Elitism of the New Age

Barbra Streisand -- fresh from a jaw-tightening, swathed in a huge turtleneck sweater -- informed us last week on Oprah, that (suitable blushing) she could not bear flowers on the outside of her house that did not match the decor inside her house. She likes to look out of her rooms and see a lovely long sweep of burgundy and green, the same burgundy and green that covers her sofa and walls. I have to say that I feel exactly the same way.

And that she hates the colour orange. Well, I like orange quite a lot, but Babs dislikes it so much that once, after her gardener had planted orange mums on the terrace outside her pink New York bedroom, she had to close the curtains - - spare a thought here for the abuse heaped on the poor gardener -- only to open them the very next day to see they had faded to pale pink and blue, which matched her room exactly!

She called Deepak Chopra to ask what had happened. Clearly she thought some divine hand had been at work or she wouldn't have called the guru to the stars. Deepak told her that indeed, divinity was at work, and that divinity was her! Some people, said Chopra who has made a fine living from feeding celebrities guff, have such a strong will that the universe orders itself to their liking.

Barbra Steisand is so special that she had no trouble believing that. But quite a lot of other people do too. That we are divinity, encased for a time in human flesh, is the treasured feeling of almost every Westerner under the age of 50 who isn't devoted entirely to science and reason, and quite a few who are. Some think they are particularly, particularly special, the Elect in fact. Like who? Like Madonna, who, along with quite a few other stars, studies Kabbalah. Kabbalah isn't a splinter form of worship either. In Judaism, quite a few (not all) think Kabbalah is a doctrine of superior profundity and purity reserved solely for a small number of the elect.

Madonna is very, very special too, possibly even more special than Barbra. Which is why her smile has turned to a kind of benevolent rictus whenever she is in public. She has, that glare promises, something very important to impart to us, one day, when she is quite, quite ready, quite advanced enough on her very special path to become who she really is: a minor deity. She is already worshipped. She wants power. Of course. Like Babs. Who feels that really, a silly press, a few spoilsports, perhaps a conspiracy or two and George W. Bush are the only impediments to a nice long stay in the White House. Just you wait for Hillary. Payback time. Lots of Barbra, all the time. And really things will be so much better. For one thing, the outside will co-ordinate with the inside.

Who can blame these people for thinking like this? We're the ones who pant after them, throw our hands in the air when they ask us to and sway back and forth under them like mad puppets. We are a bit promiscuous though. Deities proliferate like pre-Yahweh bunnies. There are a million new religions on the Internet, some fool counted them recently, and most of them have to do with this very strong feeling that somehow there are gods striding the Earth. There are gods (us) and then there are gods (Britney, Barbra, Madonna, Richard Gere, Tom Cruise, etc.) These gods of ours are the ones who have mastered life on earth and made it what we want it to be: an endless parade of goodies, praise, shopping, adoration, sensual pleasure and lovely warm feelings. As George Bernard Shaw put it: "We must replace the Man with the Superman." Genetic manipulation anyone? How about sperm from the Dalai Lama and an egg from Madonna? A little fiddling in the lab and we have the new Christ! Bring it on!

The New Religious Synthesis, as some call it, is not that new. It's been around for a very long time, and reaches back, in Western culture, all the way to the Middle Ages, to the Free Spirits, young vagabonds who preached free love, mystical union with God and the rejection of conventional morality in the 13th and 14th centuries. Sound familiar? The Free Spirits believed, as we all apparently do, that spirituality is merely the exaltation of our own rational self- awareness, "the divinity operating within us" as deist Peter Annet put it. Smells like narcissism to me, self-adoration, mixed with ruthless self- interest masquerading as liberation. Shamans help. Unscrupulous packagers of "ancient wisdom" like Chopra help. Drugs help a lot.

Only an elite can understand the "mystery of darkness" and the "profound philosophy" that allows the "Majestic Intellect" to escape mundane existence and even history itself, thought Thomas de Quincey, the princeling who made opium classy. Contrast this with Christ who prayed, "I thank you Father, Lord of Heaven and Earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and revealed them to infants."

Here, in this one prayer is the foundation of democracy and freedom. Sociologist Rodney Stark argues that Christianity succeeded in replacing the brutalism of the pagan past and its competing, narcissistic and angry gods with Christian mercy and charity because of its message of equality under God. Cultural chaos, ethnic diversity and its blazing hatreds were all trumped by an impartial God who was, as Acts said, "no respecter of persons."

Contrast this with the elitism of the New Age. Shaman, spirit guides, teaching angels, alien visitors all have divine messages for the special among us, delivered via a new class of seers, prophets, and magical scientists. Little wonder that we can't see evil when it appears, fully armoured and devious as the Devil himself, right in front of us.