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Review by Douglas Cowan

New Age Thinking: A Psychoanalytic Critique
M.D. Faber
Religions and Beliefs Series, no.5. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1996.

In any review of Faber's work, equivocal is not the first adjective that leaps to mind. Indeed, in his introduction to New Age Thinking, he sets out clearly, firmly, and quite without equivocation the ground from which he intends to pursue his subject. "As I perceive it," he writes in the preface (p.xi), "the New Age is loaded with regressive, undesirable elements, with infantilism and magical wishful thinking." Lest, after this, the reader still finds Faber's orientation unclear, he adds:

New Age thinking makes war on reality; it denigrates reason; it denies and distorts what I consider to be the existential facts of our human experience; it seeks to restore the past, specifically, the before-separation world, in an idealized, wish-fulfilling form that has little or no connection to the adult estate. (p.15; my emphasis)

That phrase, before-separation, is the linch-pin of Faber's thesis (which is both interesting and cogent) and his critique (which, at points, shades into heavy-handed attack). Following the neo-Freudian psychoanalytic theories of Margaret Mahler, Daniel Stern, and Christopher Bollas, Faber posits that the New Age--indeed religious thinking and sentiment as a whole--represents a wish-fulfilment, a longed-for return to the time in one's life when one was the centre of the universe, or to use Mahler's words, when the infant and mother were "an omnipotent system--a dual unity with one common boundary" (p.22). In Faber's view, it is to this period prior to separation and individuation that the New Age longs to return. And it is toward this return that he finds all theory and method, all theology and metaphysics in the New Age oriented. Faber lays out his thesis and his arguments plainly and logically. He begins with a working definition of the New Age and his own psychoanalytic methodology; as noted above, his biases, never far from the surface, are acknowledged openly and plainly. And, in a subject area already laden with cryptic jargon and hidden agendas, for Faber's clarity alone the reader should be grateful. From his introduction, he proceeds to an overview of the particular psychoanalytic methodology he will use in his critique of New Age thinking. Then, in what is by far the longest chapter in the book (183 pp.), he applies this methodology to four particular manifestations of New Age thinking: crystals, shamanism, channeling, and Wicca. A fourth chapter he devotes to a consideration of healing in the New Age. In this chapter, which is an extended attack on the theories and methods of Dr. Richard Moss, according to Faber a mainstream medical practitioner who took up spiritual healing in the late 1970s, the reader finds Faber's angriest moments. In his critique of Moss (and Moss's view of disease as trans-formational blessing), Faber asks "Do we not have here New Age thinking's ultimate distortion, its ultimate refusal to look squarely at the tragic face of life, at the realities of separation and death, each of which is an emotive aspect of the other?" (p.262; Faber's emphasis). Chapter Five contains verbatim accounts of interviews with various New Age practitioners in and around the Vancouver area, including Faber's own visit to a coven meeting. In Chapter Six, he offers some concluding remarks on the New Age as "The Great Hologramama"--the Great Universal Mother to dual-unity with whom all New Age practitioners seek to return.

This is a long book, packed with dense, at times well-crafted prose. It did not, however, need to be this long. In his closely-packed and closely-argued analysis of different New Age aspects, Faber piles critique upon critique, building his case for wish-fulfilment and the return to omnipotent dual-unity. In this, though, he edges into intellectual overkill, the academic equivalent of a baseball bat employed to dispatch a hummingbird. This is not to say that he does not make sense; he does. It is, though, at times, a rather heavy-handed sense.

Does Faber believe that people should be involved in New Age thought and practices? The answer to that is not "Yes and No," but rather "No," and "Well, if you must." On one hand, in the face of rationality and the existentialism of the individual confronting his or her fears on two legs with eyes wide open, no; he would prefer that New Age thinking be relegated to the past, an interesting psychoanalytic field trip, perhaps, into humankind's ability to avoid the responsibilities of individuation. On the other hand, in terms of New Age healing, but applicable to all New Age phenomena, "Why shouldn't people do this if they wish to? I reply, there is absolutely nothing wrong with it as long as people see it for what it is (p.243; Faber's emphasis).

In much the same manner that New Age thinking rises or falls on the validity of the interconnection of all things, so, too, Faber's psychoanalytic critique of that thinking succeeds or fails on the validity of the theoretical platform from which that critique is launched. If one is predisposed to reject belief in the supernatural and the metaphysical, and if one can be persuaded that the neo-Freudian Weltanschauung (which, in that it posits the world in a certain way, is as much cosmological as psychological) as Faber presents it is valid, then his arguments will be cogent and coherent. If, however, one is not so predisposed, Faber's arguments, while interesting and enjoyable to read, may not be compelling.

Douglas E. Cowan
Department of Religious Studies, University of Calgary