Sunday, September 6, 2009

When does "cult" become "culture"?

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Merriam-Webster definition of "cult":
Etymology: French & Latin; French culte, from Latin cultus care, adoration, from colere to cultivate — more at wheel
Date: 1617
1 : formal religious veneration : worship
2 : a system of religious beliefs and ritual; also : its body of adherents
3 : a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also : its body of adherents
4 : a system for the cure of disease based on dogma set forth by its promulgator
5 a : great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially : such devotion regarded as a literary or intellectual fad b : the object of such devotion c : a usually small group of people characterized by such devotion

I was born and raised a Mormon and am now an Orthodox Christian convert.

Orthodoxy accepted my May 1975 baptism performed by a Presbyterian elder in the Colorado River and ignored my July 1975 re-baptism performed by a Mormon priest in the Pacific Ocean. Orthodoxy considers Mormonism a "cult" without authority from God. By contrast, the Mormon Church in Salt Lake City considers itself to be the ONLY true church authorized by God.

How did this happen? Is it either/or? Or neither? Are we talking about different Gods?

Both Orthodox and Mormon ecclesiastical institutions can be viewed as "cults" in terms of definitions 1, 2, 5a and 5b above, whereas Orthodoxy views Mormonism mainly in terms of definition 3. Neither can now be described in terms of 5c, although they certainly could have been so described during their respective beginnings.

Both Orthodoxy and Mormonism are currently more than ecclesiastical systems; they are ways of life. Both see their church structure as “The one true church.” Many other ecclesiastical organizations make this same claim. However, Orthodoxy claims to be the original institution established by Jesus. Even so, within Orthodoxy there are many “denominations” or self-governing congregations as well as ethnic ones. The Roman Catholic Church is another claimant with an even more monolithic structure than either Orthodoxy or Mormonism. How many more such structures are there out there that claim exclusivity and how true or legitimate are their claims?

Trying to take such claims seriously from so many different traditions often seems like trying to humor the narcissist who asserts: "My body is the only true body!" And so saying is unable to see or value any other body but his own. Where did we get the notion that the "only true church" was an external reality rather than an internal one?

I became an Orthodox Christian after having been deeply moved from "within" by the compelling effect of Russian Orthodox Liturgical music, which came to me as a musical file attached to an email from a non-Orthodox friend from the "outer" world. Greek music doesn't move me the same way, nor does Antiochian music or Episcopalian or Lutheran or Presbyterian or even Mormon, although I feel much in common with devout believers in any of these institutions. Furthermore, there are many devout believers outside of these or any other ecclesiastical organizations. Could this mean ecclesiastical organizations per se may not really matter? Can it be that ecclesiastics are not essential to a believer's commitment to or experience of the Divine? Might the issue be more like the difference between nomadic believers versus city dwelling believers? Which of these are the "true" believers? Or does it not matter?

Let’s go back as far as we can to the beginning.

Somewhere along the line Orthodoxy was considered to be a cult in terms of definitions 3 and 5c. When? I suppose it was at the time of Jesus, when he attracted disciples. It certainly was viewed that way by the Jews and Romans. How long after the death of Jesus did his followers morph from cult to the culture known as Christianity? The Pharisee Jew Saul of Tarsus seems to have had the most influence on this expansion sometime after his transpersonal experience on the road to Damascus that transformed him into Paul the Apostle.

What about Islam? Mohammed gathered disciples from family and friends and formed a cult around his personality and his claim to be Allah's only messenger. This cult eventually became the culture of Islam. How long did that take?

And what about Judaism, the granddaddy of them all? Where and when did that culture start? Was not Abraham the original patriarch? What specifically were Abraham's spiritual experiences? How did he talk directly to God? Who knows any of this for sure? What are the uncertainties?

The three great world religions are Judaism, Christianity and Islam and all trace their origin to the Patriarch Abraham. How did Abraham start? In Genesis, I read that he was originally called by "the Lord" just after his father died and directed to leave his father's land to allow himself and his followers to be directed by the Lord from then on.

I asked my friend Rabbi Gershon about this.
Right now I’m stuck with Abraham as the father of the three major religions. Can you tell me more about when Abram became Abraham?

He sent me an article from a Jewish news source by Eliezer Segal entitled "Abraham Our Father"--And Theirs? The article ended with:
It is evident that all three of the great Western religions have laid claim to "Abraham our father." And the intricate web of relationships between these religions--including both conflicts and points of agreement and harmony--can be traced through the examination of their respective interpretations of Abraham's life.

In addition, as has been evident throughout our history, the interpretations Jews have given to the Scriptures often reflect pressing concerns that go far beyond the particular verses that are being expounded.

For this reason, the study of Jewish biblical exegesis offers a most challenging and rewarding way of exploring the development of Jewish thought and history.

Encouraged by this I wrote to Segal on September 11:
I have further questions, which I hope I can ask of you. They deal primarily with the Jewish view of the nature of the “Most High God” (Supreme Being, Creator Father, etc.) and Abraham’s relationship with this God, which is not clear or consistent to me. How do your people respond to such a question?

I have in mind how a response to the above question would square with the appearance of “the Lord” (as a man??) to Abraham prior to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and of the two men (angels?) who came to Lot prior to the destruction. Is there anywhere a discussion of the possibility of extra-terrestrial manipulation (as well as protection) of these highly motivated, sincere, but na├»ve men?

I hope such questions are not too radical or outrageous... Can you direct me to specific references that would address such questions?

Segal responded within hours:
Sorry, but your questions are much too deep and complex to cover in email correspondence. They really would require a substantial education in rabbinic literature and Jewish biblical exegesis, etc.

Indeed, these are not frivolous questions. I hope someone out there in the Jewish community can respond seriously and knowledgeably. Is there a Jewish forum for such discourse where non-Jews can participate?

I sent Rabbi Gershon this author's reply and said that it felt like a kick in the teeth. He then wrote:
I am sorry that you received such a response. I will attempt to respond after Shabbat

I look forward to his response..

Saturday, September 12

In thinking more about the Segal's response to my initial message to him and my rabbit friend's response, I decided to write to Segal again:
Forgive me, but I think you have opened yourself up to further discussion by publishing your important article. You ended it with these words:"In addition, as has been evident throughout our history, the interpretations Jews have given to the Scriptures often reflect pressing concerns that go far beyond the particular verses that are being expounded.

"For this reason, the study of Jewish biblical exegesis offers a most challenging and rewarding way of exploring the development of Jewish thought and history."

These words invite questions, notwithstanding they may be “deep and complex”. Actually, they are really not so complex that a young person cannot ask them earnestly. It doesn’t take a scholar or a rabbinical seminary graduate to offer an opinion on what I placed before you. That is why the internet is such a boon! I am publishing our exchanges on my blog, which I invite you to inspect...

My experience with Jews throughout my life has been generally provocative and inspiring. No other people are so generally gifted and intelligent, and I feel freer to be myself around them than most others. Your heritage and tradition AND suffering have produced profound thinkers, great writers, gifted artists of all kinds and the most brilliant scientists. You [as a people] have taken on the world and survived it, no matter who wishes you ill!

Don’t disappoint me and my friends and family who are great admirers of Jewish contributions to world history by ducking my questions.

Blessings on you and your family,


PS. I want to tell you one major personal example of interacting with a brilliant Jew. His name was Immanuel Velikovsky and the year was summer 1972. I was then on staff of Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon, and was asked by College president John R. Howard to put together an international symposium to give Velikovsky his first opportunity to defend his radical ideas before an international academic forum, which had shunned him all his professional life. Giving him that opportunity at age 77 produced a triumph for both him and the college. During that symposium I sat spellbound along with scholars from all over the world while Velikovsky kept us all on the edge of our seats for three days explaining without notes! his radical ideas as published in books like Worlds in Collision, Ages In Chaos and Earth in Upheaval.

Velikovsky, a contemporary of Einstein (and co-founder with him and other prominent Jews of Hebrew University in Jerusalem), was originally a psychiatrist who became a cosmologist with an obsession for explaining in natural terms the dramatic events in the Old Testament. Examples were the sun standing still, the near collision with the Planet Venus, and the parting of the Red Sea. Among my most prized possessions are two hand-written personal letters from this man written during that symposium.

Now, I am asking you to consider some events in the life of the historically pivotal Patriarch Abraham that may have a more ordinary, less-than-miraculous, albeit radical, explanation.

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