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10. magical religions, hysteria, and christianity

new religions or magical religions?

The general theory of religion propounded by Rodney Stark and William S. Bainbridge predicts that people who are denied access to desired rewards will tend to accept either specific or general "compensators" instead. (1) Specific compensators include such things as ritual procedures prescribed by a shaman to cure a specific condition, such as warts. General compensators include such things as the promise of a happy life. Compensators usually entail promises of rewards in the distant future or in some other nonverifiable context.

Religion, says Stark, "is a system of general compensators based on supernatural assumptions," and he contends that those religious organizations that move "markedly in the direction of non-supernaturalism" will thereby "pursue the path to ruin." (2) On the other hand, Bainbridge presents evidence that Transcendental Meditation (TM) decreased in popularity as it moved in the direction of promising increased supernatural power. (3) He contends that the drop in recruitment began before the intensification of the religious element, but the fact of the matter is that TM originally gained large numbers of recruits precisely because it emphasized its "scientific" status and sought to avoid the label of religion. It was presented as an intellectually respectable if novel technique of personal development. While the later drop in recruitment is attributable to a number of factors, it seems quite clear that important among them is the fact that an increased number of magical claims--promises to practitioners of everything from a knowledge of the past and the future to the ability to levitate--belied its claim to being science-based. When its supposedly scientifically proven claim of offering a new state of consciousness was debunked, it lost those who had joined it for that reason. University students who had found it respectable to practice magic so long as everyone considered it a science lost interest in it when its true status was revealed.

In general we disagree with Stark and Bainbridge's market model of new religions, although we do agree that new religions, new psychologies, and new therapies are all marketed in our culture ...

One major distinction between Christianity and so-called new religions has to do with the difference between theistic faith and nontheistic magic. The distinction is not, it should be noted, between God on the one hand and faith in magic on the other. Faith in magic is a psychological impossibility. At most belief in magic may pacify suspicion, jealousy, and insecurity. But it cannot produce faith, because true faith excludes belief in magic. People who lose their faith often replace it almost unconsciously with belief in magic and intense allegiance to modern-day sorcerers or witches, individuals with "exemplary charisma" and "extraordinary personalities."

The belief in an acosmic monism, the oneness of all things, that pervades most new religions is far removed from the Christian understanding that there is a significant distinction between God and his creation. The two perspectives have profoundly different implications. Acosmic monism implies imminent magic, be it "inherited" as in witchcraft or subject to "manipulation" as in sorcery. The Christian distinction between God and his creation, on the other hand, implies the need for transcendent faith.

In keeping with their acosmic monism, most new religions advocate a mystical version of universal love and respect for all things. From this perspective, spontaneous and total selfexpressiveness appears safe and even desirable. If all things are one, self-expressiveness is the proper cement with which to unite the community. In contrast, Christianity clearly distinguishes good from evil and maintains that there is a potential for either in all acts, beliefs, and attitudes. All self-expression is a matter of choice, and every choice entails a moral responsibility. It is naive to suppose that every choice we make, every way we choose to express ourselves, will necessarily be good.

The centrality of choice in Christianity has to do with what Arthur F. Holmes calls the ad extra of Christianity. All created things are ad extra--created by God "to the outside" of himself. (15) We noted, similarly, that the Bible suggests that the essence of marriage is the becoming of one flesh, and that children are not an indispensable element in this relationship: they are an extra. Holmes suggests that God gave the world its own reality and granted it delegated power and now cares for it with special acts of providence and miracles to achieve what otherwise would not occur. The fact that such providence is divinely added should discourage us from belief in magic. There is nothing intrinsic in the creation that will guide our destinies; we are responsible, and we must exercise our responsibility and choice.

Christianity stresses the fact that God has delegated power in creation, which underscores the limitations of human nature. New religions, on the other hand, tend to stress the exemplary charisma manifested by the extraordinary personality of their leaders. Christians refuse to worship individuals, although they respect them. The power of devotion to a charismatic leader invites worshipful imitation rather than the sorts of tough choices called for by a belief in delegated power ...

choose where to place your anchor

It is unfortunate, though perhaps unavoidable, that much of the study of cults and new religions has been done by psychologists employing their standard medical model. We have tried to show that there are significant psycho-moral aspects of these new religions that this model cannot adequately account for, aspects that belong to the the sphere of religion or myth. Indeed, many individuals who join today's new religions solve their psychological and social problems in terms of fantasies derived from myths, some of which are derived from major religious and philosophical traditions. Such individuals perceive their psychological or social imbalances as deep social injustices that call for a dramatic and usually a moral or spiritual solution. As they translate their behavioral problems, emotional turmoil, and mental restlessness into fantasies or myths or, alternatively, as they translate myths into behavioral and emotional nuances, they undergo a "healing." So it is important that we take seriously not only the mythological fragments into which these searchers are hooking their anchors but also the officially sanctioned myth from which these fragments are breaking away or into which they are coalescing.

The essence of Christianity is trust. The essence of non-Western systems of witchcraft, sorcery, and divination is a mixture of mistrust, jealousy, and suspicion--precisely the opposite of trust. The centrality of trust in Christianity gives it a unique psychology, evident already in the story of Adam and Eve. When they fell, the bond of trust between God and humanity was broken, and we began to doubt God. Doubt and mistrust ravaged our psychology. We began to blame the evil we did on a vengeful or indifferent God. And yet no extent of efforts to free ourselves with such excuses is successful. As Hans Kung puts it, "compelled to justify himself, emancipated man attempts to exonerate himself, to find an alibi and to shift blame with the aid of a variety of excuse mechanisms. He practices the art of showing 'that it was not him." (16) We have attempted to blame evil on our environment, genetic pre-programming, our instinctive urges, "individual, social, linguistic structures," and in short on anything but ourselves. Though we may be emancipated, we remain burdened with a nagging feeling of guilt. If emancipation cannot free us of guilt, what can? Kung contends, and we agree, that the answer is redemption. Redemption and emancipation both mean liberation, but whereas "emancipation means liberation of man by man... self-liberation," (17) redemption means liberation of man by God, true liberation. But how did, or how can, God redeem us? Through the birth and death of Christ. Christ was himself the God whom we learned to mistrust in the fall. To redeem us, God redeemed himself. He played out before our doubting eyes a beneficent act, his redemption, thereby redeeming us to a restored relationship of trust.

The story of redemption is simple--a God-man was born and died at our hands. But consider its implications. God entrusted us with his son, giving us the choice of which attitude we would assume toward him. We are subject to God, but we have freedom of choice nonetheless. What is more, the redemption teaches us not only that much of our suffering is self-inflicted, a consequence of lives lived in mistrust, but it also teaches us how difficult it is to restore a relationship: it entails creating a new sense of trust. Trust, not mystical merging, is what cements relationships and clears our minds. And further still, in freeing us of the burden of guilt that results from our collective heinous acts, God restores our sense of proportion. In the process of redeeming us, the resurrection distinguishes us from God, redefines us as finite but free. God's revelation of his infinity frees us from the delusion that we are or ever can be gods. Exhilarated by the wholesome clarity of mind these insights afford us, we can be, in the words of H. A. Meynell, "unrestrictedly attentive, intelligent and reasonable" as we explore ourselves, the world, and the universe. (18) We need pause in this quest only to make certain that we have chosen the good rather than the bad, that we remain grounded in our trust in God.