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REVIEW: Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life – A Christian Reflection on the “New Age”

Fr. George Gray


“A major new Vatican document on the New Age movement has warned that a number of Catholic retreat places, seminaries and religious formation houses are dabbling in New Age spirituality which is incompatible with Christian doctrine.” Thus begins a review from The London Tablet, a Roman Catholic weekly, of Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life – A Christian Reflection on the “New Age”, an 88-page “provisional” report published February 2, 2003.

New Age spirituality is not foreign to the Orthodox. From its beginnings, the Church has continually had to deal with gnostic religious traditions. Some Orthodox retreat houses and camp facilities must rent their space to a wide variety of groups both in and outside the Church, simply to keep their doors open. In those situations, they see some of the same “dabbling” described in the Tablet’s review.

Retreat and camp facilities aside, our own faithful – many of whom are inactive cradle Orthodox – have been migrating away from the Faith toward New Age thought and religiosity. Helena Petrovna Blavatsky (+1891), founder of the Theosophical Society which is credited with starting the New Age Movement in 1875, is only one of many Orthodox Christians who have left the Church to seek the “mystical path.” The message of this new document should be of interest to Orthodox Christians as well as Roman Catholics. It attempts to deal with what it calls “the complex phenomenon of ‘New Age’ which is influencing many aspects of contemporary culture” (from the Foreword). The report analyzes the context in which the New Age has arisen, presents general characteristics of the movement, and contrasts it with authentic Christian spirituality. The text concludes with a glossary, a list of key New Age places and a bibliography.

In presenting the document, Cardinal Paul Poupard, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said, “The New Age phenomenon, along with many other new religious movements, is one of the most urgent challenges for the Christian faith.” “People feel the Christian religion no longer offers them – or perhaps never gave them – something they really need,” says the report. “The search which often leads people to the New Age is a genuine yearning: for a deeper spirituality, for something which will touch their hearts, and for a way of making sense of a confusing and often alienating world” (1.5). The report warns of the strong appeal of New Age thought and practice, even for Christians: “When the understanding of the content of Christian faith is weak, some mistakenly hold that the Christian religion does not inspire a profound spirituality and so they seek elsewhere” (1.5).

In response to this assertion, the document aims to explain how the New Age movement differs from the Christian faith. Although it cautions its readers about New Age spirituality, it does not offer broad prohibitions. Instead, it seeks to encourage further study and offer means of discernment to those looking for a deeper spirituality.

If such a document were to be written by a commission of Eastern Orthodox Christians, the responses to some of the New Age assertions would be presented very differently. For example, in the Christian East we view the whole cosmos as a theophany; the material realm can be an image of the Creator Who somehow dwells within. This concept of panentheism (not pantheism) encourages us to see that all things are made through the Logos and bear His image. In addition, the sacramentality of matter inherent in the view of St. Maximus the Confessor is very much in opposition to the Western Christian dichotomization between spirit and matter. Nonetheless, despite the specific instances where we and Roman Catholics might evaluate the New Age from different perspectives, the text of Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life can easily apply to all Christians, East and West.

The term “New Age” originates with the belief in a cosmic turning point long predicted by astrologers: The second millennium, the Age of Pisces (the 2000-year Christian age of the fish icthys) is drawing to a close, moving from one mansion sign of the zodiac to the next. This leads to the dawning of the third millennium, a new Age of Aquarius (the water bearer).

With this in mind, the Vatican report takes its title from the encounter between the Savior and St.Photini, the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well (John 4). Jesus Christ urges her (and by extension all mankind) to seek after Him: the Way the Truth and the Life. The Lord Jesus – not the zodiac’s water bearer – is the One Who inaugurated the New Aeon of the Kingdom of God and Who bestows Living Water.

The Vatican document states that many of today’s contemporary spiritual and religious practices may be grouped under the topic of “New Age.” Thus, it invites its readers “to take account of the way that New Age religiosity addresses the spiritual hunger of contemporary men and women” (Foreword). Much of what the New Age offers speaks to the yearning of many – “If the Church is not to be accused of being deaf to people’s longings, her members need . . . to root themselves ever more firmly in the fundamentals of their faith, and to understand the often-silent cry in people’s hearts, which leads them elsewhere if they are not satisfied by the Church” (1.5). The document says that there is a call in all of this to draw nearer to the Savior, since He is the authentic way to true joy.

The document contrasts many aspects of New Age spirituality, which it calls “a kind of spiritual narcissism or pseudo-mysticism” (3.2), with Christian “counterparts”:

  • New Age thought frequently holds that Godis an impersonal energy or force, found deep within oneself and also deep within the whole cosmos. Christians, on the other hand, know, experience and love God as a transcendent trinity of Divine Persons. God, Who created the cosmos, “dwells in unapproachable light, [and] wants to communicate His own divine life” to His people so as to enter into relationship with Him: a communion of Love (4).
  • New Age thought considers Jesus one teacher – or esoteric initiate or avatar – among many who could be considered to be christs. Christians know Him as the incarnate God, “the son of Mary and the only Son of God, true man and true God, the full revelation of divine truth, unique Saviour of the world” (4)
  • New Age teaches that salvation (or enlightenment) is do-it-yourself self-fulfilment, selfrealization, self-redemption. Christians believe that salvation is a free gift from God. It “depends upon our participation in the passion, death and resurrection of Christ and on a direct personal relationship with God rather than on any technique” (4).
  • New Age thinkers believe that prayer is a turning within oneself (or else a simple emptying of the mind) which “constitutes an essentially human enterprise on the part of the person who seeks to rise towards divinity by his or her own efforts” (3.4) Christian prayer, on the other hand, together with meditation and contemplation, has a double orientation: it involves introspection, but it is also a means of loving dialogue and mystical union with God. It “leads to an increasingly complete surrender to God’s will, whereby we are invited toa deep, genuine solidarity with our brothers and sisters” (3.4).

Christians acknowledge the reality of sin and its effects (sickness, sorrow, suffering and death). Each person is called “to share in that suffering through which the redemption was accomplished … that suffering through which all human suffering has been redeemed” (40). In New Age thought all these are minimized as “bad karma,” if not simply dismissed altogether.

The document encourages Christians to investigate the riches of their own tradition. When they do so, they are sometimes surprised at what they find.

Our own Christian mystical tradition shows that searching within provides much more depth and significance than can be found “outside.” There is probably nothing more noteworthy about Eastern Orthodox spirituality than the ancient patristic concept of theosis. Although it is found within the Western Christian mystical tradition, its roots lie in the Christian East. The water of life is offered to us by the very Word Himself in the dynamic interchange: the enfleshment of the Word of God and the en-Wordment of the flesh of humankind. Quoting from the Preface to Book 4 of St. Irenaeus’ Adversus Haereses, the document states that the Savior, “through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.” Here theosis, the Christian understanding of divinization, comes about not through our own efforts alone, “but with the assistance of God’s grace working in and through us… It unfolds as an introduction into the life of the Trinity, a perfect case of distinction at the heart of unity; it is synergy rather than fusion… It involves being transformed in our soul and in our body by participation in the sacramental life of the Church” (3.5).

The New Age refrain of “the god within” is a refrain of narcissism. It claims that there is no divine being “out there,” but rather that deep inside, we ourselves are divine. Taken to its logical extreme, then, we become divine – or rather, since we are already divine, we must discover our unlimited, divine potential within as we peel off layer after layer of “inauthentic existence.” The more this divine potential is recognized, the more it is realized and actualized. One unlocks God: salvation by mastering psycho-physical techniques leading to inner healing, enlightenment, salvation.

The document concludes with the suggestion of a number of practical steps. They are as applicable to Roman Catholics as they are to Orthodox Christians. Christian mystical spirituality is both contemplative and apostolic. The two “ways” are inter-dependent. Bearing this in mind, the document offers a challenge.

It points out that the movement’s adherents compare traditional religions to a cathedral and the New Age to a worldwide fair. Taking the image at its face value, it’s now time for Christians to take the cathedral’s message to the people at the fair. In fact, over the past decade many formerly New Age communities, while wandering along their mystical pathway, have come upon the Christian East.

With varying degrees of thoroughness they have shed their Aquarian orientation for the Savior’s gifts of the tree and crown of life, hidden manna, white stone, new name, white garments and synthronos (Apoc. 2-3) within the Orthodox Church. As an example, see the book entitled: The Odyssey of a New Religion: The Holy Order of MANS from New Age to Orthodoxy by Philip Charles Lucas, associate professor of religious studies at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida (Indiana University Press; (April 1995), ISBN: 0253336120).

“Christians need not, indeed, must not wait for an invitation to bring the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ to those who are looking for the answers to their questions, for spiritual food that satisfies, for living water” (6.2).

The key is not in emphasizing the inadequacy of other approaches, but instead to revisit the sources of our own faith, to offer “a good sound presentation of the Christian message.” We may need to recover the symbolism and artistic traditions of the Christian culture. In dialogue with people attracted to the new age, Christians must appeal to what touches the emotions and symbolic language.

We must begin with the Scriptures, the report says, but “most of all, coming to meet the Lord Jesus in prayer and in the sacraments, which are precisely the moments when our ordinary life is hallowed, is the surest way of making sense of the whole Christian message” (6.2).