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The Spirituality and Politics of Holy Folly

by Belden C. Lane

Belden C. Lane is professor of theological studies and American studies at Saint Louis University, St. Louis, Missouri. This article appeared in the Christian Century December 15, 1982. p. 1281. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Centuries ago in London there lived a gnarl-fisted, Calvinist moneylender to whom a Jewish merchant owed a considerable sum. One day the usurer proposed a vile bargain: he would cancel the debt if the merchant gave him his young and beautiful daughter instead. Otherwise the debtor would rot in jail. Naturally the father was horrified at either choice. But the moneylender piously offered to let Providence decide the matter, saying he would put a black pebble and a white pebble into an empty money bag and let the girl reach into the bag to choose one of the two without looking. If she chose the black pebble, she would become his wife and her father’s debt would be canceled. If she chose the white pebble, she would stay with her father and the debt still would be canceled.. If she refused to pick a pebble, her father would go to jail and she would starve.

Reluctantly the merchant and his daughter agreed to the test. As the moneylender then stooped in pick up pebbles from the ground, the girl -- sharp-eyed with fright -- noticed that he picked up two black pebbles and put them into the bag. In that moment, with her life in her hands, she had to choose what to do. She could refuse -- thereby sending her father to jail. She could expose the moneylender as a cheat -- thereby stirring up his wrath. Or she could take a black pebble -- thereby sacrificing herself for her father. It was then that Dame Folly -- a wisp of Lilith’s ancient mischief, perhaps -- led her to an act of the most clever foolishness. She reached into the bag, pulled out a pebble and, without looking at it, accidentally dropped it on the ground, where it was lost among all the others. She cried, “Oh, how clumsy of me,” and added, “but it doesn’t matter. If you look into the bag you’ll be able to tell which pebble I took by the color of the one that’s left.” The dour Calvinist wouldn’t dare admit his dishonesty, so of course she won her own and her father’s freedom. In fact, in the end she was better off than if the moneylender had been honest from the beginning. The final result for her was a sure win instead of a mere 50-50 chance.

That story, told by Edward de Bono in his book New Think (Basic, 1967), underscores the fact that there have been many times in the history of divine and human affairs when folly has been the cause of deliverance and salvation. A sudden paradoxical turn is frequently the Holy Spirit’s preferred way of liberating God’s people from spiritual and political impasses alike. The spiritual charism of Holy Folly is one that has been celebrated throughout the church’s history. It repeatedly stumbles onto new solutions in its madcap affirmation of the impossible. We need to be reminded once again today of its colorful tradition, its ability to nurture surprise and hilarity and its redemptive potential. This is especially true as we find ourselves involved in a great national debate on nuclear weapons and military preparedness. A Holy Folly may be all that can save us in our planning for tomorrow.

We live in the midst of a very different and unholy folly today that often hides under the guise of hard-headed realism. This is a demonic folly that threatens to consume us all in nuclear holocaust So it is important to be able to distinguish between unholy and Holy Folly. Both celebrate the absurd. But the one does it unintentionally, priding itself on being eminently sensible, while the other knows that all human structures (even the most “sensible”) may be ridiculous in the sight of God.

Think first of the structure of unholy folly that calls itself nuclear deterrence. It offers us absurd statements that we are urged to accept as perfectly sensible policy. It speaks, for example, of a deterrence (a defensive restraint of the enemy) that develops a first-strike capability. The U.S. Trident and Cruise missiles and the Soviet SS-18 and SS-19 missiles (all first-strike weapons) continue to be developed under the guise of deterring an initial attack from the other side. This unholy folly also speaks of a moral necessity for a defense that continues to multiply itself until the overkill ratio is inconceivable. We can’t envision more than 100 per cent destruction of everything, and yet we long ago exceeded that capability. We can destroy ourselves by a ratio of 300 or 400 per cent or more.

The most recent folly in this bizarre scenario is the increasing emphasis on the possibility of “winning” a limited nuclear war. High officials in the State and Defense Departments talk about ways of managing  “damage-limitation” in a nuclear conflict, keeping casualties down to a “manageable” 20 million people, for example. There are civil defense plans to spend $4.2 billion over the next seven years for “Crisis Relocation.” We’re told that we could evacuate St. Louis and relocate everyone near the Iowa border. We’d only need eight days warning of nuclear attack to make it feasible. The plan in Washington, D.C., is for people with odd-numbered license plates patiently to wait until all the people with even-numbered license plates have left. The Post Office has “emergency change of address cards” to enable us to plan for the future. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has a scheme for requisitioning houses “whose owners have disappeared.” This is absurd and twisted language. It makes use of an “officialese” to speak casually of that which is too horrible to name. In Through the Looking Glass, we remember, the oysters awaited being eaten, as the walrus blandly spoke “of shoes/and ships/and sealing wax/of cabbages and kings.” If we can accept the absurdity of nuclear war in language, we can make possible its fulfillment in reality. That is what is most frightening. As Heidegger reminds us, language is the very house of being. It creates reality.

In short, there is an unholy, demonic folly at work in our world -- adult, sophisticated, making claims of the highest pragmatism and legitimating itself by the appeal to technological necessity. Scarcely any place remains in our thinking for genuine Holy Folly, for storytelling, for the imaginative, freeing work of God’s Spirit among us. A deadly and dread conformity hangs heavy in the air. We lack the Holy Fool’s nurture of dissent. David Riesman spoke for many when, in his study of The Lonely Crowd, he quoted a  12-year-old girl as saying, “I would like to be able to fly if everyone else did, but otherwise it would be kind of conspicuous.” Many of us would love to experience a political and personal reality different from what we know, but we’re afraid others might think us soft-headed, foolish, even mad. We need the Holy Fool and prophetic storyteller among us -- the one who lives by a different reality, deliberately breaking down the structures seen as most sacred and traditional by others.

The Holy Fool breaks down structures of political order; when everyone else is silent before the royal nakedness, he alone laughs at the king. He or she may also break down structures of language, speaking a new jabberwocky or nonsense, using words in the most inappropriate way. The Holy Fool breaks down structures of social propriety by acting ridiculous and childlike, and by flaunting the usual standards of respect. As Holy Fool, she even breaks down structures of time and space, living backwards by anamnesis or forwards by prolepsis (as if the past still lived or the future had already arrived). Her ability to reframe reality is summarized in Conrad Hyer’s tale of King Philip’s court jester at the time when the French navy was defeated by the English fleet of Edward III. To the jester fell the awkward task of informing the king of the national loss. But he did so with happy aplomb. Pacing up and down, he muttered curses on the cowardly English sailors who were afraid to jump into the sea when so many brave French soldiers did it so readily. Such is the serendipitous style of the clowns of God.

The history of the sacred fool can be traced through many religious traditions, yet it forms a coherent spirituality in its own right. There have always been women and men who entered into God’s play. They jested, they told stories, they played the fool; and in the process they served the truth more fully than their sane and stolid contemporaries did. Frequently narrativity was their art, paradox their magic.

In the Old Testament prophetic tradition we find some intriguing examples of utterly foolish symbolic actions. Ezekiel, speaking at the time of the Babylonian invasion of Judah, played in the dirt like a child, piling up little siege works against a brick on which he’d drawn a picture of Jerusalem. Jeremiah wore a wooden yoke like an ox. Hosea married a known prostitute and remained stubbornly faithful to her. Again and again in ancient Israel God’s people were shaken out of their complacency by the foolishness of the prophets.

In the New Testament, we see some of its writers themselves recognizing the utter absurdity of the Christian’s claim that God was in Jesus Christ. Born in a stable to a woman who counted for nothing, Jesus came from Nazareth, the proverbial home of fools in first century Palestine. But, above all, the notion seems ludicrous that an incarnate God would be willing to appear as Jesus did before Pilate and his soldiers -- mocked as a king, spat upon, robed in purple, crowned with thorns, and led to a cross. Yet Paul actually celebrates this very foolishness of the cross. “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise . . . what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are” (I Cor. 1:27-28). In other words, we all are invited to enter into God’s great Yiddish sense of humor. “We are fools for Christ’s sake,” adds Paul, “while you [stuffy Corinthians] are such sensible Christians” (I Cor. 4:10, NEB).

In the Eastern Orthodox Church, especially from the third to the sixth centuries, the Holy Fool was extolled along with martyrs, virgins and saints as a genre of hagiography in its own right. Many of the Desert Fathers, those ascetics going into the Egyptian desert in the third and fourth centuries, fell into this category. In early Russia, holy men walked the streets in rags, perfectly free to say the most shocking things to anyone (even rebuking high officials). These Holy Fools often had a strong christocentric focus to their spirituality. Focusing on Matthew 11:25, they understood childlikeness to be integral to the formation of an orthodox Christology. Indeed, some of the early fathers happily defined original sin as a matter of “growing up too quickly” (cf. John Saward, Perfect Fools [Oxford University Press, 1980]). Later, the medieval court fool helped people to laugh at themselves and all their conventions. What does one make of a 16th century jester who, on seeing a French ambassador kneel to kiss the pope’s foot, cried out, “Merciful heavens! If a representative of the King of France kisses his Holiness’ foot, what part of the pope will a fellow like me have to kiss?”

Between the 12th and 15th centuries, the medieval Feast of Fools reflected the ancient Saturnalia festival observed in the Roman Empire, when laws were suspended and customs reversed. A child or an imbecile might be made bishop or king for the occasion. The liturgical reading would begin with the words, “God hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek.” Harvey Cox would much later sing the festival’s praises. But in post-feudal Europe, the holiday was eventually suppressed, its social and spiritual functions gradually displaced by the visual regimentation of printing, the work ethic and the ever growing autonomy of the technocratic state.

In the 16th century, Erasmus, the great humanist scholar and reformer, could still make fun of politicians, cardinals, lawyers and especially theology professors in his classic The Praise of Folly. But soon, in the post-Reformation period, many of the previously acceptable forms of mad and foolish behavior became unacceptable. Eccentric people were increasingly isolated in institutions, cut off from the rest of us for our own protection. Michel Foucault, in his Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (Random House, 1973), argues that by the 18th century insane people had come to take the place of lepers as the outcasts of society. With leprosy having become less prevalent as a disease in western Europe, leprosariums were now available for secluding crazy fools from the mainstream of life. The insane and eccentric alike were even placed on ships of fools -- traveling from port to port, never to disembark, in the hope that the turbulence of the sea would somehow match and cure the inner turbulence of their souls. Whatever the cluster of forces leading to the isolation of madness in an increasingly technological society are, the result is that we have far fewer eccentrics in our midst today. And the great risk is that, without the reminder of madness, we ourselves are allowed to live under the illusion of our own complete sanity.

Though modern technological society makes it difficult to extol foolishness, yet the tradition of the Holy Fool persists in nearly every religious faith. Judaism honors the shlemiel and the badhan, the professional fool who entertains at various festivals. Within the mystical tradition of Islam, there is a shlemiel figure in the Mulla Nasrudin, a semilegendary 13th century Sufi master. Pu-tai and Ma-tsu play a similar role in Zen Buddhism. The pot-bellied Pu-tai, a tenth century master, was often found with a frog on his head, all his belongings in a sack, making faces and playing with children.

Slightly different from the shlemiel is the trickster figure. The hero of many African and Native American folktales, the trickster may take the form of Anansi, the Ashanti spider god of Ghana. Brer Rabbit and the Indian Coyote are American versions of the same type. The religious role of the trickster, as Paul Radin and others have argued, is the paradoxical task of scoffing at rituals and breaking taboos, so as to underscore the heart of sacred reality to which they point.

As we can see, the Holy Folly constitutes a, distinctive spiritual tradition, expressed in multifarious historical forms and crossing vast confessional lines. It appropriates truth by childlike surprise, the childlikeness often being understood in a richly christological sense. It prompts a countercultural response to that unholy folly which threatens at any time to distort the deepest traditions of a community. It is not frightened by paradox, creative chaos, the femininity of the Holy or the remythologizing of the world by a risen, childlike Lord. What, then, are the implications of this spirituality for one’s life in the world today?

For one thing, it will require a study in nonconformity. Paul spoke of not being conformed to this world, but being transformed by the renewal of our minds. Thomas Merton described his whole life as committed to “a certain protest and nonacquiescence.” Jacques Ellul calls us to repentance for the values of a world bent on technological efficiency at any cost. The concept of metanoia remains basic to any Christian spirituality. In fact, the most political (and spiritual) revolutionary act is still simply to gain consciousness of who we are and what God demands.

Yet getting there may involve the disruption of our lives at many levels. There may be the need for spiritual exercises in folly -- specific means by which we can break down the structures of unholy folly that bind us in so many ways. There is a conditioning that is necessary for a life of folly. Only as we are experienced in acting foolish in little ways can we be prepared for the truly important decisions in folly we may someday be called to make. That’s why a list of eccentric suggestions may be an important aid to spiritual reflection for all of us.

1. The way we dress, for example, indicates the degree to which we are bound by fashions of other sorts. My own need, on occasion, is to wear bib overalls to work at the university where I teach. While this may at first seem strange, actually such a sartorial selection is ideally suited for academic use. The cluster of pockets can be filled with pens and pencils. The loose-fitting pants are adapted to long and uncomfortable faculty meetings. There are even hammer loops to remind one how irrelevant he really may be!

2. An awareness of our own language can further teach us how much our world is constricted by the way we talk. Thomas Merton, throughout his life, had the habit of writing “antiletters” to his closest friends. Deliberately full of misspelled words and bad grammar, they helped him transcend the limits that writing always imposed. In a print-saturated culture, where language is used to communicate abstract information, we must recover what Walter Ong describes as The Presence of the Word (University of Minnesota Press, 1981).

3. Time and space may even be structured differently for us. The sacredness and novelty of time can often be preserved by creating one’s own feast days, for example. In Herb Gardner’s play A Thousand Clowns, Murray Burns never works on the birthday of Irving R. Feldman, the proprietor of perhaps the most distinguished kosher delicatessen in Manhattan. Our time, like his, can be punctuated, twisted, made open to grace. Similarly, our problem with space is that we grow so accustomed to what we see that we no longer see it. Hence, many of us couldn’t even draw a picture of a telephone dial without looking. We aren’t aware that two letters of the alphabet don’t appear on the dial, though we stare at a phone every day. Can we list other examples of saturation perception? Could we practice taking different, even longer routes to work -- so as to revalue that well-traveled space we think we know so well? Space only becomes habitable as we go out of the way to see it in love. Otherwise, the less-than-habitable interstices in modern urban-suburban life become the space where the very poor drop out of sight altogether.

4. James Fowler has spoken of the need for a detoxification process for those who have been mainlining American culture. John Kavanaugh’s Following Christ in a Consumer Society (Orbis, 1981) outlines the formation of a “spirituality of cultural resistance.” Are there, exercises in folly that can stimulate resistance to a society given to the consuming and marketing of persons as well as things? These might include regular television fasts, clowning visits to nursing homes, the serving of guests at Catholic Worker houses, even the wearing of purple ribbons and joining of prayer vigils for peace.

Such spiritual exercises in folly are more than studies in comic action. They are movements of the Holy Spirit in teaching us mystery -- beginning points in a spiritual life of obedience to Christ and resistance to the world. They may indicate one of the deepest levels of our own spirituality -- where we most fully encounter the freedom of God’s presence, breaking in so often where we least expect it.

As Holy Folly accomplishes its work of awakening consciousness, it also necessarily stirs to action. All Christian spirituality must lead to politics -- to an incarnational affirmation of the polis, in all its dimensions. Yet too often the polis is locked into structures of unholy folly, unable to escape the dominance of “sensible” behavior. It persists in applying the same old solutions to the same old problems. Here it is, then, that Holy Folly would prompt a breakthrough into something altogether new. It may employ exaggeration, diversion and confusion as ways of releasing a given community from locked-in patterns. These techniques, as people like Saul Alinsky have shown, may suggest new ways of viewing political impasses fraught with violence. They may even speak to our present condition of bondage to nuclear proliferation.

Folly often makes use of exaggeration to push a dominant societal idea to its extreme. Enlarging the idea out of proportion, so as to see it better, folly quickly discovers its absurdity and reveals the immense energy spent in continuing to make it sound sensible. A story told by Kierkegaard describes the process well. When Philip of Macedon threatened to lay siege to the city of Corinth, all its citizens scurried about to throw up defenses, polish weapons, gather stones and repair walls. Diogenes, the philosopher fool, noticed all this wild activity and began rolling his tub as fast as he could through the streets of the city. When someone asked what he thought he was doing, he answered that he was simply trying to be busy like everyone else. He rolled his tub lest he be the only idler among so many industrious citizens. In laughing at him and his exaggerated folly, of course, the people of Corinth had to laugh at themselves. Similarly, Peter Sellers, as Dr. Strangelove, used exaggeration splendidly to show us our own folly.

Folly also exploits the use of diversion to shift attention away from what may seem to be the problem, so as to focus instead on what more appropriately deserves attention. In our original story, the merchant’s daughter concentrated not so much on the pebble she had to choose, but on the pebble that would be left. In the process of this subtle distinction, she discovered a wholly new solution. Paul Watzlawick and his colleagues at the Mental Research Institute in Palo Alto tell a story that sublimely makes this point. In one of the 19th century revolutions in France, a riot occurred in Paris. The commander of an army unit was given orders to clear a city square by firing into the crowd of rabble-rousers. He ordered his soldiers to raise their weapons and take aim. Suddenly the crowd hushed, watching in ghastly silence. Locked into such a head-to-head confrontation, what might one expect the man to do? With a touch of folly, he drew his sword and shouted, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have orders to fire at the rabble. But as I see a great number of honest, respectable citizens before me, I request that they leave so that I can safely shoot the rabble.” Almost immediately the square was emptied. In a moment of enchantment, he had diverted attention from himself as an authority figure, so as to focus on the more important issue of the crowd’s conception of themselves and their dignity. In laughing at his clever folly, the people were led away from violent confrontation. Somewhat akin to this may be Jonathan Schell’s recent exposure of unholy folly, as he diverts attention away from the dominant issue of national security to address the larger, more deeply human question of The Fate of the Earth (Knopf, 1982).

Finally, folly at times employs confusion as a way of intentionally blocking the left hemisphere of the brain (with its very traditional, structured approach to problem solving), so as to allow new imaginative connections to be made in places least expected. In Ken Follett’s novel The Eye of the Needle (Arbor House, 1978), the Allies are said to have tried confusing the Germans as to the exact area at which the D-Day invasion would occur. An entire airfield, filled with camouflaged planes ready for the attack, was prepared to detract attention away from the Normandy landing site. But the planes, all decoys, were made of canvas and wooden slats. Could we imagine today the equivalent of a canvas and wooden slat MX missile system, or a defense structure that values cleverness as much as it does power? After all, the mechanism of deterrence depends not necessarily on the weapons a country possesses, but on the potential power and resolve that the enemy can be persuaded to think it possesses.

We haven’t yet begun as a nation, much less as a symbol-producing community of faith, to probe the resources of creative folly. In the field of international conflict, outdated notions of a just war are still patched together to lend credence to contained nuclear war. We persist in classical, left-brain solutions to problems that require the most intuitive and paradoxical responses. As Thomas Kuhn reminded us so well, we value solutions according to their ability to fit into our traditional paradigmatic perceptions of the world, not simply according to their intrinsic ability to work. That’s why so much is demanded of nonviolent proposals for social change; they are so dissimilar to those with which we’re familiar. Society pays homage to unconventional thought and action only when they can deliver instant results. For example, Austria’s highest military decoration until the end of World War I, the Order of Maria Theresa, was granted to officers who turned the tide of battle by taking matters into their own hands and actively disobeying orders. Of course, if things had failed they would have been courtmartialed for disobedience (cf. Paul Watzlawick’s How Real is Real? [Random House, 1976]). In outlandish behavior, the margin for error is justly slim. Genuine folly, therefore, always entails the risk of being disgraced. It lives in proleptic anticipation of an utterly different world. Like Dom Helder Cāmara’s Abrahamic minorities, it dares hope against hope.

Is there hope, then, for us in the spirituality of Holy Folly? The answer may be found in its ability to spark laughter, surprise and intrigue. Conrad Hyers, in his book The Comic Vision and the Christian Faith (Pilgrim, 1981), retells an old Apache creation myth which may speak to our own spiritual needs today. According to this primeval American vision, Hactein, the High God, first created all varieties of animals and laughed uproariously at their peculiar shapes and funny behavior. Then he made a man and spoke to him, saying, “Laugh!” The man laughed, and his laughter caused the dog to jump and wag its tail. His laughter caused the birds to break into singing. His laughter helped to complete all that the God had initially brought into being at creation. At last the man was caused to fall asleep, and he dreamed a creature like himself, a woman. When he awoke to find her more than a dream, he began to laugh and she laughed too. They laughed and laughed together. . . and that was the beginning of the world. That is how, for us as well, the world must always begin anew. The nascent laughter of Holy Folly gives rise to magic, and magic to story, and story to hope.


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