Thursday, August 29, 2019
A Trip Around the Worldviews: New Age Spirituality
While preparing for the next stop on the trip around the worldviews, I needed to consult my guidebook more frequently. I have spent a lot of time mentally chewing on the differences between the Christian and secular worldviews, but have limited exposure to new age spirituality. Although difficult to exactly pinpoint, by new age spirituality I am referring to both modern new age movements and Eastern religious traditions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, which share similar foundations. Like all the worldviews that we will explore, the answers to life’s big questions must be consistent with the foundational beliefs.
While there are variations in beliefs and practices, new age spirituality is broadly based on the following premises1:
1) Everything is consciousness
Consciousness is an often vaguely defined energy and impersonal force that binds the universe together and unites everything within it. That may sound oddly similar to Obi Wan Kenobi’s description of “the force” to Luke Skywalker: “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.” Popular spiritual teacher, Eckhard Tolle puts it this way, “The whole is made up of the existence and Being, the manifested and the unmanifested, the whole and God. So when you become aligned with the whole, you become a conscious part of the interconnectedness of the whole and its purpose; the emergence of consciousness into this world.”2
2) Every person is God
People are not separate, distinct physical realities but part of the consciousness that composes the universe. The Dalai Lama explains it this way, “Each of the physical and mental parts of which I am composed is similarly empty of any identifiable existence…Our initial reaction to recognize that things do not possess objective or inherent existence is understandably one of surprise. We are discovering that the actual way things exist is so very contrary to how we naturally relate to them.”3
In this view, God is also not a distinctive being with thoughts and a will, but consciousness itself. Since all things, including ourselves, are ultimately consciousness, then we ourselves are ultimately God. Meher Baba asserts, “There is only one question. And once you know the answer to that question there is only one answer – I am God!”4
3) Consciousness can be harnessed to achieve personal perfection
Since everything is energy, part of the consciousness that binds and unites the universe, our thoughts are also energy and have the power to alter to world. This power of consciousness is called the law of attraction and endorsed in Rhonda Byrne’s international best-seller, The Secret: “Your thoughts become the things in your life…Your transmission creates your life and it creates your world.”5
4) The purpose of life is overcoming “self”
Contrary to the secular worldview in which the “self” is an autonomous individual and the basic unit of life, there is no “self” in new age spirituality. Self is an illusion that we must break free of in order to join the “universal self” through a series of reincarnations. After a cycle of lives, deaths, and re-births, the goal is to reach an enlightened state that will enable us to completely break free from individuality and melt into the stream of consciousness, a state called nirvana.
These foundational beliefs can be very mind-boggling when viewed from a Western perspective, but it is essential to wrestle with them to better understand how new age spirituality answers life’s big questions.
Origin - How did we get here?
Despite scientific evidence that indicates that the universe began 13.7 billion years ago, new age spiritual teachers teach that consciousness, which is the ultimate reality, is eternal. The Dalai Lama explains, “From a Buddhist point of view, the continuum of substantial causes preceding our conception can be traced back to before the Big Bang, to when the universe was a void. Actually, if we follow the line of reasoning by which we trace our continuum back to before the Big Bang, we would have to acknowledge that there could not be a first moment to the continuum of substantial causes of any conditioned phenomenon.”6 In other words, the universe is actually eternal.
Likewise, the true nature of human beings is not as either created or evolved individual beings but as part of the same eternal consciousness that preceded the physical universe. According to Gary Zukav, “All that I am can form itself into individual droplets of consciousness. Because you are part of all that is, you have literally always been, yet there was the instant when that individual energy current that is you was formed. Consider that the ocean is God. It has always been. Now reach in and grab a cup full of water. In that instant, the cup becomes individual, but it has always been, has it not? This is the case with your soul. There was an instant when you became a cup of energy, but it was of an immortal original Being. You have always been because what it is that you are is God, or Divine Intelligence, but God takes on individual forms, droplets, reducing its power to small particles of individual consciousness.”7
Identity – What does it mean to be human?
As part of the great universal consciousness, the answer to this question is both exalting and humbling. Shirley McClain encourages people to affirm their divinity: “You can use I am God or I am that I am as Christ often did, or you can extend the affirmation to fit your own needs.”8 Yet, everything else in our world is also part of the same consciousness – every person, every animal, every plant – and is also divine. This sense of interconnectedness has provided a spiritual basis for radical ecological movements, such as deep ecology, which the idea that all living things should have legal rights.
While interconnectedness taught by new age spirituality would seem to provide fertile ground for compassion towards fellow man, belief in consciousness and karmic cycles has historically produced the opposite effect. Each person is not uniquely created in God’s image, but is an energy wave temporarily separated from the universal consciousness. Furthermore, the trials and challenges that a person faces in life are the result of karmic debts that are preparing them for final enlightenment and freedom from individuality. To lend aid to a suffering person is seen as disrupting the karmic cycle and, instead of helping the individual, would actually impede their progress towards joining the universal self. Biblical teachings regarding compassion for the poor and the service of Christian missionaries, “awakened in [Mahatma Gandhi] a revulsion for the caste system and for the maltreatment of outcastes”9 and led him to act inconsistently with his Hindu foundations to incorporate a Biblical system of ethics.
Morality – How should we live?
Moral obligations do not come from a divine law-giver or from societal expectations, but from the “truth” that resides within. Eckhart Tolle teaches that moral truth cannot be found in “doctrines, ideologies, sets of rules, or stories,”10 but, “The Truth is inseparable from who you are. Yes, you are the Truth. If you look for it elsewhere, you will be deceived every time.”11 From the new age perspective, this is a proper response to the realization that we are God. Shirley McClain agrees that our God-likeness grants us freedom to act in accordance with our personal understanding of the truth, claiming, “Free will is simply the enactment of the realization that you are God, a realization that you are divine: free will is making everything accessible to you.”12
Older Eastern religions do not follow the brazen individuality of the American new age. Buddhism teaches followers to refrain from the ten non-virtuous acts – killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, divisive speech, harsh speech, idle gossip, covetousness, malice, and wrong view. In the Bhagavad Gita, one of Hinduism’s sacred texts, Krishna condemns “hypocrisy, insolence, anger, cruelty, ignorance, [and] conceit.”13 These actions are wrong because they cause separation instead of promoting universal oneness.
In new age spirituality, moral accountability is provided by the system of karma in which the consequences of what each person does for good or evil will inevitably return to them, either in this life or in future reincarnations. Shirley McClain explains, “Whatever action one takes will ultimately return to that person – good and bad – maybe not in this life embodiment, but in the future. And no one is exempt…For every act, for every indifference, for every misuse of life, we are finally held accountable. And it is up to use to understand what those accounts might be.”14 One has to wonder how she defines “indifference” and “misuse of life” when “the realization that you are God…is making everything accessible to you.” This raises a dilemma for the new spiritualist. How can karma exist apart from objective, absolute standards of right and wrong? If such standards exist, how do we justify their source if reality is non-personal consciousness? However, if such standards do not exist, how can karma ever guide our actions, since we can never really know whether our actions are right or wrong? At this point, morality in the new age worldview deteriorates into nebulous and incoherent moral relativism.
To resolve the dilemma, new age spiritualists muddy the water further by insisting that since everything is part of one consciousness, differences between good and evil are simply illusory. Marilyn Ferguson insists, “This wholeness unites opposites…In these spiritual traditions there is neither good nor evil. There is only light and absence of light…wholeness and brokenness…flow and struggle.”15
Yet, we live in the real world and a worldview must provide a basis for answering basic moral questions. If morality is based on following our inner truth, is there a time that we should persuade others to behave differently? If so, on what basis to we make this assertion? Were the villains of history expressing a wrong morality or were they choosing a life path that helped them on their journey toward enlightenment? I am afraid that new age spirituality cannot provide coherent, intellectually satisfying answers to these questions.
Meaning – Why are we here?
The purpose of live in new age spirituality is to achieve enlightenment, completely detaching oneself from any sense of self and entering into a transcendent state of ultimate peace known as nirvana. The Dalai Lama explains, “Our pursuit of this peaceful state of nirvana is a quest for protection from the misery of samsara [the cycle of rebirths], and particularly from the afflictions such as attachment and aversion that bind us within the viscous cycle of rebirths.”16 In other words the goal is to completely detach ourselves from any desires, known as attachments, and fears, known as aversions, that we might achieve complete freedom and melt into the universal self.
The new age goal of losing all desire stands in contrast to the Christian worldview, which does not condemn our desires in general, but exhorts us to rightly place our delight in God. “Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart (Psalm 37:4).
Destiny – What happens to us when we die?
According to new age spirituality, death is not the end of the road. Remembering that everything is ultimately consciousness each “person” will return to Earth through reincarnation, unless they have already reached an enlightened state. In this return they may take the form of another human or a completely different form of life in which they will pay-off karmic debts from previous incarnations as they progress towards freedom from self and complete enlightenment.
Ultimately, there will be a happy ending in the new age view as the human species spiritually evolves towards collective consciousness. Prominent new age teacher Deepak Chopra says, “Spirituality can be seen as a higher form of evolution, best described as ‘metabiological’ – beyond biology.”17 While human physical evolution is driven by random mutation and natural selection, new age teachers emphasize that evolution is psychological. Peter Russell states, “Evolutionary trends and patterns…suggest a further planetary consciousness or Supermind: a completely new level of evolution, as different from consciousness as consciousness is from life, and life is from matter.”18 Even people who do not embrace new age spirituality will be caught up into this evolutionary leap into a collective higher consciousness in which oneness, collective godhood, and unity will be achieved.
I have three major questions and concerns related to the new age worldview. First, new age beliefs often seem to be vaguely defined and drawn from the minds of humankind. Although some ancient writings are held in high regard, truth does not come from divine revelation, but through awareness of the universe. Rhonda Byrne writes, “Trust the Universe. Trust and believe and have faith. The truth is that the Universe has been answering you all of your life, but you cannot receive the answers unless you are aware.”19 How do we achieve this awareness? How can we test this awareness and know that we are not merely deceived? From my vantage point, it doesn’t seem that the new age offers any answers other than to trust and believe. For those who think the Christian worldview suffers from the same fault, I plan to address such questions in a series of posts on the reasonableness of Biblical faith later this year.
Which leads to my next concern – What if my awareness leads to me different moral truths than another person reaches through their awareness? New age spirituality seems hopelessly relativistic when it comes to morality. In a worldview that teaches that truth comes from within, how do we discover the objective moral truths on which a karmic cycle must be based? If we are all ultimately on a path towards enlightenment, how do we coherently respond to those who are pursuing a path that seems objectively evil and immoral? I don’t see satisfying answers in new age spirituality.
Finally, if one fully follows the new age worldview, they should be seeking to empty themselves of all attachments to this world. This includes the love that we feel for family members, the compassion that we feel when we see someone in need, and the desire for justice that we experience when we see a world of inequality. I don’t think these are attachments that we want to abandon in the name of seeking detachment from self.
I would agree that there is a spiritual hole in our lives that the secular and materialistic worldview cannot, but would disagree that new age spirituality provides coherent, objectively true answers to life’s big questions. I will admit that my experience with new age ideas is less than some other worldviews, so if I misrepresented new age spirituality’s core beliefs and answers to life’s big questions, I’d love to hear from you and continue the discussion.
1. Myers, Jeff and Noebel, David A. Understanding the Times: A Survey of Competing Worldviews. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015. 128-132.
2. Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose. New York: Plume, 2005. 277
3. The Dalai Lama. A Profound Mind. New York: Three Rivers, 2011. 93-94.
4. Cohen, Allan Y. “Meher Baba and the Quest for Consciousness.”
5. Bryne, Rhonda. The Secret. New York: Atria Books, 2006
6. The Dalai Lama. A Profound Mind. New York: Three Rivers, 2011. 45.
7. Zukav, Gary. Seat of the Soul. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1989. 85-86.
8. Smith, LaGard F. Out on a Broken Limb. Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 1986. 181.
9. Myers, Jeff and Noebel, David A. Understanding the Times: A Survey of Competing Worldviews. Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2015. 139.
10. Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth. New York: Plume, 2005. 70
11. Ibid. 71
12. Goldstein, William. “Life on the Astral Plane.” Publishers Weekly, March 18, 1983. 46.
13. Mitchell, Stephen (translated). Bhagavad Gita. New York: Three Rivers, 2000. 170.
14. MacLaine, Shirley. Out on a Limb. Toronto: Bantam, 1984. 96, 111.
15. Ferguson, Marilyn. Aquarian Conspiracy. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1981. 381.
16. Spangler, David. Reflections on the Christ. Forres, Scotland: Findhorn Publications, 1982. 73.
17. Chopra, Deepak and Mlodinow, Leonard. War of the Worldviews: Where Science and Spirituality Meet – and Do Not. New York: Three Rivers, 2011. 54.
18. Russell, Peter. The Global Brain. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, 1983. 99.
19. Byrne, Rhonda. The Secret. New York: Atria Books, 2006. 57, 172.