The very old word “charisma,” which was brought back into popular use by the German sociologist Max Weber early last century, is hard to define...The New York Times March 4, 2007 Falling From Grace By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
Rieff is best known as a sympathetic critic of Freud’s work and a not-so-sympathetic historian of its cultural importance. His bleak and influential book, “The Triumph of the Therapeutic” (1966), described modern man’s search, vain in most cases, for creeds to replace the ones that psychoanalysis undermines. “Charisma,” his dense and difficult new book, performs a similar task, with sociology rather than psychoanalysis as its backdrop. Forgetting the humility associated with charisma in the New Testament, Rieff warns, has led us into “our most dangerous scientific experiment — with moral disorder.”..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.”
Weber saw the problem of charisma differently. Focusing on the early Christian church, he left religion’s claims to one side and focused, neutrally, on power relations. What he saw was, first, the charismatic moment of Jesus, and, later, the growth of a rational, legalistic church. He doubted one had much to do with the other. “Genuine charisma,” Weber wrote, “is absolutely opposed to this objectified form.” If he is right, then charisma is a form of transgression, not of faith or discipleship. For Rieff, the catastrophic consequence is that post-Weberian intellectuals look at all charisma, all prophecy, all progress, as betokening rebellion, not authority.
Typical is Alfred North Whitehead, who wrote, “The major advances in civilization are processes which all but wreck the societies in which they occur.” Or Émile Durkheim: “To dare to shake off the yoke of traditional discipline, one should not feel authority too strongly.” Rieff responds: “How stupid of Durkheim; how liberal. Both Christ and Socrates felt authority more strongly, not less; they intensified as they criticized the received renunciatory demands.”