Summit Lighthouse at 50: The Fanatics Have Won
Hello again, readers, and happy 4th of July to you. I’m back from a month-long writing hiatus. It’s also been a year since I declared my unequivocal blasphemy against the imaginary and fraudulent persona of El Morya. No lightning bolt has struck me down, so I would conclude (with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek) that El Morya really does have no power! Still, the TSL/CUT machine continues to churn away on the fumes of the ‘master’ and his former ‘messengers.’ The holy trinity of Morya, Mark and Mother uber alles–on an unspoiled pre-shelter photo of Taylor Meadows no less–predictably adorns their 50th anniversary conference brochure. I find this disgusting. It was this holy trinity–well, one of them at least–that accomplished the spoiling of that formerly pristine meadow, the so-called "Heart of the Inner Retreat" with its eighteen-hundred-foot-long nuclear-industrial doom complex. If they’re so proud of it, and the belief system that led to it, why not show it–concrete, chain-link fence, gun towers and all?
But I digress. At this point, the organization is in the hands of a Board that is vetted and controlled by a ministerial council. Which means that the traditionalists and fundamentalists have secured a permanent lock on the real (human, organizational) power. No board member may be elected, nor ‘messenger’ serve without the approval of this council. Therefore, any concessions to practicality or secular governance have been permanently forsaken. I take particular exception to this direction, especially since it has consigned the organization forever into the domain of the "scriptural" literalists.
Since I’ve not been present in the organization for 15 years, it’s hard to accurately reconstruct this progression. But this is a broad outline of what occurred to the best of my knowledge. If any readers have better information, please correct me:
- In the late 1980s, the board of TSL/CUT had 4 members and consisted only of its "first family," which included myself, my sister Erin, Edward Francis and his wife–our mother, Elizabeth Clare Prophet.
- During the shelter period, in about 1989, we decided that disastrous PR argued for a widening of the board so that the organization looked less like a family business. We appointed several new members.
- Within a few years, Erin and I had resigned from the board. Our mother was not satisfied with the level of organizational management and began to seek outside assistance.
- A new president Gilbert Cleirbaut was brought in and my mother relinquished her day-to-day role for health reasons. She retained a ‘spiritual’ office. Eventually Cleirbaut also left the organization, leaving a three-person presidency in charge.
- Sometime after Cleirbaut left, the organization’s bylaws were amended placing the ministerial council in control of the board and giving it veto power over new board members. Effectively, for unknown reasons, the board voted itself out of power and became puppets.
You may wonder why I consider this development important, since I’m opposed to the traditions, presuppositions, and principles on which the church was founded and its continuance in any form. Two reasons.
- The first is what I would call "original intent." My parents formed the organization to advance goals I strongly support: human freedom, world peace and enlightenment. My mom was a political idealist and once worked at the UN. She gave regular political speeches outlining her vision for an improved society. I may disagree vigorously with her spiritual approach to realizing that vision, but I value the fact that she dedicated her life to trying to make the world a better place. Toward the end of her career, mom tried to liberalize the organization. She also realized her mistakes and abuses of power and tried to make amends and implement changes. Her efforts were opposed and stymied by the fanatics, who were many of the same people who now sit on the ministerial council.
- The second is what I would call the "right of interpretation." For better or worse, TSL/CUT has a significant following. These followers confer a great deal of power onto those who decide how to interpret the "teachings." When I say "teachings," I’m referring to the untold thousands of hours of tapes and tens of thousands of pages of byzantine and contradictory messages my parents left behind. This group is now in control of which of that content is emphasized and which is marginalized. Like the King James Bible, the teachings represent an "alphabet" which the handlers can use to say pretty much whatever they want to say (within broad limits). Yet whatever they decide, whatever their interpretation, they still use the image, likeness and legacy of my parents to bolster their authority. There is no check or balance on this power. We have seen that every successful religion you can name uses this "right of interpretation" to transform itself into a political force quite different from what the founders may have envisioned.
I’ve given a lot of thought to the question of why and how the fanatics came to win. Growing up, they were always a thorn in my side. Their dour-faced conservatism, unquestioning acceptance of the "teachings," unstylish clothes and monastic demeanor betrayed a woundedness and inability to enjoy their human existence. Having given up on human fulfillment, they became like martyrs in slow motion in their brutal "upward trek" toward their fantasy "ascension." Their brain starved of pleasure chemicals, (except perhaps when they were praying/decreeing), their natural reward system short-circuited, they seemed to follow the the Puritian ethic of being forever worried that "someone, somewhere, might be having a good time." Ebullient teens and young adults–bursting with humor, enthusiasm, and sexual elan–drove them particularly insane.
Such people are everywhere, of course. They gravitate toward churches with their ready-made templates of guilt and fear. It does not matter whether the fanatic is hoping to eventually have sex with 72 virgins, be taken up in the "Rapture," or to sit in the "ascension chair" at the "Royal Teton Retreat." The drive is the same: total sublimation of bodily pleasures in exchange for promised future fulfillment–a variant on Pascal’s wager paired with the ultimate in delayed gratification. If they lose the wager (to my reckoning), and find there is no afterlife, they have delayed their gratification precisely forever. And of course, having taken that miserable turn, the fanatic’s job is to make sure everyone else in the group follows suit and becomes equally miserable, if they want to retain group membership.
In addition to the chest-beating performances such fanatics evince–in their self-righteousness and spiritual pride–it turns out there are organizational benefits as well.
Economist Laurence Iannaccone makes the counterintuitive case that people choose to be strictly religious because of the quantifiable benefits their piety affords them, not just in the afterlife but in the here and now.
According to Iannaccone, the devout person pays the high social price because it buys a better religious product. The rules discourage free riders, the people who undermine group efforts by taking more than they give back. The strict church is one in which members with weak commitments have been weeded out.
What does the pious person get in return for all of his or her time and effort? A church full of passionate members; a community of people deeply involved in one another’s lives and more willing than most to come to one another’s aid; a peer group of knowledgeable souls who speak the same language (or languages), are moved by the same texts, and cherish the same dreams. Religion is a " ‘commodity’ that people produce collectively," says Iannaccone. "My religious satisfaction thus depends both on my ‘inputs’ and those of others." If a rich and textured spiritual experience is what you seek, then a storefront Holy Roller church or an Orthodox shtiebl is a better fit than a suburban church made up of distracted, ambitious people who can barely manage to find a morning free for Sunday services, let alone several evenings a week for text study and volunteer work.
So it seems that human pleasure, fulfillment and strongly organized religion are irrevocably opposed, and this is no surprise. Successful religions force people to pay that behavioral price, and members get "compensation" for their sacrifices by considering that they are "special," the "elect." The ministerial council at CUT made a wise strategic move to consolidate their power in this fashion. Nicely done! Liberalization and secular governance would have made for a weaker church. But this trend had been building for many years. Even before they came to official power, the fanatics had their methods of enforcing the rules. If anyone (including the founder of the organization!) strayed from their orthodoxy, there was hell to pay. Which makes me wonder in retrospect how much my parents were actually controlling the church, and how much they were just riding the wave of believers’ expectations.
This process explains a particularly revealing incident that rankled me and destroyed any remaining faith I may have had following the disastrous shelter period. This incident and many others are recounted in my sister Erin’s outstanding and moving book Prophet’s Daughter: My Life with Elizabeth Clare Prophet Inside the Church Universal and Triumphant, available October 1, 2008. Here is my direct recollection:
I was building a deck outside my house in Mol Heron Canyon in the fall of 1992 with my brother-in-law Michael Reed. He mentioned to me that Erin had told him she had recently been in a "clearance session" with mom.
These sessions were intense bouts of shouting and prayer in which my mom sat with another person (there were about a half-dozen such people over the years) and tried to get them to "see" and convey to her spiritual answers to mundane organizational questions. From my perspective, it amounted to her appointing a series of unofficial personal advisors. But nonetheless, she conducted the full drama of holding these sessions in front of altars with burning candles and invoking the presence of El Morya and other personalities.
For a substantial period, my sister Erin was just such an advisor. On this occasion, she had shared with her husband Michael that a member had written a letter to the "altar" objecting to church members drinking near-beer. (The church had a strict no-alcohol rule, and so many staff and community members were relieved that beverages like Sharp’s, O’Douls, and Clausthaler were readily available.) I remarked to Michael that if mom succumbed to that pressure, "maybe I would have to leave the church." I had such a strong reaction, because the beer was non-alcoholic (less alcohol content than a glass of orange juice) and so the person’s objection was symbolic rather than substantive. They apparently just didn’t like the idea that people in a "spiritual" community were doing anything remotely like drinking beer. Only a fanatic would feel this way, and only a fanatical organization would acquiesce to those feelings.
I said those words to Michael, and was immediately struck by the premonition that this would indeed occur. I didn’t have to wait very long. Toward the end of the year, El Morya gave a dictation: ‘He’ banned the near-beer. ‘He’ even went so far as to say that people taking medicinal tinctures containing alcohol should put them in hot tea and allow the alcohol to evaporate. ‘He’ went on to advise that any amount of alcohol, no matter how slight, was an impediment to the spiritual path.
I was furious. I had never confronted my mother quite this strongly before, but this ‘dictation’ was over the top. After the dictation, I stormed into her sacristy behind the altar and shouted "what have you done?" She looked at me sheepishly and said, "Sean, I had to. There were barrels of empty beer bottles all over the place. People were getting upset." She knew it was a deal-breaker for me. But I was not prepared for what she said next. "Sean, I don’t mind if you want to have it. It’s OK. Just be discreet about it."
I glared. So this was it. She was basically admitting two things to me: She was in control of the dictations–not El Morya, and more importantly, she was out of control of policy in her community–so much so that she was willing to act from the altar against her own instincts. Community standards were now in the hands of the fanatics. The inmates were running the asylum. I made up my mind right then and there to get the hell out. Less than a year later in the fall of 1993, I tendered my resignation and made good on my statement to my brother-in-law. It was the best decision of my life.
It’s with a heavy heart that I read the TSL’s 50th Anniversary conference brochure, and see them offering "blessings" with my dad’s "bishop’s ring" and my mom’s lab-grown Chatham ruby. It makes me sad that there are people who don’t realize those stones are unremarkable hunks of rock–the ruby a product of science no less. It makes me sad that these hunks of rock are being used to manipulate people into contributing money in support of a belief system that induces guilt and takes away their human freedoms, instead of reinforcing them.
I rack my brains to understand this mentality. Either the whole universe is sacred or nothing is. Focusing on such talismans destroys the sacredness of everyday life, of breath, of love, of personal achievement. Everyone is already sacred by the fact of sentience and because we possess the means to attain self-knowledge. We don’t need to be "touched" by some rock to be whole.
We don’t need to be constantly looking forward to an afterlife, or a "coming golden age" or some "Christ mind" or divine blueprint for existence, or spiritually "mitigating prophecy." Instead we need focused and concerted human action now to clean up our planet and promote a sustainable and just society. Every joule of human energy wasted on fantasy nonsense takes attention away from solving the urgent problems of renewable energy and climate change which grow more pressing with each passing day. (Ironically before too long, oil prices may make it too expensive for most people to travel to such a remote part of Montana, USA.)
In a spirit of realism and hope, I encourage you to make this Independence Day holiday a time to declare your independence forever from these particular destructive superstitions–and every superstition for that matter. We need to get on with building a bright future for humanity. There’s no time for nonsense, we have important work to do.