Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Wisdom of Holy Fools in Postmodernity

Academic journal article Theological Studies

The Wisdom of Holy Fools in Postmodernity

Article excerpt

THE WAY TO WISDOM for most people has often been through stories and reasoning. Mythos, especially in the form of dramatic narratives explaining the origin and operation of the universe and the place of humans within it, is, in the early stages of humanity, a common medium to express the communal fund of wisdom that, together with rituals and ethics, shapes the social reality and is in turn shaped by it. In addition, logos, particularly as practiced in philosophy, not only transmits the perennial truths of the community to successive generations but also inculcates the love of wisdom by which humans can live the good life.

However secure and reliable paths mythos and logos have been to wisdom for past generations, they have lost much of their appeal in our post-modern age. Contemporary women and men, at least in the West, have become deeply disillusioned with modernity's myth of progress. The "horror" and "terror" of history, the ghosts which modernity claimed to be able to exorcize by means of reason, especially instrumental reason, have not vanished. (1) On the contrary, they have grown exponentially, as was attested by the two world wars and the many genocides of the 20th century. Thanks precisely to the technological innovations spawned by the Enlightenment's worship of reason and progress, our capacity for barbarity and inhumanity has been refined to the extreme. While technological reason has no doubt improved the quality of life in many respects, the monumental failure of modernity's myth of progress has rendered any talk of moral progress through the application of universal reason a sick joke. At the beginning of the third Christian millennium, there is a widespread sense of hopelessness and fear because of reason's proven inability to predict and control the future. Humans are seen not as subjects but objects of history, driven by an anonymous and despotic power whose intentions and direction are beyond their ken. Out of this rootlessness and despair is born a profound distrust toward reason, both philosophic and instrumental, as a path to wisdom. Forged into a primarily deconstructive tool to unmask oppressive structures, reason remains impotent in offering a constructive vision of reality.

If Enlightenment's goddess of reason has been dethroned, mythos fares no better as a pedagogue of wisdom. Postmodernity has been characterized by Jean-Francois Lyotard as "incredulity toward meta-narratives." (2) Whereas stories and storytellingly thrive only when people preserve an appreciation for the past and the future, postmodernity, with the decline of the myth of progress, has lost a sense of history and is fixated on the present. The past becomes merely a theme park to visit occasionally for entertainment, and the future is reduced to being a momentary prolongation of the present without a meaningful telos. Not surprisingly, recent commentators speak of the "end of history" in our contemporary culture with its "compressed time." (3) Postmodernity's deconstruction of mimetic imagination leads not merely to the end of this or that "meta-recit," but to the end of story sic et simpliciter. Thus, in postmodernity, the royal road to wisdom by means of mythos and logos is barred, at least for those who have experienced the tragic consequences of the modern myth of progress. The question is raised as to whether there remains for them other byways to reach the same destination.

In this article I explore what has been called "holy folly" or "crazy wisdom" or "foolish wisdom" as an alternative route to rekindle the love of wisdom in the hearts of contemporary women and men. (4) As is well known, the figure of the "wise fool"--alternatively, the paradoxical notion that the fool may be wise and that the wise may be foolish--has a long and distinguished pedigree, not only in the Christian tradition (e.g., the "fool in Christ" or the "fool for Christ's sake") but also in other religions (e.g., the Sufi majzub and the Hindu avadhuta). …

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