The inimitable Robert Sapolsky, in his younger days, gave a lecture on the biological underpinnings of religiosity. It’s fascinating for many reasons, but watch it at your peril, as it may seem to explain away your own spiritual experience in terms of neurobiology. Thus I feel impelled to comment immediately that just because neurobiology finds that certain psychological conditions which are commonly understood as abnormal tend to produce experiences which have typically been understood as spiritual does not necessarily invalidate them. This kind of argument is, indeed, one of those which Richard Beck seeks to correct in his book “The Authenticity of Faith”, which I strongly recommend to anyone who has a problem with this, or indeed with the outlooks of any of the “Masters of Suspicion”, Freud, Marx and Nietzsche. All three of them had explanations of religion, which reduced it to something which could be regarded as an aberration; Beck shows, I think, that although all three might have some measure of truth in their views, they do not offer an adequate explanation of faith. Sapolsky brings the Freudian critique up to date…
One of the fascinating aspects is Sapolsky’s presentation of the case study of a young monk called Luder, who exhibits all of the symptoms of a fairly crippling degree of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He then remarks that this monk is more commonly known as Martin Luther. He does not, however, go on to comment much about Luther’s contributions to theology; however, it becomes immediately clear to any student of post-Luther theology that his concepts of personal inability to avoid sinning and of the natural state of man as being “incurvatus in se” (obsessively self-analysing) are exactly symptoms of OCD. Inability to avoid sinning links directly to the typical OCD conviction that one can never manage to wash enough to be thoroughly clean; I saw this at close quarters in my late mother-in-law, whose OCD was not particularly severe, but who would feel obliged to wash her hands ten or fifteen times where most of us would wash once, and in the process actually scrubbed off skin from time to time.
Now, I do not suffer from OCD. I have also not tended to find any real difficulty in following sets of rules, particularly given the fact that I don’t suffer from an obsessive tendency to reinspect what I’ve been doing and find it not good enough; OK, yes, I have some measure of that, but trained myself many years ago not to obsess about it, as that way leads to never getting anything done (I’ve blogged before about the perils of taking “Be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect” literally…). I also haven’t since childhood suffered from a compulsion to test the boundaries of rules and regard something forbidden as therefore irresistibly attractive; I acquired a really rather strong impulse control by the time I was in my early teens, as did probably the majority of my acquaintances.
So when Luther, and Calvin on the back of his thinking, suggest that we cannot ever by our own efforts live in a way acceptable to God, I fail to understand them. Sapolsky has here opened my eyes to the fact that this line of thinking may well be just the result of a personal psychological quirk of Luther’s, which these days would be labelled as a personality disorder. I might suspect, although I have no clear evidence of it, that Calvin was afflicted to some extent by the same problem.
However, what about Paul? Luther based his thinking on Paul’s tortured reflections that he could not do good, even where he wished to; he would still find himself doing something bad. Now, there’s no real evidence that Paul suffered from OCD either, although I have always wondered what Paul’s thorn in the flesh might have been. There, Sapolsky’s lecture offers a couple of other possibilities – Paul’s account of his conversion experience could well have been an episode of Temporal Lobe Epilepsy, or could have been a vision associated with a Schizotypal Personality Disorder. We can’t know for certain, but the mere fact that most adults I know don’t have significant problems in obeying sets of rules makes me think that Paul’s thinking was not what we’d now describe as normal (and no Orthodox Jews I know have problems following all of the 613 commandments which Judaism finds in the Torah, in contradistinction from Paul – indeed, they applaud the efforts of the Rabbis to make these even more restrictive).
I think it’s well worth bringing in another theological giant here, in the form of St. Augustine. Reading his “Confessions”, I could very readily find someone suffering from sex addiction (“Lord, make me chaste, but not yet”), in addition to a distinct tendency to the Obsessive Compulsive. I ask myself if the whole history of the Church’s doctrine of original sin and it’s attitude to women has been based on one or more personality disorders suffered by it’s greatest theologian between Paul and Luther.
“Hold on a moment”, I might hear the reader ask, “haven’t you started with a caveat that just because an abnormal condition may have produced an experience doesn’t invalidate that experience, so why are you now saying that there’s a problem where abnormal conditions seem to have produced particular theologies?”. An understandable comment, so I need to distinguish between two different types of result we are seeing here. In the case of the “nobody can do good” and “everyone is obsessed with sex to the exclusion of any spiritual life” positions, these theologians are creating an anthropology out of their own experience; they are assuming that everyone is like they are, and that just isn’t the case.
In the case of visions which may be the product of TLE or Schizotypalism, there is no assumption that everyone else has the same visions, it is the content of the vision which the seer puts forward as containing a truth. That, incidentally, is seer as “the person who sees”, without any connotation of the content of the vision being validated, though typically visions in both cases have a strong component of self-validation to them.
As, indeed, do mystical experiences, and I would not be self-identifying as a panentheistic mystic Christian and writing this blog if I hadn’t had a set of self-validating mystical experiences. This leads to the obvious question “Were these the product of TLE or Schizotypalism?”. That is a question I asked myself shortly after the first such experience I had, which was an extremely rude shock for someone who was at the time a scientific-materialist evangelical atheist very much in the Dawkins mould (although this occurred before Dawkins had written anything much more than, perhaps, an undergraduate paper or two).
It was not TLE, as confirmed by my then doctor, to whom I expressed some worries (that visit also eliminated any environmental factors including drugs, exhaustion, pain and hypoxia as possible contributors – it was fairly thorough!). I was also not then suffering from any diagnosable Schizotypalism, nor have I since been diagnosed as such.
That said, I have scored fairly highly on Schizotypal in a self-test of “What personality disorder do you suffer from?” a little over 15 years ago, though in fairness it has proved in hindsight that I was at the time suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Chronic Depression and Chronic Anxiety, and possibly as a result of those (which the test didn’t disclose) I also tested fairly highly on every other personality disorder the test dealt with, with the exception of narcissism (on which I tested very low indeed). I do sort of fit Sapolsky’s criteria of loose associations (I love wordplay and odd associations) and social withdrawal (this may just be being an introvert) but I really don’t do metamagical thinking. I don’t tend to believe in strange things (in fact, some would argue that I don’t tend to believe in anything much at all, and I’d have some sympathy with that); out of Sapolsky’s selection of metamagical traits, OK, I like SF and fantasy, though I don’t take it immensely seriously, I don’t have much time for any New Age stuff and I don’t believe in UFOs, though I hold onto a gentle wish that telepathy worked (It would make some other theories I toy with much easier to deal with!) but finally, and most stridently, I really do not tend to concrete interpretations (i.e. fundamentalism) at all. So OK, I may be just a little bit of a shaman, but not really very much of one by Sapolsky’s set of signs.
Not, at least, if you look at the integral Chris. If I split myself down into the SR (scientific rationalist) and EC (emotional Chris) bits (see my “About” page), EC would be a lot more along the lines Sapolsky paints as schizotypal. EC does tend to black and white thinking, for instance, and has a lot more time for “strange things” than SR – my generally agnostic position on these represents a compromise between SR and EC. There is the distinct possibility that I have shoehorned into my brain a borderline schizotypal and a more or less passionless rationalist, who have worked out a modus vivendi. In passing, had I not had several years of extreme depression and anxiety, I would probably never have self-examined (or perhaps been able to self-examine) sufficiently to realise this – another instance of finding, in retrospect, some reason why those years were not entirely “ruined time”.
The question I eventually asked myself, both in the beginning and after that realisation, was “does it really matter?”. Karen Armstrong has written at some length about her own experiences in “Through the Narrow Gate” and “The Spiral Staircase”; she suffered from TLE, which gave her some extremely strong unitive mystical experiences similar in many ways to my own, but which she has continued to base her faith on. I do likewise. I can still entertain the possibility that my peak spiritual experiences may be the product of abnormal psychology (they certainly seem to be the products of unusual psychology, because relatively few people seem to have such powerful experiences of this kind), but they nonetheless carried with them this colossal self-verification, somewhere within which is faith.
I entertain the possibility that the following analogy might hold good; I have a friend who, when he was younger and his eyesight better, could see the convergence of the Balmer series of the Hydrogen spectrum. This lies just outside the normal visible range, in the ultraviolet (those with normal vision can see the lines becoming progressively closer, but not the point where they merge and stop). His eyes were, clearly, abnormal – but this meant that he could see something real which was denied to the rest of us. On the other hand, a reader could well dismiss anything I report about spiritual experiences in the kind of terms an old atheist friend (a psychology professor) did after interrogating me to find what the trigger for the experience was, and finding nothing; he said it was a “brain fart”. Bless him!
Going back to the anthropological assumptions of Paul, Augustine and Luther, it is unfortunate that these have given us between them (with some assistance from a couple of mediaeval theologians) the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, which is very dominant in Protestant thinking and has significant traction in Catholic; a significant number of Christians I know would say that this IS the story of salvation, and that that IS the gospel. I reject both suggestions on a number of grounds, but the one I present here is that the whole theory assumes an incorrect picture of human anthropology. By and large, we are quite capable of following a set of rules; this is, I think, a considerable consolation to many conservative Christians, who seem to have reduced following Jesus back to following a set of rules.
What we are not capable of, of course, is loving our neighbour as ourselves (which, in the spirit of affirmative action, really means loving our neighbours rather more than ourselves); we are not capable of doing that after our conversion experiences any more than we were before them, though we may well come a lot closer – and some of us manage to come very close indeed, as witness the “Little Way” of Therese of Lisieux. Incidentally, a brief look at her biography strongly suggests that she also suffered from OCD in some measure.
Some of us, I reluctantly conceded, may also not be capable of having, say, an intense peak unitive mystical experience; it may be that that is reserved for those with TLE or Schizotypalism in some measure. Some may not be capable of the kind of conversion experience which seems, in evangelical circles, to be thought of as the one and only way to become a Christian. I have certainly known quite a few people who would have loved to have such a conversion experience, and who put themselves in a position to have one as nearly as they could time after time, only to be disappointed, and I rather suspect that those who have first had a peak unitive experience are among them. Does it invalidate their experiences if some of us cannot share those?
I would hope that we do not think so; I would hope that instead, we can listen to the testimony of those who have had experiences we cannot share ourselves, and can take from that as much as we are able to. That’ of course, includes those eminent theologians who have been suffering from OCD or some other psychological “disorder”.
I have, however, pointed out one thing in previous criticisms of Penal Substitutionary Atonement, and that is that there are some people, commonly people who have had particularly awful life experience, for whom no other concept of salvation seems to have any traction. I cannot find any comfort, any salvation, any link to God in this theology – but there are those for whom it is the only theology which can bring those things.
For them, I say, this is a valid way for you. Do not ask that it be a valid way for me. For me, mystical unitive experience is the valid way; I do not demand that it be the only way for you.