Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of February 24, 2003
Vatican maps elusive New Age
Church officials call for discernment in the Christ-Aquarius dialogue
By FR. THOMAS RYAN, csp
Special to the WCR
Jesus Christ, the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the 'New Age' was jointly released by four Vatican offices Feb. 3 in Rome as a 90-page booklet. The Working Group for New Religious Movements had previously produced the 1986 document Sects and New Religious Movements.
There is a chorus of voices in the text, and they are not always singing in harmony. One feels, by turns, the pastoral voice seeking "to engage in dialogue with those who are influenced by New Age thought," and one hears the dogmatic voice saying to those who wonder 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."
In the end, it declares "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." And 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.
The five Vatican offices collaborating in the reflection undoubtedly recognized the uneven emphases in the text, likely resulting in their releasing 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. New Age is slippery because 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 an association of activities that cover the spectrum.
Working with this handicap, the chorus of voices in the end hits some richly resonant notes and makes a genuinely positive contribution to its stated goal of encouraging discernment. Some of the points most worth noting:
It is clearly a call to Christians to open their own treasure chest and become more familiar with the riches within.
The document offers these reflections to aid in discernment by those who are exploring contemporary religiosity for sound reference points in realizing 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.
- In New Age, 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. Alterity or "otherness" yields to transpersonality.
- New Age 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.
- The understanding of reincarnation is not that of the Eastern religions (painful purification), but the Western version of a gradual ascent towards the perfect development of one's potential.
- An implicit pantheism is at work in the sense that becoming divine basically means recognizing and accepting that we are divine, in contrast to the Christian understanding of divinization as only possible by virtue of God's free gift of grace working in us - a union seen as communion, as unity in community.
Care for the environment in general terms is a timely sign of a fresh concern for what God has given us, but "deep ecology" is often based on pantheistic principles.
- Spirituality in New Age terms means experiencing states of consciousness dominated by a harmony and fusion with the whole, so mysticism refers not to meeting the transcendent God in the fullness of love, but to a sense of being at one with the universe.
- There is no need for a revelation or salvation which would come to people from outside themselves, but simply a need to experience the salvation hidden within themselves by mastering psycho-physical techniques leading to enlightenment.
- There is 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 their Christic nature), but the reference is not to Jesus as the Christ.
- What really is new is that New Age is a conscious search for an alternative to Western culture and its Judeo-Christian religious roots.
"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."
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