At Heaven's Gate, God's door is knocked upon
No matter how advanced civilisation claims to be, there is always a place for cults. For life is still, and always will be, a big mystery. Man is born with a sense of insecurity: fear of death has aroused a fundamental quest for an afterlife, presumably a heaven where eternal joy is a total experience. It is this relentless yearning for paradise that has given rise to religions and cults.
Where religions, particularly in the Western world, purport to convey a belief in a god or gods and design rituals such as prayer or worship to connect with this belief, cults go astray and practise rituals that are strange, unnatural and sometimes harmful. The end purpose for these religions or cults of attaining eternal life after death may be the same, yet their means of going to heaven are quite different.
Religions succeed in creating a moral framework and a sense of purpose, earthly or heavenly, becoming a dominant force in imperfect societies. Cults represent the antithesis of the mainstream, seeking to exploit that imperfectness that is manifested in human weakness.
The mass suicide of the 39 members of the Heaven's Gate cult last week in San Diego, California, fits neatly to the unending recurrences of cults throughout the history of civilisation. Their practise is strange, unnatural and harmful.
It is not too complicated to discern what Marshall Herff Applewhite, the Heaven's Gate cult leader, stood for. There is no evidence of his belief in a living god. Since Applewhite was no genius, he had to borrow ideas from somewhere to create a founding belief for his cult. As a result, it was a mixture of pseudo-Christianity, UFO fantasy, extraterrestrial intelligence, and, inadvertently, a Nietzshean ideal of the superman species.
The problem with the Heaven's Gate cult, like most others, is that their core beliefs do not quite connect with each other. In cultist beliefs, there are always some missing links links that are essential to distinguish the rational from the irrational, the possibility from the impossibility.
Interestingly, he talked about the next ''Evolutionary Level", as achieved by civilisations from other planets. He urged his followers to part with their ''mammalian humanism", whatever that means, on this troubled planet and join him on a UFO that was trailing the Hale-Bopp Comet.
Frederich Nietzshe, the 19th century German philosopher, rejected Christianity by calling attention to human potential, driven by a fundamental will to power.
Excelled in arts, philosophy and science, the higher men or supermen would become a new species of the human race.
Christianity is exemplified in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who braved the cross and spilled his blood to wipe out the sins of the true believer. Earthly life is transitional; eternal life is a communion with a living god.
One cannot dismiss extraterrestrial aliens outright as nonsensical. After all, there is a US space mission to a nearby universe in search of another civilisation. Carl Sagan wrote his best-selling Cosmos in celebration of cosmic evolution, science and civilisation. A Cornell scientist, he was one of the proponents of the possibility of life in outer space and popularised his belief in a novel Contact.
But then how could a UFO, presumably manned by some aliens from another planet, whisk the dead souls of the Heaven's Gate cult members aboard, if they really exist in a corporeal form? The dead then must go through a metamorphosis so that the UFO could pick them up and fly them to the edge of the universe.
Did the cult members actually see the UFO trailing the comet, which was last seen by our forebears 2,400 years ago?
But that was not important insofar as they were assured that there could not be a worse place than this rotten earth; and insofar as their hopes of attaining the next evolutionary level, by joining the community of extraterrestrial beings, were cherished. The arrival of Hale-Bopp Comet, one of the wandering children of the solar system, if not merely a big, frozen dirt-ball, provided Applewhite with an opportune moment to fulfil his prophesy. For no object in the universe fascinates the human eye and imagination more than comets, which actually are nothing more than giant clouds of gas with silver trails of exhaust that stretch out for millions of miles.
In ancient beliefs, comets were associated with bad omens and catastrophes. Applewhite took the advent of the Hale-Bopp Comet, which will not return for another 2,400 years, as a once-in-a-life-time opportunity to dramatise the cause of his cult with the ritual of death. His disciples followed him in earnest along the path of death with the hope of a resurrection to join a community of superior beings. Caught in a fantasy land, they helped each other to die peacefully in the mass suicide that shocked the world.
And what happened after that episode? If there is life after death, as even the main religions subscribe to, then the 39 souls must have embarked on a spiritual journey into the mysterious realm, caught in between hell, purgatory and paradise no matter how sinful their worldly conducts were.
If life is merely a transitional state from being into non-being, Applewhite and his followers have simply vanished from the face of this earth into nothing-ness, just like the disappearance of a grain of sand in a large ocean.
But who actually knows after-death life? Without a clear-cut answer, the human quest for paradise, through religions or cults, will continue to endure, as it has persisted as a subject of spiritual wonder and fantasy throughout the history of civilisation.
BY THANONG KHANTHONG