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Thomas RyanMarch 24, 2003

A document entitled Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the “New Age” was jointly released by four Vatican offices on Feb. 3 in Rome as a 90-page booklet complete with a select glossary of New Age terms.


There is a chorus of voices in the text, and they are not always singing in harmony. While one hears the pastoral voice seeking “to engage in dialogue with those who are influenced by New Age thought,” one also hears the dogmatic voice responding to those who ask if it is possible to believe in both Christ and Aquarius that “this is very much an either-or situation.” While the tone is dialogical and pastoral, the content is the product of a mind made up.

In the beginning, the text says that “it would be unwise and untrue to say that everything connected with the New Age movement is good, or that everything about it is bad.” Toward the end it declares that “the Gnostic nature of this movement calls us to judge it in its entirety. From the point of view of Christian faith, it is not possible to isolate some elements of New Age religiosity as acceptable to Christians, while rejecting others.” Shortly thereafter, it states “the pope recognizes in this cultural trend some positive aspects, such as the search for meaning in life, a new ecological sensitivity and the desire to go beyond a cold, rationalistic religiosity.” Many voices indeed.

The Working Group for New Religious Movements, which is responsible for this reflection, produced in 1986 a document entitled Sects and New Religious Movements. Involved in this ongoing collaboration are the Pontifical Council for Culture, the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity and the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. Since the reflection on the New Age raised some doctrinal issues, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith also weighed in.

The five offices undoubtedly recognized the uneven emphases in the text, which is perhaps why they released it as a “provisional” document, whose stated purpose is “to help Catholics find a key to understanding the basic principles behind New Age thinking, so that they can then make a Christian evaluation.”

This is not an easy undertaking. The phenomenon calledNew Ageis slippery: it is a loose association of people who by and large never meet as such, an association of ideas that are not articulated with the clarity of doctrines in mainstream religions, and a disparate association of activities.

Despite this handicap, the chorus of voices hits some richly resonant notes and makes a genuinely positive contribution to its stated goal of encouraging discernment. Here are some of the points most worth noting.

In New Age, the reflection points out, the distinction between good and evil is fudged. “Human actions are the fruit of either illumination or ignorance. Hence we cannot condemn anyone and nobody needs forgiveness.... There is no sin; only imperfect knowledge.”

In the New Age search for wholeness, there is a tendency to eliminate all forms of “dualism”—between creator and creature, humanity and nature, spirit and matter, male and female, earth and cosmos. “Otherness” yields to “transpersonality.”

New Age thinking also involves “a fundamental belief in the perfectibility of the human person by means of a wide variety of techniques and therapies,” in contrast to the Christian view of cooperation with divine grace. Consistent with this, the understanding of reincarnation is not that of Eastern religions (that is, painful purification), but the Western version of a gradual ascent toward the perfect development of one’s potential.

The document notes that an “implicit pantheism” is at work in New Age thinking in the sense that becoming divine basically means recognizing and accepting that we are divine, in contrast to the Christian understanding of divinization as possible only by virtue of God’s free gift of grace working in us—a union seen as communion, as unity in community. “There is no need for a Revelation or Salvation which would come to people from outside themselves,” the reflection observes, “but simply a need to experience the salvation hidden within themselves by mastering psycho-physical techniques leading to enlightenment.”

To be sure, there is New Age talk of God (as an impersonal energy, immanent in the world with which it forms a cosmic unity), but it is not a personal God. There is talk of Christ (someone who has arrived at a state of divine consciousness of his or her Christic nature), but the reference is not to Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ.

Spirituality in New Age terms means “experiencing states of consciousness dominated by a sense of harmony and fusion with the Whole, so mysticism refers not to meeting the transcendent God in the fullness of love...but to an exhilarating sense of being at one with the universe.” How much do the activities in which people are involved, the document asks, enable them to work for the common good? “The question to ask is whether they promote self or solidarity, not only with whales, trees, or like-minded people, but with the whole of creation including the whole of humanity.”

Care for the environment, in general terms, is welcomed as a timely sign of a fresh concern for what God has given us, but a “deep ecology,” which sees the cosmos permeated with a divine soul or spirit, raises once again the specter of pantheism.

“What really is new,” the reflection states, “is that New Age is a conscious search for an alternative to Western culture and its Judeo-Christian religious roots.”

In reading these points it is important to remember that there is no identifiable organization called New Age. Somewhat analogous to the Vatican’s refutation of Modernism early in the 20th century, these points are drawn from various currents that are in loose association with one another, and the mere listing of them can suggest there is more reality or coherence to the movement than it actually has. That said, the tone of this document is very different from the decree Lamentabili and the encyclical Pascendi, which condemned Modernism in a way that failed to make careful distinctions. These reflections are offered as an aid in discernment for those who are exploring contemporary religiosity for sound reference points out of a desire to realize greater fullness in their lives. It is clearly a call to Christians to open their own treasure chest and become more familiar with the riches within. “Emphasizing what is lacking in other approaches should not be the main priority” the reflection says. “It is more a question of constantly revisiting the sources of our own faith, so that we can offer a good, sound presentation of the Christian message.”

The reflection cites Zen and yoga as “traditions which flow into New Age” and describes Zen, yoga and transcendental meditation as “leading to an experience of self-fulfillment and enlightenment.” While New Age has not hesitated to draw upon these practices, the yogic and Buddhist traditions themselves, which predate and stand on their own outside of the New Age movement, would have critical things to say, for example, about their commercialization under New Age auspices and their use for purposes of self-centered fulfillment. These consciousness disciplines may thus be colored in the experience of some with a New Age emphasis on “self-power” versus “other-power”; for example, one relies on one’s own concentration and awareness in order to move the ego to a deeper identity.

As the document implies, it is incumbent on Christians working with these disciplines to apply to their practice a Christian understanding. The understanding that distinguishes the Christian approach to a spiritual practice or method is not that one will achieve union with God by dint of one’s own effort, but that through the practice one will provide the opening where God’s grace can effectively enter in and do its healing, transforming and unifying work. Further, what makes a particular practice Christian is not its source, but its intent. If one’s intent in assuming a particular practice is to deepen awareness in Christ, then it is Christian. If this is not one’s intent, then even the reading of Scriptures loses its authenticity.

There is an occasion for dialogue here, and the softer, pastoral tone of the document renders service in reminding Christians of the logic and dynamic of Christian prayer. At the same time, in our dialogue with other religions today, we need to accept humbly the wisdom now available to us from particular Eastern religions, especially in relation to the body. Christian faith may have the highest theology of the body among all religions, but it also has one of the lowest levels of practice. Selective attention to Eastern spiritual practices can be of great assistance to a fully embodied Christian life. They can also provide challenge to the secularization of the body dominant in Western science and cultural life.

A “provisional” document, such as this one, invites discussion and recognizes that further refinement is possible. Here are some points that I hope the Working Group on New Religious Movements might revisit.

Gnosticism is cited as a wellspring for New Age thought. A dualistic religious movement that emerged in the second century, Gnosticism presented salvation as a result of the freeing of spiritual elements from an evil material environment. It is difficult to see in what sense this holds true for New Age thought, whose consistent tendency, as the Vatican text repeatedly notes, is to overcome all forms of dualism, delighting in our physical being and merging with the material universe through it. Perhaps its references to Gnosticism are more limited to Gnostic reclamation of a privileged knowledge of God and of human destiny from secret traditions and revelations, but more qualification is needed here.

Twelve-step programs are listed among a wide range of practices that advertising connected with New Age purportedly covers. The text later recognizes that some practices are incorrectly labeled as New Age and are not truly associated with its worldview, saying “this only adds to the confusion.” The inclusion of 12-Step programs in the document is a case in point. Widely considered a gift of American spirituality to world spirituality, the 12 steps are generally viewed to be in harmony with Pauline and Augustinian spirituality; acknowledging one’s helplessness apart from grace, doing a moral inventory, seeking forgiveness for wrongs committed and recognizing a transcendent power.

At several points in the text, the Christian contemplative and mystical tradition also seems to be given short shrift. Christian prayer, the document argues, is not an exercise in stillness. Countless monastics, as well as the now worldwide network of meditators in the Christian meditation groups of Dom John Main, O.S.B., or the centering prayer groups of Thomas Keating, O.C.S.O., would be surprised to hear this. The recovery of the contemplative tradition of Christian prayer as a birthright for all the baptized has been one of the great graces of our time and has spread like a prairie fire around the world. One might justifiably ask, Where is the witness here to the wonderfully rich Christian apophatic tradition?

In the same vein, the reflection asserts that the Christian concept of God is very clear. Yet Augustine, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas are all on record as acknowledging our limitations in knowing who or what God is. The whole Christian apophatic tradition is built upon the awareness that all our words and images and concepts are inadequate to grasp God and thus ultimately break apart, leaving us, in the words of the psalmist, to “be still and know that I am God.”

Our mystical tradition deserves a fuller voice in the document in any ongoing dialogue. It is true that “absorption of the human I in the divine will never be possible,” as the text declares; but, absorption aside, Jesus, Peter, Paul and many other Christian mystics have used radical language to describe our communion with God. “So that they may be one as we are one, I in them, and you in me, that they may become completely one” (Jn 17:23). “Thus he has given us...his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may...become participants of the divine nature” (2 Pt 1:4). “I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me” (Gal 2:20). John of the Cross speaks of “a total transformation in the Beloved” in his Spiritual Canticle: “This union resembles the light of a star or candle with the light of the sun, for what then sheds light is not the star or the candle, but the sun, which has absorbed the other two into its own.”

On another front, the text refers to a concerted effort to “invent a Global Ethic, an ethical framework which would reflect the global nature of contemporary culture, economics and politics.” It disparagingly relates this effort to the New Age goal of superseding or transcending particular religions in order to create space for a universal religion that could unite humanity. But it would be unfair to color with this brush the “Initial Declaration Towards a Global Ethic” produced by a group of 200 scholars and theologians representing the world’s communities of faith and signed by respective leaders from all religions at the World Parliament of Religions in 1993 in Chicago. They affirmed that “a common set of core values is found in the teachings of the religions, and that these form the basis of a global ethic.” The Catholic Church in general and Pope John Paul II in particular have been consistent proponents of staking out such common ground. And it was in recognition of this that Cardinal Joseph Bernardin signed the statement.

In some of these points, such as our mystical and contemplative traditions or the effort to forge some principles of a global ethic, one sees the same tendency that played out in debates during the era of the Reformation and Counter Reformation. One side, in an effort to highlight perceived shortcomings in the approach of the other side, overstates its case for clarity’s sake and in so doing overlooks some areas of genuine overlap in their respective approaches. It has taken the Lutheran and Catholic Churches 450 years finally to admit some legitimacy in each other’s approaches to justification and to recognize that there is some common ground.

The most important lines in the document, I believe, are these: “It is essential to see whether phenomena linked to this [New Age] movement reflect or conflict with the Christian vision of God, the human person and the world. The mere use of the term New Age in itself means little, if anything. The relationship of the person, group, practice or commodity to the central tenets of Christianity is what counts.”

The Vatican’s Christian Reflection on the “New Age” could be seen as an expression of the Catholic Church’s readiness to engage the modern world in constructively critical dialogue; or it could be seen as a call to arms to defend the faith on a European continent with shrinking levels of Christian practice. There is probably something of both in it. Whatever reservations we may have about this text, the commitment to reflection and dialogue with cultural and religious currents of our time is eminently positive. There is a humble recognition that “the search which often leads people to the New Age is a genuine yearning for a deeper spirituality, for something which will touch their hearts, and for a way of making sense of a confusing and often alienating world.” Christians are challenged, says the text in closing, “to take the message of the cathedrals [traditional religions] to the people in the world-wide [New Age] fair.”

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