CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

The Church and the Gurus

by Silja Joneleit-Oesch (University of Heidelberg, Germany)
A paper presented at The 2001 International Conference in London.


My talk is divided into three parts:

Firstly, an introduction and description of the EZW.

This is followed by, an overview of typical reactions and the perception of the ISKCON, Osho-movement respectively.

And lastly, I would like to give a brief theological evaluation of the EZW‘s motivation.


The Church and the Gurus.

I. The EZW

The Evangelische Zentralstelle für Weltanschauungsfragen (EZW), the central Protestant institution for the study of world views (weltanschauungen), in Berlin, forms part of the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD), the Protestant church in Germany.[1]

As the statutes and articles of the EZW prescribe, the EZW observes, evaluates New Religious Movements (NRM) and other non-Christian religions, and makes information about them available. At present the EZW has a particular interest in interreligious dialogue, the provision of information on religions and Christian theological apologetics.

The EZW is embedded in a network of institutions, which influence, criticise and inform the EZW. (see graph p.6)

The most important, but also the most non-specific influence on the EZW comes from the Protestant churches in general and theological science in particular. The church provides the funds for the EZW and pays the salaries of the officials in charge, who are mostly ordained Protestant pastors. The board of trustees observes the work of the EZW in content and establishes norms or guidelines, if necessary.

Politics, laws and religious science in general influence the EZW by setting trends for the zeitgeist and by developing guidelines for a multi-religious society. One example for the influence of politics is the work of the Enquête-Kommission of the German parliament on "Socalled cults and psycho-groups".[2]

As regards the influence of the law, there is the influence on the public opinion concerning cults exerted by the law-suit against the ISKCON-commune at the Rettershof in the 70‘s, where they were accused of possessing weapons illegally, of collecting money on the street without permission and many other smaller offences. This case attracted a lot of attention in the media and changed the up till then quite positive opinion of the ISKCON into a negative and discriminatory habitus towards them.

With regard to the influence of science, results from research carried out play a significant role in setting trends, e.g. the assessment of brainwashing, deprogramming, or newer theological debates, e.g. on interreligious hermeneutics, pluralistic theology or the hermeneutics of the stranger (Xenology) e.g. by Theo Sundermeier.[3]

Usually, the EZW comments on all three areas of influence and outlines their point of view. Conversely most of the public institutions mentioned contact the EZW for information on NRM, but this influential role has diminished, although it is still present.

The United Lutheran Church of Germany (VELKD) runs a permanent commission for the study of religions and the pastors in charge edit a handbook on religious groups in Germany, which is its 5th edition in 2000.[4] The handbook describes all the different Christian and non-Christian religious groups and they give recommendations as to how to cooperate, or not cooperate, to have dialogue or not, warn the congregation about particular groups or recommend others to be invited for common action. This commission and the EZW have informal contact. In the handbook there are lots of quotations from EZW- publications (Der Materialdienst der EZW).

The recipients in the true sense of the word are private individuals who have questions concerning an NRM, in most cases they have personal contact in their family with cult-members and they ask the EZW how to talk to them or how to influence them to leave the "cult" or they just need information about a certain group.

These people have personal questions or problems and they receive information or counselling from Berlin, and in this respect, one could compare this aspect of the work with a customer advisory service.

The monthly magazine from the EZW, Materialdienst, addresses exactly these people, plus the so called multiplicators, pastors, journalists and others.

Most of the Established Churches in Germany (there are 24), so called Landeskirchen, maintain a full-time pastor in charge for the study of world views/weltanschauungen. These special pastors have their own separate network. The EZW provides for them with special training once a year and provides mainly theoretical reflections and background information for them. These pastors deal with the personal problems of their congregation members concerning NRM and usually are involved in parents organisations. This complex interactivity between the delegates and the parents organisations are unravelled and described in Elisabeth Arweck‘s PhD-thesis by in London in 1999.[5] Again, these delegates and the EZW remain in informal contact. The EZW trains them in particular and the delegates provide the officials of the EZW with more practical information based on actual cases, which can be helpful for the theoretical reflections of the theologians in the EZW.

The NRMs themselves are the most important counterpart, of course. Every official in charge at the EZW has a specific department and so they have their own contacts to special groups: one only to psycho-groups and one to Christian "sects" and so on. Both, the NRM and the EZW stay in different degrees of contact with each other, some have established an informal interreligious dialogue, e.g. by mutual visits and so on.

I hope, this has given you a reasonably clear picture of the network of relationships the EZW is involved in. The EZW is an ecclesiastical institution, sometimes apologetically, sometimes very scientific in religious studies, sometimes in agreement with the anti-cult movement and sometimes progressive in promoting interreligious dialogue.

II. Selected, typical reactions.

Moving on now to an overview of typical reactions, the leading article in the Materialdienst for October 1976 was written by Michael Mildenberger and was the first essay on the ISKCON from an EZW delegate.[6] He observes very clearly that the Hare-Krishna-Movement has an authentic Indian religious tradition and is not a newly created "cult". Mildenberger provides historical background information and explains that the Bhakti-Movement is only one of many sects in Hinduism. Like a social scientist, he visited the German Retteshof-Commune and gives the reader a first hand account. So far, so good.

His Christian and theological objections are clear and carefully expressed. He dislikes the anti-scientific and anti-intellectual approach. Also, he is sceptical about the dualistic world view, which, he argues, could alienate devotees from the world, or Christian teaching, from the God made creation. On the other hand, he sees very clearly the financial efforts put into book selling, which seem to be not very ascetic. In analogy to the Christian hierarchy he understands and accepts that the function of a guru is justified metaphysically, only.

But, he also makes a critique of issues, for which Christianity is similarly open to criticism, e.g. that women are discriminated as they are in the ISKCON; that the exegesis is fundamentalist, that the hierarchy is authoritarian.

The language of the article ranges from scientific observations, to theological evaluations to popular judgements and comments, such as "the monotony of the chanting gets on one's nerves" or: "no wonder the women don't look happy".

But, he concludes with a warning against prejudices, and pleads for a serious debate and presents the rise of the movement as a challenge for the Church and the west in general.

As an example for the Osho-Movement I would like to introduce the Bhagwan-flyer of the EZW from 1980/1982. Probably, these flyers reach even more people than the articles in the EZW-magazine, because the flyers are part of the material the staff of the EZW sends to people who ask for information on one specific NRM.

In this flyer the Osho-movement is called a psycho-religious movement. The unnamed author analyses the different influences, which are important for the new forms of Osho meditations and for his anthropology. He introduces the ashram in Pune and gives some information about Tantra and some specific Osho vocabulary, like surrender and the ego. In its evaluation the flyer concludes that the majority of the Sannyasins come from social professions and that they probably look for a holistic identity, because they have the self-image of "helpless helpers". On the other hand visitors of the ashram come home emotionally disturbed, if not ready for psychological or psychiatric treatment. He goes on to argue that it is dangerous for unstable people to go there. The author anticipates that the destruction of the ego — which is propagated in the Ashram — leads to the loss of the ego and creates an addiction to the guru and his system.

The challenge for the Christian Church may lie in asking how far the western Church has identified itself with the western system and if Christianity should not be more aware of the lessons Jesus taught.

In the revised flyer of 1982 the movement is analysed again as a "psycho-religious movement", as a "syncretistic master-cult" and as an "esoteric master-school". The so called psycho-boom of the 70‘s and 80‘s is now described as the background, not Tantra and Buddhism any more.

And the theological evaluation is much shorter than two years before and reduced to the comment that this movement works only with experience, and it is therefore not worth a theological debate.

For me, it is clear, that the intervening two years the publication was influenced by the so called cult-debate in Germany and was less interested in the theological arguments.

III. The theological background

The first thing to note in this final section of my talk is that as the apology carried out by the EZW is practical in nature and not academic, we should keep in mind that the exterior influences are strong and the counselling problems are to be taken seriously. In the following I would like to imagine the questions the EZW-pastors had in mind while writing their articles: First of all, there may have been the motivation question: Why do young people join these ascetic or authoritarian groups, when in the meanwhile we are trying to demolish the strict hierarchy in the Protestant church?

A more analytical question might have been: What role does the guru or leader play? Why are pastors and priests no longer role models for the youth?

Most of the articles try to discover the path to spirituality and the rituals the NRMs perform. The authors may have asked themselves, what kind of religiosity speaks to young people.

From the theological point of view, they may have asked the groups: What concept of God do they have? And what concept of salvation do they preach?

It seems to me that they compared the Christian theology directly with the other theologies. In most cases, they did not try to understand the groups from an inner perspective but from a Christian. And they did not see the Sannyasins and Devotees as religious strangers, but as competitors and as apostates, who should be reconversed.

The argumentation of the EZW has changed in the last 30 years from a stricter apologetic strategy to a promotion of interreligious dialogue, including the formulation of the Christian point of view.


[1] For further information see www.ezw.de.

[2] Deutscher Bundestag. Referat Öffentlichkeitsarbeit. Endbericht der Enquete-Kommission "Sogenannte Sekten und Psychogruppen”. Neue religiöse und ideologische Gemeinschaften und Psychogruppen in der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Bonn 1998. (Infos: www.bundestag.de/ info@klondyke-crossmedia.de)

[3] Theo Sundermeier. Den Fremden verstehen. Eine praktische Hermeneutik. Göttingen 1996.

[4] Handbuch Religiöse Gemeinschaften und Weltanschauungen. Ed. by Horst Reller, Hans Krech, Matthias Kleininger. Gütersloh, 2000, 5th edition.

[5] Arweck, Elisabeth. Responses to New Religious Movements in Britain and Germany, with Special Reference to the Anti-Cult Movement and the Churches. London 1998. (PhD, unpublished)

[6] MD 1976 No. 10: Eine Welt für Krishna. Die "Internationale Gesellschaft für Krsna-Bewußtsein”. Mildenberger. 146-153.

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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