Connor Wood has a follow-up post to his online essay that sparked so much commentary here last week. In the new column, he cites studies showing that religious people gain social and psychological benefits from their faith, including self-discipline — but only if they practice a faith. “Spiritual but not religious” doesn’t cut it:
Self-discipline helps people contribute to the collective project of maintaining the institutions and support structures of their culture. These structures, in turn, give people a template for living that buffers them against challenges and disappointments. They still have challenges, of course, but the intact culture and the web of tight relationships it provides means that disappointments don’t have to be crushing.
Its negative aspects notwithstanding, then, religiosity does have real benefits. These benefits seem to accrue cross-culturally and across different religions. Importantly, religious practice is what seems most important here, not personal religious belief. For example, one study parsed out religious practice – going to church, reading scriptures, and praying – from transcendent or spiritual beliefs, and found that the transcendent beliefs alone negatively predicted self-control and conscientiousness, but were positively associated with openness to new experiences!
Wood concedes that there are plenty of examples of stunning creativity within religiously observant cultures, but those dazzling exceptions do not disprove the rule. Besides, many of those artists were solitaries, and could not manage to live a conventional life. Bach is the only major artist Wood can think of who did both.
The sociologist Max Weber observed that religion comes in both conventional, (“routinized”) and radical (“charismatic”) forms. In its radical manifestations, religion is a raging geyser of creativity, breaking down cultural barriers and tearing away at established lifeways. In its routinized form, religion is the stable, plodding foundation for everyday family and economic life. It organizes people’s relationships, stimulates in-group cooperation, and streamlines the countless social processes that undergird life. We individualistic Westerners may sneer at these stabilizing functions, but the fact is that every culture needs some version of them.
But while I respect the organizing function of religion and tradition, it’s not enough for me. I’d love to be both emotionally stable and wildly creative. This was why I wrote the original post. The ancient tension between rigid Apollonian order and wild Dionysian ecstasy hums beneath the surface of every culture; we have to make sacrifices in one realm to advance in the other. But I’m optimistic that we can learn a way around, or at least through, this conundrum. We humans do amazing things. We fly in airplanes and send astronauts to the Moon. Through studying our history, our evolution, and our spiritual traditions, I think that we can learn to harness our creative energies even as our outer lives are calm, stable, and nestled in webs of relationships. After all, we’ve already got an exemplar: the artist who contradicts my model, J.S. Bach.
Back in 2007, Rusty Reno reviewed sociologist Philip Rieff’s posthumously published book Charisma. Rieff, who was not a religious believer, wrote as a critic of Weber’s idea that creeds — the institutionalization of the original revelation by the charismatic/creative/visionary who founded the religion — led to an emptying-out of the power of the original revelation.
Weber is important, because he reversed the approach to life that, from time immemorial, gave precedence (and power) to creeds. In Weber’s theory of religion, all forms of social authority can be traced back to the ecstatic, inner resources of personality. The charismatic renews culture in and through his magnetic personality. He is the Nietzschean superman who shatters ordinary limits and remakes our ideals. Creeds are simply dead reminders of powerful personalitiesWeber was a sober rationalist, and like Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor he saw the institutionalization and domestication of charisma as an inevitable social necessity. Man cannot live by inspiration alone. Rieff was a brilliant social critic because he could distinguish between the logic of arguments and the conclusions individual thinkers drew. As Rieff observes, in the aftermath of Weber’s theory, “authority becomes suspect not only in its ends but in its origins.” It is not just that selfish, venal men have gained control over the many cultural institutions that socialize us; reformers since the beginning of time have said as much. Rather, according to Weber, the very nature of culture itself—its need for routine, for law, for institutions—destroys true charisma, destroys the life-giving gift of inspiration.
Where, then, should we now turn for the gift of life? Because Weber theorized religious cultures as institutional domestications of original genius, he tacitly directs us toward a new charisma, the gift of life that is to be found in the power of personality, a power beneath and at the source of creedal authority, a power that knows itself superior and has the confidence to transgress and remake social norms in its own image. The result, however unforeseen and unintended by Weber and any number of other modern social scientists, is the anti-creedal, therapeutic agenda of modernity: Personality is the beginning and end of all that matters in life, and the great spiritual project is self-culture, an oxymoron that necessarily devolves into self-management.
Rieff taught that to free the individual personality from the authority of creeds does not result in greater creativity, overall, but rather the dissipation of the power inherent in the culture created by religious revelation. This is an interesting point to think about in light of Connor Wood’s distinction between the Creative Personality and the Religious Personality. If Rieff is right, at some level a culture that is less religious — keep in mind that “religious” means creedal, not “spiritual” — becomes less creative, less likely to produce creative genius.