After the New Age: Is there a Next Age?

Paper read by Massimo Introvigne at the RENNER II Seminar "New Age Religion and Globalization: The European Experience" (Copenhagen, November 16-17, 1999: preliminary version, do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author)

"Next Age" is a label used in some European countries to indicate a second stage of the New Age, in which utopia is abandoned, the new movement focusing more on individual happiness, rather than global scenarios. The so-called "Next Age" is premised on the contention that the "classic" New Age went through an irreversible crisis, and that something new was needed. Both ideas (namely, that the New Age was in crisis, and that a Next Age is its legitimate successor) emerged from within the movement itself, prior to any scholarly analysis or reconstruction. This chapter deals, firstly, with the New Age crisis, and explores a number of possible reactions to it. Secondly, it endeavors to describe Next Age within the framework of the materials it uses and within the context of similar processes operating in movements other than New Age.

1. New Age in Crisis

A significant event spelling out the New Age crisis was the publication of Reimagination of the World, by David Spangler (possibly the most authoritative spokesperson for the New Age movement internationally) and William Irwin Thompson (Spangler and Thompson 1991). The book presented lectures given by Spangler and Thompson at two 1988-89 seminars held at the Chinook Learning Center, an important New Age institution on Whitby Island, near Seattle. Spangler and Thompson concluded that New Age had been "degraded" by commercialism and that it was in a state of deep crisis. When this New Age crisis was examined by academic scholars (a paper presented by J. Gordon Melton in 1994 at a seminar in Greve, Denmark, was particularly important), some of them agreed that New Age was indeed going through turmoil, although they did not mention commercialism as the only (or even the most important) cause. Melton (1998) argued, for instance, that, in the United States at least, there were empirically verifiable indicators of New Age’s impending crisis, including the bankruptcy of several New Age bookstores, publishing houses, and magazines. For a number of reasons, the price of crystals also fell, and crystals, far from being a mere curiosity, were an important commodity in the New Age economy. Melton acknowledged that commercialism was deeply resented by a number of new agers. However, he also mentioned that "classic" New Age, a movement dating back to the 1960s in the English-speaking world, was based on the utopic, millenarian expectation of a golden age. Unlike "catastrophic" millennialism (or premillennialism), New Age’s "progressive" millennialism (once called postmillennialism: see Wessinger 1997) was optimistic. However, while catastrophic millennialism can usually claim that at least some small catastrophe has confirmed its doomsday predictions, progressive millennialism is more exposed to empirical disconfirmation. When a prophecy about an apocalyptic event fails, it is easier to claim that wars, epidemics and other catastrophic events have at any rate occurred somewhere in the world. But, when a millennial group announces a golden age, and fails to deliver, crisis is inevitable. Crisis, in this case, is not an automatic consequence of a millennial prophetic failure; the process only applies, in fact, to progressive (rather than catastrophic) millennialism. Melton comments on a similar process in New Age: when the promised golden age failed to materialize, New Age first resorted to messages channeled by supernatural "entities". It claimed that these entities should have known better, and perhaps a new, golden age was emerging on Planet Earth. Human eyes were not capable of seeing it, but superhuman channeled Masters had other and safer ways of knowing. Ultimately, however — according to Melton - the idea that a new age of general happiness was in fact manifesting itself, notwithstanding any evidence to the contrary, could not be sustained. Empirical disconfirmation prevailed over prophetic utterances. The New Age crisis was, thus, neither purely a by-product of excessive commercialism, nor an invention of scholars. Ultimately, New Age went the same way as many other forms of progressive millennialism had gone before it.

In the face of the crisis, a number of new agers simply abandoned the movement, but there is no evidence that this was the prevailing response. The two main tenets of "classic" New Age were, firstly, that a golden age of higher consciousness was manifesting itself on Planet Earth; and secondly, that it was possible to co-operate with this happy manifestation without the need of a dogmatic creed or formal structures. New Age was a loose network rather than a formalized structure. When crisis struck, one possible reaction was to claim that the utopic aim of the new age was still achievable, but that the flexible network was not the most appropriate tool. Rather, an organized, hierarchical movement with a strong and clearly identified leadership was needed. "Classic" New Age was not a new religious movement in the prevailing sense of the term. It did not, for instance, recognize, and indeed often scorned, leaders authorized by definition to declare a creed. Post-New Age movements entrust precisely their authoritative leaders with the task of "saving" New Age from its crisis. While J. Z. Knight started her career as the quintessential New Age channeler, she has more recently established what she calls an American gnostic school in Yelms (Washington). There, nobody questions her right (or, rather, the right of Ramtha, the ancient spirit she channels) to define a creed or a doctrine. The New Age audience of J. Z. Knight, the channeler, thus became Ramtha’s School of Ancient Wisdom, a post-New Age new religious movement (Melton 1998). Older movements, marginalized in "classic" New Age because they operated within closed (rather than open) structures with a precise creed and an authoritative leader, saw themselves revitalized in the wake of the New Age crisis. In Italy a number of former new agers joined Damanhur, a community of some 400 members near Turin which calls itself "aquarian" but, at the same time, makes clear creedal statements (see Berzano 1997) and affirms the authority of the founder-leader, Oberto Airaudi, to define or change doctrine. Joining a post-New Age new religious movements is not, however, the only possible solution to the New Age crisis for those unwilling to simply abandon it. A larger number of new agers seem more interested in redefining New Age itself.

2. "Next Age"

"Next Age" is an English expression virtually unknown in English-speaking New Age circles, being used mostly in Italy, and occasionally (on a much more limited scale) in France and other Southern European countries. The term "Next Age" was first used in Italy in the early 1990s to indicate a new wave of New Age music. It was subsequently adopted by new agers who felt that a new name was needed which would separate them from both the excessive commercialism and the failed utopias of "classic" New Age. The term had its consecration in 1998, in fact, when the New Age Fair ("Salone del New Age") in Milan, the largest Italian New Age yearly gathering, decided to change its name to the "New Age and Next Age Fair" ("Salone del New Age e Next Age"). The label was subsequently adopted by nationally syndicated columnists (Barbiellini Amidei 1998), Christian counter-cult critics (Menegotto 1999), and scholars (Berzano 1999, Filoramo 1999, Introvigne and Zoccatelli 1999). It finally became a household name within the Italian milieu of alternative spirituality, although new agers initially argued that it had only been adopted as a protest against New Age commercialism, without acknowledging that the movement, in general, was in crisis (for these new agers, the crisis was simply an invention of hostile anti-cultists and misguided scholars: Parodi 1998). Within the Italian New Age movement itself, however, others countered that the crisis had not been invented by scholars: new age utopianism had ultimately revealed itself to be a "mirage" rather than a horizon, and something radically new was needed to replace it (Zarelli 1998, 25).

In essence, Next Age was New Age’s passage from the third to the first person. While New Age had been described as "sacralization of the Self" (Heelas 1996), it could be argued that Next Age is rather the sacralization of "myself". Classic, utopian New Age argued that Planet Earth, as a whole, was heading towards a new age of collective higher consciousness and happiness, whilst Next Age recognizes that a new age may never happen collectively, in and for the whole planet. What remains possible, however, is that an enlightened minority will enter into a personal New Age through certain exercises and techniques. Whilst such techniques are not substantially different from those advocated by classic new agers, Next Age is conceived as private while New Age was public and collective. Gone is utopianism, and gone is progressive millennialism. No millennium is proclaimed by Next Age, which confines itself to nothing more than a promise of individual happiness. Whether or not individual well-being achieved by a significant number of individuals will also cause Planet Earth to heal is a vague, secondary possibility, and is no longer regarded as crucial. To this, is added a historical reinterpretation of New Age, whereby it is claimed that New Age was never really millenarian or utopian, that the idea of a future Aquarian Age was merely a poetic metaphor, and that individual self-transformation was always the movement's primary aim. This (somewhat mythological) self-reinterpretation of New Age history had already been observed by Melton in his 1994 paper (Melton 1998, 141).

Most authors and books crucial to the understanding of Next Age date back to the 1980s and 1970s. They remained, however, fairly marginal within the New Age movement, precisely because they were regarded as too individualistic, potentially narcissistic, and not really interested in New Age utopias. Anthony Robbins’ seminars were started in 1983 and his influential book Unlimited Power was published in 1987. A former graduate of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Robbins was however criticized in New Age circles for his extreme individualism. The Road Less Travelled, by psychologist Morgan Scott Peck, had been published even earlier, in 1978. Often quoted by Next Age devotees is the book’s comment that self-sacrifice and altruism are potentially harmful to both individuals and society, while self-love is the key to a happy and successful life (Peck 1978, 115-116). Peck was not, strictly speaking, a new ager, and in subsequent works (including A Different Drum, 1987) he emphasized community values and cautioned against any excessively individualistic interpretation of The Road. However, none of his subsequent books ever paralleled the international success of The Road, and many of its readers remain unaware of Peck’s later writings and activities. In Latin countries, New Age is also heavily influenced by both the novels and the public persona of Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho, whose O alquimista was originally published in Brazil in 1988. Although Coelho insists that he was initiated into a secret society, called RAM (Regnum Agnus Mundi, "Kingdom of the Lamb of the World": see O’Connor 1998, 31) in 1970, his novel's alchemist teaches that everybody can realize his or her "personal legend" irrespective of any society, initiation, movement, or general social perspective.

New agers who believe we are now living in a Next Age would readily name Indian medical doctor Deepak Chopra (now living in the United States) as Next Age’s principal spokesperson. Chopra discovered spirituality in general, and Transcendental Meditation in particular, while working as a doctor in the United States, and went on to become an important leader of American TM (with a distinctive personal style). He left TM in 1993, when he was already a successful author (see e.g. Chopra 1989). In 1994 he published The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, followed in 1995 by The Way of the Wizard. Both books were translated into Italian in 1997, and became instant Next Age best-sellers (Chopra 1997a and 1997b). Chopra makes no reference to a "Next Age", but for those calling themselves "next agers" these books represent what they think Next Age is all about. Although "spiritual" laws are both universal and necessary, the immediate and achievable aim is to live a happy, healthy, and long life (actress Demi Moore, who attended a number of Chopra’s seminars, is quoted as expecting to live at least 150 years). Although the final test is that the techniques actually work in the context of the reader's personal life, it is also claimed that the techniques themselves are very old. The Way of the Wizard has been particularly popular because each chapter in the book is based on an episode in the life of the young King Arthur when he was tutored by Merlin, thus capitalizing on the growing popularity of the Grail and Arthurian cycles. Critics have noticed that young Arthur and Merlin as they appear in this book more closely resemble the corresponding Disney characters than the heroes of genuine medieval legends, although such criticism apparently failed to impress Chopra’s fans. Chopra visited Italy in 1997, and scandalized the press by claiming that New Age is not for poor people. The latter, he claimed, are "obsessed by money much more than the rich" and, in consequence, are incapable of spiritual growth. Only those free from material concerns are able to focus on spiritual growth and eventually enter into a new age, according to Chopra (Benetti 1998, 31). The resulting commotion created a confrontation between "next agers" and "classic" new agers, and showed very graphically just how far a spiritual teacher such as Chopra has strayed from the New Age’s promise of utopia.

3. Next Age as Privatization

"When prophecy fails", it has been argued, catastrophic millennialism may nonetheless prosper through processes of cognitive dissonance (Festinger, Riecken and Schachter 1956). I would suggest, however, that the process may indeed be different in catastrophic and progressive millennialism. When the optimistic prophecy of progressive millennialism fails, one possibility is privatization. The prophecy, it could be argued, may still come true for a selected group of individuals, although it will probably not come true for society, or Planet Earth, as a whole. These privatization processes have taken place before: in fact, they may have occurred in the aftermath of most historical forms of progressive millennialism. While it is always difficult to apply contemporary social science to events of past centuries, it might be tempting to argue that utopian early tantrism became, in late tantrism, the quest of physical immortality and other physical advantages for an elite class of initiates (see White 1996). A discussion of whether this process really took place, or whether "early tantrism" is merely a construction of Western scholars (as has been seriously argued: see Lopez 1996), would be outside the scope of this chapter. On the other hand, it may be easier to argue that 19th century liberal Protestantism trust in human progress, as a way towards universal happiness and peace, was progressively abandoned in the wake of its empirical disconfirmation by a number of bloody wars. The ideology of progress was, thus, privatized as unlimited individual progress by New Thought (and, although differently, by Christian Science). The secular version of liberal Protestantism, the progressive modernism of the 19th century, experienced a similar crisis, and a privatized version was proposed, in the form of positive thinking, by Napoleon Hill (1883-1970) and (outside the English-speaking world) by Émile Coué (1857-1926). After World War I had virtually destroyed the idea of universal peace through human progress, Coué could still claim that a higher state of peace may be achieved in everybody’s personal, private life through the instrument of positive thinking (see Centassi 1990), and similar ideas were also suggested by Hill (Ritt and Landers 1995). It is, of course, easy to ridicule individualization processes and to claim that positive thinking is largely wishful thinking (Kaminer 1993). It is worth noting, nonetheless, that both secular positive thinking and Christian New Thought were extremely successful, and later converged in one of the best-sellers of the 20th century, namely The Power of Positive Thinking (1952) by Norman Vincent Peale (1898-1993). These examples show that, when progressive millennial utopia fails, private utopias restricted to personal life may develop through these privatization processes. The end results are often surprisingly similar. The recipes for personal happiness promoted by popular New Thought authors, by positive thinkers such as Norman Vincent Peale (and, to some extent, by Morgan S. Peck) appear to be direct precursors of Chopra and other Next Age masters. It seems that the generation of a personal happiness formula through the privatization of a disconfirmed utopia may have a direct influence on the final product itself. (Tantrism is, in turn, an important presence in the milieu of those calling themselves "next agers", precisely in the form of a tantrism reduced to recipes for personal and sexual happiness: see Zadra and Zadra 1997. The authors of this book manage a popular Next Age center in Montecerignone, Italy, promising both spiritual and sexual fulfillment).

Ultimately, the answer to the question of whether a Next Age exists, depends on how New Age is reconstructed. If one assumes, as Hanegraaff (1996) does, that utopianism was, or is, not crucial for New Age (or was only crucial for an earlier New Age stricto sensu), it could be argued that no New Age crisis has ever taken place, and that the movement in the year 2000, and beyond, is part of the same phenomenon as it existed in the 1980s. Definitions are, of course, result-oriented tools, and no definition of New Age is any more "true" than another. It may be argued, however, that definitions (or descriptions) of New Age, in which the utopia of a forthcoming golden age was crucial, were widespread within the community of new agers, both in the English-speaking world and in some European countries, including Italy. Where utopianism was crucial, empirical disconfirmation generated a crisis (a sequel of events typical of progressive millenarianism in general). In a country such as Italy where a link existed between utopianism (or progressive millennialism) and the very expression "New Age", the latter label was being used with growing uneasiness as utopic visions were abandoned. Hence the emergence of "Next Age" as a new designation in Italy. Whether "Next Age" will remain an idiosyncratic Italian label, or will be adopted internationally, is ultimately not important. What is suggested in this chapter is that utopianism, well beyond its origins in the 1960s and early 1970s, continued to be crucial in an important section of the New Age community until the end of the 1980s. When utopianism was both criticized and progressively abandoned, it became increasingly common inside and outside the New Age community to conclude that the movement was experiencing a crisis (with commercialism mentioned as another precipitating factor). At this stage, New Age (as were other forms of progressive millennialism) was subjected to a process of individualization and privatization, and a "second" New Age slowly emerged. Those emphasizing continuity, may call it a new wave of the New Age. For whatever reason, discontinuity, rather than continuity, has been emphasized in Italy, and the label Next Age more widely adopted there than in other countries.



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