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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
An Entheogen Chrestomathy

Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.
Author Index | Title Index

Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities

Oakes, Len (1997)
Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press

ISBN:0-8156-2700-9 hardcover
0-8156-0398-3 paperback

Description: Hardcover, xvi + 246 pages.

Contents: Foreword by Sarah Hamilton-Byrne, 11 chapters, Appendix A: On Theory and Method, Appendix B: Leaders and Groups Studies, works cited, index.

Excerpts: In this unique contribution to our understanding of the social phenomenon of charismatic groups and those who lead them, Dr. Len Oakes explores the psychology of charisma and proposes his own theory of the five-stage life cycle of two types of prophets-the messianic and the charismatic-from their primitive narcissistic beginnings to their ultimately inevitable implosion or demise. The central premise of Dr. Oakes's thesis is that the core of the cult leader's distinctiveness, and the basis of any subsequent psychopathology, is the narcissistic personality-characterized by grandiosity, manipulativeness, a need for control of others and inner congruence, but also by paranormal empathy, confidence, memory, autonomy, detachment, and islands of social and personal insight. Hidden under these defenses is an empty core, a terror of weakness, and a secret sense of shame that leads to a compensatory grandiosity. As with any personality type, cult leaders' expressions of their preexisting narcissistic dispositions can lie anywhere along a continuum from normal to borderline to frankly psychotic; Oakes has met and talked to numerous leaders who together exemplify all of these states. He also explores the psychology of apostates and proposes a life cycle of individual involvement in charismatic groups. (Foreword, Sarah Hamilton-Byrne, page xi)

For the purposes of this book a prophet is defined as one who (a) espouses a message of salvation that is opposed to conventional values, and (b) attracts a following of people who look to him for guidance in their daily lives. (page 2)

It is possible that when scholars analyze reports of religious experiences, they are misled by the sheer drama of the stories and they consider too brief a time span. This is, after all, how these experiences are usually recalled by those who have them, and it results in dramatic, condensed accounts. However some of the leaders in this study had had several such experiences and were able to look back on them over a period of twenty or more years. From their vantage points much of the novelty had faded, and the experiences had become for them merely steps on the road each had traveled. Arnold's story suggests that the "standard model" of mysticism may be refined in the following ways.

  1. Awakening is most often a series of interconnected events. ...

  2. Awakening is extended in time. ...

  3. Awakening readjusts most of one's life concerns. Rather than being solely of a religious nature, awakening encompasses and rearranges all aspects of one's life. ...

  4. There are specific triggers for awakening. Ralph Hood found that certain triggers led to mystical experiences. These usually involved sensory deprivation, typically time spent in an isolation tank or alone in the woods or the desert, and a certain style of religious thinking. ...

  5. Rules and practice do not produce awakening. From Arnold's story it is clear that meditation, special diets, ritual practices, and so on are not necessary for awakening. Yet many religions claim a methodology for attaining the state. Daniel Batson has shown that these generally involve drugs, meditation, and reading or chanting sacred texts. Agehananda Bharati has identified the four components of most mystical regimes as withdrawal from society, spiritual work in the form of physical discipline and theological study, celibacy, and a special diet. He has also discussed whether such factors as education, ideology, moral excellence, and so on may lead to awakening. His conclusion is that possibly yoga, psychotherapy, and asceticism may lead to it, but that what is most needed is "a certain psychosomatic readiness" involving physique, nutrition, an open-minded experimental attitude, and, for some, such triggers as drugs and ritual copulation. None of these guarantees that one will experience awakening, but the mystical experience may come to those who try very hard over a very long period of time. The common thread in all of this is an attitude of playful open-mindedness. (It must be noted in passing that while mystics are often affronted when their awakenings are likened to drug experiences, sometimes accounts of drug experiences are more interesting and meaningful to others than accounts of mystical states.)

  6. Awakening is willed. In considering the leaders' awakening experiences within the contexts of their entire lives, it is difficult to avoid concluding that these experiences were in some way fated or willed. ...

  7. Awakening has no ontological significance. Perhaps the biggest mistake we can make about the mystical experience is to take it too seriously. ...

  8. Awakening is not related to morality. ... this is unlikely to be the case among the leaders studied herein. ...

  9. Awakening solves some problems yet causes others. Arnold Harper was at first reluctant to become a minister because he could see the life it meant for him. ...

  10. Awakening is not permanent. In Eastern thought, awakening results in a permanent change such that from then on, the enlightened one dwells in God consciousness. This seems unlikely. ...

  11. There is no hierarchy of awakened states. Implicit in much of the literature about mysticism is the belief that there is a ladder of progressively more lofty and elevated states of awakening; that there is an 'upward path" wherein certain "levels" are "higher" than others. ... But it is likely that those who claim to have experienced ever more advanced mystical states do so in order to recruit and bamboozle followers rather than to aid spiritual understanding.

  12. Awakening is less important than is usually thought. Because of the points listed above, it seems likely that awakening is much less important in the lives of prophets than is often assumed. It is mysterious and exciting, but it is solely a psychological phenomenon. Even in religious terms it was not seen by the prophets in this study as the only-or even the best-spiritual reference point. They tended to regard awakening as remarkable but incidental to their development. (pages 103-110)

Daniel Batson likens mysticism to creative insight in which a cognitive "gestalt switch" occurs in the way the person views the world. Hence the mystical experience is a special kind of creative act with four stages. In the first-preparation-some life problem that the mystic has been unable to solve leads to a deep personal crisis that is seen as basically of a religious nature. In the second stage-surrender-the exhausted mystic gives up and relaxes his conscious problem-solving efforts. This allows the unconscious mind to grapple with the problem. Now a different kind of "thinking" (if it can still be called that) comes into play. It is symbolic, involving strange images, rhythms, emotions, and body tones, mostly occurring out of awareness. This "primary process" thought now grapples with the problem. In the third stage-illumination-these unconscious images, feelings, and symbols suddenly spring into consciousness, perhaps as a hallucination in which the mystic hears the voice of God telling him what to do. Or the answer may be less direct-a striking dream, perhaps, or a profound moment of self-transcendence, insight, and ecstasy. In this way a resolution of the problem appears. In the final stage-verification-the solution is tested in real life. Hence the fourth stage is a time of sorting the false from the true. (page 111).

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