Let’s Talk Some More about Cults—Theologically (Follow Up/Part 2)
This is a follow up to the immediately preceding blog post with the same title. There I talked about meanings of the word “cult” and marks of cults. Again, let me remind everyone that neither I nor you can name specific organizations as cults because of legal problems and court cases. The word “cult” has taken on such pejorative connotations that labeling any existing (not now defunct) organization a cult can bring about a lawsuit.
Here I want to illustrate some things about “cults and new/alternative religions” in America with stories from my lengthy “career” as a researcher into and teacher about them. From about 1978 until 1999 I taught one course on the subject every year. These classes were undergraduate and in three universities. All were elective courses.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
During my Ph.D. program at Rice University I taught “Deity, Mysticism, and the Occult.” I was given the textbook by the chair of the Religious Studies Department. It was a fascinating overview of unusual, “offbeat,” alternative religious and spiritual groups in America—with excerpts from their published writings. The author was a well-known sociologist of American religion who specialized in this particular subject. Later I got to meet him and I found out he was a member of a Theosophist group. That was not clear in his book, however, which was written from a neutral perspective (descriptive rather than prescriptive).
With the chair’s permission, I invited many members of groups discussed in the book to visit my class and even speak to the students. I insisted that they allow plenty of time for questions and answers—about their beliefs and practices. This was at a time when Neo-Paganism and Wicca were gaining widespread attention. I invited a leading scholar on cults and new religions to speak to my class about those movements—in America. He had recently published an article about Neo-Paganism and Wicca in America. He flew to Houston and I picked him up at the airport. The first thing he said to me was “Let’s go find some witches.” In the Houston Yellow Pages he found a category called “Occult.” Several “occult shops” were listed there and one was near the airport. We drove to it. I entered it with some fear and trepidation, but he walked right in boldly and began a conversation with the two ladies who owned and operated the store. On its floor was a large and elaborate circle containing a pentagram and lots of esoteric symbols. He later told me that indicated that a Wiccan coven met there. The store was full of bottles of herbs and potions, books about the occult, and all kinds of pictures of the Mother Goddess and the Horned God. The two proprietors looked the part. At first they were hesitant to discuss Wicca with my guest, but after he dropped some names of leading personalities in Wicca they warmed up and told him that they were the supply store for about fifty Wiccan (and other Neo-Pagan) covens in the Houston area. I was glad to leave that place; it made me, an evangelical Christian, uncomfortable.
We had moved the evening class to which he spoke to a larger lecture hall and by the time class began it was full to overflowing. The guest speaker, a Methodist minister, spoke with some passion about the rise of Neo-Paganism and Wicca in America.
During my tenure at Bethel College (now Bethel University) in Minnesota I offered basically the same course, with more of an explicitly Christian ethos, every year. It became one of the most popular electives in the college curriculum. Again, as at Rice, I invited representatives of various cults and new/alternative religions to speak to my class and I took the students on field trips to local churches, temples, meditation centers, etc. I told the students that, although “cults” was part of the title of the course, I did not claim that every spiritual group we studied, heard, or visited would be considered a cult. But all were “alternative religious groups” compared with mainstream religion in America. We did not study world religions except insofar as that was necessary for understanding the cults and new/alternative religions that made up the subject of the course.
During that time (1984-1999) a new religious movement (that claims not to be new but the oldest religion in the world) moved its world headquarters from California to a Minneapolis suburb. It built its new temple in a former cornfield. Because there was almost nothing published about this group, other than its own books, I decided to conduct research into it and I ended up writing a chapter about it for an edited book about America’s Alternative Religions published by SUNY Press. This religious-spiritual group publishes advertisements in many American newspapers and I have even seen television commercials promoting it. It is sometimes called “The Ancient Science of Soul Travel” and “The Religion of the Light and Sound of God.” I interviewed the president of the organization three times—at the temple. I read many of their books. I attended their annual world conference in downtown Minneapolis and saw and heard their “master” speak and lead the thousands of adherents in chanting a mantra promised to burn off karmic debt.
I asked the organization’s president if I could interview the master and he said the master did not meet with researchers or journalists, etc. But he suggested that I write him a letter which I did. He said he would deliver it to him personally. That night I had a very vivid dream in which the master appeared to me and sang me a song. When I woke up I did not remember the words. I told this to the president at our next meeting and he said “I know.” He told me that the master actually did come to me in my dream and answered my letter and shared some special spiritual knowledge with me. I reported that I did not remember the words of the song and the president said that if I would take some of their classes I would come to understand the meaning. I declined to do that.
The last time I took a class to the temple of that spiritual group something unfortunate happened. There were about twenty-five students, all undergraduates, mostly evangelical Christians. A man and woman showed us through the temple which was very modern and impressive. Then they took us into a kind of chapel. On a wall of the room were many colorful portraits of the group’s former masters—men and women who lived in the past and helped people become enlightened about “Spirit” and how Spirit lives within each of us. The portraits were paintings of very strange looking people and their names were even stranger. One was “Fubi Quantz.” (I might be misspelling that name as I’m going by memory.) Something about the pictures and stories about these former “masters” tickled some of the students’ “funny bones” and they began to snicker and then laugh. I asked them to stop, but they just couldn’t.
Later I received a phone call from a leader of the group telling me I was not welcome to bring students to the temple. I told them that they sounded very insecure—to be insulted by laughing 19 and 20 year olds. I suggested that maybe they needed to figure out a way to present their religion that would be taken more seriously and that they might consider being more confident of their religion’s history and traditions so that giggling boys and girls didn’t bother them.
Perhaps the most interesting guest speaker who came to my class was a Wiccan priestess named “Lorelei.” That was, of course, her Wiccan name, not her given name. She told me her legal name was Phyllis Carlson. She was the high priestess of a women-only Wiccan coven that met in the basement of a large Protestant church in downtown Minneapolis. She was a very sweet person and I liked her a lot. During one of her talks a student asked if her coven sacrificed animals and she said that they did not. But she said they sacrificed vegetables. What vegetables? Pomegranates. Why? Because they symbolize male fertility. One time she asked the class to get down on their hands and knees and “channel” the Mother Goddess’s energies into the earth to heal it of its wounds made by human “rapes” of the planet. She started to do it and I had to go to her and say “Lorelei, we don’t do magick here.” She seemed perplexed, but she got up and continued her talk about Wicca as a religion of peace and kindness that has nothing to do with Satan. They don’t even believe in Satan, she said. She stressed the “Wiccan rede” (rule) which is, she said, “That ye harm none, do as ye please.” She compared it with the Bible’s Golden Rule.
Other speakers came from a wide variety of cults, new/alternative religions, spiritual groups. I took the class to the Zen Meditation Center and to the Himalayan Meditation Center. We visited The Church of Scientology and the Temple of Eck.
In every case, after the field trip or guest speakers’ appearance, I talked with the students about differences between these groups and Christianity and we prayed for the specific religious-spiritual speakers we heard.
I have to tell one more story about this class. Every year I invited the minister of the local Unification Church to come to my class. He did an excellent job of explaining Sun Myung Moon’s message and the church’s beliefs and practices. One day he called me and invited me to give the “invocation” before Rev. Moon’s “talk” at the University of Minnesota. I asked him what would give him the impression that I would do such a thing and he said “Because you were always so nice to me when I spoke to your class.” I assured him that I would not give the invocation, but I did take my class to hear Rev. Moon speak. I have to say that the talk was—to us—absolutely incoherent. Rev. Moon spoke in Korean but we all had English transcripts of the talk. There were many people presents, I’d estimate about five hundred. Many of them were Korean or Japanese and many of Rev. Moon’s followers chanted and cheered as he spoke. It was kind of like a revival meeting.
But the most shocking thing about that event was that a Baptist pastor of a local church did give the invocation before Rev. Moon came on stage to speak. He asked for God’s blessing on his “Korean prophet Rev. Moon.” Needless to say, I was stunned.
I could draw many, different theological lessons from these experiences, but the one I want to focus on here comes from the Baptist pastor delivering the invocation at the Unification Church event featuring Rev. Sun Myung Moon. He called Rev. Moon God’s “Korean prophet.” The lesson here is that especially ministers of the gospel, but even all Christians, ought to seek the gift of discernment of spirits and that includes studying a speaker before agreeing to give him (and by implication his “ministry”) a blessing. I am giving the Baptist pastor the benefit of the doubt and assuming that if he had studied Rev. Moon’s teachings and the beliefs of his “ministry,” he would not have agreed to give the invocation and he would not have called him God’s “Korean prophet.” I may be wrong. After all, as I have mentioned here before, I once heard a Baptist seminary professor “testify” that he was both Baptist and Buddhist.
When the “Moonies,” members of the Unification Church, first began walking the streets of American cities and towns and first began “visiting” churches to recruit members to theirs, many American ministers and even some theologians accepted them and their message about a new Korean prophet who would “complete the work of Jesus Christ.” Far, far too many American Christians, including those who should be expected to know better, embrace or at least cooperate with “ministries” that are not authentically Christian—as they (and I) understand it.
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