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CUT's Theology Hasn't Changed

Bozeman Chronicle/March 18, 1998
By Scott McMillion

Corwin Springs -- Fallen angels lurk, multitudes of dark forces that commune with space aliens by the thousands.

Genetic engineering makes slave creatures, including some that are half man and half bug and want to invade this planet.

Add to that a heavy dose of apocalyptic Christianity. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have thundered along the banks of the Yellowstone River.

Plus, the astrology looks bleak and the combined weight of human sin, 25,800 years worth, is bearing down. Right now.

Celestial bodies known as Ascended Masters have spelled all this out, sometimes in cryptic terms, sometimes in unmistakable language. Is it any wonder that their followers built bomb shelters?

Such is the theology of the Church Universal and Triumphant, or at least the part of it that put the church in international headlines when members flocked here in 1989 and 1990 to be near their bomb shelters, when the church vice president conspired to illegally purchase weapons with enough bang that federal agents later used them as bait to nail Irish Republican Army terrorists.

CUT's new president, Belgian efficiency expert Gilbert Cleirbaut, says the theology hasn't changed, that what was true 10 years ago is true today. Still, he doesn't want to talk about bomb shelters, guns and surviving apocalypse. That's not the church's focus any more, he said.

He says he understands why the church is often called a cult. In his native country, CUT is on a list of religions disapproved by the government. He wants the church off that list. Being there just sets people up for religious persecution, he said.

''I hated to be (considered) a cult,'' he said. ''It's something for me that makes me shiver, to be a cult.''

''I really could understand why people were afraid of us. But at the same time they also misunderstood why we were different.''

In addition to what former church spokeswoman Erin Prophet once called ''the weird part,'' the church also says it offers what most religions offer: a path to peace, happiness, enlightenment and knowledge of God.

But it does so through a mix many outsiders find hard to follow: reincarnation, Gnosticism, Buddhism, astrology, Christianity and the concept of ''ascension.'' That notion holds that, if you live enough lives and achieve the right spiritual attainment, you can eventually ''balance the karma'' you have accumulated in past lives and ascend to a separate, blissful plane of existence.

And there's more. A proper diet, ''elementals'' that control earth, wind, fire and water, conservative politics, and ''decreeing'' rapid fire chants that can go on for hours, sometimes alone and sometimes in a group. Decreeing is often called ''the science of the spoken word'' and, church members have been taught, you can balance personal karma and world karma by doing lots of it.

The whole mix is too complicated for most people, Cleirbaut said, and spiritual leader Elizabeth Claire Prophet's many books can be incomprehensible.

''It's hard for me to read them,'' Cleirbaut said.

He's trying to ''reinvent'' and ''re energize'' the church. Reputation is important, he says, and it does the church no good to dwell on the past.

''To speak about those things is to go constantly backwards to that bad reputation that we had,'' he said. ''That's why I don't want to go back to the shelters. OK, we have it. Let's maintain it. But let's go on.''

He said he wants to ''position our church in a way that there is less focus on the guns, but more on what are the good things (we) do, where we are a benefit to society rather than we create problems to society.''

Elizabeth Clare Prophet, who compares herself to the biblical prophets of the Old Testament, had told people to get ready. Nuclear war, earthquakes, economic collapse, something bad was coming. Probably in March or April of 1990.

Then nothing happened.

''It's quite an awakening,'' Cleirbaut said. ''It was a shift from the mentality of survival to the mentality of hey, there is a world over there.''

He estimated the church lost 30 percent of its members in the aftermath.

To get the church going again, he wants to present the teachings in a simpler format.

Instead of a thick book, ''read three pages about the teachings and give five or 10 pages about how you can apply that,'' Cleirbaut said.

''We have a lot of teaching but we've never consistently organized our material into a coherent theology,'' said Murray Steinman, now a church vice president. ''What you do first, second, third, 20th.''

Cleirbaut likes to use a supermarket analogy and said he wants a bigger store.

''We are expanding the aisles,'' he said. ''The products are the same. We are still selling the same kind of teachings. But what we want to do is make it more attractive.''

''The packaging is going to change,'' he said. ''Plus, the environment in which we attract people to come to the organization has to change.''

Part of those changes concern the very things that caused people to apply the ''cult'' label to the church.

Long hours of decrees were mandatory, often at the expense of family and personal life. That's no longer the case, Cleirbaut said. Gone are the diet restrictions, the limits on how often you can have sex with your spouse, the incredibly long hours for little or no pay, all the ''strange questions'' people had to answer to become a member, the vow of secrecy members had to sign, the intense focus on every word from Elizabeth Clare Prophet.

That kind of rigid control over members led to ''mind control,'' CUT critics claimed.

Prophet's two oldest children, former members of the church's board of directors who have left the church, both dispute the notion of mind control.

''I don't believe in victims,'' Sean Prophet said. ''It was a symbiotic relationship. They wanted to be told what to do.''

His mother offered them that and she was repaid with loyalty and obedience, he said.

''The tyranny and abuses could only happen with their consent,'' he continued. ''I fault a lot of the people who turned over their identity to her. It affected her as much as them. People are doing themselves a disservice by not thinking things through and questioning what's said.''

He cited a song by the rock group Rush, a song called ''Superconductor'' that talks about ''an illusion of persona,'' that tells of a pop star being consumed by her own image.

''I'm not saying that it totally applies, but there's an element of truth there,'' he said. ''If everybody around you is telling you something for 30 years, you're going to believe it. Even if you started it.''

He and Erin both said the church leaders need to come to terms with the ''shelter cycle'' if it is to survive. They say their mother overemphasized apocalypse at the expense of the church and her followers.

''There's been some tremendous mistakes made,'' Sean Prophet said. ''I'm saying let's call a spade a spade. If she screwed up, then say so. They owe it to everybody who has ever contributed a dime to do that.''

''The idea of cataclysm has been a part of the church's thinking since the beginning,'' Erin Prophet said. ''They really can't just turn around and say that's not what we're about any more. The idea that there's a potential for war or cataclysm is very much a part of the church's theology.''

The church has created a culture, Cleirbaut said, in which members eagerly await the next word from Prophet. But her health problems have spelled that she won't be here forever.

''All of our members are constantly waiting for what is the next dictation, what is the next dictation, and what is the next one,'' he said.

Now he wants people to focus on the dictations that have already been delivered and how to interpret them for their daily lives.

Cleirbaut said his job is to save the church.

''I firmly believe that we might go down the drain if no one is going to take up the flame and say, 'Come on, let's do it,''' he said. ''My training over the years was quite unique. It was almost as if I was prepared to do this kind of situation. This is going to be the most challenging job I've ever got. I said, 'Let's go for it.'''

Erin Prophet said she sees a different problem facing the church. Her mother and father created the church and her mother oversaw its vast expansion in the 1970s and 1980s. The church has always centered on the messenger, the mouthpiece of cosmic wisdom. Now her health is not good and, like all mortals, she will pass someday. Cleirbaut said he wants to have the church ready for that within three years.

Erin Prophet said he may be missing the point.

''The question,'' she said, ''is whether the church can survive having her role de emphasized.''

Cleirbaut says it will happen.

''Our teachings are a gold mine,'' he said. ''Unfortunately, we still don't practice them the way they are given to us. We still have a long way to go.''

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