Crazy for God 

When I told my parents I was thinking about being an Episcopal priest, they were well able to contain their enthusiasm. Although they never came right out and said so, I could tell they thought I ought to have my head examined. As it turned out, getting your head examined was one of the requirements for ordination. You had to fill out a lengthy questionnaire called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) and submit to a psychiatric exam. I was already familiar with the MMPI from my intro psychology course in college. You had to answer hundreds of true-or-false questions that ranged from the innocuous (“I have a good appetite.”) to the disturbing (“Evil spirits possess me at times.”) Depending on your answers, the authorities might consider whether they should be digging around in your back yard to find out where the bodies were buried. When the exam was over, the psychiatrist asked me if I had any questions. “Yes,” I replied straight-faced, “does passing or failing the test qualify you for the priesthood?” He laughed – a tipoff that I had passed.

In the end, I decided not to pursue ordination, although for reasons that had nothing to do with my mental fitness for the job. Looking back after more than 40 years, I realize my exchange with the psychiatrist at the end of the interview might not have been entirely facetious. Let’s start with a question from the MMPI that gave me momentary pause at the time: (False or True) “I am a special agent of God.” On the one hand, if I did not think God had singled me out to be a priest, why would I bother filling out this questionnaire? On the other hand, people who think they are special agents of God might be the same ones who bury bodies in their back yard. I answered in the negative.

I can’t help wondering how religious figures in the past would have fared if they had been required to take the MMPI before assuming leadership roles. Start with the founder of the Abrahamic faiths, Abraham himself. He is noted for his willingness to make a burnt offering of his son Isaac – at least until an angel of the Lord intervened. You can just image the tabloid headline if the angel had not stepped in: ABE KILLS SON ON ORDERS FROM ON HIGH. Did Abraham consider himself a special agent of God? How would Abraham respond to this question from the MMPI: (False or True) “In everything I do lately, I feel that I am being tested.”

The founders of the Abrahamic faiths all heard voices that others could not hear. The childless Abraham was promised his descendants would be a numerous as the stars in heaven. The fugitive Moses was ordered to confront the pharaoh and deliver the Hebrew people from bondage in Egypt. Jesus matched wits with the devil in the wilderness. St. Paul had his blinding encounter with the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus. Muhammad took dictation from the Archangel Gabriel and produced the Koran. How would any of them have answered this query from the MMPI: (False or True) “I hear strange things when I am alone.” Or this one (False or True): “I often hear voices without knowing where they come from.” Another potentially troublesome question is the following: (False or True) “My soul sometimes leaves my body.” St Paul might well have stumbled over this one, having once stated he “was caught up to the third heaven--whether in the body or out of the body I do not know…”

We can only image how Martin Luther might have fared had he taken the MMPI. Luther’s pre-Reformation career as an Augustinian monk was distinguished by a moral scrupulosity that bore all the earmarks of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Haunted by the thought he would overlook some minor sin and damn his soul unto eternity, he spent hours each day examining his conscience and then burdening his confessor with an exhaustive recitation of mostly picayune sins. Moreover, he believed himself to be tormented by demons and was plagued by blasphemous thoughts that would enter his head uninvited when he attempted to pray. The MMPI has numerous questions that would signal the need for further inquiry into Luther’s tormented psyche, including: (False or True) “Much of the time I feel as if I have done something wrong or evil;” (False or True) “Bad words, often terrible words, come into my mind and I cannot get rid of them;” and (False or True) “I deserve severe punishment for my sins.”

Since the MMPI was not specifically tailored for people with religious vocations, some of their answers might be susceptible to misinterpretation. For purely practical reasons, psychiatric evaluations are probably necessary for aspiring clergy. But how do you differentiate between those who are crazy for God and those who are just plain crazy?

The issue goes back to the ancient Greeks. Hippocrates observed that epilepsy was commonly referred to as the “sacred disease” because of the ecstatic visions sometimes experienced during seizures, although he doubted they had been inspired by the gods.··(St. Paul’s vision on the road to Damascus is sometimes attributed to epilepsy.)·· Socrates had been listening to a spirit guide, or daimon, since he was a child. He declared, "Our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness, provided the madness is given us by divine gift." The 19th-century philosopher Soren Kierkegaard appropriated the term “divine madness” to characterize Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, which in any other context would be judged criminally insane. The psychiatrist R.D. Laing recognized that mental disorders could bring light as well as darkness to those who were afflicted.· "Madness need not be all breakdown," he wrote.· "It may also be break-through."

The challenge, of course, is to tell which is which. Mental health professionals have belatedly conceded that at least some disorienting psychological symptoms might be the result of profound religious experiences rather than psychotic episodes. Recent editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders now include a new diagnostic category called “spiritual emergency.” Abraham, St. Paul and Muhammad would no doubt be relieved to learn that hearing strange voices would no longer necessarily be regarded as evidence of psychosis. Still, for some of the more unvarnished patriarchs, prophets, and saints of yore, an old joke might still apply: You don’t have to be crazy to take the job, but it sure might help.

2 Corinthians 12:2


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