There is a particular form of personality cult which has become prevalent in our times. It is part of the overall self-help umbrella, and nearly all the gurus of that movement partake of some of its tropes. Its most obvious form is the “spiritual life coach,” an individual who is allegedly so awesome that you should, because of this, fork over large amounts of money to them in order to be awesome as well.
The Awesomeness Industry starts with the basic premise that being a successful, Type A, upper middle class individual is the goal to which all history and personal spiritual development are directed, and anyone who isn’t all of these things needs “coaching.” The coaching is done by people who, by their own assertion, wear the crown of Awesomeness. Some have an Awesome Lineage, having been “coached” by one of the Elders of their particular School of Awesomeness. Others are merely charismatic and need only speak the right Words to convince those predisposed to listen to them that they are Awesome. Some, we must add, even simply (gasp!) make up some Weighty and Impressive Origin for their Awesomeness.
Individuals are attracted to the Awesome because the particular Guru says something they “like,” which is absolutely the worst way to choose a spiritual teacher. “Liking” something either means “it confirms my prejudices” or “I’m projecting some idealized version of myself onto this person.” What the Awesome Guru is really saying is that “the world would be so much more Awesome if everyone were like me.” They then proceed to provide detailed semantic maps as to just how their personal assumptions, prejudices, and pet peeves, are in fact the Highest Law of the Universe.
After encountering more than three or four of these people (assuming you don’t get stuck in their Awesome Vortex, in which case you are probably fucked) I think it natural that one begins to ask the question “who the fuck are you and why do I care what you think?” No, seriously. You don’t really know this person. You’ve probably never even had coffee with them. In fact, the only place you’re likely to relate to your Awesome Guru is in public workshops, trying to be one of the lucky individuals who gets to ask them a question and receive a suitably vague, qualitative exhortation in return.
Spiritual authority is an ephemeral thing to begin with. Most of the time the justification for it is entirely self-referencial within a given system. From the Vatican to the Manson Family, we see people turning over the care of their souls to individuals they have never really met and who they trust because they tell you they are Awesome in some way. The Pope is Awesome because he is the successor of Saint Peter (who may or may not have been an historical individual empowered by an equally equivocal Messiah). Charles Manson was Awesome because he was the Messiah of questionable historicity. The Awesomeness Industry is usually a good deal more benign than this, but the overall behavior brings up a final question: from whence does spiritual authority derive.
For all the reasons given above, I think it fair to say that spiritual authority is something akin to Emperor Norton’s crowning of himself as “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.” He said it, and to an extent, people went along with it. The main difference between Norton and most “leaders,” especially “spiritual leaders” is the fact that he didn’t rely on a heaping pile of bullshit to justify himself. Unlike today’s Awesomeness Gurus, he did not require a steady stream of spiritual pornography to get his followers off with so that he could keep them coming to his workshops. He just said he was the Emperor, and it was so. In some sense.
From all this, I conclude that spiritual authority is something we all have, and that projecting it outward toward some Awesome Personage is detrimental to our own growth. No one has any position from which to tell you how to think, act, or relate to the world around you. They may be able to give you a few helpful tools, but once they start trying to turn you into a carbon copy of themselves, the appropriate action, it seems to me, is to leave and never come back.
But then, who the fuck am I, and why do you care what I think?