Saturday, February 21, 2009

The meaning of charisma

It is curious how religion propagates through charismatic personalities. What does that say about its truth?

The charismatic personality is something mysterious and powerful. People such as Bernie Madoff, Robert Schuller, Joan of Arc, Steve Jobs, Jesus of Nazareth, and Barak Obama project an aura of complete conviction and meaning that leads to great social power. When everyone yearns for meaning, those who seem to have it figured out and wrapped up with a bow, yours for only $99.99, are the purveyors of the ultimate product.

This came to mind while reading that the televangalism empire of Robert Schuller is falling apart amid his attempt to grant, and then revoke, succession to his son, also named Robert Schuller. Do scientists and engineers spread their "truths" by such fragile and nepotistic means, dependent on the salesmanship of motivational speaking and the intimacies of televised rhetoric? Apparently not.

Personal meaning is the currency of charisma, and speech its medium. Obama electrified the nation with his "journey" which said implicitly that we collectively might not be bad people, but good people. We might not be torturers, bigots, and killers, but a generation that heals and transcends the divides of race, terror, and culture. What that meant for each of us was powerful, and resonated increasingly the more we learned of his capacity to be the change through his own moral composure and competence.

Very well- the political system has granted us the means to re-imagine and redefine our social meanings. It is religion, however, that traffics in even more ultimate meanings, purporting to situate us in narratives of cosmic importance, artfully contrived out of the many myths and imaginings of our ancestors, refined into a supremely addictive product that, once ingested and believed, appears to be virtually impossible to kick.

Whether it is the story that we are loved unconditionally and utterly by an invisible god, (though if we do not believe we will burn in hell forever), or the story that we are on the side of good with our god Ahura Mazda in an eternal fight against evil, as proclaimed by Zarathustra, each religious construct exists to situate us as meaningful, valuable beings in what is otherwise an intrinsically meaningless universe.

What is different about these narratives, each full of meaning, yet so different in their premises and plausibility? Must personal meaning come from narratives involving supernatural beings, or can it also derive from reality-based narratives? That is the existential question, and the answer is that reality-based meanings are always relational and relative. They are situated in our historical, social and intellectual worlds, which are fluid and changing as new issues, new goals, and new forms of consciousness arise. They can never be absolute.

Religion offers absolute meaning staked on completely exterior references. That is why the supernatural is such a fixture of the religious experience. It offers a separate geography for the safe-keeping of ideals, dreams, and wishes, completely unsullied and unaccountable to the here and now. That is also why religious leaders claim their truths and guidance to be unchanging (even infallible!), even as they work tirelessly to keep up with social trends, or else give up the ghost to others that do.

The artists of religion are its charismatic preachers and especially prophets, who offer themselves as mediums of divine inspiration and fulfillment, conduits to a more perfect world. But of course that ideal world is not separate or absolute, but is entirely a matter of imagination, and some of its imagineers are more in tune with the times and persuasive than others. The competition between such imaginative visions is called theology, except when it degenerates into actual warfare, in which case it is called Jihad, or Crusade, or the thirty-years war, etc.

A similar phenomenon takes place these days on the "motivational" speaking circuit, where luminaries of rhetorical skill and celebrity draw audiences searching for meaning and fulfillment, though this time it is, as a rule, meaning in their work, and fulfillment in the form of money. The economic system relies on many jobs that are extremely hard to construe in any deeply meaningful way, yet people need to find meaning to keep their sanity. Thus the need for motivational speaking, which reframes the work of capitalism as life fulfillment, as Olympic-caliber competition, or as military valor. Inspiration comes in a kaleidoscope of heroic forms.
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These threads all come together in the work of the Reverend Dr. Creflo A. Dollar, whose Christian ministry (and "Change Experience" revivals) promise earthly prosperity and eternal happiness, all for a low contribution, since, as his scriptural motto goes: "Give, and it shall be given unto you".

Most divines naturally look down their noses at this crass mixture of the sacred and the prosperous, as if real human meaning could never be found in this world, but only in the next. In this position they may be less personally fraudulent than the Reverend Dollar, but they are still selling what has to be termed a big lie. Indeed, Christians often will argue that they recognize that their Christ story is, on the face of it, so preposterous and absurd that they would be the last to believe it, were it not that it really did happen and really is true. (Unlike all those other religions!)

Anyhow, the common denominator in these insprirational interactions is the imaginative construction and infusion of meaning into human existence- an existence that has little meaning on its own, and thus cries out for assistance, whether high or low. Assistence comes from those who have the gift to convey their own certitude and faith so well that they can sweep others up into what has been called in Steve Jobs's case, a "Reality distortion field". That was the job of the shaman, as it is of the priest and pastor today. Humans are very suggestible- a property that is essential to our sense of meaning and continuing social existence, but which is also prone to misuse by advertisers, con men, politicians, et al., when not studiously counterbalanced with skepticism.

In government, this essential skepticism has been installed by means of constitutions, separations of power, checks and balances, and party competition, so that suggestibility and mania can be slowed down by some degree of automatic critique and review.

It was the wisdom of the enlightenment to agitate for a similar check on religious zeal: the policy of dissociating it from the state. Given that religions come in all intensities and sizes, and do not necessarily have internal checks and balances, their effect on the society in general needs to be limited lest, as is so common historically, they unite with the state and its instruments of coercion to carry their zeal to all, whether voluntarily receptive or not (see Constantine, et al.).

This separation protects the society at large from religious extremes, but does little to protect those caught in the clutches of religious movements from their own suggestibility. Whether the cult is small (Scientology, CUT) or large (Christianity), human suggestibility and its allied capacities of total belief and commitment can lead to tremendous grief (as well as to tremendous happiness).

And that in the end is the meaning of charisma. Like scientific knowledge, it is a tool that can be used for good or ill. But it is in some ways far more powerful than knowledge alone, since it puts that knowledge to active use. It can unite and carry people into common projects that uplift, give meaning and improve the world, but its generated meanings can just as well be profoundly destructive, as the extreme movements of the twentieth century (Nazi-ism, Boshevism, Mao-ism) make so clear. The charismatic leader can only express and channel what his listeners are prone to hear- what is current or nascent in the zeitgeist. Thus we as individuals have a reciprocal duty to cultivate the better angels of our natures, both in our routine debates and in our responses to extraordinary leadership.

Each of us individually has a duty to recognize our susceptibility to charismatic suggestion and to bring skepticism to bear. But more deeply, we have to recognize that our own skepticism and reason is insufficient in the face of our biases, so we need to seek humility and continually listen to and face honestly what critics have to say. And we should lead our lives, defining our own meaning, rather than following the dictates of others, living or dead.

Related links:
  • Old but good book on human herd instincts, by Wilfred Trotter.
  • Topical cartoon.
  • Suicide-martydom correlates more with service attendance than with religious belief.

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