Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
I finally got a chance to watch that Barbara Marx Hubbard video that everyone's been buzzing about, and...wow. (If you haven't seen it yet, Fr. Z has it here.) After double-checking the ingredient list on the bottle of wine I'd just opened to make sure it didn't contain any hallucinogens, I watched the video again and realized that Ms. Hubbard really did use all those words I thought I'd heard.
Like many others who watched the clip, I shook my head, wondering why Catholic nuns would want a keynote speaker who adheres to an odd and belief system that is not in line with Christian teaching (Thomas L. McDonald described it as "a combination of X-Men comics, techno-fetishizing, narcissism, New Age nonsense, paganism, trite bromides...Gnosticism, and good old heresy.") But I didn't think much more about it. I turned off the television and went about the toil of getting the kitchen cleaned and getting all the kids bathed and into bed.
Later that night, after the rest of the house was asleep, I went back into the darkened living room and flipped on the television. I was exhausted from a long day, weary from an even longer week. I had caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror on the way downstairs and noticed the dark circles under my eyes, the new gray hairs, the way I looked five years older from sheer fatigue. When the TV came to life, Barbara Marx Hubbard's face awaited me; I had forgotten to close the browser earlier. For whatever reason, I clicked Play and watched the video again.
This time, I noticed something I hadn't seen the first time I watched it.
Ms. Hubbard's core message, at least in this video, seems to be, You are still powerful and relevant, no matter what your age. She talks about turning 81 as entering a glorious "regenopause" season in which she is "thresholding," and it feels like "falling in love." There are many analogies to birth, with an emphasis on fresh new seasons beginning that contain limitless possibilities. Almost all of it is from a worldly perspective, in that the focus is on taking this human life to the next level, rather than taking actions to give us the best shot at having a good eternal life. My take after watching the video this second time was:
This is a speaker for those who fear aging and death and diminishment.
I understand why her message resonates. In that weary late-night moment on my couch, I didn't want to hear about carrying my cross or becoming little or focusing on eternity. I was feeling old and weak, and, in that weakness, it was very tempting to listen to the message of anyone who would tell me that I could make myself feel new and powerful again -- here, now, in this life.
It's almost eerie how accurately Msgr. Charles Pope predicted this kind of thing when he talked about how we can be lured by false prophets who play on our fears of death -- or, more accurately, our fears of diminishment. He paraphrases the words of marketers who say:
If you use this toothpaste or soap or cosmetics, beautiful people will be around you and sex will be more available to you. If you drive this car people will turn their heads and so impressed with you...You will be younger, happier, healthier and more alive.
None of us can know for certain why the Leadership Conference of Women Religious chose Barbara Marx Hubbard as their keynote speaker. But my guess is that it's because she followed the formula Msgr. Pope laid out above. She tapped into the natural human fear of death/diminishment, and claimed to offer a solution. "Listen to me, and I will teach you how to threshold into regenopause and experience rebirth!" she basically says. "You will be younger, happier, healthier and more alive!"
I doubt that any of us are immune to this temptation. Some of us may not be likely to be swayed by New Age beliefs, but what about the gurus in other areas of life? Plenty of experts in fields like fitness, diet, and financial planning stop just short of promising that, through their lifestyle makeover plans, you can achieve endless youth or beauty or power here in this life. Undoubtedly, many of them have mostly good messages, and few teach ideas that contradict the Gospel as blatantly as New Age spirituality. But we should all be aware that when someone taps into our deepest fears and claims to have a solution, we can become so overwhelmed with relief and gratitude that we become blinded to warning signs that this person's message is ultimately leading us astray.