As a follow up to the Interview with a Wiccan post, I thought I’d explain a little about cults, the occult, and alternative religions. I find these to be some of the most confusing topics about religion. Hopefully, I can clear up some misconceptions with this post.
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 part of the church) were a rigorous and devout group of Christians – orthodox in their foundational beliefs. However, by choosing to self-appoint church leaders and hold 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 practicing 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 his occult beliefs in 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 where you are within a couple of centuries…