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INTERVIEW: Lewis R. Rambo

Dr. Rambo serves as Assistant Professor of Pastoral Psychology at San Francisco Theological Seminary, San Anselmo, California. He obtained a Master of Divinity at Yale Divinity School and earned both a Master of Arts and a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.


UPDATE: How did you develop an interest in the new religions, Dr. Rambo?

RAMBO: Initially I read Jacob Needleman’s book on the new religions and reviewed it for the Church of Christ. Later, after finishing Ph.D. work in the psychology of religion, I became interested in the born-again conversion phenomena. That was while I was teaching at Trinity College in Illinois where I also conducted studies on personality change resulting from religious conversion.

UPDATE: Were your studies based on firsthand observation?

RAMBO: Yes, I mainly interviewed people within three major groups--Jews for Jesus, the Unification Church, and various Christian movements.

UPDATE: What type of approach do you apply in your research?

RAMBO: I use an interdisciplinary approach. I made an intensive survey on the literature of conversion in the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, and religion. I found that each discipline tends to get on one tract and remains relatively unaware of research and data in the other disciplines. Most psychologists look at conversion as an internal process and have little interest in the cultural aspects or possible influences of prevailing social moods. In reverse, sociologists see conversion as a group process and deny a religious core or element. Religious people see conversion as a spiritual experience, something transcendent and beyond the full scope of psychology or sociology. I am trying to bring together the tools and observations of each discipline.

UPDATE: How have you integrated the sociological, psychological, and religious approaches to conversion?

R4MBO: To use a simplified description, there are three corners to the model--a model that applies the tools of each discipline to the three major aspects of the conversion event. Those aspects are: first, tradition which includes the history of the society in which the conversion takes place, its social structures, and its religious traditions. Second is transformation which examines the psychological qualities of the person’s conversion experience, the autobiography of the convert, and the transition of religious beliefs that takes place in the conversion. The third aspect is transcendence or consideration of the religious belief itself. It is especially helpful to compare the beliefs of the movement joined with other religious beliefs in circulation.

UPDATE: What types of conversion have you discerned with your multidisciplinary model?

RAMBO: There are five basic types of conversion--tradition transition, institution transition, affiliation, defection, and intensification.

Tradition transition occurs when a convert leaves one major religious tradition for another. For example, conversion from Islam to Buddhism or Hinduism to Christianity are exchanges of world view that imply new social habits, a reordering of family structures, and so forth. Such a transition is sometimes painful and often yields some kind of syncretism.

Institution transition involves a conversion from one community to another, but both are within the same major tradition. When a person moves from Presbyterianism to the Lutheran church or leaves guru Muktananda to follow Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, it is a reorientation within the same religion. Although it is a minor adjustment, it is a conversion nonetheless.

Affiliation is movement from no commitment or a nominal one to a strong commitment. For instance, secular university students who join the Unification Church or The Way International become seriously committed to a religious institution, perhaps for the first time.

Defection is included because a growing number of people are converting away from conventional religion. They repudiate their past religious world view in favor of a new, not necessarily religious, world view. A college student may convert to Marxism or atheistic humanism as a means of rejecting their previous religious tradition. In addition, a number of defections are an actual loss of faith which can require a reorientation as profound as if the people defecting from the movements had adopted a new faith.

Intensification is the revitalization of a commitment to a religious persuasion with which long-standing membership has been maintained. Born-again conversions are generally intensifications. Chuck Colson is a good example of someone who intensifies his or her commitment. And most people who go forward at Billy Graham Crusades have had long-term associations with Christianity and are simply intensifying that commitment.


UPDATE: Can you identify particular cultural variables that contribute to conversions into new religions?

RAMBO: I think it is fair to say that large numbers of conversions do not occur in cultures that are stable. There needs to be some kind of disillusionment--famine, failing economies (possibly the result of exploitation), military defeat, or social or intellectual disorientation. Conversions occur during a loss of cultural consensus, when the traditionally acceptable patterns for living are being revamped. They also occur when technological advances outstrip the society’s ability to accommodate innovations smoothly.

Japan, for example, is a stable culture. Less than one percent of the population are Christians despite long-term missionary efforts there. Few Japanese have converted with more than an intensification of an existing commitment or making a simple institutional transition. Tradition transition is rare, whereas in African countries that have been overwhelmed by technical advances and social change, far more conversions are taking place.

Africa also illustrates another type of influence on conversion, as reported by Charles Kraft. He observed that an African tribe that had participated in slave trade and then converted to Islam was despised by another tribe because they resented those slave trade activities. That conflict inhibited the second tribe from converting to Islam and actually became an opportunity for Christian evangelism. Another example appears in reports of mission work among African tribes whose mythologies are similar to the biblical account. For those Africans, conversion to Christianity is a relatively easy and smooth process. Where the mythologies are quite different from the biblical record, conversion is a difficult process and does not occur as frequently. So, dozens of variables contribute to the conversion experience, and it is hard to generalize those factors from one Culture to the next. Nevertheless, many of the same principles do hold true for the new religions as well.

UPDATE: Is persuasive theology a primary cause for conversion or does conversion require a favorable social support system?

RAMBO: I am convinced that conversion is a social phenomena. It’s hard to be converted in a vacuum. I don’t know how that would happen or how we would even know about it. A social medium is always present in conversion. Even Paul’s conversion, which began with his vision of Jesus on the Damascus Road, concluded with the human presence of Ananias. In conversion a person is presented with both a theological message and subsequent social changes that he or she will naturally evaluate. Though the social aspects of conversion go hand in hand with the theological message, it seems that the social aspects carry the greater weight.

UPDATE: What type of social structures contribute to successful conversion?

RAMBO: Two important components in successful conversion are what I call Macro- and Micro-contexts. The Macro-context is the prevailing attitude of the society toward the new religious movement, as well as other cultural attitudes. That attitude may affirm or reject the conversion taking place. It is one thing to convert to the Southern Baptist Church in the American Bible Belt where Baptists are popular; it’s another thing to convert to the Baptist Church in Rome, Italy where Catholicism is popular and Baptists are considered sectarian.

The Micro-context is the immediate social community or group the convert enters into. When the Macro-context is favorable to the conversion, the Micro-context generally has a low visability, appearing as a part of the social order. When the Macro-context rejects the conversion, the Micro-context generally provides an alternative, encapsulated world that separates the convert from the Macro-context. The two work in relation to each other. The more authoritarian and theologically divorced a movement is from the prevailing society, the more necessary it is for the group to isolate converts (or at least monitor their social activities) to maintain their commitments. Those religious movements that are effective and have long lifespans commonly implement such a social isolation technique. Such totalistic movements discuss that technique in theological rather than sociological terms, however. Such regulations as attendance at six meetings per week or mandatory counseling concerning job, family planning, hobbies, or financial management are the warp and woof of a totalistic religion’s Micro-context. When the group’s beliefs and practices are similar to the prevailing cultural activities, the Micro—context is therefore not in tension with the surrounding society.

Another variable of successful conversion is the personal significance of that conversion. Conversion to please a spouse or friends may not have enough sustaining power if the Micro-context does not convince the convert that he or she really needs the movement. The success of a conversion often depends on whether the convert’s beliefs coalesce with the new behavior. A person usually learns doctrine after he or she converts and thereby legitimates his or her new behavior on the grounds of the new theology.

UPDATE: Do you think people have a good understanding of their conversions?

RAMBO: I have studied shifts and reconstructions in the biographies of converts, as have sociologists Jim Beckford and Bryan Wilson. We have often noted that biographic material in testimonies cannot be used as documentation for what happened to a person in a conversion, but rather as the convert’s reconstruction viewed through the theology of the movement. Creating objective retrospective biographies is difficult for converts. It is not that they are lying. They simply have a new vocabulary and they believe a new divine power is in their lives. Consequently, that strong post-conversion understanding influences their interpretations. People talk about how lost or hopeless they were before their conversion experience and make other exaggerated statements that make their conversion to the group seem like a picturesque view of redemption. This occurs mainly in groups that stress membership.


TRANSFORMATION: Personal and social change.

TRADITION: Social and cultural matrix--a community’s myths, rituals, and symbols.

TRANSCENDENCE: Religious or spiritual domain. The person of faith affirms that the supernatural realm is both the source and goal of the conversion process.


UPDATE: Why do you include defection as a conversion type when it is really apostacy, a movement away from and not toward?

RAMBO: The dynamics of leaving a group, it seems, are similar to the dynamics of entering one. I have a friend at Yale who has researched British autobiographies. She tells me that during the 17th and 18th centuries a large number of books were published that describe conversion. That was the Puritan and Glorious Revolution era. During the 19th and 20th centuries, however, there have been a wealth of biographic materials that describe deconversion, a conversion into secularism, especially during the Enlightenment period. Apparently, the two groups of biographic literature describe the same kinds of struggles, thoughts, and feelings. The conversion stories as well as the deconversion stories are very similar, psychologically. Defection from a new religion or an established religion is the same today where people establish new types of behavior, devise legitimations for that behavior, and seek new sources of meaning, significance, and beauty the same way converts do.

UPDATE: Do you know people in new religions who have discarded the movement’s beliefs but remain members?

RAMBO: Oh, yes, I know a number of people who, for a variety of reasons, have grave, serious doubts about the theology of the movement they are involved with but, for reasons such as friendship and avoiding the turmoil of leaving, remain in the movement. Some people remain in a movement because of the position they have attained, but most people are not that calculating and they leave.

UPDATE: Are there personal circumstances that make people candidates for religious conversion?

RAMBO: There are several valuable theories about the personal elements that contribute to conversion. My particular model is adapted from the work of psychologists Sarbin and Adler. Simply stated, that model says that when a person experiences a crisis, a breakdown of interaction between the Self and Others occurs. One’s interpretation of the self differs significantly from the interpretation others give to that person. Such a psychological crisis can occur with failure in a job, school, marriage and important relationships. personal disappointment and disasters, such as illness, can also cause a loss of perspective. There develops a search for resolution to the problem, but the conventional ways of dealing with stress fail to solve it. During this crisis, the candidate has contact with a religious recruiter who offers a new interpretation of the self, that is, a resolution to the problem. There comes a moment during the encounter when the person decides to accept the new interpretation. Those encounters can be short or long in duration, lasting a few hours or a number of months. The new interpretation of the interaction between the Self and Others is interpreted as a death and resurrection to new life.

UPDATE: Often leaders in new religions are charismatic. What is charisma?

RAMBO: Charisma definitely exists but it is rather elusive to describe. At best we can say that charisma in a new religion is a specialness or extraordinary power attributed to leaders by those who follow them. Followers generally believe that the leader has direct contact with God or has mastered a special transforming technology. Underlying that belief is the feeling that the charismatic leader can meet personal needs not met through ordinary human interaction.

UPDATE: How does a charismatic leader emerge in a new religion?

RAMBO: In some situations, the leader’s charisma results from a life-changing event that produces a spiritual or moral transformation. That event is then interpreted by the charismatics’ followers as the origin of a sacred mission in which they all now participate. Charismatics, in establishing a religious base for the movement, create an innovative theology because they have a sense of being in direct contact with the divine. Charisma in a leader is also important because it confirms for the believers the idea that their leader and themselves, through their obedience, are approved of God.

UPDATE: How important is charisma in the conversion process?

RAMBO: Charisma can be very important. A potential convert can perceive the charismatic leader as personifying the beliefs of the group. The leader is also a living advertisement for the powerful transformation that occurs when a person joins the particular group. And, the charismatic leader is the central link connecting the group, the convert, and the divine.

UPDATE: Is charisma a power cultivated by leaders?

RAMBO: Not exactly. In my opinion, the dynamics operating between the leader and the convert are mutual. Charisma does not exist without the participation of both follower and leader. It seems that followers project intense feelings onto the charismatic who, in turn, uses those feelings to create plans for world transformation. It can be cultivated only by both the convert and the leader working together, not by either one alone.

UPDATE: Then conversion to groups with charismatic leaders is, in your opinion, not purely the result of proselytizing techniques but involves a necessary perception and commitment from the convert?

RAMBO: Yes. From an ethical point of view, the interaction between the leader and the convert involves the complicity of both.

UPDATE: Can the occasional tragedies which occur in new religions be attributed to both the leader and the member, not just the group member or the leader overpowering the others?

RAMBO: I suggest, tentatively, that members obey destructive directives, not because they are forced to, but because the charismatic leader legitimizes evil wishes or fantasies that had already existed in their minds. Converts may even follow charismatic leaders because they justify the behavior that the converts have wanted to engage in. Followers’ complicity in religious tragedy is not a popular theory, however. It is not flattering to think that our children or neighbors may be capable of "enjoying evil" under certain circumstances. Conversion and charisma, however, are interactional and the convert and the leader are involved in a dynamic, subtle relationship that involves the wishes, desires, and fantasies of both.

UPDATE: Do the new religions offer positive values to society?

RAMBO: Well, I have trouble making an evaluative statement of that nature professionally, but as a biblical Christian with specific theological commitments, I would have to say "no." Biblical truth is lacking in many of the movements. Socially, however, a number of people truly benefit from participation in new religions. Their lives had been disordered, they had had no religious interests or intimate relations. Conversion changes that; it provides them with organization, meaningful relations, and religious significance.