Intellectual Integrity in New Age

center of labyrinth
At the center of a labyrinth

It seems fitting that the first entry for this blog should address the reason why I have decided to start it in the first place. I am a public historian. For the past seven years I have worked in history museums, curating exhibits and developing public programs. These days I spend less time conducting research and more time teaching methodology and critical thinking. I am also a self-described gnostic who was raised in the New Age movement. More specifically, I was raised in a New Thought household and attended “church” at a Center for Spiritual Living. Over the years I have incorporated other philosophies into my own cosmology – theosophy, Gnosticism, Neopaganism, and ancestral magic. I don’t hide my occult interests, but I’m also aware of the reputation that New Age culture has of being shallow and anti-intellectual. I think to an extent that this reputation is justifiable, and yet I still actively incorporate these philosophies into my own life. And so, I began to reflect on what it is like to navigate between the world of professional research and the transcendent experiences of daily spiritual practice and ritual.

The inspiration for this blog came from a moment of synchronicity. I found myself one November morning reviewing an old research paper I wrote in graduate school.  I thought it would help me get into the mindset of someone learning how to conduct research for the first time. The research paper in question was about the Theosophical Society and Hindu nationalism in nineteenth century colonial India. That same day a new episode of The Positive Head Podcast was released, in which the host, Brandon Beochum, interviewed Sevan Bomar, the founder of the online metaphysical academy, Secret Energy. This episode was billed by the podcast as Sevan Bomar revealing the, “untold historical insights pertaining to the ancient Tamil language.”[i] Tamil, of course, is a language and ethnic group in Southern India. So with caution and curiosity I listened to Bomar’s epiphany.

What followed was Sevan Bomar’s ahistorical theory about the origins of racism, which jumbles together Biblical narrative, Tamil nationalism,[ii] and Max Mueller’s theory about the origins of mythology and language.[iii] According to Sevan Bomar human civilization began on the lost continent of Lemuria. It was there that a great “Indus Valley culture”[iv] thrived and everyone spoke Tamil. Then the great Deluge of Genesis occurred. God, “a Germanic king”[v], and the Sumerians confused the Brahmins of ancient India and translated sacred texts from Tamil to Sanskrit.  The Sumerian civilization was, in turn, a corruption of the original Indus Valley culture.  Bomar states, “[The Sumerians were] fleeing over into another territory with all this symbolism, the long beards, and trying to create their own religion out of somebody else’s. In this case all of our original knowledge.”[vi] These corruptions, according to Bomar, have led to our perceived differences and the spread of racism. So how do we conquer racism? By learning and deciphering Tamil.

 

“This is everyone that ever was on the planet. All was speaking this one tongue. And when we got routed after the Deluge and after the wars this tongue was lost. And it has been perpetual that we would never speak this language again because it resonates with us. See all the languages were built off of it, so when we know the original it’s like having the master cypher….”[vii]

 

I don’t want to get caught in the weeds deconstructing the fallacies of Sevan Bomar’s argument, which contradict the academic disciplines of geography, comparative religion, linguistics, history, and archaeology. But I will say this – sloppily constructing a false history about the origins of racism will not dismantle it. It enables it. If you want to conquer modern racism in America, start by acknowledging its well-documented origins during the sixteenth to nineteenth centuries, when Europeans (read white folks) colonized the world.[viii] [ix] Then take a critical look at its legacy and the hegemony of whiteness,[x] followed by practical and personal steps to re-center systems and narratives of power to marginalized communities. In my own profession, this means retelling history from the perspectives of the colonized rather than the colonizers.

I don’t think New Age culture has to forfeit intellectual accountability for spiritual practice. And actually, practitioners can have a richer and more stable spiritual life by incorporating serious scholarship in either the social or hard sciences. I incorporate magic into my life through ritual and meditation because there is a deep healing and bliss that comes from intentional introspection. There’s an intimacy with silently sitting with my own joys, hopes, doubts, and discomforts. Grounding my spiritual practice in social history allows me to be a more empathetic and pragmatic individual, and that ultimately allows me to be of better service to those around me. And I’m not alone in exploring the intersection of New Age spirituality and intellectual integrity.

At the 2018 Gnostic America conference at Rice University in Houston, Texas, PEN-award winning journalist and historian Mitch Horowitz gave a presentation titled, The New Age of Gnosticism.[xi] Horowitz self-identifies as a New Ager and sees both classical Gnosticism and contemporary New Age as ecumenical and anti-hierarchical spiritualties. And like me, Horowitz is concerned about the current state of New Age culture. According to him, New Age largely has failed to produce academic centers with serious intellectual inquiry, with the exception of the Edgar Cayce Center and the Theosophical Society of America. New Age has been so successful of cultivating a culture that flees from any sort of structure that New Age itself experiences a lack of accountability. This has made it an easy target to criticism from non-practitioners. On one hand, that criticism is valid, as with my example of Sevan Bomar. On the other hand, those same critics have failed to do the necessary field work in order to understand the role New Age plays for many Americans as a philosophical and ethical discipline as a conduct of life. “If someone sees a moment in which a transcendent experience shifted one state of being into another, then what we see is a testimony to that philosophy as it is experienced in another person’s life.”[xii]

Horowitz concludes his presentation by calling on critics of New Age to get closer to the people who participate in it in order to understand the value it brings to their personal lives. To the New Age movement itself, he calls for it to, “take seriously the crisis of intelligent inquiry”[xiii] and encourages the movement to produce its own “public interlocutors”[xiv] to defend it.

This gnostic witch heeds that call.

 

 

[i] Beachum, Brandon, and Sevan Bomar. “Pal-Wow with Innerverse Keymaker Sevan Bomar.” Positive Head Podcast (podcast), October 31, 2018. Accessed November 1, 2018. positivehead.com.
[ii] Ramaswamy, Sumathi. “Catastrophic Cartographies: Mapping the Lost Continent of Lemuria.” Representations, no. 67 (1999): 92-129. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2902888.
[iii] Müller, Friedrich Max. 1891. “Lecture 1. How to Study Physical Religion.” The Gifford Lectures. Accessed February 3, 2015. http://www.giffordlectures.org/books/physical-religion/lecture-1-how-study-physical-religion
[iv] Beachum, Brandon, and Sevan Bomar. “Pal-Wow with Innerverse Keymaker Sevan Bomar.” Positive Head Podcast (podcast), October 31, 2018. Accessed November 1, 2018. positivehead.com.
[v] ibid
[vi] ibid
[vii] ibid
[viii] Greene, Jack P., and Philip D. Morgan, eds. Atlantic History: A Critical Appraisal. Oxford: University Press, 2011.
[ix] Davis, David Brion. Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
[x] Berlak, Ann. “CHAPTER TWO: Challenging the Hegemony of Whiteness by Addressing the Adaptive Unconscious.” Counterpoints 321 (2008): 47-66. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42979958.
[xi] Horowitz, Mitch. “The New Age of Gnosticism.” Speech, Gnostic America Conference, Rice University, Houston, March 29, 2018. March 30, 2018. Accessed November 05, 2018. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nLUd7quAHHg.
[xii] ibid
[xiii] ibid
[xiv] ibid

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