Not long ago I was walking through the aisles of a New Age fair in the suburbs of Chicago. All the usual suspects were there: booths for Baha’i and Eckankar; ladies selling essences and fragrances; bodyworkers offering ten minutes of chair massage; psychics inspecting the etheric fields of their subjects. Like most New Age events I have gone to over the past decade, the fair had a tired quality to it.
I could simply be jaded. I’ve been going to such gatherings for over thirty years now, and at this point they hardly impress me with their novelty. But I may not be alone. One has the sense that for many, the energy that gave rise to the New Age has ebbed.
Even the term “New Age” has come to sound stale, harking back to the ’80s and the Harmonic Convergence, and, still further, to the spirituality of the 1960s counterculture. Commercial interests have backed away from the name, preferring the term “mind-body-spirit” or “MBS.” In January 2012, New Age Retailer, the primary trade magazine for this field in the US, changed its name to Retailing Insight.
Was the New Age a fad? Was it a noble but misguided hope that the world was ready for an enlightenment to which it now seems indifferent or hostile? Probably neither. More likely this is the case: much of what the New Age pioneered, including yoga, meditation, and organic foods, has become mainstream. Thus you could say the New Age won out in many ways – but at the cost of seeming fresh.
What about its ideas? Many of them too entered the mainstream and have even become clichés. At this point it may be useful to step back and look at some of the clichés of the New Age and see how well they stand up.
The New Age
Let’s start with the phrase “New Age” itself. It goes back far beyond the ’60s, even beyond the turn of the twentieth century. It first started being used in 1864, when an American clergyman, Warren Felt Evans, published a book entitled The New Age and Its Messenger.
Evans was propounding the ideas of the great Swedish visionary Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772). In the 1740s Swedenborg underwent a series of spiritual awakenings that, he said, gave him access to the invisible realms and to the hidden meanings of Scripture. One of his most remarkable claims was that the Last Judgment of the Bible had no resemblance to the way it was seen by conventional Christianity. It was never meant to mean Christ’s second coming on earth. In fact it took place entirely in the world of spirits, a realm which, in Swedenborg’s theology, occupies a middle place between heaven and hell and serves as a clearinghouse for the newly deceased. This spirit realm had accumulated a great deal of debris, such as base and mean entities, and it needed a housecleaning. The Lord accomplished this in the year 1757.
This Last Judgment, according to Swedenborg, had no immediate consequences for life on earth. Its only effect would be to weaken the power of spiritual tyranny and oppression (notably on the part of the Catholic Church, but also among the Protestants). New horizons on the spiritual world would therefore open. This was the New Age that Evans proclaimed, and Swedenborg was its messenger.
In his way Swedenborg was right. Many of the religious shackles that seemed solid in the eighteenth century have been broken. There is still a great deal of nonsense, deception, and crime in religion, but there is also much more freedom of inquiry – even the freedom not to believe if you don’t want to.
Since the nineteenth century, Swedenborg has faded into comparative obscurity, and Evans, once a best-selling author, has been almost completely forgotten. But the term “New Age” was given new life in the twentieth century by figures such as the British esotericist Alice Bailey, and, as we have seen, the New Age as an ideal reached its own peak in the late twentieth century.
To go back to the initial question: how much truth is there in this idea of a New Age?
In a trivial sense, every age is a new age. Today we face unprecedented dangers and opportunities. So did our fathers; so did our grandfathers. So will our children and grandchildren. Thus it has been since the beginning of history.