The Common Good
July 1994

Holy Fools

by Richard Rohr | July 1994

Ushers of the next generation in the church.

Rake the muck this way, rake the muck that way, it will still be muck. In the time I am brooding, I could be stringing pearls for the delight of heaven.—Hasidic wisdom

After working with groups and institutions in many cultures for 25 years, I believe I can make this observation with some force: People can be creative and alive, and even endure great hardship, when a society's superstructure and substructure are secure. If the big picture and the underpinnings are in question, no imagination or courage exist on the daily level. All is reaction, survival, and perpetual changing of the guard. The enemy is everywhere because the anxiety is everywhere.

If we perceive our problem today as one of antiquated structures, patriarchal control, centuries of scandal, single-issue obsessions, and moralisms instead of humility before transcendence, then one can probably create a good rationale for leaving the church institutions. In fact, with the information I have acquired, I might even hurry you out the door.

But I don't think this is a correct diagnosis of the sickness we are experiencing. It goes far deeper, I'm afraid, than current perpetrator-victim typologies. I am convinced that we are up against the real disintegration of the Western psyche. To compensate for the loss of control and meaning, we find a rigidity of response on both sides of most questions and issues.

The Greeks would have called it the hubris of the heroic response; the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung referred to it as "inflation." In 1962, he gave the West 50 years before its inner structures collapsed. He felt that we were abandoning the images and beliefs that hold our lives together in coherence and health, or if we were not fully abandoning them, they had little real transformative effect on 20th-century Jews and Christians:

An inflated consciousness is always egocentric and conscious of nothing but its own existence. It is incapable of learning from the past, incapable of understanding contemporary events, and incapable of drawing right conclusions about the future. It is hypnotized by itself and therefore cannot be argued with. It inevitably dooms itself to calamities that must strike it dead.

I do not know if my discernment of things is correct, but I do find very few people in our culture who are willing to do their homework. We seem to be "reeds shaking in the wind."

The function of healthy religion and church is to provide individuals and society with a collective container that carries the objective truth of reality for individuals. The Great Truth is too grand and transcultural to be entrusted to the vagaries of individuals and epochs. Otherwise, society becomes a massive runway for unidentifiable flying objects—each claiming absolute validity and turning their subjectivity into the only sacred. The ground for a common civilization and shared values is destroyed if our religious experience is basically unshareable or without coherent meaning. We end up where we are today: pluralism without purpose, individuation but no community.

By a necessary "container," I mean a human structure that holds together and somehow reduces the scale of events—so that I can deal with much larger events: the cosmos, salvation, sin, and grace. The arrogance of the literal West is that it will not take its place in the "cleft of the rock" (Exodus 33:21-23) and allow God to pass by. Life, like theater, demands a stage. Church is the stage that keeps us all as necessary actors, with God as the unavoidable protagonist and director. The mystery of church keeps reminding us that our script matters, although it is never the last word. That, thank God, is "mercy."

WE MUST ALSO VIEW the problem of church (and it is a problem, but maybe a necessary one!) in the context of this moment in history. The Bible teaches precisely through a history of sin and salvation. What is history demanding of us now? What is it saying about God? How do we live in this generation, receiving from the past, pressing on to the next?

Robert Kaplan, writing in The Atlantic Monthly (February 1994), predicts that the next 50 years will see the "reprimitivization" of the Earth, with a breakdown of the distinction between war and crime. We will move from 5.5 billion people to nine billion, all fighting over the remaining resources, the limited clean water, and the denuded Earth. People's easy liberation from anxiety will be in violence, blaming, and ideology. This would be frightening to imagine, but it has already started happening for many.

If Kaplan is even one-third right, we have a whole new set of questions to ask about church, about justice, about survival. The present preoccupation with "rights" language will have to evolve into an equal or even stronger language of responsibility. The present fascination with the individual and his or her individuation process will have to be severely tempered by the demands of community and universality. The secular definition of freedom as the "freedom to make choices" will need the biblical, Buddhist, Islamic, and Taoist mandate of freedom from ego and freedom for truth.

We need now to rebuild a public world, a public ethic, a public church with conversations that are communal in character. If the institutions of community are strong and struggling, then individual contributions to the common good are a profound source of meaning. Our lives are then an exchange of loyalties, memories, commitments, and gifts differing. Of this I am certain: Our present hunger for meaning and salvation will not be satisfied by mere private choices or the present paradigm of explanation.

Mercy, Not Sacrifice
It will be "holy fools" who will lead us into a new future and the next generation of church. The holy fool is who the Bible and mythic literature have always presented as the "savior." Holy fools are happily, but not naively, innocent of everything that the rest of us take as self-evident. It is the last stage of the wisdom journey: Jesus in his parables, Francis in his patches, and Dorothy Day obedient to petty churchmen for paramount reasons. Reasonable people will always be able to criticize such fools, but they bring to every exile a whole new way of imagining—and thereby usher in the new age.

The holy fool has lived long and deep enough to know that there is nothing new under the sun as far as the soul is concerned. When the new zealot asks why we can't just throw the whole thing out and start again with gospel purity, the holy fools merely smile. They know it has been done many times before—and needs to be done again—but will not necessarily resolve the problem.

Was Jesus playing the holy fool or just being a curmudgeon when he quoted Hosea to well-informed and well-intentioned believers: "What I want is mercy and not your heroic sacrifices!" (Matthew 9:13, 12:7, 23:23)? The holy fool knows that there is an agenda that is beyond efficiency, rightness, and being in control of outcomes. The mystics call it "union with God." Meister Eckhart put it best of all: "If the soul could have known God without the world, the world would never have been created."

In the realm of the Spirit, although not in the realm of logic, everything belongs. This horrible time, this broken church, no less than the murdering of Christ, is good teacher and savior. Romano Guardini, a fervent Italian monsignor, said in the 1950s that "the church has always been the cross that Christ is crucified on." The tomb of Christ and the resurrection of Christ, I would add.

I am not glib about this. It sits like wormwood in my mouth. I also am trying to preach good news to many disparate groups in our world: youth who want both inspiration and structure, feminists who must know that they have an essential truth, patriarchs who need to be challenged but not dismissed, the simple who need reassurance, the broken who don't need more words but a healing touch, the seekers who need depth and patience, the alienated who both need and fear "home," gays and lesbians who need acceptance before agenda, males who need soul work, parents who need skills, the oppressed who need justice and solidarity, believers who need to believe again.

Where else but in the great mystery of church, the living body of Christ, can all these find a common hope? There is only One Suffering, only one. There is only One Ecstasy, only one. Once you have entered into the dying and rising of Christ, labels, blames, and ideology only get in the way. They miss the point entirely.

HOW IS WISDOM GENERATED? How is the human heart transformed? How does history pass on the saving patterns of God? How is society itself challenged and renewed? If these are at all the right questions, then they send us on a quest toward something that will be communal, express continuity, and have the capacity to hold the essential alchemical elements together. Something that looks like the ever-recurring mystery of church.

Both liberals and conservatives try to make wisdom an object of intellect and will, instead of something that you necessarily wait for, listen for, prepare for, trust in, believe. It is not accidental that wisdom is identified with Sophia, the Eternal Feminine (Proverbs 8-9), and that some denominations spoke of "Holy Mother Church." Wisdom is discreetly conceived, prepared for, protected, and birthed. It is not "created" by a lightning bolt of clear absolutes (fundamentalist, papist, or moralist).

Every conception needs a dark, patient womb. The matrix of church is the womb of waiting, gestation, influx of paradox, morning sickness, and anxiety. The labor pains of new birth are refused by those who want mechanical religion or antiseptic births without blood, disfigurement, or ugly afterbirth. It is often discouraging when women themselves do not understand labor pains in their search for empowerment. It is pitiful that men have not learned it after centuries of supposed empowerment. "For God's foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and God's weakness is stronger than human strength" (1 Corinthians 1:25).

In the great mystery of the church, "wisdom has built herself a house" (Proverbs 9:1). Not a scientific conclusion, not an unerring institution, not a sinless clientele, but "a house" where life and truth have a chance at coexistence. A human dwelling place, where anyone can enter. A house so multifaceted that it is "nebulous to the proud and obvious to the lowly" (St. Bonaventure). A house where we can live, and also leave. We are always guests there; we do not possess or control it, despite the hierarchy's best attempts.

I stay in the church because all the new patterns are really old patterns. I stay because everybody else can only address the symptoms. I stay because it continually clears new ground wider and deeper than mere ideology. I stay because Jesus alone creates a lifestyle that can't be bought off, an ethic that refuses power, position, and possessions, a vision that is subject to no judgment or vested interest less than God's plan for the whole. Nobody is possibly going to do better than that.

I know! I know it only happens in a small percentage of Christians and in an even smaller percentage of congregations. But it does happen with some regularity; it is in the training manual, and we even have full permission to keep talking about it, no matter who is in charge at the moment.

Show me one other institution or movement, no matter how effective in the immediate issue, that has the holistic vision and the regenerative power of the church. Everybody else can only discuss tactics and policies. The church alone appeals to the deepest archetypes of the soul and points toward the universal images of spirit, while daringly embodied in flesh, structure, history, and moment.

At this millennial time we need to know what we do believe, how we can say yes to our only past, what is good about even the broken things—life, society, church—and how we can begin a new language of hope and responsibility. At this point, anything else is a waste of time and a refusal of grace.

The best criticism of the bad has always been the practice of the better. If much of the old church has to die (and I think it will, even without our pushing), then maybe it is because we have neither criticized the bad nor practiced the better with any social vigor. We have daintily gone to church while living like the rest of the world. Now I find people who are living the mystery of church, and from that place going to the world. The church has always been a movement much more than this institution or that, a continual torrent of the Spirit flowing through the grist mill of human structures and human history.

Sometimes I think the church is a "foil": It prevents the success of, it balks and frustrates, it seems to keep us from. It sets off by contrast, perhaps a necessary distraction that draws us to comparison, meaning, balance, and sometimes surrender. It gives us the vision and hope of "the real thing," hardly ever believes it itself, and even actively opposes it. The church seems to rub against us until we realize that we ourselves are no better. Maybe it is at that point that faith begins. The church frustrates us into holiness. "But to whom else shall we go" (John 6:68) for such frustration and such salvation?

I don't know why God offers us this veiled and earthy path. Maybe because it still tells us the truth about humanity, the truth about ourselves, the truth about God's incarnation. It gives us a place to stand from which we can "wield the lever of criticism" (Rosemary Radford Ruether), from which we can partly understand but fully forgive the world. The church gives us a place where we cannot adjust to hopelessness. It tells us there is only One Love, only one. And love is what we are—most especially together.

In her short story "Revelation," Flannery O'Connor, that truly catholic writer, presents Mrs. Turpin as the upright Christian lady who has spent her life in virtue and correctness. At the end of her life,

She sees a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven...she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burnt away.

May our generation be so lucky.

Richard Rohr, OFM, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and author of Radical Grace (St. Anthony Messenger, 1993), was a Sojourners contributing editor when this article appeared.

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