DOUGLAS GROOTHUISDouglas Groothuis is a research associate with Probe Center Northwest in Seattle. This article was adapted by the author from his book Confronting the New Age (InterVarsity Press).
By now it should be clear to even the most casual observer that the New Age is more than a passing fad—it is a deep cultural trend attracting thousands of people from all walks of life. It has galvanized a host of disparate organizations, events, individuals, and ideas around its self-deifying themes. Celebrity evangelists such as Shirley MacLaine and John Denver, scientific sages such as Fritjof Capra, and entrepreneurs such as Werner Erhard tout a burgeoning market of books and magazines, magical crystals, exotic therapies, and mind-expanding seminars.
One area of culture after another is being touched—if not consumed—by a New Age orientation. Christians, while initially slow to respond to the New Age’s growing cultural clout, have now rushed to analyze, expose, debate, and debunk the movement. Unfortunately, many of these recent responses are superficial. Their examination of the New Age probes only skin deep. They expound sensational conspiracy theories that alarm the ignorant instead of equipping the saints.
Yet the New Age movement demands more from Christians than reactionary rhetoric. If Christians are to meet this challenge effectively, we must have first of all a biblical understanding of how we are to relate to culture.
The Human Touch
Culture describes our “way of life”—how we interact with ourselves, our environment, and God. It includes manners, morals, habits, and artifacts. Culture, unlike nature, is humanly engineered. We use God-given material and give it the unmistakable “human touch”—of painting, ceremonies, gardens, and gulags. Creation gives us chunks of gold; humans create gold rings, tooth fillings, crosses, and Buddha figurines. Culture is the cultivation of God’s creation.
Cultures spring from the world views of the culture formers, whether they be Christian, New Age, or otherwise. Henry Van Til has said that “culture is religion externalized.” Yet it is just as true that world views are influenced by a person’s surrounding culture. Clearly, the biblical injunction is to base our thinking on God’s transcultural truths and seek to apply them to our particular culture. But how should this be done in relation to the New Age’s cultural impact?
At least three scriptural themes address our interaction with culture—separation, transformation, and conservation. They are foundational to a solid response to the New Age, and without holding them in proper balance we fall into error.
A People Set Apart
Any biblically literate Christian should know to separate himself from an obviously occult/New Age practice such as trance or spirit channeling, since the Old Testament strictly condemns consultation with mediums (Deut. 18:9–14). God’s people are to shun this “abomination,” which calls forth judgment on cultures polluted by it. There is absolutely no way to Christianize it.
Separation, then, is a central biblical theme. God elected Israel to be a unique nation “set apart” from the surrounding pagan peoples. When the Israelites assimilated into the pagan culture instead of separating from it, they suffered God’s judgment for spiritual adultery. Separation from sinful cultural patterns glorifies God, who himself is separate from all sin. We are to be holy (or separate) because God is holy.
The apostle John underscored this when he instructed us not to love “the world or the things in the world,” which are passing away (1 John 2:15–17). John does not mean to shun the entire world (creation) or avoid all of human culture, but rather to shun the “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (v. 16).
Jesus repeatedly taught that total obedience to him means separation from evil in every form. “You cannot serve both God and mammon,” he said (Matt. 6:24). Although Jesus socialized with outcasts and outright sinners, he did not succumb to cultural sin of any stripe.
The separation theme is crucial for confronting the New Age. The New Age world view is antithetical to Christianity; the two cannot mingle. God is either personal or impersonal, not both; he is either moral or amoral, not both; people are nondivine or divine, not both; there is resurrection or reincarnation, not both; ethics are absolute or relative, not both. You cannot serve both God and the New Age. Even if it is considered impolite in a pluralistic culture to dispute the truth of another’s beliefs, the Christian must speak the truth in love, saying, “No! I cannot agree with pantheism, monism, relativism, spiritism, and the rest. I will have no part. These beliefs are both false and dangerous.”
If Christians hope to confront error effectively, we cannot let ourselves become prisoners of what we are confronting. We must be separate.
But if the separation theme is not complemented and balanced by the themes of transformation and conservation, Christians run the risk of viewing themselves as “more separate than thou” and isolating themselves from legitimate involvement in culture.
Theater Of Redemption
Jesus Christ is the Redeemer. He came to restore us to fellowship with the Father through his atoning death on the cross, and to restore our works that they might honor God (Eph. 2:8–10). This necessitates our transformation. Paul says that if anyone is in Christ, he or she is a “new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17), and he exhorts each of us: “Be transformed by the renewal of your mind” (Rom. 12:2). This demands a distinctively Christian world view.
Separation cautions us to avoid the sinful snares of fallen culture. Transformation inspires us to apply our Christian world view to culture for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17). From the beginning, God charged Adam and Eve to “have dominion” over (or to transform) the Earth for his glory (Gen. 1:26–28; Ps. 8:3–9). We are called, notes philosopher Calvin Seerveld in his book Rainbows for a Fallen World, “to exercise dominion over the whole earth, subdue it, make the world serviceable, turn all creation into a footstool that doubles its native praise of the Lord. God elected man … to rule the world and make the name of Yahweh reverberate from one end of the cosmos to the other.” That calling has not been revoked. It is not enough to resist evil, we must also march ahead to recapture territory too long held by Satan, the usurper.
Although Christianity does not look to this world as the final frame of reference, it is passionately concerned with this world as the theater of redemption and the beginning of restoration.
We pray, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10). The kingdom of God has both a present and a future reality. We pray and labor that the realities of God’s kingdom may be manifest in all of life. John Stott forcefully states: “For the Kingdom of God is God’s dynamic rule, breaking into human history through Jesus, confronting, combatting, and overcoming evil, spreading the wholeness of personal and communal wellbeing, taking possession of his people in total blessing and total demand.”
A kingdom spirituality is not content to divide the sacred (prayer, Bible reading, church attendance) from the secular (work, education, politics), but rather sees everything in relation to the total lordship of Jesus Christ. As Francis Schaeffer proclaimed, “The Lordship of Christ covers all of life and all of life equally.”
If we only separate from and condemn evil, we become merely reactionary—more anti-New Age than pro-Christ. Our constructive values—inasmuch as we develop them at all—take a back seat to our critical evaluations. And instead of seeking first the kingdom of God, we seek first to expose the kingdom of evil. As a result, our demonology may become more developed than our Christology.
The kingdom of evil is always seeking to advance—not only to claim secular ground that kingdom citizens have abandoned, but to move into the sacred domain of the church itself. When Christians retreat from the world, they are easily overtaken. The only way the church can adequately resist the evil offensive is to mount a counteroffensive. While self-preservation is not the only reason the church should make a sustained, prayerful effort to transform society, it is certainly a sufficient one. If we do not confront the world, we shall be conformed to it.
History demonstrates that the Christian dynamic is world transforming. Though surrounded by the cultural chaos of a declining Roman empire, the early church significantly affected its culture through its high view of human life (opposing infanticide), its elevation and emancipation of slaves, its denunciation of barbarous games, and its unequaled charity. Christians transformed the pagan world and helped set the course of Western civilization.
Christianity later contributed to political and religious liberties; to literacy, education, health care, and the arts; and to social reform, such as the abolition of slavery, and protection for the unborn. This transformational dynamic is both unmistakable in history and imperative for today.
Parents who remove their child from a public school classroom for the sake of separation from some New Age practice need also to seek to rectify the problem through appropriate action. They should, as much as possible, try to transform the situation so that all children—Christian and non-Christian—are not indoctrinated into New Age beliefs. That may mean working to change public school curricula, or establishing alternative forms of education. In any case, Christians are called to transformation as well as separation.
Truth Wherever It May Be
Christians are also to conserve God-honoring areas of culture. Although the world is tragically tainted by sin, some pockets of culture do still exist that are pleasing to God and should be conserved. Identifying these areas calls for discernment and wisdom.
Paul’s preaching to the Athenians at Mars Hill demonstrates the conservation theme. Though he was “greatly distressed” (Acts 17:16, NIV) over the Athenians’ idolatry, he began by commending what was true in their philosophies. He first noted the religiosity evidenced by their many idols, one of which bore the inscription, “To an unknown god.” Paul then said, “What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you” (v. 23). In proclaiming God as Creator and Lord who is nevertheless “not far from each one of us” (v. 27), Paul favorably quotes from the Cretan poet Epimenides, who said, “For in him we live and move and have our being,” and from the Cilician poet Aratus, who said, “We are indeed his offspring” (v. 28).
Yet after identifying religious themes to be conserved, Paul went on to decry their idolatry, to call them to repentance, and to proclaim the One who is risen from the dead (vv. 29–31).
Paul did not completely reject Greek philosophy. He knew that by God’s grace it contained some elements of truth—even though the whole philosophical system was built on the shifting sands of human opinion. In fact, Paul separates himself from worldly thinking, insisting that the gospel is based on God’s revelation, not human craftiness (1 Cor. 3:19; Col. 2:8–9). Yet he recognizes that “all truth is God’s truth,” wherever it may be uncovered.
Saying that, however, does not mean that whatever people take to be true is, in fact, “true for them.” To such relativism, the Bible declares, “Let God be true though every man is false” (Rom. 3:4). Nor does it mean that human opinion is exalted to the status of biblical revelation.
What it does mean is that aspects of God’s truth have been discerned worldwide by all people through his general revelation. Jesus said that God “makes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). To reject the truth that God has granted to unbelievers is to reject a gift from the ultimate source of the truth, God himself. To accept truth from unbelievers is not to accept the ultimately false world view that has adopted it.
We can best defend Christianity by recognizing truth wherever we find it and integrating it into a distinctively Christian viewpoint. James Orr, the late Scottish theologian, calls this “the truest and best form of Christian apology [defense]—to show that in Christianity, as nowhere else, the severed portions of truth found in all other systems are organically united, while it completes the body of truth by discoveries peculiar to itself.”
Save The “Severed Portions”
It is vital that we understand the conservation theme in order that we not throw out these “severed portions of truth.” First, of course, we need to determine whether there is a portion at all worth saving. Some New Age practices are irredeemable. But not everything associated with the New Age movement is irredeemable. Some elements of New Age thought should be conserved precisely because they agree with a Christian perspective.
For instance, Christian psychologists can agree with New Age psychologists—over against materialists—that humans are more than programmed animals or machines and that they have real spiritual capacities that need to be recognized and exercised. Both will stress “human potential,” although the Christian stresses the potential of beings made in the image of God as they submit to their Maker, Savior, and Guide; while the New Ager stresses the unlimited potential of self-realized, human “gods.”
An example of such agreement is found in Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy, which, although it is sometimes tied to New Age ideas, resonates with and reinforces some crucial Christian themes. He stresses the innate and basic human need for meaning and purpose in life, what he calls “the will to meaning.” Yet many suffer, thinks Frankl, from an “existential vacuum” or meaninglessness. The aim of logotherapy is to help people discover a higher purpose.
Frankl, though not a Christian, indirectly highlights our need for God’s ultimate direction and purpose, and the fact that we are lost and alienated apart from a personal relationship with him. Many of his insights should be appreciated and conserved by Christians. Because of common grace, Christians often find friends in unlikely places—if they are looking.
When the separation, transformation, and conservation themes are held in balance, Christians can intelligently and effectively confront the New Age. Without this balance, they may easily fall into any of six different mental traps.
The quarantine mentality. Those with this tendency are rightly distrustful of the New Age world view and agenda, recognizing the separation theme, but they wrongly assume that anything approved by the New Age is intrinsically evil and therefore “off limits” for all Christians.
This approach tars with too wide a brush and thus paints black what may in fact be white or gray. It overemphasizes and misapplies separation and fails to recognize the conservation and the transformation themes.
For instance, the holistic health movement is significantly stained by New Age ideas. Supposed occult energies—or even entities—may be invoked for healing purposes, such as “therapeutic touch,” an occult energy therapy.
All that is holistic, however, is not hellish. An emphasis on the “whole person” medically and spiritually is indeed healthy and not, in itself, incompatible with biblical teaching. Yet some have quarantined everything holistic.
The taboo mentality. If everything related to the New Age is out of bounds, then spiritual and intellectual discernment is exhausted by a simple list of taboo practices, ideas, and individuals. Certainly, much that is New Age should be strictly and studiously avoided. No one should ever take part in psychic healing, astrology, past-life therapy, or any occult activity. Christianity has plenty of “don’ts” (witness eight of the Ten Commandments). But the “taboo mentality” tends to substitute a list of taboos for learning how to think discerningly. It invokes simplistic black and white rules instead of cultivating the ability to understand critically the issues at hand (using the Word of God and prayer, 1 Tim. 4:1–5).
The paranoid mentality. Awareness and avoidance of evil is a Christian virtue. But unhealthy fear of evil and vain speculations concerning its extent are not virtues. This mentality can be both crippling and condemning, as Christians, lacking sufficient evidence, label other Christians as New Age.
It is, of course, true that some New Agers hide under the guise of Christianity, while their teachings actually deny Christ. Such counterfeit Christianity must be unmasked and confronted. But where hurried condemnation replaces careful evaluation, the distinction between brotherly disagreement and heretical teaching may be sadly confused. The good is not conserved.
Those trapped in this pitfall have little patience or energy to honor the transformation theme of Scripture. Their fears immobilize them, and they make no attempt to transform culture. They simply condemn it, sometimes with encyclopedic specificity. They also misapply the separation theme—separating sheep from sheep instead of sheep from goats. The church is thereby divided against itself and is rendered less effective.
The Chicken Little mentality. Since the ascension of our Lord into heaven, Christians have expectantly awaited his descending from heaven at the end of the age (Acts 1:11). It is the “blessed hope” of all believers (Titus 2:13). Yet some have invested too much in calculating how New Age activities relate to particular end-time events. Some condemn the New Age movement primarily because they believe it fulfills biblical prophecy concerning the rise of evil in the world before the Second Coming, and hold few other arguments in their apologetic arsenal. Like those with the paranoid mentality, they ignore the transformation and the conservation themes.
We should not assume that God has given up on our or any other culture, although the threat of judgment should drive us to our knees and into the streets. The kingdom will come in its fullness only when Jesus Christ returns; yet there is kingdom work to be done here and now. Apocalyptic speculations may narrow the vision of the church only to saving a few souls, rather than advancing as an army on Earth for Christ, the King of creation. An apocalyptic apologetic may also ring hollow and unconvincing if the scenarios fail to materialize, leaving eschatological egg on the church’s face.
The ostrich mentality. This pitfall comes from a lack of awareness of the separation and the transformation themes. Some Christians dismiss the advance of the New Age into our culture as merely the figment of overactive imaginations, and stick their heads comfortably in the sands of ignorance. Their ignorance then ossifies into spiritual impotence, which leaves them helpless to unmask and confront New Age activity. Having not identified the problem, they cannot hope to transform a bad situation into a better one for Christ. “It couldn’t happen here,” they say—until a friend or relative joins a cult, or begins to consult a channeler, or starts quoting Shirley MacLaine.
The chameleon mentality. This pitfall is a cousin to the ostrich mentality because it too misunderstands the Christian’s separation and transformation responsibilities. Those affected are “trendier than thou” and equate human (or demonic) innovation with spiritual insight. They passively absorb their environment, changing colors in accordance with popular New Age practices or ideas. So we hear calls for “Christian yoga,” “Christian zen,” or less blatant compromises with non-Christian presuppositions. Although it is true that “all truth is God’s truth,” all that glitters is not God’s gold; fool’s gold abounds.
The Critical Balance
With the themes of separation, transformation, and conservation in balance, we arrive at a position of “critical engagement” with our culture. We are called to be critical: separated from the world’s culture, while bringing all of its elements under the scrutiny of God’s Word. And we are called to be engaged: to transform culture for the glory of God and to conserve those aspects of culture that please him.
The challenge of the New Age demands a cultural integrity: a critical engagement of our culture for the greater glory of God. As we balance the biblical themes of separation, transformation, and conservation, we honor the Lord of culture.
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