Gerald Heard: Grandfather of the New Age

by Charles E. Vernoff, Ph.D.

One of the most remarkable experiences of my life was a several-year acquaintance with Gerald Heard that began in 1959 during my freshman year at the University of Chicago. Due to a unique personal history, I was a precocious “spiritual seeker” before the New Age had officially dawned in the mid-1960's. Born into an ethnically rooted but spiritually assimilated Jewish family, I was abducted — with permission (a long story!) — by North Carolina Southern Baptists during a summer month of my eighth year. The postcards about Jesus I wrote to my parents in Miami Beach no doubt inspired their placing me in a Reform Jewish Sunday school the following year. Another year and we were in California where, in short order, I had met my first yogi (a young Mexican just returned from five years at Shri Aurobindo's famous Pondicherry ashram in India) and was accordingly smitten by Hinduism. So by my early adolescence, I was juggling the truth claims of three great religions. Such is the childhood formation of a destined comparative religionist....

As a senior in high school, I had an English teacher with spiritual interests with whom I must have conversed more than casually, for she gave me a copy of Gerald’s Training for the Life of the Spirit. I was struck at his integral thinking, in this case drawing especially upon Christianity and Buddhism, and in due course I wrote a fan letter sent in care of his publisher. To my astonishment, I received a personal handwritten note from Santa Monica inviting me to drop up to Gerald's mountain redoubt for a chat. By this time I was in Chicago, but I'll never forget my first winter vacation, taking the bus west to Santa Monica and being met by Michael Barrie for a ride to the lovely hilltop home he shared with Gerald. That was the first of a series of similar visits, occurring whenever I was in town, during which Gerald and I would discuss world spiritualities in the garden over tea and shortbread. Gerald's long beard and exquisite Shavian English made me feel as though I had been transported back to a more genteel nineteenth century setting in which the art of conversation had not yet succumbed to technology. During those years, I introduced Rabbi Zalman Schachter to Gerald — for which Reb Zalman has never ceased to thank me. Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi went on to make his own mark on history as the founder of Jewish Renewal, now virtually a new Judaic denomination. Long before, Zalman had first introduced me to the true depths of Judaic spirituality.

During the years following Gerald's tragic stroke, occurring in my senior year at Chicago and putting an abrupt end to our wondrous conversations, I came to an ever deeper appreciation of what a rare privilege had befallen me to have become a young collocutor of Gerald Heard's. Originally I had no knowledge of the “Southern California Vedanta Circle,” including Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood along with Gerald — now known as a significant coterie in the history of American religious life and thought. I knew that Gerald had wanted me to meet Aldous, but the demise of the latter unfortunately intervened. Years later, at the Trabuco Canyon Monastery, I saw the room where Aldous had for the most part written The Perennial Philosophy. If that book, together with The Doors of Perception, were the literary heralds of the "New Age," the '60's spiritual counterculture, then Gerald Heard — as Huxley's spiritual mentor — must be acknowledged as true grandfather of the New Age. But I believe Gerald's vision both preceded and transcended the attempted spiritual revolution of the 1960's. The booklet I had first become acquainted with was rewritten as Training for the Life of Growth. This small book captivated me when I first saw it and captivates me now. It outlines an "ad hoc church" based purely on growth in love. Composed of a core membership group in charis (love amongst equals), it takes on postulants in eros (needy love) and aims to produce spiritual masters in agape (the capacity for unconditional selfless love). Here in all its resplendent purity, unencumbered by doctrine of any sort, is the ideal form at which the "New Age" had aimed but has not yet achieved. That ideal still beckons, challenging us now. Gerald Heard remains no less today than when he was amongst us in the body — our wise, revered and beloved, universal and prophetic teacher.

"Gerald's vision both preceded and transcended the attempted spiritual revolution of the 1960's."


Charles E. Vernoff, Ph.D. (1942-2013), was Emeritus Professor of Religion at Cornell College, Mount Vernon, Iowa, where he had taught religion for 28 years, from 1978 until his retirement in 2006.