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The Balance of Christianity: New Age, Humanism, and Christianity
When researching the New Age Movement, I was struck by
the thought of Humanism, and how it was expressed in the Enlightenment
and 17th Century Rationalism. I am going to look a little bit at Rationalism,
and then at New Age, and finally contrast them both with Christianity.
“Man is the measure of all things.” The Greek philosopher Protagoras said this some 2500 years ago. Humanism is nothing new; it has been around as long as there have been philosophies. Protagoras was a member of a philosophical group known as the Sophists, from the Greek word “soph,” meaning “knowledge” or “wisdom.” [encyclopedia.com] By this statement, Protagoras meant that man is the standard, the thing by which other things must be judged. In other words, man has the ability and the right to make his own judgments about himself, the world, law, and religion.
Humanism was largely silent throughout the Middle Ages, because of the strength of the Church. But in the 14th century, a great interest in classical things arose in Europe, especially Italy. The writings of Plato, Aristotle, and other Greco-Roman philosophers were found. Ruins were uncovered; art was studied. The Renaissance, or “rebirth,” had begun, and this rebirth of classicism continued to influence Europe for the next five centuries. It was largely academic and artistic at first, but in the 17th century, the next step was taken, and the Enlightenment took over not just the art, but the minds of Europe.
Rationalism became the order of the day, under such thinkers as Rene Descartes and John Locke. Descartes’ oft-repeated phrase “I think, therefore I am” highlights the emphasis placed on the intellect at this time. Locke developed the theories of natural law that still govern Western government today. According to Locke, there are laws that are common to all, simply because that’s how the world works. These laws are orderly and unchanging, and can be discovered through rational thinking. The last part is key. Man does not need any sort of divine aid to discover natural law, he only has to reason it through on his own. It is a short step from there to letting go of God altogether. For if man can figure out right and wrong on his own, can not he judge between right and wrong on his own as well? And if he can do that, can he not subject everything he sees to this judgment, including the Word of God? The supernatural seems to be irrational. It does not fit with what we experience. Miracles such as the ones seen in the Bible do not occur in everyday life. Therefore, they must be the product of an over-active imagination and have no place in the philosophy of Enlightened man.
Now, this is not to say that all thinkers during the Enlightenment rejected God. Resoundingly, they did not. John Milton is a notable example of a 17th-century writer who was both a highly devoted Christian and an extremely rational thinker. Rational and Christian are not mutually exclusive terms. But the Enlightenment’s emphasis on man’s reason opened the door for future generations to be overly confident in man’s intellectual abilities.
THE NEW AGE MOVEMENT
The New Age Movement was extremely popular in the 1970s and 1980s, but had been building for some time before that. In fact, the term “New Age” was first used as early as the 1870s, by the Theosophical Society led by Madame Helena Petrovna Blavatsky in New York. [Britannica.com] Note the name: “theo” meaning “God” and “soph” meaning “wisdom.” Theosophia is “divine wisdom.” Note also that “soph” is the same root as the ancient Sophists, humanists who stated that “Man is the measure of all things.” The Theosophists taught of the “Ascended Masters,” spiritual guides that used to be ordinary humans but who have become perfect and ascended to a different plane, but who graciously help humans in their spiritual journey. When these Ascended Masters revealed themselves to Blavatsky, she declared that the Age of Aquarius had begun. According to astrologers, the Age of Aquarius is the age of spiritual man, which takes over from the Piscean Age, the age of intellectual man. [Rhodes 135, 138]
Even before this, early heresies such as Gnosticism posited viewpoints very much like modern New Age, especially the idea that humans have within them a divine spark that merely needs to be awakened and set free from the material world, which is seen as evil (this idea itself hearkens back to Plato’s split-world metaphysics). [Rhodes 134]
The influx of Eastern mysticism into Europe and the United States in the 1960s along with the hippie counter-culture really served as the impetus for the New Age Movement, however. Children of the ‘60s reacted against the stability and narrow-mindedness of the baby-boomer culture, and sparked a cultural revolution marked by free-spiritedness, free love, and drugs…freedom, but freedom without responsibility or morals. A freedom centered on what feels good. New Age takes up where the counter-culture left off, by replacing conscious-altering drugs with conscious-altering meditation techniques, and a philosophy which emphasizes self-worth and self-realization. Humanity can do anything it wants, because we are God, if we could only recognize the divinity within us.
It might be said that New Age is monistic (all is one) and pantheistic (all is God), thus leading to the conclusion that man is God, since man is part of all. This is an oversimplification of what New Agers and Neo-pagans really believe, but lacking the time to go deeply into it, we’ll go with it for now. If man is God, this logically puts him as his own ruler, his own leader, and the center of at least his own attention.
RATIONALISM and NEW AGE
In one sense, New Age can be seen as a reaction against Rationalism. In the 19th century, Rationalism gave way to Romanticism, which, like New Age, de-emphasized the intellect. Rationalism was not fulfilling, because people cannot live on logic alone. Human beings have emotions and spirits, and Rationalism simply did not satisfy emotional and spiritual needs. Also, Rationalism was not successful at making better people. In the 18th century, Rationalism was seen as the answer to political problems, as well, because rational men will behave in rational ways. And yet, passion fired otherwise rational men into committing terrible acts in the bloodbath that was the French Revolution. [Bujak] Clearly, Rationalism was not powerful enough to keep strong emotions in check. The pendulum swing toward Romanticism. If Reason isn’t the answer, perhaps emotionalism is.
Mainstream Romanticism emphasized the emotions in art and literature like the moody “Wuthering Heights,” but there was a spiritualist undercurrent as well. The Transcendentalist movement downplayed the senses and the intellect, and instead relied on the intuition to find truth. [Rhodes 135] New Agers will also put a lot of faith in intuition. Transcendentalists like Ralph Waldo Emerson also had a very high view of nature and thus were precursors to modern ecology and Neo-paganism. But if Romanticism was a reaction against Rationalism, does this make New Age automatically the opposite of Rationalism? Externally, yes. But in essence, no. Because the essence of both Rationalism and New Age is humanism.
Both say that humanity has the ability to make its own rules, define its own boundaries, and live according to the reality it creates. Man has the power within himself to do this, without any outside aid or support. The ultimate end of both Rationalism and New Age is man. (It is worthwhile to note that New Age puts a strong emphasis on woman, and is often closely linked with feminism, but for the sake of clarity and conciseness, I will continue to use “man” to indicate the entire human race.)
Despite the fact that Rationalism emphasizes the intellect and denies the importance of the spirit and emotions and New Age emphasizes the spirit and denies the importance of the intellect, both end up at the same place: A total reliance on man’s ability to do it himself, without God. New Age comes right out and states that man is God. Rationalism does not, but the fact remains that if man is the judge of everything and the measure of all things, then he has made himself God.
The desire to be God is not a new one either. In fact, it is nearly the oldest desire that man has had. It is certainly the oldest sinful desire. When Satan tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden, the temptation was not simply a nice shiny fruit. It was not that she would be more desirable to her husband. It was that they would be “like God, able to judge good and evil.”1 This is exactly what Rationalism and New Age offer.
Christianity affirms a definite separation between Creator and created. Man images God, but man is not God. Man is not given final authority to judge between right and wrong. God grants some authority to man to make judicial decisions, but in other cases, He does not. The infallibility of the Bible is one such case. He tells us that the Bible is His Word and should not be questioned. The Word judges man, man does not judge the Word.
If we imagine a chasm with God-centered philosophies on one side and man-centered philosophies on the other side, then it is clear that Rationalism and New Age are on the same side, and Christianity is on the opposite side.
So does that mean that Christianity throws out both reason and spirituality, since they are emphasized by Rationalism and New Age, respectively? Not at all! Rather, Christianity at its best embraces reason, spirituality and emotion, but puts them in their proper place before God. Reason is God-given. God is reasonable. He created an orderly universe about which we can think rationally and draw conclusions based on what we see. He even encourages us to think about and ponder what he has made and done. The Psalmist says in Psalm 8 that he learned about the unworthiness of man compared to God by looking at the heavens.
But not everything in the universe can be explained rationally. Some things must be revealed, and so Christians embrace the spiritual. God himself is a spirit. But perhaps Spirit should be capitalized, since when Christians speak of the Spiritual, it isn’t some ethereal, unexplainable, will-o’-the-wisp spirituality. It is the Holy Spirit working in the world. And God has emotions. He loves. He hates. He is angry. He is saddened. Since God has them, it is not surprising that man has them as well. They fall into the category of mutable attributes—attributes that God shares with his creatures, rather than the special ones that only he has, such as omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence.
Christianity throughout history has not always lived up to its inherent balance; human beings are reactionary and tend to go from one extreme to the other, as we have seen by looking at Rationalism and New Age. Even within Christianity, there are extremes that need to be avoided, including rationalism and spiritualism. But true Biblical Christianity balances reason, Spirituality, and emotions—something that neither Rationalism nor New Age have done, or can do.
The New Age Movement as it was in the 1980s is fading a bit, but it is being replaced by Neo-paganism. [Hexham] These “new pagans” are returning to pre-Christian Earth-centered religions that focus on care for the Earth, and the connections between all things. This flows from the “all is one” idea in New Age. The philosophy is much more complex than this, but as a basic tenet, it will do. All things are connected by some mystical power, which could be called God. The second tenet, “all is God,” flows naturally from the first, therefore, and seems to lead to pantheism.
A distinction should be made, however, between pantheistic and panentheistic, which is really more descriptive of New Age and Neo-pagan beliefs. [Hexham] Pantheism is the belief that everything is God. The tree is God. The rock is God. The bird is God. The man is God. But that is the limit. God is to be found in everything, but only in every thing. Panentheism, on the other hand, accepts pantheism, but goes a step further by saying that God is “more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe.”2 [Hexham] Panentheism’s God is not limited by the universe, but is more like, according to one Wiccan I know, “a universal spirit which flows through me and connects me to every other thing” and though this spirit is “in me, it is also greater than me and greater than anyone will ever be able to understand.” [Nikka] There is not, perhaps, a huge difference in the two, but when talking about any discipline, religion included, it is important to get one’s terms right.
Neo-paganism and its close relative Wicca, which believes basically the same things as paganism, but has more of an emphasis on magic, are both very individual and eclectic. Most pagans will take what they want from whatever tradition they choose. The only creed Wicca has, for example, is “Do what you will, but harm none,”3 along with the Law of Three, which states that you will get paid back three times the good or evil you commit. The main thing is reverence for the Earth, thus pagans tend to be very ecologically-minded.
And this is one area in which Christians could learn something. Lorne Wilkinson, in an article in Christianity Today, tells of joining a group in his community that were trying to stop logging in a local forest, and found out that the rest of the group was largely pagan. When they found out he was Christian, they were utterly dumbfounded that he wanted to help stop the logging, because they assumed that no Christian cared about the earth. [Wilkinson, 1] This is a sorry impression for Christians, who are called to be the stewards and caretakers of the earth, to be making on the rest of the world. God created this world, and He loves this world. It will be redeemed someday (Romans 8:19-22), and acting as though it does not matter what happens to it in the meantime is shameful and sinful.
Yet here again, balance is needed. Neo-pagans worship the earth, which is an extreme the opposite direction. The Creator-created distinction needs to be observed. God himself is not “in” creation in some mystical way, though creation reflects God. Man is not God, but he does image God. The Biblical equivalent Rationalism’s natural law can be found in Scripture in Romans 1:19-20. Man knows the difference between right and wrong intrinsically because God has revealed it to him in creation. God reveals Himself in creation, even. But the creation is not God. The Bible is very clear that we are not to confuse God with His creation by worshiping anything in creation: Romans 1:23, “[The foolish men] exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.” I am not saying the Christians need to join in every ecological and environmental save-the-earth campaign. Because the focus of environmentalists is not to glorify God through beautifying and maintaining His creation. It is to eliminate God by deifying the creation.
The answer, as always, is to be found in true, Biblical, balanced Christianity.
True Christianity balances intellect and intuition, ecology and the creature-ness
of creation by focusing not on man, and not on the earth, but on God,
and understanding all created things only through their relationship to
Encyclopedia Britannica Online. http://www.britannica.com
Hexham, Irving. “Books and Culture Corner: The New Age is Over”. Christianity Today. Dec. 13, 1999. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1999/150/22.0.html
The Holy Bible. English Standard Version. Crossway Bibles. Wheaton, 2001.
Markos, Louis A. “Myth Matters”. Christianity Today. Posted 4/17/01. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2001/006/1.32.html
Nikka. A Wiccan. Personal interview with the author. 4/9/03.
Rhodes, Ron. The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions. Zondervan. Grand Rapids, 2001.
Sun Dragon Wicca Page. http://www.wiccan.com
Wilkinson, Loren. “The Bewitching Charms of Neopaganism, Parts
1-3”. Christianity Today , Nov. 15, 1999. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/9td/9td54a.html
This paper originated as a term paper for World Religions, Missouri Baptist University, Spring, 2003.
©2003 by Jandy Stone