“’But he has nothing on at all’ said a little child.” From The Emperor’s New Clothes by Hans Christian Anderson
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 not protecting the past by control (conservatives) or reacting against the past by fixing (liberals). Both of these groups are too invested in their own understanding to let go and let God do something new on earth… 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… The holy fool is the last stage of the wisdom journey. It is the individual who knows their dignity and therefore does not have to polish or protect it. It is the man or woman who has true authority and does not have to defend it or anyone else’s authority.” – from “What the Mystics Know: Seven Pathways to Your Deeper Self”
We are in a time which requires radical transformation of the way humans conduct themselves. We are at the end of an era marked by the extension of the reach of human civilization into nearly every corner of the Earth with a concomitant expansion of technology exploiting and consuming Earth’s resources while generating toxic byproducts until the balance of Earth’s environment is becoming dangerously destabilized. Scientists say that this development represents an actual geological event, ending what has been known as the Holocene epoch, which began after the last major ice age, and is ushering in what is being called the Anthropocene epoch, the time when human activity has become the major force shaping the environment, for better or for worse.
This is not a secret; the alarm has been being sounded for at least fifty years, yet not only does the average person, but the governments and major institutions of human civilization, those entrusted to protect and guide us, mostly seem in a state of denial. Sometimes there is nominal acknowledgment, but more often, none at all, and what response there is measures completely insufficient to the threat faced by human civilization and the natural world. How can this be? We are feeling the effects of this now – from ever-increasingly destructive wildfire, hurricane, and tornado seasons to intensifying periods of drought and flood, to record-setting heatwaves. We say we cannot afford the corrective measures required while the cost of non-action mounts into trillions of dollars and countless lives lost or uprooted. In example, the current covid-19 pandemic may certainly be looked upon as the result of the encroachment by humans and their commerce into wilderness areas causing the transmission of a virus from animal to human not seen before. In the U.S., hundreds of thousands have died and millions sickened, yet our social and political fabric is being torn apart by those who would deny the science that points the way beyond this plague. We are warned that this may just be the beginning of pandemic threats as rainforest logging and permafrost melting may release more viruses and bacteria for which we have no acquired immunity. Yet humanity seems to be whistling through its own graveyard.
The astounding denial accompanying covid-19 is illustrative of a human trait which highlights exactly how difficult it will be to bring the united effort required in facing the accumulating threats looming over the horizon. In fact, the covid-denial-resistance points to another socio-political circumstance where reality itself seems to be challenged in this era of “alternative fact,” disinformation, and conspiracy-driven politics that makes effective social and governmental response to any challenge nearly impossible. The conservative mind, in its desperation to hold on to fantasies of a society that can no longer exist given current realities, seems willing to bring down our society and democracy rather than face the needs of this new world, their fears and prejudices exploited cynically by unscrupulous political, media, and financial opportunists. Liberals seem equally focused on “us against them” politics, engaging in this fight with conservatives, insisting we confront long-standing injustices that require acknowledgment and reparations – worthy battles for sure – but distracting from the necessity of creating a positive inclusive vision of a world where these injustices simply do not exist. We do seem to be a bunch of fools headed to the breakdown of our social order and perhaps be driven to extinction by our own dysfunctionality.
We celebrate that we have built a world of opulence and entertainment beyond past generations’ wildest imaginings, but have we built a world that is sustainable? Consider that collectively we are acting in a manner analogous to an individual who gives all the appearance of great wealth, but upon their passing it is discovered that rather than a great estate, a great load of debt has been left to the heirs. Rather than a life of continued luxury as they had anticipated, the heirs find their life is in ruin. As things currently stand, this analogous scenario to our collective situation is a near certainty. We are accruing a debt with Nature and with each other that will bring us to total ruin if we do not become conscious of what we are doing and begin committing to the needed responsible course corrections.
Fools we are, yet as Friar Rohr calls to us, there is needed another kind of fool, what he calls a “holy fool,” to save us. While fixing our problems seems out of reach from within the mindset and practices of today, only a holy fool could believe that we are capable of making the quantum leap in consciousness required to build the utopia needed to save us from our headlong rush into dystopia. Yet true holy fools will not be dissuaded from what others see as their impractical and seemingly impossible course, for they know what is true and do not need consent or agreement from those who clearly seem to be simply fools.
One such holy fool was Martin Luther King, Jr., who famously orated, “I have been to the mountaintop… and I have seen the promised land,” while noting that he would most likely not live to see the promised land actualized. Yes, he was talking about a day when people “will be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin,” but it is the same sense of prophetic idealism, of holy foolism, that must be applied, not just to the racial problems of our society, but to all the ignorance and small-mindedness that plagues us. King was indeed calling for much more than racial justice; he was calling for a world of universal justice, including environmental justice, as he appealed for an army of holy fools to dedicate themselves to a vision that practical people will reject as simply naively over-idealistic. It is time for those who will not be dissuaded, not by condemnation from the ignorant, scorn from the “practical,” nor the near certainty that they will not live long enough to see the fulfillment of a human utopia, to insist unshakably that there is within humanity this capacity, and who demand that its accomplishment is not simply desirable but a mortal necessity. We need an army of holy fools who insist on climbing the mountain of idealism and pushing on to the promised land.
There is in front of us the choice either to enter into a dangerous and catastrophic decline or to rise to heights of human cooperation, wisdom, compassion, and creativity that the current streams of dominant political and institutional thought have yet to imagine. There is a future we have to dare to believe in, and the current streams of thought, conservative or liberal, will not do, for both are focused into a small-mindedness we must evolve beyond. The resolution of our tribal differences cannot be achieved through continued arguing over these differences, but only by creating an inspiring common identity as human beings facing our greatest challenge ever. As Friar Rohr is telling us – “Conventional wisdom is inadequate.” Radical reimagining of a world of universal inclusion, of the valuing of all humans together building a world where all life on the planet and the planet itself are safe and valued is required. Impossible? No. Necessary, says the holy fool.
Rohr tells us that “The holy fool is the last stage of the wisdom journey,” and it is exactly the wisdom journey upon which humanity must embark. As geologic eras are turning, so too must eras of human evolution into a kind of person and human society never seen before. We’ve journeyed the path of power, wealth, prejudice, petty difference, and ego right to its dead-end, to where we are standing morally naked and intellectually dishonest amidst our delusions of opulence and privilege. A radically new and different world is required. An age of wisdom and compassion must come about if we are to survive with any quality to our lives and our civilization at all.
Who will be “like the little children,” who will be the holy fools who call out our naked blind arrogance? Isn’t it time we admit that if we do not build a world of harmony, what we face will be Armageddon? Isn’t it time we decide to bring our great technological power into the preservation rather than the exploitation of this world, into the building of a just and harmonious world for all? Shouldn’t we be looking to make of this dawning Anthropocene epoch not the end of human civilization but its true beginning? Another great holy fool, ecologist/cosmologist Thomas Berry, called for the Anthropocene epoch to become what he called the Ecozoic Age, characterized by humanity’s full assumption of its responsibility to shepherd and nurture a healthy Earth ecology, humanity in community with all Life. He posited that this is not only how we will save the planet, but how we will save ourselves, individually and collectively, healing humanity’s rift with its own nature, rediscovering our place within Nature and the Universe. After all, isn’t it this rift that has been driving us insane, and isn’t it time to stop being simply fools and to become the holy fools this world so desperately needs and that we too so desperately need to become?