Need financial advice? Ask an angel. Christopher Kelly reports on some New Age "channelling"
Sometime in the early fourth century ad something unusual happened in a rather ostentatious suburban villa on the outskirts of Chalcis in Syria. The neo-Platonic philosopher Iamblichus, after years of trial and error, finally managed to comprehend fully the incomprehensible majesty of the divine. A household slave who witnessed this most intimate of moments later described to Iamblichus' pupils how the master - in rapt contemplation - floated 12 feet above the ground and turned a wondrously attractive golden colour.
Something similar happened, a generation later, to the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate. It was part of a set of religious experiences that further convinced him of his mission to reverse his predecessor Constantine's commitment to Christianity. One afternoon, while pondering weighty theological matters, Julian suddenly found himself all aglow. In his own words: "The heavenly light shone all around me, and it roused and urged me on to further contemplation." One of the results was the emperor's long Hymn to the Sun-King, communicated to him by the deity over three ecstatic nights and then written up from memory.
The late 20th century is usually regarded as an age in which neither philosophers nor politicians have any visions, far less have their speeches or articles dictated to them by deities. But to devotees of New Age theology these classic pagan experiences of "channelling" are proof of a long-standing link between the human and the divine, evidence of a spiritual connection lost somewhere in the crass materialism of consumerism. It is one of the claims of the New Age that it is able to heal this breach; to put the divinity firmly back into humanity. As the New Age Encyclopaedia succinctly explains: "Everyday life for New Agers becomes one of new openness and new egalitarian relationships with a sense of abundance." As with fourth-century neo-Platonic philosophy, what matters is getting in contact with the gods - or something not too far distant. One of the most popular New Age "channelled entities" is Lazaris, who speaks through Jack Pursel, a former Los Angeles insurance broker. Lazaris provides a range of emotional and financial advice, offering a programme of workshops and "weekend intensives".
For committed New Age followers, a similar service can also be obtained from angels. An enlightening handbook, Ask Your Angels: A Practical Guide to Working with Angels, explains how to strike up a relationship with a "celestial companion". Indeed, it would appear that for those in the know, Michael, Raphael, Gabriel, Uriel and the rest of that heavenly band offer a continual stream of helpful advice.
Moreover, for angels, the tedious tasks of preparing for the Apocalypse or telling virgins the Good News have been superseded. Cherubim, Seraphim, Thrones, Powers and Dominions now compete for jobs in a deregulated market with Process Angels, Technology Angels, Environment Angels and Attunement Angels. New times demand new skills; and the wise move with the times.
Now that channelling has made traditional forms of revelation redundant, Gabriel (although still very much the winged androgyne) "is taking on different functions and experiencing changes in his job description". This heavenly management reshuffle has meant that angels have had to re-contemplate their consumer orientation. The new Good News is that "anyone and everyone can talk with the celestials". No job is too small for our angelic companions. Thanks to her angel, one of the handbook's contributors, Alma Daniel, now feels safe when riding her bicycle home through the New York traffic.
Iamblichus and Julian would be appalled. Offended too that experiences such as theirs are used as part of a New Age claim that its theology, to quote the Encyclopaedia, "has deep roots in Western philosophy and life". For classical pagans the path to enlightenment was long and hard. Only the select achieved a glimpse of the divine. Ascent to the Godhead through the strictly arranged hierarchy of lower deities with their fixed and immutable functions was a matter of rigorous self-discipline and considerable suffering. This version of heaven was no celestial America celebrating the virtues of egalitarianism and service with an angelic smile. The holy man might in the end achieve his goal, but it was unlikely that on the way he would have much of a nice day.
But in his classical vision of a hierarchical heaven, the contemplative pagan philosopher did expect - like the New Age devotee - to find in the divine realm something of his own society perfected. Here perhaps is the strongest claim for similarity, and the starkest contrast. What constitutes perfectibility is, as always, a matter of endless religious dispute. New Age channelling offers to all instant access to the divine. Lazaris can be channelled by telephone (directly chargeable to your credit card).
Things were tougher in antiquity. The famous pagan sage Plotinus was said to have contemplated the divinity just four times in the course of a long career. These were precious moments, open only to the most adept. Having scaled such vertiginous philosophical heights, Plotinus gazed in silent awestruck piety at the wonders of the heavens. He had no time to worry whether or not he would get home safely on his bicycle.
Christopher Kelly is a fellow, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.