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From the December, 2004
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Mystical Modernity by Carl E. Olson

Mystical Modernity

The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition
by James A. Herrick
InterVarsity Press, 2003
(331 pages; $22.00, hardcover)

reviewed by Carl E. Olson

In a recent amazon.com interview, Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, stated that “while Eastern mysticism has its fair share of unjustified belief, it undoubtedly represents humankind’s best attempt at fashioning a spiritual science.”

Convinced that traditional religions—which rest on “blind faith”—are not just irrational but inherently dangerous, Harris opined that mysticism and “spirituality” offer the reasonable paths to knowledge. “Mysticism, shorn of religious dogmatism, is an empirical and highly rational enterprise. Just as people do not burn their neighbors at the stake as a result of new insights in physics or biology, no one is likely to do so on the basis of genuine mysticism. Religion—especially in the West—is another matter entirely. Religious faith is a conversation stopper.”

What is needed, Harris not so reasonably concluded, is both the elimination of religion and the modification of beliefs “by conversation—by new evidence and new arguments.” Thus, the need for “conversational intolerance”: when people start talking about their beliefs, they must be criticized, swiftly and emphatically.

Shaping Influence

As James A. Herrick clearly and methodically explains in The Making of the New Spirituality, this approach is not new, nor does it come from the fringe—at least not anymore. In fact, advocates for a radical change in the Western understanding of spirituality and religion became a major force, not in the 1960s, but much earlier—around 1700, with roots extending back several more centuries. And that “shaping influence,” Herrick argues, “has continued unabated to the present day.”

Herrick, a professor of communication at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, traces “the historical trajectory in popular religious discourse of a set of religious ideas that, though once considered exotic or even heretical, now hold sway in the Western religious mind.” These ideas include materials from the hermetic tradition, Kabbalah, European mysticism, Darwinism, pantheism, gnosticism, shamanism, theosophy, and Eastern mysticism. The breadth and depth of study is impressive, as is Herrick’s firm grasp of this bewildering conglomeration of movements, fads, impulses, philosophies, and spiritualities.

Although the components are not new, their synthesis into what Herrick calls an “alliance of available complimentary spiritual commitments” is. Herrick calls this the New Religious Synthesis, and he traces the connections and locates the key relationships within it. “Though goddess worship, the New Science, Buddhist-inspired motivational seminars, UFO abduction reports, spiritually oriented psychology and alternative medical practices may seem at first glance to have little to do with one another,” he writes, “each phenomenon reflects changes in the Western world’s basic spiritual orientation.”

The “Revealed Word” is Herrick’s designation for what might also be termed mere Christianity (he readily acknowledges his debt to C. S. Lewis). The change in orientation is from that of the formerly culturally dominant Revealed Word to a general acceptance in both the popular and the elite minds of the New Religious Synthesis. This shift corresponds “roughly with scientific advances, corrosive biblical criticism, and rising awareness of other faiths on the part of Westerners.”

It reflects a movement into a void created when Christian beliefs and presuppositions were damaged and destroyed by “cultural pluralism, Enlightenment criticism of the Judeo-Christian tradition and the staggering success of modern science.” But there is more than a vacuum being filled: For three centuries there has been a concerted effort to promote and propagate alternative spiritualities, especially in “broadly public settings and through powerful popular media.”

As disparate in appearance, style, and structure as neo-paganism, astrology, holistic thinking, Darwinian evolution, and other systems/spiritualities are, they share essential assumptions and components. These include the belief that history is of little or no value, that reason “is the principal means for human apprehension of spiritual truth,” that science is “both the source and the test of theology,” that physical nature possesses a divine energy or soul, and that secret knowledge ( gnosis) is necessary to progress spiritually. They also include belief in the necessity of spiritual evolution and in the primacy of mysticism in achieving religious pluralism.

These assumptions emerged out of a number of interwoven, complex social and religious developments from 1300 to 1700. These included the spread of gnostic beliefs in parts of Europe, a revived interest in the ancient hermetic tradition, the growth of Kabbalah, and the rise of humanism and biblical criticism in the fifteenth century and following. Herrick examines the influence of the mystic Meister Eckhart and the philosophers Spinoza and Locke. Passing mention is made of the Reformation; more could have been said about it and about the role of nominalism, which is not mentioned at all.

Distrust in the Church, the growth of modern science, and the worship of “Reason” coalesced in the early eighteenth century. This set the stage for the emergence of skeptics and scholars (often one and the same) who brazenly questioned the validity of both the teachings and historical record of the Bible. They also announced that reason and science, not faith and religion, would create a better world and a more spiritually advanced humanity.

Meaningless History

“The Rebirth of Gnosticism” is a very helpful chapter, especially since “the gnostic impulse has been both powerful and persistent in Western religious thought.” Herrick opens with an account of the mass suicide by members of the Heaven’s Gate UFO cult in southern California. Apparently senseless, the suicides followed the twisted, anti-body logic of gnosticism to its evil end. “In its most elemental form,” Herrick notes, “gnosticism is the systematic spiritual effort to escape the confines of history and physical embodiment through secret knowledge ( gnosis) and technique (magic).”

As such, it has manifested itself repeatedly over the centuries: in the teachings of the eighteenth-century Deist Jacob Ilive; the cosmology of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons; the psychoanalytic theories of Carl Jung; the self-help spirituality of Jean Houston; and the science fiction of authors such as L. Ron Hubbard, creator of Scientology. Each of these features an obsession with spiritual elitism and evolution, a dislike for history, a love for mythology, and the elevation of humanity to godhood.

The matter of history and its meaning is a recurring topic, handled adroitly, as when Herrick contrasts the mythological, individualistic perspective of the new spirituality with the objective, critical approach of Christianity. “Should history ground spirituality, as the Revealed Word tradition has insisted?” Herrick asks.

Or should myth, allegory and private spiritual experience—each cut free from external events—provide the basis of our religious commitments? We might say that the advantage and the risk of basing spirituality on history are the same—the possibility of proof and disproof. Vulnerability to historical scrutiny imports openness and candor. When a religious claim can be examined, tested, subjected to critical review, the public being asked to accept the claim is at the very least invited to participate rationally in a process of choice. When, on the other hand, a claim cannot be tested or subjected to any of the ordinary tests of truthfulness, we are left with no recourse but to trust the probity of the claimant.

The Making of the New Spirituality is an analytically superior work, copiously noted, and temperate in tone. The writing is occasionally stilted and repetitive, and some transitions between sections and chapters are awkward. The book’s intermittent attempts at apologetics are not very effective and would be better in a separate volume. However, these criticisms are minor. Herrick has written a valuable book about a vital topic, making it accessible to non-specialists while filling it with plenty of detail for students and scholars.


Carl E. Olson is the author of Will Catholics Be ?Left Behind?? (Ignatius), and co-author, with Sandra Miesel, of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius).

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