Sunday, July 31, 2005

An American Eagle soars above the Mattawamkeag River yesterday. "Mattawamkeag" is a Native word for "river of rocks."

Friday, July 29, 2005


Hands of life reach out for the unknown,
grasping, searching for what God has sown
in the way of a fate not yet shown.

Hands, vulnerable and innocent,
filled with a youth that is not yet bent
by choices that are still to be spent.

Distant horizons sparkle in the sun
as time is let loose to run
through hands struggling with deeds to be done.

Hands of hope, hands of uncertainty,
needing to learn how living can be
a way to truth and identity.

What secrets will these hands reveal
groping about, looking for the real
amidst falsehoods that events conceal?

Unseen burdens rest upon these hands …
hard-fought struggles in shifting sands
on beachheads of future, warring lands.

Whose troubled face will these hands caress?
Which mysteries will these hands address?
What weighty problems will they assess?

Hands of potential that can reach and touch
our hearts in so many ways with such
joy and pain that are, at times, too much.

For these untested hands, let us pray
that God will bless them every day
with a faith that triumphs over dismay.


Tuesday, July 26, 2005

Phenomenology of Charisma Part 3 of 3

Oakes devotes a whole chapter to the idea of the ‘charismatic moment’. This is described as an instant, or relatively brief interval of time, in which a person is willing to open up one’s heart, to lay bare one’s soul, to trust without reservation, to become totally vulnerable to another and surrender.

The charismatic moment is to experience an exhilarating, intoxicating, powerful, intense, electric blurring of boundaries between oneself and the ‘prophet/teacher/guide’ and/or the group which is led by such an individual. These moments are said to give expression to a primal, life impulse (which Weber refers to as ‘pure charisma’) that may be charged with sexual energy and are often steeped in a shroud of mystery, secrecy, tension, the unpredictable, a leap into the unknown, and an exhilarating, edgy sort of riskiness -- all of which may intensify one’s willingness to throw caution to the wind, abandon normal conventions, and become open to the moment.

According to Oakes’ the ‘charismatic prophet’ is someone who is accomplished in inducing such moments through, among other means, establishing rituals conducive to the generation of charismatic moments. Oakes believes that such rituals are one of the most creative accomplishments of a ‘charismatic prophet’.

However, Oakes also indicates (page 148) there often is a dimension of the whole process which is beyond the capacity of the ‘prophet/teacher/guide’, the group, or a follower, to control. More specifically, no one knows, for sure, whether, on any given occasion, the ‘spirit’ (or whatever it is that is transpiring at a given instant) will flow and the gathering will be anointed with the presence of a charismatic moment.

Apparently, charismatic moments do not necessarily flow through the teacher to the other participants. ‘Prophets/leaders/teachers’ cannot always produce these moments on demand. Consequently, while ‘prophets/teachers/guides’ may, or may not be, necessary conditions for the advent of a ‘charismatic moment’, they are not always sufficient conditions for such phenomena.

When reading Oakes one often is puzzled because he sometimes alternates among a variety of expressions which are not necessarily reducible to a single phenomenon. Sometimes he talks about charismatic prophets -- and, indeed, the title of his book is Prophetic Charisma -- as if they are the source of, or channel for, charisma. However, sometimes he talks about how charisma is a product of the way followers project their ultimate concerns onto a given ‘prophet/leader/guide’, and on still other occasions he talks about how charismatic prophets are very adept in creating rituals which can lead to the experience of charismatic moments and, yet, whether, or not, the spirit moves on such occasion seems to depend on something beyond what the ‘prophet/teacher/leader’ brings to the table in the way of creative rituals.

Oakes states that people who are narcissistic personalities are often perceived as individuals who project an image of unshakeable confidence and strength concerning their purpose, role, and mission in life. Oakes also describes such individuals as being perceived as courageous, even fearless, with respect to those who oppose her or him. Moreover, the capacity of many narcissists to exhibit an uncanny sensitivity to social and individual psychological dynamics lends them an aura of someone with supernatural powers. Finally, because narcissists have an inflated sense of their own self-importance, they also tend to be perceived as being positive and upbeat about life.

A narcissidividual may appear strong and self-confident because she or he cannot admit the possibility that he or she may not be whom she or he takes himself or herself to be. Such an admission is an anathema to the narcissist.

A narcissistic personality may appear courageous and fearless because, in a very real sense, their psychic survival depends on being able to oppose anything which would cast doubts upon, or bring into question, or cast aspersions and ridicule upon the narcissist’s beliefs about who she or he is and what role they play in the scheme of things. When opponents seek to put them in a corner, they often respond with the ferocity of someone fighting for survival -- a courage and fearlessness which can be camouflaged to appear as being in defense of truth and justice when it is really self-serving.

Oakes describes the charismatic prophet as someone who utilizes some of the strengths of his or her narcissistic condition to attract, influence, and manipulate seekers and followers. When people encounter someone who seems to be strong, self-confident, purposeful, committed, positive, courageous, fearless, and insightful, they may be induced to consider such individuals to be extraordinary personalities and quite different from most other individuals, and, depending on how adept the narcissist is in camouflaging the true significance and meaning of such qualities (that is, as expressions of a pathological strategy for coping in life rather than any form of spiritual accomplishment or realization), a narcissistic personality may, on the surface, seem like someone who possesses the ‘pure charisma’ which is believed to mark the ‘anointed ones’ of destiny or Divinity.

Oakes points out how the career choices of many people who go on to assume the role of a ‘prophet/leader/guide’ often have a connection to activities in which communication tends to play a central role. For example, on page 88, Oakes lists such careers as: entertainers, sales people, teachers, clergy, and counselors (especially in conjunction with alternative heath) as having prominence in the backgrounds of many of the people in his research.

People who have the gift of gab, people who are adept in the arts of social influence, people who have experience with using language skills to shape the ideas, opinions, values, and desires of other people -- all of these individuals are specialists in framing reality to serve their purposes … which need not mean that all such individuals are pursuing malevolent or exploitive purposes, but, under the right circumstances, this could be the case. Narcissists who enjoy strong skills of communication, persuasion, influence and the framing of reality tend to use such skills in manipulative, controlling, and destructive ways, but if a narcissist can succeed in inducing people to believe that something other than what is actually going on is going on, then, this can be an extremely powerful means of altering one’s sense of reality, identity, purpose, truth, meaning, right, and wrong.

Finally, if one adds to the foregoing set of qualities an element of what is referred to as love, the package can assume quite a powerful presence in the perception of a seeker. Only much later, if at all, will a seeker discover that such ‘love’ is really nothing more than a manipulative device devoid of all empathy and compassion for another and solely geared toward priming the pump of narcissistic supply which is the life blood of a narcissistic personality and which is sucked from other human beings like a vampire with an inexhaustible hunger for that which they do not have and which can only be provided by warm bodies and souls.

In the beginning, however, all of this is hidden from view. First, superficial impressions may dominate the perception of a seeker -- to the benefit of the narcissist and to the detriment of the seeker.

Presumably, it is the foregoing package of perceived qualities which helps a narcissistic personality to appear, to some, as a charismatic figure and, thereby, enable a ‘prophet/leader/guide’ to arrange for ‘charismatic moments’ which induce vulnerability, trust, surrender, and even a sense of complete abandon in some seekers/followers. The creation of such moments is part of the repertoire of tricks and stratagems the narcissist has picked up over the years to help manage his or her world in a way that permits a continuation in the flow of narcissistic supply to come her or his way as followers, caught up in the rapture, ecstasy, power, and release of such moments, shower the ‘prophet/leader/teacher’ with adulation, reverence, gratitude, and love.

The seeker/follower interprets such moments as a validation of the idea that truth and spiritual transcendence are being channeled through the ‘prophet/leader/teacher’. The ‘prophet/teacher/guide’ interprets such moments as a validation that he or she is who she or he believes himself/herself to be in the cosmic scheme of things and, therefore, that she or he has a right to the adulation and love which is being showered upon him/her.

Notwithstanding the foregoing considerations, one might still ask the question: What is the source of the charisma of a charismatic moment? Alternatively, what makes such moments charismatic?

If one defines charisma as the perceived embodiment of one’s ultimate concerns, then, seemingly, the charisma of a ‘charismatic moment’ would appear to be connected with the character of the experience which arises during that period of time. However, just because an experience is intense, powerful, inexplicable, mysterious, ineffable, emotionally moving, and ecstatic, does this necessarily make the experience a manifestation of the embodiment of one’s ultimate concerns?

LSD, nitrous oxide, Ecstasy, alcohol, sensory deprivation, marijuana, giving birth, falling in love, and holotrophic breathing can all lead to experiences which bear many of the characteristics of so-called ‘charismatic moments’. Many of the aforementioned qualities can be experienced when one looks up into the sky on a clear night sky away from the city lights, or when one sees a range of mountains, or watches ocean waves come crashing into shore, or witnesses the power of nature in the form of a tornado, hurricane, lightening, volcanic eruption, or earthquake. The right musical, artistic, cinematic, literary settings or performances (artistic, athletic, political, and so on) have the capacity to induce many of these same kinds of experiential qualities.

Charismatic moments can be manufactured or naturally occurring. These kinds of experience may, or may not, be about ultimate concerns, but, nonetheless, they have the capacity to move us in fundamental ways – often in ways about which we may become uncertain or confused as to exactly why we may feel moved or affected in the way we are.

On several occasions, Oakes refers to the work of Charles Lindholm in relation to the phenomenon of charisma. According to Lindholm, the primary, but hidden, purpose of a charismatic group is not necessarily to help people to discover their essential spiritual identity or to realize ultimate spiritual concerns but, rather, to experience itself again and again as a certain kind of collective. Charismatic moments give expression to these kinds of experience.

In many ways, if the goal of a collection of people is to experience itself not just as a group but as a group which journeys through, or is opened up to, or is, to varying degrees, seeking to be immersed in intense, powerful, moving, primal, mysterious, emotional, joyous, ecstatic experiences, then, the phenomenon of charisma -- whether manufactured, illusory, delusional, or real -- becomes the raison d'etre underlying the structure, dynamics, and activities of the people in this sort of group. As such, certain kinds of experience become ends in themselves, rather than a possible means for struggling toward a spiritual understanding, knowledge, and insight concerning truths and realities which may transcend those experiences.

In such a context, ‘charismatic prophets’ are those individuals who serve as facilitators for arranging, manufacturing, and moving people in the direction of experiencing (or believing they are experiencing) charismatic moments. If this sort of facilitator is a narcissistic personality, then, the idea of a charismatic moment becomes the bait which is used to lure people to help the ‘prophet/leader/teacher’ catch what is necessary for his or her own charismatic moments … namely, to feed off the souls of the people who wander into the vampire’s lair. If the aforementioned facilitator is not a narcissistic personality, then, one has to carefully study the dynamics and structure of the group with which such a facilitator is affiliated in order to determine whether the group has any constructive, spiritual purpose other than as a venue for generating certain kinds of experiences.

People who troll the waters of life seeking charismatic moments need to understand that there are other beings who are also trolling the waters of life, and these latter beings are trolling such waters in search of people who are trolling the waters seeking charismatic moments. If one is only seeking certain kinds of experiences -- described as charismatic, trans-personal, mystical, or altered states of consciousness -- and if one is not interested in gaining knowledge, understanding, and insight in order to become better people with respect to developing and bringing into harmonious balance such character qualities as: patience, kindness, compassion, honesty, tolerance, love, forgiveness, fairness, generosity, integrity, nobility, peacefulness, altruism, modesty, and moral courage, then, one is a very good candidate for winding up on a milk carton as a soul who has become lost or missing somewhere along the way.

Elsewhere in this book (e.g., see the chapter entitled: ‘A Fate Worse Than Death), considerable time was spent describing some of the phenomenological boundary dynamics entailed by spiritual abuse and why disengaging from spiritual abuse, even when one may be aware that spiritual abuse is going on, can be very difficult to do. In addition, something also has been said within this book about how powerfully addictive certain kinds of operant conditioning learning schedules are which exhibit what are referred to as intermittent, variable-interval reinforcement properties.

Charismatic moments naturally lend themselves to becoming part of an intermittent, variable-interval reinforcement learning schedule in which the learned behaviors connected to seeking additional exposures to such moments can be very hard to extinguish once this sort of seeking behavior is set in motion. Once a person has had the experience of some sort of charismatic moment, this moment can be the point out of which emotional and psychological addiction arises.

In a sense, a narcissistic personality who is playing the role of a ‘charismatic prophet’ is pushing the charismatic moment like someone would push cocaine, heroin, or Ecstasy. The narcissistic personality is someone who, himself or herself, is addicted to a different drug -- namely, the narcissistic supply of adulation and surrender coming from others -- and uses this addiction to justify her or his efforts to make charismatic junkies of other human beings in order to preserve his or her own access to a constant source of narcissistic supply.

Irrespective of what one may believe about the existence of God or transcendent, spiritual truths, or the realization of essential identity and potential, a spiritual narcissist knows there are millions of people who believe in such things, each in their own way. This is the belief, this is the holy longing, to which a narcissistic, charismatic ‘prophet/leader/guide’ seeks to appeal and, subsequently, exploit or manipulate in the service of his or her pathology.

There is one other entry point to the issue of charisma which Oakes explores in an attempt to provide understanding with respect to the phenomenon of charisma. This additional avenue involves the work of Max Weber.

Although Oakes introduces his readers to the ideas of Weber fairly early in his book on Prophetic Charisma, I have left these ideas for the last part of the present article. I have done for a number of reasons but, perhaps, the primary one being that what Weber has to say dovetails with the way in which I wish to finish the discussion.

Oakes notes that Weber is the individual who is responsible for many of our modern ideas about the phenomenon of charisma. Weber describes charisma as a particular dimension of the personality of certain, special people which engenders in others a sense of feeling that the latter are in the presence of someone who is extraordinary, or someone who possesses supernatural capabilities, or someone who has some sort of close proximity and elevated status in relation to Divinity.

Weber indicates that charisma may be felt and manifested in non-religious contexts, but, nonetheless, he maintains that charisma is largely a religious or spiritual phenomenon. Furthermore, even though Weber was an advocate for seeking and providing social (rather than, say, psychological) explanations concerning the causes of a variety of individual and cultural dynamics, he also was of the opinion that ideas were capable of altering society and individuals in ways that could not be reduced down to purely social factors … this was especially the case in conjunction with religious ideas.

According to Weber, the phenomenon of charisma gives expression to a continuum of possibilities. These range from: something that Weber referred to as ‘pure charisma’, to: relatively mechanical and derivative elements of charisma.

Weber considered instances of ‘pure charisma’ to be very rare and may only have been present during the very early, originating/creative stages in the formation of a group or movement when people first began to gather around a charismatic leader/personality. For Weber, the more routine manifestations of charisma usually arose after the founding force had passed away and/or when the original charisma had become diluted as that force is dispersed among secondary leaders and communities rather than being focused in one individual or the original group of followers.

On the one hand, Weber seems to believe that charisma was an expression of a fundamental, elemental, primitive life force. Yet, at the same time, Weber also appears to indicate that the source of charisma’s capacity to influence resides as much in the power which followers cede to a leader as it does in the qualities of charisma independent of such followers.

While it may be possible for a group of people to create the illusion of charisma being present in a given person when such is not the case (e.g., the manufactured charisma of celebrity status), nevertheless, presumably, there is a certain ‘something’ present in an individual which has the capacity to attract people and become inclined to place trust in that individual or to surrender, to varying degrees, to that individual. So, without wishing to dismiss the idea of manufactured charisma, Weber would seem to have something more in mind when he talks about ‘pure charisma’ -- ‘something’ which exists prior to, and independently of, group dynamics.

Somewhere between pure charisma and routine charisma lay several possibilities which Weber refers to, respectively, as ‘magical’ and ‘prophetic’ charisma. Magical charisma is said to be characteristic of shamans who use charisma to, on the one hand, introduce people to the realm of ecstasy, while, on the other hand, helping to maintain the basic structure of simple or primitive groups, communities, or society. As such, magical charisma is largely a conservative, stabilizing force.

Prophetic charisma is described by Weber as characteristic of more complex communities or societies. Such charisma supposedly is given expression through individuals who announce the sort of mission (often religious, but it could be political in nature) which is intended to lead to social change, if not revolution.

Through a charismatic force of personality, and/or through the performance of miracles and wondrous deeds, and/or through a capacity to induce intense, passionate, and ecstatic experiences in others, a person who possesses prophetic charisma is capable of affecting other human beings in ways which run very deep emotionally, psychologically, physically, spiritually, and socially.

According to Weber, some charismatic personalities use charisma to assist others to become explorers of ecstatic mysteries. Some charismatic personalities, referred to as ‘ethical prophets’, use charisma as an ethical instrument intended to lead people in the direction of developing a life devoid of aggression, hatred, anger, fear, and violence by inducing states of euphoria, enlightenment, as well as what would now be termed ‘born again’ conversion experiences. Still other charismatic personalities seek to arouse, shape, and channel the passions of people to serve, whether for good or evil, various political, financial, and social ends.

Weber believes that the experience of intense, euphoric, passionate, ecstatic states comes about when charisma is used to put an individual in touch with his or her own inner psychological/emotional primeval, instinctual depths which enables an individual to break away from, or become released from, the inhibiting forces of convention and repression which normally hold people in place within a given society. As such, Weber maintains that charisma is a life force that is inherently antagonistic to the forces of inhibition, constraint, convention, and conservation which normally modulate the dynamics of social interaction. For Weber, the natural inclination of charisma is to seek to overthrow, transform, or cast off all external values of conventional society as it initiates individuals into that which is located beyond the horizons of traditional social structure … something so ‘other’ that it is viewed as belonging to a divine realm that transcends normal society and conventions.

Weber considered charisma to be too irrational, unpredictable, unwieldy -- and, therefore, dangerous -- to be tamed and controlled in any responsible manner. Although he believed that charisma could serve as the creative spark which ignited the fires of social progress, he also was of the opinion that limiting the influence of charisma -- at least in any ‘pure’ sense -- to the early period of originating or creating would be the prudent thing to do.

The Qur’an speaks about ‘alastu bi rabikum’ – the time when, prior to being brought into this plane of existence, God gathered the spirits together and asked them: “Am I not your Lord?” Anything which resonates with that experience has a quality of jazb about it -- a euphoric, ecstatic condition as one is drawn back toward that moment, or as one is drawn toward a state which resonates, in some way, with that original, primal time of an aware, felt, intimate, loving, direct connection with the Divine presence.

Authentic Prophets do not call us back to some biological state of the womb in which one, allegedly, felt one with the universe, nor do authentic Prophets call us back to some mythical state in which all boundaries between the mother and the self were dissolved so that the mother and the individual were felt to be as one, nor do authentic Prophets call us back to a condition of primary narcissism when, supposedly, we feel ourselves to be omnipotent, sacred, god-like creatures around which the universe rotates and in whose service the universe has come into existence, nor do authentic Prophets call us back to some instinctual, primeval, emotional depths that is seeking to release from the conventions and values of society.

Authentic Prophets call us to seek the truth concerning the purpose, meaning, possibilities, dangers, and nature of existence. Authentic Prophets call us to inquire into our essential identities and potentials. Prophets call us to honor the rights of all aspects of creation, as well as to learn how to engage life through justice, integrity, gratitude, love, sincerity, courage, compassion, sacrifice, kindness, honesty, patience, and humility. Authentic Prophets call us to discover the true nature of our relationship with all of Being and to go in search of the essential meaning of worship.

Authentic Prophets are the individuals chosen by Divinity who are provided with a charismatic authoritativeness (said by traditions to consist of 47 different parts, one of which concerns the ability to provide correct interpretation of dreams) as a Divine gift to enable such individuals to carry out their mission, as best individual capacity and God permit, to call people back on a journey of return to their spiritual origins, nature, identity, purpose, potential, and destiny. In such individuals, charisma is the felt manifestation of the presence of this Divine gift. In such individuals, charisma is a reflection of the Realities being expressed through ‘alastu bi rabikum’: “Am I not your Lord?” because no one else other than God has provided the gift of charisma which marks this point of resonance with the Divine Presence.

If one accepts the principle that there is no reality but Divinity, then, the passion play of Divine Names and Attributes forms the woof, warp, and fabric through which the tapestry of creation and every modality of manifestation is woven. Everything to which we are attracted bears, to one degree or another, the imprint of the underlying Reality.

There are many kinds of charisma. There is a form of charisma associated with every manner in which Divinity discloses something of the Divine Presence. Natural wonders the mysterious, incredible athletic performances, great musical or artistic talent, literary masterpieces, extraordinary heroic deeds, works of great intelligence or profound inventiveness and creativity … all of these attract according to the degree that they give manifestation to the charisma inherent in the Divine Presence which is peeking through the veils of Creation.

Power carries an aura of charisma because none other than God’s will permits, for Divine purposes, someone to ascend the throne of power. Even Satanic power and capabilities may have a quality of charisma to them because such powers and capabilities are exercised only by God’s leave and to serve, in a way that God understands but Satanic forces do not, Divine purposes.

The natural inclination inherent in the pure charisma which is given expression through the lives of authentic Prophets is constructive, not destructive … it is benevolent, not malevolent … it is peaceful, not aggressive and hostile … it is committed to the distribution of fairness, justice, and the honoring of the rights of all facets of Creation, rather than given to the generation of upheaval, discord, and rebellion … it is oriented toward the acquisition of essential knowledge, wisdom and understanding through which the constructive potential of life, both individually and collectively, can be released and set free, rather than being oriented toward primitive forms of physical and emotional release associated with the individual desires, whims, and wishes of the nafs or carnal soul.

If God wishes, authentic Prophetic charisma offers spiritual nourishment to both individuals and communities. God willing, people become strengthened and constructively energized through the presence of authentic Prophetic charisma.

The desire to be in the presence of authentic Prophetic charisma is part of the holy longing which seeks to feel re-connected, in an intimate way, with the Divine … to be returned to the sacredness of the occasion of ‘alastu bi rabikum’. Authentic Prophetic charisma is the catalyst provided by Divinity that is intended to help facilitate such a connection and return.

It is unfortunate that Oakes has used the term ‘prophetic charisma’ to refer primarily to pathological attempts to counterfeit authentic expressions of ‘prophetic charisma’. This has happened, I believe, because the sample which Oakes used to develop his notion of a prophet was problematic and skewed in certain, pathological directions.

The ‘package’ of qualities which is manifested through narcissistic personalities attempting to convince others (and themselves) that they possess the charisma of an authentic Prophet is but a counterfeit of the qualities which are in evidence in an authentic Prophet. This package is an illusory/delusional framework which is intended to create an impression that qualities like: confidence, purpose, strength, courage, fearlessness, meaning, identity, love, social insight, creativity, powers of communication, persuasiveness, transformation, and transcendent experiences of spiritual ecstasy are present in an authentic, sacred way when such is not the case.

Quite frequently, when people encounter spiritual abuse, this experience tends to destroy a person’s faith and capacity to trust. Once one has felt betrayed in an essential way – which is at the heart of all forms of spiritual abuse -- regaining a sincere desire to continue on one’s quest to realize one’s holy longing is very difficult to do.

A mistake which many people make who write about spiritual abuse is to approach the issue from an excessively rational, philosophical, and psychological perspective … one which seems to tend to preclude the possibility that the phenomenon of Prophetic charisma as a expression of the Presence of Divinity in our midst, -- calling us back to a journey of return to our spiritual potential and essential identities -- is not a myth, fantasy, delusion, or mere belief.
Although I believe that Oakes’ work on ‘Prophetic Charisma’ contains much that is interesting, insightful, and useful, I also feel that, ultimately, his study fails to place the phenomenon of charisma in a proper spiritual perspective. One of the reasons why narcissistic personalities can fool people -- and some narcissists are much better at this than are others -- is because individuals in the throes of narcissistic personality disorder are able to turn people’s natural vulnerabilities concerning issues of holy longing against them.

In other words, even when someone seeks the sacred out of a sincere desire for the truth and not out of the ‘extraordinary needs’ of, say, unresolved, developmental issues involving the alleged infantile stage of primary narcissism, nonetheless, such an individual doesn’t really know precisely what they are longing for. There are many kinds of experiences and circumstances which can resonate with the condition of ‘alasti bi rabikum (Am I not your Lord)? in a misleading manner.

A narcissistic personality who is trying to pass herself or himself off as a charismatic prophet/leader/teacher knows that seekers don’t know -- that is why the latter group of people are seeking answers from others about how to satisfy their sense of holy longing … because they don’t know how to do this on their own. Even with sincere people, what they don’t know constitutes a source of vulnerability through which such sincerity can be misinformed, led astray, corrupted, or entangled in a variety of ways.

Narcissistic personalities are often masters at re-framing experience to make it appear to be other than what it is. Satan is the prototypic role model for such a narcissistic personality disorder.

At one point, Oakes mentions that in The Heart of Darkness Joseph Conrad, through the character Marlow, suggests that a “fool is always safe”. In other words, an individual who doesn’t care about the holy longing within, who is not sincere about matters of essential importance to existence, will rarely be fooled by those who -- through manufactured or natural charisma of one kind or another -- seek to use the attractiveness of such charisma to mislead people into supposing that something essentially substantial is being offered when such is not the case. Fools are always safe from being misled in this manner because they have no interest in, and feel no attraction for, things that actually matter.

Intelligent, sincere, decent people are vulnerable to the presence of counterfeit spiritual charisma. Mistakes of judgment concerning whether, or not, some individual is capable of helping one fulfill one’s holy longing are relatively easy to make, and, unfortunately, once made, not all of these mistakes admit to easy solutions.

Short of God’s Grace, there is no fool-proof way to identify or avoid narcissistic personalities who seek to prey on holy longing. However, one point that may well be worth reflecting on in this respect is the following: Any use of charisma which invites one to abandon basic principles of decency, kindness, honesty, integrity, compassion, generosity, fairness, modesty, humility, patience, tolerance, forgiveness, peacefulness, and love toward one’s family or other human beings, irrespective of their beliefs, should be considered to be a tell-tale sign that spiritual abuse is being perpetrated. This is so no matter how euphoric and ecstatic various ‘charismatic moments’ may be which are associated with such a use of charisma.

There is a fundamental problem with any use of charisma that does not assist one to become a better human being, with a more fully developed and realized moral character which is encouraged to be actively practiced and not just thought about as an abstract ideal. However, sometimes -- depending on the forces at play in a given set of circumstances and depending on the skills of the narcissistic perpetrator who is busy weaving a tapestry of illusions, delusions, and manipulative deceit -- discovering that such a problem exists can be a long difficult process, and, furthermore, disengaging from such circumstances once this problem has been discovered is not an easy, painless, straightforward thing to accomplish … indeed, sometimes long after one has left a narcissistic personality who has been posing as a charismatic prophet remnants of the toxicity continue to flow through one’s system … not because one wishes this to be the case but because this is often part and parcel of the destructive, insidious nature of the ramifications ensuing from spiritual abuse

Anab Whitehouse

Monday, July 25, 2005

The Bridge to Understanding Charisma

The Phenomenology of Charisma - Part 2 of 3


Oakes maintains (page 188) that a charismatic relationship begins with a seeker’s surrender and trust. According to Oakes, only later does the seeker begin to project her or his own ultimate concerns onto the ‘prophet’ and through this projection become ‘fused’ with the person of the ‘prophet’ to such a degree that the ‘seeker’ interacts with the ‘prophet’ as if he or she were an expression of one’s own inner, deeper, more essential ‘self’.

If so, this leaves unanswered the question of why someone would trust or surrender to another individual without some sort of substantial motivation for doing so? Apparently, Oakes seems to be saying that trust and surrender arise prior to, and independently of, the establishing of a charismatic relationship which, according to Oakes, revolves around the dynamics of ‘extraordinary needs’, ‘ultimate concerns’, and the perceived embodiment of these qualities in the person of the ‘prophet’ -- something which Oakes claims happens later in the relationship and, therefore, does not appear to be the initial reason why someone trusts and surrenders to the ‘prophet’.

According to Oakes, charisma spiritualizes a relationship. Yet, somehow, trust and surrender -- which, presumably, are essential to any sort of spiritual relationship -- take place, on Oakes’ account, before the main component of a charismatic relationship -- namely, the perceived presence of the embodiment of ultimate concerns -- is established.

The foregoing sequence of events appears somewhat counter-intuitive. A more likely explanation would seem to involve the possibility that the felt or perceived presence of charisma is what helps induce someone to trust and surrender to a ‘prophet’, and, if this is the case, then, Oakes may be mistaken about when the projection of ultimate concerns on to a ‘prophet’ takes place.

Furthermore, one wonders if it is so much a matter of a ‘seeker’s’ projection of ultimate concerns onto the ‘prophet’, as it may be a matter of such ultimate concerns actually being reflected in, or resonating with, some, or all, of the words and behaviors of the ‘prophet’. In other words, is one to suppose that the perception of the embodiment of ultimate concerns in another human being is merely a delusion in which nothing of those ultimate concerns actually is present in what a ‘prophet’ says and does, or should one assume that, to varying degrees, something of a substantive nature concerning such ultimate concerns is actually touched upon by the teachings and actions of the ‘prophet’?

To be sure, a seeker could be mistaken. For example, a seeker might believe that something of his or her ultimate concerns was present in what the ‘prophet’s said and did, only to discover, subsequently, that such was not the case or that whatever was present was being expressed in a fraudulent and manipulative manner. Or, a seeker initially might believe that a given ‘prophet’ could serve as a venue through which the seeker’s extraordinary needs and ultimate concerns could be realized, only to, later on, come to the conclusion, rightly or wrongly, that the ‘prophet’ could not actually assist one to fulfill one’s extraordinary needs or ultimate concerns. Alternatively, a seeker’s first, cursory impression of a ‘prophet’ may have led the seeker to believe that the prophet and she or he shared a set of common concerns, values, and the like, only to realize, upon closer inspection, that the two, despite initial impressions, really aren’t on the same page with respect to a variety of issues, concerns, goals, and values.

However, such mistakes are not necessarily delusional in character. They are beliefs that come to be, hopefully, constructively modified in the light of subsequent experience … something -- that is, constructive modification -- to which delusions are inherently resistant.

As such, it is not ultimate concerns, per se, that are being projected onto the ‘prophet’. Instead, what is being projected is a hope concerning the potential value of what may ensue in relation to one’s ultimate concerns by linking up with someone claiming to be a ‘prophet’.

Trust and surrender are offered in exchange for a promissory note, of sorts, about future considerations in conjunction with the fulfillment of extraordinary needs and ultimate concerns. The felt presence of charisma is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as an indicator that someone -- namely, a ‘prophet’ -- can satisfy the conditions of that promissory note. The felt presence of charisma, justifiably or unjustifiably, tends to create certain kinds of expectations concerning the fulfillment of ultimate concerns and extraordinary needs in the future.

Notwithstanding the foregoing considerations, one still is unclear about what charisma is or how its perceived presence has the capacity to induce or inspire trust, surrender, and expectations concerning one’s ultimate concerns and extraordinary needs. One has a sense that, somehow, the perceived presence of charisma might have a ‘spiritualizing effect in as much as trust and surrender, which are important components of spirituality, might be engendered, somehow, through the presence of something called ‘charisma’, and, yet, the manner in which this takes place -- the dynamics of the spiritualizing process -- remains elusive and puzzling.

Oakes believes that the secret of charisma lies in a narcissistic dimension of human development. More specifically, he believes that the alleged ‘extraordinary needs’ of both a ‘prophet’ and a seeker are entangled in the agenda of a ‘nuclear self’ which forms under certain conditions that, according to Oakes, are conducive to the emergence of narcissistic personality disorder in, at the very least, ‘a charismatic prophet’.

Although at one point in his discussion of the phenomenon of narcissistic development Oakes voices a cautionary note concerning the question of how well can we know the mind and inner life of another human being, nevertheless, he soon leaves such caution behind when delineating Kohut’s theory of narcissism and seeking to link that theory to the idea of charisma. Of course, generally speaking, it is often part and parcel of theoretical work to take some risks while venturing into uncharted conceptual territory, but some risks may be more viable than others.

Heinz Kohut developed his theory of narcissism while treating patients with narcissistic personality disorder. He sought to explain the origins of this disorder.

The patients being treated by Kohut tended to possess a grandiose sense of self-confidence, untouched by any sort of self-doubt. They often were very perceptive about people and social dynamics (sometimes uncannily so), could be quite persuasive, but also were given to blaming and accusing others of various failings and short-comings.

Such patients frequently were inclined toward exhibitionism and were given to voicing unrealistic, naïve fantasies concerning themselves and their place in the scheme of things. In addition, these individuals tended to demonstrate little evidence of possessing a conscience or experiencing any sort of guilt when involved in wrong doing. Moreover, their relationships with others usually were marked by an almost complete absence of empathy for people and, as well, appeared to be imbued with a belief that other people existed to serve the needs of the narcissist.

According to Freud, all of us go through a period of primary narcissism during infancy when we believe that everything not only revolves around us but that the world is, in a sense, a creation of our own. Furthermore, this period of narcissism is said to be characterized by a child’s sense of oneness with the world -- meaning the mothering one -- which is posited to be a continuation of one’s life in the womb when, supposedly, the boundaries between mother and child are completely dissolved.

During this period of felt-oneness, the child is said to bask in the nurturing glow of exaltation transmitted through the mother’s gaze and treatment of the child. Through this sort of adoring interaction, the child feels worshipped and develops a sense of uninhibited, grandiose omnipotence which permeates the mind-set of the infant.

In the course of normal development, Freud indicates that primary narcissism becomes significantly attenuated and modulated as experience introduces a child to the pain of feeling alone in a world that, in many ways, appears indifferent to the desires of the child.
Feelings of omnipotence are ravaged by the onslaught of a sense of helplessness.

With the waning of primary narcissism, the child no longer believes herself or himself to be the center of the universe. A Copernican-like revolution has shaken the foundations of the child’s previously Ptolemaic existence.

The idea of ‘primary narcissism’ is a theoretical construct. Whether a fetus or an infant ever has a sense of oneness with the mother, or whether an infant ever operates out of a framework which is permeated with feelings of omnipotence and grandiosity, or whether an infant ever operates under the illusion/delusion that she or he is the creative and causal force behind the happenings of the universe, or whether the infant ever has a sense of being worshipped like a ‘god’, or whether an infant ever has the sense that he or she shares a state of perfection with a ‘saintly’ mothering one – all of these are highly contentious, largely speculative considerations.

Instead, one might entertain the possibility that any deeply developed notion of primary narcissism in the Freudian sense might have a very difficult time becoming established in amidst the realities of this world. After all, almost from the first spank on the bottom which introduces us to this plane of existence, there is a great deal of human experience indicating: that we are not omnipotent; that however intimate one’s relationship with the mothering one may be, there is felt separation in the sense that there are very real differences between how the mothering one behaves and how we might wish the mothering one to behave; that we cannot always make the nipple appear upon demand; that the discomfort of wet diapers or a colic-ridden system do not always disappear with the mere wish for this to be so; that we are not in control of how hot or cold we feel; that the ravages of colds, fevers and illness descend upon us without our permission; that we might have difficulty in believing that one rules over the universe when we can’t even get our hands and fingers to go where we would like or accomplish what we would like.

The bundle of desires, wishes, and motivations which collectively are referred to by the term “nafs” is a very different entity than the idea of primary narcissism. There is a considerable amount of metaphysical theory (e.g., oneness, omnipotence, and grandiosity, being worshipped, shared state of perfection), infusing the concept of primary narcissism which is absent from the notion of nafs that simply posits, based on observation and experience, that there are wishes, desires, thoughts, and motivations within us seeking expression and which tend to generate a sense of frustration or anger when the sought-for realizations are blocked, thwarted, or ignored in various ways.

Leaving aside such considerations for the moment, let’s return to Kohut’s theory of narcissism. According to Kohut, the mothering one filters the tendency of the world to intrude into the life of an infant, and, as a result, the mothering one has a role to play in helping to gradually initiate an infant into the realities of the world and away from the influence of the condition of primary narcissism.

Sometimes, however, something happens and the filtering process breaks down. There is some sort of traumatic tear in the process and, in one way or another, the child is deprived not only of the filtering assistance afforded by the mothering one but, as well, the child loses the process of gradual initiation into the realities of the world – realties which undermine and attack the child’s sense of primary narcissism.

As a result, Kohut believes that some children, when faced with such a traumatic situation, seek to assume the responsibility of managing the filtering/initiation process by using the condition of primary narcissism as a coping strategy to try to filter and fend off the demands of the world. In such individuals, rather than the condition of primary narcissism becoming attenuated and modulated over time, this condition becomes strengthened and comes to dominant many aspects of that person’s way of interacting with the world.

Although those individuals who become inclined to filer reality through the colored lenses of primary narcissism do learn, through trial and error and sometimes with great difficulty, how the world operates and how to negotiate many different kinds of problematic encounters with the world in a way that will help to avoid punishment while garnering various worlds, nonetheless, Kohut believes that, for the most part, such people are ensconced in a paradigm of reality which is self-serving, largely – if not completely -- devoid of empathy for others, lacking in conscience, steeped in a sense of grandiosity concerning oneself, constantly seeking feedback from others which validates that sense of grandiosity, and are often skilled in insightful social observation as well as the art of persuading and/or manipulating others to become tools for the acquisition of whatever is desired or sought – especially positive feedback concerning one’s fantasies and delusions about grandiosity (this is often referred to as ‘narcissistic supply’).

Anyone who opposes, seeks to constrain, or interfere with the paradigm of primary narcissism through which the world is perceived and engaged by someone in the throes of narcissistic personality disorder is likely to become the focal object of what Kohut refers to as ‘narcissistic rage’. Such interlopers are resented, resisted, and riled against -- either openly and/or through various forms of indirect stratagems in which people become pawns to be used, and if necessary sacrificed, to check the perceived antagonist.

Kohut distinguishes between messianic personalities and charismatic personalities (rather than ‘leaders’ or prophets’) within the foregoing context of primary narcissism gone awry. The messianic personality is someone who projects a sense of grandiosity outward in the form of an ‘object’ and identifies this externalized, “idealized superego”, or ‘self’, as God who is to be served, worshipped and from whom revelation/guidance is received. The charismatic personality, on the other hand, is someone who internalizes the sense of grandiosity and equates one’s own being with an idealized sense of the omnipotent ‘self’ or Godhead which is to serve as an example for others.

Kohut believes that a messianic personality is pulled by externalized ideals and the challenge of trying to emulate and live up to those ideals. A charismatic personality, however, is driven by ambitions revolving about her or his need for self-aggrandizement, together with a validation of that sense of grandiosity through the recognition and acknowledgment of others.

Following up on an idea of Kohut’s, Oakes advances the theoretical possibility that ‘seekers’ may hook up with ‘prophets’ in ways which are mutually accommodating. In other words, individuals who have had their own problems negotiating the transition from primary narcissism to a more ‘realistic’ way of understanding that the world does not revolve around one’s existence, may have ‘extraordinary needs’ which a messianic or charismatic prophet is perceived to be able to address and/or resolve. By helping a messianic or charismatic prophet to validate his or her sense of reality through the act of following such an individual, a seeker hopes to receive, in return, what may be needed in the way of the satisfaction of the seeker’s ultimate concerns that will permit that individual to be happy, transformed, content, at peace, in harmony with one self or the world, or whatever else may be the thrust of the ultimate concerns and ‘extraordinary needs’ of a psychological/emotional nature inherent in the seeker.

Presumably, those individuals who identified with, or felt resonance in, the coping strategy adopted by a messianic personality, prophet or leader, would gravitate toward, or be attracted by, or feel at home in circumstances where the ‘idealized superego’ had been projected outward and could be sought in the external world as an ‘object’ of some kind through which one’s world could be ordered, guided, and ethically oriented. On the other hand, those individuals who identified or found resonance with the coping strategy developed by a charismatic personality, prophet or leader, might be inclined toward, attracted by, or feel comfortable in an environment where the ‘grandiose self’ was sought within and, if located, could lead to a sense of omnipotence, freedom, and primal release.

Although there is a certain degree of coherence and consistency to the foregoing theoretical framework and without wishing to argue that there is no one (either among ‘prophets’ or followers) who operates in accordance with such psychological dynamics, nonetheless, there are a great many reservations one might have concerning such a theory. For instance, to assume that all people externalize an ‘idealized superego’ or identify with an internalized ‘grandiose self’ may be a way of accounting for the observed behavior of some individuals, but such an assumption also tends to prevent one from considering the possibility that truth and reality are not necessarily a function of what we project, create, or identify with but may exist quite independently of what we think, feel, and believe.

Not every search for the truth is necessarily a reflection of unresolved issues of primary narcissism. Not every issue of ethics or morality necessarily reduces down to what we seek to impose on reality or what we internalize in the way of parental values. Not every search for identity is necessarily a function of the nuclear self’s agenda which, according to Kohut and Oakes, precipitates out of the transition from primary narcissism to more mature modes of interaction. Not every search for wisdom is necessarily a reflection of the development of coping strategies for psychic survival. Not every search for justice is necessarily a reflection of one’s likes and dislikes. Not every search for guidance is necessarily an exercise in finding a match between a ‘prophet’s’ psychological profile and one’s own psychological needs. Not every ‘prophet’ is necessarily a product of the psychodynamics of everyday life. Not every thought of awe or omnipotence is necessarily either self-referential or a matter of what one projects onto the universe. Not every experience of love is necessarily a mirrored reflection of the presence of narcissism. Not all dissatisfactions concerning the limitations, problems, and lacuna of psychoanalytical thought are necessarily evidence that denial and other defense mechanisms are at work to save us from the painful realization of repressed wishes, fantasies, impulses, and thoughts.

What is the truth concerning such matters? Whatever they may be, one shouldn’t start out by, in various ways, pre-judging the matter.

One cannot claim to be objective while being predisposed to restrict one’s investigation to purely psychological principles in relation to some phenomenon without examining the possible merits of metaphysical or trans-personal explanations with respect to that same issue. One cannot claim to be value-neutral while ignoring possible data, experience, and phenomena which are not necessarily consistent with one’s philosophical and/or psychological orientation.

Oakes admits that trying to trace such ideas as messianic and charismatic personalities back to the dynamics of infantile phenomenology is a speculative exercise (e.g., 42). However, at other times he speaks in terms which appear to transpose these speculative exercises into ‘likely’ explanations of this or that phenomenon, or this or that individual (and, I have already pointed out that almost none of what Oakes or Kohut have to say is ‘likely’ to be accurately reflective of the lives, teachings and personalities of such individuals as Jesus, the Buddha, or Muhammad -- peace and blessings be upon them all -- not to mention any number of other spiritual luminaries who appear among the ranks of both historical Prophets and the great mystical guides from many different spiritual traditions).

Although it is desirable to want to subsume as large a body of phenomena, behavior, and data, as is possible, under the rubric of one theoretical framework, one also has to be prepared to acknowledge the possibility that reality may be far more complex, rich, nuanced, and problematic than the capabilities of any single theory. Moreover, while certain individuals may exhibit behavior and characteristics which are compatible with, say, the theories of Kohut, nevertheless, this does not automatically preclude the possibility that there may be many individuals who do not demonstrate profiles which easily, if at all, conform to the requirements of such a theory. Indeed, there may be a variety of different currents of human potential which are running through the ocean we call ‘reality’.

Even if one were to accept Kohut’s psychoanalytical theory concerning the way in which individuals supposedly deal with the problem of primary narcissism, and even if one were to accept Kohut’s tendency to conceive of the difference between messianic personalities from charismatic personalities as being a function of whether, respectively, an ‘idealized superego’ was externalized or a ‘grandiose self’ was internalized, nonetheless, one still has difficulty understanding precisely how the ideas of ‘prophet’, ‘narcissism’, and charisma fit together.

Oakes does suggest that ‘seekers’ tend to be attracted to, or inclined toward, those ‘leaders’, ‘guides’, and ‘prophets’ who best reflect the ‘extraordinary needs’ of such ‘seekers. As a result, some people are attracted to, and follow, messianic ‘prophets’, while others are attracted to, and follow, ‘charismatic prophets’.

However, right away there is a problem here. If charisma is, to some extent, a function of the resonance of psychological profiles between, on the one hand, a ‘prophet’ or ‘leader’, and, on the other hand, a follower, then, why refer to only one of the two classes of ‘prophets’ or ‘teachers’ as charismatic?

In both cases, there may some sort of attraction involved. Yet, apparently, the attraction experienced in the case of so-called ‘messianic prophets’ is not an expression of charisma.

Of course, Oakes argues, quite explicitly, that charisma is very much rooted in someone – ‘prophet’, ‘teacher’ ‘leader’ ‘guide’ – being perceived to be the embodiment of another individual’s ultimate concerns. Nonetheless, the same kind of question which was raised in the foregoing comments needs to be asked again.

If one assumes, as seems logical to do, that both ‘messianic prophets’ and ‘charismatic prophets’ might be perceived to embody someone’s ultimate concerns, then, why does the adjective, charismatic, only refer to one of the two classes of ‘prophets’? Someone might counter, in Oakes’s defense, by saying something along the lines of: ‘Well, there are ‘extraordinary needs’ present in the case of the followers of ‘charismatic prophets’ that are not present among the followers of ‘messianic prophets’ and this phenomenon of ‘extraordinary needs’ together with the idea of the embodiment of ultimate concerns is what gives rise to the experience of charisma’.

However, such a possible response seems rather weak and not without its own problems. More specifically, if ‘extraordinary needs’ are a reflection of the unresolved issues of someone’s psychological profile with respect to, say, primary narcissism, then, why should one suppose that the needs of someone who seeks out and follows a ‘messianic prophet’ are any less extraordinary than the needs of someone who seeks out and follows a ‘charismatic prophet’?

For example, why should one suppose that developmental problems surrounding the issue of an externalized ‘idealized superego’ are any less extraordinary than the developmental problems swirling about the internalization of a ‘grandiose self’? What are the criteria for determining what constitutes “extraordinary needs”?

Furthermore, there are also some questions which ought to be directed to the alleged link between charisma and the perceived embodiment of ultimate concerns. In other words, just because someone is seen to embody the ultimate concerns of another individual, why should one automatically assume that the former person will be considered to be charismatic?

Oakes indicates that the meaning of ‘ultimate concerns’ will vary with the ‘seeker’ or ‘follower’ being considered. Ultimate concerns could be of a political, economic, ecological, philosophical, sexual, social, and/or spiritual nature.

We may consider our children to be expressions of our ultimate concerns, but this doesn’t necessarily make those children charismatic. We may treat our careers as an expression of our ultimate concern, but this doesn’t make our boss charismatic. We may believe that a given political leader embodies our ultimate concerns concerning a variety of social, legal, and economic issues, but we may not necessarily view the leader as charismatic so much as we may evaluate the ‘leader’ in terms of competence or incompetence, or in terms of someone who is popular or unpopular. A defendant in a murder trial may see his or her defense attorney, the judge, and the jury to be embodiments of her or his ultimate concerns concerning freedom, but this fact does not necessarily cause someone to perceive those other individuals as charismatic. We may believe that doctors, school teachers, police officials, fire fighters, and university professors may embody some of our ultimate concerns, but we don’t necessarily consider those individuals to be charismatic. The members of a congregation or parish may perceive their minister, rabbi, priest, or imam to embody their ultimate concerns, but they do not necessarily consider such ‘leaders’ to be charismatic – although they may consider them to be knowledgeable, approachable, compassionate, interesting, and committed.

Consequently, one need not feel compelled to automatically agree that charisma is a function of the perception that someone embodies our ultimate concerns. Nor is it necessarily the case that charisma is a function of ‘extraordinary needs’ per se.

According to Oakes, individuals follow a ‘prophet’, ‘leader’, ‘guru’, or ‘guide’ for a reason (page 126). They are looking for something and come to believe, rightly or wrongly, that such a ‘prophet’ may be able to provide what they are looking for, or they need something and, rightly or wrongly, they come to believe that the ‘prophet/leader/teacher’ may be the key to the fulfillment or satisfaction of that need.

Oakes cautions his readers that trying to fathom the deeper motivations which shape the decisions which people make with respect to whether, or not, to follow a ‘prophet’, ‘teacher’ or ‘leader’ is an exercise in speculation. Oakes goes on to indicate that when the people whom he interviewed were asked why they joined a group or decided to follow a ‘prophet/leader/guide’ that, quite frequently, they responded in terms of wanting to realize some sort of ideal -- such as enlightenment, salvation, or some similar “great work” which involved a transformation of the ‘self’ – and, yet, when these same individuals were asked what joining a group had permitted them to accomplish or what leaving such a group would mean to them, Oakes said that very different kinds of responses were given.

When the purpose of the ‘great work’ of self-transformation is not realized, followers often speak in terms of other kinds of values. For instance, they may speak about the process of having been part of something in which they placed their trust and to which they surrendered and which yielded certain kinds of experiential dividends and life lessons other than total self-transformation.

Some of these individuals may have had many of their illusions, naïve and otherwise, dispelled as proximity exposed the feet of clay of this or that ‘prophet/guide/leader’. Yet, these same individuals may, nonetheless, feel a sense of gratitude for what they have experienced and learned in conjunction with that ‘leader/prophet/teacher’. Other individuals speak in terms of the satisfaction derived through having been able to work hard and achieve or learn things which, prior to joining, they may not have thought possible or expected of themselves.

Oakes mentions four qualities which he claims form the core of a follower’s attachment to a ‘prophet/teacher/leader’. These qualities are: (1) faith (very vaguely and amorphously defined), (2) trust, (3) courage (in the sense of the courage that a ‘prophet’ gives to seekers in his or her role of someone who, allegedly, has attained salvation or self-realization, and, therefore, is a living exemplar, supposedly, of what is within the grasp of one and all) , and (4) projection (the placing of one’s ultimate concerns onto the figure of the ‘prophet/guide/leader’).

A charismatic ‘prophet/leader/guide’ could strengthen faith, or induce trust, or inspire courage, or provide a reason for why one believes that such a ‘prophet’ actually does embody one’s ultimate concerns, and, therefore, represents a worthy recipient of such projection. However, admitting this possibility doesn’t really make charisma something which is caused by some combination of faith, trust, courage, and/or projection, as much as this may indicate that charisma could play a causal role in the explanation of why someone becomes attached to a given ‘prophet/leader/teacher’ through faith, trust, courage and projection.

Similar sorts of comments could be made in relation to Oakes’ contention that, for example, ‘love’ and ‘freedom’ are characteristic of groups led by ‘charismatic prophets’, whereas ‘truth’ and ‘ethics’ are associated with ‘messianic prophets’. To begin with, it is not obvious, in any prima facie manner, that someone who is perceived to be an extraordinarily loving human being would necessarily be any more charismatic than someone who is rigorously devoted to the truth, or that someone who is an extreme individualist will necessarily be perceived as being more charismatic than someone who is devoted to duty with respect to moral and ethical issues.

We may be attracted to all of these kinds of individuals. Yet, such attraction is not necessarily of a charismatic kind … we may be attracted for other reasons such as having respect for such people or wanting to emulate them or wanting to learn from them or feeling comfortable around these kinds of individual.

One is still left wondering why messianic ‘prophets/teachers/guides’ aren’t referred to as ‘charismatic’. One also is still wondering why so-called ‘charismatic prophets’ are considered to be ‘charismatic.’


Anab Whitehouse

Sunday, July 24, 2005

Sometimes the waters just won't recognize your charisma when you ask them to part. . . . but, hey, how 'bout those Red Sox?!!

The Phenomenology of Charisma - Part 1 of 3

Eight years ago (1997), Len Oakes, an Australian, wrote a book entitled: Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Personalities. Building on the work of, among others, Max Weber and Heinz Kohut, as well as using insights gained through his experience with a cult-like group and leader, together with extensive psychological research involving testing, interviewing, and reading, Oakes sought to provide some degree of understanding and insight into the phenomenon of charisma .

While Oakes is to be commended for his attempt to bring light to an area which often exists in the shadows of our awareness, nevertheless, I feel his book is flawed in a number of essential ways. The following commentary constitutes some of my critical reflections upon Oakes’ aforementioned book.

The first problem I have is the manner in which Oakes approaches the idea of a ‘prophet’. In order to understand the nature of the problem surrounding Oakes’ use of the term ‘prophet’, his theory will have to be delineated somewhat.

To begin with, and as the aforementioned title indicates, Oakes engagement of charisma is through a psychological study and not from a religious or spiritual perspective. Therefore, one can acknowledge and appreciate that the way in which he defines the idea of a ‘prophet’ will be in a manner which is compatible with the psychological thrust of his study.

Notwithstanding the above acknowledgement, there are always advantages and disadvantages surrounding any choice one makes for a working, or operational definition, of a given term. Consequently, one needs to determine if, how, and to what extent Oakes’s manner of defining key terms may introduce distortion and/or problems into his inquiry.

According to Oakes, a prophet is characterized as anyone who: (a) proclaims a mission containing not just a recipe for salvation, but a mission which does so in a way that seeks to revolutionize conventional values; (b) draws, gathers, or attracts individuals who become followers of such an individual and seek to implement the guidance provided by the person being referred to as a ‘prophet’. Oakes tends to lump together a number of people, ranging, on the one hand, from: Jesus and Muhammad (peace be upon them both), to, on the other hand: various Swamis, ministers, alternative community leaders, and the like.

Oakes suggests that, despite whatever differences may exist among those individuals to whom the label ‘prophet’ is given, what all of these individuals share in common are qualities such as: (1) a capacity to inspire people; (2) a resistance to, and opposition toward, various forms of conventionality; (3) possessing a remarkable and compelling personality that tends to set them apart from most people; (4) a grandiose sense of self-confidence which is the source for a great deal of optimism and fearlessness with respect to propagating the mission of salvation; (5) a natural capacity for acting which well-serves a ‘prophet’s tendency to manipulate people; (6) great rhetorical skills; (7) self-contained, independent of others, not given to self-disclosure; (8) a capacity for social insight that seems to border on the preternatural. Using the foregoing definition, Oakes identifies individuals such as: Madame Blavatsky, Bagwan Shree Rajneesh, Prabhupada Bhaktivedanta (Hare Khrishna), L. Ron Hubbard, Joseph Smith, Sun Myung Moon, Jim Jones, Werner Erhard, and Fritz Perls, as instances of modern day ‘prophets’.

Depending on how one understood the idea of ‘salvation’ in the above definition of ‘prophet, one could expand the boundaries of the set of individuals who constitute ‘prophets’. For example, Adolph Hitler, who many Germans saw as the salvation of the German people, could, on the basis of the stated definition, be considered a ‘prophet’ because he attracted people who sought to follow his guidance concerning the nature of life and, as well, because some dimensions of such guidance sought to revolutionize certain realms of conventional values -- and, in fact, Oakes discusses Hitler along these lines at various junctures in the book on charisma.

Oakes also lists Fritz Perls and Werner Erhard as exemplars of modern prophets. Since the sort of ‘salvation’ which Perls and Erhard sought for their clients does not easily, if at all, lend itself to spirituality, religion, or mysticism, then, if individuals like Perls and Erhard are to be considered ‘prophets’ in Oakes’ sense of the word, one also, potentially, might be able to apply that same definition to a great many other people besides Perls and Erhard who gave expression to various artistic, literary, philosophical, scientific, psychological, social, economic, and political theories. Indeed, consistent with Oakes’ definition of a prophet, there are many personalities across history who developed theories and paradigms that were intended, in one way or another, to serve as ways to salvation, and who, in the process, proposed an overthrow of conventional values, to one extent or another, as necessary realization of salvation, and, finally, who attracted people who were interested in learning how to live their lives in accordance with the teachings of the ‘master’.

Oakes borrows a distinction, made by Heinz Kohut -- a psychoanalyst -- between ‘messianic’ and ‘charismatic’ personalities in order to try to frame Oakes’ way of approaching issues such as ‘prophets’, charisma, and narcissism. Among other things, this distinction lends a certain degree of specificity to the discussion of prophets and helps address the issue of why people such as Perls, Freud, Hitler, and Erhard are part of the same group as a variety of individuals who are oriented in a largely religious/spiritual/mystical manner.

According to Oakes, messianic prophets: (1) tend to identify God as an ‘external’ source of inspiration; (2) often interact with Divinity in terms of a personal relationship which has an ‘objective’ nature; (3) usually teach by means of revelation; (4) seem to be motivated by a fantasy which construes one’s individual existence to be part of the Godhead; (5) are psychologically oriented toward the external world and, as a result, able to perform reality checks; (6) frequently described as being very consistent with respect to behaviors or beliefs and, therefore, seen as stable over time; (7) are fairly modest with respect to making claims about themselves; (8) seek to do works of virtue and excellence in conjunction with the world, as well as to work for what is perceived to be the welfare of others; (9) apparently resigned to experiencing an eventual decline in influence and, as a result, often willing to make preparations for transition in leadership; (10) tend to generate new laws which foster a form of release that, ultimately, serves as a source of helping to constrain society; (11) give emphasis to doing ‘God’s work’ which is at the heart of the messianic mission; (12) inclined to be other worldly and withdraw from the world’s corrupting potential; (13) treat truth and duty to be the two highest forms of ethical expression.

On the other hand, for Oakes, charismatic prophets: (1) locate Divinity within rather than externally; (2) filter their relationship with ‘being’ in terms of impersonal forces; (3) teach by example rather than through revelation; (4) are motivated by the fantasy that ‘I and the Godhead’ are one; (5) tend to be out of touch with external reality and, therefore, unable to run reality checks; (6) perceived as being inconsistent with respect to both beliefs and behaviors which leads to considerable instability over time; (7) fairly immodest and given to bouts of self-aggrandizement; (8) are not interested in the welfare of others, but, rather, are likely to be antisocial and self-serving; (9) often self-destruct or fall from grace through behaviors; (10) oriented toward rebellion, a certain lawlessness, and consider release/freedom to be good in and of themselves; (11) seek recognition rather than to be a vehicle of God’s work; (12) use the corruption of the world as a justification for amorality and the opportunistic exploitation of circumstances; (13) consider love and freedom to be the highest forms of ethical expression.

For the most part, Oakes considers messianic and charismatic types of prophets to constitute groups that are, to a large extent, mutually exclusive categories. In other words, if one compares the 13 points outlined above in conjunction with both types of ‘prophets’, then, whatever quality or characteristic is said to describe one type of ‘prophet’, there tends to be an absence of any common ground shared by members of the respective groups and, as well, in relation to any of the 13 characteristic, members of two groups tend to be proceeding in very different directions – sometimes in diametric opposition -- with respect to each of the points.

Oakes does indicate that elements of each type of prophet may be combined in different sorts of permutations so that some individuals may give expression to mixed combinations of both messianic and charismatic types. However, on the whole, Oakes seems to believe that in most cases one can identify a given ‘prophet’ as being either of a messianic kind or a charismatic kind.

Although, as noted above, Oakes alludes to the possibility that a given individual may give expression to qualities and characteristics from each of the two sets of characteristics, he doesn’t pursue this possibility in any concrete manner. Consequently, one doesn’t really know what he means by his allusion other than that he states it as a possibility.

One could imagine someone who teaches by example (a charismatic trait) as well as through revelation (a messianic characteristic). In addition, one could conceive of an individual who located Divinity both within (a charismatic tendency) and without (a messianic quality). One also can acknowledge the possibility of there being ‘leaders’ who did not focus on just love and freedom (a charismatic property) or on just truth and duty (a messianic feature) but on all of these qualities together … that is, love, freedom, duty, and truth would be part of an integrated, harmonious whole which were in balance with one another.

On the other hand, one could not be both stable (a messianic trait) and unstable (a charismatic property). Moreover, one cannot seek to genuinely enhance the welfare of other people (a messianic characteristic) and, at the same time, be antisocial (a charismatic quality).

One cannot be both relatively humble (a messianic tendency) and engaged in self-aggrandizement (a charismatic inclination); nor can one both sincerely seek to be removed from the world’s corruption (a messianic characteristic), as well as exploit that corruption to justify one’s own descent into one’s own amoral version of such corruption (a charismatic quality). One cannot be both attentive to the external world and, as a result, be capable of monitoring one’s behavior in the light of that world (a messianic property), while, simultaneously, being out of touch with that external world and, therefore, unable to run various kinds of reality checks intended to constrain one’s behavior (a charismatic property).

Furthermore, Oakes does not directly discuss the possibility of there being ‘prophets’ who were stable (messianic) but caught up in the throes of self-aggrandizement (charismatic), or ‘prophets’ who were interested in serving God (messianic) but wanted recognition for their efforts (charismatic). Oakes also does not speak about ‘prophets’ who might engage in reality checks (messianic) and, yet, also have a tendency to rebel, flaunt convention, and become entangled with legal skirmishes of one kind or another (charismatic) – in other words, a person might pay attention to the external world in order to better understand how to subvert it and manipulate it.

One could expand upon the nature and number of such permutations and combinations. Almost all, if not all, of the foregoing possibilities fall outside the horizons set by Oakes’ exploration into the psychology of charisma.

One does not know how Oakes would respond to any of the foregoing other than to, perhaps, acknowledge them as possibilities which require further study. What one does know is that, in general, Oakes is inclined to place messianic prophets in a largely, if not wholly, spiritual-religious context, whereas so-called charismatic prophets tend to be perceived as individuals who do not necessarily participate in activities which can be described in religious, spiritual, or mystical terms.

Thus, individuals such as Hitler, Frued, Perls, and Erhard can be studied along side of overtly religious/spiritual figures such as Madame Blavatsky, Gurdjieff, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, Jim Jones, and Joseph Smith -- to name but a few. This is because the characteristic which ties these individuals together is not spirituality, per se, but the quality of charisma which can be manifested in both religious as well as non-religious contexts.

One wonders why Oakes chose to use the term ‘prophet’ -- as opposed to, say, ‘leader’ or some other comparable word -- in order to refer to individuals who proclaim a mission of salvation, seek to challenge or overthrow conventional values through that mission, and, in the process, try to induce people to participate in that mission by, among other things, applying the mission principles to their own lives through looking to the individual on a mission as their guide or teacher concerning how one should go about accomplishing this. One possibility is that Oakes wanted to concentrate on what he perceived to be the ‘function’ of a ‘prophet’, independently of religious and spiritual considerations.

Thus, if one removes the element of spirituality from the idea of a prophet, and just looks at the behavior of such an individual, then, according to Oakes, prophets are individuals who: (a) proclaim a mission; (b) couch the nature of that mission in terms of some kind of salvation; (c) often run into conflict with certain conventional values which exist at the time the mission is pursued; (d) seek to attract adherents to the mission, and (e) serve as a guide or teacher for those individuals who are trying to incorporate the mission’s principles into their lives. If one separates the element of spirituality and religiosity from the ‘functional behavior’ of a prophet, then, individuals -- irrespective of whether they represented a religious or non-religious context -- might be considered to be observing ‘prophetic’ behavior if they satisfied the conditions specified by Oakes which have been outlined above.

From a traditional, spiritual perspective, an individual does not proclaim himself or herself to be a ‘prophet’ or become a prophet by arbitrarily proclaiming that one has a mission. A Prophet is someone who has been appointed by Divinity to serve in a particular capacity for a given community.

Secondly, to reduce the task of a Prophet down to being a mission of salvation is problematic. To be sure, prophets do speak about the issue of salvation, but they also speak about: knowledge, truth, spiritual potential, identity, purpose, justice, death, and purity in ways which transcend mere salvation and re-orients one toward the possibility of additional realms of the sacred … sometimes referred to as the mystical dimension of spirituality.

Thirdly, to say that the intention of a Prophet is to clash with conventional values, or to rebel against such values, or to start a revolutionary movement which opposes such values, this also is problematic. A Prophet of God seeks to speak and behave in accordance with the truth, the reality of things, and while it may be the case that what is true does conflict with certain, conventional values, the purpose of giving voice to the truth is not to generate conflict, rebellion, or revolution.

Moreover, even if were true that some conventional values were opposed by a given Prophet, one need not suppose that, therefore, all conventional values in a certain community would become the focus of opposition. Whether conventional values became objects of conflict, or which values might became objects of conflict could depend on a variety of circumstances and, consequently, to maintain that a main feature of the ‘prophetic’ mission is to revolutionize conventional values is far too sweeping and ambiguous a claim.

Prophets are sent to remind and warn people about a variety of things. They are sent to induce people to seek out the truth in all things. They are appointed in order to encourage people to be loving, thankful, sincere, honest, kind, forgiving, tolerant, modest, generous, considerate, friendly, respectful, aware, co-operative, hopeful, persevering, patient, peaceful, and to be inclined toward seeking repentance (with respect to both human beings and God) for the mistakes one has made. Prophets are also sent to discourage people from being: deceitful, exploitive, abusive, unjust, lacking in compassion, cruel, arrogant, hypocritical, dogmatic, intolerant, unloving, unfriendly, disputatious, immodest, thoughtless, insensitive, and so on.

There may be vested interests and various centers of power who become threatened, for one reason or another, by the activity of a Prophet, but the intent of a Prophet is not necessarily to wage war or rebel against those who have vested interests. Historically speaking, whenever and wherever possible, conciliation, harmony, peace, compromise, and negotiation are pursued by Prophets -- not confrontation and conflict.

Fourthly, a Prophet is not necessarily trying to attract followers. A Prophet is seeking to speak the truth as well as to offer guidance for anyone who is willing to engage that truth and guidance with a receptive heart and mind.

A Prophet is trying to assist people to realize the potential of their own relationship with the Truth/Reality. A Prophet is not trying to attract a following. The fact that a community of people may arise around that individual may only mean that they are a community with a common set of purposes rather than an amalgamation made up of a leader and his or her followers.

Of course, the foregoing points all raise the question of whether, or not, there is anyone who is actually appointed by Divinity to serve in a special, Divinely-ordained role of a Prophet. For the most part, Oakes tries to stay away from this issue and, therefore, restricts his discussion to what people claim to believe concerning their status as a ‘prophet’, quite independently of considerations of the truth or falsity of those claims.

However, Oakes does stray from a largely neutral stance when he says that messianic prophets tend to operate in accordance with the ‘fantasy’ that they are, in a yet to be explained -- and possibly ineffable – sense, “part” of God, whereas charismatic prophets are, according to Oakes, motivated by the ‘fantasy’ that they and the Godhead (or the psychic mother/father) are one … that they are ‘God’. In other words, Oakes is making a statement about what he perceives to be the truth status of much of what a ‘prophet’ says when Oakes maintains that no matter whether one falls into the category of a messianic prophet or one is subsumed under the category of a charismatic prophet, both sets of individuals are motivated by a fantasy concerning their relationship with God.

One is free to believe whatever she or he likes about the truth or falsity concerning the existence of Divinity, or the ‘authenticity’ of a given spiritual claim about being a ‘Prophet’. However, one cannot assume an aura of neutrality on such issues, while simultaneously trying to claim that, say, someone’s understanding concerning the nature of his or her relationship with Divinity is necessarily rooted in fantasies of one kind or another.

To be sure, there are individuals who do suffer from delusions concerning their self-professed Divine nature or special status with God, and so on. Nevertheless, this does not automatically force one to conclude that anyone who makes such statements is delusional or under the influence of a fantasy or myth of some kind … this remains to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

One cannot assume one’s conclusions. Assumptions ought to be clearly identified as such, and there should be some thought given to how one’s conclusions might be affected, adversely or otherwise, if the operational definition one is using -- in this case, the idea of who and what a ‘prophet is -- turns out to be problematic, skewed, or incorrect.

Further evidence of the foregoing bias shows up in a variety of places in Oakes’ book, but, perhaps, one of the clearest expressions of this slant comes in the conclusion when Oakes asks, and, then, answers a question:

“But is the prophet really an enlightened spiritual being? If this question asks whether the prophet has personally experienced with the fullness of his being – with his feelings and his relationships – a spiritual reality, then, the answer appears to be no. Indeed, quite the opposite is true; it is the very shallowness of the prophet’s feelings and relationships, his pervasive narcissism that prevents him from ever entering into a genuine relationship with another, or ever having anything other than pseudo feelings for others.”

The foregoing statements may be quite accurate in their portrayal of the individuals whom Oakes actually studied in the field, and, as well, this sort of characterization may even be true of many of the religious, revolutionary, and charismatic personalities about whom Oakes read during that phase of his research. In addition, Oakes is making an important point when he makes the quality of behavior a crucial, defining feature in determining whether, or not, someone should be considered to be a fully realized spiritual being.

Nonetheless, one hesitates to apply his conclusions across the board to any and all ‘prophets’. Although Oakes does not say so directly, the implication of his foregoing perspective tend to extend to such spiritual luminaries as: Jesus, Moses, Muhammad, the Buddha, Krishna, David, Solomon, Joseph, Abraham, and a host of others (peace and blessings be upon them all) who are considered to be emissaries and prophets of Divinity.

To be sure, in the context of Oakes’ study, the aforementioned remarks concerning whether, or not, prophets are spiritually realized human beings is primarily intended to refer to those individuals who fall into the category of ‘charismatic prophet’. However, and as will be developed shortly, because Oakes’ idea of charisma is, itself, problematic, a variety of difficulties arise in conjunction with his belief that, in general, ‘prophets’ are not really enlightened spiritual beings.

Part of the problem here is that some of the previously noted characteristics which, supposedly, differentiate between messianic and charismatic prophets raise some questions. For example, Oakes claims that one of the distinguishing features of a charismatic prophet is that such individuals tend to identify themselves with the Godhead, and, so, one might be puzzled about the idea of prophets not being spiritually realized human beings when one remembers that Jesus (peace be upon him) is reported to have said: “I and my Father are one” (this is a statement of tawhid/unity, not identity or incarnation).

Is Oakes prepared to claim that Jesus (peace be upon him) was not only an unrealized spiritual being but, as well, was, if one accepts Oakes’ logic, a charismatic prophet who was narcissistic and incapable of forming genuine, sincere, loving relationships with other human beings? If so, where is the evidence for this, and, if not, then, perhaps, his theoretical framework will have to be modified accordingly.

Or, consider another possibility. According to Oakes, two of the characteristics of a charismatic prophet involve (a) locating Divinity within, rather than through external channels, and (b) filtering one’s relationship with ‘being’ through a set of impersonal forces rather than through a personal relationship with a ‘God’.

Presumably, on the basis of the foregoing, one might be required to place ‘the Buddha’ (peace be upon him) in the category of a ‘charismatic prophet’ since Buddhism is often portrayed, rightly or wrongly, as filtering one’s relationship with Being through non-theistic forces of, to some extent, an impersonal nature. Yet, if one does this, is one forced to conclude that ‘the Buddha’ (peace be upon him) was a spiritually unrealized human being who was inclined to narcissism and only capable of having pseudo, shallow relationships with other individuals?

Similar questions arise in conjunction with some of the remarks made by Oakes concerning the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). For example, Oakes indicates (page 182) that Muhammad (peace be upon him) was among a group of historical personalities who led successful movements and passed away with their integrity intact – i.e., no scandals. Oakes also identifies others who he judges to be like the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) in this regard – e.g., Father Divine, Phineas Quimby, Prabhupada, Kathryn Kuhlman, and Ann Lee – that is, ‘prophets’ who led successful, scandal-free movements.

These are individuals who did not self-destruct as is the tendency of many individuals who may fall into the category of ‘charismatic prophets. Yet, at another juncture in his book (page 94), Oakes seeks to use Muhammad (peace be upon him) as an example of a historical prophet who, in Oakes’ opinion, “played the part of a wounded innocent”, by going into seclusion, in order to manipulate his wives into accepting his “dalliance with a slave girl”.

Oakes does not provide any evidence to support his interpretation of the foregoing judgment. He states the foregoing as if it were an obvious fact and beyond question.

However, why should one accept such a judgment or interpretation? Why should one suppose that Muhammad (peace be upon him) was ‘playing’ the role of a ‘wounded innocent’? Why should one suppose that he was trying to manipulate anyone? Why should one suppose that his relationship with the ‘slave girl’ was a mere “dalliance”?

Oakes is using a number of pejorative labels in reference to the Prophet. Where is the independent evidence which indicates that any of his ways of describing the situation are evidentially warranted rather than expressions of Oakes’ arbitrary biases being imposed on something about which he has no genuine insight or understanding?

For Oakes, one of the defining features of charismatic prophets is their capacity for, and willingness to, manipulate others. Indeed, one of the features which, supposedly, permits us to differentiate ‘messianic prophets’ from ‘charismatic prophets’ is the amazing social insight possessed by members of the latter category -- a capacity which, according to Oakes, allows such individuals to, in a sense, know which buttons to push in order to maneuver people in a desired direction.

Consequently, as was the case with respect to the implications -- for both Jesus (peace be upon him) and the Buddha (peace be upon him) -- of Oakes’ foregoing quote concerning the lack of spiritual enlightenment in relation to ‘prophets’, once again, one is faced with an implication which paints Muhammad (peace be upon him) as someone who, according to the implications of Oakes’ logic, may have been spiritually unenlightened, narcissistic, manipulative, and capable of only superficial, shallow relationships with others.

One of the arguments which some individuals have leveled against theoreticians like Freud is that he used his understanding of abnormal behavior and psychopathology to set the tone for what he considered to be healthy, normal psychological development. According to such critics, when one starts with a certain kind of sample set -- namely, people suffering from pathology -- one may not be able to validly make the transition from: what that sample says about the nature of the people in such a sample, to: claims concerning the psychology of human nature in a population of people who do not suffer from such pathology.

Similarly, by using certain, arbitrarily decided-upon, behavioral and functional characteristics of individuals as the basis for labeling various individuals as ‘prophets’, one might wish to pause for a moment and ask whether the behavioral and functional characteristics being cited really are reflective of how an actual ‘Prophet’ might think, feel, act, or be motivated. Even if one wishes to argue that the latter considerations should not shape and orient a study in psychology, nevertheless, one still needs to take note of the lacunae which are, potentially, present when a researcher tries to do an end around, or ignore, the idea of ‘authenticity’ with respect to someone who claims to be, or is perceived to be, a prophet, and, as a result, employs arbitrarily chosen criteria to shape the operational definitions one uses to establish categories, differentiate individuals, and orient one’s research.

If the definition of a ‘prophet’ does not necessarily reflect historical and/or traditional considerations, and if the sample being studied does not necessarily reflect historical and/or traditional ‘realities’ concerning the lives of Prophets, then, one should, at the very least, raise a caveat concerning the validity of applying the results of a given study -- like that of Oakes -- to a larger population containing some individuals who may actually be individuals who were appointed by Divinity to pursue goals, purposes, and activities which are in contradistinction to Oakes’s operational definition of ‘prophet’ and who are neither necessarily delusional nor under the influence of one, or another, fantasy with respect to their relationship with Divinity.

What difference do the foregoing considerations make with respect to understanding the idea of ‘prophetic charisma’ or the psychology of revolutionary, religious personalities? As it turns out, perhaps a great many problematic ramifications may arise as a result of such considerations, and this might be most clearly described and explained through an examination of the way in which Oakes talks about two other themes: charisma and narcissism, within the context of a theory which claims to be directed toward helping us understand the nature of: ‘prophetic charisma’.

I do not feel it would be distorting Oakes’ position to say that, to a major extent, the phenomenon of charisma is, for him, an expression of, and rooted in, the phenomenon of narcissism. At least, this does seem to be the case as far as the idea of the psychology of religious personalities is concerned – both with respect to ‘prophets’ as well as their followers.

Oakes indicates that someone can be referred to as charismatic when she or he is perceived to embody something referred to as “ultimate concerns”. This embodiment of ultimate concerns may be in relation to either oneself or others, however, the meaning of ‘ultimate concern’ tends to vary from person to person.

However, when an individual has extraordinary needs (and extraordinary needs is linked to the formation of a nuclear self early which is colored by, among other things, narcissistic forces) in relation to whatever a given ‘ultimate concern’ may turn out to be for that person, then, according to Oakes, the perception of the embodiment of that ultimate concern in another human being gives expression to an extremely powerful magnetic force of attraction. This conjunction of ‘ultimate concerns’, ‘extraordinary needs’, and the ‘embodiment’ of such concerns in a person who, as a result, is perceived to be a vehicle for: accessing, being in proximity to, and/or realizing such ultimate concerns, is considered, by Oakes, to be at the heart of the phenomenon of charisma.

Although the foregoing description does not specifically limit charisma to spiritual contexts, nonetheless, Oakes does believe that charisma constitutes a spiritual power with a considerable potential to revolutionize society. Moreover, he believes charisma has the capacity to spiritualize the extraordinary needs and ultimate concerns of those who are seeking to have their needs and concerns fulfilled.

It is hard, at this point, to understand just what Oakes means by the idea that charisma can spiritualize ultimate concerns and extraordinary needs. If a given ultimate concern is not already spiritual in nature, or if an extraordinary need is not already rooted in spirituality of one kind or another, then, how does charisma, per se, spiritualize either ultimate concerns or extraordinary needs? What does it mean to spiritualize something?

Furthermore, since Oakes has indicated that charisma is a function of the perception that someone embodies the ultimate concerns of oneself or others, and since he has indicated that charisma is a function of the perception that someone will serve as a means to the fulfillment of one’s extraordinary needs, then, one wonders about the precise dynamics of how either charisma, or its alleged spiritualizing dimension, works. After all, on the basis of the foregoing considerations, charisma seems to be something which is conferred on a given human being – e.g., a prophet -- as a result of the perceived embodiment of one’s (or another’s) ultimate concerns in, say, a ‘prophet’ due to the extraordinary needs of the one doing the perceiving.

If the foregoing characterization of things is correct, then, charisma is not something which a ‘prophet’ possesses. Rather, charisma arises -- and, sometimes, Oakes appears to suggest as much -- when the right alignment of ‘prophet’, ‘ultimate concerns’, ‘extraordinary needs’, and perception takes place. As such, charisma is a function of the dynamics of a certain kind of relationship between two, or more, people.

What a seeker brings to the equation are: ultimate concerns, extraordinary needs, and a perceptual mind-set which is actively or passively looking for something that resonates with those concerns and needs. What a ‘prophet’ brings to this dynamic are: his or her own kind of extraordinary needs, together with a set of qualities which not only resonate, to some degree, with the concerns and needs of the seeker, but which, as well, are perceived to have something of a supernatural-like aura about them -- that is, there is something about the relationship which appears to be largely inexplicable, magical, mysterious, and resistant to any kind of easy explanation … something which is experienced as seductive, alluring, magnetic, compelling, and somewhat mesmerizing.

One of the qualities which Oakes believes plays a significant role in the felt presence of charisma is the ‘prophet’s’ talent for observation and an accompanying special ability to derive, from such observations, penetrating insights into the nature of on-going social dynamics as well as the extraordinary needs and ultimate concerns of individuals who engage the ‘prophet’. Someone once remarked that one society’s technology may appear like magic to another society which does not understand the principles through which such technology operates, and, similarly, when someone does not understand how a given person has arrived at her or his insight into one’s extraordinary needs, ultimate concerns, or the surrounding social dynamics, then, the individual with insight may be perceived as someone who has magical-like, supernatural-like capabilities and powers simply because one may not understand how such insight is possible.

Do some ‘prophets’ actually have psychic, occult, extrasensory, or non-ordinary powers of perception? Oakes does not believe so. He believes everything is explicable through the manner in which ordinary abilities and talents may be developed to an amazing degree by individuals who have extraordinary needs that are dependent for their fulfillment on the existence and use of such capabilities.


Anab Whitehouse