For example, for some time now roughly one in four Americans has believed in reincarnation, and the number may soon be closer to one in three.
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Worldwide, pantheistic religions have an even stronger hold, especially in the East, where they have dominated for about 2, years. Hinduism, which in its early history was crudely polytheistic and which retains polytheistic elements, from about BC developed a more refined pantheistic worldview in which the gods were merely high forms of the one divine reality, Brahman, of which human beings and everything else are a part. There are roughly three-quarters of a billion Hindus in the world, most of whom live in Asia, though well over a million Hindus live in North America. Buddhism, which numbers over million worldwide almost all in Asia , throughout its history has been interpreted in both atheistic and pantheistic ways.
Pantheistic beliefs in the divinity of nature and in spiritual powers latent in physical things have a long history in pre-Christian pagan Europe, beliefs that have enjoyed a revival throughout the West during the past two centuries. In the United States, less than two million people are actually members of Eastern pantheistic religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.
The vast majority of the roughly 25 to 35 million Americans at least who espouse some form of pantheistic religion are either members of Christian denominations though perhaps only nominally or have no commitment to any religious institution. On the cutting edge of the growth of pantheistic religious belief and practice in America is what is commonly known as the New Age movement. The roots of the New Age movement go back to the rise of alternative religions and philosophies in the nineteenth century.
Among these were Transcendentalism, a philosophical and cultural movement associated with Ralph Waldo Emerson that emphasized idealist and intuitive thought, and the metaphysical cults, notably New Thought and Unity a sect with origins in both Christian Science and Hindu thought. But the nineteenth-century institution closest to a parent or grandparent of the New Age movement was Theosophy. Building on a growing interest in spiritualism contacting departed spirits in America, Helena P. Blavatsky founded the Theosophical Society in the same year in which Mary Baker Eddy published Science and Health , which would inspire Unity and other metaphysical teachings.
All of these institutions and teachings have remained to this day and have contributed to the stream of mystical, generally pantheistic religious teachings and practices that have flowed together to become the New Age movement.
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After the rise of the metaphysical cults, the theosophical groups, and other precursors to the New Age in the s and s, the next major impetus to the New Age movement came in the countercultural occult explosion of the mid to late s and the early s. The increasing secularization of the West in the postwar years created a spiritual vacuum into which rushed an incredible diversity of religious movements emphasizing spiritual experience. On the Christian side, the s was the decade of the outbreak of Pentecostal experiences speaking in tongues, prophesying, healing ministries, and the like in the mainline denominations — what became known as the charismatic movement.
During the same decade, millions of Americans turned to Eastern religions to find spiritual experiences. Numerous gurus and swamis came to America teaching the message of our oneness with the divine All in a form tailored for the West: Transcendental Meditation TM , for example, essentially involved chanting to a Hindu god, but it was packaged and promoted as a scientifically proven stress-relieving relaxation technique.
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The 60s and early 70s also experienced an explosive growth of interest in the occult. Certain new humanistic religions utilized the demonic categories, not so much because they believed in the Devil, but as a symbol of their anti-Christian perspective. These included Satanism appealing mainly to men and Wicca appealing mainly to women. The latter actually has more mystical overtones, and is closely related to neopaganism and goddess worship.
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By the s some feminist theologians in mainline liberal church settings began taking interest in these alternative religions because their use of feminine images of the divine served the feminist agenda of displacing masculine, supposedly patriarchal or chauvinistic ways of thinking and speaking about God. The New Age movement is, then, an incredible diffuse and variegated phenomenon in Western society, rooted in both Asian religion and philosophy and Western European paganism. It also makes connections with Native American religion, tribal religions of Africa, and mystical traditions of medieval origin within the monotheistic religions of the West.
These mystical traditions include the Kabbalah in Judaism, the Sufis in Islam, and certain Catholic mystics whose thought tended toward pantheism. Those who are self-consciously part of the New Age movement probably number in the hundred of thousands, but the number of Americans whose worldview is New Age or close to New Age is likely in the tens of millions. The significance of the New Age movement is less a matter of its conscious adherents as it is the fact that the movement represents the tip of the iceberg of a megashift in Western, and especially American, society.
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Instead of seeing less and less of life in religious or sacred terms, the new direction is to think of all of life, and indeed all of existence, in a sacred or spiritual way. If secularization seemed to be crowding God out of the cosmos, the new sacralization represented by the New Age encourages us to equate God with the cosmos.
What the old materialistic, secular humanism and the new spiritual, religious humanism have in common is the desire to find personal fulfillment and world harmony on our own terms — with God as a source of power or wisdom, perhaps, but not as the standard of truth and values or the ruler of the world. Thus the New Age movement is part of a larger trend in Western culture seeking to find religious meaning and fulfillment apart from submission to the transcendent Creator, Judge, and Savior of biblical Christianity.
There is no one New Age religion or organization to unify the movement. Nor is there any creed or formal principles or scriptures or any other documents that could be regarded as foundational for the New Age. Because of the noncentralized and amorphous nature of the movement, generalizations about what New Agers believe or what they do are notoriously difficult. Still, there are patterns of belief and a basic worldview that can be discerned as common to most of the groups and writings that consider themselves New Age.
On the other hand, some Christian publications purporting to expose New Age groups grossly overgeneralize and label groups as New Age that are anything but New Age. The overgeneralization of the New Age label typified by Texe Marrs is actually one aspect of a larger picture in which Marrs and other writers depict the New Age movement as a massive, worldwide conspiracy intent on taking over the world. On their view the New Age movement is preparing the stage for the Antichrist, and therefore every false religion, every cult, every heretical movement, will eventually find their way into the one-world religion whose basic principles are now being enunciated in the New Age movement.
Even many Christian experts on the New Age movement who deny that a human conspiracy is at work speak of a demonic or Satanic conspiracy that will culminate in a one-world government which will persecute Christians. The main problem with such approaches to the New Age movement is that it misunderstands the basic structure and character of the movement. In her book Marilyn Ferguson called the movement The Aquarian Conspiracy , not because there was any monolithic organization working secretly to take over the world, but because there were so many different people who were working together toward the same goals without their common purpose being publicly known.
The basic worldview of the New Age movement is pantheism, the belief that in some sense all of reality is ultimately One and Divine. Although the simplest definition of pantheism is that God is all and all is God, pantheism is actually understood and articulated in a variety of ways, most of which allow for some recognition or differentiation of the world and the multiplicity of things in the world. What is essential to pantheism is the idea that underlying the manyness which we perceive through our senses is a divine oneness that unifies all things and that can be accessed through religious or spiritual means.
In Eastern religion, pantheism has usually been understood in a life-negating way. The goal of religious practice in Hinduism, for example, is to escape the wheel of reincarnation which repeatedly traps our spirits in this inglorious life and to achieve freedom in perfect oneness with Brahman God.
Likewise, in Buddhism life is characterized as suffering the first of the Four Noble Truths and the goal of Buddhist discipline is to escape the suffering by achieving oblivion to the cares of this world. In Hinduism, and even more so in Buddhism, strict disciplines of self-denial are indispensable to the spiritual life. By contrast, pantheism in the Western, New Age setting has been interpreted in a life-affirming way.
The world is divine, the earth and its many living things are divine, and human beings themselves are divine. Every aspect of life is to be enjoyed.
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The difference is at its startlingly clearest in the matter of sexuality. Whereas sexual activity even in marriage is viewed in Hinduism and Buddhism as an impediment to spiritual progress, in New Age thought the divinity of all life is understood to encourage sexuality and even sexual freedom. The penetration of pantheistic thought in Western culture has been pervasive.
Once, when I was about ten, I asked my mother what religion she was. That means that God is in everything. It cleared things up for me. It is evident from this passage that despite the enormous philosophical difficulties besetting any form of pantheism — and despite its clear contradiction of the Bible — many people simply find it easier to believe pantheism than monotheism.
It is not that pantheism is more rational — many pantheists themselves would insist that rationality is misleading in matters of ultimate reality — but that pantheism is more comfortable. Many of us in the West simply find it more to our liking. Panentheism recognizes God and the world as distinct concepts, but then holds that God is the spirit or soul or divine energy or mind that fills and pervades and expresses itself in the world. On this view God and the world are interdependent, needing each other to form a complete reality. Thus the standard analogy for panentheism is the idea that a human being is both a spirit or mind and a body, with neither doing anything without the other.
God is not a personal Creator of the world, but the divine potential of the world and of each one of us.
Most people in the popular culture could not clearly distinguish pantheism from panentheism, and in most contexts the difference is of little practical significance. This is why the former Catholic priest, Matthew Fox, can be an advocate of New Age thinking while technically holding to panentheism rather than pantheism.
For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is. Life creates it, makes it grow. Its energy surrounds us and binds us. Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter! You must feel the Force around you — here, between you, me, the tree, the rock, everywhere — yes, even between the land and the ship. The all-pervasive energy of the Force is evidently the same energy that powers the luminosity of our real selves. Here again a common New Age idea is suggested: not only is the cosmos God, human beings are Gods.
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