9 Years in a Cult

Of all my experiences, I feel the most ambivalent about the 1970’s and our time in the Creative Initiative Foundation. I was initially pulled to their vision of a world more aligned with the teachings of Jesus. They made a distinction between Jesus as Teacher and Christ the Savior. Here was a new organization that was not weighed down by the baggage of traditional religion. Intriguing.

CIF called itself the “Third Age;” the Old Testament being the first age, the New Testament being the Second Age, and Creative Initiative being the third age. To achieve this CIF was focused on three things: 1) the teachings of Jesus, 2) psychological de-conditioning, and 3) major social projects (e.g. helping to pass California’s Nuclear Safeguard Initiative). These were the three cornerstones of the Creative Initiative Foundation.

CIF built upon the work of a Canadian scientist turned biblical scholar named William Sharman. Sharman was bothered by the many inconsistencies in the Bible and believed that the original teachings of Jesus had become obscured by later writings. He made it his mission to resurrect the original teachings of Jesus and to teach others how to this same thing. (I’ve always wondered why a scientist thought he could do a better job of this than biblical scholars. Is this scientific hubris or something more inspired?) Sharman, to my knowledge, only worked in the English language. True biblical scholars learn Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic, the languages of the original texts of the Bible. Their work is far more rigorous than Sharman’s.)

The leaders of CIF had originally been students of Sharman. When Sharman became too ill to continue with his mission, he bequeathed his library and all his works to these students in California with the request that they carry on with his mission. But these former students quickly realized that more than biblical scholarship would be needed.

Creative Initiative seemed like a good fit for my background and interests except for one thing: their hierarchical structure. The leaders saw themselves as a new, more relevant religion. But they themselves expected total obedience from their members. At the end of our first year (1973) we were told to make a lifelong commitment to CIF, and also make a financial pledge which reflected this commitment. It was all or nothing. They were far more controlling than most religious traditions they were hoping to replace.

This double-talk of liberation from the past stood in contrast with control by the leadership. Much of what they talked about had great appeal to me. It kept me going. But the control from the top was worrisome. We had to buy into it to keep going. The leaders wanted us to believe that this was an open and democratic organization. They would hold large meetings whenever they wanted to try something new. These meetings were cloaked in the language of consensus-building when in fact it was clear the leaders were really just telling us what they had already decided we were going to do.

As the organization grew in numbers, regional leaders were established to help maintain control. Regional leaders modeled their leadership after the style of top leadership. We were all encouraged to develop “leadership for the third age” but regional leaders were not about to share their power with the people below them. Regional leaders were assumed to be more “developed” than the rest of us and therefore more qualified to “speak the truth” to the rest of us. In time a strong group norm was formed: people higher in the organization could pass judgement on people below. People below were too “ignorant” to understand or give feedback to those above them. This was how CIF maintained control.

In looking back over these years, I have mixed feelings. There were good things that came out of it. Each summer we would attend a workshop at a retreat center in the Santa Cruz mountains. At most of these retreats we worked on our psychological blockages. There was a stretch of time where I worked on my anger. Growing up I was not allowed to express anger so I had repressed it. CIF helped me get in touch with it and release most of it.

CIF also provided us with a family-oriented structure during the turbulent ‘70’s. We valued this structure for our children. For these reasons we held on.

Creative Initiative offered a beautiful vision for the world where all races and religions would come together in harmony. It was the optics of this vision that kept me going. But the vision became the rational for justifying abusive behavior. What they practiced was very different than what they taught. CIF lost its moorings and sank into psychological abuse. It was built on the egos of the leaders who had become too wrapped up in their own self-importance.

One night, in 1981, while driving home from work, I suddenly had an “out of body” experience. I was in a living room, up on the ceiling, and looking down into the room. I was observing a meeting of our local CIF group. And then I noticed a man off in the corner by himself. I realized it was me. I wondered why I had chosen to sit there; then I understood: it was not my decision to sit there. The group that had placed me there. This is where the group would always place me. And then I was back driving home again.

The next week we left Creative Initiative.

After all this time, I am still nagged by one unanswered question: why did I stay so long?

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