Religious Exoticism and Human Need

I have noticed, as I am sure almost everyone else has noticed at times, that there are people who will suddenly latch onto some odd religious group. When I say “odd” I mean one that is greatly divergent from the common faith system in a region.

Exorcising Exoticism
Exorcising Exoticism (Photo credit: Augapfel)

Sometimes, I think this is religious exoticism. That is, when one sees a religious (or political, or cultural, or ideological) group from a distance, we see inadequately the nature of the group or its beliefs. Most people tend to react somewhat xenophobically… filling gaps in our knowledge with negative opinions and values. However, some respond oppositely… presuming that the areas of ignorance are filled with positive qualities… exoticism.

But why would some react that way. One might assume sociologically that it is in the best interest of a member of a group to assume that one’s group is superior to other groups. Why does this not necessarily happen?

I DON’T KNOW. And I am not necessarily well-researched in this area… but I would suggest that for some this meets certain human needs.

There are many human needs and different ways of looking at human needs.  pleasure and mastery over one’s environment appear to be important in human development. Abraham Maslow, of course, has his hierarchy of needs. Henry Murray has his system of psychogenic needs. I guess I would like to throw out a few human needs that are relevant to the drive to change faith systems (especially to small esoteric groups). This is thinking out loud (if typing can be described as out loud) so definitely open to additions and subtractions (and multiplications and divisions I suppose) to the list.

1.  Belongingness. We are social beings and feel the need to be part of a group… to recognize a clear US that contrasts a clear THEM. When a particular religious system (whether organized, disorganized, political or ideological) dominates a culture, belongness is often reduced. Sure one belongs… but most everyone in the culture belongs regardless of how faithfully they embrace the faith. A sense of belonging is often stronger when there is a smaller group that contrasts the broader society and has strong cohesion due to the religious system they are in. (I was raised in a Fundamental, Separatist church. One does sense belonging to something that goes beyond living in a certain region or culture.)

2.  Specialness. You have probably heard the joke… “You are absolutely unique and special… just like everyone else.” We want to belong to a group, but we never want to be completely defined by that group… to be lost in the crowd. We want to individuate. Again, smaller groups make this easier. It is easier to have a sense of self in a group of 20 people rather than lost in a crowd of 200,000 people. The drive to belong and yet be special are in tension with each other… yet both can push individuals towards smaller (“exotic”) religious groups that are willing to treat them as being special and belonging to something special.

3.  Purpose. People want to live in a world where the decisions they make and the actions they do have impact in the world, and that impact matters. There is an “OUGHT” that is important. Often the dominant religious system in a culture loses a clear purpose except to promote social norms, maintaining the (often mediocre) status quo.

4.  Transcendance. While, in many ways, we live in an amazing world in an amazing amazing universe, we have the desire for something more. The world around us seems “horizontal” and we have a need for something “vertical.” The dominant faith in a community starts to slide into feeling like the rest of the world around us– roads, can openers, junk mail, and church. It becomes recategorized as the mundane. We don’t know exactly what it feels like to be in some way part of the divine… but we know it is not where we are at right now… so maybe we need to look elsewhere.

Let’s just take these needs for the moment. Can the church (the orthodox, boring, been around a long time church) compete with the exotic– whether be a “world religion,” a cultic group, or a secular ideology?

I believe the church as described in the epistles gives us a start.

1.  Belongingness was no problem in the early church. Modest ostracism to open persecution led to the church being a tight knit group of believers. Metaphors promote the idea of belongingness even more. We are “baptized of one spirit” joined together as the “body” and “bride of Christ,” and a “peculiar people.” There never seemed to be the thought that the church should be equated to or comfortable with the broader culture, but should always have a counter-cultural role.

2. Specialness. Members of the church are described as “children of God” and a “royal priesthood” among other things. However, the church is supposed to exist in a structure following the body metaphor. Each is supposed to have unique roles… some exciting, some boring… but each important. The church is not only supposed to recognize each person as special, but empower them to discover and utilize their speicalness.

3.  Purpose. The church is to be salt and light in this world, acting counter-culturally. That counter-cultural activity is not simply contrarian, but supporting the good while challenging the bad. The work of the church in this should never be done. If the church start feeling comfortable in the culture around it, it is likely that it has lost to some extent its diving purpose. On an individual basis, the unique roles within the body of Christ can give a sense of purpose as long as there is a clear evidence of cause and effect as to how their actions connect to the greater purpose of the church. (“Learned helplessness” develops when a person does not see a clear relationship between actions and results. There are far too many people in church who have learned to be and act helpless.)

4.  Transcendance. When the church rebels against drifting toward thermal death (sorry, pulling a thermodynamic term here) in the surround culture, it will seem less mundane. When the church (corporately and individually) embrace a divine purpose it will seem more divine (as it should). When these are achieved, the transcendant metaphors (bride of Christ, children of God, royal priesthood) start to make more sense to the members of the church.

Small groups within a church can help with specialness… especially accountability groups, growth groups, and ministry teams. Ministry teams, particularly, can help members recognize their purpose. Still, the church cannot solve the problem of mediocrity and exoticism simply by changing its corporate structure. The church needs to embrace its divine purpose, empower the divine purposes of its members, and begin to explore its understanding of the Biblical metaphors for the church as it involves its place on earth.

Additionally, other groups can seem exciting because of their mystery. Churches should not only teach its members the truth, but remove the mystery of other groups. The truth provides a necessary foundation for recognizing the false, but members need to be demystified about the false as well (with truth, not stereotype… stereotyping can actually increase the mystery). Again, however, removing the exotic quality of other groups does not remove the needs that people have… if the church is seen as mediocre and lacking purpose

One could sum things up and say that mediocrity of the church and the mystery

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