Charisma

One of the personal characteristics that most troubles religious liberals is charisma. We religious liberals think religion should be rooted in reason and rationality, and charisma is very upsetting to those of us who claim rationality as a highest value. A charismatic person can make a reasonable person think unreasonable thoughts, by the sheer attractiveness of that charismatic person’s personality; no wonder we rationalists find charisma so upsetting! We sometimes forget that the ancient Greeks knew that the power of rhetoric and rhetorical argument could be greater than the power of reason. We also sometimes forget that the science of psychology has shown over and over again how human beings are convinced by the power of that which is not rational, such as advertisements, sexuality, tyranny, etc. Of course we forget; we have an unreasoning faith in reason.

What, then, do we religious liberals do when we meet up with another religious liberal who happens to be charismatic? If we’re honest, we’d admit that our immediate response is distrust. So it is that we actually prefer our ministers to be a little drab and colorless, rather than dynamic and exciting. Lay leaders who show signs of being charismatic are often subtly disabled; the nail that sticks up will get hammered down. Charismatic ministers and lay leaders quickly learn to hide their charisma behind a mask of bureaucratic grayness, or even assumed incompetence.

I’m not sure I would want to change our liberal religious response to charisma all that much. I don’t trust charisma myself, even on the rare occasions when I find it in myself; no, especially on those rare occasions when I find it in myself. It’s too easy for someone with charisma to get carried away by the power of their charisma. However, charisma can be extraordinarily useful to human institutions. What we laud as great leadership in business or politics is often little more than the power of charisma in a given individual; I doubt Steve Jobs was the genius he is made out to be, but by all reports he was powerfully charismatic; the same seems to be true of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Charismatic individuals can drive institutions and make things happen.

But although your charisma can drive human institutions, it is wise to recall that your charisma does not inhere in your personal being; it comes from the outside, a gift of the spirit; or, more properly, given by the Spirit, it comes into you from something or somebody or some place beyond the narrow confines of the self. If you’re charismatic, your charisma doesn’t belong to you, wretched mortal individual that you are; it is ageless; it belongs to humanity; so don’t take credit for it — this is the religious liberal’s attitude. We religious liberals can tolerate charisma only when it is combined with serious humility.

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