1 Corinthians 4.10a:
We are fools for the sake of Christ
Do you believe there such a thing as a holy madness? As one who has been reared in a psychiatric-therapeutic background, I had been taught about mental disorders. Even though it took me years to understand them, I worked under this basic assumption: there are the fortunate people who see the world correctly who do not have serious mental disorders and then there are the suffering people who have serious disturbances that do not understand the world adequately. I don’t mean to undercut the fact that there are fortunate and unfortunate people when it comes to mental health, but what if there is another category of a holy madness? Allow me to explain. I don’t mean to say that everything a person going through a holy madness, if it exists, is holy. When we have been set apart by God, our sins don’t automatically extinguish, but as Paul says in 2 Timothy 2.20-21, people who cleanse themselves (i.e. being set apart and made holy) are then prepared for every good work. But, in a holy madness, one goes through a deep mental anguish and burden that God places upon them for some purpose that prepares them to do a good work.
When I was early in my time at seminary, I had begun to get an image in my heart of me bearing the weight on the world of my shoulder. By that, I don’t mean anything as grand as what Jesus did on the cross, but I had wanted to be a hero to people to make the world a better place for them. I had suffered much pain and hurt over the years, and I wanted to change the world and make it a place of greater justice. In the midst of this, this recurring image of bearing this burden, whatever it is, kept coming to me, over and over again. Eventually, a word and vision that turned into a dream of being a servant come over me and I forgot that burdensome image. Yet, what I experienced over the past 8 years can in some ways only be described as a bearing of so many burdens for various sorts of people.
There come to be a fundamental split in my person; not in terms of schizophrenia or dissociative identity disorder but something that I can’t quite describe or precisely put my finger on. On the one hand, there was the person of faith that believed, trusted, and hope in God. But, there was this other person, that became an exaggeration of my previous cautiousness that could blur into skepticism. This other person, however, was one who was many, because in the midst of this other side was a person who was so deeply analytical about the person in terms of our thinking, feeling, motivation, desires, actions, etc. for all sorts of peoples and cultures that I could find no center of gravity to determine what was real and true in that person. This person experienced all sorts of thinking, all sorts of feelings, all sorts of possibilities, all sorts of fears and worries and anger. The boundary between myself in this person and other people, real and those who I hypothetically constructed in my head, was so blurry that I didn’t have a fully fleshed-out sense of who I was, and this person took the person of faith I was and submitted that person to all sorts of criticisms, skepticism, and derision.
At this point, you might think that this was a bad thing, but yet there was something I also experienced: I was developing a way of thinking about people and the world that the person of faith kept consoling the person of chaos to hear. This person of chaos was slowly, over the course of time, beginning to make imagine and make sense of people from so many perspectives from different possible backgrounds, but with an eye towards God. When the bulk of all this was coming together during my time at St. Andrews, I remember a lecture that N.T. Wright gave about the role of the sympathetic imagination in studying history and the Bible. Looking back, it is almost as if what I was going through was the development of an incredibly broad-ranging sympathetic imagination that went deeper than a basic sense of emotional awareness and empathy. My thinking was a swirling of various topics that went deeper to the very basic sense-making constituents of life, such as worldviews, metaphysics (both formal and informal), modes of reasoning, including about reasoning about life, the basic structure of interpretation and understanding in its processes, etc. The various topics of my blog through that time reflected all of this.
However, in such a case, one’s sense of the truth and reality of the world becomes very uncertain, always shaky, never really having any basis for confidence for knowing what is true. Most of you can not understand how much people do take for granted in order to be able to function day-to-day in life, and yet I had so much of these basic assumptions about life being questioned, giving me an incredibly flexible and wide-ranging imagination and reflection, but leaving me unable to experience the source of confidence and hope that could always the anxieties, the fears, the feelings of isolation and being so unlike others.
Yet, as I have come to a place where I don’t feel this chaos living in me anymore, I am left to ask this question: was this a holy madness that prepared me to do the good work of God? Was I, in the midst of all this confusion, uncertainty, fear, defensiveness, and feelings of alienation, coming to totally reformulate a worldview, reformulate a metaphysics, reformulate a sense of reason, interpretation, and understanding, reformulate a sense of goodness that would undercut the sources of widespread injustice that the Enlightenment and then post-modernity has submitted the world to? For example, the atrocities and later injustices committed against African-Americans has always operated in the back of my mind as I thought through what it meant to be a follower of Jesus and our theological understanding that lead me to the formulation: the basic metaphysical underpinnings of “white theology” that determine how we interpret Scripture and construct theological systems has been formulated in such a way that it does not take the concerns of justice seriously enough, but it reduces the “oughtness” of life to basic personal, moral behaviors that relate to certain forbidden zones (sex, alcohol, drugs, etc.) but does not give great concern to equity and deep sense of respect for others. Or, our concepts of suffering, the problem of evil, and theodicy are woefully inadequate when it comes to addressing the atrocities of Nazi Germany, Communist Russia, etc., because they worked under faulty worldivews that prioritize the metaphysical concept of free will that simply accepts evil as a possible part of the chaos of life.1
What if I went through a holy madness in order to be able to reconstruct a sense of justice, an understanding of theology, and even an interpretation of the Scriptures that avoided the pitfalls of the past few centuries and be able to come to a more solid ground? When so much has to be questioned, weighed, and sifted in order to find something true, one can not help but feel a deep, pervasive sense of uncertainty, fear, and confusion that may feel like madness at times. But what if that is what I went through?
- While I haven’t written about it much and I am still thinking it through, my working out of the problem of evil relates around the idea of creativity, which in freedom has the possibility to work towards good, life-giving purposes and evil, death-dealing actions. While there is a sense of independence to human life that we can label free will, this is not central to the Biblical narrative. Instead, God gives us an independent capacity to be potentially creative so that we can fulfill our purposes as being part of the image of God that got turned in the wrong direction. In response, God’s choice was to either let human creativity be set towards evil without restraint, which was unfathomable, or to submit humanity to a condemnation that limited human life. Consequently, the emergence of evil in the 20th century was a consequence of human knowledge and science allowing us to overcome these limitations, thereby explaining the evil of the 20th century to the capacity of human power to overcome the limitations that were naturally placed upon us by God, not much unlike what happened in the antediluvian world. And, not much unlike how God confused languages at the Tower of Babel when it appeared human power was at it again, postmodernity came in an broke the oppressive power of the Enlightenment, but leaving us in a world that is predilected towards many small little tyrants competing for each other with no real agreed basis of life rather than one large, monolithic one that others can not compete with.