The title of my paper is The New Age Movement and the Bahá'í Faith and I would like to briefly share with you some reflections on this subject. (I must admit that, in researching this relationship, I was unaware that Dr. Udo Schaefer had made a similar investigation on this topic in his Beyond the Clash of Religions, and yet, in my "independent investigation of truth", I think we have reached similar conclusions. Yet, I believe that research on this subject has barely begun).
I will briefly cover the following four main themes:
1) Why should we examine the relationship between the New Age Movement and
the Bahá'í Faith?
2) What is the New Age Movement and how is it defined?
3) What are some of the similarities and differences between New Age Movement and the Bahá'í Faith?
4) How may the New Age Movement be evaluated from a Bahá'í perspective?
Why should we examine the relationship between the New Age Movement and the Bahá'í Faith?
First of all, some authors have associated the Bahá'í Faith with the New Age Movement and have grouped it together with religious movements such as Theosophy, neo-Hindu reform movements and neo-Sufism.
Secondly, it ought to be studied since some scholars of religion think that the New Age Movement has surpassed and outdated Christianity as a belief-system/world-view in the West.
Thirdly, if the above statements are true, and if we as Bahá'ís, are going to be successful in our proclamations and teachings, especially with reference to the concept of "Entry by troops", I believe that it is vital that we understand this "new" world view.
These three reasons, taken together, may suffice to persuade us to examine the relationship between the New Age Movement and the Bahá'í Faith more thoroughly in the near future.
What is the New Age?
In a very real sense, humanity is approaching not only a new century but a new millennium, so it is quite true, from a secular and temporal perspective, that we are living at the threshold of "a new age". It is also well known that millennarian and apocalyptic movements flourish at such critical turning points in history.
The New Age phenomenon, however, has only recently caught the attention of scholars of religion. It has largely been ignored for two reasons: 1) it was seen as a "faddish" or appeared to be "shallow", and 2) it has no clear boundaries (as we shall see later on), and therefore, historically, it has been much easier to study, what has been labeled "New Religious Movements", since they are more easily defined and accessible for social research. However, some scholars maintain that the New Age Movement is a large "sub-culture" and that it is part of a much greater "cultural shift" in the West, and others have stressed that it is basically a western "post-modern" phenomenon, while others state that it has by far surpassed and out-dated Christianity as a belief-system in the West. Others predict that the New Age Movement as a movement is a transient fad, that it is doomed, but that its ideas may continue to influence and transform the present society.
How is the New Age defined?
The New Age Movement has, by a number of scholars, admittedly been problematic to define and study. For example, it has either ancient historical roots (in Hellenism 300 BC, Gnosticism 100-300 AD, in Hermetism 1500), or is described as a phenomenon that began in the counterculture of the 60s-70s. These extreme perspectives can be seen by the descriptions by two scholars in this field. E.g. Robert Ellwood sees the New Age as "a modern revival . . . of a long-standing tradition of what may be called the alternative spirituality of the west", and that it can be traced to "the Greco-Roman world" via "Renaissance occultism . . . eighteenth century Freemasonry, and nineteenth-century Spiritualism and Theosophy.
This statement can, in turn, be contrasted with Gordon Melton who writes that,
the New Age movement is a relatively new phenomenon. It developed in the late 1960s and emerged as a self-conscious movement in the early 1970s.It is further described as either a movement, a religion, or, as a quasi-religion; as non-occult/non-esoteric or occult/esoteric (e.g. in Germany the term "New Age" has largely been replaced by the term Esoterik = esotericism or Ganzheitlich = holistic); and that it centers on the Self/narcissism, (e.g. New Age has been described as the "religion of the Self"), or that it is basically involved with a social/global transformation. Furthermore, the New Age Movement has also been defined by its own adherents. E.g. David Spangler discerns four levels of the New Age Movement as being characterized as:
1) commercial (superficial)
2) glamour and popular culture (media attention)
3) "an image of change" (transformation/paradigm shift)
4) the birth of the sacred and a resacralizing of life on earth, "new age is fundamentally a spiritual event"
Thus, from this brief overview we can conclude and stress that the term "New Age" (like most religious terms and concepts) is multifaceted, highly ambiguous, and has many dimensions and levels, and therefore is extremely hard to define.
What are some of the similarities and differences between New Age Movement and the Bahá'í Faith?
Nevertheless, and keeping the difficulty of definition in mind, Lewis has enumerated some general characteristics of NRMs (as defined by Robert Ellwood) which he believes also are applicable to the New Age Movement. Let us compare these general characteristics of the New Age Movement to the Bahá'í Faith (a detailed analysis is not possible here):
Emphasis on healing:
Healing is not emphasized in the Bahá'í Faith although the concept of healing does occur in the Bahá'í writings, e.g. the Manifestations of God are sometimes referred to as "Divine physicians" and the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh is symbolically compared to an "Elixir". It is also recognized that humans can heal through spiritual means, especially through prayer.
A desire to be "modern" and use scientific language:
The Bahá'í Faith is sometimes described as a "modern" religion, especially suitable for this modern age, and that religion and science are seen as complementary is one of its fundamental principles. It is the religious language, however, and not the scientific language that dominates the Bahá'í writings.
Eclecticism and syncretism:
The Bahá'í Faith emerged historically in the Near- and Middle East, i.e. mainly within an Islamic religious context (both Shi'i and Sunni), although a variety of religions also coexisted (and still do) within this large area: Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity, and a variety of Sufi orders. It is quite clear, judging from the Bahá'í writings, that Bahá'u'lláh was familiar with especially Islam and Christianity, but also with Zoroastrianism and, to some extent, even Hinduism. It is possible to point out both eclecticism and syncretism within Bahá'í, but this is also the case for other religions.
A monistic and impersonal ontology:
It is here where the Bahá'í Faith clearly differs from the New Age Movement, since the Bahá'í Faith ontology basically is panentheistic, i.e. God permeates the cosmos, and His attributes are reflected in creation, but God cannot be identified with, or reduced to, His creation. Although God sometimes is described in agnostic or negative terms, God is also described in personal and positive terms.
Optimism, success orientation, and a tendency to evolutionary views:
The Bahá'í Faith may in general be described in optimistic and progressive terms but yet, there are also notions of decline, crises and even so called "apocalyptic" tendencies. The evolutionary views are particularly strong and Darwin's theory of evolution is not denied but rather reinterpreted in, what could be called, a "spiritual theory of evolution".
Emphasis on psychic powers:
It is not the psychic powers that are emphasized in Bahá'í but the spiritual attributes, which, ultimately, are a reflection of the powers and attributes of God.
Already here, in this very brief and somewhat superficial comparison, it is possible to discern that it is very difficult to ascertain if Bahá'í matches the New Age Movement. On some points it does, on others it clearly does not.
Now, let's look at another scheme of what here is called by Hammer "An aerial view of the New Age Religion". (For the sake of brevity, I will not go into any great details here):
Cosmos is an unbroken whole:
There are a few passages in the Bahá'í writings that could support such a view. For example 'Abdu'l-Bahá writes that:
all parts of the creational world are of one whole . . . All the parts are subordinate to the whole. The contingent beings are the branches of the tree of life while the Messenger of God is the root of that tree.There is a directionality in this wholeness:
Teleological statements can be found in the Bahá'í writings.
This wholeness is permeated by a power or energy which connects us with the cosmos:
The cosmos is permeated by the Holy Spirit. However, a certain hierarchy is also recognized in the Bahá'í writings, but the most crucial difference, however, is that the cosmos is not viewed in monistic or pantheistic terms, but that it is panentheistic.
Humanity has mismanaged its own wholeness (the relationship between body - soul):
This is not emphasized in the Bahá'í Faith, but it is rather humanity's relationship with God, the Manifestations of God, and with the true nature of religion that have been mismanaged.
The planet earth is a wholeness:
This is also stated in the Bahá'í writings. E.g. Bahá'u'lláh writes:
Regard ye the world as a man's body, which is affected with diverse ailments, and the recovery of which dependeth upon the harmonizing of all of its component elements.Every human being has a unique place in this wholeness:
This can also be confirmed in the Bahá'í-writings. E.g. 'Abdu'l-Bahá states that:
. . . man is but a part or member of that whereof nature is the whole.Human beings do not only live this life, but have transmigrated through a chain of existences and will reincarnate many more times:
Here is another crucial difference between the New Age Movement and the Bahá'í Faith, although the latter would agree with the first two sentences in that: 1) there is life after death, and 2) humanity as a species, has transmigrated through a series of prior existences (the mineral-, vegetable-, and animal-kingdoms), but the Bahá'í writings do not harmonize with the concept of reincarnation since it is believed that the human soul is created at the moment of conception, and that after this earthly existence, it transmigrates into a new dimension - the spiritual kingdom.
There are other, perhaps better paths to knowledge than the senses and the rational mind:
This is also confirmed in the Bahá'í writings.
Various non-Christian religions contain such ideas or an ancient wisdom which can benefit us today:
This is a little bit more difficult to answer since the Bahá'í Faith on the one hand upholds all religions/cultures' spiritual heritage originates, ultimately, with a Manifestation of God, and yet, on the other hand, it also maintains that all religions/cultures decline and that they, eventually, become obsolete and malfunctioning. In other words, although the various religions/cultures to some degree still contain an ancient wisdom they are, nonetheless, inadequate to solve the world's current spiritual and global problems. However, the Bahá'í Faith also stresses "unity in diversity" and works to preserve the richness and variety of humanity's cultural heritage.
Humanity faces a spiritual and societal revolution, a new age:
This is perhaps one of the most fundamental features of the Bahá'í Faith and e.g., the title of Esslemont's book Bahá'u'lláh and the New Era conveys this theme clearly. The Bahá'í writings repeatedly emphasize that humanity is facing an unprecedented spiritual-, societal-, and global revolution, and that it is at the threshold of a new age, a new world order, the lesser- and the Most Great Peace, and ultimately, the Kingdom of God on Earth.
Once again we are faced with the same problems as with the previous comparison. The Bahá'í Faith seems to fit on a number of points, but then again, it clearly rejects such crucial categories as pantheism, monism, and reincarnation.
I have tried to show that since: a) the definition of the New Age is highly problematic and contains a variety of extreme positions, and b) that the Bahá'í Faith seems to both fit and not fit, it comes as no surprise that it is possible to both identify it with, and to separate it from, the New Age Movement.
However, although such comparisons are possible to make, they do not establish causation i.e. they do not clarify the problem of historical influences. For example, if one upholds that the New Age Movement is a relatively new phenomenon (60-70's), then the Bahá'í Faith is a considerably older phenomenon since it originated a century earlier (1844-63). And, if one states that New Age Movement has its roots in the synthesis created by Theosophy during the 19th century, one is faced with another problem, since the Bahá'í Faith not only emerged several decades before the birth of the Theosophical Society (1875), but that it also arose outside a Euro-American context. Finally, if one maintains that the New Age Movement has "a long tradition in the west", with roots in Hellenism, then one is faced with yet another problem, since Hellenism expanded not only to ancient Persia (where Zoroastrianism was a state religion at the time being), but all the way to India (where both Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism were already established). In order to explain some of the similarities and differences between the New Age Movement and the Bahá'í Faith, one rather ought to trace its influences to the Bábí Faith, Shaykhism, Shí'i Islam, Sufism, Neo-Platonism etc.
In our comparisons between the New Age Movement and the Bahá'í Faith we noticed some crucial "theoretical" differences, but it should also be mentioned that there are some "practical", "structural", or "organizational" differences. As was mentioned earlier, the New Age Movement is a very loosely structured movement/religion. According to Heelas, the New Age Movement should,
not be taken to imply that the New Age is in any sense an organized entity. Far from being centrally administered, it is comprised of diverse modes of operation: well-organized NRMs and communities . . . networks . . . one-to-one paths within . . . centres . . . the week-end training seminars, holiday homes . . . festivals . . . gatherings . . . shops . . .clubs . . . schools.The New Age Movement is rather structured in what has been called a "meta-network" i.e. a "net-work of net-works" rather than as a unified and hierarchical organization. In other words, taken as a whole, there is: no founder, no holy canon, no central doctrine, no myth or ritual, (although some scholars see the New Age itself as a myth and healing as a ritual). Yet, one has to admit that there are, what Wittgenstein called, "family resemblances" between various sub-networks (as we have seen in our comparisons earlier), but this is equally true for other religions as well.
The Bahá'í Faith on the other hand, is based upon what is believed to be a new and unique revelation from God, it clearly defines two specific founders (Báb/Bahá'u'lláh), a holy canon, and a unified doctrine. It contains relatively few myths and rituals. In contrast to the New Age Movement, the Bahá'í Faith consists of a well-defined organization and administration that is established on local-, national-, and international levels. Yet, there is no priesthood, but the individual Bahá'ís elect their representatives democratically. In comparing the New Age Movement with the Bahá'í Faith in this manner, the latter resembles more the so called "classical" religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), and/or the so called NRMs, although such comparisons also are highly problematic.
Since the New Age Movement is so highly complex and elusive, it is not very easy to evaluate it, but I am sure it will never be evaluated by the Bahá'ís as it has been by some Evangelical churches, i.e. that it is a "Satanic Conspiracy", especially since: 1) Bahá'ís do not believe in Satan, nor in conspiracies, and 2) since the Bahá'í Faith seems to be in agreement with quite a few categories of the New Age Movement but, as we have seen, not with other categories, i.e. monism, pantheism, and reincarnation. Yet, I think that the greatest agreements between the New Age Movement and the Bahá'í Faith are David Spangler's third and fourth levels of the New Age: i.e. that it is "an image of change" (transformation/paradigm shift), and that it may reflect the birth of the sacred and a resacralizing of life on earth and that the "new age is fundamentally a spiritual event". Moreover, according to Spangler "the phrase an emerging planetary culture is replacing the phrase an emerging new age . . ." which also would be in complete harmony with the Bahá'í view.
How may the New Age Movement be evaluated from a Bahá'í perspective?
However, I do notice a certain paradox with the New Age phenomenon, since on one hand the western world has, especially since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, become gradually more secularized, atheistic, and materialistic, and yet, on the other hand, the New Age Movement seems to be an indication of an increasing process of spiritualization.
I think this paradox can be solved by the same token as with the concepts of an old and a new world order, and in this context I believe that the term "order" is interchangeable with the term age. In the Bahá'í writings, the emergence of the two orders, or ages, are not seen as mutually exclusive, but are evaluated as two simultaneous and parallel processes. E.g., according to Shoghi Effendi:
We stand on the threshold of an age whose convulsions proclaim alike the death-pangs of the old order and the birth-pangs of the new. Through the generating influence of the Faith announced by Bahá'u'lláh this New World Order may be said to have been conceived. We can, at the present moment, experience its stirrings in the womb of a travailing age--an age waiting for the appointed hour at which it can cast its burden and yield its fairest fruit.This present age is seen as being on the "threshold" between two world orders - the "death-pangs of the old order" and the "birth-pangs of the new." A similar expression is found in the writings of Bahá'u'lláh where he says: "Soon will the present-day order be rolled up, and a new one spread out in its stead." These and earlier passages by the Bahá'í authors indicate that the world at present is in a major phase-transition between two major cycles, and indeed, Shoghi Effendi also refers to this present age as the "Age of Transition." This age is furthermore represented not only by two opposing world orders, but also by two major concurring processes. Again, to quote from Shoghi Effendi:
A twofold process, however, can be distinguished, each tending, in its own way and with an accelerated momentum, to bring to a climax the forces that are transforming the face of our planet. The first is essentially an integrating process, while the second is fundamentally disruptive. The former, as it steadily evolves, unfolds a System which may well serve as a pattern for that world polity towards which a strangely-disordered world is continually advancing; while the latter, as its disintegrating influence deepens, tends to tear down, with increasing violence, the antiquated barriers that seek to block humanity's progress towards its destined goal. The constructive process stands associated with the nascent Faith of Bahá'u'lláh, and is the harbinger of the New World Order that Faith must erelong establish. The destructive forces that characterize the other should be identified with a civilization that has refused to answer to the expectation of a new age, and is consequently falling into chaos and decline.It is interesting to note that both processes are being described as accelerating and that they are reaching a climax which will be "transforming the face of our planet." The first process is described as "integrating" and "constructive" whereas the latter is depicted as "disruptive" and "disintegrating." Furthermore, the former process is associated with the "nascent Faith of Bahá'u'lláh" and the "New World Order." The second process, although portrayed as "destructive," is seen in a positive light in that it tears down the "antiquated barriers that seek to block humanity's progress towards its destined goal." This barrier is hence related to a civilization which has "refused to answer to the expectation of a new age." This last sentence could refer to: 1) the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh in general, and/or 2) Bahá'u'lláh's letters sent to various religious and political leaders in the 19th century.
Thus, rather than viewing the New Age Movement as an isolated phenomenon, as a "faddish", a "sub-culture", a western "post-modern" phenomenon, or a cultural or paradigm- shift, it could be viewed within a much larger context of the Bahá'í Faith: in the context of the transition of the old and new world orders, within the context that mankind is coming of age, within the context of religious cycles, and therefore ultimately, within the context of progressive revelation.
I would now like to conclude this paper with a quote from 'Abdu'l-Bahá who, at the beginning of this century said:
Now the new age is here and creation is reborn. Humanity hath taken on new life. The autumn hath gone by, and the reviving spring is here. All things are now made new. . . Renewal is the order of the day. And all this newness hath its source in the fresh outpourings of wondrous grace and favour from the Lord of the Kingdom, which have renewed the world. The people, therefore, must be set completely free from their old patterns of thought, that all their attention may be focused upon these new principles, for these are the light of this time and the very spirit of this age.
'Abdu'l-Bahá (1981). Some Answered Questions. Bahá'í Publishing Trust, Wilmette, Illinois.
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1Matson (1979) and Figl (1993).
2It should be mentioned that in 1994 Stephen Lambden already pointed out the need for Bahá'í scholars to study 'The Age of Aquarius'. "Such Bahá'ís as are interested in this area should become acquainted with aspects of 'new age' philosophy and Bahá'í reactions to it through the study of sensible sources". Lambden also mentions in a footnote that the LSA of Warwick has produced a leaflet entitled The New Age in order to approach adherents of the 'new age'. See Lambden (1994: 71-72).
3See e.g. Cohn (1993) and McGinn (1979).
4Hammer (1997: 289-93, my emphasis).
5Lewis & Melton (1992: 59)
6Lewis & Melton (1992: 18, my emphasis)
7Most scholars in Lewis' & Meltons book (1992) and Kyle (1995) categorize the New Age as "The New Age Movement" and compares it to New Religious Movements. Even Heelas uses the term "movement", which is also the title of his book (1996) The New Age Movement.
8Other scholars Hanegraaff (1997) and Hammer (1997: 274) are more consistingly using the term "The New Age religion", but Hammer also uses the term "The New Age movement" (p. 25). Rothstein alternates between the terms "movement" and "religion" and writes e.g. that "The New Age is . . . a religion of action" (p. 11, my translation). Both Hammer and Rothstein state that the New Age phenomena is a "popular belief" (folktro).
10See Offermanns (1997:1).
11See Heelas (1996).
12Lewis & Melton (1992: 3).
13See Spangler (1984: 80-81) and Kyle (1995: 5-7).
14Lewis & Melton (1992: 7).
15See e.g. Bahá'u'lláh (1983: 200).
16See e.g. 'Abdu'l-Bahá (1981: 254-259).
17See e.g. Khursheed (1987).
18For a more in-depth discussion on the theme of Bahá'í and syncretism see Stockman (1993).
19See e.g. Lundberg (1996).
20For a detailed analysis see Lambden (1997).
21See e.g. Lundberg (1996).
22See Stockman (1996).
23See Lundberg (1996).
24Bahá'í Publishing Trust (1976: 364).
25See e.g. Bahá'u'lláh (1983: 61, 65, 141).
26See e.g. Bahá'u'lláh (1983: 213).
27Bahá'u'lláh (1986: 329; see also p. 498).
28'Abdu'l-Bahá (1982a: 80). See also e.g. Bahá'í Publishing Trust (1976: 364) and 'Abdu'l-Bahá (1982a: 16, 30-31, 360)
29See Shoghi Effendi (1976: 71).
30See 'Abdu'l-Bahá (1981); Lundberg (1996).
31See e.g. 'Abdu'l-Bahá (1981: 297-99).
32See Esslemont (1980); Lundberg (1996).
33See Lundberg (1996).
35MacEoin (1994); Walbridge (1996).
36For a discussion on the theme "The Challanges of Globalization"see New Age magazine New Renaissance (1997).
37Shoghi Effendi (1991: 169).
38Bahá'u'lláh (1983: 7).
39Shoghi Effendi (1991:171).
40Shoghi Effendi (1991:170, italics added).
41See Bahá'u'lláh (1972).
42'Abdu'l-Bahá (1982b: 252-253, italics added).