The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity

The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity

by Paul Heelas
Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. Pp. x + 266.

The author of this scholarly, serious, and not unfriendly study of the New Age movement: is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Cultural Values and a Reader (roughly equivalent to an American Associate Professor) in the Department of Religious Studies of Lancaster University. The book examines the origins, development, characteristics, and import of the New Age movement, especially in Britain and America.

The New Age movement: is viewed in relationship to "modernity," that: is roughly, contemporary mainstream views and practices. The New Age is said to be ambivalent about mainstream society, on the one hand offering a spiritual alternative to its religious values and on the other hand exemplifying and celebrating some of the characteristics of our time.

Theosophy is treated as part of the New Age movement, three key figures in its incipient development being identified as H. P. Blavatsky, Carl Gustav Jung, and George I. Gurdjieff. However, Theosophy does not figure largely in this study, for the author sees it: as historically seminal rather than contemporarily central to the movement: "Even the Theosophical headquarters in Madras is no longer New Age -and this despite the fact that: the Society (founded in New York) is generally accorded a significant: role in the development of what has happened in the west" (122).

That view is only half right. It is true that contemporary Theosophy is not distinctively New Age; indeed, many Theosophists would think of themselves and of the Society as Perennial Age rather than New Age. Yet there are clearly links between Theosophy and the New Age movement. In as far as the latter has a core Set of ideas, they arc largely compatible with and indeed derived from Theosophy. Most of the ideas set forth as characterizing the New Age in appendix 1 (225-6) are familiarly Theosophical.

The error in the author's view is in assuming that: modern Theosophy has ever been New Age, in the current sense of the term. Certain characteristics of the New Age are nor traditionally Theosophical ones. For example, the New Age is typically anti- or at least non-intellectual; Theosophy has always been in one sense an intellectual movement. Blavatsky spoke of it as a form of jñana yoga, union through knowledge, and the early appeal of Theosophy was to the intelligentsia of both West and East.

Also the New Age is generally countercultural, that is, opposed in lifestyle to the prevailing culture. Theosophists have often been superficially countercultural (for example, being vegetarians and eschewers of furs before such practices became fashionable). But in other ways, they have generally been conventional, educated, middle-class, professional, involved citizens. Relatively few were ever of the drop-out, turn-on persuasion that was much more typical of the early New Age movement.

The New Age tends, as the subtitle of this book indicates, to celebrate and focus upon the "self," that is, the sense of personal identity. Key expressions in this book are self-actualization, self-empowerment, self-enhancement, self-ethic, self-help, self-responsibility, self-spirituality, and self-work ethic. Theosophy too is centrally concerned with "self" bur distinguishes between the personal transitory self, the individual abiding Self, and the transcendent cosmic SELF. Its message is that: of Delphi and the Upanishads: know yourself and, knowing that, nothing else need be known. But the "self" which is to be known in Theosophy is something radically different from that of pop self-culture.

This book is a useful work for the information it contains. A casual reader may find it numbingly data-filled, and the interpretation of the data is sometimes superficial. But the book's virtue is that it contains facts and examines them without either credulity or incredulity and without either naivete or condescension.


January 1997 and June 1997