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Holy Seers or Religiously Challenged?

Religious virtues in some do not turn on their self-understanding.

Brother Juniper and the Blessed Fools of Old Russia

Brother Juniper and the Blessed Fools of Old Russia

In the early chapters of Uta Frith’s wonderful and insightful book, Autism: Explaining the Enigma, she explores a variety of figures from history and the arts, whose eccentricities, she proposes, are probably best understood within the framework of autistic spectrum disorders (ASD). From literature and the arts Frith notes Sherlock Holmes, with his famous preoccupation with details and his keen interest in the ashes of 140 different kinds of tobacco, and the title character of the Who’s rock opera Tommy, the pinball wizard whose focus when playing that game is so single-minded. Some of the historical figures Frith mentions, though, may seem to undermine my suggestion in my previous blog that people with ASD may face substantial challenges with regard to religion.

More than a dozen stories survive about Brother Juniper, who was an associate of Saint Francis of Assisi. The stories document Brother Juniper’s simplicity and humility and the literalness with which he took the Franciscan vow of poverty. He returned to the monastery naked so many times that his fellow monks finally had to insist that he cease giving away his clothes. One story recounts him interrupting a pilgrimage to seesaw repetitively for hours. Frith stresses that the stories about Brother Juniper stand apart from those about the other early Franciscans, arguing the best explanation for his guilelessness is that he was autistic.

Frith hypothesizes that many of the “blessed fools of old Russia” were also autistic. These were unusual individuals across the centuries whom the Russian people simultaneously feared and revered. Frith maintains that they exhibited a variety of behaviors and attitudes associated with autism, including repetitive speech and actions as well as apparent obliviousness about social rank and conventions. The blessed fools were famous for interacting with both ecclesiastical and political authorities in unorthodox and unexpected ways. Their odd speech was regarded as evidence of their status as visionaries and prophets.

Religious Virtues without Comprehension

On the assumption that Frith’s retrospective diagnoses of these historical figures are correct, conceiving of Brother Juniper and the blessed fools of old Russia as religiously gifted persons may seem to pose a problem for my proposal that people with ASD have minds that are unprepared for religion and, thus, that they are constitutionally challenged with regard to religion. Were these people both especially holy individuals with profound prophetic abilities as well as people with ASD who were mostly unclear about the mental states of others, including the supernatural agents with whom they were reputed to have special relationships? Two things stand out in Frith’s accounts of Brother Juniper and the blessed fools of old Russia, which suggest that though they were perceived by some as religious adepts, neither Brother Juniper nor the blessed fools merited such veneration, at least not on the basis of their religious insight.

First, nothing about Frith’s descriptions of these people indicates that they saw themselves as holy seers or as particularly well-connected with the relevant supernatural agents. Her accounts suggest that it is unclear whether these people had developed self-conceptions at all, which, incidentally, is another characteristic of many people with ASD. What sticks out is that their relationships with all of the people around them, however affectionate in Brother Juniper’s case, were atypical and child-like in many respects -- even infantile in the cases of some of the blessed fools.

Second, in both cases whatever respect they may have merited for their simplicity, their humility, or their generosity, these people were perceived by those around them, even by those who cared deeply for them, as uncomprehending of some of the most basic aspects of social arrangements. Recall that the blessed fools were oblivious about social conventions and prestige. Brother Juniper’s fellow monks had to instruct him that -- even in what must have been some dire cases -- his direct charity was, sometimes, limited by considerations of propriety. His thorough lack of understanding about such social considerations may have earned him his reputation as the embodiment of the Franciscan ideal, but there is no evidence that it enabled Brother Juniper to draw ready inferences about God’s attitudes or mental states.