This week we took an excursion into the development of American metaphysical religions. I am particularly interested in the ways in which scholars have tried to tell the story of the creation of the modern New Age. If you are interested in this topic, I recommend a couple of books that provide very good historical overviews. The first is The Western Esoteric Traditions by Nicholas Goodricke-Clarke. Not only is the picture on its cover one of my very favorite woodcuts from the Renaissance, but the book carries the reader through all the esoteric streams in an historical journey. The other book, which I found stunningly well-researched and written is by Catherine Albanese (pictured here), A Republic of Mind and Spirit. So I have chosen to share some of the insights I brought away from her work.
What Albanese does methodologically is fascinating. What she appears to me to be doing is creating a sweeping picture of each century by laying out the vast networks of ideas and information and practices happening simultaneously. She suggests that the traditions she is investigating are interacting within each other rather than with each other, so that she comes to understand the modern New Age as expansive and combinative, a religious phenomenon that is an amalgamation of any number of esoteric trajectories, including Hermeticism, Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, Mesmerism, Swedenborgianism, Christian Science, New Thought, Theosophy, Asian religions, Native American religion, and Quantum physics. She characterizes the New Age as a vast cultural sponge that absorbed whatever spiritual moisture was available. So it represents a grand ecumenicity. The New Age represents a fluid form of community available through networks and networking. This results in different levels of affiliation and commitment from fully-engaged service providers and strong followers who show up a workshops and other events to serious part-timers and causal part-timers or nightstand followers who read occasional books, and attend infrequent lectures. Members have often crossovered from traditional religions, seeking experiences considered by them to be more spiritually engaged.
She describes the themes of the New Age, and other metaphysical traditions, as emphasizing the power of the mind, a worldview of correspondence and connection between the spiritual world (the real world) and the physical (a transitory world), a preoccupation with summoning energy from on high to 'save' the human situation, and healing what was humanly amiss. These are the core beliefs and practices.
After reading her book, I am convinced that American metaphysical religion is one of three forces in American religion from the beginning, along with the mainstream traditions and evangelicalism. I am also convinced that the ancient Gnostics I study weren't so different from modern New Agers, with the exception that they did not get good press behind them like the New Age movement did. Remember Shirley MacClaine, her movie and books?
The New Age movement, with the hungry media behind them, was able to make exoteric what had previously been esoteric. And it has had a lasting impact on American culture. Yoga has become mainstream, along with beliefs in reincarnation and discussions of karma. ESP and UFO are abbreviations we all share, whatever our convictions about them might be. Psychics are consulted to assist police investigations, astrology made it into the Whitehouse, alternative medicine is practiced alongside traditional western medicine, all without too much discomfort. Ecology and healthfood is now mainstream. How many of us have yogurt in our lunchboxes?