The Charisma of Community

“In the last days it will be that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
    and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
    and your old men shall dream dreams.”
(NRSV: Acts 2:17, quoting Joel 2:28)

Visions are exciting. As a college student, my favorite aspect of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was our fulfillment of Joel’s prophesy. The heavens had opened! The Book of Mormon had been unearthed as scripture! The gospel was Restored! Prophets again walked the Earth! What a time to be alive — when Jesus Christ’s Second Coming was imminent!

I loved religious fervor. I particularly loved to read primary sources from the Second Great Awakening. To me, Joseph Smith‘s visions were part of God’s wave of religious revivals. Contemporary visionaries like Peter Cartwright and Antoinette Brown Blackwell couldn’t help but also be awash in spiritual power.

In a word, I loved charisma. Visions, revivals, prophesies, revelations — all of the dramatic manifestations of God’s grace. Charisma is the power of God distilled into hope for all mankind. Charisma anticipates a world where open heavens lead to radical and systemic change on Earth. Where spiritual gifts flood God’s children such that we become Zion, because we are of “one heart and one mind, and dwell in righteousness; and there are no poor among us.” (Moses 7:18). Charisma builds spiritual community.

My membership in the Church meant I held as an Article of Faith that God would “yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.” And so I was constantly on the lookout for more charisma. Although I knew better than to demand divine signs as a condition of belief, I hoped for them. I hoped to hearken unto King Benjamin’s call to “open your ears that ye may hear, and your hearts that ye may understand, and your minds that the mysteries of God may be unfolded to your view.” (Mosiah 2:9).

So I searched for new revelations to address modern ills. I charted prophesies and tracked Signs of the Times. I scoured General Conference talks for hidden mysteries. I speculated about Jesus Christ visiting the upper rooms of our temples and speaking directly to our modern apostles. I combed through the Dead Sea Scrolls, wondering when God would lead us to scriptures by other “lost sheep, not of this fold.” (John 10:16). And when I stumbled on problematic aspects of the Church — like racism or sexism — I whispered “the restoration is ongoing” while praying for Church leaders to be inspired to seek answers. We were the Restored Gospel! While human error is evitable, God called our faith to rise above the sins of the world.

So when, in college, I studied Max Weber’s theory of the routinization of charisma, I couldn’t help but gloat that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the exception. The Second Great Awakening may have faded from America life, but for Mormons it endured. We had not enshrined Joseph Smith’s visions and translations and revelations by later expressing skepticism about other dramatic displays of spiritual gifts as a threat — we embraced continuing revelation! We did not follow trends towards the consolidation of spiritual authority by promulgating legalistic rules about exactly who could address which audiences on behalf of God — we preached personal revelation!

I remember the moment, sitting in an academic conference on the Second Great Awakening, when I awoke to my naivete. I dared to ask myself where the new visions and new scriptures and universalist hope had gone — and realized Mormon charisma was dead. Well, not dead, exactly — just routinized. Routinization is exactly what had happened to us. We stripped the Relief Society of autonomy and quashed women’s healing ministries. We set up strict Priesthood hierarchies with keys. And we cast out those whose “personal” revelation dared to contradict Church leaders. That’s literally what “Correlation” accomplished. In the words of Matt Bowman, we “went from beard-wearing radicals to clean-cut conformists.”

Charisma is uncontrollable so the institution seized control. We were not sociological exceptions.

I wonder, sometimes, why I wasn’t tempted to just walk away from the Church when I set aside my childhood pursuit of charisma. When I stopped praying for dramatic unveilings of new scripture at General Conference, and stopped plotting how to obtain the Second Anointing or make my calling and election be sure. I think it’s because I realized that pursuing esoteric deep doctrines for the spiritual drama was tantamount to consuming junk food. It distracted me from God’s actual calling for my life: to serve others. What I find most compelling about religion is the raw power of confessing our sins while seeking to live like Christ.

Real charisma — what I call the charisma of community — has been thriving in our local congregations, all along.

A few years ago in Relief Society we had one of those perennial lessons on the Second Coming. For most of my life these had been my favorite lessons. And for the first time that Sunday it … wasn’t. It felt empty. Of course no one could perceive my lackluster internal reaction, my ward knew me as the gospel doctrine nerd. So when a class discussion ensued about the relative timing sequence of some Signs of the Times, the teacher called on me — without me even raising my hand — to explain. I laughed and gave the answer. But then I continued: “You know, the Second Coming used to be my favorite topic. But honestly, I no longer care. I’m not looking for Christ in the future, I need Christ in my life right now. The Second Coming is meaningless unless we all can learn to love one another.

When I look back on 30 years of memories of my most spiritual experiences, almost none of them involve visions or revelations or mysticism — I don’t feel close to God through grand spiritual displays or top-down revelatory pronouncements. Instead, I have felt the Spirit most strongly amidst the small acts of Christian kindness from my communities. The charisma of community is growing up in a village of ward members who loved and mentored me. It’s my mother’s friends competing to bring meals when she ended up in the hospital. It’s watching gentle men drop everything to dash to the side of a friend in need of a blessing. It’s participating in small book clubs when the conversation morphs into fraught ethical debates about how to truly be better disciples of Christ. It’s lingering in a parked car as friends dry each others’ tears and dare to dream of a brighter future. It’s feeling lifted up on eagle’s wings from the outpouring of empathy during my divorce.

This is the root of my faith. Where God is not found in earthquakes or fires, but in the quiet of a still, small voice. (1 Kings 19:11-12). The gospel of Jesus Christ does not need “Breaking Revelation!” chyrons during General Conference to stay relevant. The gospel is, and always has been, the same: love God, and love your neighbor. “On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:40).

The charisma of mysticism sparks and fades, but the charisma of community endures.

Comments

  1. Carolyn – this completely encapsulates my feelings. I was one of the generation (born in the 50s) who was told that we were “the best and brightest” and “the chosen”. Ushering in the 2nd Coming was something that I was sure would happen to me. Excitement and dread coexisted in my mental and spiritual preparations.

    Now – not so much. I hope to live out my life loving and serving my family and fellow travelers on this earth. That is as good as it gets!

  2. Most of what you call charisma doesn’t seem to fit the definition of charisma to me; it mostly sounds like supernatural. And I by and large agree with you that the church teaches about supernatural things, but they never seem to happen to me.

  3. Carolyn, this who things rings so true to me, I imagine we could have been fast friends growing up! And you are right; although I can’t deny the prophesies and revelations about the second coming aren’t still fascinating to me, my current calling is learning to love – love everyone and see them as Jesus does.

  4. I love this so very much! Thank you!

  5. HokieKate says:

    I haven’t matured enough in my faith. I can relate to my younger days being fascinated with the revelations and powers of the heavens, and then the disappointment that such things don’t happen any more.
    In 2010 Pres. Packer spoke in General Confirmation on family proclamation, saying: “It qualifies, according to the definition, as revelation”. That line remains in the video recording (about one minute in) but was stripped from the transcript. I was excited to hear him say that, but surprised and confused by the transcript. Is the church saying the Proclamation is not revelation? And if not, what do have outside the D&C that is?
    https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2010/10/cleansing-the-inner-vessel?lang=eng
    My trouble is, then, how does my LDS faith lead me to Christ better than my devout Catholic and Baptist friends? I’ve lost all the missionary fervor of my youth. Instead I envy the deep bible studies, small group activities, and vibrant Christianity of my friends’ congregations compared to my tiny, quiet ward. I am doing all I can to serve by running the coed activity days program on my own, but I miss the fire I had when I was younger.

  6. Carolyn,
    An absolutely beautiful and discerning post. Many thanks!

  7. Josiah Reckons says:

    Charisma has a slightly different meaning in the context of religion. Within the context of Christianity, charisma can refer to spiritual gifts and miracles (supernatural). This definition is used in terms like charismatic Christianity or the Charismatic Movement, where there is a focus on contemporary visions, speaking in tongues, healings, etc.

  8. Bravo!

  9. Anonymous says:

    Howard W. Hunter taught this:
    “Thus Jesus taught his disciples to watch and pray; however, he taught them that prayerful watching does not require sleepless anxiety and preoccupation with the future, but rather the quiet, steady attention to present duties.” General Conference April 1974.

    A good portion of my ward was eagerly prepared for civil war at the innaguration of Joseph Biden. They sensed a conflict was imminent that very week, and hushed conversations in the corners of the cultural hall and hallways were full of somber predictions.

    Here we are three months in. A sense of normalcy pervades, coupled to a sense of disillusionment by many of my right wing brothers and Sisters.

    When Christ says he will come as a thief in the night, I think he means exactly that. Nobody will see it coming, even those who obsess over end of days scenarios.

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