Theory to distinguish between Religion, a Religion and Spiritualities

Wouter Hanegraaff:

Let me begin by pointing out clearly that my book title “New Age religion” in no way means that I consider New Age to be a religion. Religion I propose to define very precisely as

any symbolic system that influences human action by providing possibilities for ritually maintaining contact between the everyday world and a more general meta-empirical framework of meaning.

New Age provides such a symbolic system and can be seen as religion in these terms. As I have argued elsewhere, religion in this sense can take concrete form in “a religion” (plural: religions) or in “a spirituality” (plural: spiritualities. Please note that I never use the word “spirituality” in the singular). We can speak of a religion if the symbolic system I just referred to is embodied in a social institution. Spiritualities, in contrast, can be defined as

any human practice that maintains contact between the everyday world and a more general meta-empirical framework of meaning by way of the individual manipulation of symbolic systems.

I cannot go here into the implications of this threefold definition. For my present purposes, the important thing is that New Age, according to this approach, is not a religion because it is not embodied in a social institution. It does, however, qualify as “religion”, and it manifests itself as a multiplicity of individual “spiritualities”. This theoretical framework allows us to see the essential difference between the secular esotericism of New Age and the traditional esotericism of before the 18th century. Traditional esotericism did produce “spiritualities”, but such spiritualities were always grounded in a religion, such as  Christianity (or more specifically, Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism), Judaism, and so on. For example, the 17th-century theosopher Jacob Böhme developed a spirituality of his own, which not only qualifies as Journal of Alternative Spiritualities and New Age Studies religion but was also grounded in a religion: the Lutheranism in which he had been raised. Compare this with, for example, the extremely important but still badly neglected figure of Jane Roberts (channeller of the Seth-messages and, in my opinion, one of the most important religious innovators in Western culture after the second world war): she likewise developed a spirituality of her own, but this one was no longer grounded in any religion. We find here a constellation typical of New Age religion generally: New Age religion consists of multiple individual spiritualities that are rooted not in the soil of any religion, but in the soil of a non-religious secular society.


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