Is God a Fool?

Few things are as awkward (and even painful) as “feeling like a fool,” whether it is the mild thing we call “embarrassment,” or the stronger things that make us want to disappear or run away. No one wants to be the fool. Nevertheless, I have come to see God as a “fool,” and those rare saints whom we name the “holy fools,” to be amazing exemplars of this way of being.

I do not mean to scandalize anyone by saying that I’ve come to see God as a fool. I mean, rather, to suggest that we seem to constantly ignore His abiding foolishness and, as a consequence, fail to understand His love.

St. Isaac of Syria wrote about God’s “manikos eros” (literally, “crazy desire”) for His creation, particularly for us. In the Old Testament, He famously commanded the Prophet Hosea to marry a prostitute (and to be madly in love with her), and to forgive her and take her back, again and again. It was a prophetic example of God’s own love for Israel, despite her repeated unfaithfulness. Hosea is among the earliest examples of a holy fool, and we have God to thank for that.

I cannot begin to number the conversations I’ve had over the years about the impracticality of the Sermon on the Mount. Forgiving enemies, forgiving debts, taking no thought for the morrow, etc., sounds like a recipe for practical disaster. We wonder who could possibly live like that. And yet, what we see is not accidental. It is not an example of excessive zeal or hyperbole. Instead, it is the foolishness of the gospel spoken directly to us.

St. Paul described the gospel as “foolishness.” In doing so, he focused particularly on the Cross. Though we sing of the Cross as the “Weapon of Peace,” we strangely tend to hear it as “weapon,” and forget the rest. The physics of violence not only makes sense to us, we frequently imagine that it is how things actually “work.” The plain fact of the matter is that violence begets violence. It always has and it always will. It is the mad calculus of genocide – for only when an enemy ceases to exist is the danger from reprisal and a continued cycle of violence removed. And even then, the inner repercussions and echoes of the genocide continue within us and within our children for generations to come.

The masters of violence are frequently hailed as heroes. Only a fool would dare to live under the banner of the true Cross.

My thoughts on this, however, are not so much on violence. Rather, it is the place of the foolishness of the Cross in my daily life. None of us wants to be the fool. We even desire to be admired as we take up the Cross – though the admiration would likely work its own harm. The foolishness of the Cross exalts even our failures. This is so utterly true that St. Paul had to warn that he didn’t mean to suggest that we “continue in sin so that grace might abound.” But, it remains the case that where sin abounds, grace abounds yet more.

Our problem is not with our failures. Our problem is that we do not know what to do with our failure. Generally, we take our failure into an inner dialog of self-accusation, self-loathing, false bravura, and other such nonsense. They are our inner efforts to ward off the shame of our failure.

Every time I encounter a meme that suggests that people would have been better persons if only they had been whipped more, or that failure is just a sign of not trying hard enough, I hear the voice of the accuser who hates the fool and torments us all. Children, by virtue of their innocence and lack of expertise, are prone to failure. It is the gentle hand of a “comforter” who guides us past such downfalls without engaging in undo damage. Every parent should know (at some point) that we ourselves fail in that effort.

I am struck that Christ spoke to His disciples of a “Comforter” (the “Holy Spirit”). He was concerned that they not be “orphans.” My parents have been dead now for over 10 years. Technically, I am an orphan. But it is not adults whom we so name – it is children. There was a recognition within Christ that His disciples are themselves but children. Though we strike poses and imagine our competency (like Simon Peter’s “I’ll never deny you!”), we remain children. The injuries and damage we have encountered, both as children and later, remain in need of comfort.

The striking feature of the holy fools in our Church’s history, has been their ability to find comfort in a secret place. Publically, they endured scorn and derision. But somewhere, often known only to them, they found a sweet comfort from the One whose foolishness they dared to re-enact.

In its excellence, the world did not know Christ. We not only dispise fools but seek incessantly to portray our enemies as fools (“those idiots!”). However:

“God resists the proud but gives more grace to the humble.”

I many times suspect that God stands before us as a “mute fool,” giving no answer to our accusations and recriminations apart from the silence of his corpse on the Cross. One of the desert fathers once said, “If I cannot edify you by my silence, then I certainly cannot edify you by my words.”

In our world, perhaps only a fool could speak the truth. But, then, it would mean that only fools could understand him.

24 comments:

  1. Reading this, I am reminded of the scene in Laurus where the two Holy Fools chase one another, walking (as they “had not yet learned to run” per the residents watching them) across (and upon) the river “in ludicrous fashion” as they do so.

    It’s an interesting mix of what people see and accept as normal!

  2. I know this wasn’t the point of your post, but I’m really confused by St. Isaac the Syrian’s use of “manikos eros”. Why ‘eros’ and not ‘agape’? Does ‘eros’ have a broader connotation than merely sexual? I am horrified.

  3. We feel like fools so many times in our lives. I had a bad one yesterday, when I totally forgot to go to a dance recital of one of my granddaughters. Something I had looked forward to for a week, and promised I would be there. Nothing went to schedule, and I was doing some things that I needed to do around the house, when I realized I had missed that recital completely, and barely had time to get to town for diabetes meds I was out of. I felt completely devastated by that, and that I could have forgotten to watch my time and be sure to be there. I beat myself up, over and over, about it. And I still feel badly. Maybe it is in these lowest moments, when we feel like we have failed so badly, that we realize how much we need Christ and our faith – to help us forgive ourselves, as we do others. To reach for His hand, and ask Him to take these burdens and failures from us. We are always going to make mistakes, and fall short of His standards, but His Grace is enough for all of it. And all of us. We only need to ask. Thank you Fr. for reminding me of that today.

  4. L,
    Absolutely, “eros” has something far more important than the sexual connotation of the modern word. Indeed, it originally only meant desire – nothing more. It’s an unfortunate development that modernity turned it into “erotic.” But “eros” (particularly the Greek, as with St. Isaac) it has a very important, even key meaning. St. Dionysiu the Areopagite made great use of it. It is, if you will, indicative of the “heart’s desire,” our deepest longing. It’s easy to imagine how modernity perverted its meaning.

  5. Byron,
    That scene in Laurus is actually based on a historical account of two Holy Fools in Russia (I forget their names and the city). Most of the behaviors described in Laurus were taken from real, historical examples.

  6. Merry,
    It’s odd, I drifted onto the blog tonight feeling a little overwhelmed about my own daughter’s
    upcoming dance recital. I forgot to get the right color shoes and need to go scour the stores tomorrow morning. They will forgive you! My own mother never comes… it’s not her thing and a long drive. Life can be such a blur.
    I will pray for you! Let’s love our ballerinas as best we can, trust God, and keep trucking. 🙂

  7. Father, I wish I could have read this years ago, when I was a young man.
    Thank you.
    Paul

  8. This reminds me of so many things in science that seems counterintuitive. For example, it doesn’t seem like we the earth moves, yet it does–a lot! First, we wobble on an axis. Then we have a hyperbolic orbit around the sun. Then there’s the rotation of our galaxy as well as the velocity of the galaxy itself. On top of that, there’s the motion of our local galactic cluster and then super-cluster. With effort this is something that we can visualize mentally. But, one hundred years ago, much of that understanding would have seemed difficult to inconceivable. It would have seemed foolish. The gibberish of today becomes common knowledge tomorrow, and yet we still despise dissenting opinions as the talk of fools. In some ways doctrine creates a trap for the human ego because the ego wants to be right and we become doctrinal Pharisees. If we aren’t careful, then when God comes and plays the fool we might miss it. We might find ourselves in the nasty position of telling God he doesn’t know what he’s talking about because we have already decided what he thinks.

    Fools are living in the freedom of hypostatic existence.

  9. Simon,
    I won’t blame doctrine (rightly held and taught) – but the “rightly” part is where we doubtless go amiss. It less the matter of dissenting opinions (for me) than of the foolish that is entwined with our shame. It’s not “getting it right” (doctrine) that ultimately purifies the heart so much as it is bearing a little shame. The Scriptures say they crucified Christ out of envy, not because they didn’t like His opinions. The heart’s the thing.

  10. I’m sure they didn’t appreciate his opining on the whole “sons of the devil” and “offspring of vipers.” 😉

    Regardless, I didn’t intend to dig at doctrine per se as doctrine as it might become once it crosses the ears and eyes and enters an ego-centric mind. There’s doctrine as it is and then there’s doctrine as it is in the mind, and that could be a qualitatively different phenomena. Don’t you think so?

  11. There is a wonderful closing scene in Charles Williams’ “The Greater Trumps” in which he has litttle statues like chess men of the Tarot deck, including all manner of creatures and humans, and they begin to dance of their own accord in a beautiful graceful dance which ends with all of them falling in obedience before the Fool, understood as Christ.

  12. Fr. Paul,
    I think my last reading of Williams was back in seminary, and I’m not sure I read the Greater Trumps. I know I read two of his books, which gave me the “flavor” of his stuff – enough to allow me to see Lewis’ homage to him in The Hideous Strength. I think I read The Place of the Lion, perhaps one other. I tried to read the Descent into Hell, but it got too dark for me.

    The “holy fools” have been very interesting to me as I’ve been doing work for this forthcoming book on shame in the spiritual life. I’ll try to make time for reading a bit more Williams. Give my greetings to your congregation there in Mississippi!

  13. Maria,
    Yes. The purpose of Christ making Himself known to us – is that we might be conformed to His image. That image is the Crucified Christ (foolishness to the Greeks and weakness to the Jews. From “glory to glory” – is actually from one layer of shame down to the next. Until the soul stands truly naked before Christ.” And we shall see Him as He is, for we shall be like Him.”

    The authentic experience of God is evidenced not in great claims, but in true likeness to His glory (which is clearly seen in St. John’s gospel as the same thing as His crucifixion). If it is not the image of the crucified Christ, then it is not the real thing. It is delusional.

    St. Sophrony said, “The way of shame is the way of the Lord.” I trust the teaching of such authentic saints – contemporaries of our time – whose life and works, doctrine and practice, demonstrate the authenticity of their teaching and knowledge.

    You are right – we are saved by our foolishness – which is an amazingly generous gift from God – since anyone can be a fool.

  14. Thankyou Father, this article on the ‘wisdom of foolishness’ speaks to my heart deeply!

  15. My very favorite Michael Card song is the one that got him in trouble over the years: “God’s Own Fool.” It fills my heart with joy still.

  16. Christos Anesti!

    Thank you Father!

    Reading the prophet Habakkuk “musically” we see this ; His abiding foolishness .
    Most contemporary commentaries of Habakuk relegate this foolishness to another source, thereby leaving only a remnant for prophetic typology and good theology.
    When one tries to straighten what is already straight one is left with something less than straight.
    Mystically Habakkuk gives it to us straight,
    knowing it might not be taken as such he warns us, “it will not tarry”.

    Fortunately, the Church knows. And embraces the foolishness of Christ crucified. It even to a degree celebrates its perception as a stumbling block. or at least should. We our invited to emulate for our edification and commune for salvation. The Church invites us to embrace kiss and commune Him ; certainly not merely tolerate or diminish Him. We honor this opportunity with the Saints, we glorify all His ways and we Worship Him to the Glory of God the Father.

    He is among us , He is in us, He wants us to follow Him. His victory is our victory and We relish in the Fodder that brings this about. Having heard and seen Him for ourselves, just past the mid Pentecost. we know who He is and why we are here,

    “ O mighty God, / who has established us for correction! ”

    – With love and gratitude in the risen lord

  17. Hello, Fr. Freeman.

    What is the name of the painting? And who is the artist?

    Thank you.

  18. Hello,

    I understand the part about hurting the child. In psychology, humans are trained and taught to do things, whether by social influences or authority/ role models, and we continually learn these habits and grow like a plant day by day. If a child ends up doing bad, it’s not always because the child wasn’t punished enough, but they may simply not know, or not think they should do good. If people are punished and not nurtured, they may begin to self-hate, which leads to a negative feedback loop, making them think they don’t deserve nice things and thus self-sabotage. Love and kindness always tries to break through this darkness and reach into it, pulling the broken person up towards wholeness.

    Thanks

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