Growing in wisdom involves growing in the discernment of who is wise, and who only parodies wisdom. While there are many ways to parody wisdom, two stand out in the age of the internet. At first glance they might seem to be opposites, but (on closer inspection) they reveal themselves to be alter-egos of one another. Tragically, each of these tendencies has plenty of public representation. Let us label their distinctive brands as “Prophetic Performers,” and “Authenticity Acts.”
The Prophetic Performer
“Prophetic Performers” prey upon the humans’ natural (and good) instinct to respond to certain modes of rhetoric and prophetic inflexibility. Since humans are sometimes liable (some more than others) to say “whatever” too often, to be morally lazy, or to fail in their capacity to protect sheep from wolves, it is important that we can nevertheless be psychologically accessed by a strong rebuke, by a reminder that some things are hard, that some bits of reality are unsavory and rough-edged, sometimes you have to confront your own will and sentiments, etc.
To possess this truth-telling quality is a virtue. But this virtue must be distinguished from the performance of “The Badass” prophet. We all know several of these folks. They almost always take the “hard position” on things. They are constitutionally unmoved by counter-arguments – labeling their intellectual dishonesty “principle.” On almost all matters, the world is divided into the righteous and the wicked. What is more, this is all “very clear.” If one is thinking rightly, the world is not complicated, and most situations are a matter of “common sense.”
Here is the thing to note about these persons. We should not think of them as possessing an excess of a particular virtue—or think of them as “unbalanced.” Rather, this entire thing is a surrogate for the prophetic voice altogether. It is a chosen “performance,” the inflexibility of which is an aspect of the show rather than some inner strength of character or resolve. Indeed, behind this infantile role-playing is often a deep insecurity which puts up this mask a psychological safeguard from the danger of actual thought and contemplation. What is more, it pimps prophetic persuasion to the abusive “john” of spiritual manipulation.
The Authenticity Act
More popular in our era is the “Authenticity Act.” Sometimes, but not always, this person started out in the first camp and ends in the second. One will frequently hear this sort waxing eloquent about how “messy” and “complicated” life is. Rather than reducing the complexity of life, they will tend to reduce the complexity of God’s law (not to mention His character) to some vague platitudes about infinite empathy. These persons are frequently hurting and broken, and use the public platform they have to tell their personal narrative, process their lives, and garner empathy for their spiritual destination, or the turns their “journey” has taken.
The same lesson with the prophetic performer applies to the authenticity act: We should not think of them as possessing an excess of a particular virtue—or even think of them as “unbalanced.” Rather, this entire (quite often narcissistic) public display is simply the alter-ego of the prophetic performer—who is almost without fail its foil. This is a performance of the “chastened” whose grandstanding now finds its telos in maximal support rather than maximal opposition. What is preyed upon here is the Christian virtue of empathy toward the weak, listening to the brokenhearted, mercy toward the tearful. But if one digs a bit beneath the service, one will often find iron wall limits to such persons’ empathy, and an anger at reality, others, and God that slowly but manifestly dissolves their soul.
What do these two characters have in common? Fundamentally, they have a narcissistic relationship to reality. Even when they are correct (as they sometimes accidentally are), their relationship to the reality that they presumably elucidate is inflected through their final goals of self justification – whether it be of the deeply fearful valiant badass for Jesus in the case of the former, or the deeply broken demander of infinite affirmation in the case of the latter.
In both cases, what is required is getting out of one’s own head and into the world. Wise men do not safely wax about a reality which functions as their shield, but speak of it with fear and trembling. Wise men are humble before God. Wise men often admit that life is complicated. Wise men sometimes do not know the answer. Wise men are also willing to receive an answer that they find unsavory. And most importantly, wise men will ask divine help to bend their will to savor reality over their distorted sentiments.
The Role of Wisdom
Wisdom is a skillful and artful grasp of the structures and patterns of reality as it is revealed to us in Holy Scripture and in general revelation. It is further the capacity to apply these to particular circumstances, having had our senses trained to discern good and evil. And it is ultimately foraged in the flames of hearts which seek not to avoid unsavory reality, but to repent of their tension with it.
As such, the chief virtue of the prophet is not “balance,” but fine-grained delighted precision about reality. It is love of reality – even at personal cost. Concerning the latter, let it finally be noted that some vices require deep re-orientation. One of the particular difficulties of “Authenticity Acts” is that they find certain moral claims implausible and ugly—superficial and arbitrary.
However, this is often because they take their morality from the superficiality of their own former performing selves. What is easily missed here is that they’ve never confronted reality as such, but merely moved from one willful relation to another—shielding themselves from primal and basic experiences of love and fidelity that flavor the moral order and make sense of it. Like children who move from accepting to rejecting the moral order, they fail to see that delighting in that order is nevertheless not the purview of children. It is rather an achievement born of humility and trial.