New age is old hat

Randall Balmer

May 29, 1991|By Randall Balmer

NEW AGE spirituality, America's pop religion of the 1980s, may be on the decline.

According to a recent poll, only 28,000 Americans identified themselves as devotees, whereas as late as 1989, J. Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, Calif., estimated that 25 percent of the U.S. population was involved in some aspect of the New Age movement.

The truth, I suspect, lies somewhere in between. The level of participation in New Age spirituality, however, is difficult to gauge because of its elastic nature. New Age religion, as propagated by zealous practitioners in the 1980s, encompassed anything from astrology to crystals, from belief in UFOs to channeling with various ancient spirits.

A number of celebrities -- Marsha Mason, Tina Turner and especially Shirley MacLaine, among many others -- enthused about the benefits of meditation, the healing properties of crystals or the salutary advice offered by ancient masters such as Mafu and Ramtha.

MacLaine's book, "Out on a Limb," which lent new meaning to the term "self-indulgence," became a kind of manifesto of the New Age movement.

In August 1987, an estimated 20,000 people participated in a "harmonic convergence" at various "sacred sites" from Central Park to Mount Shasta, Calif. The New Age even inspired (if that's the word) its own music, a kind of dreamy jazz that provides the sensation of drowning in a sea of marzipan.

There was, in fact, very little new about the New Age. Those looking for precursors found them in a variety of 19th century spiritualist movements, including Emma Curtis Hopkins and the New Thought movement, Helen Petrovna Blavatsky and Theosophy or even Emmanuel Swedenborg and Franz Anton Mesmer, an Austrian healer and showman from whom we derive the term "mesmerized."

The eclecticism of the New Age also made it a quintessentially American movement in that the overriding characteristic of American religiosity is its makeshift quality. Lacking strong denominational boundaries, liturgical rubrics or confessional standards, Americans have always taken the liberty to fashion their own religious beliefs and theological systems with little regard for internal contradictions or inconsistencies.

It comes as little surprise, therefore, that New Agers would, say, peruse astrology charts or attend a seminar on channeling during the week and then show up at a Presbyterian worship service on Sunday morning. As historians Jon Butler and David Hall have shown, even the earliest colonists combined beliefs in the occult with more "orthodox" Protestant doctrines.

Despite its apparent appeal, however, has the New Age finally run its course? I suspect so. No other religion more aptly fit the temper of the 1980s than the New Age, and not simply because Nancy Reagan religiously consulted astrology charts and spiritual advisers.

For all of its professed transcendence of earthly concerns, the New Age embodied nothing so clearly as it did individualism and materialism. While most religions at least claim to address an adherent's relationship with some higher being, New Age spirituality was almost entirely self-centered -- exploring the ways that an individual can attain healing, self-actualization or inner harmony. Most religions offer some sense of community with like-minded believers, but the closest the New Age came to community was a New Age bookstore.

Materialism? Check out those bookstores. Or you might opt to sign up for a seminar or workshop on New Age spirituality at several hundred dollars a pop. If you want a private audience with Mafu or Ramtha or some other fount of wisdom, a second mortgage might be in order.

In short, despite the contrary political views of some of its most visible proponents, New Age religion belongs alongside yuppies, Michael Milken, Ivan Boesky and Ronald Reagan as yet another example of the self-aggrandizing tendencies of an entire decade.

Some cultural observers suggest that the 90s will be different, that ostentation and self-interest are fading now in favor of compassion and altruism. If so, I expect that interest in New Age spirituality will also wane.

Now if we can just get rid of that awful music.

Randall Balmer teaches at Barnard College.

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