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Holy Fools (2017)

Michael Moore

That strange and sickly world into which the Gospels lead us—a world apparently out of a Russian novel, in which the scum of society, nervous maladies and 'childish' idiocy keep a tryst
(Nietzsche 1895/1918, p. 96).

The jury is still out on the correlation between religiosity and psychopathology. Several studies have found a positive relationship between religious attitudes or behavior and measures of psychopathology (e.g., Kaldestad, 1996; Lewis, 1998; Quiles & Bybee, 1997). Others have cited either a lack of correlation (e.g., Pfeifer & Waelty, 1995), or an association of higher religiosity with positive outcomes (e.g., Blaine & Crocker, 1995; Jensen, Jensen & Wiederhold, 1993).[1] Richard N. Williams and James E. Faulconer (1994) blame this confused state of affairs on the ill-defined nature of the variables involved. Despite the confusion, George Rosen opines that "the association of unusual emotional states and psychic experiences with religion is of great antiquity and undoubtedly antedates any documentary evidence" (1968, pp. 48-49). The "unusual emotional states" he mentions include seizures, trances, hallucinations, and other abnormal behavior.

Evan D. Murray, Miles G. Cunningham, and Bruce H. Price concur (2012, p. 410). After realizing that 60% of schizophrenics have religious grandiose delusions, they examined the depicted lives of Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Paul and found reported behaviors that resembled most of the symptoms of paranoid schizophrenia: auditory and visual hallucinations, hyper-religiosity, grandiosity, delusions, and paranoia (p. 415). They concluded that "some of civilization's most significant figures may have had psychotic symptoms that contributed inspiration for their revelations" (p. 424). In the Introduction to her The History of God, Karen Armstrong similarly mused: "Had the visions and raptures of the saints also been a mere mental quirk?" (1993, pp. xviii-xix).[2]

In this paper I intend to explore an institutionalized version of this unholy relationship: the veneration of the mad in several religious traditions. The high regard in which prophets of the Hebrew Bible are held by the faithful provides an early example of this practice. At what he believed to have been god's command, Isaiah (20:2-3) walked naked and barefoot for three years, while Ezekiel (4:9-15) reported having been given by God an elaborate recipe for making bread baked over human excrement, which he was to eat, lying on his side, for 390 days. Eric Altschuler (2002), a professor of microbiology and molecular genetics at the New Jersey Medical School, concluded that Ezekiel suffered from temporal lobe epilepsy; his symptoms included fainting spells, inability to speak, hypergraphia, and aggressive religiosity.

Though these broadly admired prophets' bizarre behavior may have been due to some mental disorder, the appellation of a "holy fool" or "fool for Christ" starts with the apostle Paul.[3] When rebuking the Corinthian congregation, he wrote: "We are fools for Christ's sake, but ye are wise in Christ; we are weak, but ye are strong; ye are honorable, but we are despised" (1 Corinthians 4:10). Although most commentators agree that this was said in irony, that irony was lost on many of the faithful. The latter occasionally regarded mentally disturbed individuals who had a religious predilection as "fools for Christ's sake."

Take, for example, Xenia of Saint Petersburg, Basil Fool for Christ, John of Moscow, or John the Hairy (each has a Wikipedia entry)—all yurodivy[4], or Eastern Orthodox Fools for Christ. Each of these saints or "blessed ones" (and many more) exhibited bizarre behavior (mostly having to do with nakedness and asceticism), and each have been venerated for centuries.

Christians are not alone in associating mental disorder with extreme devotion. Georg Feuerstein described the Avadhuta of India as "one who, in his God-intoxication, has 'cast off' all concerns and conventional standards" (1991a, p. 105). He offered two examples: The Japanese Zen master Ikkyu ran around town carrying a skeleton, while the Chinese adept Han-shan would only laugh hysterically whenever people would try to talk with him about Zen.

Islamic Malamatiyya Sufism provides an analogous phenomenon. According to Yannis Toussulis, Malamatis "openly expressed divine intoxication.... If they appeared to be acting in unethical ways, it was in order to instruct others in the deeper meaning of the Shari'a and its essential ethics" (2011, p. 74).

Polytheists have also found sanctity in eccentricity. James Frazer reported that in the Pelew Islands:

After the death of a Korong [a man possessed by a god] the god is for some time unrepresented, until he suddenly makes his appearance in a new Avatar. The person thus chosen gives signs of the divine presence by behaving in a strange way; he gapes, runs about, and performs a number of senseless acts (1959, p. 100).

Though "crazy wisdom" is not necessarily a religious phenomenon, the case of the Buddhist monk Chögyam Trungpa is worth mentioning. As the eleventh Trungpa Tulku (incarnate Tibetan lama), this Tibetan Buddhist was revered in both eastern and western Buddhist communities. It was this Trungpa Tulku (2010) who coined the term "crazy wisdom," which Dhammika Shravasti described as "a concept in Tibetan Buddhism asserting that a teacher may have reached a level of development whereby his/her behaviour appears highly unconventional or even immoral to others and that he/she may use such behavior to jolt or shock their disciples into higher states of spirituality" (2013). Chögyam Trungpa's elevated clerical status did not prevent him from abusing alcohol and cocaine or engaging in sex with his disciples and even directing physical violence toward them. Shravasti writes: "While Trungpa was clearly a dynamic and brilliant individual he made a terrible mess of his own life with his abusive sexual behavior, drug taking and alcoholism, and caused a great deal of distress to others" (2013). Shravasti opines that "crazy wisdom presents several serious problems as far as Buddhism is concerned. It renders indistinct the boundary between morality and immorality. It raises the suspicion that those who indulge in it are not really wise but are just trying to rationalizing or excuse behavior that in other context would be unacceptable, immoral or even illegal"[5]

Several additional practices have features resembling those of the "holy fool": Slaying in the spirit, holy laughter, Toronto Blessing, religious ecstasy—all of these indicate physical and/or mental states in which individuals exhibit strange behaviors, regarded by them and their supportive environment as religiously inspired. I am in no position to decide whether any given holy fool is certifiable or not, or whether they consciously put on an act out of self-interest or for the sake of some higher goal. I do know, however, that foolishness and madness are not foreign to religion. The connection between religion and irrationality was turned into dogma by the early Church Father Tertullian's (c. 200/1885, Ch. 5) famous statement in De Carne Christi: "And the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd. And He was buried, and rose again; the fact is certain, because it is impossible." Though "credibile est quia ineptum est" ("I believe because it is absurd") was subsequently rejected by the Church, the very same irrationality is well grounded in the so called "signs of contradiction": The rejection by many of a person (e.g., Jesus) or an artifact (e.g., the shroud of Turin) is regarded as proof of their divine origin (Barres, 2001, quoting John Paul II)[6].


[1] For some of the controversial research findings, see my cowritten article "We Are Too Weak to Walk Unaided."

[2] See also my "Psychopathology in Religious Ideation" and Jim Perry's "The Trilemma—Lord, Liar or Lunatic?" on The Secular Web, as well as Stephen Van Eck's "Holy Terrors: Lives of the Certifiable Saints." Van Eck found evidence for the madness of 26 saints in the "Lives of the Saints."

[3] Note, however, that there are prior references to the difference between divine and human wisdom. See, for example, Isaiah 29:14: "For the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid."

[4] The word means "fool," or "insane" in Russian, and corresponds to the Greek and Latin origin of the term in 1 Corinthians: μωροι (moroi) and stulti, respectively.

[5] See also Geoffrey D. Falk's (2009) chapter on Trungpa, titled "A Wild and Crazy Wisdom Guy," as well as Georg Feuerstein's (1991b) opinion about him.

[6] Plato expressed this in Phaedrus: "madness, which comes from god, is superior to sanity, which is of human origin" (244d). See also Plato in Ion, where has this to say about poets: "God takes away the mind of these men and uses them as his ministers, just as he does soothsayers and godly seers, in order that we who hear them may know that it is not they who utter these words of great price, when they are out of their wits, but that it is God himself who speaks and addresses us through them" (534b-d).


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Copyright ©2017 Michael Moore. The electronic version is copyright ©2017 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Michael Moore. All rights reserved.