What is New Age? Is it a supplement to religion, a challenge, a corrective, or is it a replacement?

A document prepared by the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue, released in 2003, has outlined the appeal, inconsistencies and dangers of New Age. Called Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life, this lengthy report, replete with 107 footnotes and an extensive bibliography, is a dispassionate and insightful commentary and evaluation of that amorphous trend called New Age.

The primary target groups for the document are those engaged in pastoral work. Because New Age has broad appeal in ways that are often subtle and seemingly innocuous, the council wanted to assist pastoral workers in better explaining how the New Age movement differs from the Christian faith.

The document's title draws attention to whether we have paid sufficient attention to the thirst in the human heart for the “living water” only Christ can provide (John 4:7-13). The better we know our faith, the more resistant we will be to New Age's myriad alien and bogus attractions.

St. Paul's exhortation in 1 Timothy 1:3-4 “to instruct certain people not to teach false doctrine or to concern themselves with myths and endless genealogies, which promote speculations rather than the plan of God that is to be received by faith,” provides the perspective in which the document is written.

What is New Age? New Age is not a single, uniform movement. Rather, it is “a loose network of practitioners whose approach is to think globally but act locally.” It is more a “milieu” or an “audience cult,” according to some observers, than a typical “movement.” Nonetheless, an identifiable current of thought runs through New Age so that even if it is not definable, it is certainly recognizable.

Although New Age is not exactly a religion, it is nevertheless interested in what it terms “divine.” Emphasizing “spirituality” to the exclusion and even discredit of religion, New Age encourages people to experience states of consciousness characterized “by a sense of harmony and fusion with the Whole.”

This variety of “mysticism” refers to a sense of being one with the universe, a sense, as Matthew Fox says in The Coming of the Cosmic Christ: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance, “a sense of letting one's individuality sink into the great ocean of Being.”

What is the appeal of New Age? The Christian religion is commonly criticized in the contemporary world for being patriarchal and authoritarian. New Age promises a freedom that is obtained at little cost. Paul Heelas, author of The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity (1996) makes the comment that New Age “does not demand any more faith or belief than going to the cinemas.”

Spirituality, in the sense of an inner experience of harmony with reality, is presumed sufficient to heal a person of his feelings of imperfection and finitude. New Age also proposes a facile cure for anxiety that results from worrying about economic instability, political uncertainty and institutional rigidity.

New Age, which represents a welcomed “paradigm shift,” favors right-brain intuitive thinking over left-brain rational thinking, feeling over reason and the feminine over the masculine. Because it dispenses with any distinction between good and evil, it offers no basis on which we could moralize or judge anyone. Thus there would be no need for forgiveness, since no one could ever sin.

Although New Age is Pelagian — conveying the message that we have no need for moral guidance and can be redeemed through our own efforts — it is nonetheless rigidly doctrinaire about our environmental responsibilities. It is not likely, however, that the morally irresponsible would also be the ecologically super-responsible.

New Age repudiates the anthropological vision of the Bible that human beings are created in the image of God, replacing it with a “bio-centric” view in which all life is of central importance. In this regard, New Age has many friends among the Gaia cult, Greenpeace and “animal rights” activists.

Several authors see New Age spiritualities as little more than forms of spiritual narcissism or pseudo-mysticism. Notions of the “self-creating self,” “the god-within,” “psychology as spirituality” and that each person is a hologram, “an image of the whole creation,” are essentially self-indulgent. Accordingly, New Age exploits pride and supplants humility.

Although New Age enthusiastically promotes “diversity,” it does not regard traditional Christianity as an acceptable option. In fact, as Elliot Miller notes in A Crash Course in the New Age (1989), “There is no tolerable place for true Christianity” within a New Age perspective.

The Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue concludes that the most obvious and urgent measure to be taken in response to the wave of New Age that is washing over the contemporary world would be “to make the most of the riches of the Christian spiritual heritage.” It advises pastors, therefore, to help people in their spiritual search by offering them time-honored ways of achieving real prayer and showing them the practical wisdom that is the legacy of their Christian tradition.

Ignorance and pride will render people highly exploitable to every passing trend. Knowledge of one's faith and humility about one's capacities for self-reliance, on the other hand, are the more secure and serviceable grounds for developing a spirituality that is truly and uncompromisingly Christian.

Dr. Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus at St. Jerome's University and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.