Art by Loretta Weeks

“The world is growing more complex, everything is changing fast, so to perceive the true nature of things with our judgment and to assimilate them quickly is essential.”
—Myong Ji Sumim (Buddhist monk),
Dharma Zen Center

There’s a moment in Martin Scorsese’s 1991 remake of Cape Fear when psycho-stalker Robert De Niro tells a terrified Nick Nolte with a smirk that he’s spent years in jail getting in touch with his “soft, nurturing . . . feminine side” — a perversion, no doubt, of the simpering Sensitive New Age Guy lingo of the time. While De Niro’s character was light-years removed from New Age thought, its influence had penetrated Hollywood’s prison walls and beyond, and is currently manifest in mainstream pop culture, with market-driven self-help gurus and celebrity dilettantes like Madonna and Courtney Love espousing a kind of empty, consumer New Agey–ness. With out-of-context cut-and-paste fragments from sacred traditions and various religions, they project the appearance of having something deep happening, something other than tedious self-worship. Renowned religious/literary critic Harold Bloom muses that nowadays the New Age is a naive goof: “An endlessly entertaining saturnalia of ill-defined yearnings . . . whose origins are an old mixture of occultism and American Harmonial faith suspended about halfway between feeling good and good feeling.”

As we draw minute by minute toward century’s and millennium’s end, Bloom isn’t the only major spiritual philosopher to think this way. Theosophist-writer-lecturer Dr. Stephan Hoeller, retired professor of comparative religions and current director of the Gnostic Society of L.A., warns those who are sincerely attempting to cultivate a spiritual life to be “wary of anything that charges exorbitant fees, since the objective of offering transcendence is not about marketing coups, but simply making information available for people to choose their own paths.”

I first encountered Hoeller after a disastrous attempt at romance, when a stranger said she thought I needed professional counseling. I was led not to a therapist, but to a teacher-mystic who laid out the skinny on various ancient spiritual thoughts and practices, some of which form the basis of modern psychology, despite their rejection by some schools of scientific academia. For $5 a week, well within my meager mental-health budget, Hoeller’s lectures ran down the Occult, Jung, Gnosticism, esoterica, dream analysis, modern and ancient alchemy, kabbalah, the tarot and various aspects of theosophy. There were no chants, no name changes, no white robes, no cutting off of repressive friends, as Hoeller simply handed out clues and road maps on where to go. This is how he helped me, blubbering wreck that I was.

So it is after 10 years that I sit with Hoeller, swigging tea and talking about the best and worst of contemporary spirituality.

Dr. Stephan Hoeller: There is a troublesome type of guilt in this New Age culture, that if something bad happens it must be your own fault. You’re a victim because of your behavior or because of your karma or because you didn’t think it through right. It’s another way of expressing the same old thing as mainstream religious orthodoxy . . . that you erred, you sinned, and now you’re being punished for your immorality . . . The compulsive doing of good things sometimes creates buildup to a greater fall in many of today’s popular feel-good philosophies. There is the thinking that only good people jog and that good people don’t eat any heavier meat than chicken, that good people do everything they’re supposed to do . . . yet awful things can still happen to them. So people frequently find themselves in hot water when they think, “I did all the chants. I took all the right herbs and drank the right bottled water, I did the yogic exercises, all the right aura work. I attended the right seminars. I bought all the right self-help books. I ate the perfect diet and jogged every day. So when something goes wrong, it must mean I should chant even more, because I mustn’t have given it enough positive thought!

Brendan Mullen: There’s also a sinister underlying sentiment that terrible things shouldn’t happen to me . . . only to somebody else . . . so why do bad things sometimes still happen anyway?

It’s a Gnostic idea that God the True Creator is too far away from our cosmos at present time to be effectively all-powerful, and that the unhappy, the sick, the bizarre and evil are all part of the nature of the imperfect world created by God at the beginning, and that none of these bad things are a test of faith or a punishment by a vengeful God.

How much of evil can be blamed on an absent God, and how much do you think we have to take responsibility for man-made horror?

Of course there are many things we do to ourselves, and there are many things we must take reponsibility for, but some things are done to us, not because of anything we invited but because our world is flawed, which is not to say its flaws are all necessarily bad. This perspective, of course, flies in the face of most mainstream religious orthodoxies, which maintain the world is perfectly wonderful if only people would just buckle down to enforced morality as decreed by a self-serving ecclesiastical hierarchy.

So where is goodness at . . . have we made any spiritual advancements this century? Is there any hope?

The upside of all the New Agey flapdoodle is that in some cases it at least helped to highlight the potential within each individual for spiritual transcendence without being subject to the dogma of an intermediary church â collective . . . but there are many other positive things to be excited by.

Such as?

An unprecedented creativity and openness to unconventional ideas and doctrines, especially within the past 25 years, has created what some call alternative religions, a movement which has contributed to the gradual erosion of the stranglehold of mainstream religious thought.

What do you think kick-started this trend?

Partly a delayed backlash, first to the discarding of the mystical core of religion by science, followed by the onset of obsessive materialism, but I’d say the discovery of the Nag Hammadi Library and the Dead Sea Scrolls in the ’40s is one of several major factors that helped initiate the gradual decline of mainstream religion still going on to the present day.

What was so important about these discoveries?

Most of the New Age and “alternative” religious movements have roots in Gnostic ideas, whether their participants know it or not, and these discoveries were the scientific proof which showed the world how much the early Christian church really had systematically suppressed or erased free Gnostic thought and excluded female perspective.

What other factors contributed to the current deterioration of mainstream religion in this country?

There’s that centuries-old theological dilemma of reconciling an all-powerful, good God with the existence of evil, which resurfaced during World War II. In the wake of the death camps, many, especially some Jews, questioned absolute faith and trust in an omnipotent, all-powerful, all-good God.

It’s the old chicken-and-egg argument. If Hitler was just a man who created evil, then who created Hitler?

Something like that . . . but after two World Wars and numerous worldwide religio-blood feuds and holocausts, some of them going on as we speak, a century of unmitigated misery and darkness has passed, where we have seen probably the largest number of victims of torture and violent death in the history of the planet. It has made more people than ever face the dark side of existence. More people are ambivalent about being told by mainstream religiosity that they are being “tested” by this all-powerful God, who frequently seems unwilling or unable to take the time out to differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys, especially when small children are involved.

You once wrote that the darkest part of the night is always just before dawn.

Since Gnosticism was always about the free availability of information for people to make up their own minds, the Internet is a very promising development. Freedom of thought and the availability of information are part of the Gnostic dream come true.

For much more about Gnostic thinking, hit Hoeller lectures Wednesdays (7:30 p.m.) at the Philosophical Research Society, 3910 Los Feliz Blvd. (323) 663-2167, and Fridays (8 p.m.) at the Ecclesia Gnostica Chapel, 4516 Hollywood Blvd. (323) 467-2685), donations only.

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