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Cult as Community or Isolation

Posted on: January 12, 2020

Category: Theology

Cult as Community or Isolation

Cult as Community or Isolation
When I was a chaplain at McGill University, over two decades ago, I had an encounter with a cult. Several students had gotten involved in this religious group that claimed its founder was a messiah, and from there various forms of brainwashing techniques were used to isolate students from their friends and families. Following successful conversion, of course, the students would leave the university to find employment and give their earnings to the cult leader. The students would also become emissaries, apostles, of the cult seeking to convert other students to the way.

The cult was located just off McGill campus, but I was able to council students who had brushes with the organization. As part of a chaplaincy team, my colleagues and I issued a warning about the cult, and I successfully re-convert one student back to university life and back into contact with family and friends. The parents of this particular student made an effort to travel from their home in Ontario to visit with me and thank me for “saving” their child.

There are two things that have stayed in my memory from this experience. One is how the cult in question and the average church used the same language, though with almost opposite meanings. The language about saving the student from the cult was the same language the cult used to save the student from the secular world. The word apostle was used in the cult, and at the time this was an afront to me as someone who could only imagine the apostles as the first followers of Jesus. The ideas of a messiah and of the way were also present in the cult and equally offensive to me. In this experience, I had to learn and accept that language creates realities, but not just any language will do. When we seek to create new realities, if we do, we need to use forms of language that carry power and signify truth. The cult was able to do that by reconfiguring the meaning of traditional Christian language and thereby creating a new reality that could rival any other form of religious sentiment.

The other thing I learned (I was young and very often ignorant) was that the word cult, as I was understanding it, was different from the Latin root cultus, which really means ritual. In French the word culte just means worship. At some point in English (some readers probably know better than I) cult took on a pejorative sense indicating an isolated, anti-social group, full of apparently delusional devotees and false messiahs. Cults, in this second sense, are socially dangerous because their mode of operation is to divide and conquer, and, along the way, inflict collateral damage both on families and communities. Society at large, too, suffers a loss when talented people, who might otherwise make a positive difference in the world, forfeit their futures for empty promises. Cults hold this two-pronged danger of dividing people against one another and stealing otherwise constructive talent from our common human future.

When I reflect further on this experience, it occurs to me that cult understood as religious worship stands against cult understood as an isolated group. Rituals in Christianity, like communion, are about community and (at least theoretically) about breaking down if not eliminating barriers falsely constructed between us. At communion, all are supposed to be welcomed, and the ritual (it does not have to be communion) expresses the brotherhood and sisterhood of all human beings.

It does not require a leap of imagination to conclude that the political reality of the world today is infected by the negative sense of cult. Many people talk about the “cult of Trump,” and many of my American friends say this with great sadness and worry. The language used in this cult is indeed the traditional language of America as a great and free country of democratic principles, yet evidence suggests that a new isolationism has gripped America and that the democratic institutions are at jeopardy with an administration that seems bent on ignoring them with impunity. The consequence is a deeply divided nation and the loss of potentially constructive talent to the destructive worldview of narcissism.

America is not alone. Several countries seem to be inflicted with the same disease. The collateral damage of innocent lives lost to ill-conceived and inept acts of war, executed in the name of isolation and wrapped up in false narratives of pride, betray, on a world scale, the typical and tragically misinformed anti-social behaviour of cults.

Christianity finds itself in the position of losing its language about love for a common humanity to groups who use the same language to signify opposite meanings. Our common humanity is the content of the meaning of socialism, that is, society’s common good, like education and health care, but the word has been rendered evil and socialism, in the new cults of isolation, means something demonic. Christian words of compassion like justice and forgiveness have become words of hatred and intolerance in the cults of Christian isolationism. Here again the potential gifts of Christianity to humanity are lost in the fury.

There might be no good news here, at least not for a while. Eventually, isolationism destroys itself. Unfortunately, this can take time. Eventually, no one and no nation can stand alone, but somehow this lesson that history reveals again and again gets lost as generations unfold and the collective memory slips. However, we will remember again, and there will be a better time ahead once the true sense of cult manages to reveal the hopelessness of the false sense of cult now dominating the world.

©By David Galston

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