ROBERT W. BROCKWAYTHE ROOTS OF NEW AGE
In like manner, many of the New Age now turn to Chinese martial arts and tai chi or to meditation techniques such as yoga. All such practices are assimilated to a theosophy which is very much like Gnosticism, if not descended from Gnosticism itself. There is therefore little or nothing that is new in New Age. We have seen it all before.
Where is all of this headed?. None can say, of course, but increasingly one hears commentators remark that the quests of the twentieth century are giving way to the spirituality of the twenty-first. If so, then there might be something to the label, Age of Aquarius.
Once again, parallels are helpful. During the Hellenistic and Roman eras, as mentioned, there was first a proliferation of salvationist mystery religions in response to growing psychic discomfort. These were absorbed into and superseded by Christianity in the West and Islam in the Near East. What did these religions have which the mystery religions did not? The chief difference was the imposition of structure: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are highly organized, while the diverse and inchoate esoteric religions, though often doctrinally not very different from the three world religions, were not.
The rise of Christianity and Islam, and also that of rabbinical Judaism, were not altogether happy developments. Christianity underwent transformation from a mystery religion like others when the Emperor Constantine embraced it, and it became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Its doctrines were explicitly defined in the Nicene Creed and others by assemblies of bishops who wielded authority backed by that of the state. The beliefs became dogmas, and the authorities ruthlessly excluded alternative interpretations of the Christian scriptures.
Christianity thus organized these beliefs and doctrines, many of which were shared with the esoterics, into a formal body called the “Church,” meaning the body of believers. In that way Christianity persisted into our own time. The same has been true of Judaism, thanks to the rabbinical tradition, and of Islam, thanks to the walis (judges), ulema (courts of judges), and ijma, the consensus of the Moslem community. It was Gnostic to repudiate and reject structure and codification, and so Gnosticism perished in the ancient world, as did the mystery religions and paganism in general.
Had the Gnostics triumphed over orthodoxy, the history of the Christian Church would have been very different. Instead of the emergence of a hierarchical Church based on the authority of bishops and priests, there would have been small communities of Christians, each with its own professions: no defining creeds, no authoritative Scriptures since immediate experience superseded all else, in brief, a religious situation in Europe very like that of India and China. Instead of one dominant religion there would have been many religious groups.
At the present time, the New Age is filling the gap caused by the decline of Christianity and the loss of certainty for many, but because, like ancient Gnosticism, it lacks structure and definition, it is not likely to meet these needs