Why the New Age (Still) Matters

The New Age still matters because it is the best resort we have to age-old traditions of wisdom. I wanted to say that up front, even though I have never used the phrase "new Age" in any talk or writing. The New Age has become a byword for any cheap shot or automatic sneer directed toward a carnival of spiritual noodles and charlatans. But that's not the whole story, or even reality. Behind the label is something very different--a loose coalition of people who want to reach beyond organized religion and its many drawbacks.

Ever since Aldous Huxley coined the phrase "perennial philosophy," people in the West have come to realize that sectarianism is too narrow and religions too orthodox to contain a great body of wisdom that is available to every culture. The New Age is just today's Americanized version of the perennial philosophy, as Theosophy was the British version at the turn of the century.

In a word, the perennial philosophy is the search for transcendence. It's a corpus of thought which holds that higher realities are real.

At this moment in time, there is no doubt that organized religion is serving reactionary social forces (not for the first time). This has left a spiritual vacuum in society, and although many right-thinking people deplore the carnival aspects of the New Age, it is far more deplorable to ignore the spiritual yearning that exists in every culture. The New Age may not fill the vacuum perfectly, but it has many virtues --People feel free to express themselves outside the dogma of the church. --They feel open to experiences that earlier generations denied or condemned. --They are aware that spirituality is a broad river running back for centuries. --They feel included in a magnificent human quest. --They believe that evolution of consciousness is real. --They feel included in a magnificent human quest. --They believe that evolution of consciousness is real. --They believe they can find a noble vision and begin to live up to it.

The New Age contains a lot of Old Agers, among them various Jungians and other therapists who were brought up in the Fifties, freethinkers and flower children from the Sixties, along with even earlier Theosophists, followers of teachers like J. Krishnamurti and gurus like Paramahansa Yogananda, not to mention readers of Huxley, Gerald Heard, and other expatriates who brought Vedanta to Southern California in the era before World War II. I'm sure I've left a lot more out.

The net result of this diverse movement is hard to calculate. Certainly there don't seem to be many inroads into orthodox political or religious thought, but as a grass-roots movement it is powerful; the New Age stands for the unquenchable idealism of millions of people who either flirt with the perennial philosophy or dive into it more deeply.

I don't see an alternative, frankly, unless a person wants to mount a rearguard action to revive organized religion, and that seems highly unlikely. The liberal wing of every major Christian denomination has become quiescent in the face of aggressive fundamentalism, and resorting to Buddhism, Islam, or Hinduism lands one in yet another dogma with its own constrictions. So whatever the New Age morphs into thirty years from now, it seems to be the most viable spiritual movement in place, and it deserves to be considered on its own terms, without sneers and thoughtless labels.