Thursday, August 11, 2011

World Mission Society Church of God: When Church is Not Church

For reasons relating to some recent conversations I've been having, today's bit of bloggery will revolve around the difference between being part of a faith community and being a member of a cult.

Cult is a rather unpleasant bit of verbiage, one that progressive Christians may feel a bit awkward using.  It feels rather less than tolerant, and seems judgmental about what another person believes.

"Don't go hatin!" we say.  What right do we have in this pluralistic and open society to make value statements about what another holds dear?

I generally don't do this myself.  I find threads and interwoven patterns of God's grace and truth in many of the world's faith traditions.  If you're another flava of Christian, cool.  Let's talk and mingle and grow deeper in Christ through that exchange.  If you're a Jew or a Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, well, fine.  Let's find the Creator's handiwork in one another, and if you can hear goodness and grace in what I'm saying about what I believe, then cool.  Into crystals and incantations?  So long as you don't distract me by walking into my church sky clad, we're copacetic.

But I have boundaries, and those boundaries tend to involve fundamentalism and cults.  Fundamentalism we know from its pathological rigidity and inability to move beyond idolatrous worship of texts.  That, plus a frightening willingness to do unpleasant things to those who don't agree with it.

But what is a cult?  Today's poster child, which is pretty much the Platonic Form for Cult, is the World Mission Society Church of God.

Why is this a cult and not faith?  Well, let's look at two key defining features.

1)  External Incoherence.  Cults score very, very high on this scale.  Granted, many atheists would argue there is no meaningful difference between a group that claims its leader is God now and a group that follows a figure from millenia ago.  But Christianity is a comprehensible extension of Judaism understood from an objective historical critical perpective.  It carries on many of the core assertions about YHWH and builds upon the prophetic tradition of the Jewish people and the dynamics of first century messianic expectation.  It makes sense in historical context, whether you agree with it or not.

The World Mission Society Church of God, on the other hand, is what one might fairly call a great steaming bucket of crazy.  While claiming to be completely defined by the Bible, its interpretation of the Bible involves all of the teachings of those Hebrew texts from the Ancient Near East pointing to God being both God the Creator Korean lady.  God's feminine aspect is none other than Ms. Zhang Gil-Ah, God the Mother, spiritual founder of the World Mission Society Church of God.  According to the WMSCG, the Bible clearly says so.

To which an objective historical critical scholar of the development of the texts of the Tanakh might say, HHHHHWWWWAAAT?

The "logic" behind that assertion lies in a carefully constructed set of proof texts.  WMSCG folks claim that early Torah texts seem to use the plural term "Elohim" to describe God, which means, of course, that God is both male and female, with the Guy God being YHWH and the Female God being the aforementioned smiling Korean lady.  Here, a tiny bit of truth creeps in.

The primal precursor of the worship of YHWH in the Ancient Near East was polytheistic, which gives us the residual plural.  Objective history and the texts of the Bible themselves tell us that for many who worshipped YHWH, there was the assumption of a divine consort, a female fertility counterpart.  For our culty friends, though, there's a problem.  The name of that goddess was Asherah.  She was not a Korean lady.

Equally problematic for WMSCG are the relentless assertions of God's unitary identity in the Bible.  The ancient Hebrew conception of Adonai radically resisted the idea that there was more than one god.  It's a central tenet of Torah, which is ferociously defended by the prophets.  Asherah worship itself was actively resisted as a threat to that radical monotheism.

If you're a Hindu, then be polytheistic.  You go, Parvati-avatar-girl!  But if you are claiming to be "rooted in the bible," and then claiming there are multiple gods, your belief system has no rational or theological coherence in the context of that textual foundation.

WMSCG folks also claim that the prophet Isaiah clearly pointed to the Korean founder of their church as the savior of all people, because he kept going on about a leader who would rise up in the east.  Again, there's a tiny bit of truth in that.  Isaiah, a brilliant poet and a keen observer of the dynamics of the Ancient Near East, did make a series of statements pointing to the liberation of Israel as founded in the East.  But by "East" he meant Persia.  Namely, Cyrus of Persia, the wise emperor whose gracious policy of liberation and return made his conquest of imperial Babylon so appealing to the peoples Babylon had enslaved.

There's also much made about the the importance of worshipping on certain festival days, and on avoiding Christmas and Easter as pagan accretions.  This is proclaimed the key to being saved. problem lies in the fact that the Christian Bible taken as a whole makes it pretty clear that demanding cultic practice on certain days as opposed to others just ain't something we should do.  The particulars of that stuff just don't ultimately matter.

These are just a few entertaining examples of how the WoMiSoChoG (It's name in the Lovecraftian universe) manages to decouple texts from their context and stitch them back together into a shambling flesh-golem of a belief system.

So how do people believe this stuff?

2)  Internal Control.  Propping up the external incoherence of cults are a ferociously defended series of self-reinforcing proofs.   Those proofs are reinforced through an endless series of push-studies, in which a single pattern of thinking is repeated, over and over and over again.    Highly emotional group events are typically used to generate a sense of collective fervor.  This is done, repeated, and done again.  The teachings will frequently move from the more accessible to the more esoteric, as the new initiate is drawn further and further into a particular cultic worldview.  With each new "level" or teaching, the secret knowledge that is conveyed reinforces a sense of specialness and inclusion.  That it is not externally coherent no longer matters.  Scientology, anyone?

The group begins to consume every waking moment of the life of the cultic devotee.  Worship follows study follows gathering, and time for other relationships grows less and less.  The bonds of connection outside of the group begin to fray and become crowded out.  External relationships are increasingly difficult, as the patterns of in-group thinking make relating to family and former friends harder and harder.  Existence becomes increasingly defined in terms of the cultic experience.

It's a stock standard way of maintaining internal control within such a system.  In its practice of this pattern of control, the WoMiSoChoG is hardly unique.  There are groups that have nested within many of the world's faith traditions that use very similar methodologies.  The more charismatic forms of Jesus-faith often wander dangerously close to that level of manipulation.

A cult seeks to annihilate the identity of the devotee.  It is memetically hegemonic, meaning it permits the existence of nothing but itself in the believer.

Where cults...and frankly, fundamentalism as well...step outside of the bounds of my considerable tolerance is in their incapacity to stand in relationship to anything but themselves.  They demand that you be them.  They don't want to relate to you.  They want to devour you...your every moment, your every thought.

Faith is different.  As a disciple of Jesus of Nazareth, I am nonetheless myself.  I can interface with those who are not me.  While I am ethically and spiritually governed by my belief, it permits...heck, it demands... healthy and mutually respectful external relationships.  Faith defines, but gives permission and space for a rich, differentiated, and multifaceted self.  That self is suffused with faith, but remains functionally free within it.

The WoMiSoChog offers no such liberty.   It is not a church, in the sense that it has no connection whatsoever with "church" as a term that refers to a group that engages in Jesus-following in any of its forms.  It is also not faith.  In its assertion of absolute authority in a single human being, external incoherence, and hegemonic internal control systems, it neatly checks every cultic box.