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Opposition to New Age beliefs arose among academics and church leaders concerned about the rise of the “prosperity gospel. ” In 2009 well known Socialist Barbara Ehrenreich in her book Bright-sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America criticized the positive thinking movement associated with books like The Secret and preachers like Joel Osteen. She and her followers then mischaracterized these ideas as “New Age. ” A recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center confirmed what polls over the last ten years have told us: most Americans have New Age beliefs. This includes most of those who call themselves Christian and many who regularly attend church on Sundays. The research described “New Age” as believing in psychics reincarnation astrology and that things like mountains trees and crystals contain spiritual energy.

New Age

The New Age movement actually consists of a broad range of beliefs and practices from believing in the supernatural to mixing the beliefs and practices of other religions. Some people for example may mix Buddhist practices like meditation or Hindu practices like Yoga with their Christianity. Others might adopt Native or Spiritualist beliefs and practices. Some would also describe Wicca and Pagan practices as New Age.

The “prosperity gospel” is the Christian version of positive thinking. That’s why it’s called a “gospel. ” It is associated with preachers like Norman Vincent Peale who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking and Joel Osteen, the toothy preacher and author who teaches that God wants all of us to be happy and successful.

The New Age version of the prosperity gospel is the belief that one can “manifest one’s own reality. ” This idea is associated with books like Ask and it is Given: Learning to Manifest Your Desires by Esther and Jerry Hicks and The Secret by Rhonda Byrne. While there may be some truth to these teachings neither the “prosperity gospel” or the “manifestation doctrine” describe the totality of Christianity or the New Age movement. Both ideas can be abused and become a distraction and neither represent the central message of the Gospel or what it means to be a spiritual person.

A scientist by training, Ehrenreich and many of her fellow academics as well as many church leaders are skeptical of the claims of positive thinking advocates. They worry that the focus on magically manifesting personal riches obscures the real causes of poverty unemployment and poor health care. “The threats that we face individually and collectively won’t be solved by wishful thinking but by a clear-eyed commitment to taking action in the world,” writes Ehrenreich.

The critics of positive thinking are surely right that just thinking and believing you are a millionaire doesn’t make you one. Those who envisioned their multi-million homes, fancy new cars, and beautiful partners would surely come to recognize that their affirmations and fanciful musings didn’t magically manifest for them large homes, fast cars, and beautiful women.

The “prosperity gospel” and the “doctrine of manifestation”— like other religious doctrines—can be misused and taken to an extreme, but painting the entire New Age movement with the broad brush of positive thinking is like equating all of Christianity with the “prosperity gospel. ” It’s a mischaracterization.

James Carroll in his book Constantine’s Sword argued that early Christians mischaracterized the crucifixion by blaming it on the Jews rather than on the Romans. Christians should remember the many Bible verses that condemn mediums and psychics (e. g. Leviticus 20:27) as well as the history of the Church and its treatment of witches and people who believe differently. Many Christians continue to condemn New Age practices as evil and demonic.

It’s time to put aside age-old prejudices and recognize that New Age beliefs and practices are spiritually valid religious activities.

Liberal Christians tend to read these verses as if they referred to Halloween ghouls and goblins rather than to the real people they were and are. There are many people including myself who consider themselves to be psychic or mediums or who practice wicca or believe in crystals and tarot cards. It’s time to put aside age-old prejudices and recognize that New Age beliefs and practices are spiritually valid religious activities.

While Ehrenreich’s criticism of positive thinking is valid the consequent misidentification of the “prosperity gospel” with the New Age movement lead even liberal churches to resist the rising tide of New Age belief and practice. On the Left there is also skepticism toward the supernatural.

Most modern philosophers are naturalists. Many liberal churches have taken to understanding the cosmos scientifically. Ministers draw spiritual inspiration from nature adopt natural theologies like process theology and preach spiritual psychology and social justice.

Both conservative and liberal clergy mainline and evangelical churches as well as seminary and college professors distance themselves from belief in the supernatural. They presume that superstition has no place in the modern world and they expected belief in the supernatural to decline over time not grow. New Age beliefs and practices can be taboo even in liberal churches.

A Pew survey found that the one thing those who have New Age beliefs share in common is a belief in the supernatural. Another Pew study found that 29 of Americans believe they have been in touch with a spirit of a deceased person and 18 say they have seen or been in the presence of a ghost. The Church must come to acknowledge what people around the world already know: Americans believe in ghosts. When powerful cultural forces collide with traditional religious beliefs religious institutions respond in two ways simultaneously: resistance and assimilation. Sometimes referred to as syncretism this phenomenon has been an issue ever since Christianity first began to engage in missions. The mixing of traditional spiritual beliefs with Christianity is also occurring in Africa Asia and South America where Christianity is growing.

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The Western Church is in decline. While most Americans consider themselves Christian, fewer and fewer are interested in going to church. A 2016 Pew Research study revealed that one of the most common reasons people give for not affiliating with a religion is that they don’t believe the theology anymore.

Another significant portion of those Americans who do not attend church are those who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious. ” They see no need to engage in religious rituals or to attend Christian worship services. Nearly all these people have New Age beliefs.

If we recognize that we are in a period of both resisting and assimilating powerful cultural forces we might choose to do more assimilating and less resisting. Many American Christians already hold New Age Beliefs. The process of assimilation has already begun.

Christians who hold New Age beliefs are already among us. Should Christians be open to psychics and mediums? Can we have classes on tarot and crystals alongside Bible studies and other small groups? Churches are not known for their diversity of opinion or openness to new ideas and theologies. Even liberal and progressive churches have traditionalists and conservatives among them. Those who attend church regularly often have traditional views.

There are many verses in the Bible that condemn psychics mediums wizards and sorcerers (e. g. 2 Kings 21:6). At the same time there are also verses in the Bible that tell parents to kill their rebellious children (Deuteronomy 21:19-21) require women to marry their rapists (Deuteronomy 22:28-29) order the Israelites to commit genocide (1 Samuel 15:3) and say that women should not speak in church (1 Corinthians 14:34). We don’t follow these commands for good reasons.

Once we recognize that there are verses in the Bible we don’t follow we should also consider that there are other verses we shouldn’t follow. Prohibitions against homosexuality and divorce among other things belong in this category as do teachings that condemn people who practice divination witchcraft or spiritualism. These are real people who are simply practicing their faith and living their lives as best they can.

Discerning scripture properly was a significant part of the conflict between the Pharisees and Jesus. The Great Commandment to love God with all our hearts and to love our neighbors as ourselves is a primary principle that tells us how we should interpret all of scripture (Matthew 22:34-40). It requires that we consider the effect our teaching and actions have on others. God’s Law cannot violate the Great Commandment.

Does a teaching lead us into conflict with those who are different from us? Does it tell us that our enemies are those who think and believe differently have a different lifestyle or sexual orientation or are of a different culture race or religion? If a teaching sets us against others rather than against the powers and authorities that rule this world then it is not of God and may even be demonic (Ephesians 6:12).

Jesus exclaimed: “ Woe to you scribes and Pharisees hypocrites° For you cross sea and land to make a single convert and you make the new convert twice as much a child of hell as yourselves” (Matthew 23:15).

Some of the things Christians have done in the name of God have caused terrible harm and suffering. In the wrong hands the Bible is a dangerous book. The Bible should have a warning label on it: “Handle with care°” We can assimilate New Age beliefs and practices just as we have assimilated the ideas of science philosophy and spiritual psychology into our spiritual discourse so long as we stay centered in scripture and focused on the mission of God (Matthew 23:23). We can incorporate New Age ideas and beliefs into our discussions so long as we focus on the mission of the Church: to bring God’s “salvation to the ends of the earth. ” (Acts 13:47) We can welcome accept and even teach New Age ideas and practices in our churches so long as we integrate spirituality with ethics.

The Great Commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as ourselves is as spiritual a commandment and any commandment could ever be. If we keep the Great Commandment at the center teach scripture using the latest scholarship engage in social justice advocacy and do works of charity we can avoid the self-absorption and inwardness of much of modern spirituality. We can then focus on doing the good works “God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (Ephesians 2:10).

These good works include welcoming the stranger and being transformed by the renewing of our minds so that we may shed our prejudices and discern the will of God (Matthew 25:35ª Romans 12:2). While we may be of one body we have many different members with a large variety of spiritual gifts (Romans 12:3). We should recognize people’s spiritual gifts by welcoming them into our congregations.

Paul once called “the Law” “a ministry of death chiseled in letters on a stone tablet” (2 Corinthians 3:7). Gentiles could not be expected to cut off their foreskins and follow Jewish custom and dietary laws. If they were required to do so Paul feared that the Jesus movement would never become more than a small Jewish sect.

We can follow the path of the Western Church in Europe slowly dying asking people to believe in doctrines or we can welcome Americans and their New Age beliefs back into the Church again. Americans are a deeply spiritual and religious people and most of us hold New Age beliefs. We must strive to make room for diversity of belief and practice in the Church.

RichProcida

Rich Prochida