The great Latter-day Saint humanitarian and example, Lowell Bennion, was also a brilliant sociologist. The LDS Church took him from academics, but he left an important book which was one of the first introductions of the sociologist Max Weber, to a English speaking audience.
Printed in only 100 copies by Le Presses Modernes in Paris, this quantity was reduced by the war and chaos in Europe, Bennion’s Max Weber’s Methodology almost sank into oblivion. But his student Laurie DiPadova has published a chapter from it as well as an article on Bennion’s interpretation of Weber. Mary Bradford, Bennion’s Biographer, also discusses the book in her Lowell L. Bennion: Teacher, Counselor, Humanitarian.
Not only is Bennion’s sociology important for what he has to say about Mormonism in his analyses, he brings new light to the study of Weber. Bennion’s work developed independently from that of Talcott Parsons, who I believe was a student of Weber’s and used the master’s writings to bolster his own structural functionalist approach. For many Americans, Parson’s Weber was Weber until with the collapse of Parson’s school, other approaches, including interpretive approaches could be published.
Still sloganeering often passes for reading Weber, as most students probably only learn the five to ten sentence version composed of just a few ideas. Yet Weber is one of the most original and important sociologists and his work, even though a century old, still has enormous importance for those of us who study societies and deserves careful study. For me he is even more important because of his thoughtful approach to religion.
While many people will see symbols and models of and for reality as important keys to understanding religion, and others will look at beliefs and rituals as structures of meaning, Bennion deftly says “Weber considers religions [...] as a type of authoritative group (“Herrschaftsverband”). They represent authoritative associations which enjoy a monopoly of authority supported by the ability to give or withhold salvation (“Heilsgüter”). All religions and political groups are based in the last analysis on authority or power.” (Bennion 1992, p 40).
This approach shifts the focus from notions of the transcendent and supernatural, aka God, and rituals and symbols as means of representing it, to the social process by which power and authority are exercised.
Bennion takes us then to Weber’s types of authority, and here just a simple usage of Bennion’s as he referred to Weber stopped me in my reading tracks.
In discussing Weber’s “charismatic form of authority” Bennion uses the German word ausseralltaegliche, which he then translates as magical or supernatural. The German word stopped me. I have been reading and teaching Weber’s charismatic form of authority for three decades yet a nuance in the German had never been available to me. The word außeralltägliche, as it is found in Weber, and not in the conventions of English typography, is a composite made of of täglich, or daily, and außer, which means beyond or outside of. No problem, charisma is easily something outside or beyond the daily. A charismatic person does seem invested with some extraordinary quality, to use the more idiomatic English.
However, the shift from this sense to magical and supernatural left me thinking.
Bennion is right in his choice of words, they do come from Weber. The sacred easily comes to mind when we speak of the supernatural. Yet the word sacred is generally more attached to the work of Durkheim or Eliade, than Weber. As DiPadova notes, one of Bennion’s strengths is how he brings the two into conversation.
Bennion wrote: “Important for the understanding of Weber [...] is his distinction between the sacred and the profane. Profane is that which is of everyday occurrence; sacred are those unusual (ausseralltaeglicche) happenings which are easily adaptable to magical and supernatural attributes.“ Bennion 1992, p 43-44)
It seems to me there is a nuance here that separates this thinking from Durkheim’s (and Lord knows Eliade’s). Durkheim, in his Elementary Forms of Religious Life uses the distinction between the sacred and the profane as a defining characteristic of religion and sees important social life in the setting apart that which is defined as sacred from that which is taken as profane.
In Durkheim’s way of describing this, it is all too easy to forget the Latin meaning of profane as the ordinary, the normal. Weber’s täglich forces us to see this simple meaning of the every day, the ordinary.
Though potentially present, this meaning of the everyday is also lost in the English translation of Weber’s Economy and Society, on which, in the German, Bennion draws. The English version says “The term “charisma” will be applied to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman,or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” It is the shift from extra-ordinary, in order not to lose the notion of the daily, to the supernatural and superhuman that I find an interesting analytical opening, if we keep in mind these are in relationship to the ordinary, rather than things in and of themselves.
But how is it said in German? Here we start seeing some differences. Not that the English is wrong, it is not. Rather that the translators picked and chose among nuances, leaving out some I think are important.
The first section of what in German is a long and complex sentence the translators broke up and reformulated says “»Charisma« soll eine als außeralltäglich (ursprünglich, sowohl bei Propheten wie bei therapeutischen wie bei Rechts-Weisen wie bei Jagdführern wie bei Kriegshelden: als magisch bedingt) geltende Qualität einer Persönlichkeit heißen, [...]”
In a more literal translation, this passage says “‘charisma’ should be called one who shows an extra-ordinary, golden [or valuable] quality of personality.” The parenthetical part speaks of something that springs from the point of origins, such as in a prophet, a therapist, something that points to the transcendent, a hunting leader, a war hero, deemed magical.”
This set of ideas removes the sacred from the transcendent, per se, and takes it, instead, into the domain of leadership in times of difficulty, healing, claims to the origin point, and so on to speak of the relationship between them and followers which makes them seem transcendent and magical. In other words, it refers to the relational and power dynamics that create the separation of the sacred from the profane, rather than seeing them as a structure of classifications that generate relationship.
Although it would seem that this simple change should be something obvious to social scientists, in my experience it is generally not. Bennion’s usage of Weber’s original German, after his insistence on religion being an organization built on power and coercion, emphasizes to me that the sacred needs to be thought of in these relational terms, rather than in the absolute terms it normally wears. Thank you, Lowell Bennion, who unfortunately I only met in passing. I look forward to learning more from your work.
Lowell L. Bennion, “The Business Ethic of the World Religions and the Spirit of Capitalism”, International Journal of Politics, Culture and Society. 6:1:39-74, 1992
Max Weber, Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft: Grundriß der Verstehende Soziologie (1922) http://www.textlog.de/weber_wirtschaft.html
Max Weber (Guenther Roth and Claus Wittich, eds.), Economy and Society, (University of California Press, 1978)