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Anne Richards (keynote speaker at the forthcoming Modern Church Conference 2024) explores the salutary reasons why we need to engage critically with both positive and negative features of new ways of being spiritual in the twenty first century.
We all know about the potential dangers of the internet, and the warnings given about it. Don’t trust what you can’t verify. Don’t give away your personal details. A person presenting as a child or a teenager on a discussion forum, may be a predatory adult. Watch out for scams. Watch out for people who may want to exploit you or do you harm.
But while people are warned about the traps and plots and dodgy sites out there, there is much less said about the potential spiritual dangers posed by the exploration and experimentation many people want to undertake in the course of their spiritual journey. There is a great deal written about cults, and how some religious movements attract, then exploit followers, sometimes for money, sometimes for sex, sometimes for work, and sometimes for all of those, but there are also spiritual dangers of a more insidious kind, which it is worth thinking about.
For example, Carlo* a student at university, was checking his personal emails when he happened to check his junk folder. Among all the betting ads, proffered prizes, and opportunities, there was a message that simply said ‘Do you want to know your future?’ As Carlo had in fact been thinking a lot about what he was going to do after he graduated, he clicked on the email. It came from ‘medium Anna’ who offered a free reading through her psychic powers. Carlo went to the website and thinking it was a bit intriguing, he filled in his details and got a reading sent back to his email.
The result was attractively presented and rather mysterious. It did not offer him job opportunities or suggestions, but rather suggested that he would soon have good fortune in the form of a person. The following week, a fellow student declared an interest in Carlo and their relationship escalated rapidly. In bed, the other student said, ‘You know, fate has brought us together’. Carlo remembered the email and wondered if there was something to clairvoyance after all.
Carlo had by now received many more emails from the medium, and he went back to the site, but subsequent readings, which he paid for, did not bring any more good fortune. But now Carlo started to look at other sites, and other fortune-telling opportunities, and some of these seemed to produce results which he liked. He was becoming more attached to the idea that there was a repository of knowledge or wisdom that certain individuals could tap into. Horoscopes, scrying, card reading, divination by numbers or letters in his name, these all seemed part of a great mystery that was there to be discovered. Carlo enjoyed himself with all these, but it also awakened a great hunger to get to some great underlying truth that seemed just out of reach.
Carlo decided to branch out on his own, downloading and conducting his own experiments with cards and rituals he found on the internet. He poured a great deal of time and energy into doing these things carefully and felt he was on the brink of some great revelation, not only about the universe and his place in it, but also in mapping out his future. His studies started to suffer and his relationship fizzled out. Then he found a mentor online and things took a quite different turn.
The mentor told him that he was wasting his time with cards and horoscopes. If Carlo really wanted to achieve power over his future life and realise his goals of wealth and happiness, this could be done by summoning angels, demons or spirits, binding them and forcing them to one’s will. The mentor said they could induct Carlo into a group where he could be taught how to raise and bind spirits, but first there would have to be a preparation and then an initiation. The preparation was a test, to see if Carlo would get beyond the ‘restrictions’ of his upbringing and learned ways of behaving. Carlo would have to do something he found morally challenging, in order to free himself from the fetters of unexceptional behaviour. When Carlo asked what sort of thing, he was told it would have to be something which affected another person negatively, hurt them physically, or emotionally; he could be creative about it, but he would have to get evidence that he had done it, to be shown the secrets and given the powers he craved.
Carlo couldn’t do it and said so. But he was told that he had already gone too far and would be cursed for being weak. He was told that his soul would be taken and bound in hell and that there was no way back.
Carlo’s mental health deteriorated and he became sleepless and terribly frightened. He imagined demons had been let loose to punish him for his experiments and explorations and he was too scared to admit what he had been doing, and thought himself beyond forgiveness. After waking up in hospital after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, Carlo made a decision – he would ask for spiritual help. And he was lucky, at last, because the hospital chaplain was both pastorally sensitive and aware of where to ask for help with Carlo’s background of experimentation.
We know that features of contemporary spirituality include a desire for control, a desire to be happy, lucky, to feel good about oneself and one’s body and to have a short-term hope for a rosy future. There are plenty of opportunities in the spiritual marketplace to pursue that. But there are predatory individuals, groups and networks in the spiritual fields too, and it is important that we keep in mind the potential harms and pain that can come from the smorgasbord of spiritual possibilities on offer, and there is sometimes a slippery slope in which experiment can become obsession and make one vulnerable to the darker side of the spiritual landscape. Be innocent as doves in what you try, but always, always, be wise as serpents in assessing them.
*not the student’s real name
Resources: information and advice about minority religions, sects, cults, new religious movements and alternative spiritualities, can be obtained from Dr Anne Richards, Faith and Public Life, Lambeth Palace, London SE1 7JU
And from the staff at INFORM at King’s College, London: www.inform.ac