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Saturday, March 3, 2007

Philip Rieff on charisma, culture, and prophecy.

'Charisma' book coverTomorrow'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

Copyright © 2007 by Philocrites | Posted 3 March 2007 at 10:13 PM

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March 4, 2007 05:52 PM | Permalink for this comment

Tzvee is skeptical of Rieff's nostalgia for sacred orders: "It takes a certain kind of romantic reading of history - like Rieff's - to find that the further we go back in time, the deeper and more meaningful life was." Amen.

Ron Robinson:

March 9, 2007 03:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

Just wanted to say thanks for the post. I think it is in line with what you were wanting to do more of with the blog, as you recently stated. It is worth the time, in case you ever get to wondering that :)....I'll file the essay away to read later, and that is good stuff.


March 12, 2007 11:42 PM | Permalink for this comment

Thanks for the thoughts, Philocrites. Yet one more book that needs to be read. Long, long ago I asked a question to which I think you may have briefly responded. I asked whether anyone thought that the prophetic and the pragmatic, both of which have deep roots in lib theology, were in any kind of significant conflict. Questioning the connection b/t the prophetic and "persuasive imitation" is, I think, another way of asking the same kind of question.


March 13, 2007 10:21 AM | Permalink for this comment

Mike, I think you're referring to this conversation, but I don't quite know how to take up the question you're asking now. (I assume you're asking about decoupling "prophetic" and "persuasive imitation," but I'm not sure.)

Rieff seems to be saying that the charisma of prophets reinvests the tradition itself with charisma: the righteousness the prophet demands isn't coercive but instead persuades people to conform themselves to the tradition. (I'd lean heavily on an idea that Rieff and Caldwell downplay: that prophets introduce innovation and even progress by recasting the tradition and introducing modified visions of righteousness. The "persuasive imitation" of their charisma calls people to live out the covenant in what may be characterized as the "old" way, but the consequences are new.)

The basic problem for Unitarian Universalism remains, though, that prophets invoke a covenant that is already given and call people to observe that covenant. Our problem is that we've grown uncertain about the reality of any such binding covenant. We find it almost unimaginable that a tradition could itself have authority. (I'd want to argue that liberalism itself is a tradition with charisma, but I've fallen under the spell of Isaiah Berlin's notion of "negative liberty" and am unsure still how to think about liberalism as an authoritative tradition -- much less how to describe its religious connections.)


March 23, 2007 07:27 PM | Permalink for this comment

Hi Philocrites,

...some meandering thoughts on my last day of spring break...

If you've had a chance to read my recent article in the Journal of Liberal Religion, you'll see that I deal very much with the types of liberty that Berlin discusses, and what I see as the problem with the negative type when it comes to being a prophetic religious movement. It's accessible through the ML website: Just click on Journal of Liberal Religion at the bottom of the main page.

Anyway, in that article, which is a more developed version of the GA talk I gave, I write about this dilemma for liberalism that we've discussed a bit: that of aiming simultaneously to be a prophetic movement for constructive change, and yet also of being anti-traditionalists or, perhaps better said, covenantal skeptics and charisma-wary.

Too many people, I think, and liberal religionists especially, conflate the notion of "tradition" with stasis or complacency, and read the idea of covenantal authority as some kind of diminishment rather than potential enlargement of agency. I think this is in part what Rieff may be responding to (based on my reading of your reading of Caldwell's reading of him) with his retrieval of the connections b/t charisma and authoritative covenantal traditions.

If this is so, then this is along the lines of Alisdair MacIntyre's thinking about traditions, in which a tradition is an argument about some particular conception of the good (and the right, the just, and/or the holy), and traditions that are alive to the world are ones that are contantly being reborn through a to-and-fro b/t history and the present. This is along the lines of what I take JLA to mean in saying: "Liberalism is dead. Long live liberalism." As I paraphrase this, JLA is describing the morphology of religious liberalism as "resurrectionist".

Insofar as pragamatic tendencies are sometims (often?) presentist, then it may become difficult for them to exert prophetic influence in the world. For the prophetic influence of a tradition, or something like Rieff's view of the call for "persuasive imitation," gathers its force not only from its applicability to a present problem, but possibly at least as much from the binding grip of its historical visioning (note: not "vision") of the good.

What I write in my article deals with some of these things in different words. I'm trying to say that the empiricist, pragamatist, and historicist commitments of liberal theology have contributed, ironically, to the diminishing cultural impact of religious liberalism...and that a reanimation of liberalism may depend not on a rejection of these commitments, but an enrichment of them. One way to go about this, as I've been suggesting, is through a recovery of theological literacy (only as a means, not an end itself). Or as you've been pushing for, and I agree with this, through a re-storying process, a narrative crystallization of a liberal religious (specifically UU) "gospel".

Hope you're well!!

We're revamping our "blog" site a bit, and will soon be posting a fine sermon from one of our students. Hope you'll check it out.



September 4, 2007 03:55 PM | Permalink for this comment

See also George Scialabba's review of Rieff's work: "The Curse of Modernity: Philip Rieff's Problem with Freedom," Boston Review (July/August 2007).

Patrick McLaughlin:

September 4, 2007 08:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

I think that part of the trick here is that prophets tend to be radical, they call people 'back' to a/the best vision or understanding of themselves--even when that never really quite existed before. Thus Isaiah's calling the Hebrews 'back' to their covenant with their 'only' god. Done well (successfully), it captures the essence of who we (whoever we happen to be) are and should be, and how we sort of understand ourselves. It creates and buffs up the mythology... moving people forward, while affirming to them that they're moving firmly back into what they were already.

The psychological comforts of conservatism with the benefits of liberalization in fact. That's harsher than is fair, but I think it captures something.


September 5, 2007 07:40 AM | Permalink for this comment

If prophecy invovlces a recommitment to the moral authority of the covenant, then to reclaim an effective prophetic voice we would probably have to take our present emphasis on the authority of unfettered personal intuition down a few pegs, and restore the historical Reformed emphasis on tradition and covenantal submission as the most reliable means of discerning truth in community. However, to do this would probably require knocking Emerson off the "prophetic" pedestal where we have placed him, and replacing him with -- whom? Hedge? Norton? (I'd go all the way back to Leyden and dust off John Robinson, but that's a whole 'nother discussion.) But that would be responding to the voice of prophecy, not delivering it. Are we ready to do that? Do we even have any prophetic volunteers willing to tell us we must?

In deference to Emerson, we would do well to remember that he himself saw his view of the supreme authority of personal discernment to be incompatible with the submission required in a gathered, covenanted community, and he resigned his pastorate in order to have the freedom to follow his muse. If we revere his prophetic voice as much as we say we do, perhaps we should pay more attention to his witness on this particular point. The Free Religious Association offers a model of a denomination that thought it could combine Emersonian moral individualism with a communal organizational structure, but its inherent internal tensions killed it.

Regardless of whether prophets have a rare gift and call for a purgative resubmission to first principles as in the Old Testament, or comprise the entire body of individual believers offering their aggregated personal testimonies as per Adams, prophets are inherently loners. Is it a fundamental error for a religious community to conceive of itself as both communal and prophetic?


September 5, 2007 10:50 AM | Permalink for this comment

Fausto, what a great question: "Is it a fundamental error for a religious community to conceive of itself as both communal and prophetic?" I don't think it's a fundamental error, but it may be hard for Unitarian Universalism.

If Adams uses seight of hand anywhere in his work, I think it's in the way he draws on the polity of the European Radical Reformation — the radical anabaptist sects — to reenergize the American Unitarian tradition. I think it's a sleight of hand because American Unitarianism emerged within an established church among highly entitled people, but by emphasizing the sectarian voluntary associations of 16th-century Europe, Adams was able to recast the liberal church as a prophetic voluntary association. His creative misreading of our own denominational roots surely helped make Unitarian Universalism more progressive. Despite his attempts to cultivate "prophetic committees," the UUA is not "prophetic" in any of the ways we've been talking about here because there is no meaningful covenant to which Unitarian Universalism recalls people.

Usually, when UUs talk about covenant, they talk only about the gathered community's covenant with each other; there's rarely a covenant invoked that encompasses the gathered community. (For the Puritans, and for the Radical Reformation, the covenant was with Christ.) During the heyday of American civic republicanism, many Unitarians and Universalists did believe in a divine covenant with America — a dangerous but very interesting development — which gave their churches a prophetic role as interpreters and proclaimers of the nation's divine mission. But that line of thought has lost much of its appeal.

I wonder if UU prophecy has largely moved off into environmental activism, with the natural world holding the covenant?

hafidha sofia:

September 5, 2007 08:02 PM | Permalink for this comment

I found this really interesting, although I looked at it more from the perspective of a former Muslim (and looking at how Muslims interpret the term "prophet"). It's a fundamental belief of Muslims that prophets were sent to guide people "back" to the path, as humans are prone to stray, forget God's message (or worse, distort it) and become lost.

Not so long ago I started hearing that one of the ministers at my congregation was a "prophetic voice" in the city community. It seems odd to my ears, but the church is very serious about this. I have to find out what they mean.


September 6, 2007 02:08 PM | Permalink for this comment

I'm currently reading Karen Armstrong's The Battle for God, in which she explores the modern fundamentalist urge in Christianity, Judaism and Islam. One of her (many!) observations is that Islam has always responded to social or ideological challenges in what she calles a "conservative" fashion, by attempting to return to an idealized past in which first principles were uncorrupted and society was soundly ordered. In contrast, beginning around 500 years ago or so, Western society, and therefore also Christianity, began to appreciate the introduction of new and unsettling propositions as potential building blocks of advancement and progress, and therefore changed from a "conservative" to a "progressive" orientation. However, in all three faiths today, she says, there is a struggle between "progressives" and "conservatives".

Sounds to me as if the Rieff idea of prophecy has more in common with the Islamic one, while the Adams idea of prophecy is more in tune with the Western notion of human cultural progress (which before Adams was codified by James Freeman Clarke as one of the "five points" of his New Theology).

Don't know which idea is closer to the way Hafidha is hearing it in an urban context.

One thing that I think may separate the Islamic idea of prophecy from the Christian one is that Christians do not necessarily insist that prophecy is sealed (although some do say it was sealed with the embodiment of the Holy Spirit in the New Testament), while Islam teaches that Mohammed was the last of the prophets. Thus it is easier (I imagine) for a Christian than a Muslim to speak of a contemporary as having a "prophetic" voice. This usually means that he voice is somehow similar to that of the prophets of old -- often, in the way it points out the disparity between current realities of society and divine ideals of justice, or as we UUs say it, "justice, equity and compassion in human relations".


September 6, 2007 02:44 PM | Permalink for this comment

Hafidha, when UUs talk about "words and deeds of prophetic women and men," they're usually drawing on an interpretation of the ethical impact of the Hebrew prophets (including Jesus) that became widespread during the heyday of the Social Gospel (roughly 1880-1930). The idea is that a prophet names the social sins (racism, for example) that violate the community's covenant and calls people to a renewed commitment to the covenant. Under this interpretation, Unitarian Universalists saw Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr as prophets.

James Luther Adams pressed UUs and others to think of the church as "the prophethood of all believers" and to take up organized group efforts to discern the demands of social justice. "Prophetic" becomes more of a synonym for "conscientious" than "divinely willed."

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