Sunday 12 May 2019

The basic error of New Age spiritual optimism

It was in its spiritual optimism that New Age spirituality was most deeply and dangerously in error - an optimism that derived from the middle 1960s hippie movement (or perhaps from the middle 1950s Beats/ beatniks).

The basic stance of this movement was that modern people had spiritually progressed beyond those of the past; that there had been and was ongoing a transformation and advance in human consciousness - with all kinds of new information, experiences, possibilities.

Crudely, but accurately, the New Age assumption was (and is) that the younger generations were spiritually better than the older. This was unwarrented self-congratulation, self-congratulation for one's actual defects! It was indeed spiritual Pride - which is one of the most dangerous of sins. 

I believe that New Age optimism is almost-completely wrong - or more exactly is based on a deep confusion (often a deliberate confusion).

Modern Man has a destiny, possible now but not in earlier eras; but that destiny has not been embraced - and was not embraced by the New Age, but was merely claimed to have been embraced, while the truth of the matter was a deepening materialism (especially political) and pleasure-seeking (esepcially sexual). 

They understood themselves to be people aiming high and achieving new heights; but in contrast, I see people who consistently and with great stubbornness refuse to aim high - who are reductive and disenchanted in all areas of life - at home, at work, in spirit, in church and other groups.

They are people who deny the fact that We, including the New Age people themselves, are more 'this worldly', more materialistic (reductionistic, positivistic, scientistic) than ever before in the history of Man - and it is getting worse.

When I look at the New Age movement over the past fifty years; I see supposedly-spiritual people who are either merely engaged in mundane, petty gossip and bureaucracy 'about' spiritual matters; and/ or people who engage in covert personal hedonism (usually sexual, and/ or financial exploitation) superficially dressed-up in a spiritual garb. 

Our current situation is actually one in which spirituality has been refused; for generation upon generation. This continues; and therefore our situation is getting progressively worse.

Each generation declines from the earlier, because the refusal of the necessity of spiritual progression gets more deeply entrenched.

When spiritual progression is necessary yet does not happen, the gap between where we are and where should be increases - it has increased from a gap to a gulf.

There is an ever-greater distortion of the relationship between our-selves and reality. New Age optimism is one aspect of this distortion.

We ought, therefore, to be pessimistic about the future unless or until there is a massive, qualitative, wrenching and world-shaking change in our basic spiritual stance; until we acknowledge the spiritual as primary at a macro- and micro-level.

This would, obviously, entail a transformation of human thinking. Which is not the kind of thing that happens without people noticing; it is not the kind of thing that happens gradually.

Of course transformation could not happen in a permanent way (not in mortal life) so transformation would be intermittent (perhaps brief, certainly unstable) - but at any given moment it either is, or is not.

The dishonest claim of permanent and solid transformation has been a plague of modern spirituality. While we ought to strive for the spiritual as much and as often as possible; the situation can only improve when people are clear about the times when they (and others) are Not attaining the primacy of the spiritual.

We must recognise that modern man had-and-has a destiny to become consciously spiritual - to become as spiritual as hunter-gatherers but to do so consciously. It is because such conscious spirituality must be chosen, voluntarily and in full freedom that we have not done it.

The spiritual has not happened. As things actually are, optimism is not just mistaken but harmful.

Despite New Age claims; Man's destiny has not even begun to happen at a societal level. The basic nature of our world is one of increasing evil consequent upon the fact that we have refused, and continue to refuse, to recognise the reality of the spiritual and live-by the reality of the spiritual - to make this our life-priority, to seek it to the best of our (limited) ability.


William Wildblood said...

A brilliant summing up of a spiritual disaster. New Age spirituality certainly had potential in that it sought for a deeper reality inside the human being but because it neglected or even actually rejected the more fundamental reality of God 'out there' it rapidly descended into self-preoccupation if not outright narcissism. While real spirituality requires humility and love of God, the New Age version offered only love of self (disguised, of course) and spiritual ambition. New Age people might appear very 'loving' but it's a self-conscious love that is acted out not truly felt. Or if something is felt it is human in origin not divine, the difference being that the former derives ultimately from the search for pleasure while the latter does not come from the human self, as it is in this world, but through it.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - (Reading stuff from the past thirty years) I am very struck by the way in which the New Age leaders seem to 'pander to' their audience, always flattering tham about how spiritually advanced they are (a spiritual avant garde), how they ('we') are already moving into a new era; a time of rapid and accelerating positive change (week by week) of new spiritual possibilities (especially by channeling). They seem to have been sure that the awakening was happening, was well underway... e.g. The Aquarian Conspiracy by Marilyn Ferguson of 1980, positing a powerful global benign spiritual conspiracy... I don't know whether people still believe this stuff? Bt clearly it was empirically mistaken.

Desert Rat said...

The "Beats" rejected the material values and preached "free love" while experimenting with drugs. In the '60's came the Vietnam war which provided the fulcrum upon which the "counter culture" could leverage their rejection of bourgeois (Christian) morals claiming that their opposition to the war gave them the moral high ground in ALL things.

When I graduated high school in 1965 drugs were virtually unknown, parents were still honored and the overwhelming majority of girls valued and guarded their virginity. By 1966 all of this was changing at a near frantic pace. Drugs, LSD and Marijuana in particular, had flooded the area where I lived. Parents, derided as hypocrites and war-lovers, were ignored and openly despised. The birth control pill had been around for a few years but it was almost as if it was newly discovered as all the young ladies quickly availed themselves of this and virgins virtually disappeared overnight.

1967 was the "summer of love". I lived a block-and-a-half from the corner of Haight and Ashbury in San Francisco. The neighborhood was filled with shops selling odd clothing and drug paraphernalia and the sidewalks were very busy with hippies and various freaks (that is how they referred to themselves) in such numbers that there were tour buses filled with gawking out-of-town tourists running up Haight Street hourly. There were free concerts in Golden Gate Park almost every weekend and the big names from the Beats would attend and give speeches about how evil the establishment was and advising all the young people to ignore their parents, pastors and teachers and "turn on, tune in and drop out".

In the midst of all this there was a sudden and wide-spread rise in interest in eastern religion which quickly morphed into little cults studying crystals and chakras and chanting (to actually practice eastern religion was too difficult and demanding). LSD, mescaline and peyote could provide a "religious" experience though the few who did have this found its effects short lasting and usually buried it under a series of repeated attempts to repeat the experience with the drug that only provided greater and more colorful delusions.

The war provided the enemy with the ammunition he needed to discount and discredit all values and morals. "Your parents are war mongers and war lovers who think it's good to kill children" he preached while flattering the ignorant young by telling them they were morally superior and so much superior that they could throw off ALL the rules and create their own as they went along. This kind of thing was especially prevalent in colleges and universities and the people who were undergraduates then earned their degrees and took their places as leaders in politics and business and finance and education. Things simply progressed from there and the rest, as they say, is history.

Avro G said...

“We must recognise that modern man had-and-has a destiny to become consciously spiritual - to become as spiritual as hunter-gatherers but to do so consciously.” This is just the point on which an understanding of Julian Jaynes’ Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind would be helpful. Hunter gatherer societies experienced their relationship with their gods in a very literal, personal sense which we do not and have not, in Jaynes’ view, since at least the time of the the civilizational cataclysms of the mid second millennium BC of which the Odyssey gives an account. In recent centuries this trend has only accelerated. Religion as we have known it has been a series of attempts to reconnect with this lost capacity.

Bruce Charlton said...

@DR - Great comment. So useful to get an eye-witness account.

Bruce Charlton said...

@AG - You may be interested by Owen Barfield's review of Jaynes's book - which he regards as an interesting but partial insight that does not follow through the insights:

Faculty X said...

The New Age was the natural place for natural mystics to end up.

Where else would they go? Christianity was doing Vatican II and turning into what it is today.

One of the problems with your critique is you want people to choose to be mystics yet you apparently don't accept a search process.

That is who went into the New Age - searchers with natural mystic inclinations. Many in the New Age were also quite open to integrating Christ in some new way into their spiritual views as well. They wanted it to be genuine, real, not a bunch of dictates from corrupt preachers.

The tools that people used such as LSD and psylocibin were destructive solely because they became democratized, and this spreading to the masses created the problems. Then made illegal, of course, as usual with anything that works.

Read Storming Heaven by Jay Stevens to get a more informed background.

When I think of the original research done in the late 60s on LSD for treating alcholism, for just one example, it's horrifying and tragic how something so useful was made illegal. The same applies to MDMA, which therapists noted for its effectiveness in treating PTSD in the 90s.

The New Age had lots of nonsense but so do all religious, political, and spiritual movements. It's easy to criticize but so is everything. I don't see a better alternative.

What I saw was a movement sabotaged by the same spiritual powers that do their wreckage today.

Bruce Charlton said...

@FX - Of course I see a better alternative - that's what this blog is all about!

Or you could look at William Wildblood's Meeting the Masters (see sidebar - blog and book). William lived among New Age people from the 1970s onward, but developed in a different direction to become the non-demoninational mystical Christian he is today.

The problem was baked-into the assumptions of New Age - for example its 'anything but Christianity' attitude. Or its embrace of the sexual revolution. Or its very abstract view of ultimate reality (ultimate reality not being a personal God who loves us as individuals, but an abstract deity conceptualised in terms of principles such as force/ frequency/ consciousness etc).

I'm not against searching - I regard life as a trial and error process. But searching is only valuable when people learn - and the mass of New Age people have not learned from experience, and are absolutely resistant to learning - as evidenced by the fact that 99% of them are (nowadays) far-Leftists...

I am much more sympathetic to and hopeful about the Conspiracy Theory community, than the New Agers. The CS-ers seem to learn from their experiences, and may zag zag towards the right answers.

Interestingly, Andy Thomas (who is an organiser) told me that at the annual Glastonbury Symposium there is a division over Brexit; between the New Agers (Remainers - presumably because they are mainstream Globalist-type Leftists) and the Conspiracy community (pro-Brexit because the EU is totalitarian).

Faculty X said...

Just after posting on your site I saw this at the New Scientist:

It's a summary of the power of psychedelics to heal. You may like it because it says there was too much enthusiasm at the time!

New Age people are not universally anti-Christian, not even close. The author Jean Houston is often described as New Age. She wrote Godseed: The Journey of Christ. 'Jean Houston examines the psychological and mythological meaning of the Christ story, retelling the life of Jesus from the inside out and opening the reader to the challenge of "being Christ".'

Scratch a New Ager and you will find someone who believers in direct mystical insight, in bloodlines with mystical powers (e.g. Dan Brown's work), and they would be sympathetic to something like an Atlantean Council running society that focuses on spiritual potentials, ancestors, raising sunken cities, and ancient civilizations.

I agree with you about the negative sexual revolution aspect. At least there are many New Agers whose typical view is finding a soulmate which is more serious than what most moderns now do. The sexual revolution is everywhere, including churches, so I don't see where it is otherwise in reality.

Regarding Andy Thomas, if that's where New Agers have ended up I think that is more what happens to those more into politics, or perhaps a kind of infiltration at the level of the higher-ups (which is the norm).

In my experience Conspiras views among New Agers are very typical so to read it somehow polarizes on politics is a surprise to me.

Obviously all people with New Age views ought support Brexit to re-birth Albion.

Chent said...

I really think that there was never spiritual about hippies or New Age. Not for the 99% of them.

It was only about selfishness. About doing whatever one wants with no limits and standarods. If you have some pleasant experiences and can pretend you are spiritual before other people and yourself, cherry on the cake.

There is a litmus test to distinguish a real conviction from pretending to have a real conviction. Are you willing to sacrifice constantly for this conviction?

I tell people that self-identify as pagan: Are you willing to sacrifice for Thor, the way I sacrifice for Christ or Muslims sacrifice for Allah? No? Then stop pretending.

Saying that you look for spiritual enlightenment while doing drugs and free sex? Where is the sacrifice in that?

Bruce Charlton said...

@Chent - I take a similar view but related to 'motivation' rather than 'sacrifice' - by my understanding sacrifice is one aspect of motivation.

When someone has a motivating belief, he can standa apart from external attempts at control - such as the mass media, fashion, social laws and regulations. When a person's religion is weakly motivating (as with nearly all New Age/ neo-Pagan, and with Liberal Christianity) then people are simply a part of the mainstream, propagandised and expedient way of behaving - motivated by sex, pleasure, convenience, money, status etc. just like 'everyone' else.

Of course, people's capacity for self-delusion on this is very great; but we each need to judge and evaluate who is genuine.