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The Chesterton Review discusses "New Age" spirituality.

The Canadian branch of the Basilian congregation has produced two other excellent editors besides Father de Valk--Father Daniel Callam, former editor of the now defunct Canadian Catholic Review, and Father Ian Boyd, founder and continuing editor of the Chesterton Review, both formerly published at St. Thomas More College in Saskatoon, SK. Both of these priests are now in exile from Canada, the former at St. Thomas University in Houston and the latter at Seton Hall in New Jersey.

However, in October 1999, the Chesterton Institute and St. Thomas University jointly sponsored a conference on "The Light Within: New Age and Christian Spirituality." Father Callam organized the conference and edited its proceedings for the Chesterton Review; they were published in a special number of the Review, dated as February/May 2000. With typical compression, Father Callam wrote in his introduction, "Chesterton identified the flaw in New Age thinking and corrected it in a single sentence in his book Orthodoxy: 'The only fun of being a Christian was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely recognized an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible as an army with banners."'

Philip Zaleski

At the beginning of his "The New Age and Search for Self-Knowledge," Philip Zaleski describes a girl called Sophie Smith who was raised a Catholic, abandoned the faith for the picket lines in the 1960s, and now talks wistfully about the "inner life" but doesn't know where to find it. In the last few years she "has carved a spectacular zigzag through the spiritual marketplace, sampling meditation, chanting, crystal-gazing, yoga." He finds her, ironically, sitting on the steps of a church (which she refuses to enter) surrounded by a miniature library of New Age and other esoteric books. Zaleski says she speaks for those who abandoned the Church in the upheavals of the sixties and seventies, and those outside the Church who are searching for a hidden God and wind up intellectually and spiritually malnourished in the New Age movement. "Sophie doesn't seek out the New Age; she winds up in it. We are not speaking here of a profound religious revelation" but of "a catch-basin of religious flotsam and jetsam, a vast undigested (and largely indigestible) pudding of ideas, beliefs, feelings, and practices that appeals largely to those who no longer possess, or who have lost, the discerning eye that orthodoxy demands."

Joyce Little

In her contribution to the symposium, Joyce Little quotes from Cardinal Danneels' pastoral letter Christ or Aquarius?": "Our contemporaries must be suffering terribly in their hearts from a great anxiety if they seek salvation in such a mixture. But they do so--and by the millions."

Many people are drawn to New Age, the Cardinal continues, because they believe it to be greater, more all-encompassing, than any of the traditional religions. In his book The Coming of the Cosmic Christ, Matthew Fox, the former Dominican priest and Catholic from Chicago and California, says that he found the faith as it is taught today to be too narrow, because it does not give creation its due. He describes the Cosmic Christ as "the pattern that connects all the atoms and galaxies of the universe, a pattern of divine love and justice that all creatures and all humans bear within them."

A partial reply to that would be Chesterton's remark that "Paganism was the largest thing in the world and Christianity was larger, and everything else has been comparatively small." As Joyce Little says, Christ is not the pattern that connects all things; He is the person who relates all things in heaven and on earth to Himself and through Himself to God the Father. Christianity is vaster and more mysterious than Fox and the other New Agers imagine it to be. In his hour of triumph, Chesterton points out, Christ did not say, "All are aspects of one harmonious whole" or "The universe evolves through progress to perfection." He looked up and said, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven."

Stratford Caldecott

In a very impressive discussion of "The Transcendental Disunity of Religions," Stratford Caldecott analyses various attempts to link Christianity to one or another model of world religions, "from the fantasies of the Theasophical Society itself through Jungian and transpersonal psychology to the sociology of religious experience". "But authentic Christianity," he writes, "has always resisted such assimilation; for at its heart is something irreducible, unaccountable, and essential."

There is actually a global organization called the United Religions, supported by the Gorbachev Foundation and the World Conference on Religion and Peace. It is to be a "permanent gathering center where the world's religions engage in daily prayer, dialogue, and action for the good of all life on this earth. But if it harbours any wider goals, it, too, will sink on the rock of Christianity."

David Denny

In his article "The Circle and the Cross," David M. Denny observes that movements such as the New Age spring up because the mainline tradition has forgotten part of its heritage. "In our case," he writes, "we did not merely forget a part of our heritage; we forgot its heart, the mystical fire at the centre of the Church. Deprived of the glory the Church hints at, and for which it creates a fierce hunger, starving seekers look East or to the New Age while we all too often present the drama of salvation as a compendium of pious platitudes that leaves adventurous souls bored stiff. But dogmas, like love poetry, are rooted in mystical experience...Dogmas, in the words of E.I. Watkin, the British philosopher of mysticism, are like comets: when they come into our human orbit they make something mysterious visible and beautiful."

"Too easily we forget," Denny writes, "that we are restless pilgrims of the absolute.... We forget that once we find Christ the real adventure has hardly begun... We are on a wild ride through the ages on what Chesterton called Christianity's winged thunderbolt of thought and restless enthusiasm"

In his introduction, Father Callam writes, "The subtitle of the conference 'New Age and Christian Spirituality' points to the approach speakers at the conference took, that of a sympathetic examination of what the movement has to offer followed by a critique that invites its adherents to move beyond its limitations into the fullness of Christianity." The nine papers in this symposium were perhaps more favourable to New Age thought than my summaries of them here have indicated; several of them do bring out what is commendable in the movement, before going on to emphasize how it can be corrected and brought into harmony with Christian orthodoxy.

The tribute which Father Callam pays to one of the contributors--referring to "that pleasing mix of erudition and insight that readers of The Review have come to expect of him" --might be applied to all of them. The result is a very impressive analysis of a complex topic. One further point is worth mentioning: the number of references to and quotations from Chesterton himself testify both to his prescience and to his continuing relevance in Catholic intellectual life.
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Author:Dooley, David
Publication:Catholic Insight
Date:Jan 1, 2001
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