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"For a gospel is neither a poet's work of dramatic art, nor an historian's biography of Jesus, but the symbolization of a divine movement that went through the person of Jesus into society and history." Eric Voegelin, The Gospel and Culture
The supposed triumph of an Enlightenment inspired "rationalism" rings hollow as millions of spiritually bereft Americans spend an inordinate amount of time and money seeking truth and wisdom, peace and harmony, the gods or God. To meet this intrinsic need a coterie of teachers, gurus, and compassionate "philosophers" have successfully published a veritable mountain of books describing their blueprint for spiritual "awareness."
The few, and the blessed, find themselves couched with the doyenne of daytime television, Oprah Winfrey, elucidating the "truths" they've discovered in some ancient text that provides the key to "Oneness," while slyly asserting that the first step to peace, bliss and tranquility is the purchase of their latest book.
This rise in spiritualism may be the result of an observed "crisis" in Enlightenment rationalism brought about by the publication of new materials in both sociology and history. The "hegemony of unbelief (atheism)" is being re-examined by scholars working within the context of a postmodern pluralism that now questions the viability of atheism as "the only rational approach to life." A second cause, and perhaps a more important one, is a corresponding disintegration of the orthodox Judeo-Christian worldview.
From the perspective of the Judeo-Christian worldview the primary cause for the rise of these sundry sects is the calcification of dogma and doctrine to the point where transcendent reality is rarely discussed in our more progressive churches and synagogues. When the longing for the primal, pneumatic (spiritual) experience is met with silence from our priests, ministers, and rabbis whose primary concern is social justice, people will search for spiritual verities elsewhere because, as existent and created beings, we are hard wired to seek the transcendent.
The idea that we are "hard wired to seek the transcendent," is rooted in the works of the Greek classicists (Plato and Aristotle) and even in the Pre-Socratics, including Parmenides, Heraclitus and Anaxagorus, though, to be honest we do have the father of materialism, Democritus, to argue the counter claim. Thus, the classical definition of philosophy is man's "responsive pursuit of his questioning unrest to the divine source that has aroused it." Parmenides determined that man's noetic structure, his intellectual ability to engage a reason that exists in the tension between the immanent world reality and the transcendent, allows man to "apperceive the ground of existence," and Anaxagoras discovered the nous "as the intelligible order in the cosmos…" Where nous is mind or intellect but with the caveat that this intellectual inquiry, this philosophical quest, is conditioned by "an intuitive sense of the directional tension of the inquiry," that is the "capacity to seek episteme (knowledge) under the guidance of attraction toward the transcendent."
Consequently, we can see that the classical philosopher is very much a different fellow than our contemporary philosophers. We can also see that the questioning of Enlightenment atheism has given rise to New Age spiritualism.
A new book, Top Secret written by The Jesus Project and Jesus Seminar theologian, Robert M. Price, addresses this phenomenon by detailing the preachments of leading teachers, gurus, and evangelists of various religious and spiritual persuasions. Price seeks to engage in an intellectual objectivity, an effort to "separate the wheat from the chaff," which appears a rather daunting task considering he is dealing with "spiritual system(s)" and therefore with non-existent reality. The most significant critique of Price's work is his application of non-noetic reason, the exclusion of the "divine mystery beyond reason," to a set of specifically pneumatic (spiritual) doctrines. He is placing himself in the intellectually untenable position of those moderns who have made a living ignoring the transcendent.
Confessing that he has "grown" and gained certain "insights" as a result of his inquiries, he also warns that the "misleading, sometimes dangerous, claims often leave the sincere seeker ever and again embittered."
Here, Price is spot on because each one of these New Age gurus engages is sophistry of one form or another.
Specifically, Price covers the following "popular" gurus and their books: Rhonda Byrne, Deepak Chopra, Pema Chodron, Chogyam Trungpa, Eckhart Tolle, Helen Schucman, Marianne Williamson, Wayne Dyer, Neal Donald Walsch, James Redfield, Stepahn A. Hoeller, Timothy Freke, Peter Gandy, Michael Berg, and Joel Osteen, informing his readers that the core doctrine of most of these people is established on the New Thought and New Age belief "that one creates one's own reality."
Certainly, the idea of a self-autonomous reality comes to us from the Hegelian dialectic with its true/false self, second realities, and his rejection of an "open existence (belief in God)" that defined him as the sorcerer who replaced Christ on the Cross and proffers mankind the opportunity to partake of a falsified history and "an eternally damned soul."
Given the grounding of New Age Thought we can see how Price explicates the sundry doctrines while examining the characteristics of these "teachers." Indicative of the author's general treatment is his analysis of the publicly supported New Thought (Age) guru, Wayne Dyer.
"Wayne Dyer," Price writes with certitude, "seems everywhere to confuse metaphor with metaphysics." Dyer, according to Price and to the horror of his PBS epigones, is a pontificator of "techno-gibberish (a great word)" designed to make the unwashed think he has "mastered some 'technology of transformation,' which he has not." Further, Price wonders if Wayne "has ever bothered to check a fact in his life."
And, to sum up his appreciation for Dyer's work, Price writes, "Dyer gets up in front of an audience and makes apodictic assertions about the nature of Reality as if his pantheism were self-evident, needing no justification. He is simply preaching a gospel as if he were Jim Bakker, only one suspects government-funded public television would probably not give Bakker free airtime to do his preaching, as they do Wayne Dyer."
And so it is that the author investigates not only the New Agers and their Eastern inclinations but gnosticism and the wonderful and wacky, Carl Jung, the Jewish Kabbalah embraced by the coy Madonna, and that Evangelical icon of the "name it and claim it" crowd, Joel Osteen, while completing his tome with three essays on cults, the folks who join cults, and why some cults are violent.
However, the reader should keep in mind that while these "teachers" are philosophically and/or spiritually derailed, as Price cleverly illustrates, they are in fact engaged in man's age-old search for God, truth, and order. They are participating in the "quest," answering the primordial need to turn (periagoge) to the horizon. They understand, at least intuitively, that man exists in the tension defined by the poles of the immanent world-reality and the transcendent and while they may have failed, they can try again. Perhaps, someday they will succeed.
Price, on the other hand, seeks to destroy the transcendent pole, Plato's ground of all things-sophia kai nous (Philebus 30c-e)-and reduce man to an existence that is less than human. His philosophical derailment, his egophanic (defiant self-assertion, claiming independence from a transcendent ground) revolt, appears predicated on a disbelief in the communion of Reason and existential phila, "between Reason and openness toward the ground," which is, unfortunately, the common cause of the breakdown of philosophy in the West, not to mention the cause of a great deal of anxiety.
Never-the-less, Top Secret succeeds as an objective analysis of the contemporary cult phenomenon, given the caveat that while Price's doctoral dissertations were centered on religion and specifically Christianity, one will be hard pressed to find him participating in Sunday services at your run-of-the-mill, orthodox, Protestant church, and certainly not at any Evangelical or Fundamentalist house of worship. And, to his credit, he is direct and honest concerning his apostasy as well as his disdain for hand waving, spirit-filled Christians.
Price is an interesting, well read, and entertaining writer who can explicate metaphysical concepts, New Age juju, and systematically deconstruct Christianity, with a decided vigor and enthusiasm. He is an accomplished prose writer, a master of wit, humor, and the occasional acerbic comment. Any writer who can artfully combine the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Immanuel Kant, Immanuel Velikovsky, and Sigmund Freud and do so with panache has captured my attention.
© 2008 Robert C. Cheeks
Robert Cheeks is a freelance writer living in Ohio. His recent work has appeared in Philosophy Now, The University Bookman, Crisis, Touchstone, and The South Carolina Review.