It is now four or five days since the last blog but my small band of readers will understand when I tell them that getting back from the States was complicated and tiring. A plane to Reykjavik from Washington was delayed and I missed my connection to Manchester. I was then put on a plane to London which was also delayed and so I was scrabbling around to find the hotel booked for me in London after 11 pm. The final indignity was the discovery that the boarding pass for Manchester did not work at 6 this morning so I missed my plane while getting a replacement pass. Luckily another ticket was given me so I finally arrived home safely, but 24 hours late!
I am still in a state of jet-lag tiredness but I wanted to say a few things about the way the conference touched on the themes of this blog. I am hoping that some new American readers, recruited at the conference, will want to join in the discussions with their ideas and experience. They are very welcome.
One of the overarching themes of the conference was the way that laws of different countries approach extreme religious groups. I think I mentioned before that the American system is very reluctant to interfere in any situation where religion is mentioned. Thus cases of extreme emotional cruelty towards children are sometimes tolerated on the grounds that they are an expression of religious belief. The laws in this country are also confused in this area. An interesting point was made by one person on the issue of grooming. Legal processes are having to take into account that children are gradually sucked into an abusive relationship by the person wishing to abuse them. A legal definition of ‘grooming’ might well prove useful in describing the way high-demand groups operate and provide some legal recourse over cult’s more nefarious activities with vulnerable individuals. When I use the word ‘vulnerable’, I do not use it in the normal way because it seems that there are a multiple list of ways in which people are vulnerable and thus capable of being drawn into extreme groups. I personally believe that every young person negotiating the passage into adulthood is ‘vulnerable’ in my sense. There are in fact very few people who are never in a state of this kind of vulnerability and thus potentially capable of being drawn into this kind of leadership and idealism. Vulnerability is a notion that needs to be re-interpreted and re-defined.
The conversations I had with individuals who had spent anything up to 30 years in groups were fascinating. One of the things that came out of discussions and conversations was the fact that the early 70s was a ‘golden age’ for starting new religious groups. It was a time when the anti-Vietnam protestors and political agitators shifted from the outer issues to the inner. Hippiedom sometimes became a spirituality of an extreme kind. This is a theme that I know I have discussed before, but somehow the understanding of this historical fact achieved new depth when I talked about the way the world was in 1968, 1972 or 1975. My own memories of this period gave me fresh insight into what made some groups attractive and how the idealism of the times was tapped into by these same groups.
There will be various other themes that I want to share on this blog arising from the conference. But I want to finish this post with one particular insight. One discussion was speaking about the way that a powerful leader can affect the personalities of every member of his or her group. In various subtle ways the member will reflect the characteristics as well as the weaknesses of the leader’s personality. This is to preserve the leader’s power over the follower’s personalities. One aspect of this insight is to note that not only will followers subtly reveal aspects of the leader’s unpleasant characteristics -paranoia, hubris and contempt for the world outside, but also their personalities will never be able to grow beyond that of the leader. The insecurity of the kind of leader we are talking about, the brash charismatic controlling leader, will prevent the flourishing and creativity of all the followers which belongs to their uniqueness and individuality. The merging of minds, emotions and hearts which is sold as ‘Christian community’ is in fact an assault on integrity and personhood. Such cultic behaviour, wherever it occurs, is something that is to be resisted and fought. Love, as I have said elsewhere, wants human flourishing. In the same way, the loving Christian leader will allow the untidiness of difference, even if everyone has to live with the potential conflict that will arise when people are allowed to live with the discovery of who and what they are.