Saturday, March 3, 2007
Philip Rieff on charisma, culture, and prophecy.
Tomorrow's Times Book Review includes a fascinating essay about the late sociologist Philip Rieff's posthumous book on "charisma." It's the sort of essay that picks up a bunch of things I realize I've come to believe and suggests that they conflict with other things I believe, leaving me in a kind of suspense about which way I'll come down. In his review, Christopher Caldwell, a conservative whose writing I enjoy, uses Alfred North Whitehead (an intellectual hero of mine), Emile Durkheim, and good ol' Schleiermacher ("father" of liberal theology) as foils, which can't help but rub me wrong — but because it's all in the service of recasting Max Weber's theory of charisma, well, I find that I don't mind. Too much. Or, maybe, not yet.
Caldwell writes (and this is heady stuff):
For Rieff, "all high cultures . . . are cultures of the superego." A culture is a sacred "moral demand system," sharply divided along lines of faith and guilt. Faith means obedience to commandments. Guilt means transgression, not as that word is understood in graduate schools but as it is understood in the Bible — as ostracism, disgrace and death. The system is ruthless, but Rieff shows it to be more supple than it looks. This is one of the windfalls of his long apprenticeship to Freud. Faith and guilt, like yin and yang, imply their opposites. Immoral impulses are always there. "They may be checked," Rieff writes, "but they are not liquidated, they are not destroyed by these interdictory processes any more than the instincts are liquidated or destroyed by therapeutic processes." Indeed, there would be no reason to have rules — a culture — without them.
As Rieff shows in some magnificent passages of biblical exegesis, charismatics — those with charismata, or special gifts of grace — are the moralists in this system. But they do not work by bossing people around or seeking power; they work by submitting to the existing covenant in ways that provoke imitation. So, paradoxically, "renewal" movements tend to be reactionary, and even prophets are backward-looking — they are tethered to, draw their credibility from and seek to intensify previous revelation. These principles are true of Christianity as a whole, in its relation to Judaism. Pivotal here is the passage in Mark 10:17-19, where a rich man asks Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. "Thou knowest the commandments," Jesus replies.
Rieff calls this a "liberating dynamic of submission" and suggests "soul making" as a synonym for the kind of charisma he defends. The discipleship (striving toward God) that exists in a charismatic Christian community has nothing in common with the conformity (following orders) that characterizes modern mass organizations. United in their submission to the sacred, the members of a chain of belief teach through the act of keeping the commandments and learn through imitation — there is no master-slave relation. Such a sacred order is less likely to be corrupt, because it "constantly resists being made convenient for the cadres who come to administer the creed."
So much to chew on. I'll assume that Rieff is not attempting to make a historical case for his idea so much as a typological, philosophical, or psychological one. (The idea that "sacred orders" are less corrupt strikes me as historically implausible, unless there have never been high cultures that are also sacred orders.)
Among the things that intrigue me is Rieff's observation that prophets tend to be reactionary. (The covenant is already given, but the people are violating it; prophets call them back to observance.) I've always wondered how James Luther Adams, who reinterpreted the meaning of "prophet" in ways that made the term popular among progressive Unitarian Universalists, really got around this point when it comes to the biblical prophets. Sure, they called for justice, but always in terms of fidelity to the "original" revelation. He didn't deny the biblical model and its reactive criticism of the social order. As a student of Tillich, however, he took a schematic and universalized view of the covenant that inspired the prophets, and so discounted the reactionary quality of prophecy. For his part, Caldwell (and maybe Rieff, too) doesn't mention the innovative consequences that a reactionary charismatic can inspire: After all, ethical monotheism doesn't show up in the Hebrew Bible until Isaiah introduces it in the midst of calling the Israelites to repentance. The style is reactionary, and so is the substance, but the outcome is also the introduction of a new idea that was not part of the original package (at least from the perspective of textual historians).
Caldwell says that the progressive and anti-traditionalist interpretation of prophecy is rooted in Max Weber's work. He says that for Weber "charisma is a form of transgression, not of faith or discipleship" — and that this line of thought casts charismatics as rebels, not authorities. Sure, okay. But in thinking about American charismatics like Joseph Smith, I have to wonder if there's not a middle ground: Smith was unmistakably reactionary in seeking the restoration not just of the New Testament order but also the patriarchal order of the Old, and his charisma was authoritative and rule-generating. But it would be hard to say that Smith wasn't also transgressive in his time.
In casting Whitehead as a "typical" purveyor of the progressive view that charismatics are rebels, though, Caldwell overlooks several important aspects of Whitehead's thought. For one thing, Whitehead argued that social complexity — a defining characteristic of an advanced civilization — depends on the extent to which the complexity becomes habitual. A complex system works efficiently when very little of it requires conscious thought, or when much of it is habitualized. But Whitehead also understood that habits of mind, while effective for maintaining a social system, may be factually or morally wrong — and that one of the distinctive merits of modern civilization is the presence of critics, scientists, philosophers, and other analysts whose job is to reexamine those habits. Although it's true that Whitehead does highlight the socially disruptive qualities of several major milestones in "the adventure of ideas," and identified himself as a liberal, his basic vision of society tends toward the organic, coordinated, and habituated — qualities that tend to be tagged conservative. (Whitehead also took his prototypical charismatic figures from places other than the Hebrew Bible, too: Socrates and Pericles, for example.) So I guess I'd say that Caldwell/Rieff unfairly downplays the innovative and progressive capacity of charisma and overstates the extent to which a liberal like Whitehead favors transgressive charisma.
But I'm really struck by what Caldwell says about Rieff's view of charismatics: "they do not work by bossing people around or seeking power; they work by submitting to the existing covenant in ways that provoke imitation." Provoking imitation is a wonderful way of describing one of the oldest elements of Unitarian and Universalist views of Christianity. The pre-Transcendentalist American Unitarians often understood themselves as primitivists: Christians attempting to root themselves in the New Testament directly, without dependence on later creeds and church structures. They recognized the charismatic authority of the Bible and of Jesus and saw themselves as disciples. Obviously this view was overwhelmed by Emerson's insistence that ministers become "newborn bards of the spirit" and by Theodore Parker's dismissal of history, and today you'd be hard pressed to find three less popular words among UUs than "authority," "discipline," and "guilt." But one aspect of that early theological liberalism persists: our emphasis on expanding the areas of human life governed by persuasion rather than by coercion. Adams, for example, identified liberalism as opposition to "tyranny, arbitrariness, and oppression." And his model, like William Ellery Channing's or Hosea Ballou's, was persuasion and the commitment of free men and women to the Source of human freedom.
Anyway, that's a long and yet still undercooked response to a very stimulating essay.
("Falling from grace," Christopher Caldwell, New York Times Book Review 3.4.07; buy Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us by Philip Rieff from Amazon.com)
Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 3 March 2007 at 10:13 PM