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Blessed are the crazy: Mental illness and the Christian faith

6 October 2014

This post is part of a synchroblog[1] timed to coincide with the launch of a book, Blessed are the crazy by Sarah Griffith Lund. I’ve only just heard of the book, and don’t have a copy, so this post is in no sense a book review, but rather a few thoughts on the general theme. For more information on the book, see here.

It’s a difficult thing to write about, partly because the definition of mental illness keeps changing. What exactly is it? When I did Psychology I at university 50 years ago we did a brief survey of psychopathology, and a number of different kinds of mental illnesses were described. There were schizophrenics, paranoiacs and manic-depressives and a few other conditions mentioned, but most of the terms in my textbooks back then don’t seem to be in use today. So that makes me wonder about the social construction of mental illness — is mental illness just something in the mind of the beholder. Is it just a social construct  that society imposes on people?

St Basil, Fool for Christ of Moscow

St Basil, Fool for Christ of Moscow

Back at the time that I was studying Psycho I, there was also a popular perception of psychology and related fields. There were psychologists, psychoanalysts and psychiatrists, and many people were not clear about the differences between them. Some people told me that psychologists were scientists and psychiatrists were quacks. I wasn’t sure about that. The Psychology we did at university was the study of behaviour of animals and human beings, and in part dealt with the physiology of behaviour — the senses, like vision, hearing, taste and so on. Psychiatry was a specialist field of medicine. You had to have a medical degree to practise as a psychiatrist, so I wondered about people who said that psychiatry was quackery.

Most of our textbooks for psychology was American, and one thing that made an impression on me was that they all said that believing that your telephone was tapped and that the police were reading your mail was a sign of mental illness and being out of touch with reality. But it was the textbooks that were out of touch with the reality of South Africa in 1964, and, I suspect, with the “homeland security” America of 2014, which reinforces the notion of the social construction of mental illness. Is believing that your phone may be tapped a sign of paranoia? Or is it a sign that you live in a paranoid society that is obsessed with spying on its citizens? When I looked at my government file from the apartheid era, there was frequent use of the term ‘n delikate bron (a sensitive source) , and it was clear that in many instances this referred to a little man in the post office who opened and read letters addressed to people overseas and noted the contents for the Security Police records. So who was paranoid, the citizens who thought that the State was spying on them, or the State that was actually spying on its citizens?

It gets more complicated than that. A friend of mine was a member of an interdenominational Bible study group under the auspices of the Christian Institute. One of the other members was a psychotherapist of some sort (I can’t remember if he was a psychoanalyst or a psychiatrist or something else) who was himself a mental patient in the Fort Napier Mental Hospital in Pietermaritzburg. And it turned out that he was being used by the Security Police as a spy to spy on others in the study group, and report on what they said. It seemed cruel and cynical to exploit an inmate of a mental institution in this way. A crazy society was using crazy people to spy on the sane.

This was not peculiar to South Africa, either. In the USSR the Bolsheviks incarcerated political dissidents in mental institutions on the grounds that they must be crazy not to appreciate the advantages of communist society.

But in 1964-66 I also had a real encounter with real mental illness. The priest of the Anglican parish I then belonged to, whose clergy were also chaplains to the unviersity where I studied psychology (among other things), left at the end of 1964 to return to the UK, and became rector of a parish on the outskirts of London. In South Africa he was known as a dynamic preacher, and was also instrumental in building the parish into a lively Christian community. Within a couple of months of arriving in his new parish in England he had a mental breakdown. In 1966 I went to the UK to do post-graduate study, and sometimes stayed with this  priest and his family during university vacations, and he was a completely different person. He could not focus or concentrate on anything for long, and would get a bee in his bonnet about relatively unimportant matters. He became irritable, and snapped at his children. I could see that in some sense he had “lost his mind”, and a mind is a terrible thing to lose.

St Xenia, Fool for Christ of St Petersburg

St Xenia, Fool for Christ of St Petersburg

So if mental illness is a social construction, it is not only a social construction. There is more to it than that. In the case of this priest it was eventually diagnosed as some kind of chemical imbalance in the brain, and he was given drugs to treat the condition, but he was never quite the same again. Of course drugs to treat such conditions are the field of psychiatry, and so I was reminded that psychiatrists were not merely quacks but that mental illness was real, and they were trying to find ways to treat it.

And that raises the question of the relationship between the “mind” and the “brain”. Nowadays, with the ubiquity of personal computers, we can make an analogy. Problems with the mind are software problems, problems of the brain are hardware problems, but they also can’t be rigidly separated. But there isn’t space to go into all that here.

Going back another 50 years from the 1964, one comes to G.K. Chesterton, who a century ago wrote about the same kind of thing, and raised the question whether Christians were mad people in a sane world, or sane people in a mad world.

And if great reasoners are often maniacal, it is equally true that maniacs are commonly great reasoners. When I was engaged in a controversy with the Clarion on the matter of free will, that able writer Mr. R.B.Suthers said that free will was lunacy, because it meant causeless actions, and the actions of a lunatic would be causeless. I do not dwell here upon the disastrous lapse in determinist logic. Obviously if any actions, even a lunatic’s, can be causeless, determinism is done for. If the chain of causation can be broken for a madman, it can be broken for a man. But my purpose is to point out something more practical. It was natural, perhaps, that a modern Marxian Socialist should not know anything about free will. But it was certainly remarkable that a modern Marxian Socialist should not know anything about lunatics. Mr. Suthers evidently did not know anything about lunatics. The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle. It is exactly such careless and causeless actions that the madman could never understand; for the madman (like the determinist) generally sees too much cause in everything. The madman would read a conspiratorial significance into those empty activities. He would think that the lopping of the grass was an attack on private property. He would think that the kicking of the heels was a signal to an accomplice. If the madman could for an instant become careless, he would become sane. Every one who has had the misfortune to talk with people in the heart or on the edge of mental disorder, knows that their most sinister quality is a horrible clarity of detail; a connecting of one thing with another in a map more elaborate than a maze. If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humour or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience.  He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.[2]

And going back another 30 years or so, we come to Léon Bloy, who said that Christians were called to be “Pilgrims of the Absolute”, and when someone asked him whether that might endanger his mental balance, Bloy replied Pilgrims of the Absolute:

Balance? The devil take it! He has indeed taken it long ago! I am a Christian who accepts the full consequences of my Christianity. What happened at the Fall? The entire world, you understand, with everything in it, lost its balance. Why on earth should I be the one to keep mine? The world and mankind were balanced as long as they were held fast in the arms of the Absolute. What the average man means by balance is the most dangerous one-sidedness into which a man can fall… the renunciation of his heavenly birthright for the pottage of this sinful world.

And that leads me back to another synchroblog, of six years ago, which completes the circle: Blessed are the foolish — foolish are the blessed | Notes from underground

Notes & References

[1] A synchroblog is when a number of bloggets blog on the same general topic on the same day, and link their blog posts to each other so that you can see the same topic from various points of view.

The links to the other posts will appear here as soon as they become available, so if you don’t see them now, please return in a day or two to find some other views on this topic. There is one link that will probably not be part of this synchroblog, and yet ought to be, so if you got this far, I urge you to read it: MYSTAGOGY: The Foundations of Orthodox Psychotherapy

Here are links to other posts in this Synchroblog:

More links will be added as they become available

[2] Chesterton, G.K. 1990. Orthodoxy: the romance of faith. New York: Image. ISBN: 0-385-01536-4

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 10 October 2014 9:03 pm

    Thanks for this. Wish I’d known about it in time for the synchroblog, might well have joined in; now following the project on twitter.

    • 11 October 2014 4:59 am

      I did post a couple of tweets about it on Twitter to try to publicise it beforehand — not many takers, though.


  1. October Synchroblog Link List | synchroblog

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