How, then, are we not a cult?

Mary Magdala Community

How, then, are we not a cult?   thoughts on Independence Weekend, July 2, 2017

by Rev. Jim Ryan,

We celebrate, on this 13th Sunday in Ordinary Time, our Independence Holiday running all the way to July 4th.  This time of focus acknowledges that freedom is a gift to share and a challenge to sustain.

Today’s reading from the Letter to the Romans (6:3-4,8-11) poses in stark contrast the difference between death and life when we freely choose to follow Christ.  Is this, then, the free life – this life in Christ?  Is it the marker by which religious experience affirms us in our choice both to believe and to act in Christ’s name?

I have been thinking in terms of contrast after reading the following passage on religious experience.  The author, Walter Lammi, refers to the liturgical features of worship as cultic ceremony.  He writes, “The temporal constitution of cultic ceremony as a moment of absolute (divine?) presence disappears absolutely and does not issue in communicable understanding beyond the circle of the initiated.”

I hear him saying that too often worship serves only itself and centers only on  those who participate in  it.  Where, Lammi might ask, is the evidence in the world that this worship makes a difference?

In our circle of worship at Mary of Magdala Community we often express thoughts and sentiments that affirm just what Lammi writes about religious experience.  Liturgy often becomes a powerful event of God’s presence among us.  But is it an experience that lives only among “the initiated” and only at the time of our communal experience?

This is referred to as a cult experience with all the bad connotations that the word offers.  Cult is a closed-in group, right?  Cult is led by self-centered individuals who demand absolute loyalty, right?  Cult is represented as something new and only the “initiated” understand its language, right?

If this is so, and if we often experience the power of the absolute in our circle of worship, then I ask, “How, then, are we not a cult?”

(Here are some thoughts shared by the community this morning in response to this question about cult.)

— Aren’t cloistered communities closed off and praying only among themselves?  Are they a cult?  For so many of us the person who showed that a bridge between such communities and the world is not only possible but necessary is Thomas Merton.  Merton, the cloistered Trappist monk, was acutely attuned to the world and wrote forcefully for peace and justice.

— Worship and the experience of the divine requires us to spread the social message of Christ beyond ourselves.

— Leadership for us is grounded in Community Meeting which makes possible “church from below.”  There is no single leader who commands the initiated in our Mary of Magdala community.

— We celebrate a heritage that reaches back to the first followers of Jesus bypassing various traditions along the way.

In an article about Cults and New Movements (Journal of the American Academy of Religion, June 2017), Kristian Klippenstein says that at least two antidotes to the closed-in identity of cultic experience can counter cult’s ill-effects.  First, is the rejection of the notion that there is only one leader who has all the answers.  Second, is the acceptance by the community of a well-established tradition.

In our Mary of Magdala Community, as already mentioned, the body that makes communal decisions is Community Meeting.  Also as already mentioned, we reach back to that original tradition of the first-century followers of Jesus.  Seems that we have built-in the antidotes to cult.

In his “Commentary on The Letter to the Romans,” Karl Barth led the charge in the last century for making a single-focused choice for the new life of Christ.  His influence was so great in some circles that it gave new life to the notion that all we need to do is accept Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior.

Which is fine, except…….  We, the initiated, that is, we who powerfully experience the divine reality present in our worship – who openly accept that Christ chooses us –  must always put into practice the effect of this experience.

A Prayer  (JR)

Praise to you, loving Creator,

for the blessing of freedom.

Praise also to you, Holy Wisdom,

for the gifts to sustain this freedom.

All Praise be to the Beloved One,

who has shown by life, death, and resurrection

that freedom without struggle is an empty blessing.

As you call us to celebrate these Mysteries, may we listen in freedom

to your divine silence that fills our life today and forever.   Amen.

One Response

  1. Dennis Ference says:

    Are we a cult? Certainly an important question deserving of thoughtful answers. Being fairly new to the community, I greatly appreciated Sunday’s sharing. In my own post-liturgy reflection, I was led to consider, that if we are not a cult, then what ARE we? Further (and, perhaps, more crucially) what are we For? We may think the answer is obvious, but in continuing to attempt to more finely discern our answers, we may be strengthened in our purpose and reminded how easy it is to become solely inward directed. Further, I think it will help us to stress the positive over the negative, action over defending, affirmation over condemnation, and the primacy in all things of surrender to the Spirit.
    I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to the reflections of the community in this blog. Thanks, Jim!

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