Saturday, November 22, 2008

Evangelicals and Western Esotericism

At the Trinity Consultation on Post-Christendom Spiritualities held at Trinity International University last month, one of the plenary sessions addressed developments in the "New Age movement" as part of a broader history of Western Esotericism. This session involved a paper presented by the noted new religions scholar J. Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of American Religion. (This session and others can be viewed at Sacred Tribes Journal for those who create a user ID and then Login and click "Course Lectures.") During his presentation Dr. Melton reminded evangelicals that Western Esotericism is a significant religious tradition no longer relegated to the margins of popular culture that needs to be taken seriously and interacted with more positively. This positive engagement involves a number of areas, including a more informed and accurate understanding of the tradition, respect for its adherents, and in engagement with its growing numbers of practitioners.

I was fortunate to be the respondent to Dr. Melton's paper, and among other things I shared the following:
"[W]hile evangelicals have tended to marginalize and dismiss those involved in Western Esotericism with simple labels like “the occult,” often followed by simplistic responses that involve denunciation through biblical proof-texting, Dr. Melton reminds us that “we are not dealing so much with a marginal phenomenon, but a significant aspect of the popular culture.” Although the numbers of people involved directly with Western Esotericism remains small, as Dr. Melton himself has discussed, nevertheless the impact of Western Esotericism in popular culture is significant, so much so that scholars like Christopher Partridge refer to “popular occulture.” In Partridge’s discussion of this he states “(1) that occultural worldviews have been an important source of inspiration for popular culture, (2) that popular culture has in turn been an important source of inspiration for the formation of occultural worldviews, and consequently, (3) that popular culture is beginning to have a shaping effect on Western plausibility structures.” Western Esotericism represents a respectable and enduring religious phenomenon that must be taken seriously by evangelicals in the twenty-first century.

".. near the end of his paper in his brief sketch of an initial Christian response to Western Esotericism Dr. Melton includes several helpful thoughts, including the need to conceptualize it as “a distinctive religious tradition analogous” to various world religions rather than as a deviant tradition to be marginalized, the call for the Christian community to own up to and move beyond its unloving and unChristian responses to esotericists that fall far short of the divine calling to love our neighbors as ourselves, and the reminder that in our daily experience we are likely to live and work with esotericists and thus new ways of living the Christian faith must be developed that move us positively into the future."

It is my hope that viewpoints like those expressed at the recent conference at Trinity, the Trinity conference itself, and volumes like Gus diZerega and Philip Johnson's Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and Christian in Dialogue (Lion, 2008), represent new and increasingly influential senses of understanding of the new religions, including Western Esotericism, and a new ways of interacting with its practitioners. Even so, while a new evangelical model is gaining strength it does so against the backdrop of more traditional evangelical treatments of the new religions and the Western Esoteric tradition as evidenced by new books appearing this year, including those commented on previously on this blog: Dillon Burroughs and Marla Alupoaicei's Generation Hex (Harvest House, 2008), and Linda Harvey's Not My Child: Contemporary Paganism and New Spirituality (Living Ink Books, 2008). A new book has recently been released that adds to the evangelical literature from this perspective, the late Walter Martin, Jill Martin Rische, and Kurt Van Gorden's The Kingdom of the Occult (Thomas Nelson, 2008). I have high expectations for this recent volume in that I hope it rises above the recent volumes on Western Esotericism that operate from a confrontational tone. In addition, I hope that this new book engages the growing body of academic literature on Western Esotericism, and compliments more informed understandings of this religious tradition with more positive aspects of engagement such as interreligious dialogue.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Religious Disaffiliation and Migration

My work on a new resource from WIIS quickly moving from pre-production to the production phase has given me an opportunity to revisit one of my areas of research interest, that of sociological insights on the processes of religious affiliation and disaffiliation. In the past I have posted on religious disaffiliation among Latter-day Saints, and with this post I take up that issue again with reference to further reflections on the implications of an article by Howard M. Bahr and Stan L. Albrecht, "Strangers Once More: Patterns of Disaffiliation from Mormonism," from the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 28, no. 2 (1989): 180-200.

Movement from one religious organization to another takes place constantly in a variety of contexts and for a variety of reasons, and the author's of this article frame it in terms of "moving to a new country" and taking "citizenship in a new spiritual country." With this imagery in mind, those who change churches or religious organizations may be likened to immigrants moving from one country to another. But what does this process of religious migration look like under careful analysis?

In their research, Bahr and Albrecht drew upon two state-wide surveys in Utah among Latter-day Saints in the early 1980s and considered the results in light of their further research on religious disaffiliation, the creation of new roles of "ex" identity, and interviews with disaffiliates. Several aspects of their research struck me, not only in what it tells us about religious disaffiliation in general, but also in the implications for evangelicals working among new religions.

First, due to the small number of interview subjects the authors consider their findings "exploratory and illustrative or sensitizing. They are not statistically generalizable in any way." Further, they did "not attempt to generalize [their] findings to religious disaffiliates generally, or even to Mormon disaffiliates." I hope to find more current research done along these lines with a greater survey sample that will permit statistical generalizations, but if no such research has been conducted it needs to be financed and conducted so that we might further understand the process of religious disaffiliation among Latter-day Saints, a topic that has not received nearly as much attention as religious affiliation. In addition, small survey samples related to methodological considerations should remind evangelicals that current claims about migration among Latter-day Saints into evangelicalism are anecdotal in that the research work has yet to be done, and perhaps we too should resist generalizing our understandings of "what works" among Mormon disaffiliates.

Second, Bahr and Albrecht draw upon the role theory work of Helen Ebaugh in her description of the "role-exit process" in a variety of relationship contexts. She defines this as involving four stages that include "doubting one's role commitment, searching for viable alternative roles, experiencing a 'turning point' which reduces dissonance and mobilizes resources to exit, and creating an 'ex-role'". Role theory and the four-part process of role-exiting provide a helpful framework for understanding the process of disaffiliation which might be studied further by evangelicals.

Third, the authors are cautious in the interpretation of disaffiliate accounts of prior group membership. They remind us that such accounts are "flawed" in that they "reflect only a single point of view - that of the disaffiliate - in a social process that involves scores, if not hundreds, of actors." Further, Bahr and Albrecht note that the narratives of disaffiliates often "tend to interpret the past in ways that reduce personal dissonance about the decision taken. As a consequence, the perceptions of a typical former Mormon about an event are likely to be more anti-Mormon." Yet even with these cautions concerning disaffiliate accounts the authors find value in them. They state that "the partiality of the observers is not reason to dismiss their reports as useless" since every human observer involves bias, "preconceptions and perceptual 'screens' which limit the scope and accuracy of his or her observations." These considerations are helpful reminders of the need for caution in interpreting disaffiliate accounts, and that the many negative portrayals of Mormonism in evangelical literature may help "color" disaffiliate accounts even further beyond the individual's experiences and perceptual reconstructions.

Fourth, the patterns and processes of disaffiliation are interesting. Bahr and Albrecht's research indicates that "[a]pparently most apostates from Mormonism were never truly 'in' the faith" in terms of being deeply devoted "fervent followers." Most maintained marginal commitment levels of belief and identification. In terms of the disaffiliation of "fervent followers," while four out of six cited "intellectual defection" as a major part of their exiting process, the authors note that "[f]or even the most committed seeker, the intellectual struggle was only part of the process, since it occurred in a context of personal problems, disappointments and betrayals." This feature of disaffiliation is a reminder that the process involves multiple factors of causation, and that intellectual issues are processed and strongly influenced within the important context of social relationships.

Finally, in the conclusion of the article one of the points raised by the authors is worth noting when they state:
"It is also probable that patterns of disaffiliation observed among former Mormons in Utah are quite unrepresentative of former Mormons elsewhere. Both the dynamics of disaffiliation and the options of reaffiliation are likely to be quite different outside Utah, where Mormons do not represent the 'establishment' and typically are a small minority rather than the majority."

I share the authors' feelings that their research is tantalizing. There is a great deal to be learned about why people join and leave religious groups, particularly in the new or minority religions. I hope that fellow evangelicals express greater interest in the body of academic literature on religious affiliation and disaffiliation that will help us understand the fascinating dynamics involved in people's lives.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Attacks on LDS Institutions in Wake of Prop. 8

Anyone who pays attention to the news since the national elections has heard of the various protests and attacks against institutions connected with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints due to their financial contributions to and support of Proposition 8 in California. This proposition defined marriage as between one man and one woman, and it was supported by a variety of conservative religious groups, including the LDS Church. As a result of the proposition passing the LDS Church has been the most vilified by those supporting homosexual marriage. Recently envelopes have been mailed to various locations connected to the Church with suspicious white powder substances in acts of domestic terrorism. This morning my daughter's school, Syracuse Junior High, was in lock down due to the adjacent LDS seminary being the latest receipient of this "gift of protest." Local police, Hazmat crews, and the FBI are now probing the seminary as students and teachers pursue their educational goals with a cloud of fear hanging over their day.

Regardless of your views on gay marriage, this is hardly the way that Prop. 8 detractors should go about their protests. It will not positively persuade voters to support gay marriage legislation in the future, and it represents the latest expressions of anti-Mormon bigotry. My hope is that the public will speak out against such hate crimes and bigotry, regardless of their political views on gay marriage.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Summum: Minority Religions, Public Space, and Religious Liberty

Over the last few weeks I've heard news broadcasts about a minority religious group in Salt Lake City that has made national headlines, but until yesterday I had not heard the group's name. Yesterday I finally heard the group identified as Summum, a group readers may never have heard of before. I only became aware of this group in November of last year through Gordon Melton. There is very little that has been written academicaly about this group, and this fact, coupled with the current legal issues the group is involved in, make it an item of great interest.
As Summum's website describes the group:

"In the fall of 1975, Claude "Corky" Rex Nowell (Founder) began to have a series of encounters with highly intelligent beings who he now refers to as the Summa Individuals. He describes them as beings who untiringly work the pathways of spiritual evolution, and who were referred to as the "Neters" in the ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs. During his encounters, he received instructions concerning the underlying principles (Laws of Nature) which establish and maintain the universe. During these same encounters, the Summa Individuals would change his name to:

Summum Bonum (Amon) Ra

Soon after his
initial experience, Corky founded a non-profit organization, giving it the name "Summum," a Latin term meaning "the sum total of all creation." The principles introduced to him were described as a "neverending story" and form the foundation for the philosophy of Summum. They are nothing new and have always existed. As an eternal work, these principles were presented to Corky who in 1980, would legally change his name to Summum Bonum Amon Ra for governmental purposes and to reflect his spiritual path. He generally goes by Corky Ra."

Summum has made national headlines through a legal challenge currently before the Supreme Court. As the Salt Lake Tribune has described it, the Court "agreed to hear an appeal from the city of Pleasant Grove, which wants to block Summum from displaying its own monument beside the Ten Commandments in a municipal park. That monument, if erected, would include Summum's seven guiding principles."
This case involving issues of religious freedoms in the public square in relation to a minority religion is one to watch, with commentators suggesting that the ruling will be significant, and set precedent for similar issues related to public religious displays. The Supreme Court will likely rule on this case in the spring.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Lure of the Dark Side - Correction

Correction: The author if the review mentioned below brought to my attention that I confused two books on similar subject matters, both involving contributions by Christopher Partridge. The one I posted on is a multi-contributor volume, and the one reviewed with the excerpt below is from a short volume by Partridge alone titled Understanding the Dark Side (Chester Academic Press, 2006). I have read Partridge's paper that makes up the latter book, but not having seen The Lure of the Dark Side I can only guess that perhaps it, or at least much of what it proposes, overlaps with the shorter volume. At any rate, they make for an interesting study on Westenr demonology, the new religions, and popular culture. My thanks to the Sub Ratione Dei blog for bringing my error to my attention for clarification among readers.
One of the more interesting aspects of studies in new religious movements is the influence of Christian views of demonology on the topic. This can manifest itself in a variety of ways, from a major interpretive lens through which the new religions are construed by many evangelicals as manifestations of the satanic, to the the incorporation of streams of Christian demonology within the beliefs of the new religions themselves.

Christopher Partridge and Eric Christianson have edited a volume that explores the influences of Christian demonology on the new religions and popular culture in the book The Lure of the Dark Side: Western Demonology, Satanic Panics and Alien Abduction (Equinox Publishing, 2008). The book was recently reviewed here with an excerpt from this review below:
"Although the subtitle promises to be a survey of western demonology, Satanic panics, and alien abduction Partridge’s survey is more a deconstruction of UFO religion and the eclecticism of its sources. The extra-terrestrial religious ideas may have had their origin in theosophical strains of Eastern thought but the religion of groups such as Heaven’s Gate is in fact more rooted in western demonology, specifically the adaptation in popular culture of the idea of the nephilim (Gen 6: 1-4). In the space of a short lecture Partridge has done a good job at delineating the dialectic between theory and popular culture and so, from the perspective of those interested in alternative and fringe religions the author has done a good job in charting the field. However, for those like my self who do not spend much time thinking about the theology of the Raelians a more interesting phenomenon - why as the stranglehold of ‘Christian’ understandings of the world been dissipated have these religions relied on parodies of Christian demonologies. In understand that popular culture is tapping into a latent understanding in invoking such ideas from Christian sources - however, the fact that the UFO religions have followed suit strikes me as a far more interesting question both theologically and sociologically."

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Blomberg on Mormon-Evangelical Dialogue Since "How Wide the Divide?"

I recently learned of a presentation by Craig Blomberg of Denver Seminary that presents a history and reflections on Mormon-evangelical dialogue since the publication of How Wide the Divide?. The presentation is titled "How Wide the Divide? Eleven Years Later, Mormons and Evangelicals in Conversation.” The fine Summa Theologia blog mentioned this, and the presentation is available for download on the Internet by clicking here.