Heeding the Times from Harry Antonides' Desk

New Age or Old Heresy?

April 1, 1991 -

For the first time in history, humankind has come upon the control panel of change—an understanding of how transformation occurs. We are living in the change of change, the time in which we can intentionally align ourselves with nature for rapid remaking of ourselves and our collapsing institutions . . .

Human nature is neither good nor bad but open to continuous transformation and transcendence. It has only to discover itself. The new perspective respects the ecology of everything: birth, death, learning, health, family, work, science, spirituality, the arts, the community, relationships, politics.

—Marilyn Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy (J.P. Tarcher, 1980), 29. 

The New Age movement deserves our attention because its impact is felt in just about every sector of our society, including the business world. The difficulty in defining this movement is that it is a broad amalgam of ideas, people, and organizations that lacks a clearly defined structure and focus.

Our task is made more difficult by the fact that the underlying beliefs and ideas of the New Age are borrowed from a variety of sources, including the Eastern religions, psychology, ecology, science, and Western secular thought. This disparate list of sources presents us with a puzzle, namely, how can Western secular thought, with its emphasis on the rational and material, find an alliance with the religions of the East, which denigrate the rational and material in favour of the spiritual and mystical? Understanding the answer to that question will obviously provide an important clue to the New Age conundrum.

A Time of Crisis

Despite the ambiguity and diversity of the New Age movement, it is motivated by a core of shared beliefs and goals. Its central message can be summarized as follows: The world as we know it is at the conclusion of one phase. It will end in complete disaster unless we make the transition to the new phase (the age of Aquarius) by understanding and mastering the process of change through mobilizing the power of our minds. This is what Marilyn Ferguson has in mind when she writes (as shown above) that "for the first time in history humankind has come upon the control panel of change," and "we can intentionally align ourselves with nature for rapid remaking of ourselves and our collapsing institutions." Fritjof Capra, another leading spokesman for the New Age, writes that we are in a "profound, world-wide crisis," and that "we have to face the very real threat of extinction of the human race and of all life on this planet" (Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point; Bantam Books, 1982; 29).

Thus the essential message of the New Age is twofold. First, our present world is faced with imminent destruction. Second, we have it within our power to avert disaster and build a new world of peace, harmony, and wholeness.

It is not surprising that many people who are spiritually adrift and troubled by a world that seems to teeter from one crisis to another are receptive to the New Age message of hope and renewal. At a time when many people experience the world as a threatening and dangerous place, they appear to be listening to the new gospel of peace and harmony. That is all the more reason why a careful discerning of the spirits underlying this particular movement is in order.

A New Worldview: Cosmic Consciousness

What, according to the New Age, is the fundamental cause of the global crisis that threatens to destroy us? A short answer to that question goes as follows: The traditional, dominant worldview of the West is materialistic and rationalistic so that the world is perceived as a collection of separate atoms, things, people, institutions, and events. The prevailing mindset is instigated by greed, competition, and warlike attitudes which give rise to crises, economic and political disorder, and social and personal breakdown. New Agers insist that we need a new worldview. They argue that the central reality of our existence is unity, wholeness, harmony, integration, and interdependency. This worldview can be summarized in the following simple statement: All is one. In other words, what we traditionally perceive to be individual and identifiable entities, things, or people, are really illusions. The reality is that individuals are parts of the universe waiting to be dissolved as separate beings and, as it were, be reborn into the one, cosmic, universal Self.

At the same time, New Agers also seek to find support for their worldview in a scientific explanation of the universe. Thus enters systems theory which holds that all existence is part of a cosmic whole and that all reality ultimately consists of energy or force rather than tangible things, including even atomic or subatomic particles. As Fritjof Capra explains:

In contrast to the mechanistic Cartesian view of the world, the world view emerging from modem physics can be characterized by words like organic, holistic, and ecological. It might also be called a systems view, in the sense of general systems theory. The universe is no longer seen as a machine, made up of a multitude of objects, but has to be pictured as one indivisible, dynamic whole whose parts are essentially interrelated and can be understood only as patterns of a cosmic process (Capra, 77, 78). 

The following four themes of the New Age are a logical outcome of its monistic ("all is one") starting point: man is God, man is immortal, there is no right or wrong, and we are the creators of our own world.

Man is God

If all is one, then God too is part of the world, a belief that is as old as the religion of pantheism. But if there is no difference between God and the rest of reality, it means that we (human beings) too are gods. This is exactly what the New Agers proclaim. They do not recognize the biblical idea of sin (as estrangement between God and man) as the root cause of evil and disharmony. Instead, they are convinced that the problem with the present world is a lack of awareness (enlightenment) of those who are not conscious of their own divinity. The task is to bring people to the awareness (consciousness) that they are indeed gods. Some of the New Age spokespersons put this in very bold terms. For example, Shirley MacLaine said, "You must never worship anyone or anything other than self. For you are God" (Shirley MacLaine, in John Stanhope, "Understanding the New Age," Faith Today, May/June 1989, 23). Theodore Roszak explained that the goal of the New Age is "to awaken to the god who sleeps at the root of the human being" (Theodore Roszak, in Douglas Groothuis, Unmasking the New Age, InterVarsity Press, 1986, 21).

With special emphasis on the workplace, Werner Erhard (well known leader of management training seminars) has claimed, "You're god in your universe. You caused it....What you're doing is what God wants you to do. If you keep saying it the way it really is, eventually, your word is law in the universe" (Werner Erhard, in John Weldon, The Strange World of est, Spiritual Counterfeits Project, 1982, 2).

Man is Immortal

Gods are all-powerful and immortal. If man is god then he too lives forever. Of course, no one can deny that people are born, live, and die. But if we believe to be part of a cosmic and divine reality (or process), then death as we experience it in this world is not the end but the beginning of an endless journey. This is why the Hindu belief of reincarnation has such an attraction to New Agers. Reincarnation is the belief that when we die our spirit or soul will move into another body, a process that will be repeated until eventually we reach full union with the Absolute.

You can only have a new society, the visionaries have said, if you change the education of the younger generation . . . Of the Aquarian Conspirators surveyed, more were involved in education than in any other single category of work. They were teachers, administrators, policymakers, educational psychologists . . . They are, as one expressed it, "in peaceful struggle" within the system (Ferguson, 280). 

Furthermore, the occult practice of communicating with otherworldly spirits (e.g. by channelling) is a way to establish contact with the world beyond the grave, that is, a realm that transcends space and time. This is also the reason why out-of-the-body experiences, near-death visions, visualizations, trances, and similar activities are very much a part of the New Age preoccupations.

No Right or Wrong

If all is one and all distinctions and opposites are swallowed up into this "allness," then there are no longer any absolute standards of right or truth. We are, in effect, creators of our own values. In the words of New Age thinker David Spangler, "[New Age ethics] is not based on...dualistic concepts of 'good' or 'bad'" (David Spangler, in Walter Martin, The New Age Cult, Bethany House, 1989, 74). But the fact is that those who deny the absolute distinction between good and evil are destroying the very basis of civilization. Their position amounts to moral anarchy (the rejection of all standards by which actions can be judged to be right or wrong). The very idea of law, of lawful behaviour versus law-breaking, and of a law-upholding authority would become unthinkable. Society would come to resemble a jungle where the strongest and most ruthless would dominate the rest. Isaiah speaks in these terms about those who want to turn the God-created moral order upside down: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter. Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight." (Isaiah 5: 20-21)

We are the Creators of Our Own World

New Age believers are confident that they are able to bring about the transformation of the old to the new world order. If we are God and if we create our own values then we can indeed master the future. In fact, that is exactly the purpose of the entire project of the New Age movement as expressed by a few of its spokespersons in the following statements.

William Irwin Thompson: "Now as we stand poised at the edge of a great transformation, we are prophetically inspired and politically armoured as never before" (William Irwin Thompson, in Groothuis, 30).

David Spangler: "As we enter the New Age, what we are entering into is a cycle, a period of time, a period of unfoldment when truly humanity is the world initiate, the world saviour, and ultimately it is upon the shoulders of humanity that the future and the translation for the entry into light of this planet rest" (David Spangler, in Martin, 34).

Marilyn Ferguson: "Rich as we are—together—we can do anything. We have it within our power to make peace within our tom selves and with each other, to heal our homeland, the Whole Earth" (Ferguson, 406).

The New Age movement is filling a need among a spiritually exhausted and lost generation. And who does not long for peace, harmony, and a world from which injustice has been eliminated? Furthermore, many people are dissatisfied with a materialistic lifestyle. They long for meaning and purpose. The New Age promises all that. Besides, it caters to human pride when it assures us that we have the power to remake ourselves and the entire world.

New Agers are convinced that the new, coming world order is not a matter of course. It requires the best efforts of all those converted to the cause—the enlightened ones. Enlightenment occurs when people's consciousness is raised so that they are in touch with their (divine) Self and thus realize their unlimited potential.

Getting in Touch with the Real Self

The key to getting in touch with the higher powers slumbering within all of us (because we are part of the cosmic, divine Mind) is to unlock the "prison" of our limited and physical existence and soar into the higher spiritual realm of beauty, peace, and wholeness. At least, such is the promise held out by those who want to herd us into the age of Aquarius. All indications are that millions of North Americans are heeding the call of the new Pied Pipers.

New Agers are preoccupied with the technique of altering our state of consciousness, and at this point we enter into a land of the bizarre and absurd, that is, the secret mysteries of the occult and a revival of pagan practices that reach back to the pre-Christian era. We are assured that reaching our higher state of consciousness is possible by tapping into the energies of crystals, colours, and the forces hidden in our bodies and various parts of the world, communicating with the dead and disembodied spirits through various forms of meditation (including yoga), lucid dreams, channelling, trances, hypnosis, seances, guided visualization, out-of-the-body experiences, witchcraft, and a host of other similar practices. But one recurring advice that should put all of us on guard can be summarized as follows: You must let go of all old beliefs and ideas regarding the difference between good and evil; your experience itself is its own justification.

Even a cursory acquaintance with the techniques of the New Age mindbenders indicate that they possess formidable insight into the human psyche. They are adept at exploiting the fears of inadequacy and failure that plague many, if not all of us some of the time. One overriding message is that we suffer from a poor self-image and therefore set ourselves up for failure and defeat. The trick is to think: of ourselves as powerful and successful and, presto, success and power will come our way. But you must work at it; it will not fall into your lap effortlessly. How? By absorbing the literature and unquestionably accepting the wisdom of the New Age—and, above all, by attending the numerous training sessions, seminars, and conferences that promise magically to make, as Peter Drucker put it, "a superman out of the worst wimp."

Who would not be attracted to that kind of promise? Creating the new, powerful and successful man or woman has had a variety of labels, including the human potential movement. One of its leading figures was Abraham Maslow, cofounder of a major New Age centre, the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California. Maslow's ideas about human nature and its hierarchy of needs, culminating in the need for self-realization, were eagerly adopted in management training circles. Maslow wrote: "Man demonstrates in his own nature a pressure toward fuller and fuller Being, more and more perfect actualization of his humanness in exactly the same naturalistic, scientific sense that an acorn may be said to be 'pressing toward' being an oak tree . . . " (Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being (Van Nostrand, 1962, 160).

There is nothing voluntary, as a rule, in company-ordered group-psychology sessions . . . Company-ordered psychological seminars of this kind are, in other words, an invasion of privacy that is not justified by any company need. They are morally indefensible (Peter Drucker, "New Age Sessions are Same Old Brainwashing," The Wall Street Journal, February 9, 1989, A22).

Maslow's reputation as a respectable scientist helped pave the way for the human potential movement. Its central ideas were eagerly joined to the concepts of the Self in the Eastern religions. This combination proved to be highly successful. It was repackaged into a training technique that appealed to the North American pragmatic desire for instant results, using a dynamic, often shocking style to jar the trainees out of their old ways of thinking about the world and themselves. Its packaging for the classrooms of North America, however, was much more gentle, although the underlying theme of reaching one's higher Self was the same in the classroom as in the management training seminars. The technique centred on the art of visualization; in other words, students are told that they are able to create their own world by means of their imagination. In the following we will restrict ourselves to a brief discussion of the management training seminars.

There is no shortage of New Age literature to demonstrate clearly that this movement is founded on the pagan belief in the oneness of the Self and God. For example, John Randolph Price, author of The Planetary Commission, has written a brief summary of his beliefs in The Abundance Book (Quartus Books, 1987) where he claims: "My Life is God's Life. My Life is God. I feel my livingness within me. I feel God . . . Where is God? God is where I AM. God is what I AM."

The Abundance Book contains this instruction: "This day I renounce my so-called humanhood and claim my divine inheritance as a Being of God. This day I acknowledge God and only God as my substance, my supply and my support." One of the ten principles taught by Price is: "My consciousness of the Spirit within me as my unlimited Source is the Divine Power to restore the years the locusts have eaten, to make all things new, to lift me up to the High Road of abundant prosperity."

The intention of the message is clear: you can be and do anything you want. It has obviously found many converts in the corporate world where one might expect a more cynical and hard-nosed response.

The Business of Creating Changed Persons

Peter Drucker reported in a Wall Street Journal article that New Age infiltration into corporate America has occurred on a very large scale. He wrote:

Business after business is putting its managers into "New Age" seminars. Offered by a dozen outfits, some of these seminars promise to free their participants of their "hang-ups"; others offer "understanding of your psycho-dynamics"; others still will deliver "positive attitudes." All promise "consciousness-raising" and non-religious conversion resulting in a "changed person."

These programs use their own terminology—a mixture of computer jargon and "self-realization" of the flower children of the '60s. Otherwise, however, they are strikingly similar to earlier psychological fads that have hit U.S. business (Drucker, A22).

 Werner Erhard, founder of one of the most successful training seminars of its kind, est (Erhard Seminars Training), boasted that more than 500,000 had gone through its training program in the 1970s. The numbers claimed by other similar organizations are equally impressive and reach into the hundreds of thousands. Some of the largest and most prestigious American companies have sent their managers for training into the secrets of becoming new people. Peter Waldman reported in The Wall Street Journal (July 24, 1987) that dozens of major U.S. companies, including Ford Motor Co., Procter & Gamble Co., TRW Inc., Polaroid Corp., and Pacific Telesis Group Inc., "are spending millions of dollars on so-called New Age workshops."

An article in Fortune (November 23, 1987), reported that New Age-type organizations, such as MSIA, Lifespring, Pecos River Learning Center, The Forum, Transformational Technologies Inc. (Trans Tech), are doing a thriving business with some of the largest American companies, including Allstate, Sears, General Dynamics, the Federal Aviation Administration, IBM, Boeing Aerospace, and Lockheed. Image magazine (October 12, 1986) reported that Trans Tech's franchises are operating training seminars on behalf of 100 of the Fortune 500 companies, including Ford, TRW, General Electric, McDonald's, Manville, RCA, eight U.S. federal agencies, the U.S. Justice Department, NASA, and the White House (See SCP Journal 9:1, 1989).

What are these companies looking for when they turn their personnel over to these management training experts? Their main concern, obviously, is to increase the effectiveness of their organization and to improve their bottom line. They have been persuaded that this type of training seminar will make more productive and more effective employees and hence improve the corporation's financial performance. But they have paid very little critical attention to the real content of these seminars. Apparently it was good enough for them to see that the training programs worked, and they were prepared to shell out millions of dollars to the new mind manipulators. Undoubtedly, people were changed—many people have testified that they became more confident and successful after they graduated from these seminars. But were these changes for the better, and what about the reaction of those trainees whose experiences were extremely negative?

One result that should have tipped off the corporate leaders is the many protests lodged against this type of training seminar by those who experienced it as a traumatic and insulting attack on their personal integrity and self-confidence. A number of employees have complained bitterly and even lodged lawsuits against their employers after they were dismissed for refusing to attend these seminars or after experiencing severe psychological damage as a result. For example, Pacific Bell employees have sued their employer for forcing them to undergo the New Age-type Krone Seminars. This same company was ordered to charge $25 million of the $40 million cost of these seminars to shareholders and not to its customers (See Jeremy Main, "Trying to Bend Managers' Minds," Fortune, November 23, 1987).

Life Without Rules

Werner Erhard (who began life as John Paul Rosenberg) is one of the most successful training "experts" in the U.S. His operation has been called "one of the most powerful therapeutic experiences yet devised." Erhard graduated from a used-car and encyclopedia salesman to a student of the Eastern religions, in the process of which he came under the powerful sway of Swami Muktananda, the Yogi master who visited America at the invitation of Mr. Erhard. His management training company, est, though hugely successful in the 1970s, came under increasingly critical scrutiny as complaints about the extremely aggressive and antagonistic training methods became public. Est trainers subjected their audiences to verbal abuse, deprivation, exhausting schedules, and an unrelenting stream of psychobabble that left them confused and in many cases defenceless. Trainees were told that they had to discard all their old beliefs and open themselves to an entirely new way of looking at themselves. They were assured that whatever problem they encountered was their responsibility, and they had the power to change whatever they wanted. All they had to do was to get in touch with true Being, that is, the Self who is God. As gods we are able to create our own conditions and values, they were assured.

We're gonna throwaway your whole belief system . . . We're gonna tear you down and put you back together (Est trainer, in Weldon, 2). 

The result of this type of training (brainwashing) is a completely selfish and hedonistic attitude to life in which all the normal (nonnative) responsibilities and habits can be cast aside. People are taught the technique of getting whatever they want without any regard to the morality of their behaviour.

When the est method ran into a great deal of adverse publicity, Erhard disbanded it and channelled his energies into a number of other organizations, including The Forum, Trans Tech, and the Hunger Project. Although the aggressive and intimidating method of the est seminars were somewhat toned down, the essential message remained exactly the same; you create your own reality, all your problems are your own responsibility; there is no ultimate standard. Your own experience is all that matters. Or as Erhard himself explained: "Life has no rules." He made his intentions very clear: "We want nothing short of a total transformation—an alteration of substance, not a change in form . . . All we want to do is change the notion of who you are" (Werner Erhard, in Weldon, 1).

As one critic has pointed out, Erhard's "technology of transformation" is amoral and therefore anti-human; it deepens alienation and negates meaning. "In a self-created universe any meaning is possible because all meaning is arbitrary. But if meaning is arbitrary, it is a sham. Erhard's self-created universe promises unfettered freedom. But what it delivers is tyranny and bondage . . ." (Robert Burrows, "Techgnosis & Alienation," SCP Journal, 8:1, 1988, 7).

The New Age movement is not really new at all; it is merely the reemergence of the age-old heresy of pantheism with a new twist derived from Western secular thought. It will never fulfill its grand promise of building a new world of peace and harmony. Men who imagine themselves to be gods and capable of creating heaven on earth will only succeed in creating hell on earth.

The snake oil salesmen of the past were harmless charlatans compared to the New Age gurus whose ideas are infiltrating every sector of society. After all, the former only took your money; the latter are after your soul. Let the buyer beware!

This article originally appeared in Comment magazine, a journal founded by Harry Antonides. Find all of Harry’s pieces, and thousands more, at http://www.cardus.ca/comment