The Christian Roots of the New Age: The Aquarian Gospel

The New Age religions are not all that new.

Many of the notes sounded by the eclectic soul-seekers of the New Age in the 1960s were sounded by the Romantics in the early nineteenth century.

You might think of the idealization of Nature, of the upbeat and dancing portrait of human embodiment, human sexuality, physical pleasure; all of it intended as an alternative to the bad dualisms and the suspicious asceticism of more “traditional” religious forms.

You might think too of the freewheeling dabbling in various religious traditions, and of the emphasis on knowledge, spiritual knowledge, as the best path to liberation and new life.

And you might recall as well the flirtation with pagan religious forms, the kind of thing that could still scandalize when given voice by a poet like Shelley, but that could be domesticated, somehow, when the pagans in question were Greek.

None of this started at Esalen. Not exactly.

The New Age religions may not be new, but the fascination with ages and dispensations does seem to have been a unique spiritual characteristic of the twentieth century. A recently reissued book, The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ, first published in 1908, nicely illustrates some of the subtle differences that this focus on cosmic ages and epochs makes to the understanding of any religion, Christianity chief among them.

Its author, Levi H. Dowling (1844-1911) was a typical product of the surprisingly freewheeling Liberal Protestant culture in the United States in the later nineteenth century. Many a Protestant at the time was quietly cobbling together a new religious vision out of portions of the gospels married to the new “brain sciences” of phrenology, vitalism, even a smattering of theosophy. (Christopher White’s new book, Unsettled Minds, tells this story brilliantly).

Dowling, who published the book simply and cryptically under the pen name of “Levi,” was all of this, and more. He was a sometime pastor in the Church of Christ, served as a chaplain for the Union Army in the Civil War, practiced homeopathic medicine afterward, and lectured on what was then referred to as “New Thought.” The book’s publication in 1908 (a gospel that Dowling claimed had been revealed to him in trance) set the seal to his life’s labor and to the large vision that grew out of a lifelong spiritual quest.

This book will seem familiar to the modern reader in some ways, and utterly foreign in others. Given the seismic shifts in our understanding of the New Testament since the publication of the two most important archaeological discoveries since the Second World War—the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Nag Hammadi Library—we will not be surprised to discover that a self-styled spiritual adept will have composed (or in his view, received) his own gospel in order to reveal his own understanding of what the true and essential message of Jesus actually was, prior to all the churchly distortions.

Our own decade’s media fascination with the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and the rest clearly demonstrates how this was already a prominent evangelical strategy in the third century. Crafting and cobbling together new gospels: this is another aspect of the New Age that is not new at all.

New Science, Ancient Religion

But the premise on which this text is built is new; one fascinating example of the complex interweaving of new scientific knowledge and ancient religious wisdom. The reason this book is called The Aquarian Gospel has to do with the (relatively) new modern science of astronomy. As Levi’s wife, Eva S. Dowling, explains in her introduction to the book (she movingly refers to herself as “scribe to the messenger”), the new astronomy posits the existence of a central sun, around which our sun and system of planets revolve. It was believed to require something on the order of 26,000 years for our solar system to complete its circuit, and in so doing, it passed through each region of the Zodiac. Since there are twelve zodiac zones, our solar system spends roughly 2,100 years in each zone, and each such period is deemed a cosmic Age or Dispensation.

Now comes the strange blending of new science and ancient religion. Adam was born in the Dispensation of Taurus, we are told; Abraham was born on the cusp of the Dispensation of Aries, and Jesus was born, as was the Roman imperium, under the sign of Pisces (more precisely, on the cusp of the Dispensation of Pisces). Eva Dowling emphasizes that Pisces, symbolized by the fish, as was the early Church itself, is a preeminent water sign; the past two thousand years, she noted, had been dominated by water and the connectivity that oceans provide.

Among the papers Levi Dowling left at his death was one explaining his conviction that the Earth and our Sun were entering the Dispensation of Aquarius, a literal New Age. Aquarius is an air sign, he noted, and the triumphs of the twentieth century were destined to be aerial rather than watery. Think of the Wright Brothers; think of humanity’s first tentative steps into outer space.

Of course, the name for Aquarius derives from the Latin word for water. But water, Dowling suggests, had been given a spiritual significance by Jesus the Christ, and now, some two thousand years later, humanity stands poised and ready to comprehend this premonition-cum-revelation. “The Age of Aquarius is a preeminently spiritual age,” Eva Dowling noted, and her husband was its premier evangelist. The lessons that Jesus came to provide now have a readier audience, more fertile ground, and the air in which to thrive.

Christ Was Not His Last Name

A great deal is made of referring to Jesus as “the Christ” in this Aquarian gospel, in order to emphasize, first and foremost, that Christ was not Jesus’ last name, but rather an honorific title meaning “anointed one” or “messiah.”

Jesus of Nazareth was a man, a spiritual adept who struggled for thirty long years to attain his esoteric wisdom and his new spiritual status as Divine Love Incarnate. Christ was the title conferred upon him in order to set the seal to his great spiritual achievement. In chapter 55 of The Aquarian Gospel, we see Jesus awarded the title of “the Christ” as the crown awarded for his great labor and even greater success.

It is important to recall—and this lies at the very heart of a great deal of New Age spiritual dabbling—that Jesus is not unique in this achievement. Rather, he was simultaneously an heir, and a harbinger. Like the Buddha, he undertook a vast spiritual labor in order to demonstrate how others may achieve this same victory. He learns from his predecessors, and passes what he has learned along.

“You know that all my life was one great drama for the sons of men… What I have done all men can do, and what I am all men shall be,” Jesus concludes (178:14, 45-46).

We see now why so much is made of the Zodiac and the Ages of Cosmic Dispensation. Jesus revealed a path to spiritual discernment and enlightenment in the Age of Pisces. Now, on the cusp of the Age of Aquarius, that truth is more readily accessible to all. People today are allegedly more receptive to a message that was too early when Jesus preached it, under the Romans. One hundred years later, we may well have our doubts about that overly confident conviction.

The image of Jesus as a spirit-savior, as well as the notion that the essence of the salvation that Jesus provides is knowledge, these things are recurrent features in the so-called Gnostic gospels discovered at Nag Hammadi and elsewhere. What makes that idea different in the The Aquarian Gospel is the free and almost casual borrowing from every religious tradition known to Levi Dowling, the frank sense that all religions aim at the same essential truths and that what the Veda said first, Jesus said conclusively.

The inhabitants of the Age of Aquarius just so happen to be especially ready for the revelation. There is a surprising degree of self-congratulation and a brash spiritual self-confidence in this claim, which is another important feature of the New Age landscape to keep in mind, especially in its early 20th-century incarnation, but also later, when it leapfrogged two world wars and made its bedazzled way into the tumultuous 1960s.

Dowling’s Aquarian Gospel offers a fascinating rereading of the four canonical gospels (it is important to recall that he would not have known the non-canonical gospels that have been so much in the news of late—they had not been discovered yet). He begins, as those ancient gospels do, by addressing the large gaps left in the canonical record of Jesus.

Mark’s gospel, we may recall, begins with his baptism by John in Jordan. There is not a word about how he came to this point, nor to his sense of mission. There are no stories from his childhood; he simply erupts onto the scene at the ripe spiritual age of 30 or so, then dies one month later. Matthew fills out the narrative a bit with a long family genealogy and the harrowing story of Herod’s attempt to murder this newborn messiah-to-be. Luke adds a few poignant tales from Jesus’ childhood, most notably the Christmas story with the shepherds, and the story of a precocious twelve year old arguing circles around the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem (Dowling likes that one, naturally, and expands on it in chapter 19 of The Aquarian Gospel). John sets the whole thing in a cosmic framework, telling us first that “the Logos was with God and the Logos was God,” then showing us how Jesus was that Logos, or Word, in the flesh.

But what kind of a child was Jesus before all that? What was he up to in the thirty years prior to his eruption into the political tinderbox in Roman Galilee and Judea? The Aquarian Gospel devotes a great deal of time to filling in these “lost years” of Jesus, and in so doing, Dowling explains what he takes to be the vast spiritual achievement—for it was an achievement—that resulted in Jesus’ new titular status as “the Christ.”

So what did Jesus do in his early twenties? He did what any self-respecting hippie or Romantic free spirit would do: he went to India.

Actually, he went a lot of places. Here’s how it happened.

The Aquarian Gospel begins with the birth of Mary to Joachim and Anna. Then comes John, called “the Harbinger” in this Gospel. Then thirdly comes Jesus. When Herod attempted to kill both John and Jesus, their mothers fled with them and went into hiding.

They ended up in the care of Elihu, a spiritual adept who believed that everything happens according to cosmic law, and thus he took the opportunity Herod gave him to educate the women into the New Age: “We measure time by cycle ages, and the gate to every age we deem a milestone in the journey of the race. An age has passed; the gate unto another flies open at the touch of time. This is the preparation age of soul, the kingdom of Immanuel, of God in man; and these, your sons, will be the first to tell the news” (7: 12-14).

In short, there was already a spiritual underground in Roman Palestine, and both Jesus and John received their first spiritual instruction from their mothers, who had received it in turn from Elihu and Salome. Elihu honored all the gods and received wisdom from every spiritual source: from Brahmanism, from Judaism, from Zarathustra, from ancient Egypt. (If this seems like a walking tour through Hegel’s Introduction to the Philosophy of History, then so be it. But for Elihu, wisdom is everywhere; it does not progress through stages. And curiously, no one so much as ever mentions China.)

The Cord of Love

Honoring God as worshiped in every tradition: this seems the central insight Jesus achieved already in his youth. When challenged as to which of the Ten Commandments was the greatest, according to Dowling’s gospel, Jesus refused the question: “I do not see a greatest of Ten Commands. I see a golden cord that runs through all the Ten Commands that binds them fast and makes them one. This cord is love” (17: 3-4).

That will become the main refrain of Jesus’ ministry. Religion is intended to bind people together; it is nothing more than a cord of love. Anyone or anything that misuses religion, that attempts to manipulate religion—to make divisions, rather than bind together—comes in for singular complaint and condemnation.

Jesus objects to sacrifice for this reason. He objects to religious hierarchy for this reason. He rejects any notion of one land only as being holy, of one people as specially chosen.

Then he sets out for India. What happens there is predictable enough: “The common people were his friends, believed in him, and followed him in throngs. The priests and rulers were afraid of him” (31: 2-3).

Already, it would seem, Jesus is the teacher, not the student; which raises an important question for this Gospel and for this whole spiritual style. Why does Jesus travel the world? To study and to learn? Or to show himself superior to every other spiritual adept and every other teaching? Is this a syncretistic love fest, or a contest that permits only a single prophet at the top?

By the time he arrives in India, Jesus already knows the truth:

A man’s ideal is his God… and man names the part of God he sees… You Brahmans call him Parabrahm; in Egypt he is Thoth; and Zeus is his name in Greece; Jehovah is his Hebrew name; but everywhere he is the Causeless Cause, the rootless Root from which all things have grown. When men become afraid of God, and take him for a foe, they dress up other men in fancy garbs and call them priests… When man sees God as one with him, as father-God, he needs no middle man, no priest to intercede…
(28: 16-22).

On it goes. Jesus travels onward to Tibet (though curiously enough, “in Lassa he did not teach” The Aquarian Gospel 36:10, and as I say, he never sets foot in China).

Instead, Jesus doubled back on Persia. He was only twenty-four years old, and the Magi who had recognized him as an infant rejoiced in his maturity. And only now, here in Persia for some reason, he begins to be a healer as well as a teacher.

Jesus trudges on through Assyria and Babylon, then comes at last to Greece. He expressly wishes to study Greek philosophy (“full of pungent truth,” 44:1), but here the same pattern of disappointment continues. Jesus is welcomed by the Athenians, much as they will welcome the Apostle Paul some decades later, and they invite Jesus to share his teaching. He is introduced to the priest Apollo, “Defender of the Oracle,” but he learns nothing from the man. Instead, Jesus teaches “a wisdom far greater than theirs” (44:6), then he sets out again on a Cretan vessel called Mars, and sets his sights on Egypt.

In Egypt, the land of ancient wisdom, Jesus is reunited with Elihu and Salome, the two who had instructed his mother. He regales them with stories of his travels and his casual experiments with the wisdom traditions of the world; they are delighted to witness Jesus’ development (and also, one suspects, to see the superiority of their own teachings confirmed in him).

Jesus stays with them for some time, then moves on to Heliopolis, where he requests initiation into the sacred brotherhood. He passes through seven stages and seven trials, achieving the requisite titles for each of his successes (we should hear echoes of the Cardinal and Theological Virtues here): Sincerity (chapter 48), Justice (chapter 49), Faith (chapter 50), Philanthropy (chapter 51), Heroism (chapter 52), Love Divine (chapter 53), then at last he tarries in the Chamber of the Dead (chapter 54).

It is at this decisive moment that he awarded his title: The Christ (chapter 55).

Finally, Jesus retreats to Alexandria where the seven sages of his own age were housed. They meet for meditation and discussion, Jesus offers a concluding speech inspired by Holy Breath (“I have lost my will in Holy Breath… The words I speak are not my own,” 60: 5-6), and the sages affirm him in his mission. At that point, Jesus returns to Roman Palestine for his mission to begin, and we pick up at the very beginning of Mark’s gospel: with Jesus’ baptism by John the Harbinger.

Who Was He? And Why Did He Have to Die That Way?

Given the strikingly “Gnostic” manner in which Jesus is presented in this “Aquarian Gospel,” two central contentions of the Christian faith become far more contentious: 1) How could this figure, whose will is already “submerged in Holy Breath,” pray not to go through with the coming ordeal in the Garden of Gethsemane; and 2) Why in the world was his death a requirement to bring about the reunification of humanity with its Creator? If God is opposed to sacrifice, then how can he be a sacrifice?

These are the central questions in any and every Christian gospel: Who was he? And why did he have to die that way?

Dowling’s version of the Gethsemane prayer is fascinating, and the way he sets it up tells us what he takes to be the true meaning of the tale. “What I have done all men can do,” Jesus concludes. “And I am now about to demonstrate the power of man to conquer death: for every man is God made flesh” (163: 36-37).

You see, it all hinges on the thorn in the very side of Christian theology: how to distinguish between body and soul, flesh and spirit. Death is a death in body; for many Gnostics, it was seen as a way to release the soul. (That, by the way, is just how Jesus views the matter in the popular Gospel of Judas, published two years ago: Judas did not betray Jesus, but rather did what Jesus asked him to do, in order to “sacrifice the man that clothes [his spirit].”)

According to The Aquarian Gospel, when Jesus prayed in Gethsemane for an escape route, he was praying in bodily fear. He prayed that God would strengthen his body so that it can face what his soul had already accepted: namely, that God’s will is to have Jesus die bloodily on a cross.

But if even Pilate wished to save Jesus from this (this is emphasized in chapters 167-168), then why does God not wish it?

That question is not easily answered in The Aquarian Gospel. The short answer would seem to be that Jesus was put to death in order to show others that bodily death is not important, only soul is. “Now, Jesus did not sleep within the tomb. The body is the manifest of soul; but soul is soul without its manifest. And in the realm of souls, unmanifest, the Lord went forth and taught” (172: 15-16).

But that is not all; it can’t be. There is also the matter of the bodily resurrection. In The Aquarian Gospel, Jesus appears “fully materialized,” to his mother, to Miriam, to Mary of Magdala, to Peter, James, and John, then later to all of his disciples.

But he does not stop there. He appears “fully materialized” to the sages he met in India, and to the Magi in Persia (chapter 176), to Apollo and the Silent Brethren in Greece, and to Claudas and Juliet in Rome (chapter 178), then finally to the sacred priests of Heliopolis in Egypt.

A third and historically significant feature of this “Aquarian Gospel” emerges at this decisive moment, here at the end, and it involves what we might call the illiberal presumptions of this Liberal Protestant gospel. The Aquarian Gospel that preaches the brotherhood and sisterhood of all humanity is not devoid of its own sibling rivalries.

This gospel’s Jesus travels the length and breadth of the world (excepting China, as I have said—Jesus is no Marco Polo), seeking out all forms of spiritual wisdom. But he does really listen and does not really learn anything at all. He simply demonstrates the superiority of his own position everywhere he goes. What he learned from his mother, what she learned from Elihu and Salome, is enough for him. He returns to them in the end, just to show them they were right.

It is one thing for a Christian minister who is committed to interfaith dialogue, and the common divinity that accompanies and underwrites his belief in a common humanity, to say that Jesus triumphed over “the wisdom of the East,” but it would be quite another thing for an “Eastern” recipient of that story to celebrate the Christ’s victory in the same way.

The Aquarian Gospel is still a Christian gospel, and Jesus is still its exclusive hero. The Age of Aquarius is potentially as self-righteous and unreflective, and thus nearly as lost, as every age that preceded it.

Revelations are corrupted, ever and anon.

Religions are used to divide as well as unite.

Like the center, the cusp cannot hold.

While Levi Dowling was born in the Midwest, in Bellville, Ohio, he moved later in life to Los Angeles, California, which is where he wrote down The Aquarian Gospel. The year was 1908, and he died just three years later.

When he died, a new Christian movement was in the offing, right there in Los Angeles, one aimed explicitly against the very kinds of Liberal Protestantism so well embodied in The Aquarian Gospel. That new-old style of Christianity called itself “Fundamentalism,” intending by that name to combat the eclectic little-bit-of-everything and smarty-pants spirituality, as well as the almost casual baptism of one’s personal preferences, so clearly evident in this Gospel.

The Bible, these Fundamentalists insisted, was all of a piece, and no part of it could be jettisoned without losing the whole. It certainly could not be rewritten in a trance. The physical body was important, too; Jesus was God Incarnate, born of a virgin, killed under Pontius Pilate, and risen in the flesh. His followers will be resurrected in the body as well. Christianity is not only a spiritual message; it is a bodily event.

The legacy of The Aquarian Gospel is ironic indeed. On the very cusp of the Age of Pisces, it suggests, a profound spiritual adept preached a message of love and unity, and was killed for his trouble. Somehow he caused the ire of his fellow religionists, and was put to death in a way almost too horrible to imagine.

Two thousand years later, on the very cusp of the Age of Aquarius, an eloquent and profound spiritual seeker wrote a new gospel expressing that same message of unity, and caused the ire of his fellow religionists—who have been engaged in a culture-and-religious war with his tribe ever since.