Care for the gods
While listening to Bart Ehrman's lecture on Lost Christianities, it occured to me how much the idea of cult has drifted in common usage. The theological cult that I mentioned in an entry above, the expression used by Fundamentalist preachers to label any religion not in line with an Evangelical interpretation of scripture, is one such example of drift. Evangelicals label wrong belief as a 'theological cult.'
Ehrman indicates that pagan cults were devotional systems designed to 'care for the gods' through sacrifices, rituals, or chants. Our word cultivate comes from cult, much as we would care for/cultivate/devote time to nurturing plants or care for/cultivate a relationship with someone. These cults were not matters of right belief as with orthodox Christianity, but matters of doing something for some thing or some one "in the right way."
Doing something the "right way" is at the core of rituals in Hinduism, and by extension Buddhism, to eliminate karma. Karma simply means "action" but wrong action adds the need to correct it in this lifetime or the next--thus adding "karma" to one's life. Right action brings us in line with the path to moksha or liberation from rebirth [aka, enlightenment/freedom/samadhi]. This is why it is important to perform rituals to the gods precisely so as to not offend the dharma and require corrective action in the future. Thus, there are certain cults in Hinduism that elimate karma: Agnihotra, for example, is a common cult ritual in India and among Hindus to the prime deity Lord Vishnu as "Yajna Naarayana."
As Ehrman points out, Christianity is utterly unique among world religions in this regard. The Christian Gospel is not a system of behaviors that we do for the gods, but a belief in what a high God has done for us, ie, God died for our sins and resurrected to save us. Christianity is also exclusive.
Pagan religion tended to not be exclusive. One could worship or participate in the cults of many gods in Greek religion and can in Hindu religion as well, for example, with no problem. Pre-rabbinical period (pre CE 70) Judaism was an exception among cult religions in that it promoted the worship or cult of one high God as the only true God. In this sense Judaism is exclusive. However, Judaism unlike Christianity promoted a massive system of animal sacrifice to "feed" or nuture (cultivate) a relationship with the deity much as pagan religions around them did.
Christianity ended the cult of vegetable, animal, or human sacrifice for all time with the belief that the high God sacrificed Himself through his "son." It revolutionized and ended the sacrificial Temple rites of Judaism.
In other words, Christians no longer take care of the gods through "works" but through the belief that by keeping certain commandments, they live in the belief that God has saved them through God's eternal and sacrificial gift to humankind.
In sum, cults by the original definition are systems of fulfilling the needs and desires of a god or a deity in nature (mountain, sun, tree) to gain a blessing, to keep the peace or to deflect the wrath of that deity. Although mainstream Christians eschew the idea that one can "do" anything to gain salvation, Christian behavior nevertheless is just as cultic as any religion, if only in the "cult" of devotion to regular scripture study in the hope of remaining "right with God."
October 27, 2011 firstname.lastname@example.org