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Jesuses I Have Known

How mental illness reveals the truth of Christianity

Following Jesus, we discover the inner workings of our souls.

How does your toaster work?

If you are like me, you won’t find out until it doesn’t.  When mine stopped browning bread slices, I turned it over (not before unplugging it) and unscrewed the bottom and discovered its mechanism.  Hmmm.  Wire coils that heat up.  A heat-activated spring to pop up the toast.  Very interesting.

So it is with the soul.  Often, we don’t discover its inner workings until something goes wrong. Mental illness can be one of those occasions.

When I directed the Urban Ministry of Palo Alto, most of our homeless community members suffered from one or another form of mental or emotional disability.  And in my work with university students at Stanford and now at USC, I have spent much time with students suffering from bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and other conditions.

After many such encounters, I began to realize that the seemingly random and disconnected utterances of people in psychosis often had very deep significance.  Their expressions were profound reflections of their subjective experience, windows into the souls of us all.  We take our inner lives for granted, not examining the structure of the psyche, until there is a breakdown.  Then its contents are revealed, and we get a look at its structure.   This inner architecture is amazing, but it’s not neat, tidy, and rational, so it can be a scary discovery.

In a psychotic episode, you don’t perceive that your mind is disordered at all.  Rather, you perceive that the entire cosmos around you has collapsed, and that it is up to you – and you alone – to re-organize it.  I have been staggered by the creativity of people in psychosis as they strive to journey through and out of the chaos that they see around them.  Their extraordinarily vivid expressions command my attention.  In my conversations with them, I began to see the heroism in their struggles, and this gave me a great deal of respect and compassion for them.  As I listened with open ears, they responded positively when I took seriously what they had to say.  This went a long way in establishing trust that could translate into my efforts to refer them to mental health professionals.  Usually they needed medication of some kind, but they desperately needed their subjective experiences to be appreciated in the process.

The words and actions of mentally ill people are potent with meaning, even if we don’t comprehend it.  This meaning has an intrinsic value that needs to be honored.  Though medication or treatment may be needed to dampen the symptoms, that does not mean that the symptoms are worthless.  They need to be heard and respected even as the helping professional works to eliminate or resolve the processes that resulted in them.

It has been striking to me to observe so many people who were not religious before their psychotic breaks, but burst forth with religious imagery and language afterward.  It demonstrates that the real truth in the world’s religions is not propositional.  It is not about dogmas that are objectively factual.  Rather, its truth is found in its reflection of the structure of the psyche.  Why do so many people experiencing schizophrenia believe they are Jesus?  Because the biblical myths about him identify him as the savior of the cosmos.  He came to re-order the universe by himself, bring heaven to earth, order out of chaos, and redemption out of suffering.  He took on the sins of humanity.  The loneliness, the rejection, the existential suffering of the Christ in the gospel myths profoundly mirror the psychotic experience.

I have known many Jesuses.  Each has been more certain that they were Jesus than I am sure that I am Jim Burklo.  And I have learned to believe them sincerely, following Jesus’ declaration that “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, (Matthew 25: 40)  I find myself reminding them that Jesus accepted the help of angels when they came to take care of him after his forty-day temptation in the desert.  I remind them that Jesus gathered twelve disciples to help him fulfill his mission.  I remind them that Jesus went to the home of his friends Mary and Martha and Lazarus when he needed a rest and a home-cooked meal.  “So surely you will accept help again when you need it,” I tell them.  “And now is such a time.”And psychiatric treatment is one important form of that help.

The Christ is our true Self.  Psychosis is a hard but effective way to discover it.

I have learned much about the Bible in my efforts to understand and respect the experiences of mentally ill people.  What people in psychosis have to say is “insane” only if one tries to take it literally.  Interpreted poetically, one discovers they often are speaking in powerfully evocative terms.  To speak in straight, front-page-newspaper prose would fail to express the overwhelming intensity of their experience.  The early Christians were so blown away by their experiences with Jesus and with each other that only myth and poetry could come close to describing it.   So, as I read the scripture, I often ask myself:  what would someone experiencing psychosis make of this passage?

Thus it should be no surprise that in the gospel stories of Jesus, “demon-possessed” people, whom we’d now categorize as the mentally ill, were the first to identify him as the Christ.  To this day, many cultures identify as shamans and saints the very people we lock up in psychiatric wards.  Mental illness causes great suffering, but we should not overlook the spiritual awakening and the depth of compassion to which it can lead us all.

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: Musings

Follow on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

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