The following is a paper I presented at the 17th annual conference of The International Society for Psychological and Social Approaches to Psychosis in Philadelphia:
The famous British scholar C.S. Lewis noted that,
What we learn from experience depends on the kind of philosophy we bring to experience.
I look at the experience of madness through a theological lens, meaning that madness reveals to me plenty about God, and about the human condition.
In this presentation I invite you to look through this theological lens at the question of what constitutes freedom and liberation from madness. I ask whether it is sufficient to eliminate the symptoms of madness. Does absence of disease constitute health? Is it enough for a person to return to a functional life? Or does madness serve a far greater purpose?
I suggest it does!
My Christian faith and my theological worldview demand a deeper meaning and purpose in such an intense experience of suffering. I will explain why I believe madness provides such meaning and purpose, and why it is a gift and not an aberration.
In doing so, I do not indict well-meaning and talented therapists who are trained in theories and methods developed to simply reduce negative emotions and behavior. My hope is that people of faith, and those who care for the faithful, realize the untapped potential to open up the gateway to deep-rooted healing and well-being, where hope, joy, trust, and confidence can wipe away any resentment, doubt, unforgiveness, shame, guilt, and fear.
I recently heard one of the courageous leaders of the recovery movement say in an interview about her journey: “I still feel great pain often daily… I [have learned to] coexist with darkness in me.” I admire those, like her, who have traveled so far. However, I would like to suggest that instead of coexisting with darkness, one can aim for Divine light, for a true transformation, what Christianity calls, a new birth.
I know that the church has hurt many people, probably including some of you here. I have been hurt by the church too. The church is made up of human beings, and human beings make mistakes. Anytime one tries to institutionalize or dogmatize something elusive and mysterious, like God, one runs the risk of suffocating its power.
I am attracted to Christianity not because Christians are perfect people, but because they are broken people. The story of Christianity is about the promise of redemption to those who are at the end of themselves, by the redeemer, the risen Christ. The promise that is open to all, who’ve lost hope, as I did in my painful experience alongside my daughter, as she traveled to the depth of madness.
I am attracted to Christianity because it holds me to account and forces me to face my true self. The very heart of Christian understanding what freedom and liberty are all about is release from bondage. Bondage refers to a state of being bound, usually by compulsion, without the ability to release oneself. The self runs away from becoming the true self, the God-created self, and holds on desperately to his unfree mode of being. He does not know that it is exactly this unauthentic self that he must give away to gain his true self. It is deep affliction, such as madness, that brings about the death of the old self and facilitates the birth of the true self.
Many of us are blind to our own flaws. Usually, it takes a crisis and some sobering self- assessment to realize our dysfunctionality, or the inadequacy of how we understand life. Most of us live for ourselves, and see no fault with our life styles—life styles that God wants ultimately turned upside down. Many of us struggle to find meaning in our lives. We are painfully aware of all our inadequacies. We are aware of our fragility and know we are brutally breakable. Even worse, deep down we know we are capable of reprehensible actions. We bear a continued existential guilt, are vulnerable, and filled with inner fear, whether we admit to it or not. We are always waiting for the other shoe to drop.
Wilfred McClay, director of the Center for the History of Liberty at the University of Oklahoma, in his brilliant essay, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” argues that those who live in the developed countries of the west, are burdened by a persistent psychological force of guilt. He writes:
I use the words strange persistence to suggest that the modern drama of guilt has not followed the script that was written for it. Prophets such as Friedrich Nietzsche were confident that once the modern Western world finally threw off the metaphysical straitjacket that had confined the possibilities of all previous generations, the moral reflexes that had accompanied that framework would disappear along with them. With God dead, all would indeed be permitted. Chief among the outmoded reflexes would be the experience of guilt, an obvious vestige of irrational fear promulgated by oppressive, life-denying institutions erected in the name and image of a punitive deity.
Thanks in part to Freud’s influence, McClay claims, in our therapeutic age, we have demoralized guilt, by treating it as a strictly subjective and emotional matter.
McClay says, “[T]he sources of guilt’s power and the nature of its would-be antidotes have changed for us.” At any cost, we try to relieve ourselves of the worst mental burdens, even medicating ourselves, zealously refraining from rendering any judgment as to whether the guilty feelings burdening our conscious have any moral justification. I agree with him that this is the result of secularizing our culture and our vocabulary to the point that we have become silent about “the very religious frameworks and vocabularies within which the dynamics of sin and guilt and atonement” can be intelligible.
McClay argues that the sense of guilt persists as long as we seek our redemption by other means, means which cannot deliver redemption. The Christian Scriptures teach that it is the innate depraved nature of all of humanity, and not only those we pathologize that allows forces of evil to burden us with guilt, shame, and fear. Sadly, not only do we no longer understand the innate value of the concept of sin, we have also lost a coherent narrative of redemption, which, I believe, alone can “tame guilt’s harsh and punitive potential.”
As a society and a culture, in our communities and our families, we suffer from “a mounting tide of unassuaged guilt, ever in search of novel and ineffective, and ultimately bizarre ways to discharge itself,” says McClay. And this guilt is destroying our spirits.
Indeed, it could well be the case, and paradoxically so, that just at the moment when we have become more keenly aware than ever of the wages of sin in the world, and more keenly anxious to address those sins [that] we find ourselves least able to describe them in those now-forbidden terms, let alone find moral release from their weight.
I should note that what I mean by being a sinner refers not to one’s behavior, but rather to the state of one’s nature and the disposition of one’s heart. We are all sinners, meaning naturally, short of God’s grace, we choose to be the lord of our own lives and we have no room for a God we cannot control. That causes separation from God. Separation from God, Scripture claims, brings disintegration and chaos.
Søren Kierkegaard, the famous Danish philosopher and theologian, is widely recognized as a master of the human religious psyche. In his writings he has offered many deep and penetrating reflections on the human. He understood madness not as pathology but as a disorder of the spirit—a disruption of humanity’s fundamental relationship to existence. He believed that in dread of rejection and in terror of abandonment, humankind falls into a state of non-being. I believe that framing madness as an illness of spirit puts us on the right track to recapture deep healing and freedom.
Augustine, the 4th century theologian, explains whether we find fulfillment or despair depends on what we love and how we love. He claims that most of our loves are disordered, and that injures our soul. We have idols that are not worthy of our love and worship. We tend to love most those things that we ought to love least.
At Oxford University, prominent theologian, pastor, and New York Times bestselling author, Tim Keller, gave a series of lectures called “UNCOVER,” in which he tackled the issues of identity, fulfillment, and meaning in one’s life. Building on Augustine’s teaching, he explained how we look for fulfillment in the wrong places, because we hunger for something beyond what ordinary life can give us. When we are young, we look for educational achievement, for a spouse, children, career, money, and recognition. Worse, we let them define us. When we do finally achieve those goals, we realize that they leave us unfulfilled, that they do not after all fill the void within us.
We cannot survive by establishing our identity on shaky ground. We need a sense of worth that is durable, not dependent on circumstances. Our culture forces categories of identity on us, like beautiful, athletic, successful business woman, a good mother, etc. which may not be durable over time: Beauty will eventually fade away, our body gives up as it ages, businesses go sour, and our kids don’t turn out as we had hoped. By adopting such identity goals, we are setting ourselves up for failure. We are always struggling to prove we are somebody worthy. Yet the truth is that we will never be sufficiently beautiful, successful, or wise. Our culture tells us that without faith in God we are free and no one will make us feel guilty, that we are free to choose and we can do what we want. But I have found that this is not true! We are anything but free! We are enslaved by our idols! We need someone to justify us, and that cannot be someone unreliable who is needy himself.
Keller asserts that we are looking for imperishable bliss, something we can hold on to without fear of losing it. Many of us have wondered, “Is this all there is to life?” Most of us want something that this world cannot give us. We feel betrayed by life’s injustices and broken promises. The voices in our head keep repeating: “If only I could…” Or they constantly accuse us, saying: “You are not good enough. You’re a fake and others see through you.” That voice can become so insistent and relentless that it shatters our lives. Sooner or later, we become either hardened and dehumanize ourselves, or we fall into despair.
What we typically don’t realize is that we are suffering from spiritual hunger, a hunger that is the result of being separated from God, the source of Love, Light, and Life. We don’t realize that the identity we have created for ourselves, or that the world has given us has enslaved us. We feel like sinners regardless of how we label that inner disharmony. We try to diagnose our problems in all kinds of man-made categories—saying that we’re suffering because we are with the wrong partner, or in the wrong job, or because we don’t do this or that— and we never consider that there might be something seriously and innately wrong with all of us!—what Christians would call sin or separation from God.
Only when we love God supremely and genuinely, says Augustine, does true contentment come. Only then does everything fall into the right order. Only then can circumstantial sufferings—even sufferings as awful as madness—not take away our inner contentment. Yet we cannot love God supremely unless we come to know the reality of His love for us. That supreme and unconditional love is the only enduring love there is. This love can only be discovered when we hit bottom, when all our idols have lost their significance. It is when we hit bottom that our eyes are opened to the truth about the human condition. When the ego is finally shattered, we lose our resistance to God. That is when space is created for the Spirit of God to come in, to take over, and to consume the soul by His unconditional love. And that is when healing begins.
There is no bottom deeper than madness. Madness is monstrous. It wipes away any sense of self. It is truly a hellish experience!
Martin Luther the leader of the Christian Reformation, said from his own experience of desolation, “God leads down to hell those whom he predestines to heaven.” This is because the old self has to die before the new self can come to life. And this is precisely what madness facilitates. In God’s economy, there is power in powerlessness, and that was revealed through the Cross. It was crucifixion on the cross that led to resurrection.
In madness, our inhumanity, our confusion, our depravity, our idolatry, and our blindness become crystallized. Moreover, madness is a vicarious phenomenon. The person suffering is manifestly a prisoner under suspicion, hate, unfaith, and hopelessness. These are qualities that largely remain hidden in all of us. The suffering person—the one publicly labelled as “mad”—becomes like a stone crying out on our behalf. Humankind is unbearably ignorant, stubborn, and shortsighted about reality. We think reality is limited to what our senses perceive. We think we are in control of our lives. Madness opens up the eyes of our spirit to something beyond. We become aware of our helplessness and depravity. Madness is like fire that burns up what needs to die, and in the process it exposes and amplifies the deepest pains and wounds so that they can be dealt with. We don’t need to recover what has been eradicated. The plan is for the old self to die so that life can be reorganized. Liberation is the side effect of Truth-awareness. For “you shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
Neil deGrasse Tyson, the American astrophysicist, has said: “Human nature scares the hell out of me”
If we want to be honest with ourselves, we ought to admit along with him that we’re much more problematic creatures than we pretend to be.
Ernest Becker, the Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural anthropologist, asserts that psychosis is the exaggerated form of the human condition:
[T]he psychotic uses blatantly, openly, and in an exaggerated way the same kind of thought-defenses that most people use wishfully, hiddenly, and in a more controlled way. . . . In this sense the psychoses are a caricature of the life styles of all of us—which is probably part of the reason that they make us so uncomfortable.
In madness, the Self sheds successive layers of its hiddenness; it becomes transparent. This is a crisis, because as Kierkegaard puts it, it is a negation of a previous self—the false self that has become the accepted norm. This struggle is very painful, but the “deeper self . . . knows that this sickness is not unto death, but unto life.”
This negation of the previous self brings the possibility of freedom. Through its intensity, dread of madness consumes all trivial concerns that are peripheral to the search for true self; it lays bare their deceptions. Thus, one is granted the possibility of becoming who one was created to be. A search for authentic self, requires a dying away to immediacy. This essentially means suffering: the giving up of immediate desires and dreams, representing all idols, as an admission of surrender to God as the One who will define the purpose of one’s life. In this surrendered state one is faced with one’s own impotence, the realization, that one is both helpless to save oneself, and realizes that he is nothing before God, and yet also loved by God unconditionally and beyond measure. Through this sense of resignation, one discovers one’s need for God; and in this realization one becomes conscious of being a sinner. That is when our spiritual eyes are opened and we realize that old stories are no longer working and it is time to surrender the throne of authority to God, and that God alone can lift up the crushing burdens by pouring His Spirit into our souls. That is when we hear the song of freedom and are able to tune into that frequency, one not audible by all. And what we hear will change us forever. For “[W]here the Spirit of the Lord is there is liberty.” (2 Corinthians 3:17)
Only those who have experienced that moment realize the sense of bliss that comes with it. God pours His Spirit upon the person, and with it comes the beginnings of love, peace, joy, faith, kindness, goodness, gentleness, patience, and self-control, for these are the fruit of the Divine Spirit (Gal.5:22). The transformation will not happen overnight, but the change in the orientation of one’s heart and the disposition of one’s will is the spark that causes these to be kindled.
Those entrapped in the labyrinth of madness need a stable guide to help them find their way to the other side. It behooves us to listen to the voice of madness, instead of shutting it off by suppressive methods. Most of the people stuck in madness are damaged by what the rest of us have done to them. Kierkegaard notes:
Only when the compassionate person is so related by his compassion to the sufferer that in the strictest sense he comprehends that it is his own cause which is here in question, only when he knows how to identify himself in such a way with the sufferer that when he is fighting for an explanation he is fighting for himself … only then does compassion acquire significance, and only then does it perhaps find a meaning.
When one is awakened and embraces the problem of the sufferer as his own, pointing to his own depravity, then and only then is he truly bearing the sufferer’s burden, and only then is his compassion authentic enough to have any healing power.
Madness opens the doorway into the inner life. Henri Nouwen emphasizes the value and the danger of the inner life. He says,
We hardly need emphasize how dangerous the experimentation with the interior life can be. . . . Withdrawal into the self often does more harm than good. On the other hand it also is becoming obvious that those who avoid the painful encounter with the unseen are doomed to live a supercilious, boring and superficial life.
Nouwen believes that those who travel such a path need a compassionate and authentic community to carry them and help guide them to the other side. Speaking of care in an authentic Christian community, Nouwen declares:
To care means first of all to empty our own cup and to allow the other to come close to us. It means to take away the many barriers which prevent us from entering into communion with the other. When we dare to care, then we discover that nothing human is foreign to us, but that all the hatred and love, cruelty and compassion, fear and joy can be found in our own hearts. When we dare to care, we have to confess that when others kill, I could have killed too. . . . By the honest recognition and confession of our human sameness we can participate in the care of God who came, not to the powerful but powerless… Through this participation we can open our hearts to each other and form a new community.
Remembering Martin Luther’s words that “God leads down to hell those whom he predestines to heaven” I’d like to finish my talk by presenting to you Teresa of Avila as an example of all that I have talked about.
Teresa, the famous sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, offers us one of the most vivid portraits of a descent into the danger zone of madness. She suffered from variety of illnesses and serious mental anguish all her life. Cohen, who translated her autobiography, refers to her as a “hysterically unbalanced woman, who . . . was entirely transformed by profound experiences.” She was haunted by persistent hideous visions and experienced hearing inner voices. At times, she was lifted into the air to her own consternation and the amazement of those around her. Additionally, she suffered from physical pain, vomiting, heart-spasms, cramps, and partial paralysis. She was considered by most of her contemporaries to be insane and possessed by the devil, and yet her madness transformed her into one of the heroes of the Catholic Church. Later in her life, Teresa combined the religious life with one of great public service. She founded seventeen reformed convents against heavy oppositions, and wrestled successfully with church authorities; she was canonized in 1622, and in 1814 she was named “the national saint” of Spain. She herself believed that one of her most memorable experiences was when God allowed her to experience Hell. She writes:
I found myself, without knowing how, plunged, as I thought, into hell. I understood that the Lord wished me to see the place that the devils had ready for me there, and that I had earned by my sins . . . I felt a fire inside my soul, the nature of which is beyond my powers of description, and my physical tortures were intolerable… especially when I realized that they would be endless and unceasing. But even this was nothing to my agony of soul, an oppression, a suffocation, and an affliction so agonizing, and accompanied by such a hopeless and distressing misery that no words I could find would adequately describe it . . . my soul were being continuously torn from my body. . . it was the Lord’s will that I really should feel these torments and afflictions of spirit, just as if my body were actually suffering them. . . . I quite clearly realized that this was a great favor, and that the Lord wished me to see with my very eyes the place from which His mercy had delivered me. . . . I can think of no time of trial or torture when everything that we can suffer on earth has not seemed to me trifling in comparison with this . . . this vision was one of the greatest mercies that the Lord has bestowed on me. It has benefited me very much, both by freeing me from fear of the tribulations and oppositions of this life, and by giving me the strength, whilst bearing them, to give thanks to the Lord, who, as I now believe, has delivered me from these continuous and terrible torments.
 CS Lewis, Miracles, Chapter 1 , http://www.essentialcslewis.com/2015/09/12/experience-that-most-brutal/
 Shirley Sugerman, Sin and Madness: Studies in Narcissism, 2nd ed. (San Rafael, CA: Barfield, 2008), 33-34.
 Wilfred M. McClay, “The Strange Persistence of Guilt,” The Hedgehog Review: Vol. 19 No. 1 (Spring 2017).
 William Barrett, Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1962), 168.
 Tim Keller, UNCOVER lectures, https://www.bing.com/videos/search?q=tim+keller+uncover+oxford+university&qpvt=Tim+Keller+UNCOVER+OXford+University&FORM=VDRE, 2/23/2015
 Brown, Life Against Death. Brown, Norman Oliver Brown, Life Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History, (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1959).
 Neil deGrasse Tyson, https://www.facebook.com/Tysonism/posts/good-monday-morning-to-you-all-tysonists-heres-some-pure-tysony-goodness-to-star/1869213453140392/
 Becker, The Denial of Death, 218.
 Sugerman, Sin and Madness, 42.
 Elahe Hessamfar, In the Fellowship of His Suffering: A Theological Interpretation of Mental Illness–A Focus on “Schizophrenia,” (Eugene, Oregon: CASCADE Books, 2014), 220.
 Kierkegaard, “Kierkegaard’s the Concept of Dread,” inA Kierkegaard Anthology, Translated by Walter Lowrie,edited by Robert Bretall, (London: Oxford University Press, 1947), 248.
 Henri Nouwen, Out of Solitude: Three Meditations on the Christian Life, (Notre Dame, IN: Ave Maria, 2001), 37.
 Henri Nouwen, The Wounded Healer: Ministry in Contemporary Society, (New York: Doubleday, 1979), 42-43.
 Teresa, The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila, 1, 12–16, 19.
 Teresa, The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila, 233-34.