|Saving the Earth|
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Research into the phenomenon of "new religious movements" has become a major focus of attention for social scientists over the last twenty years. Sociologists in particular, but also historians and anthropologists, have been attracted to the unique quality of these groups that of being both inside and outside the dominant culture. Although, on the one hand, new religions are an expression of social trends and therefore a barometer of cultural values, on the other, by rejecting the established churches they place themselves beyond borders of mainstream society and its values. The emergence of new religions challenges traditional religions and thereby provides scholars with a special opportunity to examine the dynamics of religious belief and practice. So many new movements have emerged that scholarship about them has resulted in a body of work daunting in size and scope.
Since new religious groups generally either do not keep archives or have been unwilling to make the papers they do have available to scholars, virtually all students of contemporary religious movements have been forced to obtain their data from interviews and/or participant-observation. These studies are, therefore, necessarily limited in their longitudinal analysis both of the leaders' lives and of the history of the movements. Confined to a several-year period at most, they tend to ignore change over time in favor of a detailed synchronic analysis of the groups as they exist during the period of field investigation. As a result, the new religions are frequently perceived as static entities whose various qualities allow them to be fit into specific categories such as church or sect, charismatic or democratic, eastern or western, and so forth. As useful as such ahistorical categorization may be, it obscures the fact that religions are dynamic institutions that evolve over time in response to changes both in their external environment and in their internal relations. Due to our access to an unprecedented amount of historical documentation, this study can attempt to break through this fixed view of religious movements. We will specifically show how the complex mix of personalities, institutional needs, and social conditions interacted across time to move a religious group through several standard categories.
The grand tradition of pigeonholing religions into ideal types began, of course, with Max Weber, who first spoke of a church-sect dichotomy in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism . His ideas were developed by his student, Ernst Troeltsch, according to whom sects were smaller groups that stood apart from society at large in their radical attempts to live the pure Christian message. Churches, in contrast, were integrated into society, took a much more conservative, that is, tolerant, view of living and implementing the Christian message, and, unlike the sects, were allied with the upper classes. The Weber-Troeltsch model suffers from two major weaknesses. First, it is static, making no allowance for change; second, it is very difficult to apply beyond the European society from which the model was generated.
The problem of stasis was addressed by H. Richard Niebuhr, who suggested that sects almost always evolved into more churchlike denominations as the children of the founders softened the radical ideas of their parents. In addition to adding a dynamic component to the description of religions, Niebuhr's approach was also more clearly compatible with a religiously heterogeneous society like that found in the United States. Yet that very heterogeneity seemed to beg for a set of new definitions that would enable scholars to categorize the wider variety of vendors in the American religious marketplace. Unfortunately, the number of suggested categories has grown to be almost as varied as the number of religions they have attempted to define.
Although most of the more recent typologies acknowledge the possibility even likelihood of change, they still posit distinct categories into or out of which groups could move if and when they changed. This rather punctuated approach was effectively challenged in 1963 by sociologist Benton Johnson, who suggested that there is a continuum from church to sect in which churches are those religious groups that accept the status quo and sects are those that reject it. The most obvious difficulty in the Johnson scheme is that of measuring just how much a religious group is rejecting or is being rejected by the dominant society.
That issue has recently been addressed in two closely related ways. First, in their book The Future of Religion, Rodney Stark and William S. Bainbridge have suggested that a group's location on the church-sect continuum can be determined by measuring the amount of "tension" that members feel vis-Ã -vis the broadly accepted secular values of society. At one end of the spectrum are members of sects who experience high tension because they believe and behave in ways that are at odds with mainstream society, thus setting up a system of mutual rejection. Church members, by comparison, hold essentially the same values as the majority and suffer little if any tension. By asking group members specific questions about their attitudes toward society at-large, Stark and Bainbridge locate groups along a church-sect continuum.
Stark and Bainbridge call one section of their book "The Religious Economy," and the image is an excellent one, even though they themselves do not use an economic model to describe the relationship of religion and society. A second work by economist Laurence Iannaccone, however, does. Avoiding discrete Procrustean categories and stressing the fluidity of a church-sect continuum, Iannaccone suggests that a group's position on the continuum can best be established by measuring an individual's "cost" of membership. Following Gary S. Becker's approach to analyzing nonmarket behavior, Iannaccone sees the individual's decision for or against membership in a religious group as an "economic" choice. In this sense "economic" does not simply refer to monetary exchange, but is used in a broader sense to refer to all limited resources that could include, in addition to time and money, psychic and physical effort, social reputation, and the like. He assumes that the individual will spend these resources in a way that will bring the greatest personal satisfaction. Because mainline churches have values and behavior expectations compatible with society at large, there is relatively little personal cost in being a member. Sects, however, depart dramatically from general social values; therefore joining a sect can be very "expensive."
Obviously Stark and Bainbridge's "tension" and Iannaccone's "cost" are two ways of saying (and measuring) the same thing. They both assume, as have almost all scholars from the time of Weber, that churches are of society and sects are outside it. The major difference between the two is that Stark and Bainbridge limit their measurements of tension to what might roughly be called "psychic" items whereas Iannaccone's model includes all costs. Thus, the more the adherence to a religious group's values produces tension, the higher the cost of mem bership and the farther toward the sect end of the continuum a group would lie.
Since membership in a sect has very high costs in terms of secular rewards, sects must provide many of the benefits that their members would normally get from nonreligious sources. Although religious rewards might be the motivating factor attracting a person to a sect, people still need food, clothing, housing, companionship, and other forms of support. If membership in a religious sect makes it difficult to obtain these necessities from normal sources, then sect members must seek them from the group itself. It is, of course, in the sect's best interest to provide as much of this support as possible both to prevent defection and to build a feeling of thankfulness, if not actual dependency, on the part of members. Iannaccone points out that there is a corollary to this proposition: to provide the necessary support the sect must place high demands on its members, and thus high levels of active participation are characteristic of sects.
The great strength of the economic model is that it can be used both synchronically to define the religion-society relationship in a particular moment and diachronically to track and explain variations over time. By examining changes in services provided to members or the demands made on them, students of a movement can make sense of the historical evolution of a group without discarding the still useful categories of church and sect. Thus history makes it possible to have a truly dynamic sociology, freed from the false confines of the synchronic moment as well as from the artificial walls of pure typologies. By actually watching a group operate over time in the religious marketplace we can see how it must provide more rewards as it demands higher costs and thus becomes more separate and sectlike, or, conversely, how it can drop support functions as it moves toward the social mainstream by becoming more churchlike. The economic model does not predict the direction of movement, but it does set up a correlation between supply and demand within the group. The more the group demands, the more it must supply, and the less the group supplies the less it can demand.
As noted above, most studies of new religious movements have been circumscribed not only by synchronic models but, more fundamentally, by a lack of historic materials. We have been able to undertake a unique longitudinal study of a new religion, the Creative Initiative movement, because its leaders allowed us access to approximately a hundred thousand pages of material spanning eighty years. These included the personal papers of the founders and their mentor and most of the records of the organization itself. This mass of material in conjunction with hundreds of questionnaires and dozens of interviews have enabled us to go beyond field study to reconstruct from the inside more than a half century of the history of Creative Initiative using its followers own words, both private and public. In doing so, we can explore the life-cycle of a new religion from its earliest beginnings as a Bible study group through its gradual development into a new religious sect and, finally, to its unexpected demise in favor of a totally secularized peace movement.
Members of Creative Initiative called themselves the "New Religion" (we follow their capitalization) and never used any other label such as denomination, sect, or cult. We refer to them as a proto-sect or sect depending upon where they seem to fall along the church-sect continuum at any particular point in their history. Students of religion sometimes distinguish between cults and sects and, depending on which definition one follows, Creative Initiative might or might not be categorized as a cult. Because of its pejorative connotations we have chosen to avoid using the term cult except in its commonly understood negative sense. As a new religion in California, Creative Initiative was understandably sensitive about being labeled a cult. Because members did not slavishly follow a prophetic leader, did not engage in socially deviant practices, did not surrender their critical faculties or their wealth to the group, or engage in other extreme behaviors associated in the popular mind with cults, we have avoided that term, even when we might have applied it in a narrow technical sense, out of respect for their feelings.
Much of this book is the story of the group's husband and wife leaders, especially the wife, Emilia Rathbun, who had all the qualities of a charismatic leader, yet refused to become a guru or prophet. At the same time, this book is also the study of a group of people who dramatically belie the facile assumption that new religious groups appeal to marginal people suffering from some sort of relative deprivation. Members of Creative Initiative were the epitome of successful mainstream Americans. Ethnically, financially, educationally, and socially, they would seem to have been the least likely of people to deviate from the religious norm, and in some very profound ways they did not. Although on the surface Creative Initiative appears to have been a major departure from mainline religion, in fact it was in some ways also a continuation and even a rejuvenation of traditional American religious values.
The story begins in nineteenth-century rural Ontario and ends in 1982 in the suburban California headquarters of the antiwar group called Beyond War. Beyond War's home office is in Palo Alto, California, but it has active groups in sixty-six cities in twenty-five states outside California and in more than four hundred cities and towns inside the state. Although there is no formal membership, eighteen thousand people subscribe to its newsletter, and scores of full-time volunteers work both at its headquarters and in the field where they recruit new members and set up new local units. The movement sponsors an annual Beyond War Award for organizations or individuals who have been instrumental in furthering the cause of peace, and three times it has created televised intercontinental "space bridges" to carry the awards ceremony live to the Soviet Union and to several Latin American nations.
Yet unlike many other antiwar movements, Beyond War does not have a political agenda. It deliberately eschews institutional political action, believing that peace can best be achieved by teaching individuals how to adopt "a new way of thinking" in which they "pose no enemies" and renounce violence as a method of resolving conflict. Their focus on achieving peace in the world through individual transformation of attitudes would appear to place Beyond War in the company of numerous "New Age" groups that also make personal change a prerequisite for change in the world. Yet Beyond War is unique in a number of ways. First, the movement is not a product of the 1960s or 1970s but has roots that go back to the World War I era. Second, although it is a purely secular movement today, its immediate antecedents were decidedly religious. Finally, Beyond War grew out of a tradition that rejected the self-centered individualism of so many New Age movements and stressed the importance of community.
The process that eventually culminated in Beyond War began before the turn of the century with a Canadian scholar named Henry B. Sharman who, in the tradition of the "higher criticism," led Bible study seminars that emphasized Jesus as a model for life. After Sharman's semiretirement to California in 1933, Stanford University law professor Harry Rathbun and his wife Emilia joined the large body of university faculty who regularly studied with him. The Rathbuns took over leadership of the movement after Sharman's total retirement in 1946, and under their direction an organization called Sequoia Seminar continued to run programs that examined the teachings of Jesus.
For sixteen years Sequoia Seminar maintained the Sharman tradition. Then, in 1962, Emilia had a religious experience that she interpreted as a call to "practice the personal religion of Jesus" in a new context. Beginning with a few close women friends and spreading slowly, what had previously been a study group with some sectlike qualities became a distinct religious sect.
At first, the new sect was strictly private and had no name. It was simply referred to as "the work." As it sought additional members and became increasingly public the women adopted the name "New Sphere" in 1965. Two years later they changed their name to "Woman to Woman Building the Earth for the Children's Sake," which was eventually shortened to "Build the Earth." In 1968, as part of a project to promote voluntary national service, the group adopted the umbrella designation, "National Initiative Foundation," which in turn was changed to the "Creative Initiative Foundation" in 1972. In 1982, Creative Initiative began the Beyond War project, and in 1983 all the activities of Creative Initiative and Sequoia Seminar were suspended in order to concentrate exclusively on the new Beyond War movement.
The history of the Creative Initiative movement is a history of institutional evolution. During the fifteen years after they founded Sequoia Seminar in 1946, the Rathbuns and their circle slowly transformed the organization from a Bible study group working with and through the mainline churches into a quasi-sect. As it became more sectlike, demanding greater loyalty, developing a unique ideology, and increasing the "cost" of membership, participants found it increasingly difficult to be dedicated to the movement and at the same time to remain active in their churches. That tension between church and emerging sect was resolved after 1962 when Emilia's religious vision freed the movement to become an independent religious sect. The movement spent the next twenty years developing a full spectrum of sectarian activities that ranged from specialized ceremonies to social action.
Their unorthodox religious beliefs and their insistence on total commitment to work through the group limited the movement's growth, especially since they sought highly educated, financially successful and politically moderate members. Thus, so long as the movement remained a religious sect, it appeared that it would not have the worldwide effect its members envisioned. The emergence of Beyond War in 1982 marked the latest of the group's evolutionary transformations. By secularizing, it divested itself of those elements that could put off potential members and laid the groundwork for the growth necessary to achieve the goal of universal peace.
There were two characteristic themes of thought and action that wove through the history of Creative Initiative. The first, evolution, gave them a vision of hope for the future. The second, paradox, enabled them to integrate a number of apparently contradictory beliefs. Creative Initiative believed that individual transformation was the key mechanism in the ongoing evolution of the human species. Their use of the evolutionary model was both metaphorical and literal. Members saw themselves as a "peduncle," or link, between the old human race characterized by greed, competition, and conflict, and a new human race defined by generosity, cooperation, and peaceful resolution of conflict. Virtually all their philosophy flowed from that belief. The movement thought this final stage of evolution could be brought about through an act of will. This was an idea that appealed to the scientific and professional people who made up the overwhelming majority of Creative Initiative members. They were the kind of people who were accustomed to having control over their lives. They were rationalists who rejected fatalism and sought to mold their environments. Thus, they could act with the assurance that they, not some distant savior or political leader, could save the earth.
Whereas the idea of continuing evolution served to locate their philosophy in a scientific matrix, the second theme of paradox functioned to free them from the exclusively rational and create room for the spiritual. One of the most commonly referred to biblical texts in the movement's long history was Jesus' admonition in Luke 17:33 that "whoever seeks to gain his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it." This was the "great paradox of Jesus" and was used both implicitly and explicitly to introduce the concept of paradox into Creative Initiative thought. Because in one sense a paradox is an extrarational statement, the truth or falsity of which cannot be proven logically, the incorporation of various paradoxical beliefs into their philosophy enabled them to move seamlessly from science to faith.
The most profoundly paradoxical aspects of Creative Initiative's ideology centered around the perennially difficult relationship between the individual and the community. In this area there were, in fact, two closely related paradoxes. The first involved the correct method to be used to bring about the changes in society they believed were needed. They rejected any political activity that sought change through coercive legislation and instead favored individual transformation. Somehow the group had to reconcile its theoretical emphasis on individual transformation with its working, and sometimes living, as an organized community. Because members believed that the smaller religious community was a model for the larger outside population, people who were active in the group were expected to live their lives in conformity with the group's values. Whereas the group rejected legal coercion as a valid method of changing society, it accepted a form of coercive personal confrontation as a method of maintaining proper community behavior.
The second paradox involved a conflict between the group's monistic and dualistic beliefs. Their belief that God and natural law were one led to a world-view that integrated all creation. Not only were all people members of the same human family, but humans were a vital part of the earth's biosystem. Further, the earth itself was part of, and ultimately at one with, the rest of the universe. Their belief in the unity and commonality of all people, however, might seem to have worked against the establishment of a distinct community of believers. Axiomatically, any self-defined organization exists only because it contains some elements that set it apart from the population at large. Indeed, the most important feature characteristic of a sect is the sharp distinction it sets up between those who are "in" and those who are "out." In other words, their very structure creates a dualism that conflicts with a monistic world-view. These paradoxes were never resolved in Creative Initiative indeed they were hardly even acknowledged. Nevertheless, the conflicts they engendered were subconsciously but consistently coped with by recognizing that the religious life involved paradoxes that defied logical resolution and demanded leaps of faith.
Their belief in rationality on the one hand and their tolerance of paradox on the other raises the most intriguing and most difficult question to answer about Creative Initiative, What kind of people would be attracted to such a movement? Although outsiders would often look askance at the movement and sometimes accuse it of being a "cult," taken as a whole, the Creative Initiative ideology was consonant with traditional American values. Indeed, we would argue that Creative Initiative was successful in appealing to upper-middle-class people in part because it contained three important elements of the evangelical tradition. First, as an advocate of rigorism in the personal and family sphere, Creative Initiative was a refuge of probity in a society preoccupied with sex and drugs. Second, like so many nineteenth-century evangelicals, Creative Initiative advocated a life balanced between personal responsibility on one side and community welfare on the other. And finally, like traditional Protestants, Creative Initiative worried that material possessions could be a temptation and an end in themselves, and so it called upon its members to live lives of material moderation. Members saw a teleological unfolding of history in which their community was to be a vital force in saving humankind from destruction by its own hand. They clearly thought of themselves as a "city upon a hill" that would be both a leader and model for bringing about the Kingdom of God on earth. Thus, despite the superficially strange elements of their religious beliefs, they actually tapped deeply into the core of American values. Those people who were willing to bear the costs of joining this unique sect found confirmation of their traditional middle-class values and a special sense that they were the vanguard of a new historical and religious epoch that would stop the destruction of the earth and initiate an age of peace and cooperation.