Upon arrival at a local used bookstore—I frequent them all—I dart straight for the philosophy or theology sections, stare down or bark at the new arrivals, and claim the aisle for myself like a dog with a juicy bone. Most of the time, thankfully, no one else is there, so I am not very threatening, and I think most customers just do not care about these topics.
What do they care about? Well, between my used bookstore field study and teaching high school students, I think the answer is “the New Age.”
This realization made me think back to my first year teaching philosophy to Catholic high school students who happened to be extremely interested in New Age spirituality and the occult.
As a way of gauging my student’s worldview (to know what I should focus on in class), I would begin each course by asking the students to share their thoughts on the course topic. Perhaps because of the recent release of Marvel’s Dr. Strange, many of the students bandied about terms like “astral form” and “astral dimensions”; they used New Age language to make sense of ultimate reality, and they seemed more familiar with New Age lingo than I’d expected—certainly more so than with Christian terminology. Furthermore, students from all my classes were more interested in New Age books than the substantial works in theology and philosophy I had on display. I brought my own theology and philosophy books into my classroom in the hope of sparking the interest of my students, yet they usually asked about just two books: Mark Regnerus’ Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy (no surprise) and my one book on the occult, Kurt Seligmann’s Magic, Supernaturalism, and Religion.
It was difficult to know what to make of this. I think David Bentley Hart is right to describe the New Age as “thoroughly modern religion, whose burlesque gods command neither reverence, nor dread, nor love, nor belief; they are no more than the masks worn by the same spontaneity of will that is the one unrivalled demiurge who rules this age and alone bids its spirits come and go” (Christ and Nothing). When coupled with our culture’s predominantly technological worldview, in which the world is framed as a standing reserve for manipulation, Hart’s description of the New Age as a “mask” of the “one unrivalled demiurge”—that is, the modern self—makes sense. What St. Augustine identifies as the “libido dominandi” (i.e., the will to power or dominate) may just be at the heart of the New Age.
At first, I was surprised by the popularity of the New Age sensibility amid my students, and on the shelves of used bookstores. All these efforts toward universal literacy, and people choose that stuff? Does anyone really take it seriously? Moreover, I unreflectively subscribed to Max Weber’s disenchantment theory of modernity, assuming that in our positivistic age no one would believe in souls, angels, ghosts, demons, fairies, even goblins, transposing all remnants of enchantment to the market. But perhaps the West has not become less religious, just de-Christianized, such that salvation in Christ and growing in his likeness are not of central concern. Maybe we are entering a re-enchantment, a new pagan age, albeit much different than that which preceded Christendom, what scholars are calling a “Postmodern New Age” re-enchantment. Christians ought to be paying careful attention to this development when engaging the culture. Fortunately, the Church has already provided us with a helpful guide in its 2002 document Jesus Christ: The Bearer of the Water of Life, outlining the proper pastoral response to the New Age.
I understand why people might not find Christianity compelling. The Church often does a poor job of presenting and showcasing the full supernatural weight of her practices and teachings. In fact, the Christianity we present is often quite dull, with more emphasis on ethics than enchantment. But humans desire to live in an enchanted cosmos—a universe of beauty, in which the stars, the planets, earth, and our lives are all connected to and grounded in a meaningful order. And if people are not receiving the eschatological vision towards which creation is tending, then no wonder people look elsewhere for mystery.
Back to the used bookstore . . .
The crowded shelves of the New Age section is actually a hopeful sign; it tells us that people have a restless desire for God, and their turn to the esoteric should be read as an expression of a deep desire for a connection to supernatural mysteries which, Christians know, find their completion in Christ and his salvation, the mystery kept secret for long ages past (Rom. 16:25). Dabbling in the New Age is very dangerous. Yet the general desire for union with the mystical is an opportunity for Christians to reintroduce the doctrine of deification or theosis.
We shouldn’t dismiss the New Age and its strange metaphysics out of hand or as a mere diversion. There may be something to this populist grasping for enchantment in the cosmos, albeit in a sideways, thus idolatrous, way. The work of many leading physicists, neurologists, and philosophers has moved beyond a materialist account of reality in a way that—at the end of the day—could ultimately help seekers to find Christ. Some, like Ulrich Lehner in his new book Think Better: Unlocking the Power of Reason, find that all matter is the expression of mind, and matter and mind belong together. This avoids the reductions of all matter to mind or all manifestations of mind to matter. Catholics should laud this return to recognizing the universe as interfused with intelligibility because it is a step in a direction that could help many curious New Agers see the universe as creation wholly infused with, and grounded in, the mind of the Creator. These seekers, who might have discredited Christianity as too familiar or dismissed it as being “all about” sexual ethics, could be a receptive audience to the Church’s strange teachings about the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Pascal Mystery, the sacraments, Eucharistic Adoration, biblical numerology, the temple, the Church herself, the heavenly Jerusalem, the Lamb and the scroll, life in the Spirit, and especially deification (or theosis).
Borrowing a phrase from my colleague Andrew Petiprin, “keeping Christianity strange” is always a good principle to follow. The Church often forgets about how peculiar her teachings are. What we take as “normal” in suburban America doesn’t jive with the weirdness of Catholicism. And Catholics should never be ashamed of that. The problem we face has arisen because too many Catholics willfully lose their strangeness for the sake of fitting into a fickle culture that people quickly grow tired of, as hinted at in those overstuffed New Age used book shelves. We should never revel in this strangeness as an end in itself but recognize it as the strangeness of the real that the Church proclaims. The strangeness of mystery, toward which so many are pulled.
I try to keep to this as I teach, encouraging students to take another look. By reading the New Testament, especially the Gospel of John, Paul’s Epistles, and Revelation, and snippets from writings of the Church Fathers (especially Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite), we explore mystical theology grounded in the Paschal Mystery and deification (i.e., partaking in the sonship of the Son and sharing in the agape of God that makes us divine) in the Christian tradition. And by focusing on the kenosis of the Son as expressed in the Incarnation and the Paschal Mystery, students discover the difference between the idolatrous self-love of the New Age that, despite its recognition of enchantment, tries to find deification through human efforts alone and the obedience of the Church who listens to the Son and follows him to the Cross as he makes his way to the Father, taken up by the grace of the Spirit to partake in the divine life (i.e., deification).
To make all of this concrete, I often took my students to the school’s chapel to show them that this mystery, this enchantment, this supernatural connection is found and fully realized in the liturgy, which, according to David Fagerberg, is “the perichoresis of the Trinity kenotically extended to invite our synergistic ascent to deification.” Instead of searching for their meaning and identity in New Age spirituality, I encouraged my students to find their true identities in Christ.
Exotic? Strange? Yes. Something New Age seekers might find interesting? For sure. And it’s best to keep it that way.