Last spring it was revealed that one of my favourite directors, Paul Thomas Anderson (Hard Eight, Boogie Nights, Magnolia, Punch Drunk Love and There Will Be Blood) was trying to pitch a new film to a studio. In December of 2009, Variety reported on the new film, possibly dubbed The Master, with the outstanding Philip Seymour Hoffman set to star. A synopsis of the script was published by The Playlist last February:
‘The Master’ is the story of a charismatic intellectual … who hatches a faith-based organization that begins to catch on in America in 1952 called The Cause. The core dynamic centers on the relationship between The Master and Freddie Sutton, … an aimless twenty-something drifter and alcoholic who eventually becomes the leader’s loyal lieutenant. As the faith begins to gain a fervent following, Freddie finds himself questioning the belief system he has embraced, and his mentor.
Essentially the film has been seen as a critique of the infamous L. Ron Hubbard and his Church of Scientology. The Master has encountered several snags since these reports, snags that some connect with Scientology’s influence in Hollywood. But alas, the film seems to be under way, with Reese Witherspoon and Joaquin Phoenix potentially set to star alongside Hoffman.
Anderson is a gifted filmmaker and storyteller. I’m certain that The Master, or whatever it will be called, will be an excellent film – he just doesn’t make bad films. I suppose that’s why it’s so shocking that he’s gone through such an ordeal to find a studio to back this latest project. It’s easy to point the finger at the heavily-caricatured Church of Scientology, but in my reflections I’m not so sure that’s fair.
I’ve spent a significant amount of time investigating Scientology for someone who has never considered taking up the belief system. Growing up in and around Los Angeles, Scientology was always something ‘close to home’. In the last few years, Scientology has been the target of a significant amount of slander. I suspect that this can be attributed largely to the erratic behaviour of one of their most outspoken members. I’ve read a lot of Scientological literature (Dianetics, What is Scientology?, Scientology 0-8, etc.) and have learned a lot of Scientological terminology (‘Thetan’, ‘Clear’, an ‘OT’ = ‘Operating Thetan’, ‘KSW’ = ‘Keep Scientology Working’, ‘LRH’ = ‘L. Ron Hubbard’, an ‘SP’ = ‘Suppressive Person’, ‘Tech’, ‘In-Ethics’, ‘Out-Ethics’, ‘Orgs’, etc.). I’ve heard many people criticise Scientology for its ‘outlandish’ beliefs, such as the fundamental belief concerning human origins (called ‘Incident II’): that the dictator of the ‘Galactic Confederacy’, a being named Xenu brought billions of beings to Earth and killed them with hydrogen bombs, though leaving their essences to inhabit bodies that are now people, etc…
That bit does seem like a lot to stomach—and I know that the orthodox Christian claims concerning such as the existence of a personal deity, the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus, could be just as alienating—but Scientological ‘cosmology’ is not my primary reason for rejecting Scientology. The Church of Scientology’s Creed, written by L. Ron Hubbard in 1954, states:
We of the Church believe
That all men of whatever race, color or creed were created with equal rights.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own religious practices and their performance.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own lives.
That all men have inalienable rights to their sanity.
That all men have inalienable rights to their own defense.
That all men have inalienable rights to conceive, choose, assist or support their own organizations, churches and governments.
That all men have inalienable rights to think freely, to talk freely, to write freely their own opinions and to counter or utter or write upon the opinions of others.
That all men have inalienable rights to the creation of their own kind.
That the souls of men have the rights of men.
That the study of the Mind and the healing of mentally caused ills should not be alienated from religion or condoned in nonreligious fields.
And that no agency less than God has the power to suspend or set aside these rights, overtly or covertly.
And we of the Church believe
That Man is basically good.
That he is seeking to Survive.
That his survival depends upon himself and upon his fellows and his attainment of brotherhood with the Universe.
And we of the Church believe that the laws of God forbid Man
To destroy his own kind.
To destroy the sanity of another.
To destroy or enslave another’s soul.
To destroy or reduce the survival of one’s companions or one’s group.
And we of the Church believe
That the spirit can be saved.
And that the spirit alone may save or heal the body.
Perhaps you read this creed and find no fault. Perhaps you read this creed and see a bunch of convoluted and meaningless language. When I read this creed something else jumps out at me. At the very centre of Scientological belief is the view that a person is a spirit, a thetan. According to their website, and one of their more prominent evangelical campaigns in the last few years, the heart of Scientology lies in an answer to the question, ‘Is Man a spirit?’ The official website states,
Yes. A short exercise can quickly answer this for anyone: Ask someone to close their eyes and get a picture of a cat, and they will get a mental image picture of a cat. Ask them who is looking at the picture of the cat and they will respond ‘I am.’ That which is looking at the cat is you, a spirit. One is a spirit, who has a mind and occupies a body. You are you in a body.
Scientology breaks up the ‘Parts of Man’ in this way:
First there is the body itself. The body is the organized physical composition or substance of Man, whether living or dead. It is not the being himself.
Next, there is the mind, which consists essentially of pictures.
Finally, and most importantly, there is the thetan. The thetan is not a thing. It is the creator of things.
Of the three parts of Man, the thetan is, obviously, most important. Without the thetan, there would be no mind or animation in the body. While without a body or a mind, there is still animation and life in the thetan.
The goal of a Scientologist is to become an OT, an ‘Operating Thetan’, defined by the Church of Scientology as ‘a spiritual state of being above Clear.’ It continues, ‘By Operating is meant “able to act and handle things” and by Thetan is meant “the spiritual being that is the basic self.” An Operating Thetan, then, is one who can handle things without having to use a body of physical means.’
In order to achieve this OT state, a Scientologist much engage in a series of ‘gradient steps, each one slightly more advanced than the last and each with its own ability gained.’ The website continues, ‘At the level of OT, Scientologists study the very advanced materials of L. Ron Hubbard’s research. According to those who have achieved OT, the spiritual benefits obtained surpass description.’
I want to make clear that this is not an attempt to set up a ‘straw man’ version of Scientology. I could commit many different philosophical fallacies trying to incite hatred of the Church of Scientology, like rumours about conspiracies and brainwashing or the odd lifestyles of the late L. Ron Hubbard or Tom Cruise, none of which demonstrate the validity or invalidity of the belief system itself. I could also argue that the language employed in these statements is convoluted and meaningless. But what I am sharing here are things directly from the Church of Scientology’s official website, in the sections that are meant to evangelise to non-Scientologists. It has been my aim to briefly and accurately express some core beliefs of the Church of Scientology. At this point I hope to highlight a fundamental disagreement between Christian orthodoxy and Scientological belief, ultimately illustrating why I, as a Christian, am not a Scientologist.
From very early on, the resurrection of the body has been a fundamental tenet of Christian orthodoxy. In the Creed of Marcellus (a precursor to The Apostles’ Creed) from 340 it is written, ‘I… And [I believe] in the Holy Spirit, the holy Church, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body [σαρκός], life everlasting.’
The need for these sorts of credal affirmations of the physical body arose from a very early Christian heresy that is labelled ‘gnosticism’. Within a very simplified gnostic worldview we find the idea that there is an fundamental antagonism between God and the material world (dualism). The soul is trapped in this material world and through certain esoteric knowledge the soul can find a way of escape. From what I have gathered, the Scientological belief system very closely resembles a type of gnosticism. But in light of their understanding of the resurrection of Christ, early Christians, like the second-century Ante-Nicene Father St Irenaeus, condemned such views. Indeed, when ‘the resurrection of the body’ is mentioned in early Christian sources the phrase does not mean that Christ (as the ‘first fruits’ of the resurrection from 1 Corinthians 15:23) has risen from the dead figuratively or spiritually. Contrary to the claims of critics like John Dominic Crossan (a hero of mine, genuinely) and his ‘Jesus Seminar’, what makes the claim of the resurrection in the first-century Jewish context so problematic is that it only ever refers to a physical, bodily, literal raising from the dead.
Whether or not one accepts that Jesus rose from the dead in this way, the early Christian Church held this view and when we say in the creeds, ‘He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose on the third day…’ we mean just that. While St Paul condemns ‘sin in the flesh’ (ἐν τῇ σαρκί) in Romans 8, he is not condemning the body, but the sinfulness over which Christ has triumphed. This is the key to the validity of the Christian faith. It is both our present and future hope. Part of the beauty of this hope is that it restores value and dignity to the creation, the physical creation, that God has created. The Christian faith is not some collection of data that prepares our souls for a rescue from our bodily prisons, but it is a submission to the reality that God has begun to rescue and will fully rescue this physical world from its corruption and decay.
In this way we are invited to throw ourselves into the rushing stream of God’s kingdom. We are asked to take part in God’s story through loving others as we have been loved by God. We do not fight the oppression of the physical world. Instead, we declare that this physical world has been redeemed by Christ and demonstrate that redemption through God’s working in our lives; caring for those who have been mistreated; being a beacon of peace in the midst of ongoing conflict; standing up for the dignity all people, regardless of nationality, race, age, gender, sexual orientation or socioeconomic status. We are to be constantly challenging the way that those with power (including those within our own large-and-small-scale ecclesiastical institutions) exercise their oppressive authority over the powerless. God has come in a body through the incarnation, Jesus met the holistic needs of people during his ministry and in the death and resurrection of Christ God has exclaimed ‘I have redeemed the whole person, not merely their soul and not merely their body!’
In Scientological literature we are presented with this: ‘A Scientologist can be defined by a single question: Would you want others to achieve the knowledge you now have?’ In the Christian faith a similar question might be worded in this [admittedly cumbersome] way: ‘Would you want others to receive the present and future, holistic hope that you now have?’