What exactly is the definition of “new age” thinking?
THE RELIGION GUY ANSWERS:
This loosely diffuse movement, largely located in America, is so indeterminate that it’s tempting to simply say “new age” covers any recently formed “spiritual” or “psychic” or “mindful” or “self-discovery” groups that don’t fit snugly into other religious categories. As part of this, new agers don’t fall within the formal organizational life of Buddhism or Hinduism but often appropriate various ideas and practices from Eastern religions, alongside other influences.
A good place to start is “Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions” (Gale), issued in eight updated editions, most recently in 2009. This standard reference work should be in any well-stocked library. Author J. Gordon Melton is a Baylor University professor whose decades of research make him the acknowledged expert on the taxonomy of U.S. faiths, especially thousands of young, small, marginal and obscure groups most people have never heard of. Note that the new age phenomenon extends well beyond formal organizations listed in such an encyclopedia to include free-floating ideas, fashions, books, gurus and other influences.
Melton divides all U.S. religions into 24 categories, one of which is the “Spiritualist, Psychic, and New Age Family,” which encompasses everything from the Swedenborgians to “drug-related” sects to flying saucer believers. His psychic or new age sub-category lists groups with such names as Inner Peace, Cosmic Wisdom, Mindstream, Psychiana, Natural Hygiene, Oneness United, and World Catalyst. Debatably, this is also where Melton places controversial faiths like L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology, Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church, and Jim Jones’s homicidal People’s Temple (though it was affiliated with the respectable Christian Church -- Disciples of Christ).
Melton distinguishes “new” age from “ancient wisdom” creeds like Rosicrucianism and Theosophy. He also sees links with venerable “occult” (that is, hidden wisdom) practices such as astrology, numerology, tarot cards, palm reading, and divination. New age literature and coursework may refer to the Bible, but mostly in terms of alleged esoteric truths a la ancient Gnosticism, as opposed to mainstream Judaism and Christianity (though there’s overlap on the margins). Melton says the movement centers on consciousness rather than doctrines, and that while typical groups are “very loosely organized,” some are “highly structured and even authoritarian.”
Where did the movement come from?