Much madness is divinest sense
To a discerning eye;
Much sense the starkest madness.
’Tis the majority
In this, as all, prevails.
Assent, and you are sane;
Demur,—you’re straightway dangerous.
And handled with a chain.
-- Emily Dickinson
In a world gone mad, acting crazy may be the sanest thing you can do. "Too much sanity may be madness," Miguel de Cervantes wrote, "and the maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be." In Don Quixote, arguably one of the finest novels ever written, Cervantes' protagonist puts this proposition to the test. Quixote is a country bumpkin who has become thoroughly besotted with books on chivalry and knights errant. He sets off on a series of inglorious quests in the company of a simpleton named Sancho Panza. At first it appears that Quixote is merely deluded, mistaking a windmill for a giant, a inn for a castle, a barmaid for a lady. But gradually, as news of Quixote's folly spreads, people begin to play along with him, and Quixote himself seems at times to be playing the role of madman as the world is transformed into his asylum.
Every religious tradition has the equivalent of the holy fool who functions as a kind of court jester in the kingdom of God. The Old Testament prophets behaved in all sorts of outlandish ways to make a point. Hosea married a prostitute to underscore Israel's waywardness, and Ezekiel gave the Israelites a taste of things to come by cooking his bread over cow manure. St. Simeon, one of the Desert Fathers, tied a dead dog around his waist and dragged it through the streets of Emesha. Zen masters are famous for their high jinks, and the Muslim sage Nasrudin often seemed inspired by the village idiot. The prophet Elijah once appeared to Rabbi Baruqa in a vision and told him that no one would share in the world to come except two men who had come into the marketplace. The pair turned out to be jesters.
The biggest fool of all may have been Jesus Christ himself. Against all evidence to the contrary, he proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand. He coddled sinners and excoriated the righteous. He saw to it that hungry people ate their fill when there didn't appear to be enough food to go around. He could make people think that water was the finest wine. He got them to believe the lame could walk, the blind could see and the dead could live. He was obviously insane -- and dangerously so. The authorities figured they could put an end to his antics by putting an end to him. Yet here we are 2,000 years later still struggling to come to terms with him. Was he a man? Was he a god? Was he putting us on? It turns out that Jesus, the holy fool, might have gotten the last laugh.