New Religions, Intentional Communities, and Society

AHA Session 14
Thursday, January 6, 2011: 3:00 PM-5:00 PM
Clarendon Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Elena Thompson, University of Maryland University College
Jon Pahl, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Philadelphia

Session Abstract

Though nearly every region and historical era has witnessed the emergence and development of new religious movements (NRMs) and intentional communities, the United States of America during the middle and late twentieth century witnessed a heightened upsurge of such groups. Historians have long debated the reason for the sudden increase in the founding of such movements during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Many point to the rise of the lingering effects of the counterculture and its impact on individual and group religiosity. Robert S. Ellwood, in The Sixties Spiritual Awakening (Rutgers University Press, 1994), and Steven M. Tipton, in Getting Saved from the Sixties (University of California Press, 1982), have each argued that the spiritual foment and idealism of this historical era—and subsequent reactions against it—led to a burgeoning of such NRMs and intentional communities. Individual case studies of such movements, often conducted by ethnographers and sociologists, have supported such contentions.

This session brings together four studies of new religious movements and intentional communities with roots in this American period, asking how and why such groups have formed and continued to adapt, and seeking insight into the broader phenomenon itself. We have chosen the idea of community as a lens. Each of the NRMs and intentional communities we consider have focused on building and nurturing alternative communities, but have also encountered challenges as they engage with the broader communities around them. NRMs have seen outside communities as sources of converts, arenas of service, allies, opponents, and even collaborators. This session highlights some of the manners in which new religions and intentional communities have navigated the waters of community-building and community relations.

Yaakov Ariel's contribution, on Messianic Judaism, looks to the spectrum within this fusion of evangelical Christianity and American Judaism, and the evolutions within this contemporary movement. Ariel considers the theological and social developments within the Messianic community that acted as centrifugal forces within the movement, as well as reasons why Messianic Judaism remained intact. Benjamin Zeller focuses our attention on the Hare Krishna movement, a staple of the counterculture of the 1960s and 1970s. He argues that their utopian ideals and antinomian impulses existed in an unstable relationship, and that just as the group's utopianism permitted its antinomianism, it also limited it. Shawn Young's paper on the Jesus People USA and their Cornerstone music festival highlights how this communal Christian intentional community reveals the continued presence of the “Jesus Freak” movement of the Vietnam-era counterculture. Young notes that this group indicates a changing expression of evangelicalism moving towards theological and cultural tolerance. Gregory Holmes Singleton concludes our session with an examination of Old Catholic Churches in America, the Catholic—but not Roman Catholic—churches that tends towards small, insular, and isolated religious communities. Singleton studies the efforts of Old Catholic Churches to establish greater unity, and why ironically such efforts have sometimes resulted in greater schism.

See more of: AHA Sessions