Creeping steadily toward my forties, I find myself in a peculiar position. On one hand, I'm part and parcel of the "New Age." But, on the other hand, I find a few things bugging me as the years roll by. For one thing, the term "New Age" sounds ridiculous and arrogant, as if we're the first people to ever walk the Earth. We're not "on the verge" of anything; there's nothing new going on. We're all just doing what we can, like men and women have done throughout history. We don't need a rallying banner to set us apart from anyone else; we can't afford it, if what we're after is real wholeness. By calling something new, we not only belittle the spiritual awareness of people in the past, but we also splinter ourselves in present-day society rather than contribute to the whole. And worse still, any such banner tends to lump together a lot of people and activities that may not really belong together; it becomes a convenient label for profiteers, megalomaniacs and mad-dogmatics who have discovered how to use space-age communications and computers to manipulate people toward their own ends. In the name of wholeness, such "New Age" hustlers have led us into more painful, fragmented partialness time and again.
Hands down, the clearest ethic of the "New Age" has been to appreciate the diversity of all paths to the One, which of course, sounds one-derful. It's the stuff of non-judging, openness, tolerance, harmony; right on. But how long have we been distrusting our own gut feelings in the guise of "not judging?" The ethic is great, but our attachment to the ethic has created the largest, wealthiest pool of consumer suckers in history. We're P.T. Barnum's wildest fantasies come true: consumers who not only believe everything somebody might claim about their teaching or their product, but who don't blame anybody when things go wrong! ("Well, it was terrible for me, but I'm sure it's just perfect for some people.") After all, who are we to judge, right?
Wrong! We've been throwing out the baby with the bathwater. To avoid being judgmental, we have set aside our own much-needed skills of discrimination. We have allowed a high-powered marketplace of growth-oriented teachers, schools and products to thrive for years without ever being challenged or critiqued.
Openness to others is wonderful, but we also need to be open to our own honest feelings. Why do we forget that our hunches and instincts come from God, too? Our own consciences—that deepest sense of right and wrong—may be our closest touch-point to God within us. Sure it's subtle, very tricky, to weed out our true gut feelings from our busy judgmental thoughts, but it's a required course.
I'm not talking about being cynical or closed-minded. But we've got to appreciate that the "New Age" is not immune to corruption, sophisticated fundamentalism, empire-building or sincere delusion. I'm definitely not suggesting that we only look for things that feel "good" or which we can understand; not at all. Feeling "right" is very different from feeling "good." Often the very best teachings are those which rip us apart, force us into our pain and weaknesses, and push us past our rigid models of how holy people should look or act, or what our spiritual journey should be like. Make no mistake about it, I deeply fyonor the painful parts. But as Mike Harper, an inmate at Georgia State Prison, wrote recently:
"My mind is open, my Spirit seeking light, but not so gullible as to embrace any and every philosophy stumbled across. Not every light you see is the coming of dawn; it may be just some bum firing up his stogie."
Excerpted with permission from The Sun (February 1984).
This article originally appeared as a sidebar to Empty Talk and Slow Transformational Change: On New Age Rhetoric in Utne Reader's Summer 1984 issue. For more similar, see The New Age Danger: Real or Imagined?and The New Age Should Disappear.