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The Revealed Word, or Eclipse of the New Religious Synthesis

James A. Herrick, The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition. Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2003. Pp. 331. ISBN: 978-0-8308-3279-8

[1] Significant discoveries following the growth of Indo-European philology in the eighteenth century, particularly awareness of the linguistic antiquity of Sanskrit, and the secular origins of language (or discovery of language) have largely displaced ancient beliefs concerning the primordial Hebrew revelations delivered by God in Eden. As a result, the unilateral transmission of sacred language and revealed authority is now widely rejected in the scientific study of religion as well as cultural contexts beyond the Western Academy. To illustrate the undying evangelical spirit, or fundamentals, of the Christian revelation, however, one would be hard pressed to find a better example than James A. Herrick, professor of Communication at Hope College.

[2] Published by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship campus ministry, a home-grown branch established in America prior to the Second World War as an active student movement at hundreds of universities and colleges in America with a mission to equip and encourage people to follow Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord in all of Life, with sister movements in Great Britain and an affiliate of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students, Herricks The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition laments the modern New Religious Synthesis, or the Other Spirituality. Standing in total opposition to a mystical movement he traces to spiritual communities as far back as the Middle Ages is the Revealed Word.

[3] It is true that the various movements generating Herricks eclectic New Religious Synthesis share many differing characteristics, but all reject the letter of the law. The Other Spirituality is not simply limited to scriptural transcendence, indeed, the correlative element of this cultural pluralism is expressed in conjunction with mystical experience; how else could this cult manifest in the presence of such doctrinally diverse

movements as those analyzed by Herrick? In its programmatic refusal to be organized with canonical dogmas or articulate itself through any fixed range of myths and symbols, the New Religious Synthesis instead cultivates a network of communication for a cultic milieu which exists as a threat on the peripheries of society. The pluralistic paradigm regulating this New Religious Synthesis serves to place this cognitive domain in contrast to other historical and culturally specific modes of understanding ones subjective experiences and internalization of external authority, such as the Revealed Word.

[4] Related to the discrediting of scriptural revelation, modern preoccupation with ones inner voice as a source of knowledge and the concomitant rejection of tradition occupies a prominent position in the European adventure. Renaissance humanism and Enlightenment rationalism both in their own way value ones individual autonomy, or utilitarian individualism, and distinctly human role as freethinkers (les libertines). Romantics, too, embody this notion through the artistic and creative merits of expressive individualism. Indeed, a number of sociologists of religion since Durkheim have in various ways summarized the religion of modernity as giving rise to the cult of the individual. For well over thirty years now scholars in a range of disciplines from sociology to political theory have emphasized modern trends of secularization in terms of their influence upon such notions as cultural values, norms, morals, human subjectivity, and personhood. Terms and phrases such as cultural narcissism, psychologization, privatization, triumph of the therapeutic, ascent of psychological man, etc. have all been employed in various contexts to underline a basic problem in the institutional segmentation of modern society. These expressions imply a concept of culture linked with political economy, and politics linked with self.

[5] The logic of this cultural production is ironically connected to the pious and individualistic trends discovered in the history of Christianity, specifically the innerworldly attitude of Protestant theologians who sought liberation from the sacramental control of the church. Following the de-institutionalization, or laicization, of religion in the wake of the Protestant reformation and the erosion of external, ritualistic,

and papal authority, evident everywhere from eighteenth century Europe to the commonwealths of New England, the modern form of invisible religion celebrated the self-ethic of epistemological individualism, or individual mysticism. As the new orthodoxy for our age, then, giving faith to the divine potential lying withinif only waiting to be discoveredGod is displaced for the deification of Human Nature.

[6] A variety of mystical beliefs, magical practices, occult phenomenon, commercialized consciousness-expanding enterprises, networks of subjectivisms, etc., enter powerrelations with the Revealed Word and are taken up by participants of the New Religious Synthesis who believe that external voices of authority have inevitably been internalized as the ego through a process of socialization and individualization. Their commitment to the self as an autonomous locus of authority also implies the possibility of liberation from social conditioning, but the realization of self-responsibility, that is, the underlying belief that knowledge lies within, leads to an awareness that it is only ones own self who is responsible for self-knowledge. It is precisely this narcissistic preoccupation with the self which stands in contrast to the Christian doctrine of original sin. To understand the importance of this dogma one only needs to recall that between 1659 and 1661 no less than four members of the Quaker movement were hanged on Boston Commons for their heretical belief that Christ is found in some Inner Light guiding believers.

[7] In the Anglican context of colonial New England and the once newly revealed gospel of Jesus Christ, Christianity was less about systematic theology as it was the struggles of Pilgrims to provide a literalist interpretation of the Holy Bible and distance themselves from the Church of England. The sinfulness of the flesh, the dualism of spirit and matter and the separation between the individual and God, the innate sinfulness of human nature, the doctrine of predestination and the belief that all souls were eternally condemned to either heaven or hell, the belief that the grace of Jesus the only Son of the God of the United Kingdom of Israel and Judah was the only way of salvation, and faith in the infallible word of God as revealed in the Holy Bible, were all part of the ideological consensus and Puritanical high culture of early America.

[8] It would take less than 100 years before the emergence of American religion could be defined with the same fervent emotionalism and mindless enthusiasm which had once led orthodox Anglicans to dismiss as fanatics the entire gamut of Protestant sects, including Presbyterians, Baptists, and Congregationalists, which lay outside the established Church of England. With good reason, scholars of religion in America often characterize the years 1720-1750 as a time of Great Awakening. Starting with the Yale graduate and charismatic Protestant theologian Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), the decentralized and individualistic trends of evangelical Christianity contributed to the rise of American nationalism and the liberal sociopolitical ideology leading to the American Revolution.

[9] Fundamentalist interpretations of scripture and upholding authority of the Christian revelation, however, have found new ways of institutionalizing hierarchical bureaucracy. In the twenty years between 1965 and 1985 the movement of millions of Americans into strict evangelical and ultraconservative Pentecostal sects occurred with the rapid growth of local parish churches, extra-denominational organizations, and decentralized denominations. The growth of megachurches in the twenty-first century demonstrates that established traditions of the Revealed Word and regulated hierarchies of authority have not entirely diminished from modern life. With well over 60 million Fundamentalist Christians in the United States alone, moreover, the endurance of this phenomenon distinguishes it from passing new religious movements in America.

[10] There is at least one additional element worth noting of the New Religious Synthesis. Specifically, as a result of the self-help brand of authority on offer, no one person can corner the market on truth. In fact, the pluralistic mysticism of the Other Spirituality would seem to not only imply that no one group can profess the truth, but also all insights are said to be valid recognitions of some vaguely defined means of self-knowledge. So why, Herrick asks, would any devout lamb of God follow the pluralistic path into the new millennium as good faith partners in a quest for the transcendent unity of all spirituality and, thus, reduce the Messiah as God in human form to one among many participants in the mystic vision, a prophet among prophets? For Herrick, the choice is a stark one:

Jesus Christ as the single divine redeemer of a lost human race or Jesus as one among many spirit people seeking to express the inexpressible (277-279). Furthermore, the grace of Christ is purported to save all people from every tongue, tribe, and nation.

[11] Herricks most important point, however, may be emphasized in terms of the fact that if ones true nature is limited and finite then there is no amount of action which could change this fact. Change implies limitation on both sides of the preceding and succeeding conditions, and there is certainly no mystical experience that could accommodate this realization. As Herrick explains, mysticism and union with God is the inherent core of the Other Spirituality. This view clashes with the Revealed Words account of the earliest encounter between humans and the divine. In the Garden of Eden, says Herrick, humanity indeed entered an intimate relationship with a sovereign God, but that intimate relationship was, however, ruined through a disastrous fall into sin, a possibility that mystical experience cannot accommodate (279). Christian believers, unlike followers of the Other Spirituality, accept that they are limited and sinful beings, but are able to be saved through Gods sacrifice of his son Jesus.

[12] God entered human history in the bodily flesh of Jesus Christ, an event incapable of duplication and logically restrained from ever having an equivalent event, even if the logic cannot presently be comprehended: Why would God recognize another universal and ultimately sufficient sacrifice for human sin having recognized this one? (278-279). Put differently from another equally valid perspective, why wouldnt he? As a matter of fact, how could the blood of any sacrifice absolve one from sin and damnation? Similarly, the logic of Herricks additional proposals may be called into question. In spite of these logical inconsistencies, or articles of faith, as Herrick warns, one must make no doubt about the fact that Christianity requires a unique claim to truth (278). As he notes, a foundational claim of Christianity is that the first human temptation was to obtain a forbidden knowledge that would make them like God. Left to our own devices along the mystical path of the new way, Herrick says, we are again tempted to proclaim our own divinity. Herrick finds the absurdity of this notion to be obvious and suggests the spiritual

destruction of this path will be quickly learnt when one discovers the undeniable facts of human limitations. We are valuable, but we are nevertheless fallen creatures.

[13] If there is any merit to Herricks study then it must be viewed in light of the missionary goals of its publishers. Herrick has not really provided any useful contributions to the history of ideas and his portrayal of European thought is too general and his account of the Other Spirituality too disconnected to even support his underlying thesis. Nevertheless, The Making of the New Spirituality: The Eclipse of the Western Religious Tradition was acknowledged as one of Preaching magazine's 2004 "Top Ten Books Every Preacher Should Read," as well as listed as a 2004 Evangelical Christian Publishers Association (ECPA) Gold Medallion Finalist. Aside from the obvious shortcomings of this study for use in the Western Academy, which is no doubt a result of the ideological bias directed towards its target audience, Herrick may be commended for the attempt to ground his work in support of the Revealed Word.

[14] Of course, Herricks theological study is far too methodologically nave to warrant any attention in the field of Religious Studies. Even while creating a homogenous textualized body of data for their object of analysis, scholars of religionmany of whom prefer to view themselves as naturalists instead of theologiansmay perceive problems with privileging the revelatory dimension of human experience at the expense of science. The overriding problem with Herricks analysis is that it lacks sufficient theorization to support the claims offered on behalf of the Revealed Word, that is, there is very little theoretical account or even discussion of scripture and Christian hermeneutics.

[15] Further analysis in this regard would seem inevitable following the hermeneutics of suspicion towards the end of the nineteenth century and the constructivist paradigm which gained further popularity in the work of post-structuralist and postmodernist critics. Starting from a nave assumption of one-to-one correspondence between sign and referent, Saussurean linguistics refutes the existence of any extramental reality a given word may reveal. Significantly, however, dispelling the mythic correspondence between

signifiers and signifieds does not imply any anti-representational or constructivist stance whereby literature or language refers to no reality outside itself. Due to the predominance of post-structuralism in the field of postcolonial studies, for instance, ethno-critical theorists are in fact beginning to find opportunities to challenge the Eurocentric nature of this approach when applied to indigenous traditions reliant upon ancestor lineages and revealed knowledge. On the other hand, I suspect the inherent lack of any scriptural pedagogy provided by the Christian tradition and its overall dependence on faith and belief are also accountable for Herricks failure to further theorize the Revealed Word.

[16] Aside from such rhetorical and pious ploys, however, Herrick does have a legitimate argument: Christs redemptive life and death must remain unique for Christianity to substantiate its foundational claims (278-279). Ones means of knowledge must be appropriate to their object of knowledge. Satisfied with the limited nature of his existence and his dualistic relationship with God, Herricks reluctance to join up with the pilgrims searching together along a mystical path for something they cannot even express is also perfectly understandable. Given the dualistic revelation of Christ, moreover, Herrick is correct that it would be totally inappropriate to count the Messiah as one among many gurus. Indeed, we are compelled to ask, why would anyone who upholds faith or belief in the ontological distinction between spirit and matter or the epistemological limitations of knowledge in relation to the individual and God, as revealed in the Holy Bible and the infallible Word of God or interpreted by Christian theologians, and who understands themselves as sinful creatures predestined for a heavenly afterlife graced by the blood of Jesus or else damned to hell, possess the slightest interest in traditional authority, or even New Religious Synthesis, derived from the revelation of non-duality, and vice versa? Whats at stake here is not simply a critique of particular religious movements or idiosyncrasies of modern gurus, but rather a power struggle of cultural worldviews.

Travis Webster

Copyright 2011 Travis Webster, Vedanta Shala-Center For Traditional Vedanta