Thursday, 14 June 2012

Paradigm Shift in the New Age

There are several significant principles or truth claims which distinguish theism from monism, despite the fact that many claim that all religions lead to God or are the same at their core.  Something that I’ve thought was a rather obvious difference was that in theism, there is a grand narrative; it's a story which has a beginning, a middle and how it's all going to work out in the end.  The monotheistic worldview presents a temporal line: God creates the universe and man, Adam falls, Christ redeems, we shall be saved.

In monism, there is no such eschatology.  Instead the metaphor is one of a wheel; life is cyclical and based upon samsara and ruled by karma.  The path to enlightenment may require a person to be reincarnated or reborn many many times until they achieve nirvana and are released from the personal, material, temporal, world.

When eastern thought and practices were brought to the west and were popularised during the 1960s, the emphasis was on personal spiritual development.  Practices like meditation and yoga helped to advance that goal.  When eastern spiritual practices met popular psychology it was a marriage made in therapy heaven because it allowed people to not only focus on their self-awareness, but to actually worship themselves; it raised self-actualisation to cosmic heights.

And I think that for many advanced thinkers and practitioners in the field, this just didn’t seem to satisfy a more socially-orientated, larger goal.  So we’ve seen the emergence of a whole new emphasis in the New Age movement on a grander narrative: spiritual evolution.  Andrew Cohen is one of the leading proponents of what he calls evolutionary enlightenment.   What differentiates this form of monistic spirituality from the ‘60s version is that Cohen proposes that people bring about not only their own personal spiritual transformation but that of all human consciousness and culture.  There’s a good deal of reaching back to philosophers of the past, whether explicitly as in the case of Tielhard de Chardin or implicitly in the thinking of the neo-Platonists or Hegel.

Cohen explains that enlightenment is not "the possession of the individual, but instead becomes the ground of relationship upon which a new culture is created…the creation of this new consciousness and culture is essential for the survival of the race and that is incumbent upon those individuals who are at the leading edge of human development to take this next step."  This calls to my mind Hegel’s philosophical system which explains the unfolding of the world’s spirit – or Geist – through time.

There is no question that New Age is a large and growing movement, based on data gathered and analysed by Pew Research, the University of California at Santa Barbara and Bradley University.  The number of active participants in the New Age is enormous and growing (more than 40m Americans) making it the third largest religious denomination in America.[1]  So New Age principles and practices have already made huge headway into western culture.  I think the problem, as Cohen and other New Age leaders see it, is that it can lead to some serious problems of narcissism.

I read Cohen’s blog from time to time and he constantly gives a clarion call to participate in this evolutionary ‘impulse’ of consciousness and culture change - he's very heavy on creativity and transformation, but quite light on anything like virtue, justice, morality or the common good.  For theism, these ideas are of primary importance and have their basis in a definite distinction between good and evil, whereas in eastern philosophy, the spiritual basis is more relative.  Which can be a problem for a movement which wants to effect changes in a culture.  As a follower of the disgraced guru Muktananda described after his death in 1983, "there is no absolute assurance that enlightenment necessitates the moral virtue of a person.  There is no guarantee against the weakness of anger, lust and greed in the human soul.  The enlightened are on an equal footing with the ignorant in the struggle against their own evil."[2]

So New Age spirituality now has a grand narrative: evolution.  I think that the term is an attempt to give this new paradigm the character of being both scientific and inevitable.  But questions remain about what evolutionary spirituality really means in practice and where this is meant to lead the human race in future.

[1] Ray Yungen, A Time of Departing, Lighthouse Trails Publishing, 2006.
[2] Yungen from “Baba Beleaguered,” Yoga Journal, Issue 63, July/August 1985, p. 30. 

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