Introduction to Discussion with Johannes Aagaard

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 10, Number 2, 1993, pages 100-102


Paul K. Eckstein

Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus

In April 1990 the American Family Foundation (AFF), in conjunction with L'Association pour la Defense de I'Individu et de la Famille, convened a meeting in Paris, France. Attending were representatives of cult education organizations from more than a dozen countries. Participants exchanged information about their activities and discussed common problems, which included increasing international cooperation.

One of the participants was Dr. Johannes Aagaard, who represented the Dialog Center International, headquartered in Denmark. A professor of missiology and ecumenical theology at the University of Aarhus, Dr. Aagaard articulated a religious perspective on cults that differed fundamentally from the secular perspectives of nearly all other participants. Because the Paris meeting focused on practical issues, Dr. Aagaard had little time in which to advance his perspective. However, conversations at lunch and dinner convinced Herbert Rosedale, AFF's president, and Dr. Michael Langone, AFF's executive director and editor of the Cultic Studies Journal, that their perspectives on the cult issue, as well as the perspectives of their American colleagues, could be enriched by the challenges posed by Dr. Aagaard's views.

An opportunity for further dialogue arose one year later in May 1991 when Dr. Aagaard's schedule permitted him to attend the AFF's annual meeting in Philadelphia. In the two days prior to the meeting, Mr. Rosedale arranged for Dr. Aagaard to speak to the New York Interfaith Coalition of Concern about Cults (ICCC) and to participate in a one-day symposium at Mr. Rosedale's law office.

Dr. Aagaard's lecture to the ICCC was later published in the Cultic Studies Journal (vol. 8, no, 2, 1992) under the title "Conversion, Religious Change, and the Challenge of the New Religious Movements." This article distinguished between conversion, which is a change in faith and one's personal relationship with God, and religious change, which refers to alterations in the fundamental, underlying orientation, or "code," that gives meaning to culture. Dr. Aagaard further maintained that Western culture has witnessed three overlapping religious changes: The first, the emergence of the "Mediterranean paradigm," was the change from classical paganism to the medieval culture of Roman Catholicism. The second, the "Atlantic paradigm," was the change brought about by the Protestant Reformation, the growth of capitalism, and the Enlightenment. The third, the challenge of a "Pacific paradigm," is going on right now. The Pacific paradigm is a trans-syncretism that fuses Eastern mysticism and Western capitalism.

Dr. Aagaard maintains that traditional churches are largely unaware of this shift and are derelict in their duty to challenge the new religious movements (NRMs) that represent the paradigm. Those who do challenge them tend to focus on illegal and unethical deeds of NRMs, rather than their creeds. But, according to Dr. Aagaard, this creed-neutral perspective is superficial because it ignores the fundamental shift in the religious code, which NRMs emanate from and contribute to.

This perspective was the special challenge that Dr. Aagaard brought to Herbert Rosedale's office on May 9, 1991. Participants included Dr. Aagaard, Mr. Rosedale, Dr. Langone, Michael Caslin (a development/management consultant), David Clark (an exit counselor from Philadelphia), the Rev. Walter Debold (Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Seton Hall University), the Rev. Richard Dowhower (Pastor of All Saints Lutheran Church in Bowie, Maryland), Paul Eckstein (Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Long Island University, Brooklyn Campus), Dr. David A. Halperin (Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Mount Sinai School of Medicine), Dr. John Hochman (Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at UCLA Medical School), Dr. Herbert Nieburg (a psychotherapist associated with Four Winds Hospital in Katonah, New York), and Rabbi A. James Rudin (Director of Interreligious Affairs, American Jewish Committee, New York City).

Fortunately, Dave Clark audiotaped the meeting (although the tape ran out prematurely, so the transcript ends abruptly). I was so stimulated and impressed by the daylong discussion that I volunteered to edit a transcript of the tape and prepare this special issue of the Cultic Studies Journal.

The transcript of the symposium will enable the reader to participate vicariously in our fascinating and wide-ranging exchange with Dr. Aagaard. Being a conversation, the transcript offers the reader the rare opportunity of "hearing" experts discuss at length their differences and deepen their understanding of their own and their colleagues' points of view. The invited essays that follow the transcript reflect this deepening of perspective and celebrate the opportunity to have had a dialogue with the president of the Dialog Center International.