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Notes:
Presented at the Irfan Colloquia Session #15, Wilmette (August 9-10, 1997). See irfancolloquia.org/15/dodenhoff_paradigm.

Buddy, Can You Spare a Paradigm?:
The Bahá'í Faith and the New Age Movement

by Paul Doden hoff

1999
Certainly, the idea of a "new age" is as old as humankind. The notion that "there's a better day a-comin'" is common to every major faith tradition. For me, the "new age" began in 1968. That was the year I first read the book, now a classic in "new age" literature entitled "The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus, the Christ," which I'd found in our local library. It was also the year that, most secretively, since my parents were evangelical Christians, I began a three year association with the International Society for Krishna Consciousness and read, for the first time, the Bhagavad-Gita, beginning my fascination with other religions and my great affection for India and its people.

Years later, in 1989, I was a writer for a fledgling "new age" newspaper in the NY Tri-State area and the sales manager for what was then the largest "new age" exposition in the country. The newspaper didn't fledge but the expo was very successful with over 250 workshops and seminars held over a four-day period as well as over 300 exhibitors and vendors from book publishers, organizations and individuals who all had something to demonstrate or sell that would dramatically improve the spiritual, physical and/or emotional well-being of the thousands who attended the expo. I recall walking around the exhibit hall on opening day, surrounded by crowds of people stopping at the various booths, buying books, tapes, experiencing various forms of bodywork, having tarot card readings, channeling or past-life regression sessions, buying that "perfect" crystal necklace which would effect some kind of inner change and enjoying a variety of vegetarian style foods. I didn't know how to describe it then to anyone who asked what this "new age" stuff was all about and, honestly, I find it just as difficult today, a difficulty I share with just about everyone who approaches the subject of the "New Age Movement," but, invariably any discussion of this phenomenon must address the question: Just what is the New Age movement? And any definition also requires at least some attempt to locate its origins in a historical setting. These two questions are of equal, if not greater, importance when exploring the relationship, if any, between the Bahá'í Faith and the New Age movement especially since the Bahá'í Faith is often linked to it, not only in polemical arguments, but often by scholars of religion, although usually in the most tenuous manner.

One of the issues that must be dealt with in such a discussion is the distinction that must be made between the popular, outward manifestations of the New Age with which most people are familiar today and the meaning of the term "new age" in the prophetic sense. David Spangler, a leading New Age thinker and one of the early leaders of the Findhorn Community makes just such a distinction in an honest and critical assessment of the modern New Age movement in his essay, "The Movement Toward the Divine." In it, he compares Christianity to:

"a great cathedral rising up around a central and spiritual architectural theme. While it encompasses numerous denominations and sects within its boundaries...the architecture of Christian spirituality is unified in the Person of Jesus Christ, his incarnation, and his redemptive mission."

In contrast, Spangler likens the New Age movement to:

"a flea market or a country fair, a collection of differently colored and designed booths spread around a meadow, with the edges of the fair dissolving into the forested wilderness beyond...the fair is a place of play and discovery. It is filled with a vitality, a wildness, a tumult of different voices and things to see and do. There are jesters and tricksters, magicians and shamans, healers and mystics, and the inevitable hucksters eager for a quick sale..."

This analogy of the flea market is not unlike the large "New Age" exposition to which I referred earlier. Spangler goes on to list a number of different types of beliefs and practices that are most often associated with the New Age movement. The list, though not comprehensive, includes: Goddess Spirituality, the New Physics, ESP, Meditation, Neopaganism and Wicca, Channeling, Humanistic Psychology, Diet and Nutrition, Native American Spirituality, Near Death Experiences, Kabbalah, Transpersonal Psychology, Yoga, Astrology, Crystals, UFO's, Chiropractic, Chaos Theory, Shamanism, and others. We could add others which have gained popular attention in the past few years including Angelology, perhaps better termed Angelolatry, the Mind/Body Connection and the power of Prayer.

But as we examine this list, it becomes apparent that many of these topics have existed for many years prior to being made part of the New Age collage. It is obvious to even the casual investigator that many of them are culled from scientific, medical, and psychological discoveries and techniques not to mention from various religious traditions including Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism and Islam. It is necessary, therefore, to separate the popular New Age phenomenon, the one with which the media seems to be infatuated, from the idea of a coming "new age" which as Spangler rightly asserts:

"...is an ancient one...found in every culture in one form or another...a planetary myth or...an archetypal image within the collective human psyche."

It is not necessary to elaborate on this point here. The innumerable references to just such a future age in the many sacred texts of the world are widely known within and without the Bahá'í Faith and are easily accessible to anyone investigating the topic. But if we accept that the idea of a "new age" is not new itself, and if we recognize many "new age" practices as modern forms of established scientific or religious practices, we are still left with the question of locating the origins of the modern phenomenon which has been given the overly used label of "New Age Movement" in a historical setting. This appears to me to be at least as necessary as a definition of "new age" and certainly important for our purpose here in exploring the relationship, if any, between the Bahá'í Faith and the New Age movement.

Observers of the movement, while acknowledging the influence of the psychedelic sixties, are generally agreed that it did not spring full-blown from the head (or head-trips) of Professor Timothy Leary and his colleague Professor Richard Alpert, known today as the spiritual teacher Ram Dass. The roots of the modern New Age movement grow deep into and take nourishment from the fertile soil of many ancient religious, occult, metaphysical and philosophical traditions, putting forth their first shoots much earlier than the 1950's or 1960's, blossoming eventually into the wild, some would say overgrown garden it has become today. Even a cursory examination of popular new age teachings reveals a close kinship with the hermetic and alchemical traditions of the past. It is not necessary here to outline the long and sometimes murky history of these traditions and their development as part of the occult establishment in the West. It is also unnecessary to discuss the obvious influence of many eastern traditions including Hinduism and Buddhism on the New Age movement. This has been done in many excellent essays and books about the movement by scholars including J. Gordon Melton, Paul Heelas, Michael York, and Wouter J. Hanegraaff (who's book "New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought" is, I think the finest yet written on the subject.) All of them agree that the New Age movement, in its modern incarnation (excuse the pun), can rightfully be traced back to mid- nineteenth-century New England and Great Britain and can, at least in part, be attributed to the radical changes, or to use a more popular term today, the paradigm shift, created by the Industrial Revolution, the rapid advances in scientific and technological knowledge, the development of more rapid modes of transportation and communication, increased trade with the East, and the challenges to traditional religious institutions. In an essay entitled "Roots of the New Age" in the book "Perspectives On The New Age," Kay Alexander traces the origins of the modern NAM to the eighteenth century scientist/mystic Emmanuel Swedenborg, the Austrian hypnotist Franz Anton Mesmer and to the nineteenth century theosophical and New Thought movements. She also gives a nod to the American Transcendentalist movement of the mid-nineteenth century.

J. Gordon Melton, in his article "New Thought and New Age" in the same volume traces the origins of the movement back to the nineteenth-century, particularly the Swedenborgian, Theosophical, New Thought and Transcendentalist influences, as he does in an earlier article, "A History of the New Age Movement," in a volume entitled "Not Necessarily the New Age." Especially influential in the development of this new spiritual/philosophical consciousness were the leading thinkers within American Transcendentalism, including Emerson and Thoreau. Later, as this school of thought developed into what was to be called "New Thought" and as other similarly but not identically minded groups sprang up, among them the Theosophical Society formed by Blavatsky and Olcott or Alice Baileys Arcane School, the millenialist fervor that swept through Christianity in the U.S. and Great Britain during the first half of the nineteenth century was adopted and adapted to fit the belief systems of these new groups. A "New Age" was fast approaching, claimed many, although few were quite sure just what it would look like or when it would arrive. Over the next century or so, these ideas would continue to be taught, refined, discarded and reinterpreted even as many of these different groups and organizations would grow, decline, disappear and spring up again, remaining for the most part on the fringe of religious thought, until the middle part of the 1960's, when again society was sent into convulsions by war, technological and scientific advances and the desire on the part of many young people for an alternative ontological reality. Communal living, eastern spirituality, the arrival of a new spiritual teacher or guru from the east seemingly every week, the expanded-consciousness offered by the new psychedelic drugs, all helped to give rise to the growing awareness of the "dawning of the Age of Aquarius," or today, the New Age movement.

The connection between the millenialist fervor of the early and mid-nineteenth century in Great Britain and the U.S. and the founding of the Bahá'í Faith has been studied and written about at length. It is a connection which I find to be significant, not only in terms of the relationship of the Bahá'í Faith to Christianity, but, considering the general agreement between most scholars on the historical beginnings of the New Age movement at around the same time, one which further serves to validate the claim that Bahá'u'lláh has fulfilled the prophetic cycle and ushered in the age of fulfillment.

There are numerous references in the literature of various nineteenth century "new age" organizations which could be cited, pointing to such a connection. The following is, I believe, one of the most compelling:

" All persons who are not familiar with the purposes of Association, will understand from this document that we propose a radical and universal reform rather than to redress any particular wrong, or to remove the sufferings of any single class of human beings. We do this in the light of universal principles in which all differences, whether of religion, or politics, or philosophy, are reconciled, and the dearest and most private hope of every man has the promise of fulfillment. Herein let it be understood, we would remove nothing that is truly beautiful or venerable; we reverence the religious sentiment in all its forms, the family and whatever else has its foundation either in human nature or Divine Providence. The work we are engaged in is not destruction, but true conservation; it is not a mere resolution, but, as we are assured, a necessary step in the progress which no one can be blind enough to think has yet reached it limit.

We believe that humanity, trained by these long centuries of suffering and struggle, led on by so many saints and heroes and sages, is at length prepared to enter into that universal order toward which it has perpetually moved. Thus we recognize the worth of the whole past, and of every doctrine and institution it has bequeathed us; thus also we perceive that the present has its own high mission, and we shall only say what is beginning to be seen by sincere thinkers, when we declare that the imperative duty of this time and this country, nay, more, that its only salvation and the salvation of civilized countries, lies in the reorganization of society according to the unchanging laws of human nature and universal harmony.

We look, then, to the generous and helpful of all classes for sympathy, for encouragement and for actual aid; not to ourselves only, but to all who are engaged in this great work. And whatever may be the result of any special efforts, we can never doubt that the object we have in view will be finally attained; that human life shall yet be developed, not in discord and misery, but in harmony and joy, and that the perfected earth shall at last bear on her bosom a race of men worthy of the name."

This quotation is the preamble to the second constitution drawn up by members of the Brook Farm community, an experimental group organized by George S. Ripley, Unitarian minister and a leading Transcendentalist thinker of mid- nineteenth century America. Other members of the Farm included leading thinkers such as Orestes Brownson, Margaret Fuller, Octavius Frothingham and for a time Natahniel Hawthorne. While he did not live there, William Henry Channing, nephew to the famous Unitarian minister William Ellery Channing and pupil of Ralph Waldo Emerson, the father of American Transcendentalism, served as spiritual advisor to the small community. What is most significant, however, is the dating of the document: January 18, 1844, the same year that The Bab declared His mission and to which the Bahá'í Faith dates its beginning. While this may seem to some mere coincidence, I find the document a significant example of the connection between the nineteenth century belief in the immanent arrival of a "new age" in the progressive history of humanity and the explicit teaching that just such an age began with the advent of the Twin Manifestations of the Bab and Bahá'u'lláh. It is significant in that it recognizes the progressive nature of revelation as well as the notion of humanity being "at length prepared to enter into that universal order toward which it has perpetually moved," clearly a precursor to the statement of Bahá'u'lláh that "All men have been created to carry forward an ever-advancing civilization." In its recognition of "universal principles in which all differences, whether of religion, or politics, or philosophy, are reconciled," its reverence of "the religious sentiments in all its forms" and the acknowledgement of humanity's debt to "so many saints and heroes and sages," it takes a much broader, global view of coming "new age," as opposed to the parochial, Judeo-Christian view popular then, as now.

If we can therefore make the distinction between the prophetic and the pop culture "new age," between the sacred and the profane, and if we can accept that there is not only a historic connection to mid-nineteenth century New England and Great Britain, but to the wider global religious community and the universality of such an idea, we can easily recognize a connection between the revelation of Bahá'u'lláh and the New Age movement, divorced from its outward, sometimes outrageous forms. And it is this connection which, in the spirit of "consorting in a spirit of friendliness and fellowship," that Bahá'ís must nurture.

Because the modern New Age movement is composed of so many disparate elements, making that connection can be difficult for Bahá'ís especially since as David Spangler says:

"The New Age does not have a single, cohesive doctrine to which everyone ascribes; it does not have a central spiritual founder like a Jesus, a Buddha, or a Muhammad. It does not have a unified set of spiritual practices or a common pattern or focus of worship. It does not have a well-defined spiritual path toward the sacred. There are some groups who identify themselves as being New Age who do have a centralized doctrine, an orthodoxy of worship and practice, and have been founded by individuals whom they revere as being spiritual masters. These groups are the exception, though, rather than the rule. The New Age movement as a whole does not have these characteristics."

Melton gives some insight into what the New Age movement does believe:

"The central vision and experience of the New Age is one of radical transformation. On an individual level that experience is very personal and mystical. It involves an awakening to a new reality of self - such as a discovery of psychic abilities, the experience of a physical or psychological healing, the emergence of new potentials within oneself, an intimate experience within a community, or the acceptance of a new picture of the universe. However, the essence of the New Age is the imposition of that vision of personal transformation onto society and the world. Thus the New Age is ultimately a social vision of a world transformed, a heaven on earth, a society in which the problems of today are overcome and a new existence emerges"

While affirming the need for social transformation effected through the transformation of the individual, the New Age believer is generally at a loss to describe just how a socially transformed society will come about or what form it will take. If we consider Spangler's statement concerning the lack of any coherent doctrine or unified system of belief, it is not difficult to see why this should be so.

New agers who ask what the Bahá'í Faith believes are generally given a recitation of the principles of the Faith: the oneness of humanity, the unity of religions, the equality of women and men, the elimination of prejudice and the like. And most new age believers will respond, logically, in a positive manner since the Bahá'í principles deal essentially the with transformational values which the New Age espouses. The New Age believer already believes these things. Bahá'ís, must go beyond the rudimentary issues addressed in an outline of the principles of the Faith and address the deeper issue which the New Age movement has not: the practical, visible establishment of a "new age" society or, in Bahá'í terminology, a "New World Order."

Jean Houston, depth psychologist, cultural historian, co-founder of the Institute for Mind Research in New York, and author of such books on personal and planetary transformation as "The Possible Human," and "The Search for the Beloved," in speaking to a conference of therapists told of her close friendship with Margaret Mead. Just prior to her death, Mead spoke to Houston about her vision of the future. In the course of one conversation, she told Houston not to look to governments or big business for direction in the future, but rather, to grass-roots community organizations, working cooperatively with those residents of their communities and with each other to effect the changes that were destined to happen on planet Earth. She went on to say that there would come a time when government would be decentralized, the affairs of daily life and its governance in the hands of these smaller groups.

She continues, in that same lecture, calling her audience to:

"...be aware of the emerging pattern that gives meaning, power, purpose, sensibility, and a sense of the ongoingness of the story, the recognition of the pattern that connects...the four principle areas of change that are occurring which are (1) Planetization, (2) the emergence of the New Science which radically engages body, mind and spirit, (3) the rise of the feminine, and (4) the extended ecology of consciousness, and with it, the coming in the next fifty years of a new natural philosophy and a new religious sensibility."

Mead and Houston are certainly not alone in their vision. The vision of a world so radically transformed is the vision of the Noosphere of Teilhard de Chardin, the Synergetics of Buckminster Fuller and the descent of the Supermental of Sri Aurobindo. It is the vision of Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut and founder of the Institute of Noetic Sciences.

It is this vision which is not only so clearly articulated but given practical expression in the Bahá'í writings. It is the establishment of this Order to which Shoghi Effendi refers when he states:

"...This New World Order, whose promise is enshrined in the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, whose fundamental principles have been enunciated in the writings of the Center of His Covenant, involves no less than the complete unification of the human race. This unification should conform to such principles as would directly harmonize with the spirit that animates, and the laws that govern the operation of, the institutions that already constitute the structural basis of the Administrative Order of His Faith...The Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh, whose supreme mission is none other but the achievement of this organic and spiritual unity of the whole body of nations, should, if we be faithful to its implications, be regarded as signalizing through its advent the coming of age of the entire human race. It should be viewed not merely as yet another spiritual revival in the ever-changing fortunes of mankind, not only as a further stage in a chain of progressive Revelations, nor even as the culmination of one of a series of recurrent prophetic cycles, but rather as marking the last and highest stage in the stupendous evolution of man's collective life on this planet. The emergence of a world community, the consciousness of world citizenship, the founding of a world civilization and culture- all of which must synchronize with the initial stages in the unfoldment of the Golden Age of the Bahá'í Era- should, by their very nature, be regarded as far as this planetary life is concerned, as the furthermost limits in the organization of human society, though man, as an individual will, nay must indeed as a result of such a consummation, continue indefinitely to progress and develop."

In another place, speaking of the relationship between the Will and Testament of 'Abdu'l-Bahá and the Administrative Order he says:

"This Administrative Order, as it expands and consolidates itself, will no doubt manifest the potentialities and reveal the full implications of this momentous Document - this most remarkable expression of the Will of One of the most remarkable Figures of the Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh. It will, as its component parts, its organic institutions, begin to function with efficacy and vigour, assert its claim and demonstrate its capacity to be regarded not only as the nucleus but the very pattern of the New World Order destined to embrace in the fulness of time the whole of mankind."

Concerning the Local Spiritual Assembly, 'Abdu'l-Bahá states:

"If a small number of people gather lovingly together, with absolute purity and sanctity, with their hearts free of the world, experiencing the emotions of the Kingdom and the powerful magnetic forces of the Divine, and being at one in their happy fellowship, that gathering will exert its influence over all the earth. The nature of that band of people, the words they speak, the deeds they do, will unleash the bestowals of Heaven, and provide a foretaste of eternal bliss."

Could it be that Mead's vision of a world transformed through the agency of small, local grass-roots organizations finds its fullest expression in the establishment of Local Spiritual Assemblies and, on a larger scale, the election of National Spiritual Assemblies and the Universal House of Justice all working cooperatively through the principle of consultation as ordained by Bahá'u'lláh?

If we accept Spangler's statement, that "there is no single, cohesive doctrine," no "central spiritual founder," that the New Age movement "does not have a unified set of spiritual practices or a common pattern or focus of worship," or "a well-defined spiritual path towards the sacred" but that the New Age movement is rather like one "big country fair" marked by "wildness" and "play," we can clearly see that the Bahá'í writings, while holding onto the same prophetic vision, offer to New Agers the framework in which the puzzle of New Age spirituality comes together in an organic whole.

"Verily I say, in this most mighty Revelation," says Bahá'u'lláh, "all the Dispensations of the past have attained their highest, their final consummation."

The New Age Movement is not a world religion like the others considered at this meeting but it is a powerful, culturally significant worldwide spiritual movement and cannot be dismissed as just a spiritual fad. In the same way that Bahá'ís must be aware of the prophetic ideal held in common by New Agers and the Bahá'í Faith, they must begin to explore other avenues of agreement with the New Age movement. A great deal of Bahá'í literature is available exploring and elucidating the relationship of the Faith to other major faith traditions. While this work is necessary and vital to our teaching efforts, we must also recognize that there are a significant number of individuals who are no longer identifying with these traditions and who are, instead, exploring the vast country fair of the New Age.

Naturally, this requires making sense of the sometimes confusing and often conflicting beliefs that make up a New Age belief system. It also requires that we recognize that the New Age contains not a few beliefs and practices which are in direct conflict with the writings of Bahá'u'lláh. It is beyond the scope of this paper to examine these here but we could mention in passing the commonly held New Age belief in reincarnation taken from various Eastern sources as well as the not so widely accepted "I am God" belief, made popular by such New Agers as Shirley MacLaine. Speaking of religious beliefs Bahá'u'lláh clearly states:

" All of them, except a few which are the outcome of human perversity, were ordained of God, and are a reflection of His Will and Purpose."

Bahá'ís must be willing then, not only to consort in a spirit of fellowship and friendliness, they must also, to borrow a phrase from the Quakers, "Speak Truth to Power," whether it be the power of a government, an individual or a belief system, with discernment, with tactfulness and without contention. "Consort," in Arabic I am told does not necessarily mean to agree with. Our consorting may, at times, result in the agreement to disagree, an experience which leaves open the door to dialogue while allowing us to maintain a distinctive Bahá'í practice and belief.

As rigorous Bahá'í theological scholarship continues to offer to the Bahá'í and non-Bahá'í world further light on the history and teachings of the Faith, New Age believers will be afforded a new "lens" with which to view and understand the progressive nature of religion and Bahá'ís will begin to gain a deeper and richer understanding of Bahá'u'lláh's statement:

"The world's equilibrium hath been upset through the vibrating influence of this most great, this new World Order."

To comprehend the incredible scope of this New Age ushered in by the Revelation of Bahá'u'lláh is beyond our human abilities. For those who believe in the prophetic vision of the "new age" though, we are assured of its fulfillment:

This momentous and historic step, involving the reconstruction of mankind, as the result of the universal recognition of the character, and the acknowledgement of the claims, of the Faith of Bahá'u'lláh- the essential condition to that ultimate fusion of all races, creeds, classes, and nations which must signalize the emergence of His New World Order. Then will the coming of age of the entire human race be proclaimed and celebrated by all the peoples of the earth....Then will a world civilization be born, flourish, and perpetuate itself, a civilization with a fullness of life such as the world has never seen nor can as yet conceive. Then will the Everlasting Covenant be fulfilled in its completeness"

NOTES

  1. Spangler, David. "The Movement Toward the Divine" in "New Age Spirituality," Duncan S. Ferguson, ed. (Westminster/John Knox Press:Louisville, KY., 1993) pg. 80.
  2. Ibid., pg. 80
  3. Ibid., pg. 85
  4. See "Perspectives on the New Age" (SUNY Press, New York, 1992, James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton, eds.),
  5. "The New Age Movement," Paul Heelas, (Blackwell Publishers, Cambridge, 1996) and "New Age Religion and Western Culture," Wouter J. Hanegraaff, (E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1997).
  6. Alexander, Kay, "Roots of the New Age" in "Perspectives on the New Age," Lewis and Melton, eds., (SUNY Press: New York, 1992) pp. 30-47.
  7. Melton, J. Gordon, "New Thought and New Age" in "Perspectives on the New Age" pp. 15-29.
  8. ------, "A History of the New Age Movement" in "Not Necessarily the New Age," Robert Basil, ed., (Prometheus Books: Buffalo, 1988) pp. 35-53.
  9. Codman, John Thomas, "Brook Farm: Historic and Personal Memoirs. (AMS Press: New York, 1971) pp. 42-43.
  10. Bahá'u'lláh, "Gleanings From the Writings of Bahá'u'lláh," (Bahá'í Publishing Trust: Wilmette), pg. 215
  11. Ibid., pg. 80
  12. Melton, "A History of the New Age Movement," pg. 46
  13. From an undated audiotape of a lecture by Jean Houston entitled "Possible Human, Possible Society"
  14. Shoghi Effendi, "The World Order of Bahá'u'lláh," (Bahá'í Publishing Trust: Wilmette, 1991) pp.162-163
  15. ------, "The Dispensation of Bahá'u'lláh," (Bahá'í Publishing Trust: London, 1981) pp. 54-55
  16. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, "Selections From the Writings of 'Abdu'l-Bahá," (Bahá'í Publishing Trust: Wilmette, 1997) pg. 86
  17. Bahá'u'lláh, "Gleanings," pg. 340
  18. Ibid., pg. 217
  19. Ibid., pg. 136
  20. Shoghi Effendi, "The Promised Day Is Come," (Bahá'í Publishing Trust: Wilmette, 1961) pg. 128
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