Category Archives: Holy Dissent

The Edge of the Inside

The Fourth Core Principle of the CAC: Practical truth is more likely found at the bottom and the edges than at the top or center of most groups, institutions, and cultures. Father Richard explores the power of this prophetic position:

The edge of things is a liminal space—a holy place or, as the Celts called it, “a thin place.” Most of us have to be taught how to live there. To function on the spiritual edge of things is to learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth, across and return. It is a prophetic position, not a rebellious or antisocial one. When we are at the center of something, we easily confuse essentials with nonessentials, getting tied down by trivia, loyalty tests, and job security. Not much truth can happen there. When we live on the edge of anything, with respect and honor (and this is crucial!), we are in an auspicious and advantageous position.

In the Gospels, Jesus sends his first disciples on the road to preach to “all the nations” (Matthew 28:19; Luke 24:47) and to “all creation” (Mark 16:15). I’m convinced he was training them to risk leaving their own security systems and yet, paradoxically, to be gatekeepers for them. He told them to leave their home base and connect with other worlds. This becomes even clearer in his instruction for them “not to take any baggage” (Mark 6:8) and to submit to the hospitality and even the hostility of others (Mark 6:10–11). Jesus says the same of himself in John’s Gospel (10:7) where he calls himself “the gate” where people “will go freely in and out” (10:9). What amazing permission! He sees himself more as a place of entrance and exit than a place of settlement.

The unique and rare position of a biblical prophet is always on the edge of the inside. The prophet is not an outsider throwing rocks or an insider comfortably defending the status quo. Instead, the prophet lives precariously with two perspectives held tightly together. In this position, one is not ensconced safely inside, nor situated so far outside as to lose compassion or understanding. Prophets must hold these perspectives in a loving and necessary creative tension. It is a unique kind of seeing and living, which will largely leave the prophet with “nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58) and easily attracting the “hatred of all”—who have invariably taken sides in opposing groups (Luke 21:16–17). The prophet speaks for God, and almost no one else, it seems.

When we are both inside and outside, we are an ultimate challenge, possible reformers, and lasting invitations to a much larger world.

(Me: Had to read carefully to understand what he is saying in this. But, when the light came on, it really resonates for me.)

Holy Dissent and Self-Critical Thinking

Father Richard Rohr values how Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures introduced the gift of self-critical thinking into their relationship with God:

The Hebrew Scriptures, against all religious expectations, include what most of us would call the problem—the negative, the accidental, the sinful—as the precise arena for divine revelation. There are no perfectly moral people in ancient Scriptures; even Abraham rather cruelly drove his second wife into the desert with their child. The Jewish people, contrary to what might be expected, chose to present their arrogant and evil kings and their very critical prophets as part of their Holy Scriptures. They include stories and prophecies that do not tell the Jewish people how wonderful they are but, rather, how terrible they are! It is the birth of self-critical thinking and thus moves consciousness forward. No other religion has been known for such capacity for self-criticism, down to our own time. [1]

The Jewish rabbi and noted theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel understood such self-critical thinking and dissent as central to Judaism and to all vibrant and healthy religion:

Inherent to all traditional religion is the peril of stagnation. What becomes settled and established may easily turn foul. Insight is replaced by clichés, elasticity by obstinacy, spontaneity by habit. Acts of dissent prove to be acts of renewal.

It is therefore of vital importance for religious people to voice and to appreciate dissent. And dissent implies self-examination, critique, discontent.

Dissent is indigenous to Judaism. The prophets of ancient Israel who rebelled against a religion that would merely serve the self-interest or survival of the people continue to stand out as inspiration and example of dissent to this very day.

An outstanding feature dominating all Jewish books composed during the first five hundred years of our era is the fact that together with the normative view a dissenting view is nearly always offered, whether in theology or in law. Dissent continued during the finest periods of Jewish history: great scholars sharply disagreed with Maimonides; Hasidism, which brought so much illumination and inspiration into Jewish life, was a movement of dissent. . . . Creative dissent comes out of love and faith, offering positive alternatives, a vision. [2]

Father Richard seeks a both-and approach that embraces self-criticism without falling into excessive intellectualism or despair:

Self-criticism is quite rare in the history of religion, yet it is necessary to keep religion from its natural tendency toward arrogant self-assurance—and eventually idolatry, which is always the major sin for biblical Israel. We must also point out, however, that mere critique usually deteriorates into cynicism, skepticism, academic arrogance, and even post-modernistic nihilism. So be very careful and very prayerful before you own any self-image of professional critic or anointed prophet! Negativity will do you in. [3]