2018-09-01 Charlene's Post-Cult Nonreligious Alternative
Charlene’s Post-Cult Nonreligious Alternative
September 1 2018
SAR is grateful to Charlene Edge for granting us permission to reprint the post below from her blog. The original post is located here.
Despite its official sounding title, this post is not a statement of faith, or a list of beliefs, or any other such carved-in-stone program I’ve invented. It’s just some thoughts about my life after leaving a cult.
Why I’m writing this
Recently, I was asked to speak at an International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) conference coming up this October in Connecticut. I’ve shared my cult story at two other ICSA conferences and support their efforts to educate and heal people adversely affected by high-demand groups. Although I cannot attend and give a talk in person, I promised to write a blog post instead. The following is for the session, “Personal Account Talks,” under the topic: “Returning from Unhealthy Christianity to a Nonreligious Personal Alternative.”
Glimpses—from Catholic school to The Way
I wasn’t raised in a cult, I was led into one as a young adult. But what I call my spiritual journey began in childhood as a Roman Catholic, including eight years at St. Francis de Sales grammar school being indoctrinated by Sisters of Mercy who sometimes did not live up to their name. After my mother died in 1968, I changed dramatically. In high school, I veered off into the evangelical Christianity of Young Life where my focus changed from God, a distant Creator in heaven, to Jesus, my Pal who communicated directly to me.
Soon afterwards, I set foot on a college campus where students recruited me into a Bible-based group called The Way. The cornerstone of Way teachings was that the Bible is God’s perfect Word—this perfection is called inerrancy of Scripture. Victor Paul Wierwille (1916 – 1985), founder of The Way International, marketed his organization as a biblical research, teaching, and fellowship ministry. That sounded great to me. I thought God Himself had directed my path right to Wierwille’s front door. I gave The Way the next seventeen years of my life.
What happened at The Way?
The Way offered me friendships with kind and sincere people, in-depth Bible classes (what I thought were in-depth), leadership programs, exciting music festivals, and a common cause of helping people and spreading what we believed was God’s Word over the world. My entire life became locked into this parallel universe fabricated by Wierwille. Mixed in with some positive experiences, I suffered emotional, financial, and intellectual deprivation, but instead of questioning the belief system at the root of my suffering, I accepted what the belief system said had caused it: me, or the Devil, or both. If I believed God more, if I studied the Bible more, if I obeyed Way leaders better, those things would improve.
By 1984, I was invited to work in the inner-circle of biblical researchers at Way headquarters in Ohio. With my whole heart, I believed I was serving God. While in that inner-circle, however, I had a rude awakening. I woke up and realized I’d been used to promote Wierwille’s propaganda; I’d been in a cult of personality run by a narcissistic, paranoid abuser of Scripture, power, money, and sex, who shamelessly plagiarized the work of others and built a multi-million-dollar organization with motor coaches and an airplane at his disposal.
For my emotional, mental, and spiritual survival, I felt compelled to escape.
I also felt compelled to question everything.
“Unhealthy Christianity” at The Way
When I escaped from Way headquarters in Ohio and drove to Florida, I didn’t plan to also cross the border of Christianity and enter another religious landscape. As I left The Way, I still considered myself a Christian, but I needed time to think, read, and evaluate those seventeen years I’d given to promoting Wierwille’s teachings. From my up-close-and-personal experiences, I admitted The Way had offered “unhealthy Christianity.”
It was unhealthy primarily due to the Wierwille’s corruption—his abuse of people and misuse of Scripture had combined to spawn a hurtful organization. He had used fear to motivate sincere believers to remain in the group by convincing us the Devil would ruin our lives if we left The Way (successive leaders did the same thing) and that God would take away our rewards in heaven if we rejected the “accuracy of God’s Word” he said he offered.
Way loyalists like me were told not to fellowship with dissenters because they had “turned their backs on the household of God.” I had believed all that. I’d believed Wierwille’s portrayal of The Way as the “first century church in the twentieth” devoted to biblical research, teaching, and fellowship and teaching “the accuracy of God’s Word.” After what I discovered while working in The Way’s biblical research department, however, it was clear those things were lies. The Way was all about Wierwille and propping up his authority. Wierwille had betrayed me and every other Way follower. Thankfully, before I drove off to Florida, I’d sorted things out enough to reject twisted, sick, and damaging beliefs of the group.
Over time, I figured out that Wierwille and his leaders—including me from time to time—had used psychological manipulation to keep followers tethered to The Way. That manipulation, disguised as training us to obey God’s Word, had produced another version of Charlene, a rigid one that fit the norms of The Way. I wanted to break out of that confinement and grow.
What I did not do after leaving The Way
I still considered myself a Christian, but I wanted to be left alone. After one visit to the church of my youth—the Roman Catholic Church—I did not return. Nor did I join an offshoot of The Way. Some former Way leaders broke from Wierwille’s original group and recruited members to their new ones. It was obvious they just recycled Wierwille’s behavior and teachings. I was not interested. I had too many questions. Nor I did join any of the myriad available Protestant or other sorts of churches, nor a synagogue, nor a mosque, nor an ashram, nor a temple of any kind. It was 1987 and next to impossible for churches to “get” how sensitive cult escapees were to religious talk and church behavior—like setting up chairs for meetings and listening to someone teach the Bible.
Besides, I was questioning the Bible’s authority and God’s identity. I was trying to be realistic about what value the Bible had for me and whether God was the kind of entity that directed or intervened in anyone’s life.
What did I do? Nonreligious activity
I read. I wrote. I trusted in the creative universe to hold me together. I threw myself into my education. A year before actually escaping Way headquarters in Ohio, I had returned to college. That was ironic. I had dropped out of college in 1970 to jump head-first into Wierwille’s intensive leadership training program called The Way Corps. Going back to college sixteen years later was frightening, but it offered a fresh start. I had hope.
The liberal arts education I sought counteracted the thought-stopping, cliché-ridden indoctrination and ignorance I’d taken as “truth” all those years in The Way. Education gave me a broad landscape where I could roam and question without fear of being told I was wrong, nonspiritual, or possessed by the Devil. I learned to question and be open to new ideas without being afraid of them. My curiosity woke up. I wrote in journals and I read anything I wanted to.
Alongside college studies …
I sought out books in the library about God, the Bible, and spirituality. Joseph Campbell’s work in comparative religion, as seen in Bill Moyer’s interview with him titled, The Power of Myth, broadened my understanding and excited me. James Barr’s book, Fundamentalism, was a window into where the idea of Scriptural inerrancy came from, how complicated it is, and why Wierwille’s version did not hold up. For a while, I read about the history of the biblical texts and who wrote them and why. By then, I’d given up the idea that “God is the author of the Bible,” as Wierwille insisted, and acknowledged it was authored by men—that’s a topic for many other blogs, which I probably won’t write. I’ll leave that to scholars.
Later, I read Karen Armstrong’s works, including The Battle for God and Bart Ehrman’s many books about the New Testament, beginning with Misquoting Jesus. I read about Buddhism and liked many ideas the Dahlia Lama shares in his books, like this—if you’re going to have a religion, it should help you be a better person. I read lots of literature—novels, poems, and plays—and found community with other writers and students I met at college and at work. I felt nourished. I felt happier. I felt adventurous. I felt I was flourishing more as a human being by not devoting myself to any one established religion and that I didn’t need to.
The obsessive/compulsive lifestyle (at least it was for me) of reading the Bible, attending fellowships, recruiting others, organizing meetings, memorizing Scripture to ward off negative thoughts, and sending money to a leader, was over. I felt relief.
Perhaps I could have adopted a more moderate form of Christianity, but after reading things about its history, I felt it was no longer for me. Now I view the Golden Rule as a good guide for living, but I like better the Golden Rule in reverse, “Don’t do unto others what you would not want them to do to you.” It sets a high bar to aim for.
Today … being nonreligious
All this is not to say my path—one that does not include sticking with one religion’s beliefs or attending religious services—is for everyone. This “nonreligious alternative” has its lonely and scary moments like any other path, but it’s real for me, and I am grateful.
I suppose “eclectic” describes this stage I’m in. And the word “agnostic” works because I’ve given up certainty about spiritual matters. While I’d been loyal to Wierwille and his teachings, I’d been so certain about God and what “He” did that the certainty became destructive and broke up my friendships and family ties. (My memoir, Undertow, details all this.) I often disrespected other people’s freedom of religion, their freedom to worship as they chose to or not. Being so sure I was right about God, Jesus Christ, and the Bible sometimes incapacitated my ability to feel compassion at appropriate times. What’s the point in that?
Perhaps my Irish heritage or my Aries “sign” prompted my independent spirit to rise through the pain and loss of cutting ties with my old worldview, respectfully decline invitations to join all manner of churches, and create my own way of being in the world—which is, as it turns out, living as a writer. But really, who knows all the reasons for being on one path or another? Life is complicated, mysterious, and full of surprises.
These days, I just try to enjoy the eclectic nature of my interests, spend time with friends and family, and soak up contemplative moments practicing a little yoga and meditation, and walking on the beach. And writing. When I think about this stage of my life, I can’t help but recall one of my favorite quotes. It’s advice Shakespeare’s character, Polonius, a philosopher, gives his son as he leaves home, “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” (Hamlet Act 1, scene 3, 78-82).
About the Author
Charlene L. Edge is the author of the award-winning memoir, Undertow: My Escape from the Fundamentalism and Cult Control of The Way International. She was in The Way for seventeen years (1970–1987). Later she earned a B.A. in English Literature from Rollins College, graduating summa cum laude, and worked for more than a decade as a writer in the software industry. She is a published fiction writer and award-winning poet, is a regular contributor to the Florida Writers Association blog and is a member of the Authors Guild and the International Cultic Studies Association. Charlene lives in Florida, with her husband, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Rollins College, Dr. Hoyt L. Edge, and she blogs about their world travels, fundamentalism, cults, the writing life, and other topics on her website: https://charleneedge.com