ACCORDING TO our local futurologist, Noel Turnbull, who has just written a book on what life in Australia will be like beyond 2000, the next century is going to be characterised by a mixture of “amazing technology and mysticism”.

Signs of a growth of interest in mysticism are certainly all around. Major book chains have well-stocked sections on alternative spirituality while most small towns have their own New Age shop. Not far from where I live is the small community of Everton, home to the largest New Age festival in Australia that takes place very year at Christmas. What accounts for this boom in New Age spirituality that is a feature of life in Britain and North America as well as Australia?

One of the best commentators on the movement, Paul Heelas of Lancaster University, believes it is at least partly a response to the declining importance of tradition in modern society. People have ceased to be content to follow in their parents’ footsteps and to inherit their attitudes and beliefs. Identity is no longer handed on to us, ready made. We are all trying to work out who we are, ceaselessly inventing ourselves and re-inventing ourselves.

The result of all this is the therapeutic society and what Christopher Lasch labelled “the culture of narcissism”. The emphasis is on finding personal fulfilment and inner peace. New Age religions appear to fit this need perfectly.

Other factors have undoubtedly played a part in the growth of the movement. Many New Age ideas have been around for a long time and we need to be aware of the significance of an organisation like the Theosophical Society and of a long tradition of alternative spirituality in western society.

Science fiction, Jungian psychology and many other aspects of modern culture have contributed their quota to what is in fact a vast collage of New Age beliefs. The rapid rise in drug use since the 1960s has helped produce a widespread hunger for any kind of spiritual “high” or exotic experience.

Modern science has encourage New Age growth in a number of ways. Developments like the cloning of Dolly fan apocalyptic fears about the future (bound to rise as the year 2000 approaches) while the claims of scientists like Paul Davies to have discovered some kind of a God or purpose behind the universe coupled with their refusal to accept an orthodox Christian understanding of this God have left a void which New Age teachers are only too happy to fill. Fears of the impact of modern technology on the environment and the spread of the Green Movement have also been a big influence.

In Australia an important factor stimulating the development of alternative forms of spirituality has been the growing sympathy of many Australians for Aboriginal religion and culture. In an important study called Edge of the Sacred, David J. Tracy, who teaches English at La Trobe University, has claimed that the future will be “gnostic, not theological”.

He sees Australia poised between two worlds: a Eurocentric patriarchal and largely British past and a future that will be more Asian, Middle Eastern and inspired by indigenous culture. At the same time he warns his fellow Australians against stereotyping the Aboriginals and foisting spiritual projections on them.

“We have given over to Aboriginals our own unconscious soul, and stand bereft, disempowered, impoverished,” he writes. “We have become the sad-sack, down-in-the-mouth alienated ego, and they the very personification of the sacred, vibrantly and organically connected with nature and bonded with the spirit of the earth.”

Sociologists are likely to tell us that the rise of the New Age represents a further development in the trend towards the privatisation of religion that is such an important feature of secularisation. They are also likely to point to the growing stress on individualism and the disillusion with institutions like the churches that is so apparent in Western society.

Perhaps the big question orthodox Christians need to ask is whether the growth of New Age spirituality is a sign of our failure to help people interpret personal religious experience and integrate it in a mature way into their lives. Surveys suggest that as many as two-thirds of the population in both Australia and Britain claim to have felt close to some kind of spiritual power. According to a summary of evidence accumulated by the Alister Hardy Research Centre at Oxford “a large number of people today possess a deep awareness of a benevolent non-physical power which appears to be partly or wholly beyond, and far greater, than the individual self.”

As the influence of orthodox Christianity grows weaker, many people are likely to give their own eccentric interpretation drawn from TV programmes like The X Files or popular New Age books to an experience that takes the form of a rather vague awareness of what Hardy termed a “transcendental reality”.

According to most commentators the number of New Age followers is not large, probably no more than 80,000 in Britain, for example. Yet what should alarm the churches is the way in which New Age beliefs appear to be influencing their members. The American literary critic and self-proclaimed gnostic Harold Bloom, has called Catholic feminists the “authentic shock troops of the New Age”.

One of the best sections of Damian Thompson’s recent book on the millennium The End of Time is that in which he draws parallels between New Age followers and the extreme fringe of the Pentecostal movement. In both there is the same emphasis on experience, the same obsession with spirits, mediums and prophecies, the same quest for healing and wholeness, the same apocalyptic fears for the future, the same readiness to give power and control to charismatic figures and the same rejection of institutional authority and tradition.

Paul Richardson is Bishop of Wangaratta in the Province of Victoria.