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Saturday, May 9, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Christianity Vs. New Age -- Traditional Beliefs Find Commonality At Ramtha's School

Seattle Times Religion Reporter

YELM, Thurston County - It's been said of Huston Smith that he never met a religion he didn't like.

And that was still true after the well-known Christian theologian met up with the New Age religion of Ramtha.

"I am a lover of the ancients," Smith told 500 students of spiritualist J.Z. Knight, who claims to serve as a human conduit for the lectures of Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old warrior-philosopher from the vanished ancient city of Atlantis. "For me there is more truth in the traditional world view (of the ancient religions) than in the modern world."

Smith, author of one of the most widely used texts on comparative religions and star of a discourse on faith that was televised on national education channels, is the latest of more than a dozen theologians to come to Ramtha's School of Enlightenment in Yelm to study the disembodied spirit who is said to take over Knight's body - leaving her without memory of the encounter - in order to teach the wisdom of the ages to modern students.

The school is on a 49-acre rural compound near Yelm. On the grounds are Knight's 12,800-square-foot French chateau-style home, decorated in chintz and velvet; corrals where blindfolded students practice mind-reading exercises, and a former horse barn one-fourth the size of a football field that serves as classroom and dormitory for some 500 students at a time.

Smith spoke last Wednesday to one of the largest classes of beginners in the history of the school. Students sprawled on an enormous crazy-quilt of stale sleeping bags, mussed-up pillows, canvas camp chairs and personal gear that covered nearly every square inch of the arena floor. The class (ages range from 6 up) had been lectured to all day by Knight/Ramtha and many fought to stay awake until Smith arrived.

But when the 80-year-old scholar stepped to the stage, the students gave him a screaming, whistling ovation. Kids jumped like pogo sticks to try to see over the heads of their adult classmates. Smith said he hadn't heard such a noise since he attended a Grateful Dead concert.

Such warmth between a minister of the Gospel and the devotees of a woman who claims to be inhabited by a New Age entity would have seemed impossible only a few years ago.

But times are changing.

A growing number of people, many from traditional Christian backgrounds, are exploring without guilt all manner of spiritual ideas. And Smith, a Methodist minister, is one of an increasing number of Christian theologians who are branching out, seeking to describe Jesus and God in more universal terms and looking for wisdom in all the world's religions.

Many of his own beliefs run parallel to the teachings ascribed to Ramtha, Smith told the students.

One teaching, that humans have a spark of God within them, is strongly disputed by traditional Christians. But Smith contends "it resonates with the deepest teachings of the world's religions. In Judaism human beings were created in the image of God, and Christianity picked that up." Hinduism and Buddhism have similar thoughts, he said.

"One component of all religions that I have derived the greatest joy in learning is their notion of virtues," Smith said. "They all lay before us certain virtues we should dedicate our lives to nurturing, and there is unanimity in them. They are, in Western thought, humility, charity and veracity."

Veracity, he said, is seeing the world as it is, not necessarily as we traditionally have seen it.

Humans have been in spiritual darkness for the past 300 to 400 years, Smith said - "a tunnel we were led into by science and which we are being led out of, finally, by science."

`The more ethereal it becomes'

The deeper scientists delve into matter, he said, "the more ethereal it becomes at its roots, the more spirit-like. The smaller the component of matter, the stronger the forces that hold it together."

Logic says if you could reduce matter to a mere speck, he explained, you would have infinite energy. "That, to me, is a good definition of God."

Smith, who was born in China of missionary parents, has been dabbling in a world of religions for a half century. His well-used textbook is "The World's Religions" and he studied each of the eight major faiths for years.

Newsweek magazine recently called him "a spiritual surfer," but, he said, "I think I am more like a basketball player. I keep my left foot placed firmly in the Methodist religion. But the other foot can pivot all around without detriment."

This week's new group of Ramtha students came from all over the world. Among them were an Episcopal minister who recently moved to the area, a former school principal from Oregon and a woman from London who was attending with a friend from South Africa. Many didn't want their identities publicized for fear of criticism from the folks at home. This New Age spiritualism still has skeptics, of course.

"I'm just here to take what I need and leave the rest behind," said the school principal."But it's OK. I'm enjoying it."

He came because his daughter had been after him for for 10 years, he said, ever since she enrolled with Knight and moved to the Yelm area. About 40 percent of the 3,000 students now enrolled in Ramtha's school live around Yelm and spend as much as five months of the year in seminars, weekend training sessions and retreats. According to a recent student survey, they run 30 retail businesses in the area and 86 home-based businesses.

Skeptics were very critical

Not so long ago, a Methodist minister would not have been asked to speak to Knight/Ramtha's students. When Knight first began attracting audiences in the 1970s, skeptics in the pulpits and media were highly critical.

Knight, whose eyes narrow and darken and whose voice goes gravelly as Ramtha takes over, was called a charlatan and fraud. Ramtha was labeled a figment of her imagination. The New Age message, which attempts to use quantum science to explain a spiritual universe, was - and often still is - dismissed by traditionalists as shallow.

Under criticism, Knight retreated to the compound a few years ago to devote her time to the school. Over the years she found herself embroiled in bitter court fights with her former husband, Jeff, who died of AIDS-related illness in 1994, and a European spiritualist who also claimed visits by Ramtha. An Austrian court ruled Knight had full entitlement to the use of Ramtha's name.

It was Ramtha who advised her to retreat, Knight says, and now he is urging a new openness and a new teaching style.

"Ramtha has been hinting that he's not going to be around forever," said Pavel Mikoloski, a spokesman for Knight.

So longtime students have recently been designated to help lead classes. Tapes of old Ramtha lectures are being distributed through New Age outlets for the first time. Knight recently hired Julie Blacklow, a former KIRO-TV reporter, to do a television documentary. And a new book, "Finding Enlightenment: Ramtha's School of Ancient Wisdom," has just been published.

The book was written by J. Gordon Melton, a cult expert who studied Knight/Ramtha for five years and came to the conclusion that whether Ramtha exists or not, Knight isn't faking her part. The philosophy taught at Ramtha's school, he concluded, is an emerging religion that's closely related to gnosticism, an ancient philosophy that teaches humans are divine in nature.

Knight accepted part of Melton's definition - she recently began calling the school "The American Gnostic School."

But she says what she espouses is not religion.

"I don't look at it that way," she said at an open house before Smith's student lecture. "Maybe in all students there's an emerging religion, people from all parts of the world, people learning to incorporate what they learn into their own lives. But it doesn't mean they have to leave their religion behind. . . I don't think it's about belonging. I think it's about sharing what we are here."

Sally Macdonald's phone message number is 464-2248. The e-mail address is: smac-new@seatimes.com

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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