One can see today a growing concern among people who seek spirituality for relief, solutions and healing, both individually and collectively. It is an interest that arouses optimism about the role and impact that the Christian message can have on society, but also a concern for an accurate transmission of the biblical message.
The phenomenon of rekindling religious interest has been anticipated by some people of culture. Romanian historian of religion, Mircea Eliade, predicted that the deepening of the social crisis will result in an increase in creativity and knowledge because people will seek ever new ways of solving the crisis; and creativity and knowledge will always bear a signature of the sacred, as a specific human resource that separates us from the animal kingdom. In one of his last interviews, the great historian concludes that, “Without God, everything is ashes.”
Returning to religion as a source of answers to the most important existential questions, in this century in which we sometimes seem to advance although there is no floor under our steps, was also predicted by the historian of religion, Victor Kernbach. He noted, in the year of his death, that, “In the uncertainties in which he lives today, man is again reaching out to decipher the human condition, and philosophy, science, art have become insufficient. […] The next step is decisive: man will seek his great answer, like all his ancestors, in the message of religion, because here, more than in any other spiritual realm, man can find—in the translation from the language of revelation in the language of scripture—the framework and content of this human condition…”
Life in a labyrinth of mirrors
From a Christian perspective, it is gratifying to see that people who are disoriented by the world in which they live seek support from God. However, because of its promise to connect us with what goes beyond the senses, religion also risks being associated with deception, manipulation, hypocrisy, opportunism, with false sages, false prophets, false teachers, and false spiritual leaders. Therefore, the question that polarises opinions about religion remains one that must be answered convincingly: how can one access authentic Christian wisdom and how can one avoid false values and ethical traps?
There are so many negative examples in the history of humanity and—especially, in today’s media polyphony—so many false paths and illusory solutions, that circumspection is not only justified, but even recommended. Today, many seek spirituality and revelation, but flee from religious institutions and leaders for fear of being deceived, manipulated, and stolen from, rather than guided. However, when interpreted in the light of the Bible, it is precisely this history, which illustrates how religious communication should NOT be, that becomes a standard in the search for criteria for assessing the authenticity of a religious message. From a historical and biblical perspective, here are some of the types of forgers of the religious message:
The talkers of this age
They could be included among those whom the apostle Paul also calls “the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing” (1 Corinthians 2:6) and whom he describes in his first epistle to the Corinthian church. Each century has its experts in “talk”, who, despite the partisan ideology that often animates them, are considered by many to be wise, inspiring, pioneers, enlightenment of the masses, etc. Let’s think, for example, of the recent media boom produced by the American pastor Harold Camping, who electrified the world with his prediction of the end of the world on the exact date of May 21, 2011.
Contemporary “speakers” betray immobility, arrogance, relaxation, chatter, inconsistency, distraction from the essential to the spectacular, and under these conditions, their public influence is predictable, although, unfortunately, experience shows that it is not perceived in time. For the “talkers”, the solutions for various problems of general interest will be dubious and biased, and the burning issues on the agenda that they propose will soon become obsolete. Their falsity can be proved in time and revealed, if the biblical criteria of true wisdom are taken into account: that which comes from Above is always accompanied by humility, is not noisy, but discreet, does not expect applause, and is selfless, offering fewer words and more deeds.
Broken cisterns that cannot hold water
It is the metaphor of the prophet Jeremiah, who thus describes those whom his rebellious people considered prophets, disregarding the true prophetic source, which he called “the spring of living waters” (Jeremiah 2:13). The biblical text has preserved the image of dry fountains, which offer the thirsty a mere mirage. There is a poem by Elena Farago that very expressively captures this old deception:
“The thirsty ones hurried to reach and to drink
All thirty ones are alike, you know.
They were pulling the rope of the fountain
But billow warm water drove them away.
And often a younger one left,
With tears of resentment on his face.“
The religious market in Europe also abounds with teachers and their alluring traps that promise a special, mystical knowledge for the initiates. The internet rankings of spirituality sites show many pages related to astrology, esotericism and various mystical beliefs. Unfortunately, the notoriety of the promoters of such doctrines is often confused with credibility. Neither self-sufficiency, an elitist attitude, the taste for wealth, a mysterious message or the laconic indications, nor the discourse that contradicts the biblical spirit of these false prophets, discourages those inclined to believe in all sorts of special revelations, “for connoisseurs.” The deception is then enhanced, unfortunately, by the public’s self-deception and even fanaticism.
One of the many examples of those who manipulate the naivety of the masses is the famous Indian guru Sathya Sai Baba, from the last century, who claimed that he could materialise from nothing various well-finished and marked gold objects, such as watches, necklaces, etc—which would explain the 24kg of gold discovered in his personal fortune after his death only to the fans who worshiped him.
This is what Jesus Christ called the spiritual leaders of the people of Israel in his day, whom he accused of duplicity. As the evangelist Matthew writes (23:27), under the guise of righteousness (the white paint on the tomb), they hid uncleanness, vice, lawlessness, and hypocrisy (the corpse in the tomb). This lucid-hypocritical attitude appears not only among the Pharisees from the time of Jesus, but is perennial in human history. It is explained by the immeasurable will for public recognition, for authority and for the power that brings material and spiritual benefits. The prerogative of these duplicities includes self-justification and a hierarchy of peers, the opinion that the end justifies the means, the belief that one’s own ends are necessarily good, the contempt for the small and for justice, and the desire to dominate the crowds. The hypocrisy and dark influence of Rasputin, the evil Russian monk who hypnotically seduced the family of Tsar Nicholas II, under the guise of humility, is famous. True spiritual leaders are described by the biblical text as the antithesis: they have an otherworldly, self-sacrificing wisdom, which is gentle, pure, merciful, impartial, loving, honest, and doubled by good works (James 3:1-18).
Wolves in sheep’s clothing
In the 1970s, the whole world was shaken by the news of the most abominable mass suicide in French Guiana, at the initiative of an American spiritual leader, Jim Jones. He had managed to brainwash and manipulate 900 people who agreed to or were forced to agree to die with him, in order to evade police investigations.
Sheepskin wolves are false prophets who become spiritual leaders who intentionally lead people to perdition (Matthew 7:15-20). The Saviour warns of them and establishes a clear criterion for identification: their fruits. The fruits, that is, the deeds of the wicked, can only be evil. Beyond the concealment by beautiful words that appeal to the public, which can be very persuasive, the correspondence of the facts with the character must be pursued. The deformed character transpires beyond the words of the spirit, through unscrupulous wickedness, a destructive and ruthless spirit, contempt for people or even for all mankind, envy, conspiracies, desire for revenge and self-exaltation above all. The biblical text distinguishes between the “spirit of wandering” and the “Spirit of truth,” which animates the love of of one’s fellow man. It is the imprint of God’s children, springing from love for Him: “Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister” (1 John 4:6-21).
The Bible proves very useful in revealing what the false guides of men have in common: pride, the Luciferian signature, that domineering “I am, and there is none besides me” (Isaiah 47:10). Hence, the immeasurable vanity, the selfishness that transpires in actions, the indifference towards others, and the cynicism that the solutions they come up with betrays.
The love of fellow human beings, without which no one can be an authentic leader, cannot be perfectly simulated, as long as its proof is the fruits, the deeds. Authentic brotherly love, translated into deeds, helps to restore justice, honesty, mercy, devotion to those close to the profession and the country, solidarity with all people. It characterises any true sage, prophet, teacher, or spiritual leader. The good deeds of those who have faced similar difficulties to the ones we face have the strength to bring comfort and to lead by example. They have the revelation of unexpected solutions, providential interventions, beneficial changes of perspective, reconciliations, encouragements. Contemporary society has an urgent need for such role models as was Henry Dunant, for example, who laid the foundations of the Red Cross in 1859, in the tragic conditions of the battle of Solferino between France and Austria.
What, then, is the purpose of the work and efforts of today’s Christian in his communication with his fellow men? To seek to inform correctly and to open new windows to the truth. To set an example of practical Christianity and to contribute with all his openness, with all his skill, as much as he can, to help his fellow man become better. To promote freedom of conscience and tolerance. To support the development of a morality of solidarity, in opposition to competitive morality.
In other words, to create an organic and sustainable social link, through various community initiatives: prompt and effective civic reactions to events of public interest; supporting beneficial public actions and discouraging reprehensible actions; humanitarian aid efforts; rewarding performance; associations on different common bases; promoting all Christian values (including religious freedom) and, above all, offering a living model of Christian coexistence. There are many examples in this respect, especially international ones, from disaster relief organisations to palliative care foundations for the terminally ill, from parent associations concerned with education through the new media to foundations that award medals and awards. And the list goes on.
A powerful engine such as the true Christian spirit could animate our civic spirit as well, helping us to become better professionals, better colleagues, friends, neighbours, better parents, children, husbands, wives, and last but not least, better citizens.
Corina Matei, PhD, is an associate professor at the Faculty of Communication Sciences and International Relations at Titu Maiorescu University.