In This Issue
- Grieving for Diana — a sign of renewal or spiritual impoverishment?
- Findings & Footnotes: January 1998
- Japan’s liberation theology for Burakumins
- European religion blending innovation and tradition
- Current Research: January 1998
- Unfair barriers for women faculty in evangelical colleges?
- Church-state welfare cooperations stalled?
- Forgiveness moves from congregation to couch
- Who says it’s brainwashing? A Scientology case study
- 1997 religion — a lot more than Heaven’s Gate
Months after after her death, observers are still asking whether the mass mourning over Princess Diana’s signifies signs of spiritual stirrings or an absence of traditional religious feeling in Britain.
Quadrant (November), the newsletter of the London-based Christian Research Association, reports that many Christian leaders believe Is the mourning of DianaAmong the innumerable laments and analyses of those laments for Princess Diana, that by Frank Allen in The World & I (December, 1997) argues that the immense outburst of grief tells us something of our own spiritual impoverishment. Accepted through total media saturation as a martyr to an unfaithful husband, a haughty mother-in-law, an antiquated set of social norms, and a judgmental church, Diana was transformed into a l990s version of sainthood.
But, Allen suggests, the grieving was in fact, an indicment of Western society with its “unbridled commercialism and materialism” which demands media celebrities larger than life. These, such as Diana meet society’s need for the lack of “spiritual food” in today’s living.
Already stories of instant healing due to her presence are found in the media; a man with AIDS said he would have died in 1995 had not Diana touched him. A miraculous recovery from a coma-afflicted three year visited by Diana was attributed by his parents to her. Martyrdom ’90s style, he concludes, has taken on a new dimension, far removed from earlier martyrs in English history.
— Erling Jorstad
01: The Winter issue of the quarterly newsletter Science & Spirit is devoted to computers and spirituality. The articles focus on how computer technology poses new challenges to theology and spirituality. Philosopher and theologian Philip Clayton writes that the creation of computer-based intelligence systems, such as robots, will force theologians and believers to redefine concepts of “soul” and being created in the image of God.
As such technology increasingly takes on human attributes, Clayton ventures that the concept of the image of God may have to be viewed as “less anthropocentric and more generalized.”
For information on this issue write: Science & Spirit, 171 Rumford St., Concord, NH 03301-4579 or e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
02: The Buddhist magazine Tricycle (Winter) features an in-depth interview with psychologist Robert Jay Lifton on Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese terrorist religious group.
Lifton challenges the accepted interpretation that Aum leader Shoko Ashara was gradually transformed from a non-violent guru of a new religion into the abusive and insane plotter of destruction largely because of external pressure from Japanese society. Lifton says Ashara was paranoid, “visionary and megalomaniacal from the beginning.”
Lifton also speaks of Aum’s relation to Buddhism and about how Ashara had powerful religious charisma (he was no “fake”), while at the same time serving up an exploitative and destructive faith to his followers.
The issue costs $7.50 and is available from: Tricycle, 92 Vandam St., New York, NY 10003
03: The current issue of Whole Earth Review (Winter) is devoted to the relation of religion to environmentalism.
The issue covers the spectrum–including evangelical, mainline, Unitarian, Buddhist, Eastern Orthodox, Muslim, Pagan and something called “proto-religion” (stressing the human-animal spiritual link). As with the Whole Earth Catalog, the issue serves as a directory, listing a wide range of resources, periodicals and books. There are also thumbnail sketches of the environmental action carried out by these various groups.
An excerpt from the book “Environmental Values in American Culture” in this issue provides an interesting–and largely unreported– finding that undergirds much of the new environmentalist interest in religion. A poll found that those environmentalists who were not part of organized religion (69 percent), agreed with the view that “Because God created the natural world, it is wrong to abuse it.” Even 46 percent of those who did not believe there was a spiritual force in the universe agreed with that statement.
Why should so many nonbelievers argue on the basis of God’s creation? The researchers write that belief in God is still the best vehicle we have to express environmental concern, even for those who don’t believe in God.
This issue costs $6.95. Send to: Whole Earth Review, 1408 Mission Ave., San Rafael, CA 94901.
Japan is beginning to create its own brand of liberation theology, known as the “crown and thorn” theology, reports The Tablet (Nov. 22).
From its birthplace, liberation theology (or theologies) has been exported and adapted to Africa, India, Korea, as well as to feminist and American black contexts In the case of Japan, the liberation theme is not addressed to issues of poverty, race and gender as much as to the discrimination suffered by the Burakumin people.
The Burakumin have been discriminated against in Japan because they are the descendants of those whose occupation was the killing and skinning of animals — which was considered “unclean” in Shinto and Buddhist culture and therefore contagious and hereditary. Since the ninth century, the Burakumin, now numbering 3 million, have been segregated in much of Japanese society.
In a people’s liberation movement during the 1920s, the Burakumin took on the themes of the “Crown of Thorns” — even though they were not Christian — and that of the “chosen people” from the Old Testament. The main proponent of Japanese liberation theology is Kuribayashi Teruo, himself a Burakumin and a United Church of Christ minister.
Kuribayashi studied at Union Theological Seminary under such liberation theologians as Dorothee Sölle. In such books as “A Theology of Crown of Thorns,” Kuribayashi argues that by the Burakumin’s borrowing of biblical themes of turning lowliness and suffering into being chosen and liberated, they are recovering the “radical meaning of Jesus’ crown of thorns.”
Europeans becoming increasingly pluralistic in their beliefs and practices, mixing tradition with innovation, reports the Washington Post (Dec. 24).
An in-depth article on new patterns of religious belief and identification in Europe finds that the “Spaniards are creating a national patchwork of local, Christian-inspired but overtly secular religions. The French are sampling Buddhism and massing on pilgrimages to shrines of obscure saints. The Italians are returning to long-buried Catholic forms and ideals in communities of renewal.
The Swedes are reclaiming their church from the clutches of the state . . . ” Charles Trueheart writes that Europeans are moving in four opposing directions in their new religious seeking. “One is toward contemporary expressions of faith in a secular vernacular,” such as in American-based churches that emphasize informality. Another such expression is the church-rooted environmentalist movement.
The second direction is toward a return to traditional ritual and mysticism. This can be seen in revamped Latin Masses and in “renewal communities” that feature charismatic worship, according to Trueheart. The third tendency is to move to non-Christian religions, such as Buddhism. Trueheart adds that still another avenue of seeking is found in the great appeal of spiritual pilgrimages — from going to a papal Youth Day in Paris to a shrine.
Unlike regular church life, these events are individually-oriented, mobile, and allow for “picking and choosing” beliefs. A similar phenomenon has developed in Spain where more than 400 priestless “associations” have been established on quasi-religious traditional festivals centered around papier-mache monuments — or”fallas” — that are torched in “massive bonfires of release and redemption.”
01: A major study by the Gallup Poll shows significant ambivalence among American believers in their attitudes towards dying and death.
Sponsored by the Nathan Cummings Foundation and the Fetzer Institute, the report of the attitudes of l,200 randomly selected adults found that only 36 percent of the respondents were sure that a member of the clergy would offer real comfort in their last days. At the same time large numbers of those surveyed were sure this support would come from family and friends.
In the Washington Post National Weekly Edition (Dec. 15), Richard Morin writes that the findings should be seen as “a wakeup call” for the clergy. Equally sharp as an indictment of clergy leadership was the belief by laity they had not been adequately instructed in issues of heaven and hell.
Although some 56 percent stated they believed in a hell, only 4 percent thought their own chances of going there were “excellent”. Seven in 10 stated they believed in heaven, but knew little more than that. On other matters, those interviewed stated their greatest fears were about having a long, painful time of departure.
Some 70 percent stated that if they knew they had only one chance in four to survive, they would want a plan that would relieve their pain and shorten their lives rather than a plan that would extend their life but with more pain. Those with stronger religious beliefs chose to prolong their lives even if it included more pain. Those with less interest in religious matters chose the relief of pain over that of longevity of life. Finally, the survey shows what Gallup called “old news”, that people want to die at home, a fact “largely ignored by institutions such as hospitals and health care organizations.”
— By Erling Jorstad
02: The Protestant teaching that one cannot gain salvation through good works but only by God’s grace has fewer Protestant adherents than one might think, according to a recent survey.
A poll by the Barna Research Group asked 6,242 respondents whether they “agree strongly” or “somewhat agree” with the view that a good person can earn their way to heaven. In a denominational breakdown, 22 percent of Assembly of God respondents agreed with this statement; 30 percent of non-denominational Christians; 38 percent of Baptists; 52 percent of Presbyterians; 54 percent of Lutherans; 58 percent of Episcopalians; 59 percent of Methodists; 76 percent of Mormons; 82 percent of Roman Catholics.
03: California and especially the Los Angeles Metropolitan region registered the fastest growing churches in the nation in a current survey of North America’s 100 fastest growing congregations.
The most recent survey of attendance growth (1995), conducted by John N. Vaughan and featured in Church Growth Today newsletter (volume 11, #6, and volume 12, #1), puts the Los Angeles Church of Christ at the top of the list for the second year in a row. The congregation grew from 6620 attending to 8,779 from 1994 to `95.
In a separate survey of North America’s fastest growing churches, the Los Angeles metro region had the highest number of such congregations, with 33; Atlanta followed with 22 of the fastest growing churches. As usual, Southern Baptist, Assemblies of God, independent charismatics, and the International Church of Christ led the nation’s fastest growing churches, although the Evangelical Free Church also had a high representation of congregations. Another noteworthy feature of the current top five of these churches is the first time appearance of a Canadian congregation — Calvalry Temple in Winnipeg, which grew from 2,000 to 3,500.
(Church Growth Today, P.O. Box 47, Bolivar, MO 65613)
04: Most Australian denominations are experiencing decline or stagnation, including the usually more buoyant Catholic and evangelical churches, while church drop-outs are increasing, according to the recent national census.
The Australian Christian quarterly Zadok Perspectives (Spring) reports that the Anglican and other mainline churches’ declining membership rates have been taking place for decades, but the more conservative Salvation Army, Eastern Orthodox, Catholics, Baptists and Seventh Day Adventists have “retained the same percentage of the population or dropped a little.”
This is especially surprising for the Catholics who have a continuing immigration flow on their side. Researcher Philip Hughes writes that even the Pentecostals who have been climbing rapidly, rising over 40 percent in membership between 1986 and 1991, have slowed down to a 16 percent increase — which was not expected for a group consisting largely of those of child-bearing age.
The growth has occurred in immigrant-based groups — Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim and Oriental Orthdodox (such as Egyptian Coptic Orthodox). Hughes writes he was also surprised by the growth of Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. The Mormons went from 38,000 to 45,000 in the last five years. The greatest growth, however, is in the “no religion” category. Between 1986 and 1991, the growth of this group was small — from 12.7 to 12.9 percent of the population.
Since that time, Australians choosing `no religion’ on the census represent 16.6 percent of the population, with another eight percent choosing not to answer this question. The rise in `no religion’ figures is found among people in their 40s and 50s rather than young people (who have remained stable at 20 percent). Hughes notes that the “churches are losing what contact they previously had with certain sections of the community.” He concludes that Christians may, in the long run, be losing “our sense of being different ” and having “something to offer the people around us.”
(Zadok Perspectives, P.O. Box 289 Hawthorn, Vic., 3122 Australia)
05: Catholics in Germany are the most favorable to liberal changes in the church than Catholics in any other country, according to the latest poll by sociologist Andrew Greeley.
Last year, Greeley surveyed Catholic opinion in six countries, showing that Catholics — rather surprisingly — in Ireland and Spain were the most “radical” in their desire for a more democratic church structure (such as voting for bishops). Catholics in the U.S. and Italy were also in favor of such a church structure, with only Poland and the Philippines falling short of a majority in favor of such changes.
The latest survey of German Catholics show an even higher level of support for church democracy. In a poll of 422 German Catholics, the average score in favor of major democratic reform was 78 percent; 75 percent wanted election of bishops by their people and the decentralization of power to local bishops, reports The Tablet (Nov. 1).
(The Tablet, 1 King St., Clifton Walk, London, W6 0Q2 England)
Although some improvement in opportunities for tenure and advancement have been made in recent years, women faculty in evangelical colleges still find serious difficulties in reaching full equality, according to Christianity Today magazine (Dec. 8).
Major problems exist on women’s equality within the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), the major evangelical college organization. A dissertation on this subject by Marti Garlett of Claremont College found through interviews with over two dozen female academics that a major source of conflict is that male colleagues often were overtly unfriendly. Male students also told the teachers they “had a problem with a woman being in authority over them.”
Some students and teachers told the interviewers that a woman’s place was in the home, not the classroom. Across the country women found fewer opportunities for career advancement in evangelical colleges. Women teachers sometimes spent large amounts of time mentoring female students, which left less time for research.
Finally, women academics found opportunities limited because male colleagues identified their aspirations with the more radical phases of the women’s movement. Garlett suggests prospects for improvement were, at best, limited for the foreseeable future.
(Christianity Today, 465 Gundersen Dr., Carol Stream, IL 60188)
Although both state and congregations are talking about a new era of cooperation in providing welfare, there are many obstacles that will hamper such bridge-building, reports Capital Commentary (Dec. 8), the newsletter of the evangelical Association for Public Justice.
Stanley Carlson-Thies writes that the Charitable Choice provision of the 1996 federal welfare reform law stipulated that when states spend their federal welfare block grants, they may not exclude faith-based organizations from competing for contracts or vouchers to provide such services. But such an arrangement is easier stated than done.
So far, such efforts have been uncoordinated and impeded by misunderstandings. For instance, in western Michigan, church-state cooperation in welfare is in full-swing, while at the other end of the state “some officials still insist that voluntary prayer and Bible reading can’t be tolerated in government-funded job preparation programs.”
Texas is committed to Charitable Choice programs, but the state has focused most of its contacts with interfaith networks, inadvertently excluding many independent and evangelical-charismatic-fundamentalist congregations. Carlson-Thies finds that religious organizations are hampered by similar problems. “Some church leaders are so used to telling government what to do with the poor that they can’t imagine how church and state may cooperate in service programs.
Others are so full of stories of anti-religious government action that they can’t believe Charitable Choice is the new rule. Many ministry leaders, having gone their own way for so long, don’t even know whom to call about local welfare changes and contracting opportunities.”
(Capital Commentary, CPJ, P.O. Box 48368, Washington, DC 20002-0368)
Forgiveness is increasingly being viewed as a self-help and therapeutic technique as well as a theological and spiritual concept, according to a recent Associated Press report (Dec. 20).
Mounting research on the psychological and physical benefits of forgiveness, as well as new teachings on its role in spirituality is making the 1990s the decade of forgiving. Frederick DiBlasio of the University of Maryland School of Social Work says the concept of forgiveness is gaining momentum in American society in a more practical way than in previous decades.
“Part of the reason is simply that as the population gets older, many baby boomers facing mortality are starting to measure their lives by their human relationships rather than their stock portfolios,” writes David Briggs.
Forgiveness is found to help fight stress and depression and is now seen as an important therapeutic goal in psychological journals, according to Robert Enright of the University of Wisconsin. The appeal of asking for forgiveness is equally evident in the religious world. Religious leaders and scholars such as Enright have recently inaugurated the first International Forgiveness Institute.
The Promise Keepers movement-led gathering in Washington brought a million evangelical men to prostrate themselves to ask forgiveness of their wives and children. As a preparation for the new millennium, the pope and other Christian leaders have sought forgiveness from various groups, such as those of other faiths, that their churches may have persecuted.
A controversial report on Scientology and their disciplinary measures has revived a debate on “brainwashing.”
Charges of brainwashing were not unusual during the 1970s and `80s when discussing cults, but since then mostly anti-cult leaders have made this charge against new religious movements. That is until University of Alberta sociologist Stephen Kent delivered a paper at the conference of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) in November.
Kent asserted that the Church of Scientology operates a Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF) for wayward members where they are confined and subject to physical hardship involving excessive exercise. Through interviewing former members who were either in the RPF or witnessed the program in action, Kent found that some of the methods of the RPF use brainwashing techniques that Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard borrowed from Communist brainwashing literature.
Kent says the RPF’s activities violate human rights, and adds that “ironically, as the United States Department of State heightens its criticism against Germany’s handling of the Scientology affair, at least three of these abusive programs continue to operate on American soil.” He claims that his charges of brainwashing fall within the boundaries of social science, since one accepted definition implies that confinement and coercion are two earmarks of most brainwashing cases.
Kent’s paper drew considerable fire at the SSSR conference in San Diego.”I thought it was pretty strange…We were taken aback by it,” says James Richardson, professor of Sociology and Judicial Studies at the University of Nevada. Richardson told RW in an interview that Kent provided little corroborating evidence for his claims and that his use of brainwashing theories are an “ideological weapon against Scientology” that have not been proven by social science.
More to the point, Richardson says that by relying on former members’ testimonies, Kent was using information that has rarely been viewed as credible by social scientists. “Former members’ explanations are shaped by their negative experiences…The vast majority that have left Scientology and other new religious movements have reported experiences that were okay or neutral.”
Rutgers University sociologist Benjamin Zablocki says, with some minor qualifications, that Kent delivered “quite a good paper.” He told RW that Scientologists present at the session were given a chance to rebut Kent’s findings and didn’t do so. Zablocki says that there has been a “campaign to discredit a whole class of ex-members’ accounts [without a hearing].
It’s argued that anyone who has left an [NRM] has an ax to grind.” He adds that it is “ridiculous to disqualify a whole population’s point of view.” In his own research Zablocki has sought to test the reliability and validity of apostate accounts of life in new religious movements. He compared accounts of apostates with those who were current members. There was “no statistical difference” in the consistency of such accounts” and no significant difference between such apostate observations of life in NRMs with Zablocki’s own “outsider” observations of such groups.
Sociologist Thomas Robbins says that while Kent’s paper may be important if his facts are borne out, it will be more ground-breaking and controversial if it is shown that brainwashing, or what Robbins says should more accurately be called “thought reform,” can happen voluntarily rather than through confinement or punishment. Robbins points to research (such as by Zablocki) which suggests that such a process is possible in groups that make it difficult for members to leave their ranks.
For their part, the Church of Scientology asserts that RPF programs are purely voluntary and edifying for erring members and that no coercion or hardship takes place. Al Buttnor, a public affairs official of the Toronto office of the church, says members have a free choice of going on RPF or in leaving. “To say that it’s not voluntary is like saying Catholic monasteries are prisons,” he said.
It wasn’t surprising that Heaven’s Gate made it to the top of most reviews of religion in 1997.
Yet the mass suicides last April had few repercussions on religion and society as compared to several less sensational news events that took place last year. To start off the year, we provide this review of news and trends that will likely carry significant implications for religion in 1998 and beyond.
01: The revoking of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by the Supreme Court last year is likely to impact the tumultuous church-state landscape in various ways.
The act, established by a broad range of religious leaders in 1993, was struck down by the Supreme Court. Many in the religious community fear the removal of the act could jeopardize the freedom of religious minorities. By striking down the law, the Supreme Court highlighted its authority, rather than Congress or state legislatures, in protecting First Amendment freedom of religious liberties.
The decision, plus many others, has already solidified a new coalition of religious conservatives protesting against what they see as judicial activism by the Court (see July-August RW).
02: The ecumenical decisions made during the summer of `97 will not likely reshape church relations, but they did reveal new patterns and strategies for achieving unity among mainline churches.
The proposal for “full communion” between the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America and three mainline Reformed bodies was accepted while the ELCA refused to enter into relations with the Episcopal Church. The ELCA-Reformed agreement did not ecessitate a change in structure to have inter-church relations, while the Episcopal concordat would eventually stipulate that the Lutherans accept the historic episcopate or apostolic succession of bishops.
The Reformed agreement is more wary of top-down, structural changes and allows ecumenical action to to be decided at the local level. Even if it is called “full communion,” such relations are likely to be selective and partial, traveling along the faultlines and fissures of post-denominational American religion (September RW).
03: The new restrictions against “foreign” religions in Russia and the legal establishment of the Russian Orthodox Church brought protests from a wide range of religions, including dissenting Orthodox groups.
The restrictions are mainly aimed at Western new religious movements and evangelical groups, but any religious group that is independent of centralized and registered religious organizations, such as the Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists and Catholics, can be targeted with restrictions. While it is widely doubted that it will be fully enforced, the legislation can easily be used by politicians intent on harnessing Orthodoxy for political purposes and limiting dissenting voices.
04: There are also signs of growing Eastern Orthodox revivalist or traditionalist movements, not always related to the political establishment of Orthodoxy noted above.
The withdrawal of the Georgian Orthodox Church from the World Council of Churches, and the prospect of the Serbian Orthodox Church doing likewise, signals the growing independence and isolation of Orthodoxy from other churches (October RW).
05: The freeze on ecumenical relations between Eastern Orthodoxy and other churches is most clearly seen in the declining state of Catholic-Orthodox relations during the past year.
Despite Pope John Paul II’s frequent calls for closer relations between the two traditions — even offering the possibility of restructuring the papacy to accommodate the Orthodox — there are growing conflicts between Eastern-Rite Catholic churches and Orthodox over the ownership of parishes in Eastern Europe (not to mention the new restrictions in Russia largely carried out by the Russian Orthodox Church).
The U.S. visit of Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople–the leader of a large segment of world Orthodoxy — last September added to the dampened mood by dismissing any easy reconciliation with Rome.
— Erling Jorstad contributed to this review