Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Curious Case IX

What, then, are we to make of the life, teachings, and accomplishments of Corky Ra?

In a November 2008 interview with the Salt Lake Tribune, the President of Summum, Su Menu, asked, “Why should Ra’s encounters in the 1970s with ‘advanced beings’ . . . be any more suspect than those of, say, Joseph Smith?” Why, she seemed to be asking in this rhetorical question, should her mentor’s revelations be any less valid than those of other founders, especially the founder of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

When saying this, Ms. Menu had the local audience--the semi-established Mormon Church--in mind. But it's also fair to ask, Why should Summum Bonum Amen Ra's story of his meetings with his Summa Individuals be any less suspect than the story of the meetings of the Prophet Joseph Smith with his angels? Or, for that matter, than other stories of other reported meetings, including the classic tales of the Apostle (St.) Paul's encounter with the risen Christ?

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Curious Case VIII

There are alternatives to Corky’s story. In place of the mythological tale of guidance from beyond the world we live in, there are naturalistic, historical narratives.

Recall that before he was visited by his Summum beings, he said he’d always thought that those who said they had had visitations from otherworldly beings were “either lying or mentally ill.”

Let’s say that Corky himself was lying. One such narrative, then, might run like this.

Corky’s stint as a salesman was coming to an end, courtesy of natural forces. He’d been a great hawker of wares, but the terrestrial beings who were driving him to do their bidding noticed that his M.O. couldn’t be squared with the practicalities of the business world. Down on his luck and recently divorced, in late 1975 he began telling some of his close friends that he’d been visited by extraterrestrials. Not much later, he was selling them on the idea of constructing a warehouse, building a winery, and going into the mortuary business. By 1977, he’d convinced a critical mass of investors that they should go in with him on his enterprise, which came to be known as Summum. Several years later, his old college compadre Ron Zefferer had contacted him with a deal he couldn’t refuse: in exchange for a large stake in what was now a corporation, Ron would be chief philosopher. Within a decade, Ron and another of Corky’s friends, Bernie Beichert, had collaborated on the Kybalion Project to produce the official book of the corporation. When they took it to the US Patent Office, they were told that it could only be copyrighted as a derivative work. The two, with Corky’s advice, went to PR and had them work up an official explanation of why the book was more than just a copy of the original. This story (see above) seemed to satisfy the clients who wandered into the weekly philosophy sessions Corky was holding in his pyramid. By this time, the corporation was exceeding expectations, though salesman Corky was always thinking of Bigger Things. Then, in 2003, he had a brazen idea: in order to publicize his organization, he’d try to sell several Utah towns on the idea of placing a monument bearing what he and his confidants had been calling the “Seven Aphorisms” in their city parks alongside the monuments featuring the Ten Commandments. Knowing there wasn’t a glacier’s chance in a volcano they’d be successful on their initial sortie, they lawyered up and took their case all the way up the elevator to the Supreme Court, which ruled against them a year after Corky was being transferred to a far, far better place with a GPS in his figurative pocket.

Now let’s say that Corky was crazy.

The narrative here is more compact. It starts with his tour of Vietnam and ends on the couches of his first wife, his interim girlfriend, and an empathetic shrink. That ringing in his ears? Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Those visits with the perfect, blue people? Hallucinations. All that work on the Summum hobby? Hmm. Maybe compensation for an insecurity regarding his true identity—caused, no doubt, by being shuttled from state to state and from name to name by his birth parents.

Erik Erikson would have the seen the Corky story as a treasure trove.

These explanations are speculative. They don’t always fit the contours of the case, but they come close. The psychoanalytic narrative could have some truth in it. If so, one wonders about the converts. Were they also candidates for professional help? That might be. Many a teched mortal has converted the masses to discipleship. Max Weber’s sociological theory of charisma was built to explain such phenomena.

The fraud narrative appears to neglect the fact that Corky and his entourage dedicated their lives to the Summum cause; he himself went so far as to have himself mummified. Might he have believed his own gospel, as have other recipients of angelic visits? That’s at least possible.

The sticking point of such a kind verdict, however, is threefold. First, it seems clear that Summum was designed as a moneymaker, if only for the basic needs of the organization. Second, the piece about the extraterrestrials was borrowed—okay, cribbed—from the widespread New Age cosmology. And third, Corky and his crew had fabricated in other instances. They’d plagiarized. They’d been careless about historical facts. When it came to counting their members and their accounts, they were creative.

Guilty in one, suspect in all.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The Curious Case VII


Let’s look at this curious case historically. Let’s look at three factors that helped form Corky’s life and teachings.

There is, naturally, the influence of a New Age spirituality. Its self-help prescriptions (“You too can have the wealth of the wealthy, the fame of the famous”), crystals (“What looked like a very large crystal came out of the floor and I looked into it and I saw all the things that were going to happen”), dependence on quantum theory (“Quantum physicists are now faced with the conclusion that ‘reality’ is a product of consciousness.” From SUMMUM), esotericism (“Sealed, Except to the Open Mind”), and practice of indiscriminately drawing on many of the world’s religions (“Recorded history is replete with masters, Adam, Moses, Krishna, Buddha, Christ, and Mohammed having been taught by the angelic beings”)—all these found fertile ground in Corky’s brain.

There’s also his education: construction, business, and (perhaps) philosophy, not to mention his stint as a non-pragmatic salesman. These just might have perfectly meshed with the demands of those perfect extraterrestrials.

Consider also the religion of his post-adolescence. From his mission work for the LDS, Corky would have learned how to bring in the sheaves—and learned well, if his attainment of a high place in the missionary hierarchy tells us anything. Of course, he found the abstemious Mormon life unsuited to his own juices, though he seems to have used his missionary training to his own end. Like Joseph Smith, he had dates with angels. Like Smith, too, he translated—if that’s the word—a holy book from a preexisting text. Like the Mormons, he called his sanctuary a temple, which, not by chance, he and his fellow enthusiasts built in the shadow of the Salt Lake Temple. And like them, he gave the head of his “church” the title of President.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Curious Case VI

And wouldn’t the insistent Summum Individuals have ridden their man in Utah to write his own book?

There’s more. Besides Corky’s requests for a suspension of disbelief regarding his story, there are the crimes against history.

The major crime concerns the love affair Corky and his disciples seem to have with Jesus in his Gnostic iteration. Example one. The web page “Summum and Freemasonry” contains this statement by an anonymous author: “The Seven Aphorisms . . . were also taught by Jesus . . . The aphorisms were the basis of Gnostic Christianity, and the teachings of Summum are the same as those of Gnostic Christianity.” Example two. On the page “Sexual Ecstasy from Ancient Wisdom,” we learn that Jesus Christ, in The Gospel of Thomas, said, “Anointed in the sacred wetness with the magical spell of Merh [a liquid used in massage], drinking the Nectars of Gods and giving your soul to my womb, all your fears vanish.”

The problems with the first example are that our knowledge of the historical Jesus—what he taught, who he thought he was—has been the subject of scholarly debate for centuries, even millennia, and that recent scholars can’t agree on what “Gnosticism” is. Not to speak of the fact that neither Corky nor his successors give evidence for their bold assertions.

The problem with the second example is that The Gospel of Thomas, a non-canonical compendium of the purported sayings of Jesus of uncertain date and origin, has exactly nothing to say about either Merh or the Nectars of the Gods.

There is another gaffe. Corky himself is reported to have said before his death: “All religions have founders who had revelations.”

Well, no. Many did. Some didn’t. Hinduism and Daoism come to mind.

Finally, there’s the creative mathematics. According to Blackley, Corky claimed that during the two years of his night classes at the University of Utah, almost 20,000 people became members. Assuming, generously, that this period lasted 104 weeks, counting the summers, and that the room held 240 people, this would have amounted to a conversion rate of 80 percent per session. Corky must have been a charismatic speaker indeed.

In 2002, Corky was interviewed by Patty Henetz for the Lubbock Avalanche Journal. She reported that he claimed that since 1975, 250,000 people had “received” the Summum teachings, though Summum didn’t keep membership rolls. Let’s see. In 27 years, that would be 9,260 per annum, or about 25 per diem. Of course, much depends on the meaning of the word “received.” The more important point: If there were no membership rolls, how could Corky have known the extent of his power of persuasion?

In that same interview, Corky also estimated that more than 250,000 bottles of his nectar had been given away to those who had “undergone a screening process that involves reading about Summum and learning how to meditate.” So for 23 years—from 1979, when the temple was finished, to 2002—10,870 bottles per annum, or about 30 per day, were given to those who had been screened. Giving this gift involved not only the cost and time of brewing the liquor; it required time to screen the applicants for their knowledge of Summum and their ability to meditate in the Corky way. Generosity, thy name must be Summum.

CNN, in 2009, interviewed Ron Temu, “a licensed funeral director and longtime Summum practitioner,” who reported that approximately 1,500 people had requested mummification. Yet only one, Corky himself, had been mummified. One can only wonder about the chances of this happening: out of a population of approximately 1,501, just one, and the founder at that, had become a mummy awaiting transference. Amazing.

Just like his miracles.