I was watching a documentary on the History International Channel, which after watching it, should be renamed the Stylized Historiography Channel. The documentary was on cults and their destructive influence on society. Popular examples of religious freaks took up most of the documentary’s time – like Jim Jones and David Koresh. One phrase captured my attention though, simply due to its overt bias. In the conclusion, the narrator said, “In a world littered with cultic tragedy, others loom upon the horizon.” Wow. Now that’s some nice fear-tinged rhetoric there. As the narrator spoke these words, an image of a large group of Christian charismatics lifting their hands during worship appeared. Of course, that made me angry simply due to the implication. It’s hard to call a global movement of 500 million believers a cult. But what really irritated me in those words and images is the narrow understanding of the sociology of cults and heresy.
Contrary to popular views of religious history, “cults” or sectarianism has been the norm for religious belief, including Christianity. ”Cult” simply means a fringe alternative movement standing for something outside mainstream values. Globally speaking, that means that in Hindu or Buddhist nations, Christianity is the “cult” there. The values may even be the same – just a more intense desire for, say, holiness. Paul Tillich said that sectarianism is “the criticism of the church for the gap between its claim and its reality.” Usually the horror stories (like Jones or Koresh) come from sectarian groups that don’t develop a large following (a few hundred people). They normally pass into history unnoticed. However, all Western and Eastern religions that exist today started as fringe religious movements. Everyone has been a “cult” at sometime or another. That includes all major Christian denominations. Even Christianity began as a radical, marginalized sect of Judaism.
Sects/cults become credible over time as new members are added and others begin to accept their existence. As sects turn into more accepted denominations, they often breed spiritual complacency among their members who begin to desire to return to the “good old days” when the movement was smaller and more radical. In turn, this produces more sect formation by dissatisfied members. These “renewal movements” only become independent sects when the existing church rejects their overtures for spiritual renewal. They merely want to renew the spiritual life of the church. If they are accepted, we call them “revivals” and talk about how great they are. Pejorative labels such as “cult” are given by the mainstream body after rejecting the movement’s overtures for change. Often times, sects require strict adherence to beliefs and high levels of commitment – essentially an ”all or nothing” approach. Conversely, sectarians believe that the stress of asceticism is rewarded with spiritual power – something the group that rejected them did not possess.
And that’s when all the heresy talk starts. Our understanding of heresy now (which is applied to all types of religious “infractions”) is not the same as the early church. Initially, it only dealt with foundational truths of the Christian faith – namely the divinity of Jesus. In the fifth and sixth centuries, it became associated with other aspects of Christianity - for example Origen’s musings about universalism. But honestly the modern term most commonly derives its nastiness from the writers of church history. Hopefully everyone knows by now that only the “winners” in history write the books. And the same is true of church history. Cult critics initially only disapproved of a group’s method of worship, not the doctrines themselves. But over time, as accusations are repeated in church histories, the doctrine was often deemed heretical as well. For example, the Montanists (initially apart of the church) were a rigorous and devout group of Christians – orthodox in their foundational beliefs. However, by choosing to recognize their own leaders and holding a place for women in leadership, they came under ecclesiastical fire. Along with that came the critic’s rejection of the Montanist’s use of spiritual gifts. It’s not that the gifts were wrong – but that women were allowed to practice them. Eusebius quotes Apollonius: “Does a prophet paint his eyelids?” The issue was not with prophecy but rather who was prophesying: someone the church had not sanctioned. Throughout church history, heresy had little to do with doctrine and much to do with issues of recognized authority.
As such, cults aren’t usually heretics in the authentic sense of the word. What cults oftentimes are is heterodox. Now that doesn’t mean “wrong.” It means outside of mainstream acceptance. Any evangelical historian worth their salt will tell you that “orthodox” simply means the “majority opinion” – it doesn’t necessarily mean that the majority opinion is “correct,” though many times it does. So, many of the “orthodox” opinions we hold today were at one time heterodox, until enough people accepted them. To step away from religion for a minute, we all hold gravity to be an “orthodox” part of science. But Newton developed the “heterodox” idea of gravity from occult beliefs in Paracelsian correspondences, Neoplatonism, and alchemy. That may surprise you. But that’s a perfect example of something “heterodox” evolving into an accepted mainstream and orthodox belief. If the origins of gravity embarrass you, then you’re missing the point. All things are heterodox at their inception - including religious belief systems.
So, what should you glean from all of this? First, stop throwing around the term “heresy” for every little religious belief that doesn’t match your preconceived ideas. Secondly, no matter what mainstream religious group you belong to, you can thank your original “cult” leaders for being persistent in the face of opposition from the mainstrean religion of the time. What people called “crazy” then, we call “normal” now. And, third, be kind to the people “beneath” you on the religious food chain – they will be were you are within a couple of centuries…