A.R.Brockway and J.P Rajasheka (eds): New Religious Movements and the Churches, Geneva, WCC 1987.
The World Council of Churches and the Lutheran World Federation held a joint consultation in Amsterdam in response to initiatives in both bodies for the consideration of new religious movements (NRMs). We who have participated in this consultation have come from Europe and North America, as well as from Asia, Africa, and Latin America. We come from local churches, denominational or ecumenical offices, universities, and research and resource centres, and we bring a wide range of experience with new religious movements and with people who are adherents of new religious movements. While our discussion has focused primarily on Europe and North America, which in the past two decades have seen the rise of a great number of new religious movements, we have also benefited from the wider discussion of the many new religions in Japan in the past forty years and the rapid rise of new religious movements in Africa. From the perspective of Asia we were reminded of the appearance of aggressive sectarian forms of Christianity in recent years, which have been perceived as manifestations of new religious movements. From the perspective of Latin America we were reminded of the ideological engagements of some new religious movements.
What do we mean by "new religious movements"? As a starting point, we agree that the term "new religious movements" covers a vast range of movements that are very different one from another in their origins and beliefs, their structure and organization, and their self-understanding. Thus, in particular regional and local settings, what is meant by the "new religious movements" needs to be differentiated and nuanced. There are movements which have their origins in the Eastern traditions; there are those that have arisen more as sectarian movements with origins in the Christian tradition; and there are those that have arisen in the encounter of primal traditions or tribal societies with universal religions; and there is also a range of occult and gnostic groups. There is great diversity even within these general groupings. The Eastern new traditions themselves have tremendous diversity, with a wide range of gurus and of practice, some emphasizing yoga, some devotion, some meditation. Similarly, the Christian-based movements are greatly diverse, from the "old new religious movements" such as the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormons, and the Christian Scientists to the newer movements such as The Local Church and the Unification Church Among such Christian-based movements some see themselves as aiming to restore the true church, others as destined to bring about the fulfillment of the Christian mission. In social organization. some new religious movements may be very closely knit communities, others may be seen more loosely as "movements", bound together by adherence to common teachings and practices, but not by daily life and ritual. I he same movement may have several circles of commitment, from a wide outer circle of interested people to a committed inner circle of the devout.
In sum: the diversity of what are perceived as "new religious movements is great, and we must be careful that our response to a particular movement, or its particular excesses, does not colour our understanding of new religious movements as a whole. Indeed, though we use this term for convenience, there is no such thing as "new religious movements", as a whole, for these emergent traditions are as diverse and complex as the established religious traditions. And they raise for the churches and for Christians some of the same questions.
II. Questions and issues
In thinking about "new religious movements" there are four questions we have considered and discussed in order to clarify the issues: ( I ) How do we understand the "newness" of new religious movements in the wider context of ongoing religious innovation and change'? (2) How do we understand not only the "movements" per se, but the worldviews and visions they represent? In what ways do they challenge our own worldview'? (3) How do we understand the mission and the methods of mission of new religious movements? (4) In what ways and to what extent do we protect the rights of new religious movements to go about their activities, even though we may radically disagree with their beliefs and worldviews'?
1. Innovation: what is "new"?
- Religious traditions are not static structures, but dynamic and ever changing realities. They grow and change through time, and this growth may be accelerated by political, economic, technological or ideological changes. Religious innovation and the continual emergence of "new religious movements" are evident in the long and varied history of the Christian tradition. It can be seen in the emergence of Christian sectarian and denominational movements, and in the generation of new liberation and feminist movements.
Contemporary religious traditions also change and new movements arise in the contact and interaction between traditions and across geographical and cultural boundaries. In this sense "new" may mean "new to us". When Buddhism first came from India to China, or Christianity from Europe to some parts of Africa, they were "new religious movements" in this sense. Similarly, the Hindu or Buddhist groups new to the West are described as "new" religious movements. "New" may also refer to the dynamic spirit 07 many movements, emphasizing a revival or renewal of the old established tradition. Such revival may include a renewed emphasis on healing, the reinterpretation and reappropriation of scriptures, or even belief in a new revelation-all of which may at times give a new sense of hope for the future.
"New" may also refer to alternative religions, movements which are "emergent" or "protest" religions, as opposed to the tradition of the establishment. In Germany, the term "youth religions" has been applied to many new religious movements precisely because it is mainly the young who are attracted.
"New" in itself is not necessarily good or bad. right or wrong. Sometimes the "new" brings renewal. and sometimes the "new" needs the rigorous critique of the old.
While some young people may be attracted to certain movements as a rebellion against authority, others may be attracted to more dualistic movements precisely because of the apparent authority and order of the movement. The opportunity for critique and renewal provided by the perspective of the young should be seized by the churches as they engage in mutual dialogue and critique with young people in new religious movements.
2. Movements and worldviews
Our encounter as Christians with new religious movements, especially with Eastern religious movements in the West, involves the wider and more significant encounter with other worldviews. Encounter with such religious movements is, indeed, a part of and a stage in the West's encounter with the Hindu, Buddhist, and other Asian traditions and worldviews. Often these Eastern movements themselves undergo change as a result of their- encounter with the West.
A worldview is a whole picture of the cosmos, the "ordered universe". It includes an understanding of Divinity, an understanding of the human being in his/her relation to the Divine, an understanding of the past, present, and future. It is a full picture of life and its meaning. Many new religious movements have very fully expressed worldviews, with ready answers to the manifold questions people pose about life and its meaning. "Religion" is not simply a set of activities, practices, and beliefs, but involves a total commitment to a community with a clear sense of its place in the scheme of things. This ''clear" sense may at times become totalistic, grandiose, or apocalyptic. Nonetheless, by comparison, many Christians, especially young people, are vulnerable to persuasion because they have not been challenged to think very deeply or clearly about the Christian worldview.
The many Eastern religious traditions that are new to the West have brought elements of different worldviews to our midst, worldviews that have gained wider cultural currency than the movements themselves. It raises important questions for us as Christians: what does it mean to speak of many "gods" or ways of seeing Divinity, rather than one? What does it mean to speak of the human as potentially divine? Or need of enlightenment or awakening, rather than redemption? What does it mean to speak of history and social commitment in different worldviews? What does it mean to speak of reincarnation rather than resurrection'? What does it mean to speak of the natural world as organically whole, inter-related, and interdependent, as is the case with Eastern cosmology, or of creation in the biblical tradition'? What does it mean to speak of spiritual ''discipline'' (yoga) or of discipleship with a guru who is considered to be divine'? What does it mean to speak of the "ashram" or the "church" as social community? In many ways, encounter with another worldview may help us to see and articulate our own more clearly.
Mission and methods of new religious movements
What is the sense of mission of the new religious movements, and what are their methods of mission? The immediate informed response of people acquainted with a variety of movements is that they are all
different, coming from various historical families of faith, with diverse aims, goals, and methods of working. Stereotyping as to the mission and methods of new religious movements can only be misleading.
-What is their mission? It is important to recognize that new religious movements do indeed have a sense of mission and a vision of the world they would like to bring into being. Some think they need to call out the "elect" from among the fallen of the world, that they have the only complete message of salvation. Others assert that other religions may have a partial truth, but that the new movement has an inclusive and perfect understanding in which others may participate. Other groups have an eclectic vision that they think encompasses the truth of other religions in a single worldview.
- What of their political and social mission'? The sense of mission may, indeed, not be limited to individual conversions or individual commitment, but involves a political/social mission as well. We must take seriously this dimension of the vision of dynamic new religious or quasi-religious groups, as the European experience with the Nazi movement continually reminds us. We should appreciate such political/social visions where they are enhancing of life and critique them where they are potentially tyrannical or perverse, examining our own Christian missionary vision and activity with the same high standards of honesty and insight.
- What about deceptive or coercive methods? This is especially important, since allegations about the use of deceptive or coercive methods have been widely circulated. There is no doubt that in some cases such allegations are true or partially true. The churches have on many occasions condemned the use of coercive methods in mission, whether our own or that of others. We should be wise and wary of the zeal of the movements in seeking adherents. At the same time we should reject allegations of deception or coercion that are not substantiated.
4. Human rights and religious liberty
Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights reads: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion; this right includes the freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
- Some of the issues raised with regard to new religious movements have to do not only with their theologies or worldviews, or with their sense and methods of mission, but also with the realm of human rights and religious liberty: the right of such groups to exist and to gain adherents by conversion.
- Within this area of freedom, further distinctions could be made: persons should be free to speak their religious convictions, virtually without exception. In the realm of action. however, claims of religious liberty should not normally provide a defence for the violation of criminal law, such as the perpetration of violence upon others, but exceptions to civil law on the basis of religious commitment should be permitted by governments, even if modifications of law may be necessary, unless such actions can be shown to be harmful to others
- Religious liberty cannot be claimed by some it if is denied to others (The long history of both religious and civil persecution of new religious movements has been shameful including the persecution of Anabaptists, Methodists, Mennonites, Quakers and others within past centuries of Christian history.) Vigilance on the matter of religious intolerance and discrimination has been made even more explicit in the 1981 and 1984 adoption of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Religious Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief.
In considering what should he the response of the churches to new religious movements, we did not begin our discussion in a vacuum. Churches and councils of churches have responded, in a variety of ways, in formal statements and in denominational literature, to new religious movements. Still, there is much that remains to be done, and we submit the following recommendations to the member churches of the WCC and the LWF
A. We recommend that theological seminaries and faculties take seriously their responsibility to prepare Christian clergy and laity for ministry in a religiously plural world, recognizing that new religious movements are a part of that pluralism.
B We recommend that churches review their educational materials in the light of religious pluralism in general, and the rise of new religious movements in particular. We recognize that this may entail the production of new educational materials.
C. We recommend a renewed emphasis on spiritual formation in the context of our own faith. We recognize that taking seriously the new religious movements challenges Christians to a deeper understanding and clearer articulation of their own faith.
D. We recommend that the WCC and the LWF investigate setting up an ecumenical network of information-sharing on new religious movements T his could involve study and research centres, member churches, national and local councils of churches, and individuals with experience in the area of new religious movements.
A. Inter-religious dialogue takes place in communities, where people of different religions live as neighbours in a common context. Where people of new religious movements are part of the community, we recommend dialogue with such movements. To build up a foundation of trust and openness, the "dialogue" of daily life may need to precede any attempts at more careful and formal dialogue.
B. We commend the WCC Guidelines on Dialogue as a study aid to church people in thinking about the meaning of "dialogue", and the general guidelines that might govern our own participation in dialogue with people of other faiths.
C. There may be particular "guidelines" of special importance to dialogue with people of new religious movements:
- In dialogue, partners should be free to "define themselves" and not be defined by the images or stereotypes of others.
-We enter into dialogue with people, not labels or systems.
-In dialogue one should not compare one's own ideals with the excesses or failings of the other religion.
-Partners in dialogue should be aware of the ideological commitments each may hold, and of the wider political and social vision of their respective traditions.
D. Entering into dialogue does not mean that one supports or ascribes to the ideas or activities of the other. And dialogue does not mean that all will agree. The creative tension of mutual critique is also a part of dialogue.
E. In a climate of fear, mistrust, or misrepresentation, partners in dialogue should be aware of the need for complete honesty if the ground is to be prepared for fruitful dialogue. Church groups should discuss, though not be discouraged by, potential local problems that may arise from dialogue with people of new t-religious movements: will it imply an endorsement of the group and/of its activities ? Will it merely provide an easy forum for the mission of the new religious movement?
F. Because of the great variety of new religious movements, the nature of dialogue and even the possibility of dialogue will depend a great deal on the local situation
3. The ministry and renewal of the church
A. We recommend that churches, especially local churches and regional councils of churches, take seriously the particular tasks of ministry to people affected by new religious movements This may include an active ministry to those who arc or have been members of new religious movements.
B. The church's ministry to people, especially to young people, who are past, present, or potential members; of new religious movements is especially important and may have to take place where people are, not necessarily in the church. A flexible ministry-lay ministry, street ministry, teaching ministry or ministry of visitation-is necessary.
C. Churches should take seriously the critique that the rise of so many new and alternative religions presents What is the spiritual condition of our own churches? How vital is our sense of community and belonging? What visions and hopes do we have for the future?
D The hunger for a deeper spirituality and for the ordering of life through regular spiritual discipline is evident in the attraction of people to many of the new religious movements. Can the churches recover some of the sources for spiritual guidance and discipline that are a neglected part of our own Christian heritage? Can we respond with the renewal and deepening of our own spiritual life? Can we develop vibrant centres for Christian spirituality?
4. Working ecumenically
A. We recommend that, to the extent possible, the LWF and WCC cooperate with the relevant Vatican Secretariats and with long-standing dialogue partners in pursuing further work in this area, including the possibility of international consultations held jointly with representatives of selected new religious movements.
B. We encourage local churches and regional denominational bodies to work ecumenically, with Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox churches
in their area, as they continue their efforts to understand and interact with new religious movements. As a step in this process, we would recommend ecumenical study of the Vatican progress report, Sects or New Religious Movements: Pastoral Challenge (see Appendix).
5. A specific recommendation
It is recommended that a consultation be organized by representatives of the L WF, WCC and, if possible, the Vatican, with representatives of new religious movements to discuss the issue of human rights in their mutual relations and other activities. The task of the consultation would be to develop some guidelines that express the needs and interests of all parties for the protection of their freedom and integrity both individually and collectively.
For such a consultation an equal number of participants should be invited on behalf of the Christian churches and on behalf of the new religious movements and each party should pay for its own representatives and its share of overhead expenses.
Last updated 20 August, 2000 1:24