Faithful Community or Cult Enclave? Episode 8
Cult dynamics may be more common than you think.
It might seem that most normal people don’t have to worry about cults. The reality, however, is that cults are merely dysfunctional communities, and their obvious flaws are merely an exaggerated version of common social problems.
There is a strongly felt lack of community in the modern world. This lack produces both a desire for community and a level of inexperience which can make negative dynamics more likely.
In this episode, Malcolm Schluenderfritz and Peter DeGoede discuss a few of these negative dynamics. They try to show the ways that these dynamics can crop up in everyday life, and examine some of the underlying problems.
Some Problematic attitudes
They discuss how cults are marked by dishonesty, both to members and to the wider world, and by a lack of openness to the truth. This type of mentality can afflict any group with divides the world into insiders and outsiders. Group members can become OK with not knowing the truth.
Cults are usually based on fear, but many seemingly harmless communities are also based on fear of the outside world. In particular, parents are afraid that the world will corrupt their children. That’s not a groundless fear but if it is the basis for community formation, everyone will suffer.
An obsessive focus on the nuclear family can actually become selfish and unchristian. Families may do well to avoid the more problematic aspects of our culture. On the other hand, if a focus remains on the negative, it can lead to greater evil. Christ illustrates this point with the Gospel parable of the man who swept his house of a demon, only for seven demons to return.
Focus on the Negative
A focus on the negative can also blind individuals and groups to the evil that is found inside, in individual souls or in a group. We’re all sinners, and we should ground our spirituality in humility. Christ comes to be with us in our weakness and failures. We shouldn’t try to find perfection, which can lead us to gloss over problems.
Any attempt to follow Christ will create a certain amount of division. We have to make choices that will possibly alienate us from those around us. At the same time, such division can lead to cult mentalities by dividing the world between insiders and outsiders. Catholics should not make choices which turn fellow Catholics into outsiders. We have to remain united to the body of Christ, even if this can be a source of pain or frustration at times. In doing so we will be imitating the Saints, who preached a radical message which could be divisive at times, but who nevertheless remained faithful to the unity of the Church.
Along the way, a number of other topics are discussed, including the opposition between choice and culture, “family envy”, the difference between natural virtue and Christianity, liturgy as chosen, and the felt lack of control in the modern world despite our technological abilities.
Header image: a plan drawing of Port Royal convent, the center of the Jansenist movement in France.
This was a challenging one! As I thought about what was behind the disagreement and doubt I felt about many assertions throughout the episode, I think there were two main things. The biggest is that I didn’t hear a side by side comparison of the real pragmatic options for people. Is there really more dishonesty in insular communities than in the “normal” world, for example? This is a problem I find too often among those skeptical of intentional community, political activism, and really any organized effort to strive for an ideal that contradicts the status quo. That is, the skeptic compares the actual attempts against a hypothetical ideal and finds it sorely lacking, rather than comparing it against the status quo or the real alternatives. There is a tendency to accept the status quo as normal and unproblematic, and I think that is an analytical mistake and a practical mistake.
The other thematic problem I had was the lack of a clear definition of what a cult or cultishness is. What essentially sets it apart from healthy community and from the liberal status quo? In my opinion, the common use of “cult” is just an epithet meant to stigmatize any illiberal community. Of course you spend the entire episode explaining what you found problematic about cults and how healthy communities would be different so this may seem like a strange objection. But I guess related to the above point, I don’t see what connects these possible failings, how they separate the cult from the non-cult status quo, or in some cases why they are objective failings and not just matters of personal preference.
I guess the last thing is I found the appeal to particular saints especially baffling. Saints Francis, Anthony, and Benedict all varied between openly convicting fellow Christians of laxity and corruption or else fleeing to the wilderness to escape the corrupting influence of the (then Christian) world. They accepted communities of followers grudgingly. But anyway I think we too often look at the most famous saints as normative examples because in the long run the did so much to build the Church. But there are innumerable unnamed and uncanonized saints who merely loved God with their whole hearts and loved their neighbor as themselves, but who were not called to great evangelical work and merely tended their humble lots in life. I am wary of the implication that everyone should try to emulate Saint Paul when so few have that personality or charism. The work of converting oneself and one’s children is I think as much as most people can hope to manage, and seeking the best of all actually existing environments for that work is what drives me.
Thanks for the thoughtful comment.
As far as the side-by-side comparison: of course, we’re not trying to knock community building attempts. Why did we say that a bad community is worse than no community? I think a comparison could be with Christians; a bad Christian can be worse than a merely secular individual, in personal spirituality, but also in their effect on the wider world. They produce scandal and turn others away. So certainly, the world is full of dishonesty, and other flaws, but somebody in it might be motivated to try something else, whereas those growing up in a dysfunctional community might reject Christianity altogether.
With the difference between cults and non-cults; I think an important point is that cults are just bad communities. There isn’t any bright hard line dividing them; as certain tendencies grow (for instance, an adversarial attitude to other Christians who are not part of the group) the group becomes increasingly a cult. I think a problem with the typical narrative about cults is that they are seen as something remote from our daily experience, when in fact their dynamics are common, everyday failings magnified by a particular group. So, for instance, our mainstream political parties are increasingly taking on cult-like aspects. Parishes, schools, workplaces, can easily come to embody some of these dynamics. In fact, these problems are just the human failings which make community difficult, and so those building community should be on guard against them.
With the use of particular saints, I think the point more was that one is canonized because one built up the Church, not so much because one is a good person.
Beyond that, you seem to be concerned that we’re presenting too “evangelical” a picture of the Christian life; is that the case? If so, I’d reiterate that the concern of parents for children, of group members for the group, is a good thing, a necessary thing; it is just that it is a natural thing. Peter mentioned if such things become the foundation of a group, it will have a merely natural focus rather than a supernatural one. The Christian has to have an outlook which embraces the whole world in love and concern, even if their daily calling is caring for a family. That family needs to have an outward looking spirituality, even if they never stir beyond their own town, need to grow beyond the natural into the supernatural, in which some child dying in Afghanistan is as much of our concern as is our own children at home. Isn’t that what the Lord calls us to? Christ is the ultimate model of each Christian and if we are each part of the mystical body, no one is really “other”. We’re supposed to relate to everyone as family or as part of our own body.
With a group, this becomes even more the case. Among a group, some members may be called to “keep the hearth fires burning” but it wouldn’t seem right if the group as a whole was inwardly focused. Even contemplative monasteries have a mission of intercession for the Church, and frequently a mission of writing or some other kind of communication; for instance, Therese of Lisieux wrote letters to missionaries. Within the lifetime of St. Benedict, he was sending his disciples out as missionaries to found new monasteries. Anthony of the Desert left his solitude at the height of the persecution of Diocletian to encourage the Christians in Alexandria, and his community of hermits was engaged in hospitality, communication, (Anthony wrote or dictated letters in support of Athanasius) and in taking in refuges from persecution. And of course St. Francis and St. Dominic organized their orders to be in the world. And the kind of communities discussed on this website are presumably lay communities with families; those who enter a contemplative monastery know they have a cloistered vocation, but there is no such guarantee for children born into a community! One of the draws of community, to me, is that it would allow parents to protect their children in a suitable way without giving up missionary interaction with the surrounding world. I’m not sure that we in the world should take the contemplative cloistered monastery as our primary exemplar.
A related aspect is the “fear vs love” motivation. I say all this as someone who was raised without any access to electronics, TV, or internet, and as someone who is GRATEFUL for this. I have seen, however, how a mentality based in fear/hate of the world can play out among children raised in it; unfortunately it can either lead to hate/fear of the people in the world, and snobbish superiority, or to an inordinate curiosity about what is out there. Fundamentally, fear is a psychologically flawed motivator, and certainly in the Christian life fear is supposed to be driven out by love; countless times in the Gospel Christ tells us not to fear. Was Benedict’s primary motivation in going to the cave fear? Possibly, though we can’t know for sure; he was already dead when Gregory wrote his biography. If it was his primary motivation, the young man Benedict was a good man, but not yet a Saint; we’re not supposed to think that every action or motivation in the lives of the saints was necessarily perfect. (A funny instance of this is the set of beads St. Therese used to count up her good deeds when she was a little girl. This is often used in children’s stories as a positive thing, and you can even buy sets of beads for the purpose. As it turns out, in later life Therese realized that belonged to the legalistic, Jansenist-influenced spirituality she grew up with.)
And I think the point Peter brought up about the family being an extension of oneself, and therefore that focusing too exclusively on the family is spiritually risky, was a good one. I’ll see if I can get Peter to respond from his perspective.
Thanks for your thoughts on this! I personally don’t have a lot of programmatic answers for how to live in society. How my wife and I choose to live our faith comes from our limited attempts to listen to the Holy Spirit and follow his lead. I wouldn’t want to hold up our lifestyle as one that all must follow. I wish I had a clear headed picture of what to do and a vision I could share with others but I don’t. Part of my interest in Malcolm’s project is that it offers a place for conversation on the topic.
Is there more dishonesty in insular communities than in the real world? Well if real world means mainstream culture it’s hard to say. If culture is the character of a society ours is a pretty flawed one—and a pretty cult like one. However, insular communities also have their own weaknesses; and if it’s cut off not just from pop-culture but from healthy sources of support then, in my mind, that does end up being worse than the alternative. The communities that I have seen that work try hard to mitigate these shortcomings: members have spiritual direction and confession with non-member priests, they work outside the community for church organizations not run by their group or have jobs in the broader world. This allows members to rub shoulders with other good people who are also trying to live uprightly but in a different way.
I agree that “cult” is a pejorative that can be thrown at legitimate groups, but when a community falls into behavior that is vicious and sinful (dishonesty, lying, manipulation, disobedience to legitimate authority, psychological or sexual abuse) then it is in fact a cult.
That being said I do not consider the “real” world to be healthy. After leaving religious life I have often been struck by the absurdity of many things people consider “normal”. Those people would probably consider many of my choices, such as not sending my children to public school or not owning a TV, as cult-like.
I hope these thoughts are helpful!