Paganism, American style

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AFTER THE the ceremonial dagger, black-mass vestments, phallic candles, and human bone earrings, the black cat wasn’t strictly necessary, but there it was, basking in the windowless gloom at the back of The Magickal Childe, Manhattan’s so-called “hard-core New Age” store.

How do you describe a place where you find the popular, quasi-Christian book A Course in Miracles and, gazing out from the cover of her latest best-seller, the blissful Shirley Maclaine next to the satanic rituals of Aleister Crowley (the century’s most renowned devil-worshipper) and books like Witchcraft and the Gay Counterculture? Or what do you say of Samuel Weiser’s, the East Coast’s largest New Age bookstore, where the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius stand alongside books about massage, Tantric yoga, and crystals and “classics” like On Becoming a Musical, Mystical, Bear: Spirituality American-style, by Matthew Fox, the Dominican priest recently silenced by the Vatican? In the New Age, anything “spiritual” goes.

Tommy Chong (formerly of Cheech and Chong, now a New Age celebrity) told New Frontier: “New Age is getting high without drugs, really. You can’t do drugs. . . . But in order to enjoy the same kind of lifestyle, we go to the New Age, because we attain the spiritual awareness without artificial means.” Hey, far out.

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Last year’s three-day “Healing Mother Earth” exposition in Manhattan was the biggest New Age fair east of the Mississippi. Although there was a notable hippie presence (spaced-out aquarians in tie-died shirts and all-cotton smocks), not all New Agers are ex-potheads from California. Entering the Expo (held in a hotel reeking of incense and curry from the special New Age cafeteria) was like walking into a Middle Eastern bazaar. Dark-skinned fellows in vibrant outfits lounged in countless booths. Everywhere you looked, there were crystals and gems to balance tottering psyches. Indian music and an atmosphere of comic fraud filled the air. For $10 you could enjoy the wisdom imparted through “Bio-Feed Back [sic] Field Photography.” In this process, your head is photographed with a special camera, and the developed picture reveals multicolored lights emanating from your cranium. The photo is then “read” to provide insights into your personality and mood: if your halo is yellow that means you have a, yes, “sunny” disposition. Better still was the 1M-1 (instant meditation) exhibit. You put on earphones, what look like oversized sunglasses, and recline on a lawn chair. While soothing sounds fill your ears, the “glasses” flash images on your eyes–instant meditation! But my favorite booth was the one selling Super Blue–Green Algae. The algae-monger handed me a flyer with notices about “AIDS and Algae” and a hardsell pitch from the algae itself: “I am the immortal descendant of the original life form. . . . So, partake of my immortal body each day. Eat three billion years of cell memory and a concentration of protective nutrients. Renew your own health, renew your connection with your sisters and brothers in the Third World.”

How is it possible that, while religious agnosticism runs rampant, credulity runs amok? The New Agers are not yokels. For the most part, the people at the New York expo were college-educated, middle-class Americans. In fact, the New Age is an extremely “literate,” bookish phenomenon. You don’t pick up Eastern mysticism on the street.

It was in the university that C. S. Lewis set That Hideous Strength, his novel about academic researchers who turn to the occult. We seem to be in the age Lewis was describing in 1943:

Despair of objective truth had been

increasingly insinuated into the scientists;

indifference to it, and a concentration on

mere power, had been the result. Babble

about the elan vital and flirtations with

panpsychism were bidding fair to restore

the Anima Mundi of the magicians.

Dreams of the far future destiny of man

were dragging up from its shallow and

unquiet grave the old dream of Man as

God.

This dream is central to the New Age movement. One typical New Age magazine, Master of Life, offers “tools and teachings to create your own reality.” The New Age movement is not about discovering reality but about making it; it is about power rather than truth.

Lending an intellectual veneer to the New Age is the parallel and sometimes overlapping Joseph Campbell craze, fired largely by the late scholar of comparative religion’s interviewbook with Bill Moyers, aptly named The Power of Myth. One of Campbell’s famous / notorious credos is “Follow your bliss.” As one man’s bliss may be another man’s horror, you might think that this pseudo-profundity is taken out of context, but no, that is really what Campbell teaches: follow your bliss, whatever it is–an essentially amoral view that dovetails with the promiscuous transcendentalism of the New Age. Campbell tells of asking a famous Hindu guru: “How should we say no to brutality, to stupidity, to vulgarity, to thoughtlessness?” and receiving the reply: “For you and for me–the way is to say yes,” with which Campbell agrees.

Ultimately, this “affirmation” is not much different from despair, and the followers of Campbell and the followers of Nietzsche can agree on this: when there is no objective scale of value, you (Nietzschean ubermensch, Campbellian hero, or New Age “master of reality”) must create your own values. What you choose doesn’t matter, as long as you choose it.

NEEDLESS TO SAY, it is possible to be profoundly spiritual and profoundly evil. The alarming rise of satanism and witchcraft are the dark side of the New Age revival of the occult. Certain types of rock music make free use of satanic imagery, and many troubled teenagers, both in the U.S. and in Europe, are attracted to satanic cults. In an effort to empower women and fight patriarchy, some academic feminists are trying to rehabilitate witchcraft, politely referred to as the “folk religion” Wicca. Last year, at Harvard’s Sanders Auditorium, Mary Daly, professor of theology at Jesuit-run Boston College, led an “International Hexing” followed by a “celebration of ecstasy.” In this “dramatic indictment of gynocide,” Professor Daly rounded up the usual suspects (“the accused” under indictment include “priests, pornographers, academics, rapists, serial killers”) and invited all “wild witches” to “expose and condemn the massacre of Women’s minds, bodies and spirits.” Where’s Cotton Mather when you need him?

We are living out the contradictions built into positivistic materialism. If you believe that man is purely material, then you must eventually conclude that pure matter can know, think, feel, and love as men obviously do. Thus, positivistic materialism makes matter “spiritual.” Before long, spiritual powers are assigned to rocks and trees, and soon you’re off with the Iriquois learning, as a New Age manual on shamanism puts it, “to use natural objects to deepen your personal connection with Earth energies.”

Likewise, devotion to the modern ideal of reason often leads to skepticism about truth, and ultimately–as seen in the academic fad of deconstructionism–a skepticism toward reason itself. A diet of the polite skepticism that passes for wisdom leaves most souls spiritually malnourished. It seems, one way or another, people will believe in the supernatural.

The spiritual vacuum left by positivist reason and the decline of mainline religion has been filled by a paganism which was never far below the surface of Western civilization–a perfect illustration of Chesterton’s dictum: “When men stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing; they believe in anything.” One evening of television is enough to render fatuous the idea that our culture is too sophisticated for pagan superstitions. And the little learning that our educational system provides can be a dangerous thing. If God is passe (as so much of academia preaches or implies), then the products of this education, having despaired of finding an objective truth, will seek “spiritual” fulfillment elsewhere. Anywhere.

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If the New Age movement can be said to have a political agenda, it is not as syncretistic as its spiritual agenda. The door of the Magickal Childe cautions the prospective customer: “If you are a bigot: racially, religiously, ethnically, sexually, or otherwise–F— Off!” At the Healing Mother Earth Expo, the Christic Institute distributed a flyer outlining the crimes of Ollie North. Environmentalism, if not outright nature worship, was a common theme, represented by Greenpeace and others seeking to save rain forests, dolphins, and whales. This side of gnostic paganism is nothing new. When god is in everything, man loses his privileged place in the universe. Trees and animals acquire “rights.” Influenced by Manicheanism, St. Augustine fell for the same gnostic conservationism back in the fourth century: “And I believed, poor wretch, that more mercy was to be shown to the fruits of the earth than to men, for whose use they were created.”

Many of today’s New Age groups trace their roots to Madame Blavatsky’s turn-of-the-century Theosophical Society. In those days, occult spiritualism was attracting such celebrities as Arthur Conan Doyle and W. B. Yeats–the Shirley Maclaines of their day? One of Blavatsky’s disciples, Alice Bailey, was already referring to “the New Age” in the 1920s. Some esoterica are perennial: interest in astrology, tarot cards, Eastern religions and communication with the dead, whether by seances or channeling.

What is new is the lingering spiritual upheaval of the Sixties, which left a lot of traditional views in shambles, without offering much to replace them, and the American-style marketing of the occult. Despite the overtones and paraphernalia of Oriental mysticism, there is something quintessentially American about the New Age. Perhaps it’s the hucksterism, the hype and the “power of positive thinking,” brand of self-help: Norman Vincent Peale meets the Mahareeshi.

THE MASS APPEAL of the New Age is clearly not in what one would call religion. At the Healing Mother Earth Expo, the hard-core religious hawkers–the gurus, past-life regressors, Oriental mystics, etc.–were mostly ignored while the good old American self-improvement booths were mobbed. There was something for everyone–weight loss, stress management, a better golf swing. Sun Tzu’s Art of War–the cultured yuppie’s Taoist guide to power–is marketed by the New Age publisher Shambhala. Confucius say: “Get Rich Quick!”

Crystals and channeling are already on their way out and will probably remain cultural marginalia along with tarot cards and Ouija boards, but the broader combination of pagan gnosticism and American capitalism may be hard to beat. The true danger of the New Age is its conflation of “spirituality,” power, and goodness, and its inability to make moral distinctions, which can so easily lead to the embrace of evil in the name of some lofty ideal.

John Wauck is a contributing editor of The Human Life Review.

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