Two cheers for the work of Theodore Roszak, a Californian academic who died 10 years ago, and who is one of the more intelligent chroniclers of New Age spirituality. I’ve read four of his books now, and find much to admire in his prose. Encountering his work in New Age culture is like coming across a dapper gentleman in the heart of a steaming jungle.
And yet even here, in this most literate of New Age authors, one sees the cultural flaws that brought spirituality to its present sorry state. He exhibits two of the biggest New Age errors — a tendency to anti-scientific primitivism, and a bizarre belief that spiritual seekers are a higher species or master-race.
Roszak was a historian at California State University, who in the late 60s and 70s became the unofficial apologist for the counter-culture (a word he coined) and the Age of Aquarius. Here he is on a 1977 BBC series called The Long Search, in which Ronald Eyre chronicled homo sapiens’ search for the divine. Episode 12 explores ‘alternative lifestyles in California’, and presenter Ronald Eyre is more than a little bemused by what he finds. And yet (2 minutes 50 seconds in) Roszak is able to explain and justify what is going on. He says:
What I see around me and most prominently in this area, where we’re supersaturated with experiments, is a great religious appetite. A great deal of this goes under the heading of therapy, parapsychology, consciousness experiments. What they’re trying to do is salvage something of the religions of the past as a living daily reality. And so they search, they grope, in ways that are sometimes awkward and unbecoming, there are a lot of false starts and follies along the way. And very often that’s what people focus on for the purpose of criticism. And its legitimate enough to criticise things that are superficial or foolish. But it’s just as foolish to treat with contempt the need that is involved with this. It’s one thing to mock the many inadequate ways people seek to meet that need, it’s quite another thing to mock the need.
In 1969 he coined the term ‘counter-culture’ to describe the hippy mystical revolt that he saw sweeping through Californian campuses. Counter to what? To the scientific-industrial technocracy which Roszak believed was destroying the planet and crushing the soul of humanity. He blamed the rise of…