannot be holistic without supporting the central role of women. Women are active in a much greater number than men in the holistic movement, and many leaders and practitioners are women:

“This pushing aside of male dominance has allowed women’s spirituality to surface without fear of inquisition and execution… Women’s experiences of spirit and transformation, and the renaissance of the Goddess, are essential foundations of holistic awareness… The feminist approach… means, in contradiction to the masculine approach, a new appreciation of creativity, power, nurture, cycles and healing. It means an understanding of spirituality that is not so much transcendent and external, but a fecund life force emerging out of the Cosmic Mother, out of the Earth, out of the womb and out of all of us.”

Shamanic and Magical Traditions as well as nature related rituals and spiritual practices are another powerful stream which at times mixes with the spirituality of women as just mentioned. Shamanic and magical traditions have been suppressed by organized religions, just like the Goddess - it is said.

Approaching religion or holistic spirituality we enter an area with many affinities, common concerns and conflicting truths/experiences. The spiritual quest is in itself an opportunity for dialogue in a more or less common language. This opens up to a way of life in which we are spiritual co-wanderers, sharing experiences and testimonies. This is an area, which needs listening to one another - before judging. On the practical side of spirituality there is much to learn from one another. Christians have a long spiritual tradition, the riches of which we may share with the fellow pilgrim, and which contains good counsel and methods of discernment. New Age spiritual practice, the search for meaningful rituals, the longing for spiritual direction and authentic practices of meditation and prayer, their spiritual body language and nature rites - all of this mirrors a loss of diverse forms of worship and spiritual practice in the Church and reveals a lack of relevance of the Church for those who seek guidance during their spiritual quest. Fear of the body spirituality of the new spiritualities may easily become a hindrance to develop a sound biblically based natural theology and a theology of the body and the spiritual renewal which will stem from such theology.

How do we explain doctrines as expressions of experience and divine revelation, but not just mere dogmatism? How to communicate with this somehow individualistic and experiential spirituality without ourselves speaking a language of experience? Our dogmatic truths should not be used as a master key, but as the best or most adequate ways to express the experience of God and God’s salvation in our own life, in the life of our community and of our predecessors in spiritual life.

The Church thus has to confess her belief in the triune God and Jesus as the Messiah, Christ, Son of the living God face to face with the urge for one universal religion and the implication of an esoteric truth inherent in all religions and spiritual paths. What is our understanding of ascended masters? How to receive and correct the criticisms and often false myths concerning the Bible, our doctrines and history in a constructive way without falling into the trap of defensiveness or demonising new age’ers?

How to know the sources and the character of the energies behind different practices in healing, meditation, personal and spiritual development? How to share our insights in the workings of sin and demons in religious practice? How relate to actual cases of being troubled by demons through certain occult practices, e.g. through mediumism, without demonising every New Age practice and rejecting helpful practices, e.g. of alternative medicine and healing? How to discern the sources of channelled messages without loosing the chance of communicating our own expectation of God bestowing gifts of prophesy and revelation and charisms of healing to the Church?

Syncretism or contextualisation

A major obstacle for many Christians in meeting the new spiritualities is the syncretistic and eclectic character of these. This problem must be dealt with, since we cannot escape syncretism if we really want to contextuallise the Gospel and want the Church to inculturate in any culture, and in casu the spiritual milieus of the post modern world. How far may we go in this process without loosing the content, which we want to bring into these milieus?

How should we understand syncretism. One of the missiologist who have dealt with this is Wilbert Shenk distinguished between constructive and destructive syncretism. Shenk applies these terms in the following way: “The church must always adapt to its culture in such a way that it lives and communicates the gospel credibly. That is constructive syncretism. If the church becomes merely the religious reflection of its culture, it has sold its birthright. That is destructive syncretism.” [I need a note]. The goal and purpose of mission is that of constructive syncretism where the gospel penetrates new cultural contexts and begins to move them towards God’s ideal for humanity. Constructive syncretism is also the goal of mission within existing cultures where the gospel continues to penetrate into deeper levels. Another name for constructive syncretism is contextualization. Recent work exploring how negative syncretism has affected the church in the United States is widespread from missiologists and theologians. [Should probably go to the notes: Authors such as David Wells, Os Guinness, Mark Noll, James Davidson to more missiological insights through the Gospel and Culture Series, The Church between Gospel and Culture, The Missional Church, Confident Witness, Changing World, The Continuing Conversion of the Church all explore aspects of negative syncretism.] The question is not whether syncretism will occur- for the existing church is a clear example of it! The question is: how do we know the difference between destructive syncretism and constructive syncretism?

Ulrich Berner from the University of Bayreuth speaks of two kinds of syncretism. a) Syncretism on the systemic plane. This happens if the limits of religious systems are crossed or cancelled in a way in which heterogeneous elements are combined freely in a new unified religion. Any religion, which claims an absolute and universal validity, rejects this form of syncretism, e.g. the Old Testament Jahve-faith confronting Canaanite religion. b) Syncretism on the plane of elements. This happens through a conscious or unconscious taking over of elements from another spiritual tradition in a way in which the elements are reinterpreted or fused together, that is transformation, new functions, identification of elements or seeing them as equivalent. How does this kind of syncretism influence the system? What is legitimate and what is illegitimate syncretism in this area? (in Siller, pp 130-144).

We should also note that syncretism has an individual dimension as the seeker attempts to keep his/her identity between two spiritualities or religions to reduce or eliminate tension; this we might call existential syncretism.

The classic Christian statement of faith is Jesus is Christ, the Son of the living God. Jesus is the subject of the sentence and covers a historic concretum (in the Creed expressed as “crucified under Pontius Pilate”); concerning this concretum a quality is expressed, the predicate Christ, which is the complement of the subject. If the complement from another spiritual tradition is introduced we have a syncretism on the plane of elements, e.g. Jesus is an avatar of God. This might be a valid way of contextualising in order to give an idea of Jesus as the Son of God in a Hindu context. But if we as a complement choose a false predicate, we have a heresy e.g. Jesus is just a man (and not true man and true God in one person). But if we turn the concretum into complement and the complement into a new subject/concretum, we may have a syncretism on the systemic plane; is this what is happening when some new agers identify Christ and Maitreya and say that Christ overshadowed Jesus, but has also incarnated as Krishna. In this instance Christ is no longer the ministry of Jesus as the one born to fulfil the promises of a saviour king in the house of David. The term Christ has become the new subject, a new concretum, which among many conceivable predicates have Jesus, Krishna, Sai Baba (who is considered an avatar by some new agers).

Existential syncretism is found in New Age, as the searcher starts to explore his or her first insights after awakening to the spiritual reality. One and the same seeker may go to the doctor or a medical specialist, use alternative medicine, receive some kind of alternative therapy, and ask for the healing prayer and the laying on of hands in the Church. This indicates that the transformation process still goes on, the quest has not stopped, and the worldview is still in making - consisting of pieces of insights from as well a Christian, scientific, materialistic and alternative/occult/New Age outlook. An existential syncretism is usually a syncretism on the plane of elements, even though it may have the above-mentioned character of changing subject and complement. But will it make relative the spiritual or religious traditions involved? In which way will the elements have another meaning when used in a new context? What is e.g. yoga if it used in a secularised milieu, being defined just physiologically, or if it is used in Christian meditation?

Syncretism may become the instrument of pacifying conflicts in society and culture. Syncretism may be an instrument of regaining a cultural relevance enriching one’s own tradition by means of foreign elements or through a dialogue of cultures. Syncretism is the necessary outcome wherever we are engaged in true communication. It is in this perspective we will understand contextualisation and inculturation. We cannot escape syncretism; it is in fact the condition sine qua non for being a fellowship of the disciples of Jesus in a given culture or spiritual milieu. The gospel will not be understood if we do not manage to transmit the kerugma or if we are not able to manage the syncretistic process without succumbing to it.

Important Steeps involved in dealing with syncretism: 1. Cross cultural experience and insight. Paul Hiebert suggests that we need people from other cultures to tell us how they see us compromising the gospel with our culture. 2. Immerse ourselves in the Scriptures as cross cultural exegesis. This is where we discover the gospel and its implications; this is where God breaks through our cultural interpretations and reveals himself to us. This is where we go to see and hear again God’s purposes, and experiences of being the people of God down through the ages. But this does not solve all of our dilemmas. Where are examples of constructive and destructive syncretism in the Scriptures? 3. Church as the Community of the Spirit. This brings together two suggestions from Paul Hiebert [I need a note], recognition of the Holy Spirit working in the lives of individuals and the Christian community; and the Church as a hermeneutical community. This is not to suggest that the Church is the interpreter of the gospel or the scriptures but an acknowledgement that we belong to a living community guided, led and filled by the Holy Spirit designed for interdependence and mutual accountability. 4. Listen to the margins. Voices from the margins also critique the powerful and dominant cultural forms and structures as they are denied a voice and access. Jesus challenged the religious and political leaders of his day from the margins. He is the serving, suffering messiah. The very way Jesus approaches ministry critiques and call the powerful to change. 5. Revisit the gospel through missional eyes. As we explore other cultures, those outside our own context and those within, we are challenged yet again to revisit the gospel. It is in this area that we can learn from NRM’s. What is the New Age saying to the church?

So does this mean that we can ‘plunder’ NRM’s expressions and re-interpret them through a Biblical, Christian framework? When do we know that we have ‘crossed over’ into destructive syncretism? How does this practice affect Christians in other cultures? Can we have different practices for different contexts?

Tolerance or monism?

Some parts of traditional esotericism speak of a perennial philosophy or a secret doctrine that somehow is the esoteric content of all exoteric religions. Some times this idea today in the neo spiritual millieu is expanded in a way, which will not honour actual and real differences between religions. But is it really true that a secrete doctrine or an eternal philosophy exists, that the esoteric traditions and the mystics of the religious systems have a common source in the ancient wisdom? Tolerance is often understood as accepting, that truth is what is true to any given person, and the conviction that finally we all have the same God. Hanegraaff says: “… religious exclusivism is unacceptable to New Agers, but relativity is equally unacceptable: there must be one religious truth, and all religions must be allowed to participate in that oneness. The problem is what to do with religions which refuse to fit in this scheme because they do not share its premises.” (Hanegraaff p. 329; cf. pp. 324-330). Consequently, the traditional religions represent a “false” spirituality, because they are dogmatic and exclusive, or they represent a past phase of spiritual evolution, the age of the Aquarius is replacing that of the Pisces. It is also unacceptable that Christianity does not share the thought of reincarnation, and therefore it is postulated that material, which advocates reincarnation was left out of the gospels. “Tolerance” has its limits.

Tolerance of course does not mean that we agree, but that we accept differences; respect the choice of the other person, even if it hurts, and even if we long to share the life, which is true to us with him/her. Tolerance defends the dignity of the other person and his/her right to live according to his/her spirituality. However tolerance is not abstaining from discussion, discernment, and mission.

Christians cannot accept a monistic version of tolerance on the basis of the dictum “you are that” = tat twam assi), proclaiming the illusionary character of every duality. Good and evil cannot be identified or viewed as different modes of the same reality. Therefore Christians have to discern sound or unsound religions and spiritual practices, and New Agers unconsciously do the same in their criticism of dogmatic religion. Some spirituality and some religious/spiritual practices do not lead to God or might even be demonic, belonging to the energies of the Black Lodge, or the dark centres of the astral or mental planes – to use theosophical terms, even though Theosophy would state that energies per se are neither bad nor good.

And yet we see the image of Christ in every human person, we recognise a longing for God and a longing for unity, for the brother-sisterhood of mankind. This longing and the imago Dei in humans is the starting point of dialogue and form a basis for tolerance and right human relations.