Religious Cults

There are cults in religion too. The word cult comes from the same Latin root that brings us culture and cultivate. The Romans cultivated both their fields and their gods.
In religious studies the words “cultus, cultic, cult” refer to formal rituals or acts of worship. All religions have cultic aspects, in this sense of the word. Ritual movements, words, and the handling of sacred objects, among other things, make up the cultus of a religion.
Practitioners of a religion believe they achieve some sort of contact with the divine, sacred, or transcendent during the enactment of the cult. Outsiders might call it magical thinking. In a catholic or orthodox liturgy the “cultic” elements (in the academic sense) are obvious: sacred vestments, incense, and the transformation of ordinary bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ.
In pentecostal church services believers speak in heavenly languages and receive divine healing. In a baptist service lost sinners recite a sinner’s prayer and are born again, transformed forever by the power of God.
When I was a student, back in the seventies, the word “cult” was being used in the sense of a new, unorthodox, and dangerous religion. The primary emphasis was on the deviant beliefs and practices of these religious cults.
In the nineteenth century, several new religions emerged in America as the young country was expanding westward: Christian Science, the Watchtower Society of Jehovah’s Witnesses, various Mormon sects, and Seventh Day Adventists sprung up. These were groups that were usually considered cults back when I was a student. They had in common the complete rejection of traditional Christianity and new revelations and sources of authority.
But in the 1970s and ’80s we began to become aware of newer religious cults, many of them splitting off not from Christianity but from Eastern religions. People became more concerned about the sociology of these groups than their theology.
Cults became religious groups that exerted extreme control over their members. The greatest fear of parents of college-age students was that their kids would fall victim to a cult.
The most gruesome example of the extreme social control practiced by cults was mass suicide of the followers of Jim Jones in Jonestown, Guyana.

. . . more to come

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Dobson and Obama

Dobson from MSNBC

Dobson, Photo from MSNBC

It used to be common for ministers to neglect their wives (ministers used to be mostly men in most denominations) and children while they were out doing “the Lord’s work.” James Dobson taught a generation of evangelical men that attending to the need of their wives and children was the Lord’s work, their first responsibility.

Dobson was a professor of Pediatrics at the medical school at USC before he began his career as an author and lecturer, and eventually founder and head of Focus on the Family ministries. His first book Dare to Discipline came out in 1970. In it he advocated gentle but firm and consistent discipline in raising children. He taught a generation of evangelicals the importance of nurturing self esteem in children. He taught that the goal of raising children is to prepare them to be independent and to make responsible decisions.

When the song “Cats in the Cradle” came out, Dr. Dobson heartily endorsed it. That song and Dr. Dobon’s teachings taught us to take time to be involved in our children’s lives–or at least to feel guilty when we neglected to do so.

One of Dobson’s other popular books was What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women. In it he encouraged men to be responsible, considerate, thoughtful, and romantic. In addition to Dobson’s books, Focus on the Family ministries has produced video series, magazines, conferences, and a high quality talk-show format radio program.

Dr. Dobson bristles when he is referred to in the media as Rev. Dobson. Although he speaks in churches, he is not ordained and has no formal theological training. That–the lack of theological training–is one thing Dobson has in common with Oprah Winfrey, and also with a man he has recently criticized, senator Barack Obama.

Faith and theology are two different things. Faith means trusting in God, keeping one’s commitment, being confident in the ultimate triumph of God’s will, continually depending on the mercy of God in awareness of one’s shortcomings. Theology is the systematic articulation of the content and meaning of one’s faith. One may have a strong faith and a weak theology. I assume that Dr. Dobson and senator Obama each have a strong faith.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back in the 1970s Dobson and the directors of Focus on the Family decided that teaching in the churches and on the airwaves was not enough. The family was under attack from powerful cultural forces, so Dobson decided to fight back and to enter the cultural wars. He became associated with other leaders in the religious right, Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy (both of whom have lately gone to their eternal rewards) along with others.

Dobson has been a staunch opponent of pornography, “radical feminism,” abortion, and “the radical homosexual agenda.” Dobson also sees the military as modeling positive family values and considers a strong national defense to be a pro-family issue. Likewise, he sees keeping taxes low, keeping business free of onerous regulations, and debunking the “myth” of global warming as pro-family issues. Dobson has always been surrounded by successful professionals: university and professional coaches, colonels, business executives, and physicians.

Barack Obama got his experience in grass roots organizing with a different clientèle. Naturally, his experience has led him to see different sides of the problems facing American families.

The alliance between Dobson and other conservative evangelicals helped elect George W. Bush president twice. To be precise, I might say their votes got him close enough to allow the election to be decided by the courts–but regardless, Bush’s policies and Dobson’s politics mirror each other perfectly.

Senator McCain has not been conservative enough for Dobson, so he announced he might sit this election out–at least as far as the presidential vote. Voting for a democrat was out of the question. Senator Obama has been appealing to people of faith and to moderate conservatives. The right wing doesn’t believe him, doesn’t trust him.

Obama says faith will have a role in his presidency, but that doesn’t mean the imposition of any particular religious interpretation on the nation. He illustrated by referring to laws in the book of Leviticus that no one follows today. He was not ridiculing Scripture but pointing to the difficulties in interpretation and the need for a historical awareness. On the historical matter, he was right. The commandments in the book of Leviticus were given to Israel as part of God’s covenant with them and as part of their law while living in the Land of Israel.

The commandments never were given to Gentiles or Christians as such. One can find expressions of universal principles in these laws, such as “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But one also finds laws against blending two kinds of fabric in a single garment, for example. An individual is free to follow his or her conscience in the choice of fabrics, even free to meditate on the spiritual meaning–for example, one’s heart should not contain a mixture of contradictory motives–but it would be divisive to try to make it the law of the land.

I don’t see Obama’s remarks as being a “fruitcake interpretation.” I see his comments as being in line with sound principles of biblical interpretation and the American heritage of freedom of conscience, speech, and religion.

C. S. Lewis, who was an expert on literature, once remarked that when Sigmund Freud ventured into literary criticism he was “quite ignorant.” Lewis said he should have stuck to what he knew best, curing neurotics. Maybe it’s time for Dr. Dobson to get back to doing what he knows best: teaching parents how to raise children with self esteem and teaching husbands and wives how to understand each other. Maybe it’s time for him to retire from politics.

What is Fundamentalism?

I recently had a discussion with another blogger on the definition of fundamentalism, and it got me wondering, what really is fundamentalism?

Early in the twentieth century there was a movement to re-interpret all the traditional doctrines of the Christian faith to bring them in line with the modern world. This movement was called “modernism.” Some theologians from Princeton wrote a series of booklets called “The Fundamentals,” defending traditional Christian beliefs.

The Princeton professors were not ignorant or violent. They were not opposed to science or social progress; they were traditional in their belief. They did not believe there was any essential conflict between traditional beliefs and science or progress.

Fundamentalism was first a theological description. It has now become a sociological description for intolerant, violent extremists in any religion.

We are painfully aware of the violence associated with Muslim fundamentalism, and there are a few fringe groups of Christian fundamentalism that are troublesome.

Recently in Jerusalem a woman was attacked on a bus for refusing to sit in the back. (See “In Jerusalem as well as Tehran.”)

Fundamentalism is not identical with having a holy book. There are Christians, for example, who regard the Bible as the authoritative source of their faith but who also recognize the complexity of the historical interpretation of the Bible. There are also fundamentalist forms of religions that do not rely on a single sacred text like the Bible or the Qur’an.

These are the attributes I see in modern fundamentalism:

1. The belief that a group has exclusive and direct access to the absolute truth, whether it be in the form of a holy book, a living prophet, or an inspired tradition. There is no room for questions of interpretation, subtleties of meaning, or flexibility in application.

2. The denial of any other form of access to the truth. If reason, conscience, or experience conflict with the group’s truth, they must be suppressed.

3. A siege mentality: the belief that the group is engaged in a mortal struggle with the forces of evil, that all those outside of the group are enemies.

4. The justification of all means necessary to defeat the enemy: coercion, violence, or deception are equally valid.

Three Tasks for Theology

When my brother-in-law was about five he used to love telling a knock-knock joke: Knock-knock. Who’s there? Amos. Amos who? Amos bit me!

Then he would roar with laughter. He thought it was hilarious. He didn’t realize he was leaving out an important syllable. The joke was supposed to be “Amos-quito bit me.”

I know plenty of folks who have the special talent “to mar a curious tale in telling it.” Many of us can sing a song out of tune and still somehow manage to get the words right.

Theology is reflection on the meaning and content of our faith, it is scrutiny into the adequacy of the way we articulate our faith. Sometimes we explain it poorly. That doesn’t mean our faith is defective; it’s just like singing a tune out of tune. There’s nothing wrong with the song, but our singing of it is not very appealing.

Theology is not only the business of professionals; all of us should examine the way we articulate our faith. Theology has three main tasks; the trick is keeping them in balance.

The first task is to communicate the meaning of our faith to those who do not yet share it. To do this effectively we first have to understand the people with whom we wish to communicate. That means we have to be good listeners before we speak.

Paul the apostle called it “becoming all things to all people.” Paul Tillich called it the method of correlation: trying to find the questions people are asking before we give our answers. Then we can try to express the good news in a way they can understand.

The temptation is to package or market the gospel in a way that gives away too much, that compromises something essential. It is the temptation of trying to appease rather than challenge.

The second task of theology is the ongoing work of reformation. Put bluntly this means recognizing that a lot of things we are doing are wrong and a lot of what we are saying is bunk. The followers of Christ are always like his first disciples, people of little faith, short-sighted, hard-headed, and slow to learn. The church is always in danger of corruption, and is always in need of renewal. So we have to continually go back to the sources and ask What are we missing? What are we getting wrong? What are we distorting.

The third task of theology is conservative. We didn’t invent the faith; we inherited it and are entrusted with the mission of passing it on whole and intact. In trying to be relevant or trying to correct the faults of others, we risk losing something essential in the historic faith.

Anne Rice described her hesitance to embrace Christianity after she began to lose faith in atheism. The way other Christians expressed their faith struck her ears as wrong and she wondered how she could associate with them. For example she said, “How could I join with fellow believers who thought my gay son was going to hell? . . . How could I affirm my belief in a faith that was itself so characterized by argument and strife?”

Her answer was, “Well, what happened to me on that Sunday that I returned to faith was this: I received a glimpse into what I can only call the Infinite Mercy of God.”