New Age or Old Faith – Fr Gregory Tillett
Christianity and the New Age
A talk given at St. Margaret’s Chapel, Glastonbury
on Saturday, 14th January 1995
Over the past thirty years there have been two trends in religion in the Western world: first, a dramatic decline in the numbers of people identifying themselves as members of, let alone attending, the established Christian Churches, and, second, a considerable increase in the numbers of people participating in what have popularly been called New Age, Neo-Pagan, Eastern or Esoteric religious movements. Why has this occurred ?
Many Christians have answered that this is the result of an increasingly secular society, of the decline of Western civilisation, or even of diabolic forces luring innocent believers away from the True Faith. Most Christians tend to focus on factors outside of Christianity to explain the manifest failure of Christianity in the Western World of the latter quarter of the twentieth century.
The real explanation, I suggest, lies within the Christian Churches. It is the Churches, no less than society as a whole, which have become increasingly secular. They have moved from an approach which should meet the religious needs of men and women in the world, to one which is, at best, a vaguely Christian secular philosophy in which all that is conventionally considered religious has been progressively removed. This is seen, for example, in the form of services. The secularisation of liturgy has led to Church services which involve nothing of the mysterious, the numinous, the inspirational. These services are performed in buildings often largely indistinguishable from town halls or convention centres. Preaching focuses on social action, pop psychology, or vague platitudes about being good and showing love.
Ironically, as the drift away from church attendance has increased, so many churches have increased the secularisation of their services in an apparent attempt to stop the flow, without reflecting on whether they themselves may be failing to meet the religious and spiritual needs of their members through an essentially non-religious approach to religion. Churchmen seem to compete with each other to be appear less religious, less committed, less certain of the fundamental truths which Christianity proclaims.
Many people, particularly younger people, have sought to meet their spiritual needs in that wide range of movements covered generally by terms like New Age, Neo-Pagan, eastern or esoteric, many of which often consciously replicate the characteristics of traditional Christian religion. To take the example of worship again, many of these groups employ elaborate rituals, emphasise mystery, offer clear and specific teachings, and impose obligations of conformity to particular codes of behaviour. The very things which, so many churches claim, young people in the modern world will not accept, and have therefore abandoned.
The essential reason for the movement from Christianity to something else has not been the evils of the world, the flesh and the devil: it has been the failure of the Christian Churches to maintain, and to propagate, real Christianity. Human beings have deep religious needs: if these cannot be met in Christianity, they will be met elsewhere.
But why the New Age ? Of course, the New Age is not the only, or even the biggest, growth area in alternatives to Christianity. Rabidly fundamentalist Protestant churches are also growing exponentially. Islam is expanding in the West at an unexpected rate. The explanation for the attraction of the New Age – the term I will now use generally to cover the range of New Age, Neo-Pagan, eastern and esoteric alternatives to Christianity – is different for each individual, but I suggest there are four general motivations for participation. The first three involve a real quest for religious fulfilment which has not been met in traditional Christianity.
First, many seek an alternative as a (totally understandable) rebellion against the representation of Christianity received when they were young. It is hardly surprising that the great proportion of New Age groups consist largely of younger people. They have abandoned Christianity due to the corrupt forms of it they have seen about them – and that is to be expected. As I shall suggest later, the founders of the New Age themselves were often obsessively hostile to Christianity, not simply content with abandoning it, but feeling the need to attack it vigorously.
Second, many people turn to the New Age because they have no knowledge of what true Christianity is. All too often, those who have reacted against Christianity make statements about the Christian faith which are simply inaccurate: they are rejecting something which they have been led to believe is Christianity, but is not. Or which is one form of Christianity, but not the only form.
Those who says “If you are a Christian you have to believe…” often go on to present a doctrine which is, at best, marginal to Christianity, and, at worst, nothing to do with Christianity. In rejecting Protestantism, or Roman Catholicism, for example, they ignore the fact that there is vast and ancient tradition of Christianity which is neither Protestant nor Roman, but Eastern and Orthodox. Of course, their ignorance is not their fault: Eastern Orthodoxy has been scandalously apathetic in evangelising in the West. Books on it are not easy to find, and most Orthodox Churches are positively discouraging to enquirers.
So: many reject a Christianity which is but a pale shadow or a crude distortion of the real Christianity, and, in ignorance, assume that what they seek can only be found outside the Christian tradition.
Third, some, while genuinely seeking a spiritual path, are deceived into participating in New Age movements. This is, of course, not a problem unique to the New Age. Religious movements throughout history have often used deception, if not coercion, to gain followers. The history of Christian missions from the West is not one of which any contemporary Christian can be proud.
But many New Age movements make claims which, if true, would be quite marvellous, and therefore appeal not only to the ignorant and to the gullible, but to the many people who are trusting and who have embarked on a genuine search for the truth. The New Age, like medieval Christianity, holds out signs and wonders and miracles of every description – from bent spoons and flying saucers to dialogue with Masters from remote planets and levitation – as a marketing ploy.
The fourth motivation for participation in the New Age, just as for participation in Christianity, is the quest for personal gain and power. This, no doubt, is the motivation of the minority, but it is present.
Christians tend to divide into two groups when approaching the New Age, Neo-Paganism, the occult and associated movements. There are those who view these groups collectively as some sort of Satanic conspiracy designed to deprave and corrupt: that view, I believe, is naive and unjustified. There are those who use the trappings of the New Age for corrupt purposes, just as there are those who use the cover of Christianity for the same purposes. But it is taking the New Age far too seriously to see diabolic inspiration behind it.
There are other Christians who view the New Age and its attendants as signs of new religious discoveries which ought to be grafted onto Christianity to make it more relevant to this era. That view, I also believe, is equally naive and unjustified, for the New Age philosophies are really not compatible with Christianity in their essential elements. One might note that they are not “new” either, but that is a somewhat different argument.
Christianity makes a number of claims for itself: these are either true or false. The New Age, although usually arguing strongly against doctrine and dogma and belief and intellectual authority, does exactly the same. The Christian is thus confronted with a choice. Jesus himself noted that a man cannot serve two masters. It is inevitably presented as a choice between what is erroneously called the New Age and the Old Faith of Christianity.
Of course, there must also be another choice: which form of Christianity are we to adopt ? Christianity is not represented anywhere as a united church. Therefore, in talking about the Old Faith of Christianity it is necessary to be more precise. By Christianity I specifically mean the faith of the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic and Orthodox Church of God. I regard many contemporary expressions of what is labelled Christianity as being as far from Christianity as is the New Age, with which many such modern versions have far more in common than they have with traditional Christianity.
Insofar as it is possible to speak of the New Age as a coherent system of belief, it can basically be defined as a rebellion against Christianity. It is indeed curious that approaches which so often criticise Christianity for its negative view of other religions should be based almost entirely in their origins in opposition to Christianity. Read, for example, Madame Blavatsky, the fount from which, at least as far as popular consumption goes, all contemporary occultism flows. Rejection of Christianity is the core of her work. She shares with those who followed her a desire to return to a mythical Golden Age of pre-Christian wisdom. It is, of course, unfortunate that no such age existed. The unified code of esoteric teachings which Blavatsky and others seek to restore cannot be restored for the simple reason that it never existed.
The flippant, and naive, claim that “all religions are one” and have their common origins in the religion of some Golden Age can only be made by those who are as illiterate in theology as they are in history, anthropology, philosophy, classics and literature.
But the Golden Age has had great appeal from the most ancient of times and if no Arcadian Golden Age existed it then becomes necessary to invent one. Thus Blavatsky invented the Ancient Wisdom and constructed with her vivid and prodigious imagination a whole system of dogma (though she would have bitterly rejected that word) which she claimed represented it.
If Blavatsky represents a sort of intellectual foundation of the New Age, then the second great source is Spiritualism, latterly translated into Channelling, but not improved in either literary or intellectual style in the process. Spiritualism also had its origins in the middle to late nineteenth century, but saw its heyday during World War I. Prolific verbiage poured forth from mediums to satisfy the doubtful that the dead lived and could communicate. Alas, what they spoke suggested a substantial loss of mental powers and verbal abilities with the passage from this mortal life. Much of spiritualism, however disguised, is primarily hostile to Christianity. It, like Blavatsky and her successors, lays claim to a more ancient, more authoritative and more direct source of revelation.
Spiritualism reincarnated (so to speak) as channelling produces the same verbiage, but at a much higher price and in better quality publications.
Neo-paganism draws on both these sources, but makes a further claim: it claims to represent the re-establishment of the ancient nature religion which existed before Christianity, a “more natural” form of religion. Thus we go back to the Golden – and pre-Christian – Age. Suspicions of fraud with Spiritualism and Blavatsky move to substantiated fraud with Neo-paganism.
Its origins lie with Gerald Gardner, an eccentric Englishman, who claimed to have been initiated into Witchcraft in the New Forest, thereby establishing some sort of lineage with a “Neolithic religion”. At this point, of course, anthropologists and archaeologists must raise objections. Except as someone will doubtless note, Margaret Murray who travelled from serious Egyptology to bogus anthropology, and has been so well taken apart by scholars in the field that little remains to be said of her work. The whole curiously interesting story of Gardner’s fabrication of the basis of contemporary witchcraft has been told and retold by a number of scholars using Gardener’s own papers as evidence. But some sort of strange desire to worship nature – and often to do so with a heady mix of drugs and sex – provides a powerful motivation to ignore the fabrication and perpetuate the fraud.
Gardner too, of course, took a strongly anti-Christian position, using witch-burnings and the Inquisition as evidence that the teachings of Christianity were false. That massive evil was perpetrated by Christian churches and in the name of Christ is undeniable. But there are no religions which have not, at times, provided justification for inhumanity, brutality and immorality. The doctrinal claims of Christianity are not refuted by the evils committed by those calling themselves Christian.
Neo-paganism (to use a term which seems to be a contradiction in itself) is usually represented as an attempt to return to the classical religions which existed prior to Christianity, or to translate tribal religions into modern, urban form, or to synthesise from a range of classical religions a modern system of nature and goddess worship. It is, of necessity, highly eclectic, gathering symbols and concepts from various religious traditions as if those religions had no cohesion or integrity.
The essential appeal of Neo-paganism appears to be its emphasis on direct access to or participation in the divine, or even (as in the case of neo-shamanism) possession by the divine. Some of its exponents have contrasted this with their (inaccurate) perception that Christianity denies the possibility of direct access to God, and requires a mediator or mediators (whether divine or human) between the human and the divine.
Neo-paganism also has an appeal to those seeking to “return to nature” (as it is often phrased) through the use of natural images and objects in worship, and a religious year based on the cycles of nature. Neo-paganism is also often attractive because it offers an initiatory process through which any man or woman can pass, acquiring not only different grades of status (and, presumably, knowledge) but also titles like priest or priestess.
In recent years this mixture of a Neo-Pagan revival, a transformation of spiritualism, and a popularised Theosophy have fused together with a variety of back-to-nature, utopian, pseudo-scientific and pop-psychological approaches to create a curious mixture often called the New Age movement.
Of course, the idea of a New Age is as old as the idea of a Golden Age, and both have been sought throughout history by those unsatisfied with the present. Teachers, both religious and secular, from Buddha and Marx to David Koresh and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, have held out the promise of a new world. Alas, none has yet delivered on the promise, and many people pursuing the spiritual quest have found themselves moving from one experience of disillusionment to another in their search for the ever elusive Holy Grail of a worldly Utopia.
What should be the relationship of Christianity to the New Age ? Are the two compatible ? Can one take elements of the New Age and inject them into Christianity ? Or are the two so different that no reconciliation is possible ? One difficulty which arises here is the insistence by many within the New Age movement that they do not have doctrines or dogma. Unfortunately for them, this is simply untrue. There are clear doctrines underlying all religious movements, and all of them have doctrines which must be accepted as a condition of membership. It is possible to draw out some of these and to compare them with the teachings of Christianity. There are many doctrines of the New Age which Christianity categorically rejects.
Christianity makes a number of exclusive claims: it does not represent itself as one religion among many, as simply a better alternative, let alone an equal option. Jesus declared: No man comes to the Father except by me. One can accept or reject that claim, but the claim is clear and unambiguous.
Those who call themselves Christians but adopt a view so ecumenical that it negates the absolute uniqueness of Christianity must begin by rewriting the Scripture and doctrines of the faith they profess. Christianity, at its core, claims to be the one religion, the single expression of God’s revelation in the world today. That is a startling, for some perhaps even an embarrassing claim: but it is the very claim with which Christianity begins.
Christianity does not deny the partial or incomplete validity of other quests for Truth; it does not even necessarily deny that some of them were divinely inspired. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews speaks of: God who at sundry times and in divers manners has spoken in time past unto our fathers through the prophets. But he concludes by declaring that
God: has in these last days spoken unto us through His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things by whom also he made the worlds. This is where the difference occurs: past questing is now redundant. The final revelation of God has occurred. Thomas Aquinas in his great hymn wrote of “types and shadows”, pre-figurments of the revelation of Christianity which had been found in times past. But he declared: “Types and shadows have their ending, for the newer rite is here.”
And the Apostle John warns: Believe not every spirit, but test the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world. And the Apostle prescribes the means of testing the spirits: Every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is of God. And every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God. Those who do not teach the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, then, cannot be heard by Christians as teachers of truth.
Taking an uncompromising position on the uniqueness of the Christian revelation does not require the Christian to seek to coerce others towards Christianity, nor can it ever justify the oppression of non-Christian or non-religious faiths and philosophies. We can live together in what might be called harmonious difference, seeking to share mutual respect and striving to understand each other as best we can. But the Christian cannot extend beyond that into any form of unity, however superficial, with faiths that are not Christian.
Christianity does profess a belief in both a Golden Age and a New Age. The Golden Age existed prior to the Fall of Man, and the New Age began with the Incarnation and will find its fulfilment in the Second Coming. Of details of the Return of our Lord, Orthodox Christianity engages in little speculation. Jesus himself said that no-one knew the day or the hour. Orthodoxy seeks to live with the Coming imminent, and to work with a sense of urgency as a result. The Golden Age will be restored when the New Age is fulfilled.
Christianity does not deny the inherent divinity of every individual man and woman. This may come as a surprise to those acquainted only with Roman or Protestant Christianity. The “utterly depraved” being of Protestant theology is not known in Eastern Orthodox theology. Human beings are indeed fallen – that is, they do not now manifest the divine image and likeness in they were created. But that image and likeness remains within them. The Byzantine Orthodox funeral service includes several beautiful declarations of this fact: the Priest, speaking as if the person to be buried, declares: I am an image of thy glory ineffable, though I bear the wounds of sin. The wounds of sin, or as it is sometimes translated, the brands of transgressions, may mark or disfigure the divine image, but they cannot destroy it utterly.
It does not take more than a superficial knowledge of history, or even a cursive reading of the daily press, to find overwhelming evidence of the fallen nature of human beings. No utopia exists. There can be little doubt that human beings tend towards what the theologian calls sin. We can, in the best New Age style, find a nicer word: imperfection, perhaps, or weakness or failure.
I have trouble with such euphemisms when I reflect on Belsen, or Somalia, or crime in modern cities, or the abuse of children, or even white collar crime which pollutes the environment or peddles contaminated food to the Third World. This is not “imperfection”: it is evil, it is sin. Old-fashioned words, perhaps, and certainly uncomfortable. But accurate.
While the New Age is preoccupied with the divinity and goodness of men and women in the world, Christianity sometimes seems preoccupied with sin. I, for one, have grave difficulty in remaining convinced that human beings, as they are now, manifest great divinity or goodness. Perhaps if I escaped from exposure to the media I would be more optimistic: but wars and the rumours of wars, and crime, and poverty, and political corruption … the ordinary realities of the world suggest, at least, some flaw in the way we are now.
Orthodox Christianity does not deny the necessity for human effort in overcoming the problems of the world and, at the core, of human nature, but it denies that human effort alone is sufficient.
The New Age places a great (if only apparent) emphasis on the ability to the individual to attain perfection (what in Orthodox terms would be called the restoration of Man’s condition before the Fall). Individual striving is the key: working up (to use an inaccurate popular version of an Eastern doctrine) good karma and eliminating bad karma. Or bringing about heaven on earth through positive thoughts, or chanting mantras, or performing magical rituals.
Christianity does deny that man, alone and unaided, can attain to the restoration of his inherent divinity. Once again, history and anthropology lend support to theology.
Where, in the past or the present, is the man-made utopia ? Looking at all the valiant attempts by sincere and dedicated men and women over hundreds of years to create the perfect community, one is struck by the litany of failures. Our essential divinity can never be made manifest through human efforts alone. Christianity proclaims that the restoration of this divinity – literally, in Orthodox theology, the process of theosis, or divinization – can only be achieved through participation in God’s purpose in creation and redemption. We do not become perfect through our own efforts: contrary to the popular New Age platitude, thinking will not make it so. Escaping into a beautiful world, where we retreat into ourselves and visualise utopia, in reality changes nothing. I recall one of the very influential teachers of the New Age, Louise Hay, being asked why, if the world was good, and human beings were innately perfect, and positive thinking could change everything, there were hundreds of thousands of children starving to death in Ethiopia. Her answer was precise: the children starved because they chose to do so, and did not choose to have food. If they had chosen to have food, it would be there. The immorality of such a statement is appalling: its naivete perhaps more so.
Christianity is not a form of escape, whether into the church or into our heads. We are required to act in the world. We are our brothers’ keepers. The New Age of Christianity will be accomplished by man and God working together. St Paul talks of this when he refers to us as co-workers with God: the Greek word translated as co-worker is synergoi, meaning literally “energy sharers”. God, in Christian teaching, does not compel our co-operation. He seeks it, he responds to it; he does not coerce it.
Christianity also denies that most popular of New Age doctrines: reincarnation. It is often argued that no Ecumenical Council has ever condemned the doctrine of reincarnation. Indeed. But doctrines do not have to be condemned by name to be contrary to the teachings of Christ. Certainly an Ecumenical Council did repudiate the doctrine of the pre-existence of souls (presumably allowing, on a technicality, future reincarnation, but knocking out past incarnations!). But other doctrines of Christianity here get in the way.
One of them is absolutely fundamental: it is the inherent dignity, integrity and, in Orthodox term, divinity of the nature of the individual. We are, in the words of St John, the sons and daughters of God. St John goes on to say: and it remains to be seen what we shall be. Orthodox Christianity declares this central doctrine from which so much else follows: each one of us is divinely unique. We are not fragments of something else, we are not pieces of some other whole, we are not temporary entities currently playing a part in a short-running one act play. Each is specifically and uniquely created by God, in the divine image, endowed with specific identity, and given the gift of free will.
We are thus, allowing for the social and environmental forces around us, responsible for our own destinies. God desires us to return to him, but he never compels us to do so. This unique identity begins at the moment we start life as human beings, and continues after we die. It is not a fragmented identity in which our bodies, emotions and minds are only temporary “vehicles” for some unknown and unknowable “inner spirit”.
We are whole beings, and, ultimately, we will be restored as whole perfect beings in the Divine Kingdom. Not this corruptible body, this inadequate mind – but the body, the mind and the spirit restored to the divine image in which they were created.
How and when will this happen ? We do not and we cannot know. Christianity is not afraid of mysteries: the natural world is full of them, and there is no reason to find them alarming in the theological world. This corruptible, says St Paul, will put on incorruption, and this mortal shall put on immortality. Those we have loved will not vanish into a reservoir of future lifetimes: nothing will be lost, and everything will be restored.
And this divine restoration will be here. On this earth which itself will be restored, or divinized, just as will its inhabitants. Much New Age criticism of Christianity has been directed, quite rightly, at the manifest failure of the Christian churches to show care for the earth and its peoples. That theology which proclaimed a right to subdue and conquer, to use for any purpose is, in terms of Orthodox theology, heresy.
Man is as responsible for the guardianship of the earth as he is for the guardianship of his fellow human beings. Environmentalism and human rights are not special concerns of Orthodox Christianity for the simple reason that they are integral to its view of the world. Our Liturgies have, for two thousand years, included prayers for the earth, for its rivers, its crops, its animals.
In Orthodox imagery, Man is set in a garden, and is part of the garden. The garden is as much the divine creation as is man. All creation will be made perfect, divinized: the whole environment will become what it was originally intended to be.
Christianity is often criticised by the New Age for its discomfort with the physical, with the body, with the senses. Indeed, that is a valid criticism for much of Protestant theology which often lapses into dualist heresy, dividing creation into the spirit (good) and the flesh (evil). Orthodoxy knows no such division. We are not created as spirits temporarily occupying bodies. Nor, equally, are we bodies alone. We are both, not in division, but in mystical unity. Therefore we venerate and care for our bodies just as for other aspects of our human natures.
For some, asceticism may be the path: it will not be for others. There is no inherent virtue in abstinence from anything, and, in some cases, the abstinence may be no more than a show in itself, or even an addiction. The boring caricature of the Christian who talks incessantly about not having carnal vices cannot be seriously considered as a Christian. The body in and of itself is not sinful, but good and divinely created.
Orthodox worship symbolises this approach: our worship utilises all the senses. We worship physically: we stand, or sit, or walk, or prostrate; we sing, we talk aloud, we embrace one another. We see colour and movement; we hear music and chanting; we smell incense; we taste bread and wine. When we venerate an icon, we kiss it and touch it. When we receive many of the Sacraments, we are anointed with oil.
Our bodies are inherently involved in our worship; we are not attending a lecture (where, for practical purposes, we could have left our bodies at home). Our minds are employed: images come before us, words and concepts are presented for thought and reflection; we listen to the readings and the sermon and to the words of the Liturgy. And our emotions are involved: the words and images stir up feelings. And, at the heart of our worship, we participate spiritually. But we do not do these things separately, because we are not divided beings. We do not abandon or mistreat our bodies, nor are we controlled by them. They are an inherent part of the creation which will be restored and divinized.
In Orthodoxy, we fast and we feast. Fasting is not punishment: it is discipline in the rather old-fashioned sense of the word, as understood by athletes, for example. We do not fast to punish our bodies, but rather to demonstrate our ability to direct our lives both psychologically and physically. The food eaten during a fast is not intended to be unpleasant or inadequate: it is intended to focus our attention on our bodies, and our control of them.
And, of course, fasts are followed by feasts, when food and drink are employed to celebrate. Just as in periods of solemnity and preparation we eat and drink differently, so in times of rejoicing our physical senses share in our happiness. We are participants, as St Paul wrote, in a race: we can view the Christian life symbolically as the life of the athlete. We must, in every aspect of our natures, be well-trained, well-disciplined, well-prepared.
Christianity is often criticised for lacking the spiritual techniques or rituals of New Age, neo-pagan, occult or eastern approaches. I never cease to be amazed when I hear of yet another clergyman rushing off to learn some oriental technique of meditation and waxing enthusiastic about his discovery of the rich spiritual traditions of the east. Christianity has had, from its very beginnings, a strong tradition of prayer, meditation and contemplation. These are not techniques taught in over-priced weekend courses: they are integral processes in the life of the Christian. They have never been peddled as nostrums to produce longevity, levitation or even bent spoons. They have always been presented as techniques for the worship of God and the spiritual development of the individual.
The great Jesus Prayer of Orthodoxy has begun to be rediscovered in the west. There is an ancient and complex tradition related to this beautiful prayer, involving disciplines of the body, breathing techniques and (what would now be called ) visualisations. But, like all such spiritual exercises, it cannot be seen as existing apart from the whole Christian life. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi may be able to offer tired business executives weekend courses in meditating on Hindu mantras as a means of alleviating stress. Christianity does not do so.
The technology (if we can use that word) of the spiritual life can never be separated from the whole life of the Christian. Prayer and meditation are not means to the end of personal benefit (although that will very often follow) but processes within a greater purpose.
A non-Christian colleague of mine, who is an authority on Indian religious traditions, on one occasion when we were discussing the traditions and spiritual practices of Orthodoxy commented that these fitted perfectly within the Hindu understanding of the four great forms of yoga: hatha (physical), gnana (mental), bhakti (devotional) and karma (action). He was surprised to discover that Orthodoxy had such traditions, as he had previously believed they were exclusively oriental.
Christianity has many rituals, all of them intended to communicate great mysteries, and as signs and expressions of the Grace given. This Grace is conveyed as God’s free gift to his children, not given on account of their worthiness to receive it, but because of his unconditional love for them. The Sacraments, the seven great rites of the Church, are outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace. They, like all worship in the Orthodox tradition, use signs and symbols, images and words. They involve the body, the mind, the emotions and the spirit. These rituals include rites of initiation: baptism, chrismation, ordination. They include rites of healing: absolution and unction. The whole life of the Church finds focus in ritual celebrations of worship in which every member participates.
These are not magical rituals. When I, as a priest, celebrate the Divine Liturgy, there is, as a bare minimum, only the requirement that I do it according to the prescribed form. I am an instrument of Christ in the world: imperfect, inadequate, but to be used in the Divine Ministry. There is no magic of mine in the ritual; indeed, there should be as little of me in the Liturgy as possible. Whereas magical ritual seeks to magnify the personal, Orthodox ritual seeks to allow it to be set aside. That is why we wear vestments, that is why we use words which are not our own and follow forms of great antiquity.
Many who have rejected Christianity for the New Age have done so on grounds related to apparent authoritarianism within the Church. A dislike of what used to be called priestcraft, of mindless submission to arbitrary, and often unreasonable, authority has led many to abandon the Christian churches. And understandably so. It is a corruption of Christianity and a denial of the dignity with which God endowed his children to impose coercive authority upon them. Orthodox Christianity recognises no infallible leader and accepts no coercive authority. Spiritual authority must be gentle, loving and persuasive, just as is the loving care of the Father for his children.
In the Orthodox tradition, although there are bishops and priests and reverence is shown to them, every man and woman plays an important part in the life of the Church. The majority of Orthodox theologians have always remained a part of the laity; most of those undertaking theological training are not doing so in order to be ordained. The clergy have no monopoly on theology or spirituality and are respected in the first instance for what they represent rather than for any inherent virtue in them as individuals.
When an Orthodox believer kisses the hand of a priest it is recognised as a sign of reverence for Christ’s priesthood, not for the person of the priest. And it may be followed by an enthusiastic disagreement with the priest over matters of theology!
A criticism relating to authoritarianism in Christianity is indeed ironic when it comes from movements which themselves have systems of authority far more rigid and unquestioning than the Orthodox Church would ever claim. It is not only in the more bizarre and tragic examples of some new religious movements that such New Age authoritarianism is seen: Jim Jones can only be seen as an aberration. The whole concept of the eastern guru, for example, is based upon submission and unquestioning acceptance of authority.
Following from a perception of Christianity as an authoritarian religion, there is also often a New Age criticism that Christianity imposes barriers between man and God, that a mediator or mediators must facilitate any communication between the human and the divine. This presumably arises from a confused understanding of the role of Jesus Christ as mediator and advocate, or of the role of the Saints, or of the clergy.
Orthodoxy knows of no such barrier between God and man: prayer is directed to God the Father as it is also directed to God the Son or God the Holy Spirit. The Saints are invoked in much the same way one would seek the prayers of friends living in this world. The clergy have the authority to teach and to administer the Sacraments; they have no authority to stand as mediators, let alone as barriers, between God and his children. The Orthodox life of prayer, Liturgy and religious practice seeks to enable the believer to experience, directly and personally, the love of God.
In Orthodox tradition, there is the concept of the spiritual director or confessor, or a guide and counsellor on the spiritual path. This may be a priest or it may be a member of the laity; it may be a man or a woman. Their status derives from their wisdom and their godliness, not from any office they hold within the Church. Many Orthodox seek such a guide, consulting with him or her on a regular basis for advice, encouragement and instruction. But such wise counsellors are not gurus in the Eastern sense: they are not perfect or infallible.
The ultimate authority in Orthodox Christianity lies within the individual: having been created in the divine image and given the gift of free will, each one of us must, as adults in the spiritual life, make our own decisions. In doing so we are guided by prayer, reading, reflection and advice, sustained by the Sacraments and inspired by the Grace of the Holy Spirit which is promised to us in the Church. The Church provides guidelines, rules for the spiritual journey: but like all maps or guidebooks, they are not themselves the journey. We must, each one of us, undertake what is called in a great Russian spiritual classic The Way of the Pilgrim.
Some have rejected Christianity and sought the New Age because of what is seen as, and often is, an oppressive patriarchy within the Churches. Many New Age movements – from Theosophy and Spiritualism to neo-Paganism – have placed a special emphasis on or provided leadership roles for women. It is a sad fact of history that the Christian churches have traditionally failed to provide an appropriate and dignified role for women.
Orthodoxy does not, and cannot, accept the ordination of women. This has nothing to do with any views about the inferiority or inadequacy of women, nor the spiritual or secular superiority of men, but is based rather in the acceptance of a tradition which simply does not allow such ordination.
Unfortunately, Orthodoxy has often taken upon itself the cultural and ethnic values of the societies in which it has developed, adopting these as if they were essential elements of the Christian tradition. Sometimes this has included cultural values which give women a second-class status. But the equality of men and women is an essential doctrine of the faith: though it must be remembered that equality should not ever mean sameness. In traditional Christianity men and women have different, and complementary, roles. It remains for the Church to develop more effectively the role of women.
Orthodoxy Christianity presents a whole model of the spiritual life for those who embrace it. It is both this-worldly and other-worldly: we are called by Christ to be in the world but not of the world, and St Paul warns us not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed within it. We are called upon to perfect, as far as we can, every aspect of our being.
Our work and our worship are not separate, one being secular and unspiritual and the other religious and holy. We can participate in divine work as much when cooking a meal, and working in an office, or ploughing a field or repairing a motor vehicle, as we do in the Liturgy.
The New Age ought to be seen not as the work of diabolic forces, but as a judgement on the Christian churches for their failure to propagate the Christian faith effectively. Many have sought outside Christianity that which Christianity has seemed to be unable to provide. If Christianity has hidden the light of its truth under a basket, it is little wonder that many have sought the light elsewhere.
Those who look to the East for the secrets look too far: between London (or Glastonbury) and the Ganges lies the area in which Christianity had its origins. There the True Faith is to be found. As Western men and women slowly begin to rediscover Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and as Eastern Orthodox Christianity even more slowly begins to present itself in the West, so the Old Faith, the Christian Faith, may become viable once again.
Those who seek spiritual guidance in the Bhagavad Gita, or the writings of the Sufis, or the Tao might well consider reading the great works of the Fathers of the Church – Origen or Clement of Alexandria, for example – or of the great mystics and saints. Unfortunately, and to the Church’s shame, these are less easily accessible, less readily readable, than their Oriental equivalents.
The New Age and the Old Faith are basically incompatible. But rather than bemoaning the growth of the New Age, or searching for diabolic forces, or seeking to suppress or denounce new religions, the Christian Church should put its energy into offering its life-giving truths to those from whom they have been, for so long, withheld.
The Glastonbury Bulletin No. 89 (February 1995)