Life on the Cultic Fringe

Life on the Cultic Fringe

The recent comments by Professor Bruce Waltke, to the effect that Christianity risks becoming a cult, or at least being perceived as a cult, unless it embraces evolution, have provoked a storm of comment, pro and con.  I do not wish to address Professor Waltke's comments directly; for the record, I have always enjoyed his writings (and found them helpful).  He is a scholar and gentleman, and when Professor Waltke speaks, I listen, even when I disagree. Thus, what I want to reflect on here are not Professor Waltke's well-known and long-standing views on origins but the questions surrounding the claim that a Christianity which rejects evolution really does risk becoming a cult, and, if so, whether that is something about which we should worry.

Of course, in classic English style, my first response to this is to say `Well, it depends what you mean by "cult".'  When I use the word 'cult,' I generally use it to refer to organizations which are highly secretive in the way they run their business, and exert inappropriate power over the lives of those who choose to associate with it. Some churches certainly fall under these definitions. Those which dictate where members send their children to school, or which intrude into the bedroom relationships of man and wife, within the bond of marriage, would be good examples. If a church tells you that you cannot use contraception, or have to have a certain number of children, then I would argue it is at least cult-like in tendency. And, yes, on these grounds I would include as cult-like in tendency both institutional Roman Catholicism and, most certainly, the nutty-slack end of the federal vision.

I would not, however, include mainstream conservative Protestantism, despite its obvious faults and failings. As a member and office bearer in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, I have taken certain solemn - but voluntary - vows. These vows do not micro-manage my family life, my sexual relationship with my wife, or my choice of schooling for my children. Further, if I decide at some point that I can no longer abide by said vows, I can step down from the ministry; I can even leave the church if I so wish. If I were to apostatize, I would hope that my fellow Christians would make some effort to persuade me to return to orthodoxy, but I doubt very much that they would kidnap me, shun me to the extent that I could no longer function as a member of society, or turn my family members against me. Further, presbytery meetings are `open' - in other words, anybody can attend and listen to what is being said. In other words, whatever its manifold faults might be, I do not think that, by the Trueman definition, the O.P.C. as I know it is a cult.

In addition, I would also exclude belief in silly ideas as making one into a cult member. True, those who believe that the earth is flat, that the moon is made of green cheese, and that Sarah Palin's speeches are models of substance, logic and insight are clearly somewhat out of touch with reality, but the holding of such views, and even the tenacious and militant propagation of the same, do not indicate the existence of a cult. The free world is a whacky place; and one can be whacky without necessarily engaging in organized mind-control, brainwashing, and violent manipulation. Stupidity and gullibility are often quite sufficient as explanations; and being stupid and gullible do not make you a cult member.

The next level of the matter, of course, is whether the holding of whacky views can lead to the perception of Christianity as a cult, even if it is not. The answer to this is: yes, but so what?  Now, the `so what?' is important here, for at least two reasons: first, that the world sees it as a cult is neither here nor there when it comes to the church being the church; and, second, the truth of any particular belief within the church is not to be determined by the plausibility structures of the world but by whether it is a consistent articulation of what the Bible teaches.

To the first point, it is clear from the New Testament that Christian views, particular of the cross, were regarded as stupid and offensive by the wider world. I Corinthians 1 makes that point in dramatic fashion; and the various Jewish and Gentile persecutions of the church described in Acts would imply that the church was not only seen as holding silly beliefs but as doing so in a way that scared society - a hallmark of being regarded as a sinister cult.  This continues in the post-apostolic period. Pliny, writing to Emperor Trajan ca. 112, describes how he broke up a local Christian group.  He describes them as secretive and engaging in strange practices which reflected their strange beliefs. In other words, he seems to have regarded them as a cult.  Historian Tacitus is much the same: when he alludes to the Neronic persecutions, he speaks of Christianity as `shameful and hideous.'  Well, as I have said in this column before: if it's white and woolly and goes `Baaaa!' when you kick it, it's a sheep. 

To the second point, every theological discipline has its own point of whackiness. Perhaps evolution is where Old Testamentlers feel the pinch. Homosexuality would be the hotspot for contemporary Christian ethicists. For me as a historian, it is the resurrection: my friends in the secular history world will always regard me as a mediocre, or, perhaps more charitably, methodologically inconsistent, historian because I believe the tomb was empty. I am guessing that scientists would probably regard that belief as ridiculous too: the empirical and theoretical evidence for bodies being resurrected after traumatic execution and days of decaying in a tomb is, to say the least, not very compelling. Let's face it: opposition to homosexuality and belief in the resurrection are whacky views in today's climate, enjoying little or no support from the scholarly scientific world. Do we therefore change our views on these in order to avoid being seen as a cult? Even more dramatic, perhaps, is the increasingly strident voice of the aesthetic atheists, of whom Hitchens and Dawkins are just the most famous. As aesthetic atheism gains ground, any form of theism will increasingly be regarded as idiotic and cult-like. What will we do then? Cultural acceptability is a cruel mistress.

To be blunt, those Christians who (rightly) point out that we live in a post-Christian, post-Christendom era, cannot have their cake and eat it. Being regarded as a cult was the flip side of the apostolic church coin. Standing against the dominant culture by believing that Jesus is Lord and that God has raised him from the dead made the church a cult; and these claims will always be regarded as indicative of a cult mentality by the wider secular world. Do not, therefore, gleefully proclaim the death of Christendom and at the same time lament the fact that we are in danger of being perceived as a cult. History, biblical and otherwise, indicates that such a posture is incoherent.   

The question of evolution is a tough one, but it is not to be determined by whether rejection of it leads those who despise Christianity as whole to regard us as a cult. That is an utterly irrelevant point.  What I want to know is whether evolution is consistent with biblical teaching, particularly Genesis 3, Romans 5 and I Corinthian 15. Which form of evolution is it at which we are looking (there being significant disagreements even within the scientific community)? What about the scientific objections of men like Michael Behe? And how come some people, with little or no scientific training, and who spend their lives telling us how difficult it is to understand messy, written texts - texts designed to, ahem, communicate in a relatively direct fashion -- seem to think that scientific data is univocal, unequivocal, and perspicuous on this point? Funny how old Enlightenment views of science can be found alive and well in the most postmodern quarters, isn't it? Given the stakes in play, it is not unloving or divisive for me to ask for answers to these questions; but whether I run the risk of looking like a cult member if I find the answers I am given to be inadequate and unbiblical is, frankly, a matter of sheer indifference to me. I may be destined to live life on the cultic fringe of society, but there are worse places to be.


As a postscript to the above, there are those who argue that Christians falling out over doctrine is just one more one more pebble on the pile of reasons why the world regards the church with contempt and that, if we all just loved each other, things would be better. That may be so; though, again, the idea is riddled with problems: Paul, in Romans 16, seems to indicate that it is those who deviate doctrinally who are the truly divisive; too often postmoderns wants to turn `love' into a contentless aesthetic, akin to `let's just tolerate everything except intolerance', which is nowhere near the biblical teaching; and, just as often, the postmodern pleas to accept difference are actually sneaky ways of saying `let's all tolerate my differences -- but not yours!'  Few postmodern evangelicals regard racism, for example, as something over which we should agree to differ in our conversational lovefests.

Further, if the world finds me and mine ridiculous, then I can only respond by saying that I do not find the world's views on a whole host of things particularly judicious or impressive either.  I switch on my TV each night and see politicians behaving like cheap backstreet hucksters; I see `celebrities' living lives that would make a porn star blush and being applauded for so doing; I watch talk shows where people take seriously the soppy psychobabble of numerous numpties; I stand on the touchline at kids' sporting events and see parents coming to blows over a refereeing decision in a game involving kids, for goodness sake; and I look at the great, self-important, self-righteous cotemporary critics of the church and note the contempt they have shown in their own lives for their marriages and for those they were meant to love and honour, and even for those with whom they disagree within their own guilds. None of these things means that everything the world does and thinks is automatically wrong; but it inclines me to take the world's wisdom with a pinch of salt and not be too worried if they find me `unloving' or they dismiss my church when she refuses to conform to their view of reality simply because they tell me it is true. That kind of capitulation to powerful personalities and guilds is indeed where cults, on the Trueman definition, begin.