Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 3, 2003
Misconceptions about New Age
Further Vatican reflection needed on certain points
By By FR. THOMAS RYAN, csp
Special to the WCR
In a preceding article, I listed a number of points on which the Vatican document released in February renders genuine service in clarifying the fog surrounding certain New Age tendencies. The working group who produced it, representing four Vatican offices, released it as a "provisional text," offering it for discussion and reflection as an aid to discernment.
Some points which they will hopefully revisit:
Gnosticism is cited as a well-spring for New Age thought. A dualistic religious movement that emerged in the second century, Gnosticism presented salvation as spiritual elements being freed 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 which advertising connected with New Age purportedly covers. The text later recognizes that some practices are incorrectly labelled 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.
Christian prayer, the document argues, is not an exercise in stillness. Countless monastics, as well as meditators in the Christian meditation groups of Dom John Main, osb, or the Centring Prayer groups of Father Thomas Keating, ocso, would be surprised to hear it.
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. And yet, Augustine, Anselm and Thomas Aquinas all denied that we can conceive of God.
"The mere use of the term New Age in itself means little, if anything."
- Vatican reflection
The 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."
If we are interested in dialogue, our mystical tradition could find a fuller voice in the document. Yes, "absorption of the human I in the divine will never be possible," 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" (John 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 Peter 1:4). "I live now, not I, but Christ lives in me" (Galatians 2:20).
In his Spiritual Canticle John of the Cross speaks of "a total transformation in the Beloved": "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."
The Vatican's Christian Reflection on the New Age shows the readiness of the Catholic Church to engage the modern world in constructively critical dialogue. Whatever reservations we may have about the provisional nature of this latest exercise to that end, the commitment to reflection and dialogue is eminently positive. The Church is not sticking its head in the sand on the cultural and religious currents of our time.
Keep near to hand these words from the Reflection: "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."
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