Introduction. The term New Age refers to a wave of religious enthusiasm that emerged in the 1970s and swept over the West through the 1980s only to subside at the end of the decade. As with other such enthusiastic movements, however, it did not just simply go away, but like a storm hitting a sandbar, it left behind a measurably changed situation among those elements of the religious community most centrally impacted.
The New Age has frequently been cited as among the most difficult of contemporary religious phenomena to comprehend. Two obstacles slowed study of the movement and the appreciation of its significance. First, the movement hit just as the field of New Religious Studies was struggling to establish itself as a valid sub-discipline within the larger world of religious studies. Scholars of New Religions, the people to whom we would ordinarily turn for some interpretation of the New Age, had specialized in very different forms of religious life. The average New Religious Movement had come into the West from other parts of the world, existed as a discrete entity with very visible boundaries, and primarily recruited young adults in the 18-25 age group. In contrast, the New Age Movement had emerged essentially within Western culture and had the appearance of an amorphous decentralized social phenomenon that contrasted sharply with the more prominent New Religions such as the Unification Church, the Divine Light Mission, or the Hare Krishna. In visiting New Age organizations, one saw some young adults but were struck by the distinctly middle-age make-up of adherents.
Second, but equally important, the New Age was seen as having some relationship to the older world of the occult. Historically, the world of occultism was not one to be understood, but denounced. Much of the history of Western scholarship has been shaped by the desire to move beyond magic and occultism, which was equated with the crudest forms of superstition and supernaturalism. In one sense we already understood gullible people who were attached to occult superstitions, and our primary response to the continual presence of occult organizations was the passing of laws to prosecute individuals who used occult beliefs to con people out of their money. This perspective has now been institutionalized in the anti-pseudoscience movement. 1 A related perspective, that denounces the New Age as a competing supernatural worldview, can be found in the writings of the Christian counter-cult movement. 2
Thus it was that only as the New Age peaked and began to fade that studies outlining the New Age movement's place in the rapidly changing religious scene in the modern West were published. However, beginning in the 1990, a series of books on the New Age have appeared from which some overall perspective can be constructed. 3 This paper will attempt to summarize our present understanding of the New Age, its origins, its basic nature as a social movement, the significance of its appearance and demise, and the post-New Age world.
Toward a Definition of the New Age It is a more-than-helpful exercise to confront a few of the issues that emerge in gaining some common perspectives on the New Age. First, we need to make a sharp distinction between the New Age and that class of religious groups that are variously termed New Religions, cults or sectes. As a whole, New Religions are small relatively new religious organizations distinguished by their intrusion into a dominant religious community from which they make significant dissent. A New Religious Movement brings people together around a singular history, belief, practice, and leadership. The great majority of New Religions are sectarian, that is, they are new variations on one of the older major religious traditions. Hare Krishna is a sect of Hinduism, the Divine Light Mission (now known as Elan Vital) is one of the many Sant Mat groups; and the AUM Shinrikyo was a Buddhist organization. Many New Religions are Christian sects that adhere to the great majority of traditional Christian beliefs but either dissent on one or two important doctrines and/or champion a different lifestyle (communalism, separatism, high-pressure proselytization, sexual freedom, etc.). Most of the remaining groups attempt to create a synthesis of two or more of the older religious traditions, the Unification Church being the most notable example.
In sharp contrast, the New Age Movement was never a single organization, but originated as an idea spread by a group of theosophical organizations that shared a common lineage in the writings of Alice A. Bailey. Movement leaders never challenged the integrity of these organizations or of anyone's attachment to them. In this regard, in its earliest stages, the New Age movement was much like the Christian Ecumenical Movement prior to the formation of the World Council of Churches. Without attacking the integrity of the various churches, Ecumenism looked for a Christian community that could give a more visible expression to the shared Oneness among Christians in the object of Christian worship. As the New Age movement grew, some theosophical groups became enthusiastic supporters, some were mildly accepting, some indifferent, and a few were quite hostile. A similar spectrum was presented by different Christian denominations to the Ecumenical Movement.
Much of our confusion about the New Age also derives from the different ways we use the term "movement." As applied to New Religions, "movement" generally refers to the dynamic and informal nature of many first generation religious organizations that are still in the process of rapid change and the creation of the structure that will carry them into the next generations. As applied to the New Age, however, "movement" refers to its likeness to broad social movements such as the Civil Rights movement or the Peace Movement. These movements include a bewildering array of people devoted to the cause but very diverse in their institutional affiliations, definition of particular goals, and adherence to variant strategies on reaching common ends.
As the New Age developed it reached out from its beginning among the Baileyite groups of the United Kingdom, to speak to the hundreds of Theosophical groups and soon invited the entire spectrum of magical, metaphysical, Spiritualist, and other occult groups to consider its basic vision. In the process of its spread, many individuals not previously associated with any of these older groups became excited about the New Age ideal and formed entirely new organizations to add their energy to the cause.
Thus, it is best to see the New Age, not an organization itself, but as an effort to bring older organizations and the people associated with them together and constitute a new sense of oneness among them. As the New Age movement matured through the 1980s, it could also be compared to contemporary Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism exists as a number of conservative Protestant denominations that doctrinally represent a spectrum from Presbyterianism to Pentecostalism. Some of these denominations are quite small and some Evangelical groups consist of but a single congregation (there being a strong anti- denominational theme within Evangelicalism). The Evangelical movement is also served by a number of schools, missionary agencies, specialized ministries, ecumenical associations, and publishing houses that are independent of any one denomination while trying to work with all of them or at least a particular set of them.
In like measure, the New Age consists of many different groups, some large international bodies, some smaller, and many consisting of but a single center. The movement as a whole was served by a number of schools, publishing houses, specialized organizations, networking services, and outreach groups that attempted to serve New Age adherents across their allegiance to a particular occult/metaphysical "denomination." Because of the movement's minority status and anti-institutional biases, New Age organizations tend to be far more fragile than similar Christian organizations in the West.
The New Age in Historical Perspective It was an important clue to unraveling the nature of the New Age movement to note that all of the primary elements constituting the "New Age" had been around for a century or more prior to the emergence of the movement. That is, there was very little about the New Age that was new. Astrology predates any written records we have. Meditation is integral to all religious traditions. Channeling, under different names, is present in the ancient records, including the Bible, and has continually popped up generation by generation. We are all familiar with the practice of assigning occult meanings to crystals through the now thoroughly secularized practice of giving and receiving birthstones.
Most New Age health practices (chiropractic, naturopathy, etc.) were products of eighteenth and nineteenth century science, though some, such as herbalism and Chinese medicine, are rooted in prehistory. Even the idea of a "New Age" has been around for at least two centuries, it having emerged prominently among Rosicrucian and Masonic groups who supported the French and American revolutions. From Masonry, it actually made its way onto the seal of the United States. Early in the twentieth century, it became integral to the thelemic magick of Aleister Crowley in his proclamation of the "New Aeon" of Horus the Crowned and Conquering Child.
Taking seriously the fact that there was little new in the New Age was the first step in understanding what was distinctive in this new movement. The second step has come in the assembling of the history of Western Esotericism, a religious alternative that has continually reappeared under variant modes generation by generation in Western culture. In recent centuries, the religious history of the West has been dominated by the study of the Christian movement, its rise to dominance and its contribution in building the culture of Europe and North America. The displacement of Christianity as the single word on the religious life of the West in this century, however, has allowed a fresh look at Western intellectual history, both in terms of the radical divisions within the Christian community and the diversity of religious life. A most important insight in this new view of Western history has been the definition of Western Esotericism and the various esoteric perspectives that were offered as alternatives to orthodox Christianity through the centuries. 4
Western Esotericism can be traced to the various Gnostic groups of the second century of our Common Era (C.E.) and to various groups that emerged through the first millennia of the Christian Era (such as the Manicheans and Bogomils). Prior to the break up of Western Christianity at the time of the Reformation, the history of these groups is broken, as they were frequently suppressed out of existence, and the relationship of various esoteric currents and groups to one another remains a matter of intense debate. However, beginning with the emergence of Christian Cabalism at Wittenberg during the Reformation, there has been an unbroken presence of different esoteric currents that was spread in the writings of outstanding proponents, such as Paracelsus (1493-1541) and Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), and by a handful organizations, such as the original Rosicrucian groups formed in the seventeenth century and through Speculative Freemasonry, that emerged to prominence in the eighteenth century.
During the Enlightenment, Esotericism warred with the new science, the latter challenging traditional occult notions just as it did religious ones. However, in the wake of the Enlightenment and contemporaneous with the rise of science and technology, a new form of Esotericism emerged with several trained scientists-the Austrian physician Franz Anton Mesmer (1733-1815) and Swedish metalurgist Emanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772)- taking the lead in articulating its perspective. Much of the older Esoteric thought (at least in its popular manifestations) died with the Enlightenment, but we now can trace the steps by which a new "scientific" Esotericism was born through the 19th century. The post-Enlightenment Occult Revival culminated in the formation of a spectrum of new organizations that went under names such as the First Church of Christ, Scientist, the Theosophical Society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and the National Spiritualist Association, to mention only a few of the more prominent.
Through the nineteenth century, a number of outstanding thinkers would supply the intellectual dimension of the now rapidly growing tradition. Building on Mesmer and Swedenborg would be writers such as Louis Claude de Saint-Martin (1743-1803), Eliphas Levi (1810-1875), Pascal Beverly Randolph (1825-1875), Helena Blavatsky (1831-1891), Emma Hardinge Britten (1823-1899), and Gérard Encasse (1865-1916). These thinkers operated on a spectrum between those like Franz von Baader (1765-1841) who tried to emphasize the similarity of esoteric thought with Christianity, to Henry Steel Olcott (1832-1907), president of Theosophical Society, who formally converted to Buddhism.
While having many differences, the modern esoteric thinkers tended to agree on several points that distinguished them from orthodox Christians. First, they tended to view God primarily in impersonal terms rather than as a Father. In speaking of the Divine, they were more comfortable with ideas of principle and law, rather than love and community. Also, the Divine was ultimately so transcendent as to be unknowable. Hence, on a practical level, they shifted the emphasis away from God and possible interaction with Him/Her/It to the beings that inhabited the realms that were located between this lower physical world and the ultimate Divine reality. These beings went under a variety of names from gods/goddesses to angels to spirits to Ascended Masters. They also emphasized the means by which we could interact with these realms either by visiting them (astral travel), communicating with their inhabitants (channeling/mediumship, meditation), or controlling them (magic).
As it developed in the latter-half of the 19th century, Esotericism was recast in light of Newtonian science and its emphasis on natural law and Darwinian evolution. One can see both operating in the "Declaration of Principles" adopted in 1899 by the National Spiritualist Association, which affirmed that "the phenomena of Nature, both physical and spiritual, are the expression of Infinite Intelligence" and that living in accord with such expression constitutes true religion.
The tiny esoteric community expanded internationally as a succession of popular movements swept across the western world. Enthusiasm for Swedenborg's thought led to the founding of the Church of the New Jerusalem. Then the Magnetist movement introduced the idea of a subtle power that underlay and gave life to the cosmos. The direct apprehension of that power is possibly the most commonly shared experience within the larger esoteric community and is now referred to under a host of names from cosmic light to holy spirit to odic force to orgone energy to, most recently, tackyon energy.
The Magnetist movement gave way to Spiritualism, which became the seed ground for both Theosophy and Christian Science. As Theosophy grew, it also divided into numerous factions. At the same time, it provided initial training for a host of new teachers who would go on to found their own movements, most prominently Guy W. Ballard (1878-1939) and Alice A. Bailey (1880-1949). Christian Science would give birth to New Thought that in typical fashion also divided into a spectrum of denominations from the very Christian-oriented Unity School to Religious Science, which stripped itself of uniquely Christian language.
In the last decades of the nineteenth century, Western Esotericism, heretofore carried by a relatively small number of organizations, developed a numerous organizational expressions that represented the differing currents of Esoteric thought. Through the 1880s and 1890s, these organizations made a significant leap forward in opening space in Western culture for occult thought.
During the first seven decades of the 20th century, we can now trace the growth of the esoteric community as each of its major components spread across North America and Western Europe. Spiritualism, for example, had jumped the Atlantic and would enjoy notable success in Great Britain and France. From its headquarters in India, Theosophy established centers in all the major European cities. Rosicrucianism flourished through a variety of independent groups, and the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis would grow into possibly the largest esoteric group in the world. Alice Bailey's Arcane School spread through the English-speaking world, and following the death of its founder, gave birth to several dozen new groups. The "I AM" Religious Activity founded by Guy Ballard also parented numerous groups, among them several 1950s flying saucer groups.