By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Beck says she had her first brush with Cao Dai in 1993 when, with no awareness of the existence of the religion, she experienced a vision of the divine eye during meditation. Around the same time, she says, she received a flurry of spiritual messages pertaining to Victor Hugo via television and other media. "I've never had any formal education, and I have never read any of Victor Hugo's works," admits Beck, who is a nurse and a college student. "I didn't really know who he was other than he was an author. But it seemed like everywhere I looked, I would hear the name Victor Hugo. I would see and hear this name constantly, all around that period of time I had that vision. So I felt like somehow they did go together." She said she discovered the link among the divine eye and Victor Hugo and Cao Dai two years later while doing Internet research on Buddhism, when she stumbled onto Dr. Hum Duc Bui's Cao Dai Web site and asked him for help interpreting her visions.
Beck says she was smitten by the religion because of its doctrine of religious unity. "We're not just 20 different religions worshiping 20 different gods; we're 20 different religions worshiping the same God," she says. "It's all one. It's the unified field...And eventually people, more and more, are going to realize that; that it's really the center teachings--that we're all children of God--that comes through."
To bolster his argument, Lester cites statistics from the World Christian Encyclopedia, which attempts the none-to-modest quest of surveying and analyzing the religious makeup of the entire planet. Currently, states the WCE, some 10,000 distinct religions are scattered over the globe with two or three new religions cropping up every day.
Yet the WCE also lends credence to the argument that secularization has dealt serious blows to religion across the 20th century. In 1900 the WCE pegged the number of nonreligious peoples at 0.2 percent of the world's population. By 1970, that number had risen to 18.9 percent. It dropped back to 15.2 percent by 2000, thanks mostly, the editors say, to the collapse of communism in Europe.
The WCE classifies Cao Dai as a new religion, one that almost instantly caught on among the Vietnamese with ferocious enthusiasm. Formally established in South Vietnam in 1926, Cao Dai captured more adherents in its first year of existence than Catholic missionaries had managed to ensnare over the previous 300 years of proselytizing among the Vietnamese.
Cao Dai came into the world as a vision experienced by Ngo Van Chieu, a high-level bureaucrat for the French colonialists assigned to oversee Phu Quoc, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. It's hard to know precisely when Chieu experienced his vision; texts peg various dates between 1919 and 1921. But what is clear is that Chieu had a transformative vision he believed was sent by the "supreme being" (or was the supreme being), a specter of a huge eye surrounded by a bright halo.
"It was kind of a hellhole of an island," says Miguel Leatham, professor of anthropology at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. "Very tropical. Cockroach infested. Rat infested. The French used to hole up their political dissidents on this island."
Born in Idaho and educated at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, Leatham has a fetish for religious sects. For his dissertation, he spent three years living among a millenarian sect of some 5,000 peasants in Western Mexico known as Nueva Jeruselen. Founded in 1973 after a peasant named Gabina Romero beheld an apparition of the Virgin Mary, who told her the world was about to end, Nueva Jeruselen is a traditionalist catholic apocalyptic movement, one similar to Jonestown, Leatham says.
Leatham has since turned his focus on Cao Dai. Yet his attraction to Cao Dai centers more on its cartoonish aspects than its theology. He says what snared him was the great Cao Dai temple, tucked in a compound of schools, a hospital and administrative buildings known as the Holy See in the Tay Ninh province near the Cambodian border. "As soon as I saw that Tay Ninh temple I said, 'My gosh, I've got to know more about this,'" he says. "This is the most syncretic building. I wanted to find out who had done this."
The dramatic temple is an amalgam of gothic spires, a Moorish dome and an octagonal minaret. It features triple-layered roofs and cantilevered arches in a dramatic stew of pastel yellow and pink plasterwork that blends Christian cathedral, Chinese pagoda and Hindu shrine. A huge "all-seeing" eye, measuring some 9 feet in diameter, dominates the interior. Constructed in 1933, the Holy See temple has drawn equal measures of awe and ire. "This cathedral must be the most outrageously vulgar building ever to have been erected with serious intent," scribbled British travel writer Norman Lewis. In his work Reflections, famed British writer Graham Greene describes the temple as a "fantastic Technicolor cathedral," one where the interior represents the "full Asiatic splendor of a Walt Disney fantasy."