Beware The Guru

South Korea now appears to have its COVID-19 situation under control.  Yet in February, a sudden rise in cases there centered on a group named the “Shincheonji Church of Jesus the Temple of the Tabernacle of the Testimony.”  It was initially mistaken for a Protestant church, but later was revealed to be a kind of cult.  According to one account, its founder and guru, Lee Man-hee, considers himself to be “an immortal prophet sent to the earth to prepare for the end of the world.”

Actually, a number of other successful Korean churches probably qualify as cults.  Once touted as “the largest church in the world,” the Yoido Full Gospel Church adhered to the teachings of its guru Yonggi Cho until he stepped down in 2008.  Eventually he was convicted for embezzlement. Rather than traditional Christianity, Cho’s religion was really a type of Mind-Science -- the idea that thoughts can magically alter reality.  Since his teachings promised health, wealth, and success, they unsurprisingly drew multitudes of adherents.

One could argue that the last century could justly be called “The Age of Gurus,” and the trend shows no signs of abating.  In his book My Father’s Guru, Jeffrey Masson details bizarre anecdotes and observations about his family’s guru, a man named Paul Brunton.  Among other things, Brunton believed himself to be in contact with beings on other planets and predicted the imminent onset of World War III, which led some of his followers to flee to South America.  In line with many Indian holy men, he inculcated asceticism, meditation, and submission to the instructions of gurus such as himself.  Actually, Brunton seemed to be a rather mild, benevolent version of the type of authoritarian religious leader we have come to identify with cults.

The guru phenomenon is usually associated with mystical New Age and Eastern religious practices, but the Christian world has had plenty of its own, such as the Korean pastors already mentioned.  Regrettably, Church Growth movement leaders commended fanatical devotion to a charismatic pastor as an important mark of a healthy church.  In Osaka, Japan I once worked with such a man, who was praised as a model of leadership by some prominent Church Growth advocates.  At times, this pastor behaved abusively, punching and kicking people to express his displeasure. Not many seemed to object. 

Richard Foster, a leader of the mystical Spiritual Formation movement, recommended that each believer put himself under the tutelage of a “spiritual director,” which is simply another word for guru.  Jesus cautioned his disciples against such elevation of religious leaders when he insisted that “you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matt. 23:8).

However, avoiding the religious world will not protect anyone from gurus and their followers.  Scientism is a term coined to describe the transformation of science into a religion and scientists into gurus.  People who reject religion nevertheless often treat the fanciful speculations of scientists like Stephen Hawking and Richard Dawkins as oracles.  To their adherents, groundless conjectures by prominent scientists about things like the existence of a multiverse are often articles of faith.

Based largely on conjecture, psychotherapism has been a conspicuous part of this phenomenon, and at times it has not been benign.  In their book The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse, Ketcham and Loftus recount instances of people caught up in the sexual abuse panic of the 80s and 90s, in which many innocent family members and others were wrongfully accused of sexual predation.  The accusers became convinced that they were the victims of childhood sexual abuse, the memory of which they had repressed. Their false memories were usually induced by psychotherapists during counseling sessions.  One former accuser described the therapist who misled her as "my own personal guru.”

Nowadays even politicians can be gurus. Barack Obama’s cult-like celebrity resulted in some satirically calling him “the Obamessiah.”  More recently, New Age author and guru Marianne Williamson became a Democratic candidate for president.  In light of the widespread New Age beliefs among politically active Americans, Daniel Greenfield predicted that one day we “will get a guru as President of the United States.”

The most dangerous variety of guru may be the apocalyptic kind.  Convinced that he or she is ushering in a utopia or facing a world conflagration, this type of guru can bring on catastrophe.   One such guru, Jim Jones, taught his community that minorities in the U.S. would soon be rounded up and sent to concentration camps.  The Jonestown massacre murder-suicide of almost a thousand in 1978 was the result.

Similarly, spurred on by the directives and apocalyptic beliefs of their guru Shoko Asahara, in 1995 the Aum Shinrikyo cult murdered thirteen and injured 5,500 on Tokyo subways with sarin gas.  A time of anxiety like our own provides a fertile field for the flourishing of such guru-based apocalyptic movements.  During a recent meeting at my university, teachers were warned about the likelihood of cults making enhanced efforts to recruit our students.

Even if it does not lead to any dramatic disaster, following a guru is an unhealthy substitute for thinking for oneself.  At the end of My Father’s Guru, Masson observes, “Ultimately, you cannot admire the guru, you must worship him. You must obey him... Like other authoritarian systems, it requires a suspension and suppression of critical questioning; it demands unquestioning submission.“  Therefore, he urges us to live “not in subjugation to the will of any other human being, whether that person be wise, ignorant, fraudulent, or completely benign.”

Bruce W. Davidson is a professor at Hokusei Gakuen University in Sapporo, Japan and a contributor to the The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia.