The Guru Syndrome


Yesterday I listened to an amazingly inspirational Christian sermon on YouTube. I haven’t listened to these types of things for a pretty long time, but I figured: why not? Sometimes these mainstream preachers have a knack for encouraging messages that can be applied to one’s life even in a secular context.

And this sermon was AMAZING!!! This man was SO talented in really getting to the heart of things like finding one’s life’s purpose and persevering past challenges. And of course he’s also passionate, charismatic (and literally talking in tongues)—this ecstatic experience that really lifted my spirits on a deep level.

And then he made a homophobic remark.

There is never any justified reason to make such remarks, but this was especially shoehorned-in to the topic of the sermon. There was nothing “necessary” about it, or contextually germane to the topic…he just wanted, I guess, to get that one in there.

How does a person so fantastically talented in helping lift up the human spirit also hold the conclusion that gays are “bad?” How does a person who claims to be so deeply spiritually connected to God—to the point that he’s basically spontaneously channeling “tongues”—believe that an omnipotent Creator who managed to think up the entire Universe in a week has a “hard limit” with homosexuals?

And what do I do with the “good” part of his message, before the crap?

Humans sometimes find it very hard to hold such paradoxes in mind. This is why the idea of a “guru,” a powerful religious leader, a near-divine rep of the Almighty here on Earth is so popular.

A really talented preacher, or high-priest, or guru, or alien-channeler, or what-have-you can often have a life-changing impact. You invest yourself totally in what they say; it makes the anxiety and self-doubt go away.

But the paradox that such a figure could also be (at least at times) an asshole might be too much to bear—many people find it easier to just consider him or her infallible. In the case of our preacher, it may just be easier for some to take on his negative viewpoint on gays as one’s own. He was “right” about the other stuff…maybe he was right about this too?

Here’s another example. There was a certain philosopher I liked who also had written this particular essay that was pretty anti-feminist. Even “stretching” my point of view to understand where he was coming from, there were a bunch of points made that I just couldn’t justify any which way I tried to contort my brain. In one part he made fun of the habit of some universities in the 60s and 70s to have a more “diverse” syllabus and include female authors and philosophers he didn’t consider “worthy.”

This was a man who literally made his rep on being contrarian and against the status quo; pointing out the hegemony of the ruling class. He couldn’t understand why there was a need for those more diverse syllabi? He couldn’t understand the concept that women had been traditionally kept out of the Canon? He couldn’t imagine a scenario where some of those marginalized voices might have merit—even merit up to the level of the “worthy?”

In a way, it’s a minor thing. In a way, it’s just an old man being cranky for a moment. But again the question was put to me; does this and other examples “color” the rest of his work? More importantly: should it?

And the answer is: there is no simple answer. See, I wouldn’t make a good guru: I can’t tell you what you should think. I can’t give you a monolithic answer to fit all situations.

I mean, some of the advice I would give is: humans are imperfect, so find the bits of knowledge and teachings that work for you, and then move on. All knowledge in the collective bucket of humankind was cobbled together from what came before, creating a sort of patchwork chimera, throwing away the dross.

Now, there may be some figures who have said such toxic things that it has pretty much tainted the rest of their work; who those people are is largely a subjective manner (outside of like…Hitler. Though some on YouTube apparently think he’s awesome and merely “misunderstood”). But you have every right to kick those people (and their entire oeuvre) out of your personal “canon” if you want, and discuss with others your decision to do so.

It’s sometimes like a shrewd and discerning bird building a nest: this piece doesn’t fit, this one does, this piece is literal crap, this piece is good, this other piece is also good, and so on. That’s how you build your philosophy of life, your outlook, even your “religion.” Piece-by-piece.

OR: you could purchase it all pre-made via guru or preacher or alien-channeler or cult of your choice. Many do.