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George Diepenbrock
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Professor studies social causes behind world's intentional communities

Thu, 02/13/2014

LAWRENCE — San Diego’s Heaven’s Gate. Jonestown's Peoples Temple. Southern California's Manson Family. 

Accused of brainwashing and causing tragedy, groups such as these have colored the public's view of spiritually driven communal living or cults. This negative stereotyping has followed even peaceful groups for centuries, often branding them as reviled, religious offshoots or fringe groups based on some practice – most likely communal living — that puts them at odds with the mainstream. Group members are seen as withdrawn from everyday life, and the term “cult” itself is loaded with negativity.

However, a University of Kansas researcher who has studied religious and spiritual “intentional communities” says the world can learn a lot from these types of groups just by getting beyond stigmas in place. Usually leaders and members have key social causes at the heart of their mission. 

“People in these positions happen to be highly devoted to what they are doing. They are not idiots,” said Tim Miller, KU professor of religious studies. “They’re seeking to break down stereotypes that are harmful, and they’re not nearly as sinister as a lot of people make it out to be.”

He edited the anthology “Spiritual and Visionary Communities: Out to Save the World,” which is the first volume in the Ashgate Inform Series on Minority Religions and Spiritual Movements.  Scholars and even some communal residents themselves provide insight into different present-day communities around the world. The series was unveiled at the Inform Anniversary Conference, which was Jan. 31-Feb. 2 at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Miller says there are examples of intentional communities today that reflect an idealistic vision and are focused on the improvement of society, such as environmental practices or social attitudes. For example, Tamera is a peace research village in southern Portugal with self-sufficiency, sustainability and sound environmental practices at its heart. The Camphill villages around the world seek to create communities to help integrate people with significant cognitive disabilities and allowing them to function at a high level.

“They have not just withdrawn out of pure negativity,” Miller said. “It’s more about saying we can really show the world a better way to do things. We’re going to show you a different way to live, which is a theme you find in communities over and over: ‘The norm is not good. We can show you something better.’”

Intentional communities are diverse and are typically based on religious convictions or secular commitment to a vision of a better society. However, in the public mind they are often lumped into one category, typically due to a negative news event associated with some fringe group in the past, Miller said.

Throughout history, new religious and spiritual movements have popped up all over the world, and there are examples of groups thought to be on the fringes initially — such as Quakers — that evolved over time and became established as mainstream religions. In some cases, entities within well-known religious groups also practice communal living, as in the cases of Catholic monasteries and Buddhist sanghas.

For newer groups, overcoming one basic stereotype does seem to be their main, common challenge, Miller said.

“People by and large are scared of things that are different,” he said. “Someone who is different is inherently suspicious. It’s unfortunate because there’s nothing inherently dangerous about being different.”



Matt Menzenski, a graduate student in Slavic languages & literatures, took this photo during President Obama’s speech at KU Thursday. Menzenski says he was struck by how relaxed the president was in his delivery. He missed a chance to hear former President Bill Clinton speak in his hometown in 2004, but finally got to see a sitting president this week at KU. “The opportunity to hear the president speak is just one of many great opportunities I've had at KU. So many interesting talks and events happen here all the time. I try to attend at least one a week-- it's never hard to find something interesting to go to.” Tags: University of Kansas College of Liberal Arts and Sciences KU School of Languages, Literatures & Cultures KU Dept of Slavic Languages - Friends & Alumni Barack Obama The White House #exploreKU #POTUSatKU

#RockChalk to Dana Adkins-Heljeson of @KSgeology , recipient of the Outstanding Support Staff Recognition Award. http://t.co/PbwFlzZD8W
Explore KU: The Bells of Mount Oread KU’s Campanile, a 120-foot-tall timepiece that tolls automatically on the hour and quarter-hour, not only sounded in the 2015 New Year at midnight with 12 mighty gongs, but also regularly rings up memories for many Jayhawks – the 277 faculty and students who gave their lives during World War II, the graduates who walk through its doors at commencement, and aspiring students who have strolled through the Lawrence campus. (See http://bit.ly/1xjjwJj). For nearly 60 years, KU’s 53-bell carillon has been tolling the sounds of peace and serenity across Mount Oread since it was installed in June 1955 inside the landmark World War II Memorial Campanile, which was dedicated in 1951. (See http://bit.ly/1BoL9jv) The carillon is also a four-octave musical instrument, which is played with a giant keyboard and foot pedals. University Carillonneur Elizabeth Egber-Berghout (http://bit.ly/14fiBPl), associate professor of carillon and organ, climbs 77 steps up a spiral staircase in the bell tower to perform recitals several times a month.


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