Betraying the Ideal

The Voices of the Days/3 - Charismas are the founding force of vulnerable but re-generable communities

by Luigino Bruni

published in Avvenire on 13/03/2016

Logo Voci dei giorni ridThe philosopher is marked by the distinguishing trait that he possesses inseparably the taste for evidence and the sense of ambiguity. When he limits himself to accepting ambiguity, it is called equivocation. But among the great it becomes a theme; it contributes to establishing certainties rather than menacing them." 

M. Merleau-Ponty, In Praise of Philosophy

Much more than interest, ideals are the force that pushes the world forward. Sometimes we are the ones that generate them in the brightest part of our soul. At other times we are 'called' by the ideals of others: one day we find out that they were already living inside us, just waiting to be lit up.

And so we begin the most sublime and generative types of adventures. In many cases, the greatest and most innovative ideals capable of generating a community are born of a person with a gift or a special charisma that can lead to collective experiences - at times very important ones, capable of transforming their own environment and their own time. Here the ideal is deeply intertwined with the personality of the 'founder'. It takes the founder's flesh, it grows and feeds off the founder's talents and character traits. This intertwining of the charisma and personality of the founders is the source and strength of 'charismatic communities'. But there comes a time when, in order to continue its development without getting blocked, the community must begin a long and complex process of distinguishing the 'pearl' from the 'field' that has kept it, to separate the personality of the founder from the 'personality' of the charisma. In fact, if the charisma coincides with the talent of the person who embodies and announces it, it does not have the strength to go beyond the very person. However, when the charisma is rather excessive in relation to the person, and hence it creates communities and movements, this surplus becomes the source that feeds the community after its founder, precisely because it is bigger than him / her.

All great charismas are greater than the charismatic person. The identification of this surplus, and so this 'gap' between the charisma and the person containing it, is the fundamental operation to which all followers of a charismatic community are called. Community, however, looks like a rather sophisticated collective work because it requires the ability to understand that at the root of that specific community there wasn't only an ideal-charisma: there was also its ideology.

Every ideology has its own life cycle. Its birth takes place very early on. It begins with the idealization of some key figures in the community, the founder(s) or other people who have special talents or gifts. It then goes on from the ideal announced by the leader to the idealization of his/her person, so that they gradually begins to lose touch with their own limits, errors, the typical shadows of the human condition of all the others. Around the leader a myth and a mythology are created, and they make the person gradually more and more different and unique, with a kind of ethical and spiritual infallibility. As a result, the circle of the people who work and interact with leaders gradually decreases, and the relationship of these few becomes increasingly asymmetric. Meeting or talking with the leader becomes a rare event, a ritual and mythical occasion. And the initial fraternity is pushed more and more to the background.

This is how the paradox is verified: those who have received a charisma of fraternity and announce it often find themselves in the objective condition of not being able to live in the community that they themselves have created. The first victim of ideology is in fact the original community’s fraternity. In the first, genuine and pure phase of ideals, fraternity is often the fundamental principle that involves everyone, including the founders and those who have prominent roles or responsibilities. When the community grows in size, some of these figures gradually take leave from the game of fraternity and equality, and are wrapped in an exceptional status, which is almost never limited to the founder alone but includes his entire entourage. The stronger and the more exceptional the charismatic qualities of the founders are the more likely and powerful the crisis of that fraternity and solidarity that once gave rise to the communities becomes. Communities founded by leaders with little spiritual talent are generally not very innovative, but they tend to remain more fraternal. Those that were born from great spiritual talents attract many more vocations but are much faster to produce ideologies that unhinge the original fraternity.

The second phase of ideology, which is a natural and logical follow-up to the first phase of the idealization of the founder, is the coincidence that is created between the charisma embodied and announced by the founder and his/her person. Since there is always a necessary and special relationship between a charisma and the person who embodies it, it is very difficult for the founders of charismatic communities, and especially their followers, to be able to distinguish the proposed ideal from the ideological idealization of charismatic people. The exceeding of the experience of the ideal over the charismatic person is composed by the charisma and the ideology. But in the foundation phase, the strength of the leader's personality covers out the ideology, which actually often becomes an essential element for the growth and development of the first generation of the community - the ideology is developed and empowered not only by the founder, but the community, too. The non-intentionality and good faith of the founders and their followers then makes the whole process even more complicated. However, when you switch from first to second and subsequent generations, it becomes essential to identify and distinguish the original charisma of the ideology that they have produced. If this delicate surgical operation is not attempted or if it is not successful, the ideology blocks the future development of the charisma, and often declares its end.

The crises of ideal-driven communities are produced by ideology, not by the ideal, and therefore can only be overcome by the elimination of ideology. But ideology acts primarily by making us unable to see it because it clothes itself in the ideal.

For this reason ideologies hate crises and deny them in a radical manner for a long time, until it becomes too obvious (and when it is usually too late to attempt a cure). A crucial mark of ideology is in fact the exclusion of the very possibility of crisis or decline from the horizon of future events. Everything is bathed in light, but much of this overall brightness is only the artificial light of ideology (true reality is always ambivalent). So when of the ideology of charisma sends the charisma in crisis in the second or third generation, the community does not have the categories to see, read, understand and overcome the crisis.

Therefore, the first step to overcoming this crisis would be in acknowledging that it is not the original message of the community (the charisma) that is in crisis but the ideology that grew from it. Identifying the ideological nature of the crisis, however, is very difficult, because the ideological creation is intrinsic to the foundation phase, and extends to some choices, words and attitudes of the very founders. The cure from the crisis would require a freedom of interpretation of the charisma and its ideology but it is precisely what the ideology has eliminated by its own development. Many charismatic communities seize to exist simply because of this. They could have been saved if they had tried, grabbing a scalpel, to penetrate into the living flesh, trying to remove the ideology to save the charisma.

And that's where different scenarios open up, of which the history of religions and ideal-driven movements is full. These scenarios are reminiscent of some dimensions present in the paradigms of two great Christological 'heresies' of the first centuries of Christianity: Monophysitism and Pelagianism.

The 'Monophysite' scenario (it recognizes only the divine nature, denying the human one) is the simplest and most common: as people are unwilling or unable to admit the human and therefore ideological dimension in the person of the founder, they make no distinction between the original ideal and its ideology, and everything becomes charisma. And so all the words, all actions, all the episodes of the historical figure of the charismatic leader have the same foundational weight and the same nature. The ideology remains unseen, and the disease becomes incurable because it grows without being noticed.

The other scenario is very reminiscent of Pelagianism, which was the great theological enemy of Saint Augustine. The spirit of Pelagius makes a new appearance when part of the community begins to think that they can 'save themselves alone', imagining an exit from the crisis unleashed by the historical figure of the founder and their original charisma. They seem to glimpse a salvation but without a 'saviour'. Facing the discomfort that arises from the inability to rid the charisma of its ideology, the crisis is interpreted as a crisis of the charisma and so that of the figure of the founder (not of their ideology). It is put aside, or used as a vague and distant ethical and symbolic reference, losing touch with the concrete and historical person. In these cases, the community / movement can also stay alive, but it becomes something substantially different from the first community.

The communities, however, that have managed to grow over time without falling into the new version of either of these two 'heresies', entered confidently in the heart of the historical experience of the foundation, the founder and their myth, taking all the risks that such a delicate operation entails. They wanted to do it because at some point, often for the intervention of authentic 'reformers', they realized that there was no other scenario if they wanted to stay alive.

Ideal-driven and charismatic communities stay alive over time if their every generation has the courage to try and revive the ideal from the ashes of its ideology. But first they have to be able to see it, understand it, accept it, love it, and request it to die.

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