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.