Birgit Menzel on the New Age Project
Birgit Menzel, project leader on the German side, has been asked about her views on New Age in general and on Russia in particular, which represents the main focus of our international project. In the interview, Birgit, like the leader of the Russian research group Alexander Panchenko, responds to five questions, telling us about her aspirations concerning the joint research and her personal affiliation with New Age.
What are your visions of the project and its objectives?
With this project, I would like to help establish a field of academic research on the Russian New Age, which should be seen and understood as part of contemporary global cultural and social trends. The cooperation between German and Russian scholars, both younger and more experienced, is a perfect chance to start. It includes interdisciplinary discussion, since we have been working in Slavic studies, cultural studies, religious studies, translation studies, as well as in religious and cultural anthropology, agreeing on a common terminology, but allowing methodological pluralism. It also includes archival research and fieldwork and the unearthing of much unknown fascinating material. Individual projects on a wide range of topics are combined with the effort to create and generalize a common theoretical framework. A major aim of mine in this project is to create an international (trilingual) network – at best a working group – of scholars who work on topics related to New Age in Russia. Another major objective is, for one, that the results of our individual and collective research will be published, and also, that the source material will be collected and ultimately made accessible as an open resource database for future research.
What does New Age signify to you? Do you think that New Age should be narrowly defined?
New Age (NA) is an umbrella term which I use – in agreement with my project colleagues – in the widest possible sense to denote a set of ideas, practices, beliefs, and teachings related to the search for spiritual orientation beyond the traditional institutionalized religions, outside of religious dogma. NA comprises the belief in the possibility of a radical change of consciousness and physiological possibilities of mankind in the future. In a more narrow sense, NA refers to the astrological meaning of “The Age of Aquarius”, which came into use in the counterculture of various Western countries in the period from the 1960s to the 1980s. There is neither a unified worldview, nor ideology or organization in NA; instead, it comprises a wide range of areas, such as education, religion, ecology, health care, and medicine.
I am aware of the fact that there is a number of objections and alternatives or rather a bunch of related, overlapping terms for the phenomena covered by “NA” (such as “new religious movements”, “new religious culture/s”, “cultic milieu”, “occulture”, “esotericism”). I fully recognize the fact that the historical dimensions of NA, as well as the occurrence, use, and meaning of the term itself differs in various countries, which has become part of controversial discussions. From an emic perspective, barely anyone involved today would agree to be called a participant of NA. Nevertheless, we choose to use it (from an etic perspective) as an analytical term, a heuristic concept for both developments in Western countries and in late and post-Soviet Russia. I use it mostly synonymously with the term “new religious cultures” (not movements), following the definition in the Handbook of New Age (2007) by Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis.
What are the specifics of New Age in Russia?
Some of the differences I found in my research on the late Soviet occulture, are the following: (1) Esoteric knowledge was mainly transmitted by the intellectual elite. (2) The status of (official) science and its margins was different from that in the West. Research activities dealing with “occult” or “paranormal” phenomena were conducted inside the official state-supported system of Soviet science, which would be considered as parascience in Western countries. (3) NA in the late Soviet Union, the entire occult-esoteric underground, has been much more cerebral (intellectual) and less corporeal than in the West. There has been a much greater emphasis on esoteric knowledge than on occult practice, more emphasis on mind and spirit than on the body. (4) Closely connected with this is the gender aspect. Certainly, in Russian New Age, the future age is NOT seen as a female one, while NA in the United States was accompanied by the rising women’s liberation movement, which massively changed gender relations within society.
NA, occult circles, and quests of the 1960s–1980s in Soviet Russia can mainly be seen as strategies of individualization, i.e. of achieving personal autonomy within a “cultic milieu”. This was to be achieved by working on personal self-transformation, based on confidence in the psychic powers of their own self and. Following the goal of inner transformation was to ultimately bring about outer social change.
Do you have personal memories or connections with New Age or New Age activities?
I have always been interested in different religions, Western and Eastern, including spiritual traditions outside of conventional religions. I have also had close relationships with people practicing various religions and belief systems. In the mid-1970s, I spent a year studying in the USA, including travelling to California and spending time in New York and on the East Coast. This gave me an opportunity to meet people and groups of several NA circles. The ideas, lifestyle, and music of the hippie movement and other milieus have, to some extent, affected my youth.
As a professor of Russian and Slavic literatures and cultures, I adopted an attitude of looking at different cultures from various perspectives. I became a scholar of cross-cultural Russian, and also Anglo-American studies. But my long-term personal and scholarly interest in spiritual traditions and non-traditional quests was pursued only on the side, until a decade ago, when I got involved in and familiar with the Californian Esalen Institute and met some of its main founding protagonists. Thus, in a more advanced age and stage of my professional career, I have become deeply fascinated by the visions and range of intercultural activities of what was then called the Human Potential Movement, which I see as part of NA. In this project, I now have the opportunity to bring these long-term interests, my research and objectives together.
How do you envision the future of New Age?
As technology becomes more and more an omnipresent leading factor in the lives of individuals and societies as a whole, as global problems, like climate change, overpopulation, water and food shortage, pollution, etc., call more urgently for solutions, I see NA as a trend growing both in scale and significance. In the future, I see more emphasis on initiatives to save life on the planet, not only the lives of humans, but equally of animals (protection of animal rights etc.) and plants (as living beings). In the face of these problems, together with the rising powers of religious and political fundamentalism and an increasing impact of artificial intelligence (AI), I see a growing desire in individuals to counterbalance these developments, to seek realms of freedom, pursue deeper values, and find release in personally experienced spirituality, in the pursuit of a live more meaningful to oneself and ultimately to society and the environment. NA will face being even more marketed, but, compared to earlier periods of NA, I see contemporary and future periods of NA also as taking over more active responsibility.