For the most part, the New Age--a recent name-tag given by the media--has meant a class of people of diverse interests united by common values. Marilyn Ferguson, social critic and author of The Aquarian Conspiracy, whose best-seller has been dubbed "The Handbook of the New Age" by USA Today, sees a New Age that has as its members those who espouse an underlying holistic philosophy. They attempt to see the inteRrelationship of problems instead of mechanistically viewing each problem separately. They emphasize decentralization of power with the view to promote the develop- ment of whole individuals and tend to view things globally by keeping the long-range interests of the planet in mind.
Ferguson sees many smaller movements and individuals as members of the much larger New Age social phenomenon. Although it is often thought of as a movement arising out of a spiritual foundation, many of the major influences have come from humanistic psychology. For example, the human potential movement of the '60s and '70s epitomized by psychologists like Carl Rogers and Abraham Maslow are largely responsible for laying the foundation of the fundamental optimism which pervades New Age thought.
The movement's spiritual credentials are more directly questioned by Jonathon Adolph, senior editor of New Age Magazine. In a recent article written for the 1988 Guide to New Age Living, Adolph asserts that the claim that spirituality underlies the New Age phenomenon has been problematic and "a source of much confusion regarding the new age in general." He says, "The new age is not a religion," and he questions what is meant by spirituality by the many who loosely use the term.
However, the latest rising star on the New Age horizon--trance channelers--have difficulty with the aforementioned concept of the New Age. They would like to deify it. Although the more down-to-earth humanistic New Age advocates recognize the "new spiritualists" to be members of the New Age family, more and more they are seeking to disassociate themselves from them, giving them a place on the fringe. Much to the embarrassment of long-standing members, the media recently has given more attention to this "fringe" element than it has to the entire New Age movement in the last decade.
Recently,Time 1magazine dedicated one of its covers to the New Age starring Shirley MacLaine. The thrust of the article dealt with the latest booming industry within the New Age--channeling--followed by crystals, surrounded by an aura of an old age said to have gone by. Many may have thought it unfair for Time to have characterized the entire New Age as a paranormal quasi-spiritual good way to make a fast buck, but the fact is that millions of people are becoming enamored by the prospect of quick-fix cosmic cures to the problems facing humanity.
What attracts people to the not-so-new spirituality is difficult to say. Channeling, for example, has been around since time immemorial. It has generally appealed to lower-class sections of society, and is prominent in many third world countries. In Brazil it is known as Macumba, and although most of the country is officially Catholic, unofficially Macumba is practically the national religion. While the poorer sections are open about it, the aristo- cratic class is equally involved behind closed doors. Haiti and many African nations are also heavily influenced by a type of spiritualism involving chan- neling, and one would be hard-pressed to find a culture where its influence was altogether absent.
Channeling was also spoken of by the Greek philosophers Plato, Aris- totle, and Socrates.1 Some say that those channeled insights had much to do with the shaping of the basic principles of Western law.2 President Lincoln invited the famous medium Andrew Jackson Davis to the White House and his channeled information inspired Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation.3
Channelers tell us that the popularity of channeling in America today is due to the new information that is being channeled to a people now ready for enlightenment, a people whose time has come.
Leaving aside the American way of marketing as another possibility of channeling's popularity, it is true that the information that New Age persons receive from channeled entities is different than the type of information sought after and received in many third world countries. Global prophecies, stock market predictions, and technological insights, for example, have replaced information about finding lost loves, catching unfaithful partners, and speaking with deceased relatives. Moreover, the new information is the news of a spiritual time to come and a new spirituality: a New Age. Just how accurate the new information is, however, is subject to suspicion, especially when it contradicts many of the spiritual truths held by persons of exemplary character for centuries.
Several popular channeled entities have labeled the traditional tran- scendentalists who have walked amongst us as members of the "old spiritual age." Although it is commonly understood that actions speak louder than words, these new New Age leaders, while speaking at considerable length, remain in such a state that their actions cannot be observed. In fact, those who channel the entities generally insist that they cannot even be held accountable for their own actions!
The "old spiritual age," however, has already spoken of channeling and the method by which the physically embodied can approach the disembodied, as well as what type of result such communication can be expected to produce. Throughout the entirety of revealed scripture in every major religious tradition, channeling is referred to. The Old Testament considers channelers as bad company. "Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritulist or consults the dead" (Deuteronomy 18:10,11). And in the Bhagavad Gita we find: "Those who worship the demigods will take birth among the demigods; those who worship the ancestors go to the ancestors; those who worship ghosts and spirits will take birth among such beings; and those who worship Me will live with Me."(B.G. 9:25). From this sampling of verses it would appear that channeling is somewhat less than divine.
Of course channeling as it is known today is not to be confused with the inspired side of a saint through which revealed scripture is manifested. The willingness of God to move the pen of man depends on man's utter willingness to serve the will of God, devoid of any tinge of self-interest. The pens of the apostles of Christ, the inspired writings of Vyasadeva, the author of the Vedas, and Mohammed's Koran have left the world with timeless wisdom. Their inspired followers exemplify a wholesale dedication to the inspired word and its singular author whose message appears in various forms in accordance with time and circumstances. Possessed of that spirit, they are capable of shedding "new light" on the revealed truth; new light in the sense of not throwing out the words that have come before, but merely shining a brighter light on the same words. With the addition of the sun, the rose can be seen to bloom. That, however, is a far cry from suddenly replacing the rose with a dandelion. There is no doubt that God has spoken to man and so have ghosts. The two are not synonymous.
According to the Vedas, the mental world is the background of the physical realm. It is like a vast body of water, while the physical world can be compared to ice. Ice is a temporary transformation of water under certain conditions. The mental plane is far more accommodating than the physical. For example, if we look around the room we're in, we see so many objects. But how many of them can we physically take with us? By mental exercise, however, we can accommodate everything in the room and take it with us wherever we go. It is said that work is done in the mind. It is only later carried out through the senses. The mind is more subtle than the body, but more powerful. However, the mental world is not the divine world. God knows what evil lurks in the minds of men...(and most of us have some idea as well).
Above the mind is the intelligence, the power of discrimination. Although with the help of the mind I may determine that something is pleasing, with the help of the intelligence I may override that limited mental conception and determine that even though the mind says something is good, it may not really be good for me. The height of intellectual exercise is to discriminate between spirit and matter. That may give us a glimpse of the soul which is above the intellect. Intellect may lead us to the soul, but its capacity to guide is limited. Intellect is but a servant of the soul, and the soul is but a servant of God.
What kind of information can we get from the mental world? The only thing we can be sure of is that it will not be 100% accurate most of the time. It is certainly not absolute.
There are many types of inhabitants in the mental realm ranging from benevolent to demoniac, from progressive to regressive. It stands to reason that the type of entities which are most easy to get in touch with are those who are themselves attached to the physical plane. These would be entities who are possessed of physical material desires yet whose karma would not allow them to acquire a physical form. For example, suicide is said to produce the karmic reaction of having to take birth in the mental world where there are no physical bodies. These entities remain hovering in an ethereal form nearby, seeking opportunities to possess a body through which they can satisfy their desires. Similarly, those who do the work of channeling--the "gifted"--were most likely living in the mental world in their last life (there is a kind of death in the mental world); thus their consciousness is still attached to that plane.
There are others who derive pleasure from having their views heard and appreciated. Rather than being grossly materially attached, their connection with mundanity is more subtle. Philosophers and thinkers, speculators and the like who function on the mental plane, can easily acquire a large audience here. Their views are no more profound, however, than many of the thoughtful persons from this plane, although they generally have more knowledge of the physical world. Thus, most spirits can capture our attention by telling us about our past or something of the future.
In exchange for the satisfaction the spirits derive from our listening to them and taking their advice, those of an altruistic disposition often give practical help in many areas. In the fields of medicine, invention, science, investment, or in just helping one to feel good about themself, there is plenty of documented evidence that the disembodied can be helpful. Edgar Cayce provided consistently accurate medical data, although he knew little or nothing about medicine in his waking state. Lazaris of Concept Synergy currently gives a pretty good sermon about PMA (positive mental attitude). But that is about as far as it goes. After that, many spirit guides get in over their heads, especially when they contradict genuine spiritual traditions which have produced numerous saints on Earth.
An example of such contradiction is found in a popular theme of channeled guides, Westernized reincarnation. According to some new trance channelers, we can only progress. There is no question of falling back to a lower life-form. But the original literatures of ancient India, wherein the process of reincarnation is fully described, do not lend themselves to such interpretation. The idea that we can only progress does not match with our experience or common sense, nor give us license to freely choose our next incarnation. If a man is given a high and responsible position along with certain privileges and facilities, and misuses them as did, say, Richard Nixon, he will be hurled down or impeached.
Therefore, we must seriously consider that today's popular channeled entities may not be divine, but mental or astral, and cannot bring their audiences to the highest destination sought by genuine spiritual seekers since the beginning of recorded history.
If the more humanistic section of the new-agers are embarrassed by the many who have attempted to make divinity out of the paranormal, they have no one to blame but themselves. Humanism, after all, is nothing but the speculative attempt to equate humanity with divinity, and a man-made God is no God. Such a heretical idea of spirituality can never satisfy the soul of humanity. We should call a spade a spade, especially in this instance. Otherwise we become subject to potential contempt of the Supreme. This in turn may threaten our chances of ever achieving the harmonious life which, regardless of how much we herald its arrival, still continues to elude us. In the words of Plutarch, "It is better to have no opinion about God at all than such a one as is unworthy of Him: for the one is only unbelief--the other is contempt."
The license to speculate can be dangerous. Just as in mechanistic science there are certain axiomatic truths, so also in nonmechanistic science or spiritual science there are fundamental axiomatic truths. For example, that the platform of the soul lies beyond the limited conceptions of race, sex, nationality, and even the tradition of spiritual practice one may choose is an axiomatic truth. We are moved to raise questions, therefore, when our cultural orientation plays a prominent role in shaping our "spirituality." Do we have the liberty to create new spiritual axioms in the name of enlightened thinking? Until our own behavior is at least in accordance with the saints who have come before us in "traditional religion," a grain of caution may be in good taste.
Everyone has the inalienable right to pursue enlightenment at their own pace and of their own volition (necessarily), and there is tremendous scope for new revelation within our God-given traditional religious systems. From Shankara to Ramanuja to Madhva to Sri Caitanya, from Old Testament to New, there are many examples. We must look not to replace the law but to fulfill it. Too often speculative theories regarding the nature of spirituality expose themselves as uninformed opinions when they blame "shortcomings" in the "old age of spirituality" for their necessity to redefine divinity. In the words of Bernadette Roberts, author of The Experience of No Self, "The inclusiveness of the traditional paths is well attested to by the contemplatives who never went 'outside' of their religion to see the divine in all that exists--or see all that exists as a manifestation of the divine. To overlook this fact is indicative of an out-of-hand rejection of traditional religion by those who have obviously never lived it. That some people choose not to go the traditional route is their prerogative, but to blame their choice on a deficit in traditional religion is contrary to the fact and totally absurd."
Our conjectures about the nature of Godhead must arise out of a strong foundation, one which has been laid down by saints and scriptures in previous times. Enlightened thinking requires that we are careful not to throw out the baby with the bath water. If we are truly interested in enlightened thinking, the planet is rich with examples from every religious tradition from which to draw inspiration. Is it enlightened thinking to feel that it is beneath our dignity to follow greater thinkers who have gone before us? Do not the greatest of thinkers advocate that we also think for ourselves? When so many saints have already come before us leading the way, perhaps it is only our lack of courage and utter attachment to this earthly plane that has forced us to come up with "new ideas" about spiritual life which may amount to no more than self-deception and relative improvements of character. No one can deny the noble character of Christ or the idea that a society of Christ- like men and women would undoubtedly be a New Age, but very, very few are courageous enough to follow such an example. Very few are thoroughly convinced of the dire necessity for a truly "new age."
Genuine spirituality remains above the mental and intellectual con- jectures of much of the New Age speculation, as something not to be known except by those to whom God so chooses to reveal Himself. After all, are we the subject or is He? This is not a discrimination on His part, but an invita- tion on His terms. Although those terms may appear to be restricting for the neophyte, it is not the self that they seek to restrict, but the demands of the material coverings of the soul in the form of the body and mind for which we maintain a deep affection. If we love our vehicle but let it take us in the wrong direction, we may end up in a fool's paradise. But if we steer our vehicle in the direction pointed to by genuine saints--past and present--then we can actually achieve the divine consciousness which trance channelers and humanists fall short in attempting to produce in their followers.
If there is indeed a New Age upon us, it is found in those calling for the visions of the enlightened to descend within us. It is a group that sees the frailties of humanity and seeks communion with the divine. It is the finite drawing the sympathy of the infinite. It is a new generation wholeheartedly following the genuine spiritual traditions of the past and finding new inspiration in doing so. It is admittedly a time for the most part yet to come, but a time which will be truly worthy of the title New Age.
1 Jeff Mishlove, Life After Life (Bantam Books, 1981).
2 Ibid, p 24-25
3 Nat Freedland, The Occult Explosion (East Rutherford, N.J.: G.P. Putnam's Son's , 1927) p 62