I've written a number of pieces that have been scathing, to put it mildly, towards the so-called "New Age" movement. I think I've called it everything from cultural appropriation to inanity. But unlike other critics of the people who comment on the issue I've shied away from the whole question of spirituality.
Many people insist that the rise in interest in all things "New Age" is due to the failure of the conventional religions to fill the spiritual needs of their traditional congregations. According to proponents of that theory, mainly those involved in the selling of "New Age" products, the baggage that accompanies Catholicism, Protestantism, and Judaism is what pushes people away from them.
Whatever excuse they want to use doesn't really matter all that much. The implication is that people are turning to alternatives for their spiritual comfort, and that is what's offered by the "New Age" folk. The thing is, though, if you walk into a "New Age" emporium you won't find anything that like a specifically "New Age" bible. You'll find books on Celtic, Native American, Tibetan, Hindu, Jewish, Ancient Egyptian, and every other kind of spirituality you can think of – with Guardian Angels and Faeries thrown in for good measure.
But are the people haunting those stores really looking for spiritual enlightenment or is it something else they're searching for; maybe even something they can't identify? They have the feeling that there is something missing in their lives but aren't quite sure what. They label the emptiness spiritual because it feels like their spirit is being deprived of something. I think it's something a little more concrete than spiritual deprivation.
In North America we celebrate the cult of the individual. We all strive to get ahead for our own purposes. We create ourselves as tools to fulfill the goals that we have established for ourselves. Even if we join with someone and bear children together, we are only trying to create an extension of ourselves.
Not to long ago (relatively speaking, in terms of the planet's history) man existed in tribal groups. We lived to together in small communities in the Mohawk Valley in New York State, the convergence of Tigris and the Euphrates, the mountains of the Himalayas, and the steppes of Russia. As a member of a tribe you belonged somewhere and played some vital role ensuring the continual existence of your people.
As today's world gets more and more impersonal and we increasingly communicate with third party instruments like portable phones or email programs, perhaps we are increasingly aware of our lack of real community. Even if we don't articulate it as such, the need for a sense of identity and the feeling of belonging to a role provided by a community appears to be growing in the face of global uncertainty.
A church's congregation is thought to be made up of people of like minds; people who share the same sense of purpose and belief. While it could be easy to say churches were once places that tied people together through those commonalities, I wonder if the unifying factor was more circumstances then anything else.
Church, or whatever you want to label it, used to be the only social activity for the vast majority of people. If you were no longer in school, the only time you ever met up with everybody in the neighbourhood was at the church or at a church sponsored event. I know there are some small rural communities around where I live where that is still the case.
But as alternatives to the church became available as a social focus, these communities dissolved in the face of competition. Their claims of being a unifying force weakened. Many people still belong to churches but their numbers are far less then they used to be.
In the mid to late seventies when Cults were in full swing, organizations like the Moonies would seek out people who looked like they were lost and would promise them a home and a sense of belonging. Much the same motivation is now used to recruit the young men and women into terrorist organizations around the world. They become members of a tribe that works together. They 'belong' and have a real purpose in life that nothing else has been able to offer them.
I recently had a conversation with my mother about her relationship to Judaism. She was raised in a family that were the epitome of secular Jews; they never set foot in synagogue except for the usual triad of Weddings, Funerals, and Bar Mitzvahs. At one point in her life she became a member of a Reform synagogue, but that only lasted for a year.
But she said what Judaism does give her is a place in history and a sense of where she's come from. This sense is of something greater than herself and her family. Even though she doesn't participate in the religious life or even hang out with very many Jewish people, she can still say "I'm a Jew" and feel like she belongs somewhere.
This wasn't something she picked up in a book from a bookstore. This was something she inherited from her parents, who in turn . . . well, you get the picture. For my mother, it's an unbroken line stretching back through more than five thousand years of tribal history that she is a continuation of. It's the place in the world where she belongs that has nothing to do with geography, politics, or religion.
Human beings need to have the sense that they belong to something bigger then themselves. Some find a kind of comfort in patriotism, others in fighting for a cause, and others in religion. Still others are left searching for something external in the hopes of finding their place in the world.
But in reality, with a few exceptions, the trade-off to get our present civilization and lifestyle has been a loss of our connections to others and the past. We truly live in the age of the individual and we all feel just a little bit lost and lonely because of it.