The New Age — what is it, anyway? Another fad? A hustle? In a society so given to instant enlightenment and the quick buck, slogans like this, especially when they’re used to sell everything from shampoo to magazines, are as suspect as Guru Maharaji in his silver Maserati. If Nixon, talking about democracy, made one weep for America, what tears are left for God after enduring all the gassy profundities and bogus compassion of a new generation of spiritual aristocrats? When the unutterable becomes the meat of conversation, the impulse is to chase everyone from the room, the conscientious seekers as well as those just along for the ride.

That would be a mistake. Like democracy, the New Age is a living idea, greater than the words invented to define it. If the phrase has been misused, to drive a wedge between older and younger people, the “straights” and the “hippies,” that is regrettable, but understandable. We are at a turning point in history, more profound than most of us dare to acknowledge — “the edge of history,” one writer calls it, because civilization, as we know it, may be nearing its end.

We are at a turning point of history, more profound than most of us dare to acknowledge.

That civilization is not working — if by civilization we mean a social organization that reveres, rather than exterminates, life — is obvious to all but a few. After so much killing and anguish since the turn of the century, who will stand up for the pieties of Culture and the high cant of Progress, or for Hiroshima, or for My Lai, or for Auschwitz? And who, with a bloodshot eye on the six o’clock news — of tortures and empty bellies and the dry white heat of oppression — will not wonder, cynically, how long before the prophets and health nuts and gurus are rounded up for their turn in some New Age concentration camp where the slaughter of one million, or ten, will be history’s ugly revenge on those who would revision history?

Idealogues of the Right and the Left agree — we are at the threshold of an era vastly different from any previously known. But whether it will be an era of 1984-like totalitarianism, or an occult resurgence against the high priests of science and technology no one knows. What we lack as verifiable fact is compensated by prediction, fantasy and guesswork; perhaps we chose our prophets to tell us what we already intuitively know, yet cannot say. Or fear to. The crystal ball is red hot and caked with blood; predictions of apocalyptic turmoil, earthquakes and nuclear war are common. Is this, then, the New Age? The impulse is to ask for our money back and return to a world that made (or seemed to make) more sense. Or, perhaps, to reassure ourselves that the simple happiness and sorrows of ordinary men and women, the small shared universes of common experience, will be unchanged, that the future will be just more of the same, as ambiguous as history always has been. The temptation is to side with Vonnegut

“And I remembered The Fourteenth Book of Bokonon, which I had read in its entirety the night before. The Fourteenth Book is entitled, ‘What Can a Thoughtful Man Hope for Mankind on Earth, Given the Experience of the Past Million Years?’ It doesn’t take long to read The Fourteenth Book. It consists of one word and a period. This is it. ‘Nothing.’ ”

— but nothing is a pregnant emptiness, the void from which Creation springs. Nothing is the enchanted loom on which the warp of space and woof of time are joined (and history is just another myth). Nothing is the synapse, the gap between neurons, where dream and reality lose their sharp edges, and facts as substantial as this — that in 1967 Ouija Boards surpassed Monopoly as America’s most popular board game — take root in the air of our disbelief, flower into social history, blossom into prophecy. Nothing is the vastness between the stars, the stars which are our reference point, astronomically and astrologically, for a new celestial age, Aquarius, the most potent, and hopeful, New Age symbol.

To those who think in purely physical terms of animate and inanimate life, an astrological symbol can have little significance. But to those who perceive that all “things” in the universe are alive, features of one event, the Earth is a living being, with its own consciousness and its own destiny, and a relationship with the heavens that is palpable; most profoundly, it is not so much that one celestial body influences another as that the cosmos is one body, its far-flung components as separate and connected as your nose and your toes.

Astrologers explain that the Earth moves through twelve ages, corresponding to the twelve signs of the Zodiac, during the course of 26,000 years. The celestial mechanics are complicated [see Stephen Martin’s “Out of the Many, One: The Aquarian Promise”], and there is disagreement about when the Age of Aquarius began (or whether it actually has) as well as what it portends. Basically, the Aquarian ideal is global cooperation, humanitarianism, enlightened science, and self-realization; the Aquarian promise is unity, blending the various levels of consciousness — the physical as well as the spiritual, into a oneness of expression. It is the binding, and most enduring element of what’s been called the counter culture — not the long hair, but the longing for peace, not another life style, but a living commitment to social justice. It is wrong to identify this yearning with any age group or movement, however. “Many of the people who come to see me now,” says the American spiritual teacher Ram Dass, “are older people, square people, all different kinds of people, because the forms aren’t that important anymore.” The gap is not between generations, but between attitudes towards life, between those who work to serve the interests of the planet and those who see only their own interests, and exploit the planet. “The division between the two worlds,” writes David Spangler in Revelation: The Birth of a New Age, “cannot be drawn between cultures, between races, between age groups. It is determined by an inner orientation. Some seek to escape, to destroy, to strike out. They are of the old. Others seek to build, to change through a positive vision, to heal, to bless. They are of the new.”

But you don’t have to believe in astrology to recognize that a page has been ripped off the global calendar. When the writer Ken Kesey proclaimed a few years ago that “the revolution is over, and we’ve won,” he didn’t mean that Washington was any less a burlesque of statesmanship, or that poverty and social injustice were memories; rather, that institutionalized cynicism and false morality had become dangerously transparent. Men were still dying, for patriotism, and profit, but, more than ever before, men were refusing to.

Still, the crumbling of the old order does not guarantee the success of the new. From the prophecies of the sixteenth century French seer Nostradamus to the science fiction fantasies of Arthur C. Clarke, there is a constant unnerving theme in the literature of prophecy — that, as we enter the last quarter of the twentieth century, we are squatting in a condemned house, and the wrecker’s ball is heading our way. Earthquakes, floods, the tilting of the Earth’s axis, the shifting of the magnetic poles, nuclear war, solar catastrophe, and genetic mutations are the more common predictions for the next fifty years, not to mention the less esoteric warnings of the ecologists about dying oceans and poisoned atmospheres. To some, the near-destruction of the planet would seem like a triumph of justice, as the proud and the mighty bite the dust. To others, it’s simply inevitable that the Earth quake physically as it is spiritually reborn — not unlike the heaving of someone who’s eaten peyote, his body cleansed of its poisons as his consciousness expands.

Edgar Cayce, whose medical predictions have proven remarkably accurate, said that before the year 2000 the east and west coasts of America will crumble into the sea and a portion of the legendary sunken continent of Atlantis will rise near the Bahamas (evidence has recently been found, off the coast of Bimini in the Bahamas, of a sunken land mass with man-made structures). Other prophets also link their predictions of catastrophe to the rising of Atlantis, observing that the Aquarian Age is the astrological opposite, and thus the karmic fulfillment, of the Age of Leo, when the Atlantean civilization flourished. Some have also predicted a reversal of the Earth’s magnetic poles. This has happened before in geological history, and was probably accompanied by a momentary collapse of the protective magnetic fields. Were this to occur today, it would expose every living creature to deadly radiation. Another prediction is that as a consequence of genetic mutations following a nuclear war, new human powers will emerge.

Genetic alterations are also foretold in The Fatima Prophecy, a remarkable book that is not the product of an author’s conscious intellectual effort but was given in the form of psychic readings through the unconscious mind of Ray Stanford. [Mary, the Mother of Jesus, appeared to thousands of onlookers in Fatima, Portugal in 1916 and, subsequently, to huge crowds in Belgium, Spain and Egypt. During one of the Fatima apparitions, she gave three children a message, to be kept secret until 1960. The letter was passed along to the Church hierarchy. When 1960 passed without word from the Vatican about its contents — years after the Church had acknowledged the veracity of the Fatima events — there was considerable speculation. Finally, in 1967, a Vatican spokesman said that Pope Paul felt it was not yet time to disclose its contents.] Hundreds of millions of people will be killed, according to the prophecy, as the Solar System passes through an area of concentrated cosmic particles; the only survivors will be those with enough spiritual presence of mind to stay indoors and pray during the three-day radioactive bombardment.

There is, finally, Arthur C. Clarke’s ultimate transformative vision: mankind leaving the Earth, not in spaceships, but as the adepts of a new civilization beyond matter. The Earth itself is destroyed in the final moments of this inconceivable metamorphosis, giving itself to its children, who have finally achieved a true global consciousness, beyond physical limitations. They are ready at last to leave home.

“There go the mountains, like wisps of smoke,” says the last man in Childhood’s End. “I’ve seen what my race became. Everything we ever achieved has gone up there into the stars. Perhaps that’s what the old religions were trying to say. But they got it all wrong. They thought mankind was so important, yet we’re only one race in — do you know how many. . . .

“The light! From beneath me — inside the Earth — shining upward, through the rocks, the ground, everything — growing brighter, brighter, blinding —”

For those of a less speculative bent, there is the prospect, simply, of increased urbanization, mechanization, computerization: the technocratic dream. New varieties of instant potatoes, instant breakfast and other astronaut-tested “foods,” making every journey to the supermarket a trip, if not to the moon, then at least beyond the world of taste. Moving sidewalks, a headache for the muggers but a boon for the alienated without direction. A bionic President, perhaps. At least, a bullet-proof one. Too fanciful? Then rest with the transformation of America’s bicentennial into a shopping spree. The continued disaffection of the middle-class. And the poor. And the rich. The drying up of hope. Still —

— if one of the lessons of the New Age is that the creative source of the world is in fact our own consciousness, that we create our reality with our beliefs, then whatever conditions we are experiencing in our environment must be recognized as the mirror of our inner selves. All prophecies, then, are self-fulfilling; we decide our destiny. Once we can identify the conflicts within ourselves, we will no longer have to act them out upon the global scene.

David Spangler writes, “The more he realizes that his skin does not really separate him from that world, the more an individual will begin to realize his true creative power. He will not simply react as the environment stimulates him to react when he knows that he can act upon himself and, by changing his consciousness, change his outer conditions. Jesus says that as a man thinks, so he is. This is the principle. The microcosm of the inner life moves to the same rhythms and knows the same energies that flow through the macrocosm.”

Around Jesus, of course, is fashioned much New Age prophecy, whether in visions as traditionally retributive as those of the Jehovah Witnesses, or as metaphysically complex as those of Spangler and Seth (see accompanying story). Some believe Christ has already returned. Others wait. The earthquakes and floods — Earth’s trembling at His approach — will be part of it. A New Age, at last — at least for those who survive the Judgement. For those less literally inclined, a more evocative idea is that Christ returns not as a flesh-and-blood Messiah but as the consciousness of the age. As truth and compassion and conscious love. In whatever form, by whatever name — least of all, perhaps, Christianity.

If all this sounds ambiguous, it is. Before the year 1000 many of the same prophecies were no doubt in vogue. But whether the future is a predictable extension of the present, or whizzes off at right angles, everything that’s meant by the New Age is, ultimately, a personal affair. There are no global changes without individual changes. There is no real revolution without love. If the New Age is anything, it is a living presence within ourselves, a holy breath waiting only to be breathed upon the world. It is less likely to be “ushered in” by any single event than to unfold, as our lives unfold. The flower of our being is neither old, nor new. It is simply us, leaning towards the light.