I have a lot of sympathy for New Age folks. Not sympathy with their ideas (if one can use such a strong word as "idea" for the quicksilver emotionalism and muddy mixture of suburban folk religion that is the New Age), but sympathy with the elemental movements of the heart that seem to animate much of the New Age. I myself was a pagan at one time. That is not to say I was a Wiccan, nor that I painted myself with woad and sat naked, pounding drums in some Men’s Circle. Rather, I was raised in the suburban garage band culture of Wayne’s World, darkening the door of a church perhaps five times in my life, unbaptized, clueless about the gospel, filled with superstitious fears and pagan notions floating about in pop culture — "without hope and without God in the world," as Paul said.
Spiritually bereft as I was, it more or less fell to me to grope my way through the murk toward whatever light I could find, with lots of voices in our culture shouting "Lo! Here! Lo! There!" as I did so. Confronted with the crude materialist reductionism of the scientistic culture of the late 20th century, I rejected it by a sort of intuitive gut instinct as a thing of inhuman gloom and nihilism. I didn’t know much, but I knew the world was far too mysterious and beautiful to reduce it all to physics, math, electricity, power, politics, or any of the other diagrams of thin, watery rationalism. I experienced nature and human beings, not as a pile of raw materials, but as . . . well, something charged with grandeur. And so I sought what was behind nature without knowing that was what I was doing. I "felt after" the dear freshness that lay deep down things.
Nor was I wrong to do so, judging by Paul’s words to the Athenians in Acts 17. For in "feeling after" God I eventually found out what (or rather Who) I was feeling after, by His grace. Such seeking God with the imagination is the very essence of paganism and constitutes a huge part of what countless New Agers are doing. For the New Age is, in large degree, a reaction to the same materialist meaninglessness that appalled me.
The problem, of course, is that merely rejecting atheistic materialism does not necessarily mean you are pursuing God. And, indeed, the New Age often winds up being a sort of attempt at sacramentality without all the God-and-Jesus stuff. It seeks not as a person but a sort of (to coin a phrase) "Force." And it often couples this vague tapioca spirituality with all sorts of quack counsels, remedies, theories, and nostrums that sometimes come close to sounding Christian while in fact leading us very far into darkness.
Take, for instance, New Age guru Eckhart Tolle’s counsels to "abandon the past" and ignore the future in his bestseller The Power of Now. Sounds a bit like Paul’s counsel to forget what is behind and press onward in the upward calling of Christ Jesus, not to mention Christ’s own counsel to "not worry about tomorrow." But Tolle’s simplistic counsel overlooks the fact that Christ bids us only to abandon our sins, not the past. It ignores the fact that the command is to not worry about the future, not to utterly ignore it.
That’s because Christ knows that the thing that makes us uniquely human is our ability to remember the past and hand it to our children. Not simply our own personal past (a dog can do that with its puppies), but the pasts of millions of others. That is what a culture and a civilization is, and that is why Israel’s entire history is one long and careful act of remembering, studded with feasts, rites, rituals, and monuments designed to make sure that their past is not abandoned. Indeed, all civilizations are marked by this commitment to memory. That’s why, in contrast to Tolle’s nonsensical feel-good counsel, the central command of the entire Christian tradition is, "Do this in memory of me." A people that loses its memory is a people that is ripe for destruction — and a particularly laughable form of destruction, as it goes down to its doom reciting tommyrot such as Tolle’s hilarious explanation of the origins of menstrual cramps ("Dude! It’s all because of the Inquisition").
A people that will not believe in God will believe in anything. A people who abandon their history do indeed live in the Power — indeed, the iron grip — of Now. They are slaves to the Now, pushed by every gust of fashion, severed from all connection to the rest of common human experience and common sense, suckers for every crank and quack with a theory, unable to lift their eyes even for a moment to see past the ends of their noses. They live in the power of every charlatan who tells documentable lies to people who no longer have the slightest idea what the documents say, nor even how to read them. The Power of Now can be so strong in some people’s lives that they can neither look back to a time when Brangelina were not dominating People magazine, nor forward far enough to anticipate that taking out an adjustable-rate mortgage without sufficient funds to pay it will leave their life (and a great many other lives) in ruins. And if they are so shortsighted about the things of earth, how shall they fare in the things of Heaven?
A Christian can and should speak of the "sacrament of the present moment" and attend to obeying the counsels of our Lord and seeking his daily bread. But that is an altogether different thing than the New Age philosophy of Tolle or the Force, which is admirably summed up in Orson Scott Card’s immortal words: "Just close your eyes and lunge." To live in the present moment in Christ is precisely to live in a tradition that stretches back to Adam and forward to That Day. An amnesiac civilization is a civilization that is begging for a tyrant to stampede it whithersoever he wants it to go, for his own purposes, using the tools of fear, appetite, and lies. New Age prophets like Tolle (who have not abandoned the past or the future so completely as to forget the value of the massive number of dollars they earn with their quackery) simply make that job easier.
Meanwhile, only the truth of Christ can keep us from the power — or rather the tyranny — of Now.
Mark P. Shea is a senior editor for www.CatholicExchange.com and a columnist for InsideCatholic. Visit his blog at markshea.blogspot.com.