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What New Agers Have Right

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©Heidi Bratton Photography

For the past couple of hundred years, Catholic apologists, along with other Christians, have found it necessary to oppose a thing that came to be called “modernism.” Many of us cut our apologetic teeth on its associated “isms.”

Against humanism we have recalled man to a measure that goes beyond himself. Against scientific positivism we have proposed love — something science cannot verify or measure. Against totalitarianism we have championed the freedom of human conscience and the sacred space of the family. Against theological liberalism we have offered evidence for the veracity of Scripture and the coherent logic of orthodoxy.

The habits of apologetics are hard to break, but if we engage post-modern New Agers with the arguments we use for modernism, we will be talking past them. In many ways the New Age movement is a rebellion against modernism. So here are a few things that New Agers have right contra modernism. Perhaps we can use these to map out at least a small area of common ground.

• Distrust of science. This is one Catholics easily overlook, being used to the abject faith that most modernists place in science. But New Agers often distrust science. They are not only willing to consider the possibility that there may be constituents of reality that are beyond the reach of science and that lie in other “dimensions” or “planes,” they often believe themselves to be in touch with those realities.

We don’t have to convince New Agers that science doesn’t have all the answers. Our work might instead involve getting them grounded in a basic trust of what their own senses tell them about the material world. What New Agers need is the message that it is possible to know the truth, to be certain about some things, even if one cannot know or be certain about all things. And we can affirm for them that there are indeed real things, like thoughts and souls and angels, which lie beyond the ken of scientific research.

• Once Upon a Time. Modernism’s story of the world was one of materialistic evolution, leading to the arrival on this planet of subhuman predecessors of modern humans who gradually raised themselves though wit and selection from a primitive animal existence to civilization. Their story of human history is one of constant progress, from wandering the grasslands of Africa to the great achievements of modern life. For modernists, there is no “Golden Age” lingering in the human memory of ages past. One explains such myths by psychology: Paradise Lost is the persistence of the unconscious memory of the warmth of the womb or the comfort of mama’s lap, perhaps.

New Agers, though, are quite amenable to the idea that something humans once had has vanished, that we are trying to get back to something we have lost or fallen from — some blessed state, something better than what we have now. They have respect for the idea that people in the past knew things that can help us, that traditional understandings are not necessarily “primitive” and to be disdained by educated modern people.

• Our need for help. New Agers may seem sometimes to be the consummate radical individualists, but this often masks a deep desire to be part of a mystical body. Many New Agers believe in a kind of warped “communion of saints,” made up of “avatars” or “bodhivistas” ready to help one along a spiritual path.

They also recognize that grace, spiritual help, can come through material channels — that things can be a “means of grace,” although that is not the terminology they use. They are, in other words, less resistant than a modernist to a sacramental view of reality and they recognize the very human need for ritual.

As we attend to their fallacies, let’s also affirm New Agers in those things they have right. Even when the details need correcting, we can often find points of agreement on broad principles. By listening carefully we can open up the lines of communication. And with care and tact, we can make the same case for Christ that our early Christian brothers and sisters made to the pagan world of their day.


Mary Kochan, former Senior Editor of CatholicExchange, is Editor-at-Large  of CatholicLane.com.

Raised as a  third-generation Jehovah's Witness, Mary worked her way backwards through the Protestant Reformation to enter the Catholic Church on Trinity Sunday, 1996.  Mary has spoken in many settings, to groups large and small, on the topic of destructive cultism and has been a guest on both local and national radio programs. To arrange for Mary to speak at your event, you may contact her at kochanmar@gmail.com.

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  • noelfitz

    This is a major and substantial study.

    Thank you so much, Mary.

    Before submitting a comment I would like to read it again carefully.

    We are fortunate to have CL, which carries such deep and scholarly articles, deeply embedded in Catholic thought.

  • Well-balanced and well-said! Thanks, Mary.

  • I think I can summarize this entire article:

    1) Practice “disengaged listening.”

    2) Point out common points.

    3) Untwist where necessary and make those moments your talking points.

    Mary, I am mindful that the Early Church did not have an easy time Christianizing the Empire. It literally took Divine Intervention at the Milvian Bridge….

    -Kevin Symonds

  • noelfitz

    Mary,

    thanks again for a brilliant article.

    However I am amazed that for a religion with over 1000000000 members there is no other web site like CL, where solid, thoughtful articles are written for ordinary Catholics.

    I had intended to read and study your article carefully and then reply. But as I am going away tomorrow for a few days, and if I wait I will probably not reply, so I want to express a few views now.

    First modernism and post-modernism are terms I do not understand, as they mean different things to different people. A philosopher friend of mine told me he prefers to restrict these terms to art and architecture, prevalent around 1900.

    Some might claim modernism arose in the renaissance with Erasmus and Thomas More and the invention of printing.

    More would associate modernism with Pius X and PASCENDI DOMINICI GREGIS. The priest in our parish told us saints are canonized for their sanctity, not for their decisions, as Pius’ condemnation of modernism put back scholarship in the Church for 50 years, some would say longer. Perhaps Catholic Biblical scholarship only recovered with DEI VERBUM (1965).

    You seem to define a modernist as a scientist, while most would see them as complete opposites, since a modernist denies the existence of truth (relativist), while a scientist believes in nature being understandable, and having patterns (laws of nature).

    Like you I am interested in Newman and hence “liberalism” as he understood it. But recently I was at a lecture by Eamon Duffy who attacked Frank Turner who claimed the enemy of Newman was evangelicalism, not liberalism. So for me confusion is heaped on confusion. Perhaps someday you will sort out recent ideas on Newman and his views.

    So what does post-modern new age mean? perhaps a bit of whatever you want it to mean. For some it is what others call modernism, for others what came after modernism.

    It seems to me that modernism (Pius X) = liberalism (Newman) = relativism = postmodernism.

    Did you claim that Catholics and New Agers distrust science?

    But Catholics do not distrust science. A criticism of Thomas Aquinas might be he is too scientific, seeing theology as the science of God.

    Mary, I do hope you are not being anti-science. This is one thing the Church is not.

    Are you rejecting evolution and “natural selection”. I hope not.

    You conclude with “By listening carefully we can open up the lines of communication (with New Agers)”. I would fully agree. Here in CL many Protestants have expressed views we would fully agree with and commend. So different groups can share common views.

    Similarly Catholics can have lines of communications with scientists, and even can become scientists.

    • HomeschoolNfpDad

      Oh, Noel, not everything is a dichotomy. To say that science cannot explain everything is quite different from saying that science cannot explain anything. We get this false dichotomy from the atheists. We certainly do not need it here.

      As to the question of evolution and natural selection, the teaching of the Church is clear. Pope Pius XII teaches in Humani Generis that:

      “the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God. However, this must be done in such a way that the reasons for both opinions, that is, those favorable and those unfavorable to evolution, be weighed and judged with the necessary seriousness, moderation and measure, and provided that all are prepared to submit to the judgment of the Church, to whom Christ has given the mission of interpreting authentically the Sacred Scriptures and of defending the dogmas of faith” (No. 36, emphasis mine, http://tinyurl.com/tloj ).

      In other words, none may oblige evolution as being intrinsically necessary to the Faith, nor may any proscribe it as being intrinsically opposed to the Faith.

      • noelfitz

        HS,
        many thanks for a brilliant, balanced reply to me.

        I agree fully with the opinions mentioned.

        I have been away for a few days and just got back this evening.

        When I was away I was thinking how fortunate we are to have CL, where we can discuss our faith, and our difficulties, in a supportive, friendly and Catholic way.

  • I think one can be grateful for the good things science has done while remaining a skeptic toward those whose mission is to be, well, skeptical. I guess you can apply a “know it by its fruits” test.

    For example, I take a powerful medication every day, the fruit of scientific research, that keeps me able to function and live a productive life. I owe scientists a debt of gratitude for the deep understanding of biochemistry, human physiology, and medicine that made my medication possible.

    I am also a skeptic (not a non-believer, just someone with serious unanswered questions) about issues such as evolution and global warming. I don’t think there’s any harm in turning skepticism on the skeptical!

  • noelfitz

    PH, again I agree fully with you. Thanks.

    Lots of us are alive today thanks to advances in chemistry, and appreciate the dedicated hard work of scientists.

    Also to be skeptical is healthy. To have an open mind about evolution and global warming is appropriate. Sometimes our expertise is in a different field and we do not have a reasoned view of difficult issues.

    There used to be talk of global warming, but after some terribly bad weather, it is now fashionable top discuss climate change.

  • Mary Kochan

    Noel, my point was to show that there is a mentality among new agers that provides points where we can “plug in” (so to speak) certain truths. I gave as an example their rejection of scientific positivism (sometimes called scientism), which would hold that only things that can be proven by science are true. This is an aspect of modernism apologists are used to arguing against, but we don’t need to make that argument with a new ager.

    I wasn’t implying that Catholics were anti-science. We might actually have to defend science against some new age nonesense that throws around terms like “vibrations” and “energy” in complete disregard for their meaning.

  • noelfitz

    Mary,
    thanks so much for your reply.

    Your article was brilliant, and it has been going through my mind for days.

    I accept fully your ideas. They are always sound. I am intrigued about how, where and why you developed such a deep interest in and knowledge of Catholic theology and classical philosophy. I ‘chance my arm a bit’, so it is good to have some one here with a solid, sound foundation.

    However, Mary, I think at times there is an anti-learning, anti-science, anti-intellectual streak in parts of Catholicism. Modern science may have started with the renaissance and the enlightenment which were movements not always friendly to Catholicism.

    I am reading a book recently about the future of the Church. It is interesting. In it it claims that Pius IX seemed to turn his back on the modern world. Then Pius X with his anti-modernism (anti-modernity) campaigns removed Catholic scholars from the public square. The book claims it was John XXIII who opened the Church to the modern world.