The Gospel of a Dawning Age?

The Aquarian Conspiracy By Marilyn Ferguson J.P. Tarcher; 448 pp.; $15

BY NOW, the signs that the United States is undergoing a vast social transition have become clear enough that only the willfully blind would expect things to go on pretty much as usual. Having more has not made Americans happier; faith in the facile god of technology has come tumbling down, along with the DC-10s and Three Mile island and Skylab and military helicopters; America's position as the dominant economic and military power has dissolved; social problems have proven intractable no matter how huge the central government becomes; confidence in all major institutions is at a historic low; the mainline religious establishment is a dying, dried-out husk incapable of motivating people to search beyond egoism for the common good or to think to the future; the nuclear family is fast becoming a memory; and so on, ad infinitum.

The question, however, is what the future is an uncertain, if lucrative, enterprise, and already a rabble of books on post-industrial, post-Christian, Third Wave technological future America have appeared. Most of these authors attempt to look at everything at once, but wind up ignoring some factors and exaggerating others, with the predictable result that the shape of the future depends on which aspects of modern life are studied closest.

Two new books try to get hold of the current situation by focusing on the vast change in the American religious realm. Each limits itself to lighting up one area of the scene and leaving the rest of the landscape in shadow, but taken together they present an insightful and evocative picture of the path we now tread.

Since World War II several thousand new spiritual practices, healing therapies and "consciousness cults" have appeared in the U.S., and simultaneously the charismatic Christian revival has accelerated and spread into new social strata. While often opposed in outlooks, values and interpretations, both the Eastern religious-humanistic psychologies and the Pentecosal movement challenge the prevailing scientific-secular-liberal orthodoxy. Liberalism is founded on the notion of progress, specifically a bigger and tastier economic pie each year, made possible by the ever-expanding industrial machine. But now, according to Rifkin:

We are nearing the end of an epoch that stretched across a half-millenium of history. The age of about to give way to a new age of scarcity and economic contraction.

Part of that expansion was made possible through the religious upheaval known as the Protestant Reformation, which replaced the Catholic Church's traditional ban on usury and profit with the idea that acquisition, accumulation and reinvestment warmed the cockles of God's heart, a doctrine ready-made for the new capitalist class. As that expansion grinds to a halt:

The end of the prevailing economic epoch presages the end of the prevailing theological as well ... we are in the early morning hours of a second Protestant reformation.

DESPITE EXTENSIVE documentation, Rifkin's argument suffers from a lack of clarity and a dose of wishful thinking. According to his model of America's two Great Awakenings, the Christian revival movement of the 1730s and 1820s, charismatic preachers first break the hold of the established orthodoxy through a return to the core religion of estatic experience, and then the theologians construct a new doctrinal synthesis. The process is like pushing Humpty Dumpty off the church wall so he cracks and his yolk runs down the block and then gathering it all up and making scrambled eggs for the congregation. Rifkin believes the Pentecostals, with their focus on the born-again experience as the essence of the Christian life, will help smash the walls of sectarianism, uniting people across denominational lines and even reaching to the Catholic Church. Given the extraordinarily rapid growth of the movement and the impressive (or frightening) infrastructure already in place--the hundreds of Christian TV and radio stations, schools, businesses, nightclubs, political associations--Rifkin's argument that the Pentecostals will cause the third great restructuring of American Christianity seems plausible.

But he then makes a leap of faith, as it were, one that readers will be hard pressed to follow:

At this very moment a spectacular change in Christian theology is taking place, virtually unnoticed. God's very first commandment to humankind in the book of Genesis is being redefined. 'Dominion," which Christian theology has used so long to justify people's unrestrained pillage and exploitation of the natural world, has suddenly and dramatically been reinterpreted. Now, according to the now definition, God's first instruction to the human race is to serve as steward and protestor over all of his creation.

Christianity is to become an ecology-conscious church, Rifkin predicts, slamming shut the voracious jaws of the capitalist machine devouring the Earth.

Who is making this reformulation? A handful of liberal theologians? Rifkin himself admits the change is virtually unnoticed. One spectacular example is Billy Graham's conversion from nuke-the-Russian-Antichrist-cold-warrior to disarmament-peacenik-one-worlder, but Graham knows he is in a very small minority. Is the Full Gospel Businessmen's Fellowship likely to abandon the profit margin for a few more trees and whales just because Rifkin thinks the charismatics should pick up this redefinition as their marching banner? If anything, the Pentecostal revival is a reaction against the new values, against social innovations and moral liberalizations and for the American way of life as it used to be only in the hazy childhood memories of aging evangelists. Since the revival is strongest in the South, throwback land of unfettered expanding capitalism, perhaps the more likely prospect is the one Rifkin throws out as a second, if less desired, scenario:

It is also possible that as the domestic and global situation continues to worsen in the 1980s, the evangelical-charismatic phenomenon. . . could provide a growing sanctuary for millions of frightened Americans and even a recruiting ground for a repressive movement manifesting all the earmarks of an emerging fascism.

Because the ecological crisis is worldwide in scope while only American Christianity is surveyed. because Rifkin shifts randomly between referring to post-'50s politics and 18th century ideas when he uses the term 'liberalism,' and because he seems willing to twist the evidence to support a very tenuous hypothesis, The Emerging Order finally succeeds only in raising the issue and prompting thought about where we want to go. Prophecy gives way to polemic, and so the book cannot succeed on its own terms, as an outline of the emerging situation.

MARILYN FERGUSON, editor of the Brain/Mind Bulletin, a newsletter about new discoveries in consciousness, brain function, biofeedback, meditation, dreams, psychiatry, etc., has ostensibly written a book not on religions or religions change, but about social and political transformations. However, these transformations are predicted on the so-called consciousness revolution, the inner changes produced by a decade of millions of altered awarenesses, self-actualizations, encounter sessions, gurus and shrinks.

Far from being a retreat from '60s activism, this turning inward was a necessary examination of the nature and position of the self in modern society. The new self is now returning to a more firmly grounded social activism, or so Ferguson sees it. True, there is no national movement and little shared approach, but that is part of the old "political paradigm" of mass action and confrontation, you see.

A leaderless but powerful network is working to bring about radical change in the U.S. Its members have broken with certain key elements of Western thought, and they may even have broken continuity with history. This network is the Aquarian conspiracy. It is a conspiracy. . . . The great shuddering, irrevocable shift overtaking us is not a new political, religious or philosophical system. It is a new mind.

Of course, no manifesto means anyone can be counted a part of the conspiracy for marginal reasons--for example, a corporate exec who goes into est and "gets it"--which would make the network appear much larger than it really is. And with no political approach, how can it succeed, except through the nebulous "power of good ideas?"

For readers unfamiliar with many of the developing alternatives in such areas as education, health, spirituality, scientific understandings, working and living arrangements, Ferguson's book presents mounds of fascinating and thought-provoking possibilities. But it is also confusing. How do all these disparate currents fit together, through the vision of the practicioners or merely through the author's omniscient position? Most of the 'conspirators' she discusses are teachers, writers, researchers, doctors--comfortable, white Americans. How do the poor feel about the Age of Aquarius? Will the Third World rejoice in America's rediscovery of the sacredness of life and the possibilities of human community unless this is accompanied by an end to multinational megacorporate exploitations? And just how are we to cross over to the glimmering future of a democratic, decentralized, cooperative, ecologically sane society when the proliferation of the tools of planetary annihilation proceeds ever faster?

Unfortunately, Ferguson's book lacks historical perspective. She litters the pages with phrases like "for the first time in history" and "unprecedented source of power." But every age has had its visionaries proclaiming the "New Age" of harmony and peace, and they have always found only old age and death in the end. Granted, certain unique factors exist now: global communications and cultural contact, the diffusion of awareness-altering technologies (including psychadelic drugs) to more people than ever before, the threat of global deep-frying, but these do not guarantee the future will run along Aquarian fantasy lines. Ultimately, Ferguson has to fall back on elitist analysis to make the desired outcome more likely.

The Aquarian conspiracy . . . looks to the turnabout in consciousness of a critical number of individuals, enough to bring about a renewal of society.... The Aquarian conspirators do not hope because they know less than the cynics, but because they know more.

The Aquarians may have a nice vision, but ideals don't feed the bulldog. The 2000 people who attempted to occupy Seabrook--the archtypal confrontation between the cooperative, consensual, eco-conscious, non-violent Clams and the high-tech nuclear death merchants backed by the legal violence of the state--may have sung songs of love and Oneness, but they were forced to hightail it back through the marshes just the same. Right does not make might. The meek shall inherit the shaft. A miracle is the only hope.

Our past is not our potential. In any hour, with all the stubborn teachers and healers of history who called us to our best selves, we can liberate the future. One by one, we can re-choose--to awaken.

To awaken? Or to choose a new dream? Only when those who wish the future to be a certain way stop insisting that the future will be that way can we face the disturbing reality of our predicament squarely and find the energy to work for a better world, fully knowing that it may never be. Though they clarify the questions about our choices, these books fudge the answer. The New Age, the Second Reformation, the Millenium is not imminent. You can wait for the paperbacks.