|Milton Manor House, Oxfordshire|
A few years ago on the LMS Walking Pilgrimage to Walsingham I noticed that four of my fellow pilgrims were converts to the Catholic faith from Buddhism. Buddhism is not a major religion in the UK, so the coincidence was rather remarkable. Indeed, in a number of obvious ways Buddhism presents a very marked contrast to Catholicism, and traffic between Buddhism and Catholicism tends to flow the other way. In fact, three out of these four pilgrims had been Western converts to Buddhism, before they came to the Catholic Church.
Buddhism in the West is part of a wider phenomenon, of the attraction posed by eastern spirituality to post-Christin or nominally Christian westerners. This eastern spirituality is often somewhat re-packaged for western tastes, and only the most serious-minded go the whole hog and become Buddhists. Far more popular are the (apparently) nice bits of eastern spirituality, such as reincarnation and the idea of self-realisation, without the asceticism and the infinitessimal prospects of success. Add these to a bit of Tarot-reading, Astrology, the 'all-religions-are-one' dogma of Freemasonry, and other bits of Western-inspired clap-trap, and you have the New Age Movement. This soup of influences is united by the idea that we can free ourselves from soul-cramping restrictions imposed by bad upbring, traditions, and habits, by spiritual techniques, such as meditation, perhaps aided by Yoga, or maybe even drugs.
It is easy to make it sound silly, but it is ubiquitous. We no longer live in a Christian society, but that does not mean there is no spiritual narrative guiding people's lives. Instead of seeking salvation and transformation by Christ, a high proportion of the other people on you local bus would probably agree that they are ultimately concerned with gaining self-realisation through techniques: as the New Agers say, by 'working on themselves'. It may be positive thinking, it may be the gym, it may be a new diet. But it is spiritual, in the sense that it concerns what is most central to them, and what, if anything, has transcendent value. Of course they may not use these terms, but we can determine that we are not simply dealing with material ambition, whether healthy or pathological, because it is about making themselves not just better off, but better people. In this sense, it has replaced religion in their lives - even if some of them still pop in to church occasionally.
Not all of the people on the bus who think about the kind of person they want to be can, in the end, work up the energy to give up red meat, take up Yoga, lose two stone, or whatever it is they think might help. It remains true, however, that, instead of seeking salvation from Christ, they are seeking, well or badly, self-realisation through techniques. If they are to convert to Catholicism, they will need to give up the idea that their ultimately important destiny is some vision of self-perfection. They will have got to accept, what they or their parents or grandparents rejected, the Christian narrative of sin, grace, and redemption, an external and personal God, and an eternal heaven and hell.
The New Age spiritual narrative, as I have described it, has replaced the Christan one for most of the population of the English-speaking world since the 1960s. Even if the hard-core, self-identified, tofu-eating, sandal-wearing, New Agers are relatively few, in this more general sense their ideas have won.
It is a matter of no small interest, then, why they have won, and how this victory can be reversed. I was able to consult a good number of Traditional Catholics who had spent time in the the New Age and Occult milieu, to help with the development of this Position Paper. Thus is not just armchair theorising: it is informed by first-hand experience.
So here in a nutshell is the argument of the paper. If the New Age spiritual narrative won, it must have been more attractive than the alternatives apparently available. The New Age is, among other things, a revolt against rationalism and moralism, and a search for the mysterious and transformative. The major alternative in the English-speaking world in the 1970s was a Protestantism which has ceased to believe in itself, and had never been very good at offering its adherents transformative mystery, in liturgy and spirituality. Catholicism, which had been good at doing that, quite suddenly stopped doing it, just at the moment the New Age was gaining momentum.
Here's the pitch. You're not being offered anything impressive or exciting by conventional religion? You are feeling a bit depressed and a bit uptight? Use these techniques to unlock your inner potential because, yes, you are a wonderful person, if only you knew it, and you just have to free yourself.
Those who do try the techniques can feel a bit buzzy and euphoric, and when that wears off there are more, stronger, techniques to try. Some of them contain perfectly genuine benefits, to health for example. Some are very dangerous. But you'll be dead long before you've tried them all.
The Church can't combat this by offering some watered-down New Ageism. It can offer the profound in place of the superficial, the objective in place of the subjective, and the real in place of the fake. It can offer a transcending mystery which really can heal and transform. It can open the door the New Ager is knocking on. The traditional liturgy is the ideal means to do this.
Click on the label 'New Age' to see other things I written here about it.
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