The Cosmic Self: A Penetrating Look at Today’s New Age Movements
by Ted Peters
HarperCollins, 221 pages, $14.95
Ted Peters is a professor at Pacific Lutheran Seminary and the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley who seems to have made a career out of sponsoring, if not exactly endorsing, practitioners of outré spiritual movements and outré practitioners of conventional faiths. This book, written in the easy-going, middlebrow style that one associates with professors at the mainline Protestant seminaries these days, sympathetically surveys a number of late-twentieth-century American (or perhaps more properly, Californian) spiritual practices that have acquired the catchall appellation “New Age” in the media and elsewhere.
Many of these practices, which aim to get one in touch with forces within—hence, the “cosmic self”—could hardly be called religious, although Peters deems them so. Into his New Age omnium gatherum, he sweeps pop psychologist Abraham Maslow with his ideas about “peak experiences” and Werner Erhard, the founder of the “est” self-help movement who is now under hot pursuit by the tax man, as well as the usual cast of channelers, theosophists, holistic health freaks, crystal collectors, quantum mystos, UFO trackers, ecofeminists, and astrology buffs.
Peters also discusses would-be syncretizers of New Age and traditional beliefs, such as Father Matthew Fox, the Dominican priest in Oakland, Calif., who was silenced briefly by the Vatican after declaring there was a “mother goddess present in everybody.” Although critical of Fox’s less-than-orthodox version of Christianity, Peters takes the Dominican’s side in this dispute, criticizing the Vatican’s enforcer, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, for indulging in “dogmatism.”
Conspicuously missing from the book are practitioners of drug-induced spirituality. In this the era of “just say no,” Timothy Leary and the peyote cultists seem not to be welcome as guest speakers at Peters’ popular seminars on “postmodern spirituality” at the Graduate Union. He also confines his New Age demographics strictly to the genteel and prosperous middle classes, the folks who wear Indian saris as they putter around their Marin County cluster-houses. The meatier and more lurid variants of paganism practiced by the lower classes, such as voodoo, Satanism, and Santeria, hold no interest for Peters.
However—and amazingly for a professor at the Graduate Union, or indeed for any resident of Berkeley—Peters is actually an orthodox Christian. Towards the end of the book he professes belief in a transcendent God, the Trinity, and the Redemption and Resurrection of Christ. He also delivers a Christian critique of New Agers, taking them to task for gnosticism—denying the existence of evil—and pantheism. The “cosmic self” is a pantheistic self that regards its possessor and all else as divine. Like G. K. Chesterton before him, Peters seems to recognize that worshipping the “God within” is, in the end, merely the absurd worshipping of oneself.
Peters correctly points out that the New Age phenomenon is a natural reaction to efforts by generations of pseudo-sophisticated clergymen in mainline churches to eradicate the miraculous and the metaphysical from Christianity in order to bring it into line with a world that was supposed to be growing increasingly “enlightened” and secularized. He notes that ever since Kant, liberal Protestant theology has been “somewhat embarrassed that the Christian faith spoke so unabashedly about transcendent powers such as God’s grace, angels, and resurrection of the dead.” Bored and impatient with clergy who downplayed the numinous and preached empty platitudes, lay people began looking for divine grace in crystals, angels in ashrams, and the hope of resurrection (or at least reincarnation) in the works of Shirley MacLaine.
New Age spirituality has one other feature that makes it immensely appealing to moderns: Unlike Christianity, it has no Ten Commandments, no Sermon on the Mount. With only the “God within” as their moral guide, New Agers get to do exactly what they want. They have the magic and the mystery without the authority. To lure these liberated sheep back into the fold, Peters suggests that pastors be nicer to New Agers: let them visit the acupuncturist or hang crystals from their rear-view mirrors. “It is neither possible nor desirable to require pure orthodoxy or orthopraxis,” he writes, and he suggests that people flee the churches because Christianity makes them miserable. “We have too long and too often driven our most faithful servants of Christ in the direction of unnecessary guilt and self-deprecation.”
In fact, of course, the very opposite is more often the case. This is the era in which the response of one’s father confessor to a list of transgressions is likely to be, “You’re good people.” Peters himself knows better. He reveals a vivid and precise notion of what sin is, recounting an event from his childhood in which, against his mother’s orders, he aimed his slingshot, at a fledgling robin and killed it. To this day, he writes, he still remembers the mother robin’s shrieks of grief and rage as she circled overhead. This is sin: the callous human willfulness that violates the natural order, the willfulness that even a child can possess. It is sin, not Christianity, that makes people miserable. If Christianity is the cause of human unhappiness, our post-Christian age should he one of unparalleled bliss. In fact, depression, drug dependency, anomie, and suicide are increasing at frightening rates.
Peters professes traditional Christian beliefs but denigrates the efforts of guardians of orthodoxy—the Ratzingers and the evangelical preachers and the church fathers who shaped the creeds centuries ago—to ensure the continuation of an intact Christianity for him to believe in. Ever since the Enlightenment it has been fashionable to ridicule those who care how many natures Christ has or whether it is permissible to understand God as actually a goddess who lives inside us. But the right answer to those questions is crucial. In his book The Orthodox Church, Timothy Ware wrote of the early councils: “Heresies were dangerous and required condemnation, because they impaired the teaching of the New Testament, setting up a barrier between man and God, and so making it impossible for man to attain full salvation.”
Just as Peters fails to see that laying down the doctrinal law is central to Christianity, he fails to see that laying down the moral law is central to religion. The truth is that the New Age is not really a religion at all. It is simply a collection of practices, some borrowed from genuine religions. As Robert Graves, who was certainly no Christian, wrote in The White Goddess, the essence of religion is mediation between the individual and divine. The subject of religious mediation is knowledge of the will of the gods, or of God.
When the ancient shaman went out into the wilderness with his bag of charms or his peyote buttons, his aim was not to take a trip or have a “peak experience” but to learn via visions what the gods had to say so he could convey their commands back to his people, who were expected to obey them. Thus, religion is always public and communal, and it is always moralistic. In Judaism, the paradigm of mediation is Moses descending from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments written in stone by the hand of God. For Christians, Christ is the great Mediator, and when He returned to his Father, He left his followers the Church, infused with the Holy Spirit.
Naturally, most comfort-loving New Agers would be as appalled at the prospect of actually having to live the lives of the Hindu holy men they profess to admire—lives bound by rules of chastity and poverty—as they are at having to obey some of Christ’s stricter dictates in the Sermon on the Mount. That is why New Age spirituality, wholly subjective and self-indulgent, seems, finally, insipid and less than serious, just as the kind of do-your-own-thing Christianity that gets preached in most pulpits these days seems insipid and less than serious. For as St. John wrote, “And hereby we do know that we know Him, if we keep His commandments.”
Charlotte Allen is a Contributing Editor at Insight magazine.