by Michel Maffesoli

Maffesoli, M. (2014) “The Invisible Church, or ‘Underground Centrality’”, (James Horrox trans.), in Wøldike & Heinskou (eds.) Byen og blikkets lyst, Copenhagen, 2014 pp.59-67


In cordial tribute to Henning Bech, in memory of our conversations in Paris and Copenhagen

One aspect of the work of Franco Ferrarotti that warrants particular attention is his discussion of “grass-roots religiosity, the invisible Church, re-enchanting a disenchanted world”. This is a regular theme in Ferrarotti’s work, and one of which many of his books provide a forceful and incisive analysis. It is also a subject of which we might highlight a prospective dimension in understanding the nascent era of postmodernity.

An ever-present phenomenon in any institution is the formation of genuine secret societies, in which an interactional relationship develops that shapes an institution’s character from a primordial existential relation: Primum relationis. Simmel showed very clearly how such groupings are the touchstone of all true sociality. I on my part have emphasised the value of the loi du secret as a methodological tool for understanding the internal reality of the postmodern tribes: the process of reciprocity on which they are founded. In short, this clandestine society which has evaded established powers throughout history, and which, throughout history, has been hounded by them.1

Tribalism is today an inescapable reality, even for those who were once resolute detractors of the idea. It’s settled. Even if only to bemoan its effects, it is no longer possible to deny the tendency to exist only through relation to the other. As in the adage the Rhineland mystics applied to the deity, “ich bin du, wenn ich bin” – I am you when you are me – contemporary societies are witnessing a resurgence of such interpenetration of consciences, albeit that the deity in question is tribal communion, communion with nature, even our obsession with technological gadgetry. Each of these bespeaks a kind of possession that makes for a reality in which one is oneself a function of alterity. This is of course not without consequences in the societal structure: the moral framework typical of contractual societies loses its efficacy in affective communities; hence perhaps the need to refer to archaic forms of ancient memory through which this sodality expresses itself, which unite people one with another.

This is a constant thematic that runs like a red thread through all society, but at certain moments it takes on a new vigour. In the 19th century, Schelling, Hegel, Hölderlin and others, each in their own way produced works on this idea of an ‘invisible Church’ which, alongside, below, beyond simple positive institutions, united the righteous of heart, authentic in their relations with others, a genuine centre on the basis of which visible society and its institutions could exist.

A romantic vision certainly, but one capable of founding a distinction between a universal morality, defining the common rule, and a deontology (ethic), an expression of the living life and therefore capable of integrating its apparently contradictory elements: good and bad, beautiful and ugly, anomic and canonical. Hegel was consistently faithful on this score when he argued, rightly, that philosophy ought to renounce “the pretension of teaching how the world should be2. Sage advice stemming directly from a form of tolerance characteristic of the protagonists of Illuminism who, like Eckartshausen, dedicated themselves to protecting the ‘interior church’ against the inexorable encroachments of established forms, always potentially inquisitorial.

It is perhaps in this way that we should understand Ferrarotti when he speaks of Durkheim (The Return of the Sacred, towards a faith without dogma) as a “fiery moralist” with no interest in mainstream morality.

One could point out that this “invisible Church” is ‘Reformist’ in origin, in that it implies ‘protest’ against the excesses of an institution corrupted by a surfeit of establishment. Even if Luther, overwhelmed by his own ‘protestation’ and by the chaos to which it gave rise, strove to rein in the reformist fervours, the case of Thomas Müntzer is a good illustration of how the same excesses generate a strong ethical charge that adopts practices of which rational morality naturally disapproves.3

Sexual promiscuity, communalisation of property, repudiation of a mercantile world and the execration of money were to be the defining characteristics of the invisible Church, of the société des purs that sought to bring Müntzer’s city into being. The paroxysm of their actions sparked the repression of the Peasants’ War, but as always the caricature can help us comprehend the excitations, effervescences and alternative practices which run deep through postmodern modes of being and thinking. In these historical phenomena, as in the contemporary context, in play is what we might call a mystique of reliance: reliance on the world and on others in an unending reversibility.

This should be understood as meaning ‘without a specific goal’, ‘without finality’, which is precisely the core aim of rational morality and the social relationship whose foundation it implies. We can relate to the invisible Church remarks made by Simmel, for whom “notions of purpose and meaning in no way imply one another. It is possible to refute the idea that history is oriented towards a purpose and yet still find in it meaning.”4 It is exactly thus that we can understand Ferrarotti when he reminds us that this invisible Church is precisely “the internalisation of all decisions relating to the cosmos considered as sacred”; an immanentism of which the world around us provides countless examples.

One implication of this: the play of passions, the enjoyment of ‘being-together’ without finality or purpose, the pure, ludic pleasure of the life lived in common. Isn’t this what is expressed in contemporary affoulements, and more subtly in the rituality of everyday life? This indeed is the ‘ethic’: to live, with others, situations, to live them with intensity, with authenticity, without reference to a distant goal or some perfect society to be realised. To accommodate oneself to others, as far as possible, in a given place, on the basis of the sharing of emotions, passions, moods, instincts characteristic of human nature.

Attribution of meaning to that which has no meaning (finality): this is indeed what is in play, as an anthropological constant, in this metaphor of the invisible Church. In this, too, is something that helps explain the spiritual power of the postmodern youth tribes. An anthropological constant, that is, a way of being, of thinking, of organising, which, under various names, comes down to the same thing: the force of the spirit against the letter. A transfiguration of morals, ideas, feelings, a shedding of the social ‘skin’ on the basis of a somewhat mystical conception of the world. Bewildering though this may seem, as rationalism appears an unsurpassable acquisition, such phenomena are seen frequently throughout human history: the refusal of moral doctrines of whatever kind, and, as elucidated by the now largely forgotten thinker Jean-Marie Guyau, the importance of anomie5 in the dynamics of societies.

Ferrarotti spoke in this regard of the Paradoxe du Sacré. The success of certain books, such as Angels and Demons, and films like Harry Potter, not forgetting the development of ‘techno’ or ‘goth’ music, remind us that (to recall one of his expressions) ‘the army of Satan’, demonology and other Dionysian inversions are real-world phenomena, which bring with them a genuine epistemological challenge.

Distasteful though it may be to the various positivisms, and they are legion, there is an esoteric dimension to things. This takes various names depending on traditions, but the reality, structurally speaking, is identical. So, in Catholicism, in contrast to the official Church – the Church of St. Peter, the Church of St. John – privileging power, institution, inscription on the temporal world, this one places the accent on the power of the spirit. This is the ‘Johannine’ phylum that we find in mystery cults, in mysticism, in companionship, in symbolist Freemasonry and other secret societies. It is what I have termed ‘subterranean centrality’ or ‘sociality’, incorporating the oneiric, imaginary, ludic, intangible dimensions of the mundane, as against the purely ‘positive’ aspect of a rational and contractual social. Contemporary religiosity, philosophical syncretism, theoretical relativism is inscribed, surely, in such a perspective.

Carl Schmitt, underlining the complex aspect of ecclesial being, remarked that this is founded in a ‘pneumatology’.6 The guarantor of solidity and, perhaps, the perdurance of the Church, is its invisible aspect: nebulous and intangible. Whereas the link binding a simple ensemble may be a normative morality, a complex grouping calls for a ‘situational’ ethic: a deontology.

This is an art of doing, an art of living without a priori or prejudice. It is adjustment to accommodate to the lived moment. A way of socialising then, which comes not from the outside, abstractly, rationally, but which utilises an ‘initiatic’ process. This rests on an emotional foundation. True to its etymology, ‘inire’, initiation consists on the one hand in ‘taking the auspices’, that is, entering into a process of reciprocity with nature, whom one does not simply master, but rather consults, and on the other hand, in ‘spurting out’ (saillir). An erotic perspective indeed! In each case, passion, emotion, in short, the orgy, play their part in this symbolic reality that is the being-together.

I remarked earlier that this is an anthropological constant, an irrefragable ‘Johannine phylum’. By way of illustration, and so as to shed further light on our postmodern tribes, we might refer to the “brothers and sisters of the Free Spirit”, who gained notoriety from the 13th century and caused consternation in the established Church. The mystic Marguerite Porète, burned at the stake in Paris in 1310, drew precisely a distinction between the institutional church and that of the heart; between ‘Sainte Église la Grande’, governed by love, and ‘Sainte Église la Petite’, that of morality and sclerosed rituals governed solely by reason.

Experts on these groups note that they felt themselves no longer subject to the mediation of the clergy, whose works and common virtues seemed to them redundant, and morality, especially in the sexual domain, outdated. The Free Spirit brings libertinism.7 In the sociological sense of the term it is anomic. Distrusted, surveilled, its members hunted down and often executed, the Free Spirit, by virtue of the deification it promoted (“I have become God”: ich bin Gott worden), can shed light on the pantheistic religiosity currently resurging. Diverse contemporary ‘New Age’ practices, the Jungian ‘Self’ and allusions to Gaia certainly find pertinent antecedents here.

In his classic of sociological literature, Histoire et Histoires de Vie, Ferrarotti demonstrates in his distinctive way how biography is, paradoxically, ‘interaction’, each man being the “individualised and active synthesis of society”, and moreover that this can have a “function of rupture”. It is interesting to note that a historian like Norman Cohn and such an astute observer of our societies as Raoul Vaneigem have afforded special attention to these anomic groups, emphasising in particular the promiscuity of their lifestyles, the mechanics of ecstasy that bound them, the life in conventicles—‘paradisi’—which formed an underground society, alternative to the official one.8

Here again what is important is ‘situations’, that is, intense moments which assure the social link (liant). We might note in passing that the success of Umberto Eco’s novel, and its subsequent screen adaptation, where the Fraticelli play a central role, can be understood perhaps as an expression of fascination by the tribal pantheism, the presentist hedonism of these anomic groups. For the ‘deontological’ ethic in gestation is indeed a question of a society of brothers.

This again provides illustration by way of historical example; one of these paradigmatic examples and one that leaves indelible and enduring traces in the collective memory: moments where a clear overhaul of values occurs and thus emerges a new way of existing with the other. In these moments it is not simply on the basis of ideas that individual and social life organises itself, but rather of passions, emotions—habits even. ‘Habits’, enabling us to reconcile ourselves to life, also enable us to attune ourselves to it. This is how, from Thomas Aquinas to Oswald Spengler, the role of the habitus has been thought of: adjustment to one’s natural environment, and thence to one’s social environment. This adjustment is found in what René Nelli, in his Érotique des Troubadours, calls ‘affrèrement’, taking up and translating thus the Italian term ‘affratellamento’, which historians and ethnologists have used to refer to these male companionships which regularly punctuate human histories.

It is edifying to note the close empirical relationship between such ‘affrèrement’ and the impotence of state structures. It is also instructive to observe the saturation of the law of the Father, a vertical law, as it were, superseded by a horizontal one, the law of the brothers. We see thus how this ‘topographical’ shift can help us to understand the proliferation and workings of the contemporary tribes, which are themselves also, in essence, horizontal.

Another of the many characteristics of this affrèrement is recognition through exchange of blood (adoptio in fratem); psychic communion in which, through the symbol of blood, it is the body in its entirety, the sensible, which is recognised and in some way sacralised, celebrating the irrepressible vitality of the world.9 In what he calls the “third term”, or community regained, Ferrarotti shows beautifully that “the sacred is essential as the need of meta-individual signification which gives meaning and direction to the individual himself”. No better expression is there of affrèrement, or what I call ‘homosociality’. There is something very natural, animal, pagan even, in this fraternal ‘homosociality’. An ecological sensitivity, running like a red thread through the life of societies, and at certain moments recognised as such, this ‘animism’ rests on processes of ‘correspondence’. It is of the order of reliance: reliance on others and on the world, and trusting in others and in the world.

It could be said that the essence of Catholicism is the linkage of the visible Church to the invisible Church, whereas that of Christianity in its rationalised (protestantised?) aspect would be, on the contrary, their separation. An astute observation, in that the relationship of the visible and the invisible is something very magical, very pagan. There is therefore in this conception of Catholicism a polytheistic perdurance.10 The veneration of the Virgin, to whom is devoted a cult of ‘hyperdulia’, and of the saints, accorded a cult of ‘dulia’, not forgetting the diverse liturgical rituals with archaic consonances: festivals of prayer, Christmas and the winter solstice, the summer solstice with St. John, the festival of the dead with its echoes of the Celtic Samhain (one could continue this list at leisure) all recall the perdurances of pagan animism more or less clearly consecrated in Catholic forms.

If I suggested earlier that these are paradigmatic forms, it is because they recall how the social link can develop horizontally (affrèrement) from a rootedness in the relationship wherein this fraternity drafts itself out (animism). We could point to the Burschenschaft student fraternities or the Männerbund in Germany, to the açabiyya, the solidarity of Arab tribes of which Ibn Khaldûn speaks. Suffice it to say that the metaphor of the invisible Church reminds us that the constitution of societies can be founded in a loss of the self in the other. Of the self in the Self: detachment in respect of the individual self reinforcing attachment to the other of the tribe.

Indifference to institutional forms is therefore a way of being open to the differences constitutive of a complex pluralism. On this view, actual links are forged from possible links. The material does not exist except as a function of the immaterial. That is, in contrast to the ideology of mastery of the self and of the world, the logic of domination that characterised modernity, one can conceive of a social life resting on shared instincts, in the invisible forces of collective memory: in short, on a pre-individual as a substrate of all society.

Gabriel Tarde, in developing his Lois de l’Imitation, drew heavily on his reading of the mystics (Thomas à Kempis, Thérèse d’Avila).11 We would do well to remember, however, that the essence of mysticism is that one can be solitary while at the same time being bound to others. This solitude is not isolated, but in constant communion with the Other (group, deity, nature). This is surely the central lesson of Franco Ferrarotti’s method, paving the way for consideration of history as collective memory. Contemporary tribal mimetism is of the same character. It puts the accent on social and cosmic correspondence, on accord between the environment and grass-roots solidarities. It (re)valorises communions of all kinds: festivals, music, sport, diverse effervescences. And bear in mind that religiosity is indispensable when it comes to thinking and living the social relationship.

It could be said that postmodern sociality is the contemporary form of the ‘communion of Saints’ of ancient memory. That is, by means of technology, such as the internet, one is mysteriously united with the other beyond space and time. This is the ‘primum relationis’, accentuating situations lived with others, which, beyond the insipid virtue of transcendent morality, unitary and rational, calls for a ‘virtue’, somewhat pagan, mixed of immanent force and the tragic sentiment of life. Such a ‘deontological’ ethic can enable an understanding of the many real revolts against the sterile hypocrisy of the morality of a commercial world: insurrections which hold no fear, since they themselves are cause and effect of the transmutation of values essential to postmodern sociality, immanence of ancient forms, the continuity of the living life. It is in this way that I read the œuvre of Franco Ferrarotti: openness to the other, underground centrality, black market sociality, all things that our customary methods have difficulty understanding, but which are, nevertheless, a challenge that we will be obliged to address.

Translation by James Horrox


1 Cf. G. Simmel, Secret et Sociétés secrètes, éd. Circé, 1991, postface de P. Watier et M. Maffesoli, Le Temps des tribus (1988), 3ème éd. La Table Ronde, 2000.

2 cf F. Ferrarotti, Le retour du sacré, vers une foi sans dogme. Ed Méridiens Klincksieck, 1993 p. 156. Cf. also J. D’Hondt, Hegel, éd. Calmann-Lévy, 1998, p. 97, and Hegel, Principes de la philosophie du droit, Gallimard, 1989, p. 57; cf. also A. Guyard, La fin de la franc-maçonnerie. Edimaf, Paris 2003 p.94 and p.176. On Illuminism, cf. A. Faivre, Eckartshausen et la théosophie chrétienne, Klincksieck, 1969, p. 13.

3 cf. E. Bloch, Thomas Munzer, Paris, 1964; cf. also, on protestant ‘invisibility’, P. Chenaux, Entre Maurras et Maritain, éd. Cerf, 1999, p.119.

4 G. Simmel, Les Problèmes de la philosophie de l’histoire, PUF, 1984, p. 190; cf. also  F. Ferrarotti, Le retour du sacré, ibid., p121.

5 cf. F. Ferrarotti, Le Paradoxe du sacré, ed. Les Eperonniers, Bruxelles, 1987, 62 sq; cf. also J-M. Guyau, Esquisse d’une morale sans obligation ni sanction (1885), Paris, 1935.

6 cf. T. Paléologue, Sous l’œil du Grand Inquisiteur. C. Schmitt et l’héritage de la théologie politique, éd. Cerf, 1999, p. 43 and C. Schmitt, Ex captivitate salus, éd. Vrin, 2003, p. 255.

7 cf. B. Beyer de Ryke, Maître Eckart, éd. Entre Lacs, Paris, 2004, pp. 72-73 and p. 67. Cf. also F. Ferrarotti, Histoire et histoires de vie, Librairie des méridiens, Paris, 1983, p.49-51.

8 cf. R. Guarnieri, Dictionnaire de spiritualité, V, col. 1241-1268. Cf. also R. Vaneigem, Le Mouvement du Libre Esprit, Ramsay, 1986, and N. Cohn, Les Fanatiques de l’Apocalypse, Julliard, 1964.

9 cf. F. Ferrarotti , Le Paradoxe du sacré , op cit p. 102; also R. Nelli, L’Érotique des troubadours, éd. 10/18, 1974, tome 2, p. 206 and 208.

10  cf. T. Paléologue, op. cit., p. 39. On the ‘baptism’ of pagan cults, cf. G. Durand, La Foi du cordonnier, éd. Denoël, 1984. On the same process in relation to fecundating deities, cf. M. Maffesoli, L’Ombre de Dionysos. Pour une sociologie de l’orgie (1982), Le Livre de Poche, 1991.

11 cf. J. Millet, Gabriel tarde et la philosophie de l’histoire, Vrin, Paris, 1970, p. 145 (or 14) and F. Ferrarotti, Histoire et histoires de vie, op.cit. p 31.