On/File: A Continuing Record of Groups, Movements, People, and Events Impacting Religion

1) A movement known as the Remnant is drawing dissident Mormons with its strongly anti-institutional teachings and practices stressing supernatural experiences. Self-proclaimed prophet Denver Snuffer Jr., who claimed to have a face-to-face meeting with Jesus and was excommunicated from the LDS church in 2013, leads the group. Claiming that after the death of founder Joseph Smith, the church no longer has divine authority, Snuffer has drawn formerly devout Mormons to form small home-based fellowships. With an estimated following of between 5,000 to 10,000 people, the Remnant holds few rules or prescribed offices and stresses that anyone can have heavenly visions, contradicting official Mormonism. On Labor Day weekend, Snuffer organized a Doctrine of Christ Conference in Idaho, where hundreds of voters canonized a new set of scriptures, including a reworking of Mormonism’s foundational text, the Book of Mormon, and its Doctrine and Covenants, a collection mostly of Smith’s revelatory writings. (Source: Salt Lake Tribune, August 27)

2) In late July, a synodal commission of the Russian Orthodox Church made available online the draft of what will become a future catechism for contemporary believers. The Assembly of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church first expressed the need for a “contemporary catechism” in 2008 and entrusted the commission with the work in 2009. Leading theologians of the Church have been involved. The 350-page document is divided into six sections: the basis of Orthodox doctrine; the basis of canonical structure and liturgical life of the church; the basis of Orthodox moral teachings; the basis of the social concept of the Russian Orthodox Church; the basis of the teaching of the Russian Orthodox Church on dignity, freedom, and human rights; and the basic principles for the relations of the Russian Orthodox Church with the heterodox. The document regarding the attitude toward the non-Orthodox may be the most controversial part of the volume since it condemns those who “slander the Church authorities” by accusing them of betraying Orthodoxy through participation in ecumenical dialogue. Ecumenism remains a topic of heated debates in some Orthodox circles. According to Fr. Jivko Panev, editor of the French Orthodox news website Orthodoxie.com, it is no coincidence that the move takes place under Patriarch Kirill, who is himself supportive of developing good relations with the Roman Catholic Church.

The last steps toward the publication of the catechism come at a time of growing interest in learning the faith at Russian schools. In St. Petersburg, within the framework of the course “Basics of Religious Cultures and Secular Ethics,” the proportion of pupils choosing the module on the basics of Orthodoxy is reported to have grown in a few years from 6 percent to 33 percent (while 40 percent choose the module on world religious cultures). In contrast, the module on the basics of secular ethics is losing popularity. Modules on Jewish, Islamic, and Buddhist cultures are also available.

(Source: Nachrichtendienst Östliche Kirchen, August 14. The full text of the draft of the catechism can be downloaded as a PDF file (in Russian): http://theolcom.ru/images/2017/КатехизисСББК_Проект.pdf)

3) A robot programmed to chant traditional Buddhist funeral prayers was introduced at a recent funeral services convention in Japan. The plastics firm Nissei Eco showed off a version of SoftBank’s Pepper robot that it had coded to chant traditional Buddhist funeral prayers. The robot costs 50,000 yen (about $460) to lead a service, whereas a human Buddhist priest can cost up to 240,000 yen ($2,200). A priest at the convention inspected Pepper to see if it could “impart the ‘heart’ aspect” of religion, but as of yet, the robot has not been hired for any funerals. Last spring there was a report of a robot priest built in Wittenberg, Germany. The robot provides blessings in five languages and recites biblical verses. Although not designed as a replacement for priests yet, the mechanical pastor is meant to provoke discussion about whether machines have a place within the clergy. (Source: Reuters, August 23, The Guardian, May 30)

4) While Confucianism has already been shaped into an organized form similar to other religions in Indonesia, as reported a decade ago by RW (September 2007), the newly-established Confucian Congregation in Fujian Province (southeast China) has different roots and instead illustrates how some new religious groups can manage to shape their identity in a way that allows them to have good relations with Chinese authorities. A coastal county of Fujian Province, Mintong seems to be a fertile soil for religion, and decades of Communist attempts to eradicate “superstition” have proved unsuccessful. The founder of the Confucian Congregation, Master Li (Li Yusheng), had first belonged to a religious group incorporating healing before starting his own teaching in the late 1990s and adding some popular Confucian classics to an assemblage of texts in the 2000s. The identity of the group was first Daoist until 2010, then switched to the name of Confucian Congregation, while keeping a number of previous beliefs, rituals, and deities, not unlike those found in other Chinese popular religions. The leaders of the Confucian Congregation, however, numbering seven branches, emphasize the distinctive nature of their Confucian identity in contrast with superstition.

Master Li preaches traditional Confucian values. Contrary to Daoism, Confucianism is not one of the five institutionalized religious paths recognized in China. This status seems to make the Confucian Congregation vulnerable, since it is not protected by law, but its policy has been to make slogans of the Communist leadership their own, since they can be interpreted as compatible with Confucian ideals. The official ideology has been “internalized as an organic part of the congregation.” More recently, the members managed to establish a “Research Council for the Practice of Confucianism,” thus making the local branches part of a legally registered research organization. The cultural revival of Confucianism in China has represented a changing attitude toward Chinese traditional culture by Chinese Communist leaders. As a new religious movement, the Confucian Congregation has taken advantage of the Confucian revival and has managed to gain a respectable position by appearing to support the government goals, “while in fact engaging in the sort of practices that would ordinarily be condemned as ‘superstition.’” The group has even received permission from the county government for building a large Confucian temple on a square in a public park. (Source: Nova Religio, August)