In Praise of Folly

In 1509 Desiderius Erasmus of Rotterdam wrote a biting critique of society in his day, In Praise of Folly. Among other issues he had the corruption of the church in his cross-hairs. His satire was so engaging that even Pope Leo X is said to have enjoyed it . . . without quite realizing that he was a target.

In his writing Erasmus personified Folly, giving her a feminine voice and a blinding self-devotion. Folly’s unrestrained self-delight treated all that is immoral as moral as long as enjoyment is involved. All that is selfish is satisfying. Ignorance, Drunkenness, Flattery, Forgetfulness, Self-love, and Laziness are among her closest companions. Pleasure is Folly’s driving ambition and she insists that life will be dull and tasteless to all who avoid her company.

The connection between Erasmian satire and our contemporary society came to mind last night as I watched a PBS Newshour interview of a spokesman from the US Justice Department. In the interview he explained that a major bank has been punished for its part in the great financial scandal of 2008.

A multi-billion-dollar civil judgment had been made, he said. This confronted the reality that a vast number of worthless mortgage loans had been knowingly bundled and sold as trustworthy investment bonds by this bank. He acknowledged that many other banks had done the same but haven’t been fined. Never mind. The deceptive scheme eventually collapsed as the bonds lost any value. From this there followed a breathtaking economic crisis that shattered the lives of millions of ordinary folks.

The spokesman smiled broadly: justice has prevailed!

The interviewer then asked the obvious question. Why, she wondered, weren’t any of the guiding figures—the leading bankers and investment officers—charged with criminal wrongdoing? Or at least fined in light of the immense—grotesque—profits they earned by shepherding this corruption? The spokesman didn’t blink or wink: “If any criminal wrongdoing is found it can still be prosecuted.”

It was breathtaking stuff! A fine of this size seems not to have had anyone culpable enough to account for it. And these same leaders are still in charge of the banks. Amazing stuff.

It’s not as if some of the guiding figures can’t be identified—a number of exposés have been published and hard-hitting documentaries shown—but public outrage has only bubbled and never erupted. I suspect the spokesman was really saying, “We’ve done all we mean to do, given the modest level of political pressure we’ve felt—please remember that we need political donations from these people.”

I suspect that by now some readers may be puzzled, wondering how a blogger who writes about Trinitarian spirituality has stumbled into a commentary about investments and politics.

Here’s why. Jesus warned against being mastered by money (Matthew 6:24). Paul followed him by warning Timothy that “the love of money is the root of all kinds of evils” (1 Tim. 6:10). He also warned the Colossians that coveting—the heart of greed—is “idolatry” and something that will account for God’s coming wrath (Colossians 3:5).

And in my Bible reading I returned to Proverbs this morning. The warnings there against folly offer a weighty biblical complement to the sly critique of Erasmus. The call in Proverbs 4:23—“Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life”—follows many reminders to seek Wisdom—personified by Proverbs in feminine terms to speak of God’s goodness and creativity. She is the counterpoint to Folly.

Now let me mention a memory stirred by last night’s news story about the bank. In a television interview Oliver Stone commented afterwards on the movie he produced in the late 1980’s, Wall Street. He was startled by the public reaction to the driving theme of the movie: absolute greed. He had expected revulsion and instead the squalid character whose greed generated incredible wealth was admired. It was, he said, as if the public had found a new role model! And perhaps they have.

At least one young man of that decade, Jordan Belfort, gave himself to the pursuit of wealth with a criminal vigor that led to a more recent movie based on his youthful memoir, The Wolf of Wall Street. I haven’t watched the movie—and my point here isn’t to scold movies about dark devotions—but to ask a question about our own ambitions. What shapes our hearts as those who love God and delight in his Son?

Do we feel his grief over the pain felt by millions of ordinary people—the pain of lost homes and shattered security caused by those who wittingly skimmed vast fortunes for themselves? Do we have his ambition to care for others, even to death if necessary, rather than to follow the alluring calls of Folly and her friends? Do we share a devotion to truth and morality that comes from loving the One who personifies “the Way, the Truth, and the Life”?

Oh that we Christians were outraged by evil! It’s what Oliver Stone expected but it never came. Many, even in the church today—like Pope Leo long ago—find Folly attractive.

So has Folly won the fight? Maybe for now.

But let’s remember that Christ is coming again and he will send Folly to her ultimate destiny. In the meantime let’s guard our hearts from the allurements Folly offers and enjoy, instead, the love of the one who graciously died for us and now lives that we may live. Here we find true Wisdom.

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3 Comments

  1. Gretchen

    As I was reading this post, I couldn’t help but think of the lyrics of an old hymn:

    Turn your eyes up on Jesus,
    Look full in His wonderful face,
    And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
    In the light of His glory and grace.

    With Him as the focus of our heart’s gaze, we could say, along with 1700’s preacher John Fawcett, “Can I withhold my choicest affections from Him? Ah no! Had I a thousand lives, a thousand souls—they would all be devoted to Him! You tempting vanities of this base world; you flattering honours, you deceitful riches— Adieu! Jesus is my all! He is my light, my life, my unfailing treasure, my everlasting portion! Nothing below the skies, is deserving of my love!”

    Thanks, Ron. We so need to be reminded of the insidious pull of lesser things!

  2. Judy

    Isn’t it interesting how Erasmus used Folly to illustrate the corruption in the church? Maybe we need an Erasmus today to wake us from our slumber. Isn’t it amazing that even Oliver Stone expected outrage over the greed of Wall Street, instead getting admiration? This seem to give evidence to the corruption and evil that consumes our hearts. It makes me wonder if we are so lukewarm in the church that we have lost our influence on society. Your thoughtful question gave me pause to evaluate my own behavior, “What shapes our hearts as those who love God and delight in His Son?” Thank you, Ron, for sounding the alarm.
    Judy

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