When I was a young man, I briefly considered becoming an Episcopal priest. As part of the screening process, I was interviewed by a psychiatrist who administered a standard psychological test called the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI). The MMPI asks you to respond to a series of true-or-false statements to determine whether you are careful not to step on cracks in the sidewalk or whether you cross the street to avoid meeting people coming the other way. One true-or-false statement posed a particular challenge: "I am a special agent of God." As a candidate for the Episcopal priesthood, did I or did I not consider myself a special agent of God? Knowing full well the question was designed to root out people who were delusional, I answered in the negative. After I completed the test, the psychiatrist asked if I had any questions. "Yes," I replied. "Does passing or failing the test qualify you for the priesthood?" The psychiatrist laughed, which told me I had passed.
My question was not entirely facetious. There has always been a precariously thin line separating delusion from divinity. The standard reference manual for psychiatric disorders (DSM-IV) now includes a diagnostic category for "spiritual emergencies" to help mental health professionals distinguish between an intense religious experience and a psychotic episode. With many great religious figures, it is not always clear how their behavior should be categorized. As Kierkegaard pointed out, Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac is considered a sign of his great faith in God but in any other context would be judged criminally insane. Martin Luther believed himself to be tormented by demons and, according to legend at least, once hurled an inkpot at the devil. Then there is Jesus, whose claims to be the son of God are both the foundation of the Christian faith and a common delusion among paranoid schizophrenics.
Perhaps a more encompassing category is needed to describe behavior that teeters between delusion and exaltation. In Fear and Trembling, Kierkegaard wrote that the murderous Abraham had succumbed to "divine madness," a term he borrowed from the Greeks. In one of Plato's dialogues, his teacher Socrates describes "a madness which is a divine gift, and the source of the chiefest blessings granted to men." According to Socrates, this gift of the gods is variously the source of prophecy, divine healing, poetry and love. 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."
How are we to judge the claims of a man who says he is God? More than one billion adherents now accept Jesus' statements about himself as the basis of their religious faith. However, those who actually heard such utterances from his own lips were not always persuaded. When he proclaimed, "I and the Father are one," many of his listeners wanted to stone him for blasphemy. Jesus sidestepped further trouble by calling their own identity into question, quoting a verse from a Psalm that reads, "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you." The implications are mind-blowing. If Jesus is who he says he is, then so are we -- in which case, by his lights, the delusion is not that he is God but that we are not.
R.D. Laing, The Politics of Experience