Martin Marty on Suffering Fools Gladly


Martin Marty, sociologist of religions from the Univetrsity of Chicago, is one of my famous commentators of the American religious scene.

His latest text for the Sightings, deals with a recent text published recently by David Brooks in The New York Times.

Brooks explains: ‘The phrase originally came from William Tyndale’s 1534 translation of the Bible. In it, Paul was ripping into the decadent citizens of Corinth for turning away from his own authoritative teaching and falling for a bunch of second-rate false apostles. “For ye suffers fool gladly,” Paul says with withering sarcasm, “seeing ye yourselves are wise.”

Today, the phrase is often used as an ambiguous compliment. It suggests that a person is so smart he has trouble tolerating people who are far below his own high standards. It is used to describe a person who is so passionately committed to a vital cause that he doesn’t have time for social niceties toward those idiots who stand in its way. It is used to suggest a level of social courage; a person who has the guts to tell idiots what he really thinks.’

* * *

Marty’s text reminded me of one of my constant thanks to God: that he did not give me the call to be a pastor. The reason is that pastors, in my experience, have  to’ suffer fools gladly’, and I cannot and will not. I am fully convinced we need pastors; the better they are, the better our churches, and us as individual Christians will be. Yet, I am glad did not give me this call. Moreover, very early in my life as a Christian, I have decided to be in the opposition to clergy. After all, somebody has to say openly that ‘the emperor has no clothes’.

So, here is Marty’s text.

* * *

Pastors Suffer Fools

— Martin E. Marty

Sightings is supposed to be about “public religion.” So what are pastors, ministers, priests, rabbis doing here this week? David Brooks mentioned them Friday in his New York Times column; that is a pretty public reference to a religious theme. Let’s talk of pastors as column fare, and then see what Brooks does with them. I just came from a panel in which former colleagues Robin Lovin, David Tracy, and I worked the changes on “public theology” at the Society of Christian Ethics. I contended for seeing many local congregations, where they serve creatively, as “publics,” citing Park Palmer’s reference to “The Company of Strangers.” Some parishes and synagogues are self-repressed in their monolithicity, but the live ones incorporate people of diverse opinions, politics, social goals, and more. They are, from some angles, publics, companies of strangers.

I spent one of my (so far) eight decades in parish ministry, and still live off much of what I learned there. Admittedly, the culture and church have changed vastly since then, but I try to stay in touch with those in the professions now in a time when “the institutional church” is undervalued and dissed. I recall as a pastor having appeared and spoken up at school boards, zoning boards, hospital boards, housing boards, divorce courts, adoption agencies, and more. Also, dealing with the varieties in the parishes thrust me, as it does most pastors, into the public worlds of their congregants. Enough.

Now, to Brooks. He was playing with the phrase that headlined his column “Suffering Fools Gladly.” Being David Brooks, he dealt with it in its ambiguity and complexity. He discussed having or not having patience with those to whom one is tempted to be impolite, and worse. Brooks: “I don’t give myself high marks on suffering fools. I’m not rude to those I consider foolish, but I strenuously and lamentably evade them. But I do see people who handle fools well. Many members of the clergy do, as do many great teachers.” This caught my eye, rang a bell, and inspired this column. Exactly. Brooks went on to stress the word “gladly,” as I think he sees pastors and great teachers accepting the need to suffer fools as part of their vocation, skill-set, and make-up.

Suffering fools does not mean being soft and sentimental. Pastors can be harsh and judgmental articulators of law. But, when in 1963 I moved from parish ministry to the professorship, my Dean and Friend “Jerry” Brauer, said, “Marty, there is a difference in your new role. Good professors have to flunk some people; good pastors never do.” This does not mean that professors have to get their credentials by being non-pastoral and great flunkers. It does mean that the message which imparts credentials to pastors teaches them to see people, foolish people, from a different perspective than they naturally would. I once wanted to provide a character reference to an arrested church member, who was of good character. His lawyer said, “The judge will ignore what you say. Clergy are‘soft’ when character-referencing. They know evil, but they find the good, and that does not help in court.” David Brooks might have been listening.

Dismiss “the institutional church” and its ministers, if you will, but, if Brooks is right, you will not have fewer fools. You will likely find more people abandoned, often unjustly, in an impersonal world where someone, someone, should not lose patience or become impolite and dismissive. Here endeth my post-Twelve Days of Christmas column. We can now get back to the gross and grim headline items that beckon for attention in the world of “public religion” in the seasons ahead.


David Brooks, “Suffering Fools Gladly,” New York Times, January 3, 2013.

Martin E. Marty’s biography, publications, and contact information can be found at


This month’s Religion & Culture Web Forum features “Medicalized Death as a Modus Vivendi” by Michelle Harrington. Harrington argues that “an unchastened practice of palliative care constitutes a modus vivendi in the political sense. Standardized assessments and interventions purport to provide a way of coping with the fundamental questions of human existence with only instrumental reference to the diverse beliefs of religious traditions; they threaten to homogenize and manage the patient and his or her intimates according to a generic spirituality that serves clinical norms and efficient social functioning.” Medicalized death, Harrington concludes, “cannot do justice to the considered convictions of Christians who profess a faith formed around death and resurrection.” Read Medicalized Death as a Modus Vivendi.


Sightings comes from the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Author: DanutM

Anglican theologian. Former Director for Faith and Development Middle East and Eastern Europe Region of World Vision International

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