Definition of a Cult
Originally, the word “cult” suggested worship and was not pejorative. In modern usage the word took on negative connotations. The critical meaning of cult is, I believe, in part the result of the mental development of humanity, where the mind begins to see devotion in its glamorous or illusory expression. Humanity turns toward the external, complicating the problem. We humans, in this devotional cycle, become hero worshipers and sadly, often in the sense of idol worship.
The pure devotion of the soul descends into the personality, becoming superficially ritualistic, superstitious, exaggerated, and exclusive–in other words, we become false and cultish. Even the word “cult” itself is used in a cultish way, e.g. a cult is what we call the religious brainwashing down the street from where we receive our own religious brainwashing. “Wash” is the apt term, because water is the symbol of emotionalism.
Group-think is strong. Reflecting on the list of attributes of cults, one might ask, “Are not most religions and new age movements cults?” Have we not all struggled through life under the binding spell of one cult or another?” We can look at this question in the light of useful concept: degrees. Applying it, we see there are not two categories: “cult” and “not a cult.” Rather we find that a great deal of human activity, particularly in the religious, metaphysical, and political fields, is cultish to some degree. And the presence, to some degree, of one or a few cult-like attributes–and especially the less crucial ones–would not be justification for the strong label of “cult.” As an exercise in critical thought, we could rate a given movement, assessing the prominence of each cultish tendency, on a ten-point scale.
The Size and Age of Cults
Some definitions of “cult” relate the word to small groups, but it is not the smallness of the group that is determinative, but smallness of mind. There is tendency to think of cults as relatively small groups or minor swirls of activity within human society but sometimes small groups can be closer to the truth than large ones. So size is not always relevant to cult status–there are large and small cults, and very new and very ancient ones. Society may perceive a cult as something always outside normal or established human society, but large and long established cults also exist as an accepted part of society, even while not recognized as such by most people. Actually, numerous large cults are imbedded in the fabric of accepted society. Some of these have benevolent and attractive aspects, but careful thought shows how the dark threads of cult consciousness are woven in with the brighter threads of high ideals and humanitarian endeavor.
Assessing Gold and Fool’s Gold
There are individuals beyond us in the scale of development and insight. There are always those to whom we can look for inspiration and those to whom we can offer our help, however large or small that gift may be. But we should not try to shift responsibility for the course of our lives to a group or a leader. We should not—to put it in psychological terms–expect a leader or group to take the place of the ideal parent or family that we never knew, while we assume the role of a dependent child. There is nothing inherently wrong with the fact that we are at a relatively undeveloped state compared to some ahead of us on the path of life. The problem arises when psychological immaturity, left over from an unfortunate early life, leads us to surrender ourselves to an individual or group, instead of using relationships as the catalysis for the evolution of thought, love, and divinity within us.
A pseudo-teacher engages in a conscious or unconscious game of power, and is dependent on the weakness and worshipful attitude of followers. That which is often most attractive to members of a group, a charismatic leader, tends often to encourage unhealthy dependency and hero-worship. The development differential between a teacher and ourselves is an opportunity for an apprentice/master relation, and not an occasion for uncritical submission to authority. Moreover, the Teacher and the Teaching are always as much within as outside us. And it follows that without the inner teaching, the external is rendered a meaningless illusion. It follows also that a good teacher is one who encourages competence and independence in us, so reducing the distance between pupil and teacher. Such a relationship is the antithesis of cultism.
Self-centered metaphysics is a contradiction in terms. It’s a curious and often unnoticed fact that most schools and teachings termed metaphysical, place the major emphasis on more or less mundane egocentric concerns: awaken your psychic powers, get money, exercise influence, find love and romance, achieve personal enlightenment easily and quickly, and so on. There is a wide spectrum of desire-appeal in these that ranges from the “metaphysics” of winning a lottery to subtler goals like general self-improvement and gaining knowledge.
Given the current nature of humans, such motivations and appeals are to be expected. But they are not about metaphysics but “physics,” that is, the physics of bodies and their desires. In the normal course of life, we do need metaphysics to awaken personal powers, get money, exercise influence, and find love. With the exception of the last—and depending on what level of “love” we mean—these normal human goals are achievable without the confusion of redefining them as a spiritual path. But in a curious way, selfish appeals and methods get wrapped up in various “spiritual” and “supernormal” packaging. The seduction of that is that we can go on living an ordinary life while while entertaining the ego satisfying illusion that we are on a special spiritual path.
Goals like self-improvement, gaining knowledge, or getting clear of personality limitations can began to shade up toward something spiritual since they can support a healthy and more integrated personality. And we need some measure of progressive normalcy before we can expect safe progress toward spiritual or supernormal. Our practical pursuits are useful training and develop faculties in us that are a fitting prelude to spiritual progress, and moving toward the future our earthly abilities lend themselves to use on higher turns of the spiral of life. But, as often happens, more or less egocentric concerns saturates the beginning, the middle, and the end of pseudo-metaphysical teachings.
We search for happiness, and real happiness is spiritual sunlight. When approaching the spiritual, any desire emphasizing our egocentric concerns dims the light, and acts as a barrier separating us from the goal. We achieve happiness not by grabbing for it, but as a byproduct of love, a radiant sun-like disposition and motivation. For spiritual things, we achieve is by radiance. But the ego in us is not radiant, not giving. It is like a grasping hand, whereas the higher symbol is an open hand. Spiritual receptivity is like this open hand held out to the sun. If we try to grab the light, our hand closes on darkness.
We make much of the bodily aspect and it may even seem to us that the spirit is less real than the physical, so a “real” encounter comes to equal a physical one. Yet, only the spiritual component of each encounter is real. Without spiritual consciousness, a physical encounter is unconvincing and with spiritual consciousness the physical encounter may not be required. The external is, at best, an attractive adornment to a real meeting. Our ability to tie an encounter to a certain incarnate body is incidental. It is the energy component of any meeting that is essential.
And what of the bodies of the books and talks? Everywhere the mediators of great thoughts show both grandeur and flaws—the best are like magnificent stained glass windows, but with occasional cracks, splotches of dust, or missing pieces. One must find enough greatness of spirit to love the grandeur while not remaining blind to the flaws.
I do not see total validity or total authenticity in any book or person. I see that spirit pertains to the essence of things, to the rainbow of spirituality that is the foundation of the universe. But all verbal formulas provide a picture that is “through a glass darkly.” The texts we have, like our personalities, are never entirely satisfactory.
There are limits to be considered in every verbal formulation as well as in those of us who draw on the formulas. The value of a good teachings is it’s merit as general guideline and stimulus to thought and reflection. In the details and specifics, and their application to any time and space, there is often much ambiguity and vagueness. So, in a sense, we are still on our own—otherwise put—the intent of a great teaching is not to turn people into “wind up toys.” Teachings are not the truth, but a catalyst to aid us in our approach to the truth.