Friar Richard Rohr – “Those who will lead into the future will have some hard-won wisdom. We might call them the “holy fools.”… They are persons who are happily, but not naïvely, innocent of everything the rest of us take for granted… they are not protecting the past by control (conservatives) or reacting against the past by fixing (liberals)… According to the pattern, the wise fools are always formed in the testing ground of exile when the customary and familiar are taken away and they must go deeper and much higher for wisdom. As a result, they no longer fit or belong among their own. Yet paradoxically, they alone can point the way to the “promised land” or the “new Jerusalem.” Conventional wisdom is inadequate, even if widely held by good people.” – from What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self
Here we are, God willing, ready to come out the other side of the covid-19 crisis. We have all been “shut-down” to some significant level for the past year and if people and politicians can manage enough wisdom and patience to hold to safety protocols for another few months, we can get beyond this. An important question, however, that does not seem to be being asked, is what are we going to be as a nation and people when we come out of this tunnel? Folks say they are ready for “normal” to resume. I don’t think that’s going to happen. I don’t think it ought to happen. I don’t think it can happen.
Here we are in the year 2021. That’s 21 years into the 21st century. I find it interesting that historically, by now, there ought to be some pretty radical rethinking of our society. Consider how dramatically different the world looked in 1921 from what it was in 1890. The First World War, the Spanish Flu pandemic, the labor movement, the women’s right-to vote, surrealist art, the birth of relativity and quantum physics, and the invention of psychology were among the culture-shattering events that took place during those thirty years. The way people thought of themselves, society, norms, and what is possible had changed dramatically in those years. One hundred years earlier, consider how different the world looked in 1821 from what it was in 1790. The age of political revolution, following the tectonic-shift event of the American Revolution in the decade before, toppled kings and set forth democracy and rationalism as the underpinning of the Western political world while another revolution, the industrial revolution, was reinventing economics and even the way people regarded themselves and each other as economic classes. Bold rethinking concerning individuality and society took place.
Yet here we are in 2021; it seems, pretty well anchored in 20th century consciousness. Yes, the digital and automation revolutions are reshaping and disrupting the economy and social cohesiveness, and white, heterosexual, male dominance of the society is being challenged. Another huge challenge – climate change driven by human activity – is raising its profile from the theoretical into actuality. We are also right in the middle of perhaps the most serious challenge to our democratic political norms in our history and cannot yet see how this will play out. The explosion of information sources through the internet and cable television are challenging the assumptions of freedom of speech, and a new word, “disinformation,” the new-speak for old fashioned propaganda, conspiracy, and paranoid fantasy has crept into our politics and society.
Democracy and truth-telling having won the most recent election, but the Republican Party flirts ever more openly with fascism and seems to have set its sights on grabbing political control through fear and loathing politics and disenfranchisement of those not their supporters. And, of course, the covid-19 pandemic that has shut down our social and economic worlds is still with us, its end possibly slipping away as these forces of ideology over truth seem intent on undermining not only democracy but science. Half-a-million deaths are seemingly an inadequate cost and warning to dissuade truth-deniers from their insistence that the economy that rewards the wealthy, their perverse understanding of freedom as license, and the preservation of the various discriminations and ignorances that still beset our society are what must be preserved regardless of cost.
Certainly the circumstances for a radical rethinking, a reinvention, of society are playing out. It might be argued that William Butler Yeats’s apocalyptic poem, “The Second Coming” written in 1919, seems to have a ring of applicability to our current situation. This passage from the poem seems particularly applicable:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
The same alarm and apprehension as Yeats expressed as the twentieth century unfolded seems quite appropriate to our current historic time. We cannot continue on the path we are on. New thinking at the level of those who shape decisions and policy is imperative, yet scarcely found. This is why the words that begin this column, from a spiritual source rather than a political analyst, caught my attention. The “Holy Fool” that Franciscan Friar Rohr describes seems needed and is much like what Zen Buddhism calls us to as “beginner’s mind,” the mind that comes fresh into the moment and circumstance without preconceived ideas, that has no investment in protecting or reacting against the past, its only interest being the truth and needs of the moment. Such a mind, such minds, seem called for in this time.
I have asserted in previous columns, and I assert again here, that nothing less than aiming our sights at utopia can spare us from falling into dystopia. We must begin to open the way into a new world, new out of necessity, for the old one is clearly done – and the question is what will this new world be? Yeats’s world in 1919 was clearly not done with dystopia. Fascist takeovers of much of Europe and Asia (and this includes Stalin’s and Mao’s perversion of socialism in Russia and China into authoritarian nightmares) were unfolding, preparing to sacrifice more tens of millions to megalomaniacal dogmatism and ignorance. The question is, can we escape a similar descent, for the course we are presently on seems to be taking us dangerously close to the borderlands of corrupt autocracy, collapsing ecosystems, and cultural dystopia.
Does it not seem that we must dedicate ourselves to creating what in the Judeo-Christian vocabulary that Friar Rohr employed, can be called “the promised land,” “The New Jerusalem?” (Being careful that, conventionally, this term has been misappropriated by those who would bring only apocalypse.) Rather, I suggest we look to what in the Book of Isaiah, describes New Jerusalem as a place free from terror and full of righteousness.
Free from terror. Free not only from violent political terror by desperate and often evil people, but free from the cultural and psychological terror of even “good people” who demand that the old order be maintained because they haven’t the vision, compassion, courage, or audacity to reinvent themselves or society in a manner that can address the current challenge. This new world requires that it must be a place of “righteousness,” here, the word pointing us only to rightness, to that which is virtuous, not its conventional use as punishing judgmentalism. We must look to the Holy fools, the innocents who for years have been pointing to the “Emperor” of conventional wisdom declaring as we emerged into the twenty-first century that the fine clothes of commercialism and materialism leave us spiritually naked, beset by greed, narcissism, dishonesty, cruelty, many lingering forms of discrimination, and of alienation from the natural world separating us from our essence and true security. These “fools” see that what is “normal” is naked of true righteousness – of rightness, of honesty, of goodness, of wisdom, of compassion, and of sustainability.
For years these Holy fools have been marginalized, exiled, often quite alienated from conventional society – bohemians and spiritual seekers, much as it was in the early twentieth century with the rise of existentialism in philosophy and psychology, abstractionism in art, cultural libertarianism, utopian socialism, and a search for the mystery behind religious dogma in such explorations as Theosophy. Today these same trends are re-expressing themselves particularly in those who turn to unconventional spiritual exploration in non-dual traditions from the East and even, as Rohr represents, a new wave of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic mysticism. It can be found in those who explore deep ecology’s path for healing our rent with our natural world. Consciousness, connection, and intuitive creativity are the inspiration for this reinvention, the source and essence of who we are and what must guide us.
We must call ourselves to fresh thinking, to a reinvention of our society, to be free of the terrors of poverty, hunger, ignorance, medical and financial insecurity, discrimination, extreme economic disparity, democratic and human rights erosion, and environmental collapse. We are being called to imagine a righteous world built on the rightness of truth, science, compassion, democracy, individuality within common purpose, to respect, justice, dignity, and humanity’s endless connectedness, not only within itself but with all life and this planet that sustains us. In other words, we are called to utopia, and we all know that only a fool could think that utopia is possible. Yet it is increasingly clear that the comfortable middle, the continuation of the way things have been is impossible. We see a fork in the road and because of humanity’s destabilizing of all that is natural and honest in the world, we seem at a moment of extreme peril.
Here, at this fork in the road stand conservatives and liberals arguing, possibly ready to go to civil war, over how to preserve what was when we need to invent what can and needs to be. An epochal moment is at hand when humanity must make a monumental shift in consciousness from dualistic separateness, competition and exploitation into a wholistic awareness of diversity within connection as the basis for life and society. Instead of looking forward with apprehension in the manner that Yeats, a bohemian of his time, ended his poem, “what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” we need to look to the bohemians and spiritualists of our time, those who “no longer fit or belong among their own,” who “formed in the testing ground of exile when the customary and familiar are taken away… go deeper and much higher for wisdom.” We must have the vision and courage to reinvent ourselves individually and then collectively. We must look to those who value connection rather than separation, who practice compassion instead of competition, who find the highest calling in brilliant creativity while preserving and cherishing what is righteously good about what has been. Let us look to such fools to reinvent us, to “point the way to the “promised land”… the “new Jerusalem.”