February 15, 2005

Defending the New Age in Catholicism.

The following is a letter to the editor which I wrote in response to the article "Gnosticism, New Age, and the Da Vinci Code--What do they have in common?" by Marcellino D'Ambrosio, Ph.D. While I believe he gives a good overview of Gnosticism, I object to his general characterization of the New Age movement as spiritually shallow and ultimately self-destructive.

Dear Editor,

I'd like to respond briefly to one of the articles in the most recent ASCC Faith Essentials newsletter: "Gnosticism, New Age, and the Da Vinci Code-- What do they Have in Common?" by Dr. Marcellino D'Ambrosio. Although Dr. D'Ambrosio's analysis of Gnosticism was thorough and confirms what I have learned while pursuing my B.A. in Comparative Religions--I feel that his critique of New Age thought (only half a paragraph long!) is shallow and misguided at best, and shows no real understanding of a movement that he has probably never deigned to study in detail. I have spent the last year of my college career researching the New Age movement (and in particular, the Neopagan movement, which is a polytheist subset) because I often find that scholars eschew this particular group as involved in meaningless "fluff." Having known people--from intelligent college professors, to engineers and scientists, some of whom still identify themselves as Catholic--involved in the New Age movement, it seems to me that dismissing them so easily stems from arrogance alone and not from any scholarly objectivity, the myth most scoffers like to cite. We should take the opportunity provided us by the birth and growth of this particular new religious movement to look at how religions grow out of (and often in tension with) mainstream culture, since that is precisely how Christianity (as well as Judaism) evolved. That said, I would just like to clarify some of Dr. D'Ambrosio's mistaken notions.

Firstly, his primary accusation that the New Age movement lacks "the Cross" (that is, lacks an acknowledgement of suffering and sacrifice) is false, in so far as it would be false to claim that since plenty of Christians pray to God asking for monetary security, Christianity as a whole can be characterized as capitalistic or materially-focused. In every religion there are people who adopt the most crude applications of its basic doctrines: Christians who understand the mystery and power of God's love to mean that God will grace them with financial success; and New Age people who take for granted the idea that a sense of mystery, awe and gratitude towards the earth and the divine cancels out any need for personal suffering on their part. Not all those in the New Age movement think this way. It's unfortunate that the "Religion" sections of most bookstores are filled with both Christians and New Agers who make those types of claims--but again, don't judge a book by its cover, or a religion by its highly-marketed, consumer-culture, mass-produced books. Many New Age adherents, Neopagans in particular, look to nature as a revelation of the Divine; and suffering and sacrifice are no strangers in nature. Connecting to the yearly agricultural cycle provides Neopagans with the opportunity to remember the reality of death and aridity, both in the physical world and those periods in one's spiritual life which must be overcome. If New Agers maintain a more hopeful attitude in the face of such trials, it is not because they deny their reality or necessity. Jesus himself went to his death with love, hope and optimism, telling those along the road not to weep for him and asking forgiveness for his torturers. Does this mean that people who try to embody that hope cannot be Catholics because one cannot be both optimistic and aware of suffering? That would be ridiculous! And so it is to direct those very same accusations against New Agers.

The second main objection that I have to Dr. D'Ambrosio's article is his assumption that everything "Eastern" is "exotic" and everything "exotic" is implicitly shallow. I won't deny that plenty of people make such assumptions (and here, Dr. D'Ambrosio is simply falling victim to the same sweeping stereotypes that the popular mind, informed by movies and television, holds to be true--though I would like to think that scholars have the responsibility of looking beyond such stereotypes). The fact is, Eastern religious traditions provide rich and complex examples of how societies function and develop while maintaining polytheist (or non-theistic) foundations that remain spiritually satisfying and fruitful. To dismiss this valuable insight into an alternative history of development just because it is different from the Western tradition seems narrow-minded. If we complain that New Agers feel a sense of mystery only because of their shallow taste for the "exotic," we must recognize that such a complaint only holds up if we assume from the beginning that Eastern religion cannot possibly hold any real insight and mystery. If we recognize that the potential for a real spiritual life exists within the Eastern traditions, then we cannot assume that any given New Age adherent hasn't made the most of that potential. If we do not acknowledge that potential in the first place, the least we can do is make our prejudice known up-front, rather than pretend it is some inherent flaw in the New Age movement that they are not more Christian. (Last time I checked, failing to be "Christian enough" was not a convincing argument against other traditions, if your goal is to support Christianity in the first place. Isn't that like saying chocolate is good for you because broccoli just isn't chocolate enough?)

I'd just like to end this horribly verbose letter by saying, I completely agree about the nonsense in The DaVinci Code. Not only is the portrait of Catholicism that it presents flat-out untrue, but it is equally shallow and misguided when it comes to describing the New Age perspective. On the upside, I know several people who, upon reading that book, became interested for the first time in comparative religious studies from a scholarly perspective. It was through my scholarship over the past several years that I myself found my way back to Catholicism, after being quite disillusioned with it while still in high school. The Church has nothing to fear from academic scrutiny. But it also has no excuse to attack or dismiss other legitimate religious perspectives. The fact is, the New Age movement has been around in various forms for almost a century and shows no signs of fading, as Dr. D'Ambrosio seems to wish so strongly. On the other hand, there is nothing about New Age thought that is fundamentally un-Christian, just as there is nothing fundamentally un-Christian about being a scientist, or a poet. They are ways in which we express and explore ourselves and our worlds and, depending on a person's attitude, all three can be pursued in a distinctly Christian way. The Church will have to acknowledge this at some point, and learn to treat its "New Agers" with the same tolerance, encouragement and respect with which it treats its artists and writers. Otherwise, it will ultimately be Catholicism that suffers from the aridity of an over-developed concern for appearing foolish.



At 16.2.05, Blogger dondrup said...

nice intelligent blog: a rarity! thanks.


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