Manifold Wisdom: The Churches’ Ministry in the New Age

Written by Wesley Carr Reviewed By John Drane

There is no shortage of Christian books on the New Age movement. Many denounce it as misguided and demonic, but Wesley Carr is more circumspect, and readily admits to having a love-hate relationship with the New Age. While he draws back from blanket denunciations of it as ‘easy and usually misplaced’, he affirms that ‘uncritical association is syncretistic’ (p. 56), and rejects some of its basic assumptions: ‘New Age … is inadequate because of its inherent optimism about human nature, its uncritical endorsement of norms of autonomy, and its confused trivializing of serious wrong by making the individual the key to the solution or manipulation of unknown powers as the way out [of the present world crisis]’ (p. 132).

The purpose of the book is—as its title suggests—not primarily to describe and evaluate the New Age movement. This is both a strength and a weakness. Those who are as well informed as the author obviously is will find here some incisive insights into selected aspects of New Age thinking. But I wonder how many ordinary working pastors, who are the intended readers, will be able to grasp all the nuances of the argument. Those who know little or nothing about the New Age may well be left wondering why such an apparently disconnected collection of abstract ideas should be taken as seriously as Carr insists.

It would be a pity if this somewhat diffuse approach deterred some readers, for the central focus of the book is very positive and practical. Namely, how can we communicate the Christian gospel to people whose basic world view is that of the New Age? The answer centres around the consideration of three items from the New Age agenda: spirituality, human potential, and the environment. In brief, Carr emphasizes the importance of ‘exploring the being of God’ (p. 77) and rediscovering a sense of the numinous through worship in general, and the sacraments in particular.

His comparison of worship with the needs that motivate people to seek therapy opens up many creative possibilities for evangelism among New Agers, as also does his emphasis on evangelism as an openness to and networking within the larger community. In the process, he engages helpfully with some of the themes of sin and blessing that have been emphasized in the work of the Dominican Matthew Fox (whom some would identify as a New Ager himself), arguing persuasively that ‘we have to grasp what sin would mean in a tontext of wisdom rather than in that of law and grace’ (p, 104).

For evangelism to be effective today, we need to grapple with all these questions—and more. For one major issue in New Age spirituality seems to be avoided altogether here: namely, the channeling of spirit guides and extra-terrestrial entities as a way of gaining access to cosmic wisdom. New Agers unreservedly believe in the supernatural, whereas western Christians (evangelicals included) are generally more hesitant. I kept wondering what a New Ager would make of Carr at this point. For he often seems to be reformulating the old reductionist/rationalist/materialist assumptions of traditional western culture—the rejection of which is the starting point for New Age thinking—rather than engaging with this crucial aspect of spiritual awareness.

Nevertheless, this is a good book which I would wish to commend. Readers who know little of the New Age should consult something more descriptive before tackling it. Those who are not white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants should make some allowance for a book that is very Anglican, and very English (Carr is Dean of Bristol, England—and it shows). And all of us will wonder how a paperback book with only 144 pages—and on one of the best-selling topics of our decade—can possibly cost £9.99.

John Drane

University of Aberdeen