Cults and How to Overcome Them – The Torch
Sects are by no means a new phenomenon. A number of mysterious religions existed both in the classical world, promising recruits benefits in this life or the next. The popularity of these religions was understandable. For ordinary people, their life after death was expected to be even duller than their earthly existence. So if there was a way to learn a secret or be related in some other way to a deity in order to escape an eternity of misery and insignificance, there would be little reason not to jump with both feet.
It is in this context that Christianity enters the classical world, preaching a God who loves all his creatures and who acted decisively to bring salvation to all who would receive him. The eternal blessing with God is suddenly not only reserved for the Emperor and a small group of elites, but it is open to everyone.
We would therefore expect the advent of Christianity to send cults once and for all to the pages of history. Since this is not the case, one has to wonder why.
Cults today, at least in the West, can be divided into two categories. Among the former are groups that claim that genuine Christianity was lost at some point in the past and has now been recovered exclusively by that particular group.
Given 20 centuries of Christian theology, much of which is publicly available, it is quite possible for the common man to counter the claims of such groups; all you need is an internet connection or a library card and time, certainly less time you could spend in therapy after joining one of them.
The emergence of a second category, groups that promise benefits in this life, is also worrying. I was particularly horrified to learn of the existence of NXIVM, a secular sect that purported to offer members an intellectual and spiritual awakening, as well as opportunities for professional advancement and “to feel more joy in their lives.” Classes included what could be gleaned from various self-help books as well as first-year C-level philosophy ruminations on Plato and Aristotle. And yet, founder Keith Raniere has managed to convince a number of successful women within NXIVM to brand themselves with his initials and submit to sexual slavery in exchange for his pearls of wisdom.
Why? A complete answer to this question would take some time, but one aspect of the answer is usually ignored. If Christianity is true – and I believe it is – and if people today are hungry for what it claims to give in this life and in the next, why are people ready? to spend a lot of money and even submit to degradation in groups like NXIVM when they could freely access the intellectual and spiritual depths of the Christian faith?
When Christianity broke into history, it was strange, dangerous, and forbidden – a fringe group persecuted by the state, which promised both spiritual fulfillment and adventure. Joining the nascent Christian Church was exciting and perilous. Today Christianity is ubiquitous in the West and becoming a Christian is safe and rather boring.
Seen from the outside, Christianity has lost its vigor. There is some truth in this assessment. In the early Church, we were not just invited to an adventure, we were forced to. On the other hand, today one could comfortably enjoy a shallow Christian life, consisting of boring once-a-week church services and the occasional shallow reflections on a God who, to paraphrase CS Lewis, wants everyone to be. ‘fun.
This lukewarm experience is for true Christianity like a working acquaintance asking if you would like to go to Chipotle with him for your lunch break is a proposal. Perhaps the reason cults flourish is that genuine Christianity is not so much lost as it is often not tried. What these groups have, what the Church lacks, is the promise of adventure. If we believe we are part of the same family that produced the martyrs and doctors of the Church, then we must seriously ask ourselves if we are really their brothers and sisters.
The groom has one knee on the ground, but too often we think he is just tying his shoe. Christianity promises us a whirlwind adventure, a love story that overcomes even death, but unless and until we choose to participate in it, perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that those around us are will look in all the wrong places.