Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Irving Hexham on New Religions: Concluding Interview

A while back, Irving Hexham, a Canadian scholar of new religions, participated in the first installment of an interview on this blog where he shared his background. Readers might refer back to that first installment, as well as Irving's website for helpful background information. In this second and final installment Irving shares his thoughts on new religious movements.

Morehead's Musings: I noted in preparing for this interview that you did your master's thesis on Glastonbury Festival. I have an interest in a cross-cultural perspective on festivals such as this that relate to my Burning Man studies. Can you tell us a little about your thesis?

Irving Hexham: As far as I know it was the first British, perhaps even the very first, study of the New Age Movement by an academic. Because of the University of Bristol's word limit of 10,000 words it was really short, but I tried to make up for lack of space with adequate footnotes and appendices. Several years ago I made it available in a slightly revised form, revised in the sense of updating the language where things no longer made sense, on the web. It can be found at:


Shortly after I completed the thesis I submitted a book proposal to Inter-Varsity Press in Britain. It was rejected because "no one knew what the New Age Movement was" and they really wanted a more relevant book dealing with "cults."

Morehead's Musings: I have benefitted from your writings and perspectives over the years. I recently reviewed an article you wrote in 1980 for the journal Crux. Several things you said in that article struck me. In one place you wrote that, "Many evangelicals find it easy to detect heresy and sense unorthodox beliefs. Few know how to deal with a dynamic religious situation or cope with religious change. Christians generally are conditioned by the historic creeds to think in static theological categories." You wrote this in the 1980s, but do you think this counsel is still needed today, and if so, in what ways?

Irving Hexham: First, let me say that with Sir Karl Popper I believe that there is a place, and an important place, for dogma. We need boundaries and creeds to provide believers with boundaries. What I meant at the time, and still think is important, is that many new religions are in the process of formulating their doctrines on the basis of religious experiences. Therefore, what they may say today could change tomorrow. This is not some sneaky was of avoiding truth. It simply reflects the dynamic nature of such movements and the need to recognize that, especially in their early stages, new religions often do not really know what they believe and certainly have not reflected on how their beliefs are related to the historic Christian tradtion.

Morehead's Musings: In this article you also note how important it is for Christians to bring their theology in dialogue with other disciplines like sociology, not only so that we might understand the beliefs of others, but also to assist in our "understanding our place in God's world." Do you think this interdisciplinary approach might be even more important now in our age of globalization and religious pluralism?

Irving Hexham: Absolutely. We need to develop strong inter-disciplinary approaches. But, a caution is needed here. Far too often in Religious Studies an interdisciplinary approach means not that one has mastered several disciplines but rather it is an excuse for not mastering any discipline. Anyone who wants to use, say History and Sociology, needs to master both historical and sociological methods not simply get by without really knowing either.

Morehead's Musings: In your writings in the past you have lamented how evangelicals have tended to understand and write about the new religions, particularly the New Spirituality ("New Age"). Do you think this situation has changed much, and do you see any developments in this area?

Irving Hexham: Things are definitely changing as a new generation of Christian scholars begins to take over. Yes, I'd say things are much better today with people like yourself developing dynamic approaches to other religious traditions.

Morehead's Musings: Let's talk about some of your books that touch on religious studies. In New Religions as Global Cultures (Westview Press, 1997) can you briefly summarize the thesis that you and your wife and co-author, Karla Poewe, put forward, that new religions should be considered global cultures?

Irving Hexham: What we meant by this was that to understand many, if not most, new religions one has to see them in a global context recognizing that they draw many of their beliefs and practices from cultures other than North America or even Western Europe. Once created, however, these new religous cultures span the world. Thus the Unification Church borrowed ideas about marriage from Confucian ethics while German members of the Church put these ideas into practice in Germany just as Brazilians adapted them to Brazil. So one gets a cross-fertalization that can only be understood in terms of its origins and propagation globally.

Morehead's Musings: Why is this perspective helpful in understanding and engaging the new religions in contrast to conceptions of new religions as little more than heretical religious systems?

Irving Hexham: To take the Unification Church again, although many Christians were very upset with it, there is nothing inherently wrong with an arranged marriage along Confusican lines. Today I have Indian friends at the University of Calgary who are Christians from one of the oldest Christian traditions in the world - Indian Christianity traces its roots to Thomas the Apostle and although we know very little about its origins we know that thriving Christian communities existed in India by the end of the second century. Yet these Christian Indians, just like Unification Church members, were married in India through a system of arranged marriages. Surely this is not something to get upset about. The Bible says nothing about dating or how marriages should take place. Why then impose a rather modern Western view of courtship on the world?

Morehead's Musings: I was intrigued by your discussion of the importance of myth to new religions. Can you summarize some of your thinking here?

Irving Hexham: Myth is a hot topic in Religious Studies and one about which a lot of junk has been written. Generally, it is seen as some super spiritual state or form of knowledge. The approach Karla Poewe and I take is radically different. Following anthropological practice we define myth as "a story with culturally formative power." Therefore, any story can function as a myth provided it motivates people to act in certain ways. What is important here is the function of the story not whether it is true or not. We are looking at myth in an anthropological sense as a story that motivates becasue people believe it to be true. For anthropological, but not theological, purposes there is no need to ask if the story is true. Our question is, "Does it move people to act in certain ways?"

Morehead's Musings: It might be helpful to connect this to some examples. Can you share some examples as to how myths surface and are important to the New Spirituality ("New Age") and Mormonism?

Irving Hexham: In Britain Glastonbury was regarded as a place of "power" where ley lines crossed. Therefore some people moved there because they believed it was the place where King Arthur was buried. In Mormonism the story of the Mormon trek to Utah functions as a myth to inspire piety and even help convert people. Yet the trek took place and in this sense is a true historical event.

Morehead's Musings: Do you have any research projects in the works?

Irving Hexham: Yes I am completing a book for Zondervan on World Religions and working on what I call "Ancestral Neo-Paganism" which is a unique form of neo-paganism connected to National Socialism in Germany. I am also working on aspects of the New Atheism where several writers claim that Christians and Christianity caused or created National Socialism. This is incorrect but is a belief that is growing in popularity. So there is a lot of work to do.

Morehead's Musings: Irving, thank you for your time and thoughts. I hope this discussion has stirred interest in your writings, your scholarship, and your website.


Anonymous said...

Yet these Christian Indians, just like Unification Church members, were married in India through a system of arranged marriages.

I'd be interested in knowing more about this in India. I know of no group in which the leader who claims to be the savior matches all his followers in marriage. Moon's system now allows the elders to wield this control, control of people is what Moon is all about. But how many match thousands at the time - putting stangers together so the only thing they have in common is their delusional leader.

So we have another person who wouldn't understand Moon if he bit him, making excuses for this disgusting controlling political con in the name of "religion". Even Moon does not see himself as religion other than for the protection it provides him. He sees religion's only purpose is to accept him and his group as the leader of the world leader.

John W. Morehead said...

It's unfortunate that your comment failed to provide any evidence of interacting with the perspective of Hexham on the benefits of an interdisciplinary and cross-cultural perspective on new religions like the Unification Church. Instead, your comment followed the secular anti-cult and evangelical counter-cult paradigm with its reference to a "delusional leader" allegedly in it only for control and power rather than sincere religious devotion. Pity.

Anonymous said...

Hi Irving / John
Irving you may remember interviewing me in 1986 in Durban. Also your son got hold of me about 3 years ago while I was in London.
I saw this interview and have been wanting to read and respond for some weeks.

What you are doing is very interesting, and crosses my work at a number of points. My "work" is not really academic, its quite outside of institutions including Univesity or Church. I guess the main locus is my blog, soundandsilence. And I am experimenting with new approches to worship and community in Cape Town, South Africa.

John has seen this, but I wanted to let you view my post on
It's not long, nor exhaustive, it's just inspirational, but it helps point us in a direction. I know you are involved in Sacred Tribes Journal - I look forward to the next installment!

Also I organised a synchroblog which John participated in called
. Going to our version of Burning Man was part epiphany part confirming rite of passsage. I feel very inspired.

If you are still interested, take a look at what happended for us this week:
13 Evangelicals/Recovering evangelicals
(NIA = Neuromuscular Intergative Action) witha view to reinventing movement in worship. It led to a small fracas, in which paradigms collided. It's a bit long and involved, but I thought you might be interested, as it is an example of emergence in action.

IN fact we are synchroblogging on
next week. The basic premise is that in the west we are wordy and songy, but lack a solid approach to sheer movement and to images in our worship.