From across the political spectrum, it seems the one thing everyone can agree on right now is that we’ve lost the ability to speak to each other, much less persuade one another. Our seemingly irreconcilable differences about social and political topics are not new. In 2015, Saturday Night Live had a hit with its sketch “A Thanksgiving Miracle.” It centered on a family arguing politics at the Thanksgiving table, unable to agree on anything… until Adele’s song “Hello” came on, when everyone softened and found themselves too entranced by the music to argue. According to SNL, “Everyone has different opinions and beliefs. But there’s one thing that unites us all.” Unfortunately, Adele is between albums in 2020.
In a pandemic election year, there is much to discuss and debate. Some of it is actually significant. But rather than discoursing, we are often arguing and dismissing. Divisions cut across our society, through our churches, and within our families. Whatever our position, we face opposition, often from those we love and live alongside. As we decide how to respond to these troubling and contentious times, and when and how to speak up for things that matter to us, we should keep in mind what might be called an “Erasmian” approach.
Desiderius Erasmus lived on the eve of, and through the early days of, the Protestant Reformation. A leader in the Christian humanism of the Northern Renaissance and a spiritual forefather of the Reformers, he had many theological and societal concerns. Some have even said that “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.” But Erasmus differed from Luther significantly in temperament and approach. Many of us who live on the other side of 1517, and Luther’s theses, have largely forgotten Erasmus. But Erasmus was the most widely read author in 1516. Revisiting Erasmus’ approach to the troubles of the Europe that he knew may give us insight in how to respond well to our own era.
In 1511, Erasmus published Praise of Folly, a satirical takedown of the whole of European society, then known as Christendom. In the book, the goddess Folly praises herself as she explains that folly truly makes the world go round. Folly takes credit for youth, old age, romantic relationships, self-love, obsession with religious relics, the teachings of Scholasticism, and the self-servings ways of princes, among other things. Though Folly acknowledges she is not formally worshipped, she believes that “I’m worshipped with the truest devotion when all men everywhere take me to their hearts, express me in their habits, and reflect me in their way of life—as in fact they do.” There was no corner of society left unaccused of foolishness in the book. The fame of Praise of Folly quickly outstripped most of Erasmus’ serious works. Even today, it is his work most likely to be assigned in school.
While many readers loved Praise of Folly for the way it castigated society from top to bottom, others disliked it for the same reason. In calling out foolishness, some thought Erasmus was stirring up trouble and encouraging disrespect. Was Erasmus attacking everything and everyone? Was it harmful to call attention to all the failings of lay and leadership?
One person who had concerns with Erasmus’ approach was his friend and critic, Maarten van Dorp. Unsure about Praise of Folly, Dorp was also concerned about a Greek New Testament that Erasmus was preparing to publish, one which corrected errors within the Vulgate. Dorp worried that acknowledging the errors of the Vulgate would cause people to doubt the truth of the Bible and would lead people away from the faith. These were valid concerns, and not too different from ones many people have now, about the risk of highlighting or over-emphasizing the failings of church leaders and certain passages of church history. Will attention to shortcomings cause people to lose confidence in institutions of faith or government?
In 1515, Erasmus wrote a letter in response to his friend Dorp, addressing his concerns. It was so instructive that, since then, it is almost always included as an appendix to Praise of Folly. In his letter, Erasmus defended the purpose of his book and its criticisms. He didn’t believe it was helpful to overlook the problems around him. He wrote that everywhere “ordinary men were corrupted by opinions of the most foolish kind in every walk of life.” In such times, Erasmus was unafraid to lean into admonition. But he thought carefully about his approach.
Erasmus wrote that he “always aimed at doing good, if I could, or anyway at hurting no one.” He had chosen satire for Praise of Folly because he hoped to use humor and generalized condemnations, without names, to gently guide people away from error. And throughout the book, he tried to “keep my writings free from malice and cruelty, unspoilt by naming wrongdoers.” Erasmus’ approach was not just shaped by living in a time without freedom of speech, it was also motivated by a desire to help people without harming their feelings or hardening their hearts.
More than that, Erasmus sought to bless his enemies with correction and win them as friends, rather than curse them. Though he felt called to critique the people and practices around him in his writing, he wrote to Dorp, “I’ve no enemy whom I wouldn’t prefer to make my friend, if I could. Why should I bar the way to this, or write against an enemy what I might afterwards regret too late having written against a friend?” He was uninterested in excusing bad behavior or in accumulating enemies.
Erasmus modeled this approach in his response to the criticism of his friend, Dorp. He wrote: “You are far from offending me by this letter of yours, my dear Dorp, indeed you are now much dearer to me, dear though you always were before, such is the candor of your advice, the friendliness of your admonitions and the affectionate tone of your criticism. Christian charity has the gift of retaining its natural sweetness even when it is most severe. I receive many letters daily from learned men which hail me as the glory of Germany, as the sun or the moon, and pile on such splendid titles by way of a compliment, and I really find this rather overwhelming. I swear on my life that no one of them has given me so much pleasure as that censorious letter from my friend Dorp.” Erasmus’ letter defended his work and his love for Dorp.
We, like Erasmus, live in troubled times. We, too, see ordinary men and women “corrupted by opinions of the most foolish kind in every walk of life.” Some of those holding foolish opinions are our friends and neighbors, our family members, our fellow parishioners, ourselves. We may not all agree on what is wrong, but like Erasmus, we desperately want to see change in the world around us.
If we take our cues from our culture, we have perhaps a few options for responding to our times and voicing concerns. We can decide that nothing matters more than the relationships that we have and choose neither to share social and political opinions nor to engage in debate or discussion. With this approach we simply avoid everything “political” or “controversial.” We focus on the baby pictures on social media. This approach is peaceable but it does little to use whatever amount of perspective or power we have in society to make the world a better place. Another option is to fully embrace social and political discussion, to engage whenever possible, and be willing to unfriend those whose beliefs and behaviors we find abhorrent. This approach is full of sound and fury, but it may also speak real, if hard, truths. However, it leaves behind many hardened hearts. These are not our only options for engaging the culture, but many people seem to fluctuate between them.
What might it look like to express concerns and attempt corrections in a manner akin to Erasmus? To begin with, Erasmus’ work reminds us that denying troubling things helps no one and may be running from responsibility. There are things that call for criticism. And some of us have wisdom that should not be wasted. But we can criticize without cruelty and comment without malice. Erasmus avoided naming names as much as he could. We, too, can comment on things without calling out everyone we know. In our current environment civility is often promoted as an alternative and an end in itself, but for Erasmus it was also a tool.
In many of his writings, Erasmus sought to guide people to the right conclusions. In his serious works like Education of a Christian Prince, he provided a template for good leadership. He knew that most princes did not meet his expectations, but rather than attack each of them he gave them all an example to follow. In Praise of Folly, Erasmus made all kinds of people look foolish, but never by name. As he wrote to Dorp, if anyone took offense at a figure in Praise of Folly, it only showed that they saw themselves in the story. Erasmus relied on self-realization among his readers. Imagine if we extended that grace today and if we offered more examples and less excoriation.
Erasmus wanted to avoid offending others not because he was entangled in respectability politics, but because he sought to provoke real change, not just responses. Some among us seek conflict because we believe that vocal opposition is an indicator that we are doing something right. This has led to a proliferation of enemies, some of them false. Sometimes we in the church need to be reminded that not all who argue with us are actually enemies of the cross and that we must love one other. In 2 Timothy 2:24, Paul writes that “the Lord’s servant must not quarrel; instead, he must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful.” When someone is actually incorrect, are we interested in talking points or turning points? Our approach to engaging culture and each other should not be one that seeks to find or create enemies.
What about our real enemies? There are people who truly oppose us, despise us, or both. We know we are to love them and to bless them. We also know we are to “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). Sometimes we convince ourselves that simply speaking the truth constitutes “in love,” even if our sharing angers and alienates people. Underlying Erasmus’ choice of satire in Praise of Folly was a commitment to gentleness. Truth and palatability are not always opposed. Proverbs 15:4 tells us that “the soothing tongue is a tree of life, but a perverse tongue crushes the spirit.” Do we seek to crush our enemies? Or do we offer them a branch from the tree of life?
Erasmus was an imperfect person, but he offers us a compelling model for engaging others. The radical Erasmian approach is not to hide or minimize the truth, or deny the existence of enemies, but to tell the truth in a way that hopes to turn enemies into friends. Do we speak to and with and about our opponents as future friends? Or are we unfriending people with our approaches to the world around us? As we wrestle over our country and our culture, the Erasmian option may seem truly foolish. Toward the end of Praise of Folly, Erasmus called out the wisdom of the world by reminding his readers that “the biggest fools of all appear to be those who have once been wholly possessed by zeal for Christian piety. They squander their possessions, ignore insults, submit to being cheated, make no distinction between friends and enemies, shun pleasure, sustain themselves on fasting, vigils, tears, toil, and humiliations…” Erasmus reminded his readers that being wise in the eyes of the world is not our objective, for “the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18). Keeping that in mind would be a powerful corrective to our current norms of social and political discourse.