Stoning the Moon
A Metaphor for Why Cults Often Fail
Joe Szimhart 17 March 2013
When I was a kid, maybe five years old in August of 1953, my American friend Bart and I were in our back yard wondering about the full moon that rose over the neighbor's high wooden fence. Our families shared a half-double house. Mine lived in the lower, three room section, his in the top two floors. Bart was an only child and I had my sister, then still a baby. I call him "my American friend" because I knew only a little useful English at the time. We were Hungarian immigrants that landed in Ellis Island in 1951. It was a warm summer night. Somehow Bart and I got it into our heads to try to hit the moon by throwing stones at it.
We were having a great time hurling stones over the fence, at times imagining that we got close and even hit the moon. After about ten minutes of this childish nonsense, old Mrs. Bernhardt came out her back door and yelled at us for throwing stones into her yard. We did not argue. We sheepishly stopped and walked away.
That vivid memory stayed with me all these years. It remains a metaphor and is symbolic of how often my perceptions and senses have fooled me over the years. It remains a metaphor for why human religious practice often falls so short of the intended goal. It remains a good image for why I think so many cults fail to deliver yet remain delusionally invested in their systems of devotion.
Think about it. In my Catholic faith we have a saint-making machine. We call it the Church Triumphant or those good folks we believe are in heaven looking "down" on us. We imagine that these spiritual beings with spiritual bodies (an oxymoron if I ever heard one) somehow hear our prayers and "intercede" through Jesus-God-Holy Spirit to bless our lives on earth. Well, I think that is all well and good. Not a bad idea as it is an old and pervasive one in every culture. Ancestor spirits have their cults in the most ancient religious practices. We can see or imagine this heaven as if it were an inner "moon" so it feels real enough.
But here is the rub (as in Shakespeare's rub): Religious leaders create cults out of techniques to somehow "hit" or contact that moon and the people on it. A cult I remind you in its primary sense is not a group; it is an activity or system of devotion or healing focused on an idea, a person, or and object. For example, for us Catholics the central cult is the Eucharist or the "Thanksgiving" for the blessed host (as bread and wine or God's body and blood) that parishioners receive as Holy Communion. That cult of Eucharist is admittedly a mystery. There is no scientific measure to determine that Catholics receive anything more than plain bread wafers and perhaps a sip of wine. If anything the benefit is wholly psychological and imaginary, much like a placebo. The mistake (sin, blasphemy) comes in when any Catholic attempts to throw a stone at the moon and says they hit it by claiming that there is something measurable like DNA after the host has been blessed by a properly ordained priest. Many Communion host cults have arisen as this one:
The Bleeding Host Miracle occurred in Betania, Venezuela on December 8th, 1991 (The Feast of the Immaculate Conception) during the celebration of the Holy Mass at midnight. The celebrant, Father Otty Ossa Aristiza`bal, the Betania Chaplain, had just finished the Consecration, had broken the large Host into four pieces, and took one piece of the Host for his consumption and placed the remaining portions on the plate on the altar. When he looked down at the remaining Host, to his amazement he saw a red substance coming out of it which he described as if it was spurting from a wound. He placed the Host in a Chalice and put it in the Tabernacle until 6 a.m. the next morning. When he looked at it again it was still bleeding.
This attempt at concrete DNA proof for a spiritual communion event destroys the true intent of the sacrament which is to raise us up to that spiritual state, not to destroy the spiritual state. Jesus does not come down from the cross. He remains a sacrifice, dead, hanging there in most Catholic crucifix statues. He said he would return in a glorified (spiritual) body. He said we do not marry (have sex) in heaven--there is no DNA to exchange in any way. Blood is not necessary because we do not kill plants and animals to eat food in heaven. Making an idol out of spurious proofs that blood or DNA exists in a blessed host is blasphemy and really bad science all at the same time. The priest should have tossed that bleeding host with any remaining bits according to church protocol or in the least had a proper lab test done on it, then tossed it out.
Okay. Enough polemic against superstitious Catholics. We Americans have the dubious distinction of launching the New Thought movement that pollutes human spirituality with the so-called "divine mind sciences." You know, if you have been paying attention, the superstitious stuff disseminated by book cults with attendent movements like The Secret or A Course in Miracles. Mark Twain was especially incensed with Christian Science, one of the more successful New Thought sects at least into the first half of the 20th Century. New Thought in my view is like me and my friend Bart throwing stones at the moon. Phineas P. Qumby has been called "the father of New Thought. His idea that he once called "Christian science" was to establish a formula or mind technique that he believed was the science of healing and miracles applied by Jesus as Christ. We have to grasp Quimby's era and context to understand his strange claims.
The 19th Century was not only the culmination of many "modernist" advances in science that challenged and even destroyed quaint Biblical beliefs (Darwin, evolution, the fossil record), it also gave us Franz Anton Mesmer, his mesmerism and subsequent cults of "magnetic" or psychic manipulation of "forces" both evil and good that purportedly permeate our bodies and minds as well as the universal environment. The occult sciences were further taken up by new sects like the Theosophical Society (1875) and Rudolf Steiner's Anthroposophy. From New Thought through the New Age groups (I include Wicca) there is one basic theme: Every group or teacher in that milieu offers a cult to bring you, the new recruit, into a magical world wherein you can manipulate matter, time, health and destiny with certain learned techniques whether somatic as with forms of hatha yoga or pranayama (breath work) or with Castaneda's Tensegrity or psychological as with chanting or repeating mantras, prayers, affirmations, decrees, and meditation. Whether you use affirmations from A Course in Miracles or projections suggested by The Secret movement or states of mind taught by Ulrich Leonard Eckhart Tolle, you are throwing stones at the moon. You are claiming that human magic can do the work of G-d, or if you are an atheist, the work of billions of years of evolutionary development in your brief and pitiful lifetime.
That is until Mrs. Bernhardt comes out of her house and tells you in no uncertain terms to stop messing up her yard with stones.
Put away the magic wands, Harry Potter. You are back in Kansas now.
The take away from this blog is bascially in line with essential teaching in healthier aspects of world religion. Buddha like most Hindu sages before and after him cautioned his disciples against seeking miracles and getting lost in metaphysical speculation. The Christian Gospel cautions against "works" by emphasizing faith in the Christ event but this has nothing to do with doing or not doing good works. Jesus told Kepha the Petra, If you love me, keep my commandments (e.g., feed the hungry, comfort the sorrowful). The caution means that it is not through your work (throwing stones at the moon) that you gain entrance into heaven--that door to heaven is already prepared for you by a cosmic event that is not under your inner or outer control in time.
The Gurdjieff cults of the Fourth Way are also called The Work. The controversial movement in Catholicism called Opus Dei is called "The Work" (Opus Dei = Work of God) by its members. Both cultic movements are about doing more sacred ritual stuff as opposed to doing right and doing well in appropriate situations.
In Christian teaching salvation is an eternal "gift" that you cannot create by force of will (Nietzsche anyone?) but it is one that you can reject by not doing good work in this life. All our efforts to force personal evolution toward radical "enlightenment" or become a newly evolved species of human being as in Andrew Cohen or Eckhart Tolle retreats merely messes up the mental and spiritual neighborhood in your psyche. After the pseudo-enlightened cult experience ex-members have a hell of a lot of cleaning up to do. The brain is littered with debris that infinitely failed to reach God consciousness.
If you are lucky, that wise woman next door (Sophia) will halt your nonsensical behavior and help you to clean up her yard.
I hope I learned to appreciate the moon for what it is and not treat it as a target for my delusional intentions.
Thank you, Mrs. Bernhardt.
PS: For a historical survey of how the 19th Century American Christian revivals, interest in spirit contact, neo-occultism, and spiritual mind sciences led to Mesmerism, Mormonism, Milllerites/Jehovah Witness/Seventh Day Adventists (Book of Urantia), Theosophy and New Thought and so on, read The Stammering Century by Gilbert Seldes.