The majority of the several hundred splinter groups that formed out of the relatively few esoteric groups that existed at the beginning of the 20th century were built around what today we call channeling. Within Spiritualism, channeling was called mediumship. Madame Blavatsky received her monumental work, The Secret Doctrine, from the Mahatmas. Alice Baliey served as the spokesperson for Djwhal Khul, the Tibetan Adept. Guy Ballard was the messenger of St. Germain, Jesus and a host of Ascended Masters. George King, George Van Tassell, and Truman Betherum received communications from various inhabitants of the flying saucers who seemed remarkably similar to the theosophical masters. 5 The orientation on channeling, to some extent, also accounts for the continued splintering of the esoteric community. As adherents to various movements emerge as channels, they tend to leave (or be pushed out of) the group in which they discovered their channeling abilities and found a new community constructed around their immediate experience.
The orientation of most modern esoteric groups upon a single channeler and her/his channeled information from otherwise hidden realms also accounts for another dominant attribute of the esoteric tradition, its tendency toward ahistoricity. Esoteric groups lack a sense of history. History tends to begin anew for the participant with the contact that s/he or a particular teacher makes with the higher invisible realms, and all that preceded that contact is dismissed as irrelevant. There is little appreciation by most teachers of participating in the flow of a stream of belief and practice that originated in the ancient past or having received their overall worldview from more mundane preexisting sources such as a previous generation of teachers.
The esoteric community also supported and nurtured all the various forms of the divinatory arts. Through Protestantism and then the Enlightenment, the older forms of divination were dealt an almost-fatal double blow. Many went out of existence altogether and others almost disappeared. However, astrology began a comeback through the 19th century as a set of stargazers learned the language of astronomy and mathematics and integrated the evermore-exacting measurements of planetary and stellar movements in preparing horoscopes for their clients.
On the heels of astrology, palmistry and tarot card-reading found new life. Palmistry found its scientific anchor in medical and anthropological studies of physiological variations, and the acceptance of fingerprinting as a police tool. The Tarot had been integrated with Kabbalistic thought by Eliphas Levi and became an integral part of the magical system of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Numerology found new life in the scientific quest to quantify all data. While many of the early attempts to relate esoteric thought and practice to science may seem naïve to us today, they were quite in keeping with the spirit of the times and paralleled similar efforts in the Christian community to incorporate insights from biology, psychology, and sociology. Just as the Christian dialogue with science has reached new levels of sophistication decade by decade, so has that within the esoteric community.
The point of this brief excursion into history is to emphasize that as the 1970s began, a healthy, if relatively small, community, the product of the various currents of Western Esotericism, had spread across the West. It was present in all the major urban centers with particular strength in places such as Los Angeles, Chicago London, Paris, Milan, and Geneva (site of the European headquarters of the Arcane School). What would become the New Age movement was born within a select number of esoteric groups and would first broadcast its message to this community of Western esotericists. The New Age spread quickly because there already existed an audience who had accepted the basic worldview upon which the New Age movement was constructed and who were open to the new vision that it brought.
So What's New about the New Age? Twentieth century esoteric thought had been graced with a sense of optimism. Though small by the world's standards, it exuded a belief that its day had come. Christianity had begun as a very small community in the Mediterranean Basin, and had subsequently enjoyed two millennia of success. But its day was over, and at the beginning of the new century many were confident that they were watching its death throes. Esoteric teachings would now arise to take its place. One symbol of that shift from the older Christian era to the arrivakl of a new Savior figure. That idea especially came to the fore in the Theosophical Society during the presidency of Annie Besant, who placed her faith in Jiddu Krishnamurti as the vehicle of the World Savior. Her vision crashed to the ground when in 1929 Krishnamurti resigned his exalted state. Subsequent attempts to name a new Messiah and prepare a community to receive him would lead to the current effort of Benjamin Crème to make us pay attention to Maitreya (a Buddhist figure that had been united with Jesus in Theosophical thought).
A second symbol of hope had been the Aquarian Age. The idea that humanity was entering a new astrological age symbolized by Aquarius somewhat paralleled the idea of a coming Messiah. As the new Savior signaled the end of the reign of Christianity, so the coming Aquarian Age would supersede the Piscean Age, symbolized by the movement that had taken a fish as its symbol.
The New Age movement would begin with a variation on the hope for the coming Aquarian Age. When initially announced in the mid 1970s, the New Age was seen as a vision of a coming new era defined by the transformation of our broken society-characterized by poverty, war, racism, etc.-into a united community of abundance, peace, brotherly love, etc. The energy to make the change, which, it was believed would occur over next generation, was a new release of cosmic energy. This influx of cosmic energy was caused by (or at least signaled by) the changing stellar configuration at the end of the twentieth century. Less understood about the original vision of the New Age as articulated by David Spangler, the movement's primary architect/theoretician, was the role of work. For the New Age to appear, groups of people would have to receive the cosmic energy and actively redirect it to their neighbors and a ever-increasing population of people would have to unite their efforts to create the coming New Age. 6
The New Age vision could be seen as a positive progressive millennialism. It offered to the larger occult community the hope that early in the 21st century, a new society dominated by occult wisdom would arise. It is this single idea that gave the movement its name and proved powerful enough to energize previously existing Spiritualist, New Thought and Theosophical adherents to work together groups, and to bring large numbers of people with no previous relationship to the occult to their cause.
As the movement progressed, Spangler's simple idea, that the New Age would soon arise as energized people worked for it, came under some scrutiny. Through the 1980s, people were aware that in spire of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of people identifying with it, they were still a miniscule segment of the whole. They might constitute the largest segment of the alternative religious communities in the West, but were still small compared to, for example, contemporaneous Christian revival movements. They seemed to be making little impact upon the growing forces of secularization. While Christian groups were building multiple cable television networks, the New Age had only a minimal presence in either television or radio. Also, while possessing global aspirations, New Age leaders were very wary of building global institutions, or for that matter, any organizations that had the power to bring about the changes they sought. Sociologically, their organizational phobia operated as a built-in self-limiting mechanism.
The New Age would not come by any ordinary means,. Then how? One writer, Ken Keyes, drawing on what we now know to be a false report of what some anthropologists had reportedly seen while observing monkeys on an isolated Japanese island, suggested that if we could assemble a representative sample of the population who possessed a better, higher idea, then that idea would as if by magic quickly spread through the general population. If a critical mass of people who possessed, for example, a peace consciousness could be assembled, then the idea who explode around the world.
Keyes' idea, was spread in a small booklet called The Hundredth Monkey, 7 of which more than a million copies were printed and distributed between 1982 and 1984. It would lead to a variety of mass events, the most famous and successful being the Harmonic Convergence of 1987 when New Agers gathered at selected sacred sites around the world. Those calling for the gatherings looked for a symbolic 144,000 who would be the critical mass needed for a collective shift in consciousness on the planet. The Harmonic Convergence would turnout to be the largest single coordinated event expressive of the New Age.
On a lesser note, the progressive millennialism of the majority of New Agers was challenged by several more classic apocalyptic visions. For example, Ruth Montgomery, whose series of books of channeled material were bestselling New Age titles, offered a vision of widespread destruction as the instrument pushing the New Age to the fore. In her 1985 book, Aliens Among Us, she suggested that a Golden Age would only be realized following a massive shift of the earth's magnetic poles that she predicted would occur in 1999. The pole shift would destroy civilization as we know it (along with a third of the world's population). It was her belief that a number of space beings had taken over the bodies of humans, and that these aliens would build the New Age on the ruins of the old. 8 By 1999 Montgomery's prediction had long since been discarded.
Whatever the mechanism of its arrival, the New Age transformation of the whole society would be heralded by the personal transformation of individuals and their adoption of a life-style of continued transformation into a total spiritual being. Such transformed people would provide the leadership for the coming New Age. Questions naturally arise, of what does such transformation consist, and how may it be obtained, and how may transformation be sustained? These questions were answered in a multitude of ways, however, some general directions were offered.
For some, transformation begins with physical or psychological healing. New Age literature has abundant examples of such healings, and the stories follow much the same spectrum from the mundane to the spectacular that are found in Roman Catholic and Pentecostal literature. (I am currently monitoring a colleagues research into stories from a "New Age" community in the state of Washington that has produced a particularly rich set of healing stories.) For others, possibly the majority, transformation began with a spiritual awakening and/or the adoption of a radically new worldview. These accounts are very similar to Christian stories of conversion and mystical encounters.
New Age groups provided a social context promoting transformative experiences and provided the means by which these could be facilitated. Across the movement the initially transformed individual could find a range of what were termed "tools of transformation." For example, for those suffering from various forms of physical and mental problems, the movement offered a range of alternative therapies. These included various alternative medicines (homeopathy, naturopathy), body work (chiropractic, massage), diets (vegetarianism), and psychotherapies (Jungian, Past Life Therapy). These therapies, led by professionals who were seeking recognition within the larger society, evolved into a parallel and overlapping movement, the holistic health movement, that sought legitimization of these different therapies with government and medical authorities.
The heart of the New Age has been interaction around the different tools of spiritual transformation. Organizations great and small invited participation in a spectrum of spiritual practices designed to produce altered states of consciousness that are the precondition for a variety of unusual spiritual experiences. These tools ranged from the ingestion of psychedelic substances, at one end of the spectrum, to kundalini yoga, intense breathing exercises, and chanting, to the most popular single tool, meditation. These psychoactive practices provided most people with a more intense spiritual experience than that available in the average synagogue or church service.
The movement also provided mediated experiences for those who for whatever reason wished to have more content in their spiritual life than that provided by their own spiritual highs produced by meditation and yoga. Channels and those who practice the various older occult arts-astrology, tarot, palmistry, etc.--provide such mediated experiences. For those who have made their own initial contacts with spiritual reality through meditation, a broader picture of the spiritual world and some guidance in spiritual development can be added by sitting at the foot of a channeler, who is in contact with evolved spiritual beings. These evolved beings are considered to speak authoritatively about the larger spiritual world, in which they reputedly reside, and provide overall spiritual guidance for the believer. One alternative teaching accepted by most New Agers is a belief in reincarnation. For those who need more immediate insight about a very personal or particular problem, the old divinatory arts are readily available and appear to actually have led in the acceptance of the New Age within the larger society. Once we began surveying the public in the 1970s, we discovered that upwards of 20 to 30 percent of Westerners had a positive attitude toward astrology.
While it utilized and promoted the older forms of occult practice, the New Age at the same time had a profound effect upon them. It changed them from simple divinatory arts into tools of transformation. The change is not simply cosmetic. For example, astrology was lifted out of the older deterministic context in which it had previous resided and placed in an open system. Rather than going to an astrologer to divine the future, astrology is now used as a tool in self-understanding. Rather than show what will necessarily occur, one's fate in the stars, one now learns about talents, potentials, and auspicious forces in the psyche which may be utilized in creating one's future. Mediums, that used to make contact with deceased relatives, are now approached for guidance on significant life decisions.
The New Age in effect transformed the whole occult world. It also gave occultism an entirely new and positive image in society and to did away with popular notions tying it to Satanism and black magic. It is significant that we no longer talk about the occult, but about the New Age. At the same time it is significant that we identify the New Age as another competing religious system, not the special world of anti-Christian activity.
However, in spite of its success, by the end of the 1980s, the New Age had come to an end as the vision upon which it had been built dissolved back into the ethers from which it had emerged. The death of the New Age was not a spectacular event and it was several years before its obituary was written and eulogies delivered.
The Death of the New Age The New Age movement had received a significant boost in the fall of 1987, only weeks after the Harmonic Convergence, when actress Shirley MacLaine's autobiographical book, Out on a Limb, was brought into millions of American homes via TV. The bestselling book had described her entrance into the New Age and the two-part made-for-television movie vividly portrayed all of her psychic adventures including a memorable out-of-the-body experience. MacLaine went on to teach a set of well-attended and expensive New Age classes, the income of which was used to set up a still vital New Age village at Crestone, Colorado. 9
However, even MacLaine could not relieve the general feeling that signs of the transition into the New Age had failed to appear. Whatever people might say about the success of events like the Harmonic Convergence in changing affairs in invisible realms, there was no indication that any of the hoped-for changes were occurring in the visible world. The first widespread admission of the loss of the New Age vision occurred in 1988. In the spring, without significant fanfare, a number of prominent spokespersons of the movement, seemingly without prior consultation with each other, published statements confessing their loss of belief that the New Age was imminent. No less a personage than David Spangler, the person who had originally projected the vision of a New Age authored several articles announcing his loss of faith. Not long afterwards, the bottom fell out of the crystal market, and prices dropped radically as investors tried to recover part of their loss. Possibly the most visible sign of the demise of the movement was the disappearance of references to a "New Age" in the literature that continued to be put out by former New Agers.
By 1990 it was noticeable in the United States that the spirit had departed and that disappointed believers were looking for a new direction. Having missed the demise of the New Age, we also failed to document the ferment accompanying the revision of the New Age worldview. However, in hindsight, we now see that it progressed in very typical fashion, and can be fruitfully compared to the Millerite movement. In the 1830s William Miller announced that Christ would return in 1843. Christ did not return, and several immediate attempts were made to adjust his calculation and suggest that he was off by six months or a year. However, when 1844 passed with no visible Christ, a wave of disappointment swept through the movement that had spread across North America.
While a few people, including Miller himself, abandoned their faith, the great majority sought for the kernel of truth in what Miller and his colleagues had taught. They were not ready to simply abandon the new life they had found. Over the next two decades various segments of the community suggested different courses of action. One part of the community persisted in revising Miller's calendar and projecting new dates for Christ's appearance. As each date failed, and a new denomination emerged as part of the community abandoned date-setting. While most of these groups remain small and unknown outside of the United States, one, the Jehovah's Witnesses, has become an organization of some global significance.
A second part of the Millerite community claimed that Miller was essentially correct. In 1844, Christian had indeed taken the first step in his reappearance on earth. He had left heaven, but had been delayed with a task that had to be completed on the way to earth, the cleansing of a heavenly sanctuary. Once that task is completed, in the very near future, He will visibly appear. The Seventh-day Adventists adopted this view and gradually settling into a more conventional church life, also in the 20th century beconing a world church of note. 10