CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  


by Dorota Hall, Ph.D. candidate, Graduate School for Social Research, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences, Warsaw, Poland
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

In this paper I will address the issue of relations between the Polish New Age Movement and Catholicism which is the traditional religion in Poland. I would like to give an anthropological outlook on the theme on the ground of the fieldwork in Polish New Age circles. It has been realized under my direction by students of the Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology of the Warsaw University since 2000. The image of the peculiar New Age that will emerge I am going to contrast with the new spirituality described by the Western researchers. I have never explored New Age in the Western countries by myself, that is why my presentation should be handled as a draft. It is meant to be rather an invitation to discussion than a theoretical dissertation.

In Poland of the 90’s the censorship has been annulled and the free market rules have been introduced. As a result the entire openness for irrational trends has become possible and people have been encouraged to search for spirituality. Numerous periodicals and series of books on the theme of parapsychology, magic, radiesthesia, UFO, astrology, fortune-telling or alternative therapies have appeared. Psychotronic schools and centres for esoteric knowledge have come into existence in the whole country. Many alternative medicine fairs and esoteric festivals have been organized. In larger towns shops and galleries have been created tendering books, meditation music, incense, pendants, crystal balls, gems, ionisers, tarot cards, pyramids – and so forth. Around these places social circles engaged in the spiritual growth techniques have emerged. They have become the target group for the abundant offer of courses, workshops and seminars including: yoga, visualisation, neuro linguistic programming, feng shui, rebirthing, sacred song and dance, prosperity, various healing techniques (e.g. reiki, polarity bodywork, Bach flower therapy, aromatherapy, reflexology) – and so forth.

Above-mentioned accessories and activities available in Poland are typical for the New Age culture, undoubtedly. Together with values such as self-development and personality transformation they mark out – although not fill up closely – the sphere of the New Age phenomenon. I am convinced that the majority of researchers would agree to such indication of the New Age symptoms on the social level, although New Age itself is a broader and slippery term which could be hardly described by ordering definitions. Now, the Polish New Age, concerning its visible signs, looks like the parallel phenomenon to the West [described in such a way e.g. by York 2000]. However, if we look a little bit closer at the ideas accompanying its social symptoms, we will find its peculiarity.

Usually while speaking about New Age we mean the challenge thrown to the traditional religions blamed for their rigid institutions and lifeless rituals. Its crucial features are eclecticism and reluctance for every particular religion. However, any New Age adherent, while reinterpreting Christianity, could utter a statement like “I am a Christian”. Within New Age, all traditions are subject to reinterpretation – personal experience overrides them, or we might say, as does Kubiak 2002, that New Agers accept tradition on an individual basis, often very innovatively. Hence Jesus Christ can be understood as one of the prominent thaumaturges and healers. Thus, the declaration of being Christian or even Catholic expressed in Polish New Age circuits recalls such a postmodern approach to tradition. Having said that, I need to add that it has also well established justification in the Polish religious culture.

In the beginning of the 90’s when New Age trends came to Poland in a mass the society was traditional to a high degree. The process of modernization (understood as the individualization) was little advanced. Polish religious practice mirrored this phenomenon. More than 90% of the society was declaring itself as Catholic. At that time some sociologists largely inspired by Luckmann’s [1967] theory of secularization were predicting that many Poles would resign from their religion as institution and the religious ritual would descend to the level of invisibility. There were certain premises for such a view. The communist era had ended and there was a rise of ideological pluralism. Since then there was no need for identification with Catholic Church by reasons of politics (during the 80’s church attending was a manifestation of sympathy for the political opposition such as “Solidarity”). However, in the beginning of the XXI century it has appeared that the 90’s did not bring almost any changes in the ritual sphere or on the level of social identification with Catholic religion [Borowik & Doktór 2001]. The ideological pluralism and the high individualization of the religious belief that has accomplished co-exist with a general declaration of being a Catholic and with a dutifulness in religious ritual domain. Less than 10% of Poles do not attend the church in general and this is exiguous percentage comparing with other European countries where the average number of church-attendees amounts to little more than 50% [Borowik & Doktór 2001, p. 148]. The move away from the Church has concerned a part of the elites and not the Polish society in general. It can be explained by the long cultural and historical tradition of Catholic identification in Poland, but it can be related to the conformist attitudes as well. Polish New Age has formed on the basis of such mental positions.

Very often Polish New Age adherents identify themselves as Catholics, and it can be hardly distinguished whether they obey mainstream tendencies, or they present their own sophisticated, conformable to the new spirituality, concept of who a Catholic is. They treat Catholic dogmas and recommendations with very new-age postmodern lightness, but it is more or less allowed for a kind of ideological pluralism which entered the sphere of Catholic traditionalism and Polish culture in the 90’s. They interpret Bible in terms of energy and power and bend elements of the Holy Scripture, often unconsciously, to support their own agenda, but this is what many Poles could do. Again, we are not able to claim what New Age sympathizers refer to. On the one hand such an attitude harmonizes with the Polish religious climate which is anti-intellectual to a high degree (there are not many diligent Bible readers in Poland). On the other hand it co-exists with the postmodern withdrawal from metanarrations towards experiencing and feeling treated as the essential form of reception of the world: on the religious ground the emphasis is less on theology and belief than on practice. What is more, Polish New Age functions very well in the context of Polish ritualized religiosity which stresses church attendance and participation in the religious ceremonies. Among New Agers the problem lays in the interpretation of what they practice: a church where they participate in masses is usually seen as the power-point, rituals – as initiations or other energetical events [more on the theme see: Hall 2002]. New Age adherents are not concerned about discerning themselves from Catholics. At the same time their rhetoric of energies, power and self-development changes the face of Catholicism in Poland. As a result it seems impossible for a social researcher to gauge precisely the scale of the Polish New Age phenomenon: statistics deceive and qualitative studies indicate the problem but they do not answer quantitative questions. Anyway, another very important continuity between the Polish Catholicism and New Age culture can be perceived. It is revealed on the level of religious sensibility. In order to explain this issue I have to refer to its popular, folk dimension, which is very important for the theme.

The anti-intellectual attitude in the area of religion and predilection for ritual are traditionally pointed out as features of the folk culture [Czarnowski 1938, Tomicki 1981, Thomas & Znaniecki 1976]. New Age researchers, in their studies, grasp the folk religion in the similar categories. For example, Marion Bowman [2000] defines it following Yoder [1974] as views and practices existing on the outskirts of the strictly theological and liturgical forms of the official religion. However, in order to say something more about the parallel between New Age and the folk culture I need to give less negative reference to the problem of what the folk religion is. The definition should not be constructed in categories of deficiency, merely in relation to the official religion, but it should give more positive outlook.

I would rather emphasize that the folk religion is connected closely with the peculiar sensibility and operating which are established on the disposition to undistinguishing the sacred reality from its spatial, and accessible for sensual reception, representation [Tokarska-Bakir 2000]. Such an inclination marks its presence on various levels of culture, but it has been especially deep-rooted in the traditional Polish country-side or – in the broader grasp – in the Polish religion prevailed by rural patterns. Predilection for pilgrimages to sanctuaries to touch or kiss a holy icon, narratives about miraculous effigies, numerous roadside chapels, a custom of arranging home altars – all of this mirrors the phenomenon. The idea is that God is tangibly present in the world.

Now, when we look at the New Age culture we can conclude it refers to the same folk patterns. Polish New Age adherents most carefully foster these traditions. The shift in relation to tradition, that they make, concerns nothing more than terminology and the sort of accessories used, while the sensibility or the ways of acting have remained the same. Thus, instead of pilgrimage to traditional sanctuaries for kissing a relic or washing with the water from a miraculous spring New Agers go to one of the numerous power-points to touch and draw the holy energy proceeding e.g. from trees or ancient rocks. Instead of telling exciting stories about crying Mother of God’s icons they charm for Sai Baba’s photos and images that secrete vibhuti (a powder that the guru materializes for his devotees in India). They enrich home altars, where traditionally images of Jesus, Mother of God and saints have been situated, with photos of gurus or another objects filled with “positive energetical vibrations”. The folk idea of the sacred reality accessible for senses is supported by esoteric galleries with their abundant offer of accessories that are to facilitate spiritual growth and with their proposals of the energetical healing. What is a novelty in the New Age discourse is placing the category of energy in the central point. However, the energy stands for the very traditional sacral dimension of reality. The superiority of the term consists in that it may combine religious justifications with scientific or – better – parascientific ones which are willingly recalled by some New Age adherents, e.g. by the majority of radiesthesians.

The religion based on the undistinguishing sensibility has raised in certain harmony with its Catholic background. In order to explain it I need to refer to Max Weber’s [1976] concept of the enchantment and disenchantment of the world. It has been used by him and his procedees [as Berger 1967] to mark the divergence between Protestant culture and the Catholic one. Protestant religiosity refers to the Judaistic idea of transcendence of the sacred reality. In that view God, as separated from the Creature, has become insensible for any magical manipulation and the element of the miraculousness has melted from the world. The process of the disenchantment has begun. In turn, Catholicism has drawn long-run consequences from the Christian idea of Epiphany. Breaking with Judaistic tendencies it has stopped the process of disenchantment. The Catholic outlook admits the presence of the divinity in the world (e.g. angels, saints) and accepts magical means for exerting an influence on God and gaining Salvation: rituals, ceremonies and sacraments.

Polish New Age adherents cover the Catholic enchantment with the language of energies and powers. Jesus Christ understood first of all as the thaumaturge and healer is nothing very new in the Polish religiosity although according to the traditional view he was the first, mythical miracle worker and not one of the numerous avatars that were acting during the world history. There is a certain continuity in both – Catholic and New Age – visions which could be hardly seen in Protestant culture as I suppose. The New Age world outlook affirms the former one in some aspects, especially on the level of the folk sensibility. Perhaps the stress on self-enhancement and individual transformation, expressed within the New Age culture, would be more characteristic – by analogy – for its manifestations in the Protestant West for we can trace Protestant culture as the one that has promoted the individualization. The idea is that in Christianity an individual who has in view the Salvation discovers the self and takes responsibility for his/her life. Personal relation with God is the key value. Protestantism has strengthened such an attitude by means of orienting on the Holy Scripture and the individual prayer. Catholicism – on the contrary – has weakened it by emphasizing the role of ritual and community, and by elaborating many institutions as mediators between God and believers. Thus, the contemporary slogan of the self-enhancement has different connotations on the Protestant and on the Catholic ground. Matching the long cultural tradition of the West, it might express the developing will for individualization in Poland. Finally, we might claim the analogical thing about the folk sensibility to which the New Age adherents refer. While it has been deep-rooted in Poland, in the Western countries it might be interpreted as the testimony of intense efforts on re-enchant the world once disenchanted.

Michael York [2000] explores non-mainstream religiosities in three different European localities: Amsterdam, French Provençal village Aups and the city of Bath in England. Analyzing New Age symptoms there he pays attention to the similarity in the specific types of psychophisical, human potential and other non-traditional spiritual alternatives which are available. His conclusion is that “whilst each of the three [localities – DH] retains local differences conditioned by indigenous settings, historic legacies and ethnic divergences, the general conformities support the current sociological theories of globalism which suggest the growing dissemination of a Western religious consumer market” [York 2000, p. 132]. Considering peculiarity of the Polish New Age I would rather argue that the new spirituality is not homogeneous in all the Europe and it can not be interpreted only in terms of secularization and globalization. The cultural context of its emergence has to be taken into consideration.

Slowly approaching the end of my presentation I would not like to leave an impression that the continuity between the Polish New Age and the Polish Catholicism is completely evident and there are not any controvercies between both spiritualities. Catholic intellectual authorities undertake discussion with the New Age world outlook founded on the vision of non-personal God and the self-development as a final goal. Polish New Age adherents challenge Catholisicm for their part. The most popular critique refers to its social dimension and it is conducted in two general ways. Firstly, the Polish predilection for ritual signifies not only the folk religious sensibility, but it has conformist dimension as well. In this context, in reference to what we can observe in the West as the complex of “believing without belonging” [Davie 1994] we can describe Poles as “belonging without believing” [Borowik & Doktór 2000, p. 151]. Thus, New Agers criticise the divergence between following religious practices on the one hand and being really emotionally engaged in them on the other. Secondly, some New Age adherents totally break with the current of folk sensibility and interpret the new spirituality only in terms of individualization. It concerns first of all young people who demonstrate a tendency to define themselves in secular categories, without any association with Catholicism and Polish Catholic tradition [Borowik & Doktór 2000]. That might suggest that finally the trend of globalization, that brings New Age culture, will move forward and stay on the foreground leaving behind the local particularities. However, for the present day we are entitled to admit the peculiarity of the Polish New Age. It would be also interesting to explore New Age ideas in the Orthodox countries to compare them with what I have said about Poland. The Orthodox tradition has built even stronger opposition to the Protestant culture than Catholicism has done. The question of the heterogeneousness of the New Age phenomenon demands further, more systematic studies.







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