Monday, February 15, 2010

Universalism: The Gospel Message of Emergent and New Age Spirituality

One of the greatest misconceptions in this country today is that the New Age Movement of the 80s and 90s is (1) a thing of the past and (2) has nothing whatsoever in common with Christianity.  Nothing could be further from the truth on either count.  Let me explain.

Most Americans today have sort of an eye-rolling, amused response to the phrase "New Age."  Perhaps their minds are conjuring up an image of Shirley MacLaine on the beach, talking to the sky, a spiritual eccentric who became the punch line of many jokes for her interest in reincarnation and channeling. Perhaps they think that, like Shirley MacLaine, the New Age has passed gently into history, much like the rubix cube and Duran Duran.  Well, the truth is that the New Age is still very much with us today.  It never really went away, it just went mainstream.  New Age practices or beliefs that were once considered borderline occultic or kooky are now widely accepted and embraced, including yoga, mantra meditation, muscle testing, acupuncture, reiki, sustainable living and going green.  Don't believe it?  Just pick up any newspaper or popular magazine today (Reader's Digest, Ladies' Home Journal, Parade) and you will most likely read at least one, usually multiple articles, on the benefits of these practices.  Heck, even my husband's Golf World had a lengthy article in the February 2010 issue on how golf courses around the country are trying to "go green."

So just how did this New Age worldview get so powerful so fast? The short answer is that although it's actually been around for a very long time, it got its greatest push into the mainstream through America's most beloved talk show host, Oprah Winfrey.  For some reason, people think that this New Age Spirituality direction that Oprah has taken is a new thing.  It is not.  I know this because I was on the same path that she was for a very long time, and at about the same time.  Along with Oprah, I became completely immersed in New Age beliefs and practices, about 20 years ago, and yet at the same time used Christian terminology for all that I was doing.  But the catch was this: all the Christian terminology I used had been redefined to fit the theology of my New Age belief system.  And this is exactly how Oprah has made the New Age worldview palatable to the average Americans who were watching: she was using the same terminology that many Americans were.  We were still, at least at that time, a "Christian" nation, and by that I mean, the majority of Americans made some kind of Christian profession and had at least some knowledge of the Christian faith.  So although Oprah was going in a distinctly occultic, eastern direction spiritually, she was using words like "Holy Spirit," "God," "Jesus," "atonement," and "salvation."  And because Oprah was using terminology that everyone was familiar with, everybody's guard went down....and that's how the deception flooded in.  Not to get too creepy about it, but this is exactly how many cults "reprogram" their new recruits.  Same terminology, redefined terms.

One example of these redefined terms is a teaching from A Course In Miracles on the "atonement."  For those not familiar with A Course In Miracles (ACIM), it is a book that was originally published in 1976.  The teachings of this book were channeled by a demonic entity to a woman named Helen Schucman who transcribed them.  New Age author Marianne Williamson brought the teachings of ACIM into the mainstream after being enthusiastically endorsed on the Oprah Winfrey Show in the early 90s by writing her own book about ACIM and helping to explain its principles in laymans' terms, sort of "A Course In Miracles for Dummies" (its real title: "A Return To Love").

But back to the "teachings" of A Course In Miracles.  We know that it was a demon that channeled this book because the demon plainly revealed himself that way.  Nah - just kidding on that one.  The demon actually called himself "Jesus" when he delivered this occultic book to Helen Schucman.  And how do we know that this demon wasn't the "Jesus" he claimed to be?  Well, we go by Scripture that warns us not to let anyone come to us and preach "another Jesus" other than the one that Paul preached, and warns not to receive "a different gospel" from the one delivered by Jesus and the apostles.  ACIM's foundational principle, which is its view of the atonement, preaches a "different gospel" and "another Jesus."  The ACIM view of "atonement" (paraphrased) is this:
There is no separation between human beings and God, and the belief that we are separated has been the cause of most of the world's problems.  People grow spiritually by awakening to the view that they are already united with God.  When this happens, we achieve "At-one-ment," meaning, we grasp our unity with God and because of this new understanding, we take a huge spiritual leap forward and begin living in more loving, Godly ways.  This will eventually bring about a spiritual transformation on a global scale as more and more people awaken to this belief - and ALL people will eventually awaken to this belief.
Well, for orthodox Christians, our view of the atonement is also foundational - and it is vastly different from this New Age view that we simply have to "awaken" to the divinity we already have.  The ACIM view of atonement is both a "different gospel" and "another Jesus" in that it presents a different way to salvation rather than the biblical teaching on how we are saved: only those who repent of their sins and place their faith in Jesus, understanding that his sacrificial death on the Cross was on their behalf, will be saved.  There is no eventual universal salvation, and neither do we start out with a little "God spark" inside (the inner divinity) that we just have to awaken to: we are born dead in our sins (Eph 2:1).  We need a Savior.  But ACIM's redefined view of sin reduces this central tenet of Christianity to something akin to spiritual amnesia - in other words, sin gets redefined as "forgotten" divinity, an "awakening" to the belief that we are actually already in union with God.  But if this is true, then anyone can approach God by simply "awakening" - muslem, buddhist, hindu, whatever.  So at its core, ACIM's view of salvation is one without the Cross.  No penal substitutionary atonement, no sacrificial death on behalf of God's people, and everyone eventually gets to God. This is as blasphemous as it gets, and as wickedly deceptive too, given that it is delivered by something claiming to be "Jesus."

Before God saved me, like Oprah I also embraced the teachings of A Course In Miracles, believing that my view of God had been "expanded" out of its narrow little box of orthodox Christianity.  It felt more tolerant, more loving to hold to these beliefs. But these beliefs are no longer in one little fringey segment of our culture like they were in the 80s and 90s - remember, the New Age has gone mainstream.  This view of God is becoming increasingly more widespread, especially in our culture which has begun to prize "tolerance" so greatly. But, not only are these beliefs held by those who embrace the New Age Spirituality, they are also held by the Emergent Church movement, which, like the New Age, uses plenty of Christian terminology, and positions itself as a more tolerant, loving version of Christianity with its big tent inclusivism and God-loves-you-just-the-way-you-are heresy.  The truth is that God loves his own children, yes, but we must approach him in the way He has ordained, and that is through the blood of Jesus.  We don't approach God through mystical mantra meditation - which, curiously enough, seems to be the connecting point between Emergent and New Age Spirituality.  Both New Age and Emergent heavily promote the practice of mantra meditation, only it's called different names from within each movement.  Within the Emergent Church movement, these practices are given "Christianized" names so that they will be more palatable.  I mean, what could possibly be wrong with something called the Jesus Prayer, right?

The fact remains that we do not approach God in this way, because here's the rub: as I stated before, if anyone could approach God by use of a mystical practice (a Christian, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, etc.) without repenting and confessing Christ, then there would be no point to the Cross, which as far as orthodox Christianity goes, is the hinge that swings the whole door.  No, we approach the throne of God through Christ alone, as Scripture plainly tells us: "There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." (Acts 4:12, my emphasis)

So who are the "players" in Emergent and New Age Spirituality bringing about this merging of these two movements?  Well, my money's on Ken Wilber for one, a straight up New Ager who is so admired by prominent Emergent Church leader Rob Bell that Bell tells us to "set aside three months" to read Ken Wilber's book, A Theory of Everything.

John Shelby Spong, an Episcopal Bishop who identifies himself as a "progressive Christian," will probably also be a player from the New Age side.  Doug Pagitt, a well known Emergent Church leader, recently interviewed John Shelby Spong, who, though he identifies himself as a Christian, is far, far afield of the orthodox views of Christianity. When speaking of the virgin birth and Jesus' resurrection, he actually sounds much more like a New Ager than a Christian when he says:
"The best way to lose all is to cling with desperation to that which cannot possibly be sustained literally. Literalistic Christians will learn that a God or a faith system that has to be defended daily is finally no God or faith system at all. They will learn that any god who can be killed ought to be killed."
Yikes!  I'm thinking the scholarly "Bishop" Spong must have somehow skipped Corinthians in the course of his biblical studies:
"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve......But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith." (1 Cor 15:3-5, 12-14)
I say this about Bishop Spong somewhat tongue in cheek, because I quite understand that Spong does not hold to the view that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. How tragic for him, because this means that he is a pagan, not a Christian, and is therefore reduced to feeling around in the dark like all the other lost people, trying to figure out who God is and how to get to him. (Here's a tip: it's why God gave us the Bible, so that we would know....)

Stay tuned on this issue, as an upcoming interfaith conference called Sacred Awakenings features Marianne Williamson (mentioned above as the New Ager who brought A Course In Miracles into the mainstream) and John Shelby Spong, both espousing more of the all-paths-lead-to-God view of Universalism. Since this also seems to be the view held by Rob Bell, Doug Pagitt and other emergent leaders, one has to wonder: how long before New Age Spirituality and Emergent officially merge together?

 Additional Resources 

John Shelby Spong: "Hell" as an invention of the church