It troubles me that well-meaning people of faith are often given to keeping Kaplan’s law of instrument, over anything handed down by Moses or expounded upon by Jesus.1 To put it another way, some well-meaning people of faith are far more handy with Maslow’s hammer than with Ockham’s razor.2 It is vital that such people pause to consider, “Am I given to nailing or cutting?” Consider Susan’s symptoms:
“I don’t remember anything from this experience…all told to me after the fact. My boyfriend heard guttural sounds coming from me…the grunts were very unnatural sounding, so he turned and looked at me. And he saw that my eyes were wide open but completely unseeing…. At that point, my arms whipped out, and I had a grand mal seizure, and I was convulsing. I bit my tongue so that blood and a kind of a combination of blood and foam was coming out of my mouth…. I slurred my words, I drooled…. I believed that I could age people with my mind….”3
Do you hammer? Would you join your voice with those of cinematic Fathers Merrin and Karras chanting, “the power of Christ compels you”?4 Or do you cut? Do you dissect Susan’s symptoms? Do you allow yourself as a well-meaning person of faith to use a tool other than your faith to understand her condition? People possessing only a hammer might think Susan is possessed not unlike the man whose demons were “Legion.”5 In her book Brain on Fire, Susan Cahalan details her suffering from anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis, a rare autoimmune disease that can attack the brain. Cahalan says, “doctors think the illness may account for cases of ‘demonic possession’ throughout history.”
It puzzles me as to why the only organ that knows it is an organ is treated so differently from other organs. If I said, “I have radiating pains down my arm…i’m short of breath…my chest feels tight,” most well-meaning people of faith would call me an ambulance as I am likely having a heart attack. However, when I said to a fellow pastor, “I am sad and I don’t know why. There is no reason for me to be sad, but I cry all the time,” he encouraged me to read scripture in greater quantities. He implored me to “get into the word, you need to get into the word.” I told another colleague how I was anxious all the time and was no longer able to relax much less sleep. She said she would pray for me as God was testing me. In desperation I told a clergy prayer group, “I’m worthless. I’m an awful pastor. Why did I ever leave my pew for the pulpit?” The group responded with kindness doubling their efforts to pray for me and with me. When the accretion of my symptoms grew to an avalanche, I, trapped beneath so much snow and ice, began composing my obituary. And when I mustered the wherewithal to share about my life under the snow and ice, I was told by a pastor and mentor that my ideation was the work of Satan. So many well-meaning people of faith reacted to my depression as if the totality of its manifestation was a spiritual problem and not a medical one. I don’t know why educated well-meaning people of faith in the 21st century chose to over-spiritualize my disease. I needed professional help with treatment-resistant clinical depression and well-meaning people of faith regularly greeted my symptoms with fabrications based on limited scriptures and some stanzas from Dante mixed with characteristics of Duke’s mascot. In their defense, I do have a bachelors degree in psychology from NCSU and an Masters of Divinity from Duke. I am an ordained United Methodist minister. Yet, in my sickness I believed their suggestion that my depression was just a spiritual problem. I was not stupid. I was vulnerable.
I implore well-meaning people of faith to put down your hammers. Mental illness is the result of genetics, environment, trauma (emotional and physical), biochemistry, etc. Consider the possibility that it is likely dopamine, not demons. Verily I say unto you, it is not Satan, but serotonin. Only an ignorant well-meaning religious extremist would consistently see disease as the devil. Again, if you were having chest pains would want me to think cardiac or satanic? At the very least, would you appreciate me calling you an ambulance before praying for you? Which would you like me to do first, take you to the ER or anoint you? Which is your more pressing need a cardiologist or me laying hands on you? If you’re willing to suggest that a person see an exorcist how about urging them to also consult a psychiatrist? The consult will neither insult God or diminish your faith.
It infuriates me when well-meaning people of faith risk causing mental health patients to forgo seeking immediate medical attention opting to pray harder or read scripture more closely. Holding to literal notions of spiritual warfare is both cruel and potentially life-threatening. Spiritualizing a mental illness risks the mentally ill demonizing their selves; incorrectly understanding pathology as theology. The suggestion that mental illness stems from a power outside one’s self handicaps one’s agency to seek treatment. Early detection and early treatment are in the best interest and well-being of those suffering with a mental illness. Well-meaning people of faith, crawl under the broom tree’s branches to comfort a suicidal Elijah. Well-meaning people of faith, soothe so many King Sauls by becoming so many Davids. Well-meaning people of faith, stay awake with those anxious in their gardens of Gethsemane. And “that which is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”6
1.) “Give a small boy a hammer, and he will find that everything he encounters needs pounding.” Abraham Kaplan (1964). The Conduct of Inquiry: Methodology for Behavioral Science. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Co. p. 28.
2.) Maslow’s hammer, popularly phrased as, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” During Maslow’s era, one application of the law of the instrument was the usage of antipsychotic drugs (e.g., thorazine) resulting in many cases of mental illness being treated under the diagnosis of psychosis. Abraham H. Maslow (1966). The Psychology of Science. p. 15.
3.) In Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness, Susan Cahalan chronicles her experience of mental illness. This excerpt is from an NPR interview on November 14, 2012.
4.) The Exorcist, 1973
5.) Mark 5:9, Luke 8:30
6.) Babylonian Talmud Shabbat 31a, Hillel
Best wishes for your continued strength and health, and my own. I think the reason many people of faith see demons everywhere is simply that the gospel writers saw demons everywhere. It feels faithful to view the world as the Scriptures portray it. It may take a lot of pain and suffering and cognitive dissonance to lead a person to consider that we cannot profitably read the Gospels for information about demons, but for a message about grace and self-giving – God’s and ours.
In the Hebrew Bible demons are only marginally present although in the Talmud demons are as common as in the Gospels. Demons do not inhabit the thought world of Jews (that I know) as they do Pentecostal Christians (that I know). We have our own problems of confusing background and foreground. Maybe to be discussed in a future entry. Fortunately I have never had someone give a spiritualistic or even a negative interpretation to my misfiring brain chemistry. The psychiatric approach is pretty well accepted.
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