By Eric Stetson — 2007
(Note: This is a combination of two articles originally written in 2007, most of which has never before been published.)
As someone who has long had an open-minded interest in the New Age movement, I understand this type of spirituality from personal experience. I would like to speak to those who believe in it, as one who respects the striving for higher spiritual truth that transcends traditional organized religions, but who has also discovered that New Age thinking contains some half-truths, distortions, and even spiritually dangerous ideas.
First of all, I understand that many people who identify with the general spiritual movement that has come to be called “New Age” would like to think of themselves, in some sense, as Christian. Most people in the West, where New Age ideas are popular, come from a Christian background, and there is often a healthy respect for Jesus Christ among New Agers. On the other hand, there is a tendency to fail to appreciate the true scope and glory of the faith that he and his early followers proclaimed.
Many people get into the New Age because they perceive “Christianity” as a harsh and exclusionary religion that denigrates the spirituality of everyone who does not “bow the knee” to a “Lord” who will sentence billions of people to eternal hell. Fundamentalist Christianity is seen by many people as simply Christianity, when in fact, in many ways, it is anything but Christian.
My study of early Christianity has led me to the view that authentic Christian faith shares some features with today’s New Age movement and some features with “Fundamentalism” — and disagrees profoundly with some of the conclusions of both of them. I hope that in this article I can introduce you to a Jesus Christ who taught a faith of great hope and love for all people, and a Christianity that does not exclude and hate but is full of grace, broad-mindedness, and spiritual depth. I would like to tell you about my faith, Christian Universalism, and show you how the truths it teaches are more wonderful and more complete than what is taught either by Fundamentalism or New Age.
True Christianity embraces some concepts familiar to the New Age, such as that God is Love and Light; that all human beings are the children of God, created in God’s image from His/Her divine spiritual essence; that Christ wants people to follow in his footsteps to become like him, rather than worshipping him in a groveling religious manner; and that God’s plan is for people to continually grow in the divine nature, eventually reaching spiritual perfection. In the early church, many prominent Christians even believed or were open to the idea of reincarnation as a means by which human spirits can be receive justice as a form of purgatorial correction and gain experience in their quest for the divine — just as many New Agers believe today.
However, there are also some other ideas taught in the original Christian faith which the New Age tends to reject: the fact that human beings are not yet at the same level as Christ, and that our own personal “godhood” is subordinate to the Godhead; the need for humility, selfless service, and suffering as a means of spiritual growth; and that to grow up into spiritual maturity, we must look to the supreme example of Christ who suffered and died on the cross and rose from the grave to prove the loving, conquering nature of God to the world, and in whose footsteps we must strive to “carry our cross” every day of our lives as his disciples.
There are many great truths to be found in New Age spirituality, but also some great errors. One of the errors is the over-emphasis on something that in metaphysical circles has come to be called “the law of attraction,” which is just another term for what Christians call “name it and claim it.” This idea is true to some limited degree, but when carried to an extreme, as in the recent bestselling book and movie, The Secret, it leads to personal egotism, selfishness, and arrogance — which are not spiritual qualities we should be striving to cultivate.
In reality, because God is infinitely more powerful than any individual human being, God’s will is sovereign over our own will. Imagine if you put a tiny bar magnet that you can hold in your hand against the entire electromagnetic field of the earth: Which is going to win and attract what it wants to attract? Therefore, it is God who is really in control of what happens. Often God may allow our own little wills to prevail for a time — usually for the purpose of teaching us some important lesson — but in the end, God will always get what He wants. This is the true Law of Attraction.
If God’s will shall always triumph because He is the supreme power in the universe, then what is the implication? The Secret of God’s Law of Attraction is that God will attract all things back to Himself! This idea, which is often called “universalism” today, was known as apokatastasis in the early Christian church, and it means “the restoration” or “reconciliation” of all. Since all people came from God originally, all are destined to return back to oneness and harmony with God in the end. No one shall be left alone forever to pursue their own flawed, limited personal will, which might temporarily lead into suffering and hell. Although God may permit individuals to attract to themselves judgment and punishment for a time, because of their sins or mistakes, eventually God will get what He wants, through the supreme power of His will, which is to redeem, purify, and attract all sentient beings back to Himself — drawing all out of hellish realms and corrupt ways of existence, into higher and higher heavens, until the ultimate reunion of all creation in which God will finally be “all in all” (1 Cor. 15: 28).
Traditional Religion and the Reactions Against It
Throughout history, people have sought to understand the world we live in and our own nature and place in the universe. This has given rise to a series of worldviews, beginning with orthodox religious conceptions of reality, and culminating in modern times with the popular philosophy of New Age — which, however, I do not believe to be the final stage of human spiritual understanding.
The first worldview, which I have dubbed Supernatural Fatalism, is the way of thinking that was ubiquitous throughout most of human history, especially during “dark ages” of backwardness and superstition. It remains today in third-world countries and other places where people are poorly educated.
The chief characteristic of this worldview is the idea that most of what happens is out of our control. Various gods, spirits, angels and demons, or one God and one Satan, battle it out for control of the events that take place in the universe — everything from the forces of nature to the lives of individual people. Human beings are like pawns in the grand scheme of things, constantly pushed around by greater actors that we don’t even understand, and our fate is not subject to our own will but to the will of a deity or other supernatural powers. It may perhaps be possible to appease these powers, but they remain largely shrouded in mystery and prone to whim and caprice.
With the advent of the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution, there came a completely new view of reality to compete with Supernatural Fatalism, which I will call Rationalistic Libertarianism. This is the polar opposite in its attitude about the power of human beings compared to the power of other entities or forces of Fate.
With rapid intellectual progress, invention, and the steadily growing human ability to control and transform the environment during the period roughly from the mid 1700’s to the mid 1900’s, many people began to believe in the idea that human beings have a great deal of control over the reality we experience. Over time, this became an ideology based on the principles of individual freedom, free enterprise, and capitalistic pursuit of happiness; faith in science, progress, and human reason; and refusal to believe in any kind of supernatural power or forces that are directly involved in our lives. Deism, Atheism, Rationalism, Scientific Materialism, and Humanism are all manifestations of this ideology.
Rationalistic Libertarianism was most fully developed and manifested in the United States of America, and probably reached its peak of influence in the mid to late 1800’s. It lingers on today, to varying degrees, among Objectivists (followers of Ayn Rand), political Libertarians, Atheists, Unitarians, and other secular humanist and anti-supernatural philosophical traditions.
In the latter half of the 1800’s, the discoveries of Darwin about genetics began to call into question the idea that human beings are entirely under their own control as rational actors who can fully determine their destiny. Ultimately, genetic science would undermine many of the underpinnings of the Rationalistic Libertarian worldview and lead to the development of a new synthesis which I call Rationalistic Fatalism.
Because of the influence of genes, people are different from one another, and some are genetically destined to be more or less intelligent. For example, a person with the genes to be a genius can become a smart and successful person without even attending school, whereas a person with less fortunate genetic coding can attend school and struggle for many years but never attain the ability to succeed in areas that require intellectual ability. In early America, there was a widely held belief that anyone can “pull himself up by his bootstraps” — i.e. that through hard work, discipline, education, and other methods of self-improvement, all people have the potential to become equally successful and happy. This was an example of the flawed thinking of Rationalistic Libertarianism, which was based on an inaccurate understanding of the factors that determine human ability and therefore the outcomes of life. In their zeal to banish all belief in “mysterious powers beyond our control” and thus emerge from the dark ages into a new age of progress, the Rationalistic Libertarians went too far. It turned out that science would prove that there are factors beyond human control, such as genes which control us.
In the early to mid 1900’s, the new science of genetics led to an extreme, perverted ideology of supposedly scientifically based racism, as manifested in Nazism. There was a widespread belief that certain races or groups of people were condemned by their genes to an “inferior” status, and therefore could never be improved through the methods advocated by the optimistic, progressive thinkers of Rationalistic Libertarianism, such as education and the benefits of advanced civilization and culture. During this period, there was a vigorous debate between the rationalistic forms of Libertarianism and Fatalism over the issue of how free Man really is, how much one’s willpower can change one’s circumstances, and whether government should collude with science in a project of authoritarianism to suppress bad genes and promote good genes through eugenics, thereby supposedly creating a superior society.
After the evil of Nazism was defeated, other forms of Rationalistic Fatalism developed to counter the naivete of the discredited Libertarian view of human freedom, but which did not classify people into groups based on their perceived worth or attempt to take away people’s dignity. In fact, as the effects of genes on the nature of different individuals became more and more evident with further study, Rationalistic Fatalism began to evolve into a way of thinking that has enabled greater compassion for those who are different, disabled, or otherwise are incapable of fitting in to the norms of society.
For example, newfound knowledge of the genetic cause of obesity is helping people understand for the first time in human history that to be fat does not necessarily mean to lack a normal level of willpower, but rather may be something that a person cannot control through voluntary action. The genetic predisposition for depression and other mental health problems is another important example. Whereas in the past the mentally ill were reviled as “accursed” (Supernatural Fatalism) or “lacking character” (Rationalistic Libertarianism), today we increasingly understand them to be suffering from a disease of the brain that is mostly beyond their control, which they may have inherited from their ancestors who probably had similar genetic tendencies. The notion of “Fate” returns to the dialogue as an important determinant of circumstance — but this time, in the modern Rationalistic Fatalist perspective, as a way of uplifting people from a misguided and unnecessary sense of guilt and inferiority of spirit, freeing them from other people’s harsh and unfair judgments.
The Danger of the New Age Worldview
There is an entirely different way of thinking that is also popular today, and which is growing in popularity and influence, threatening the tremendous progress that has been made in compassion for those who are destined in this life to be genetically obese, depressed, autistic, allergic, chronically ill, or whatever other perceived negative trait that is understood by modern science to be primarily a result of fate rather than free will. This alternative perspective is found in the New Age movement, as well as in some versions of the burgeoning Pentecostal and Charismatic movements in Christianity. It is manifested in pop psychology and the growing ideology of relativism that exalts the idea of absolute individual free will and rejects belief in any kind of Absolute Truth that is beyond human control and exerts a compelling influence on our lives. All of these attitudes are related, and I will refer to this overall way of thinking as Supernatural Libertarianism.
Interestingly, an excessive focus on the power of the individual to cause one’s own health and happiness — whether through prayer, meditation, belief or intention, affirmations, crystals, laying on of hands, invoking guardian angels or spirit guides, or other techniques, is nothing new. It is actually a throwback to the ideologies of Christian Science, Theosophy, New Thought, and Spiritualism which were popular in the 1800’s, during the heyday of Libertarianism and the intoxication of the “American dream” mentality. It should therefore be no surprise that these ideas have made a comeback today, in a time when people are becoming increasingly isolated from one another, disappearing up their own brainstems into their own mental bubbles and private realities, made possible by the invention of the internet and the subsequent retreat from rationalistic and absolutist concepts of a “greater society,” “objectivity,” and even “truth” itself. The influence of popular interpretations of quantum physics and Einstein’s theory of relativity has also added to the development of this solipsistic mentality and the resulting Supernatural Libertarian worldview, in which you “create your own reality” if you believe hard enough so that your desires will be manifested, and other such pop mantras variously promoted by self-appointed gurus, channelers, and preachers with chemically whitened teeth and $300 haircuts who scream into microphones that you can “name it and claim it!”
The idea that consciousness creates reality (or “thoughts are things”) is only a half-truth. The other half of the truth is the opposite, which is that reality creates consciousness and things are thoughts. For example, somebody in a hurry bumps into you and you fall down and hit your head. This causes you to feel pain, without you having any control over it, and probably also some momentary anger, which you have little control over. Externally generated reality has just imposed itself on you, creating your consciousness. Things have become thoughts, without asking you for your permission.
There are plenty of examples of this law of reality operating in the world, happening all around us all the time. One example which some New Agers are particularly disingenuous about is brain diseases such as clinical depression. They may claim that your thoughts are completely under your own control, but for many people not only is that untrue, it is actually offensive because it denies them recognition of a legitimate biochemical disease that they suffer from, which affects the way they think and therefore the reality they are able to generate through their thoughts, in a way that is largely beyond their voluntary control.
Another half-truth of the New Age is the law of attraction (“like attracts like”), which is not the whole story, or even the most important law of how reality works, but is often presented as if it were the predominant factor in whatever happens. In fact, there is also an opposite law that is just as important, which might be called the law of equilibrium: that opposites attract. Some examples include:
- The positive and negative ends of magnets will stick together, but the same charges produce a force of repulsion.
- People usually respect and admire other people the most for the qualities they have that one does not already have well developed in oneself. In other words, we are attracted to our opposite, which helps us to grow in new directions.
- Water running downhill and balancing with air to achieve an equal level in all places at a time — i.e. where water is higher, it will attract air to fill in the space, and where the water level is lower, it will attract more water to displace some of the air.
- Immigration of poor people from poor countries to rich countries, bringing poverty; and conversely, the flow of capital investment from rich countries to poor countries, bringing wealth — and thus the world economic system tends toward equilibrium when allowed to function without restriction.
- A state of suffering will attract a flow of blessings — e.g. the existence of poor people causes rich people to give to charity, the existence of sick people causes people to send prayers, etc.
So, when a New Ager says that somebody who died of cancer “attracted it to themselves” because of their negative thoughts, it is more likely that they are just being a jerk, rather than displaying their superior insight into the nature of reality. Likewise, you can’t get rich just by thinking a lot about how much you want money, and you don’t get poor by failing to say enough prayers or affirmations of your desire to attract wealth.
Christian Insights that New Agers Miss
Christianity teaches that “while we were yet sinners,” God came to earth to save us (Rom. 5:8). The world was not pumping out positive vibes which attracted Jesus. On the contrary, Jesus came to this world precisely because it was a world filled with negative vibes, and we could not save ourselves from our negative vibes. We needed help.
The concept of charity, and in a broader sense compassion, can be lacking in the Supernatural Libertarian worldview but is an essential element of the authentic Christian worldview. New Agers who argue that one must first use one’s own free will in order to attract positive benefits into one’s life, according to the law of attraction, are rejecting the idea of charity or compassion as a major feature of how the universe operates, because they are putting the onus entirely on the self as the determinant of what kind of reality one experiences. They are ignoring the influences of external entities or a Higher Power who may intervene out of a charitable, compassionate impulse regardless of the state of the self or our free will.
In a memorable lament about the human condition, the Apostle Paul wrote, “For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing.” (Rom. 7:18-19). He makes an important point, which New Agers tend to forget: that it is not possible for human beings at our current stage of spiritual evolution to have total control over our thoughts and actions. We can and certainly should try to do the best we can, but our efforts will not achieve a perfect result, which means that free will is an imperfect guarantor of experiential reality. Much of the reality we experience will not be our own choice — even if the creative power of consciousness and the law of attraction were the only principles of reality — because our free will is not completely free, and therefore our reality we experience is to some extent not under our own control.
The ultimate implication of the Supernatural Libertarian worldview is that there is the possibility of total hopelessness — or in Christian terminology, an “eternal hell” — because if everything a person experiences derives from their own free will, and we know that human free will is not completely free, then that means there will be some cases in which a person can get trapped in a vicious cycle of suffering from which they will find it impossible ever to escape. For example, a soul might experience a terrible injustice, which causes anger, which attracts more negative things to happen, which causes more negative thoughts and feelings, and so on and so forth. After a while, the soul will be completely “locked in” to a negative state of existence and will lose the capability for positive thought-creation, meaning that the end state is hell, since the Supernatural Libertarian worldview does not allow for an external power to intervene with compassion unless the soul first attracts this through its own free will.
Even worse, this New Age type of eternal hell is even more hopeless than the traditional religious version because it is based on a false hope, where the person is constantly told that “you have the power to release yourself” even though the power in fact is not available. In the traditional view of hell, a person knows that they are not in control of whether or not they will be there, because in the final analysis it is up to God, so there is always at least a small hope that God could show mercy and release the soul from a hellish condition. But the New Age hell is the ultimate hell because its occupants are told that (1) they chose to be there through their own free will; (2) they are fully in control of whether they stay or leave, and thus if they are still there it is their own choice; (3) they know that this is incorrect because they desperately want to leave but they find themselves incapable of experiencing any reality other than a hellish one, despite their best efforts of willpower to escape.
What the person in this condition realizes is that their willpower is too feeble to enable them to climb out of hell, but they are told by New Agers that the only power that can ever release them from suffering is within their own self. Therefore, they may feel themselves doomed to an endless suffering that others tell them was their own fault and continues to be their own choice, even if it is not. The New Age hell, in other words, is a hell that God supposedly does not care about — a hell that God refuses to take action save us from, despite the fact that the reality God created played a major role in people ending up there.
In an important sense, the Supernatural Libertarian worldview is therefore a form of metaphysical atheism, because it does not recognize that the universe is ruled by a sovereign God who is in control of what happens. Instead, this worldview posits that the only beings who control what reality a person will experience is oneself. This is solipsism, the antithesis of true spiritual belief, which seeks to connect and conform the self to a larger, greater reality beyond, acknowledging that there is something more to the universe than our own thoughts, desires, and perceptions — most importantly, an absolute Deity or Source of All Being whose will is supreme.
For this reason, the New Age movement offers one of the most serious challenges that true spirituality has ever faced. It is an over-simplified view of reality that leaves out some of the most important truths that exist. Theistic religion provides the other side of the story.
God knows what is best for people, better than they know themselves. New Age philosophies, including some popular forms of Christianity that have been excessively influenced by New Age ideas, teach us to focus on our own intentions and manifesting our own desires. But sometimes God knows that our own preexisting desires are bad for us, and the overpowering Divine Will may intervene forcefully to give us something we don’t want, which we will realize in the future is what we really needed. This idea of a Higher Power deliberately going against our own will and influencing our life in a way that is contrary to our self-limited plans is alien to the New Age, but central to the original teachings of Christianity. For example, the greatest Christian evangelist was a man whose committed intentions were to oppose and persecute Christians, but he had a vision on the road to Damascus and became Paul the Apostle. He was not manifesting his own will and desire, but obeying what he believed to be a divine command that superseded his own plans for his life. We all experience such things — maybe not as dramatically as it was in the case of Paul, but in various ways ranging from obvious to subtle.
I sympathize with the New Age intention to encourage people to think and feel that good things are always possible if you wish for it strenuously enough, especially during a time in human history that I believe will be extraordinarily difficult and tumultuous in the coming decades. The hope that we can manifest our desires and our dreams may be a salve for a hurting world.
But we must go beyond this half-truth, lest it become a source of suffering when things don’t always go the way we intended. People would be better served by achieving a more complete view of how reality works, based on the idea of an all-sovereign, all-benevolent God at the root of our understanding of truth. Then, even if seemingly bad things come our way in life despite our best prayers and intentions, we will be grounded in a belief system that enables us to continue to hope and trust in a Higher Power who is ultimately in control and who truly cares about our wellbeing.
If we believe in a God who is good and who loves us, we can understand that no matter what happens, God will use it for a positive reason that we may not currently be able to see or understand. We will know that we are not alone in a harsh universe, relying only on the feeble power of our own individual free will, because the awesome and invincible power of God is always there protecting us, and will never allow us to fall so far as to be forever unable to return to our Heavenly Father’s home.