New Age

Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Early in the 1990s, I made the leap from full-time reporting in a mainstream newsroom — the Rocky Mountain News (RIP) — to teaching at Denver Seminary.

My goal was to pull “signals” from mainstream media into the world of people preparing for various ministries (key summary document here), helping them to face the ideas, symbols and stories that were shaping ordinary Americans, in pews and outside traditional religious groups. I wanted to pay attention to valid questions, even if traditional believers couldn’t embrace the media world’s answers.

In my main class, I needed a book that could open a door into what I called “Oprah America.” Thus, in 1992, I required my students to read “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson. Some of these evangelical students were not amused.

This, of course, leads us to that massive New York Times feature that ran the other day:

The Curious Mystical Text Behind Marianne Williamson’s Presidential Bid

The New Age author was drawn to an esoteric bible in the 1970s. It made her a self-help megastar. And now it has gone mainstream.

To my shock, the world’s newspaper of record dedicated large chunks of newsprint to the religious content — the doctrine, even — at the heart of Williamson’s life, ministry and her politics. I would say this story gets the equation about 75 percent right, but the Times team needed to back up a bit further in order to understand why so many Americans will — if told the roots of her thought — find her beliefs disturbing.

Hold that thought. Here’s the key question: How would the Times, and other elite media, have handled a feature about the beliefs of a Oneness Pentecostal or a faith-healing preacher who sought the presidency as a Republican? With this light a touch?

Now, here is a crucial chunk of that Times feature, which comes after a brief discussion of her remarks in the recent debates featuring a flock of Democratic candidates:

She was … drawing directly from a homegrown American holy book called “A Course in Miracles,” a curious New York scripture that arose during the heady metaphysical counterculture of the 1960s.

This is not some homey book of feel-good bromides. Rather, it is taken by its readers as a genuine gospel, produced by a Manhattan doctor who believed she was channeling new revelations from Jesus Christ himself.

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Heavy lift in 2020? Democrats continue to seek a modernized faith formula that works

Heavy lift in 2020? Democrats continue to seek a modernized faith formula that works

After 20 Democratic candidates’ “food fight” debates (thank you, Kamala Harris), pundits are pondering whether Harris or Elizabeth Warren will win their developing faceoff, whether senior citizens Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are slipping and whether the party is roaming too far left to win the mushy American middle.

Meanwhile, political reporters interested in religion, and religion reporters interested in politics, should examine whether the Democrats can improve their religion outreach after a lackluster 2016 effort, amid perennial predictions that a revivified “religious left” could counterbalance Republicans’ familiar “Religious Right.”

This time around, Democrats have uttered more religious mentions than usual, but hopes center upon one newcomer, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, an outspoken gay Episcopalian.

Asked about immigration during the debate, Episcopalian Buttigieg said “the Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion” while “our party doesn’t talk about that as much,” largely because of commitment to separation of church and state. Then this: “For a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is O.K. to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

There’s upcoming news in Buttigieg’s pick for full-time “Faith Engagement Director.” The job ad says the campaign “rejects transactional interactions” in favor of “creative ways to unlock cultural appreciation.” (Translation, please.) Notably, “women, LGBTQ folks, and disabled people are strongly encouraged to apply.” (What, no blacks and Latinos?)

The Democratic Party has already made a similar hire, with the Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins serving as director of religious outreach, which he also was in 2012. Back then, the left worried he’d lack enthusiasm for open-ended abortion and gay rights, but interviewers will presumably find he’s now fully on board, in the cultural liberalism department.

Harkins was the assistant pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City and pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Dallas and Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Since 2015 he’s been “Senior Vice President for Innovations in Public Programming” at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Under Harkins, the party’s first listening session was with the pro-LGBTQ Union of Affirming Christians.

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Walking in the maze of labyrinth wars? This USA Today Network story sits out that debate

Walking in the maze of labyrinth wars? This USA Today Network story sits out that debate

Here is what I have learned about prayer labyrinths, during my decades on the religion beat.

Progressive Episcopalians love them, big time.

Evangelical Episcopalians hate them or, at the very least, worry about how they can be abused.

Progressive Catholics love them, big time.

Conservative Catholics hate them or, at the very least, worry about how they can be abused.

You may have noticed a pattern.

The arguments about labyrinths center on church history, theology, ancient myths and trends in modern “spirituality,” especially the many innovations that came to be labeled “New Age.” When writing about this topic, I have learned that it helps to focus on the doctrinal contents, and the origins, of the prayers that people are taught to recite while walking inside a labyrinth.

It’s hard to do a basic online search on this topic without hitting waves of information by those who embrace the use of labyrinths (examples here and then here) and those who reject them (examples here and then here).

This brings me to a long recent USA Today Network-Tennessee feature that ran with this headline: “Set in stone or brick, East Tennessee labyrinths are meditative walks for prayer.” This article, literally, could be used in a public-relations release about this particular labyrinth, since it contains ZERO information from critics. Here is the overture (this is long, but essential):

It's dusk on a September Tuesday as two dozen people step, silently and deliberately, around a twisting brick courtyard path at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral.

A few walk barefoot. Some carry candles or glow sticks. Most bow their heads in silent meditation or prayer as they follow the turns of St. John's brick and mortar labyrinth.

Candles and spotlights set among the garden surrounding the labyrinth cast shadows.

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Splicing and dicing American religion today: How about a seven-party Pew typology?

Splicing and dicing American religion today: How about a seven-party Pew typology?

U.S. religious categories were never as simple as indicated in “Protestant, Catholic, Jew,” Will Herberg’s tripartite classic from 1956.

What kind of Jew? Protestants, ever complicated, have become ever moreso. Catholics, too, are more of a checkerboard these days. With the 1965 immigration law, Islam and Asian religions came to the fore. Recently, “nones” with no religious affiliation emerged as a major category.

Now the ubiquitous Pew Research Center is splicing and dicing its survey data to discern a new seven-party system,  what the title of its latest report calls “The Religious Typology: A New Way to Categorize Americans By Religion.” That’s “the” typology, not merely “a” new concept, which seems presumptuous and yet intriguing.  

Journalists who saw news in this August 29 release have already written about it. But The Religion Guy recommends that beat specialists spend quality time reading or re-reading the full 98-page version (.pdf here), to provoke fresh thinking about the complex U.S. religious landscape.

Pew asked 16 questions and applied “cluster analysis” to sort Americans into the seven categories based upon broad religious attitudes and reported behavior across the traditional lines of formal membership or self-identification. Pew labels 40 percent of U.S. adults as “highly religious," sharing traditional belief in the God of the Bible and looking upon faith fondly, segmented into these three groups. 

(1) “Sunday Stalwarts” (17 percent of the Americans surveyed) -- These devout folks are weekly worshipers of whatever faith who mostly read the Bible daily, pray often, and consider religion their most important source of meaning and helpful for society. They’re also the most active in non-religious community causes and charities and – notably – lean Republican and are the most likely to vote in local elections.

(2) “God-and-Country Believers” (12 percent) -- This group stands out as the only one expressing majority approval for President Donald Trump’s performance.

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Old question in a New Age: What does the Bible say about reincarnation?

Old question in a New Age: What does the Bible say about reincarnation?

MARK’S QUESTION:

What does the Bible say bout reincarnation? Was it an esoteric teaching of Jesus that was censored by church councils in the 4th and 5th Centuries?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

According to historians, nothing and no.

Forget pop novels, conspiracy theories about church censorship, or supposed secret knowledge from Jesus. The academic experts say the Bible, and thus Christianity, never taught reincarnation. That’s not to say individual Christians haven’t pondered the idea along with some mystics in Sufi Islam and Judaism’s medieval kabbalah movement.

Some basics on what’s also called transmigration of souls, metempsychosis, or samsara (Sanskrit for “running together”). With certain differences the belief is central for Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism (a synthesis of Hindu elements with Islam’s worship of the one God).

The late Professor J. Bruce Long said the soul’s succession through a series of human or animal lives was often taught by early preliterate cultures, then by certain Egyptian and Greek thinkers, and reached elaborate form in ancient India.

In this developed system “the circumstances of any given lifetime are automatically determined by the net results of good and evil actions in previous existences” through the Law of Karma (meaning “action”). Assessment of each soul’s moral performance is a “universal law of nature that works according to its own inherent necessity,” not judgment by a God or gods.

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Pity Uncle Sam, who struggles with an unanswerable question: What is a ‘religion’?

Pity Uncle Sam, who struggles with an unanswerable question: What is a ‘religion’?

Pity poor Uncle Sam.

The need to provide chaplains and otherwise serve  military personnel requires the government to define the indefinable -- What is a “religion”? –- and to deal with  the increasing variety of American faiths. An April 21 Kimberly Winston report for Religion News Service revealed that a Department of Defense memo to manpower directors (.pdf here), issued back on March 27, doubles recognized religious preferences, to 221.

Religion-beat writers might well pursue Winston’s scoop with local angles or see how it’s playing among military-watchers and leaders in conventional religions.

Atheists and humanists campaigned for the military’s broadened list so that chaplains will help soldiers of those persuasions to get resources and contact like-minded groups and individuals, and so that followers of new and small faiths or non-faith can be granted leave for their festival observances, travel to group   events, and such.

Among the religions that made the revised list (which, alas, is not alphabetized by DOD!): Asatru, Deism, Druid, Eckankar, Gard Wi, Magick, Sacred Well, Spiral Tree, Troth and generic “Heathen,” “New Age” and “Shaman.” But not Scientology, which long fought the IRS for recognition as a religion to gain tax exemption.

Soldiers can now be listed as “no preference, “no religion,” “none provided” or “unknown,” but no longer will be given the choice of designation as “Protestant, no denominational preference” or “Protestant, other churches.” How come?

DOD or its Armed Forces Chaplains Board flubbed the effort a bit.

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RNS looks at 'new' Jewish Institute for women priests -- but not closely enough

RNS looks at 'new' Jewish Institute for women priests -- but not closely enough

I get it -- we've all been there, all of us newspaper religion writers. Holidays come up, and our editor demands something besides the "same old same old." So we reach for the new and bizarre.

So it's understandable when the Religion News Service used Yom Kippur, which Jews observed on Wednesday, for a look at the Hebrew Priestess Institute, even though the institute is a decade old.

Still, why simply hand the mike to its boosters?

The institute is about as non-traditional as they come, as the article quickly establishes: dancing, beating a drum, sitting in a circle, placing women's pictures on the altar, praying to the "divine feminine." And, of course, ordaining women as priests -- something that would arch many Jewish eyebrows. But RNS offers only the slightest hint that not everyone buys into this approach.

That approach gets a loud, clear hearing in the article. Rabbi Jill Hammer, co-founder of the institute, wants to "re-imagine the role of a holy woman, an intermediary between the human and the divine who is part prophet, liturgist, shaman":

For inspiration, this Jewish priestess movement looks to biblical women such as Miriam, Moses’ sister, who drums and sings, and Deborah, the judge who held court beneath a palm tree.
It also embraces those ancient Israelite women who worshipped fertility goddesses condemned by the prophets, as well as modern teachings from various Earth-based religions with their healers and ritualists.
This Yom Kippur, as Jews crowd synagogues for the Day of Atonement, some women will gather in a circle for a mix of prayers, chants, songs and meditations — all of which incorporate references to the divine feminine – sometimes known in the Jewish mystical tradition as the Shekhinah.

Institute students are introduced to 13 women’s "archetypes" of leaders, including prophetess, witch and fool. Some participants refer not to God but the Goddess.  And Jill Hammer and cofounder Taya Shere use artifacts like stones and divination cards in worship.

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The Force and a horse, of course, of course: Washington Post visits new age Texas ranch

The Force and a horse, of course, of course: Washington Post visits new age Texas ranch

Check this out: "Namaste, y’all: Kicking back at a Texas-style New Age resort in Austin."

Seldom have I seen a more apt headline. If only the entire Washington Post story on a new agey resort near Austin were as pithy.

Unfortunately, the Post shows less interest in the spirituality of Travaasa Austin. It mainly snickers over a place that would offer "vision boarding" and "Equine Encounters" on the one hand -- and on the other, courses in hatchet throwing, Texas two-step dancing and mechanical bull riding.

Multiple spiritual "ghosts" hover about:

It’s rare for a hotel to offer both guided meditation sessions and hatchet-throwing classes. But Travaasa Austin is like few other hotels. This "experiential spa resort" is like a land-based cruise, with a cowboy and a shaman fighting over the helm.
The extensive list of activities — which includes hula-hooping, ¬sachet-making (with cocktails), archery, harmonica lessons and a mechanical-bull fitness class — is both enticing and daunting. Not to worry: "You don’t have to sign up for anything," the chirpy concierge reminded me during a recent visit, and in fact the expansive grounds offer ample opportunity for nothing-doing.
And yet I wanted to do it all -- to learn the Texas two-step, tour the hotel’s organic farm, try its elaborate zip-line course, and still have the time (and energy) for a swim, massage and dinner. But how? Perhaps I needed to settle down with a yoga class or try vision boarding, a course where I’d learn to "channel the power of positive energy and see what happens." Perhaps that power would manifest itself in a wine tasting later that evening.

So the story skims over facials, wine tasting, hiking and dirt biking.

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Pod people: 'Green funerals,' Baby Boomers and the American way of death

Pod people: 'Green funerals,' Baby Boomers and the American way of death

For some reason, I got a bit fired up during the recording of this week's "Crossroads" podcast, with host Todd Wilken (click here to tune that in). The subject wasn't all that controversial, but it really got under my skin. We were talking about my recent post on the topic of the spiritual wanderers called the Baby Boomers (talkin' 'bout my generation) and the trend toward "green funerals." 

Now, that is a topic that has interested me for several decades -- dating back to when I taught as "Communicator on Culture" at Denver Theological Seminary (right after my exit from full-time religion-beat reporting at The Rocky "RIP" Mountain News).

At that time, 1991-93, America was still in the (a) New Age religion era, while also (b) experiencing a wave of death-and-dying movies at the local multiplex (biggest hit, of course, was "Ghost"). Thus, I led a seminar on "The Good Death" and how traditional Christian views on the subject were not what was being sold at the local shopping mall (or most funeral homes).

The main takeaway from the seminar was that the spiritual adventures of the 1960s era were leading Americans in all kinds of different directions, from Eastern religions to traditional forms of Christianity and Judaism, from Oprah spirituality to damned-if-I-don't secularism. There was, in other words, no one trend dominating the death-and-dying landscape.

That was true then and I would argue it's still true today, which is why the recent Washington Post report on "green funerals" bugged me so much.

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