by Michael Maciel
The New Age Movement has been criticized (justifiably, in my opinion) of being unable to think critically. Too much is believed simply because people want to believe it, not because it’s true.
The Holy Order of MANS would not be classified as a New Age group today, even though it identified itself as such in the beginning, because the term has taken on a much broader, mostly negative connotation. Much of what passes for New Age is merely imaginative and not related to reality—not at any level.
In order to think critically, we have to be willing to question our most fundamental presuppositions, which most of us have been doing for a while now. But there is still the tendency to adopt a rather anti-intellectual stance when it comes to the Teachings, a kind of prejudice against the mind, since the Self is, after all, “more than the mind of man can conceive.”
This prejudice manifests itself whenever we are faced with new information that pertains to consciousness and the reality of who and what we are. Understandably, we tend to be wary of neuroscience, biology, and psychology because these relatively new fields seem to push aside metaphysics, placing the center of our existence solely within our physical body.
Having seen the Self, however, we know that we are not our body, that we are a “spiritual being having a physical experience.” But our Western Esoteric Judeo-Christian Tradition has a much more sophisticated, nuanced, and (dare I say) intellectual take on this subject.
Saying that we are a “spiritual being having a human experience” is a holdover from a previous war—the war against scientific materialism, which said that there is no such thing as a “spiritual” reality. The advent of Eastern Philosophy in the West, championed by such people as Swami Vivekananda, Madame Blavatsky, Annie Besant, and others, reasserted what Christian scholars and mystics had been saying all along but had been steadily beaten down by the Industrial Revolution and the scientific materialism that made it possible. Notions of “heaven” and “soul” became more and more untenable among the intelligentsia, and gradually religion of all denominations was demoted to mere superstition.
Then came the New Age Movement, bolstered by out-of-body experiences made possible in large part by psychedelic drugs, and the war against scientific materialism flared up again. Only this time it came in a non-scholarly, populist form based on a new kind of experiential, “faith-based” fervor that sought direct experiences over intellectual understanding. And as populist movements are wont to do, it devalued intellectualism, even though some of its most outstanding proponents, such as Aldous Huxley (The Doors of Perception) and Alan Watts were some of the most astute intellectuals of their day.
There were others, however, who taught a non-intellectual approach, and they drew much larger crowds, such as Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (Transcendental Meditation) and Swami Prabhupada (Hare Krishna Movement), who eschewed intellectualism in favor of ecstatic bliss. They were the Eastern equivalents of the West’s charismatic leaders, those whom we would later identify more with Christian Fundamentalism than Catholicism, Protestantism, or Orthodoxy.
It is the fundamentalist style of the New Age Movement that today’s more critical thinkers find objectionable. They see it as anti-intellectual, anti-science, and prone to political populism (rarely, if ever, a good thing) both of the Right and the Left. It is always those who believe that they are doing God’s will who are the most dangerous, whether their god is spiritual or material (political) in nature. They are the ones who have proven throughout history to be the most destructive to civilization.
As it seems to always happen—spiritual ideologies tend to spill over into political ideologies, and vice versa. They tend to mirror each other, because politics is based on values, and values are based on beliefs. In these unfortunate days of extreme political polarization, both the Right and the Left have become more like fundamentalist religious movements than legitimate political movements. They are based on beliefs and are, therefore, not subject to rational debate. There is no possibility for either side to convince the other because dialogue itself is forbidden. Neither side will even discuss alternative viewpoints to the ones they have deemed self-evidently true. One has only to look at the current debates centered around political correctness and free speech to see that rational debate has succumbed to irrational stand-offs.
As a community of illumined and realized spiritually-minded people, we must be careful not to fall into the fundamentalist ways of thinking that have derailed countless spiritual communities in the past. We must instead embrace new knowledge as it evolves and never shy away from enlightened debate. If anything characterizes this New Age we find ourselves in, it is change. And it’s not even change itself that characterizes our times but the rate of change. What used to take years or decades to be discovered now happens on a monthly basis. Never before has humanity experienced an accelerated rate of change as we are experiencing now. It’s important, therefore, that we keep an open yet critical mind, especially when it comes to our own beliefs. What’s true today may not be true tomorrow, and what seems self-evident to us now may turn out to be our most profound blindspot.
This is not to say that everything is up for grabs, that there is no such thing as universal and timeless truths. But such truths tend not to lend themselves to populist political movements, nor do they fit well into fundamentalist religious (or spiritual) ideologies. What makes an ideology? Any time we believe that every problem has a single cause and that every question has a single answer, we become ideologically possessed.
This is why victim-consciousness is so pernicious and dangerous—the belief that all human affairs are based on an oppressor/oppressed narrative. This is why blaming all of life’s inequities on the “patriarchy” or “white male privilege” can only be, in the long run, completely destructive to our free and open civil society. Not because our system is perfect (far from it) but because any argument that declares power to be the sole determinator of social justice is doomed to failure, because civilizations do not thrive by power but by cooperation and mutual trust. Trust is our highest social ideal. Without it, there is only war.
If anything distinguishes the Western Judeo-Christian Philosophy from the East, it is our emphasis on the sovereignty of the individual, which means that each person must take responsibility for the spiritual health of the world. The concept of the sovereignty of the individual is not as much about individual rights as it is about individual responsibility. It is the duty of each individual to give him or herself to the good of the whole and to do that voluntarily. It is this last part—voluntarily—that forms the basis of individual rights. One cannot be responsible unless he has the right to choose. Otherwise, it’s just slavery. Rights and responsibilities are inextricably intertwined.
There really is no idea that is more spiritual than this. Not here, not in this earthly realm. Christianity is, after all, centered around one simple yet inscrutable truth—the Incarnation—not of one man at one time in history, but of every person at all times. It’s about bringing heaven down to Earth. It’s about the full embodiment of God in the Flesh—the atonement, the redemption, the Way.
We must never turn our backs on the physical part of our existence. To do so is to over-react to the false claims of scientific materialism. It is a throwback to the populist belief in extremes, which says that if your opponent believes one thing, it is your sworn duty to go as far as possible to the opposite extreme. When in the entire history of our human race has this worked out well?