The Problem of The Holy Fool

In 1869, Dostoevsky captured the problem of the holy fool as he was during his time and as he has been from time immemorial, from every people and place. His novel The Idiot portrays Prince Myshkin’s attempt to integrate into secular Russian society. As Dostoevsky’s ideal of Christlike love, he is childlike yet spiritually profound. But instead of respect, he is caught up in a world of vanity and desire. He is the butt of jokes, and often finds himself ridiculed, mocked and even despised. Much of it is because those around him are unable to use him in their social games as he seems to exist in a world alien to everyone else:

‘My joy is that there is no such world at all, but that the substance of life is in everyone! There is no reason to be troubled because we are absurd, is there? For we really are: we are absurd, frivolous, we have bad habits, we’re bored, we don’t know how to look around ourselves, we don’t know how to understand, we are all like this, all of us, you, and I, and everyone! And you aren’t offended by my telling you straight to your faces that you are absurd? There is the basic stuff of life in you, isn’t there? You know, I believe it’s sometimes even good to be ridiculous. Yes, much better. People forgive each other more readily and become more humble, we can’t understand everything at once, we can’t begin with perfection! To reach perfection there must first be much we do not understand. And if we understand too quickly we will probably not understand very well. I tell this to you who have been able to understand so much and — do not understand.’

Around the same time, Nietzsche’s message that those around him had not grasped the implication of God’s death in European culture could only take shape in his character of the madman:

God is dead! God remains dead! And we have killed him! How shall we console our selves, the most murderous of all murderers? The holiest and the mightiest that the world has so far possessed, has bled to death under our knife, who will wipe the blood from us? With what water could we cleanse ourselves? What lustrums, what sacred games shall we have to devise? Is not the magnitude of this deed too great for us? Shall we not ourselves have to become Gods, merely to seem worthy of it? Nietzsche, 1882. The Parable of the Madman.

But those around him could only laugh and stare stunned at the madman. Realizing he had come too soon, he departs. He quips that just as the light from the stars take time to reach earth, the meaning of God’s death had yet reached his hearers.

Besides the 19th century, the holy fool existed in the ancient world too. The apostle Paul himself expressed that Christians should live in such a way, rejecting worldly concerns in their imitation of Jesus. But the rejection of common social rules — hypocrisy, brutality, greed and domination, the very drivers of human life itself, comes at the cost of being a figure to be mocked and an insult.

“For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: “He catches the wise in their craftiness.” (1 Corinthians 3:19)

So what can these timeless grains of wisdom teach us about temporal life? I think it is that underneath the appearance of gullibility that is so easily derided, there is another face to the holy fool. It is that his words and actions reveal a heart hidden with truth and sincerity which can only be spiritually discerned. He makes plain what is hidden, and draws light out from darkness. But can those used to living in darkness bear to look at the sun? By the words of Anthony the Great: “Here comes the time, when people will behave like madmen, and if they see anybody who does not behave like that, they will rebel against him and say: ‘You are mad,’ — because he is not like them.” In Dostoevsky’s case, I think what he teaches us is that there is a cost to living with simplicity and sincerity. Yet the problem of the holy fool isn’t him but his hearers. Blinded by their own ambitions, they’re unable to receive his words as they are. It is a strange world we live in when those who seem mad can teach us the most about living. We would all do well to pay attention to fools from time to time as we pursue what it means to live well. If in revealing themselves they all reveal something about us, this world could certainly do with more holy fools.

To call a man a fool is not necessarily an insult, for the authentic life has frequently been pictured under the metaphor of the fool. In figures such as Socrates, Christ, and the Idiot of Dostoyevsky we see that foolishness and wisdom are not always what they seem to be. – Sam Keen, Apology for Wonder

To read on…

Foolishness for Christ – Wikipedia

Wise Fool – Wikipedia

Being A Good Person Cannot Make Up For The Wrong We Do: Why I love that God needed to become a man

The weird habit all humans have

We just can’t help ourselves. Like impulsive children, we just can’t help feeling bad whenever we do something wrong. And we can’t stop trying to make up for it. And if we find that we can’t? Well despair sets in like quick cement, our guilty conscience eating away at us like termites underneath timbers. We have a deeply personal knowledge of wrongs, more than just an intellectual assent. When we see wrongs committed against us or others, our hearts cry out for reparation. That’s part of what makes us human. And the reason why it’s a part of being human is because God created humans to be his image, including his justice.

Our weird habit is evidence of a damaged product

Just as every object was created with a purpose, as humans, we were made in the image of God, designed to honor God by obeying and enjoying him forever. But our conscience assures us we have fallen way short of that. We are prone to do what’s wrong, especially when we’re told we can’t do something. The very thought of being prohibited from something itches away at us. Our moral compasses are broken and we’re scrambling around like ants trying to fix it. So when we act selfishly, if we recognize it, we’ll apologize and promise to do better next time, hoping that’ll resolve our guilt. Unfortunately our consciences don’t seem to work that way. Like a bank account, each wrong committed is a withdrawal on our balance, gradually accumulating more and more debt in our account as we age. It is no wonder that old men are some of the most regretful people in the world.

Being good is overrated

But God is a person of infinite beauty and value. Therefore obeying and enjoying him is the highest good. That means every transgression is a cosmic crime of eternal and infinite proportion. It is like choosing to eat your own feces over lobster. If God says not to eat something, we ought not to eat it even at the cost of all the universe and multiple universes more. The penalty for such a crime then is something greater than the whole amount of our obligations. The penalty requires a payment of infinite value because it has been committed against an infinite being. How then can being good absolve our guilt when it is merely being what we were made to be? It seems that the history of ethics has vastly overrated its credit value.

The solution: a bail out by God

Religions are implicitly aware of this, which is why the story of the world’s religions is one in which the debt is attempted to be remedied since they all know the accounts will have to be settled one day. The problem is that with the exception of Christianity, religions rituals, superstitions and self-help practices have worked only to temporarily suppress our guilt. Let’s not kid ourselves. Our selfishness is an enormous crime and if not for God’s restraints, would be hell on earth. No, the only thing that would make reparation for a life lived in defiance of its infinitely valuable giver, is an eternal and infinitely more valuable life than any human being could offer.

If our hope is in ourselves, our will to power, or our ability to create our own meaning with our choices, then we are of all people the most to be pitied. Living the good life by ourselves is the feeble attempt of a toddler to beat his dad in basketball. The dam of our disappointments and guilt will eventually break its banks and crush us with the weight of its condemnation when we realize we cannot live the life we so desperately want to. The end of living for one’s self is despair not freedom. And the end of despair is death, not life.

Only God can give himself something that is more valuable than the whole universe. And there is nothing that is more valuable than all existence but himself. But it is man who owes the debt. So God the author of life, entered life himself as a character – the man Jesus, so that he might pay man’s debt with his own life. It was life that had existed from eternity. And it was life that was infinitely more valuable than anything else. It was a life through whom, to whom and for whom, all things were made. Only the life and death of Jesus could remedy our guilt because only as a human could he represent us, and only as God could his life be of infinite worth. And because he was of infinite worth, his payment is sufficient for every person who desires to have their guilt washed, their conscience cleansed and their life restored – as his eternal image. This is why I love that God had to become man.

Why Hell Must Exist

You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire. Matt 5:21-23

When was the last time you thought about hell? If you’re like me it’s probably been awhile. That’s not a surprise because sometime around the latter half of the 20th century, hell dropped out of our culture’s vocabulary. I’m not sure how it happened or exactly when, but I do remember hell being a common phrase as a kid and then it suddenly just vanished. It wasn’t that it was there one day and then gone the next; it was as if adults had ever heard of such a concept. Instead of a common belief around which morality and life was oriented, it became a dirty word associated with fringe groups. Like those Westboro Baptist guys. It wasn’t a teaching you or your church wanted to be known for. Sure people nowadays may believe in a hell, but this concept is vague and it isn’t quite sure who makes it or who doesn’t. What is certain is that you don’t and no one you’re related to don’t. Not to mention most people. Really, the only people who would deserve hell would probably be Hitler…and that’s about it.

The Christian View of Hell

This places modern Christians in an awkward position since they have always believed in a literal heaven and hell from the time of the apostles. More than that, Christians believe that anyone who doesn’t repent and turn to a man named Jesus will go to hell, separated from any good relationship with God and in the full presence of his wrath. In tolerant times like ours, the Christian belief of heaven and hell is like jumping into a frozen pool, a shock to our system of values. This makes it almost incomprehensible and because of that it’s easy for such views to be socially rejected because of its perceived ‘unfairness’.

Can God really condemn people for a lack of belief? What about the ‘good atheist’? What about Gandhi? More importantly what about the everyday people we know and love like grandma who isn’t a Christian but is one of the most kind hearted people you’ll ever meet? If it’s an outrage when a good man gets the same sentence as a wicked one, how much more when God does so with humans. But if you pause to reflect on the nature of justice, you realize that for a perfect God to be just, hell must necessarily exist. More than that, hell must include people just like you and me.

Evil Isn’t Out There, It’s In Here

While technology like social media has readily opened up the world to us in the 21st century, being more connected to other human beings also means being more open to seeing the injustice and evil that exists in this world. When we see a news report of a school shooting, or a woman who had acid thrown on her face for leaving Islam, or that Syria has attacked its own citizens with chlorine gas, our heart cries out for justice.

But if we want the world to be a better place, wanting injustice to be remedied is only the first step. The second one is to realize that all of the evil we see in others is the same that’s present in ourselves. The scariest thing about the Holocaust, were that its soldiers, its prison guards, and its secret services were just everyday German citizens. They weren’t born monsters, they were human and this was demonstrated in the shock of one Jewish man who attended his perpetrator’s trial. As he looked into his eyes, he saw his humanity and he realized that the two were the same.

We are each capable of infinite evil. Like cancerous cells, they lie dormant within us, awaiting their opportunity to entice our souls. So if we want God to eliminate evil and rectify injustice, we must accept that a perfect God cannot tolerate the least bit of evil in the universe. He must deal with all of it and not just some out there in others. And that includes even the judgment of people like you and me who probably may not ever commit a major crime in our lives, but nonetheless harbor the very same dark desires that when fed, lead to widespread suffering.

Why Only Those Who Believe In Jesus Escape Hell

The Christian doesn’t believe that people go to hell because of their lack of belief in Jesus anymore than we believe that lifelines cause the death of people who drown. No, people drown because they asphyxiate underwater but the lifeline was the only thing that could’ve saved them. So too with Jesus. In any court case, justice demands payment. But in the courts of God, the cost of a crime against an eternally perfect being is more than any man can bear. Unless a perfect substitute exists to bear the guilt of the evil that lies within us, all we’re left with is despair – despair that despite our best efforts to scrub off the evil around us, we can never touch the evil within us and despair because we ultimately know that it will never measure up under the eyes of God. But this is the beauty of Jesus:

“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” Is. 53:5