This Wednesday I went to the Lamb Center for our weekly Spanish Bible study. There were three Hispanic guys there at 10:15 but they had all left (fled?) by 10:30, so Maritza and I were going to say a prayer and go home, but then we saw a white lady (we’ll name her Grace for privacy reasons) in the chapel where the Spanish Bible study meets. Grace said that she wanted to practice her Spanish so she was hoping to sit in with us. Our reading was Ephesians 3:1-13, which I found to be a very challenging passage to understand in Spanish. Grace’s enthusiasm for talking in Spanish quickly dropped away so I found myself talking to her in English and translating our conversation into Spanish for Maritza.
This quickly became difficult because Grace started saying things that don’t make sense to a non-schizophrenic mind. We were talking about how Paul writes in Ephesians 3:8 that he was “less than the least of all God’s people.” I explained that this was probably because of Paul’s persecution of the Christians. Grace said she thought the reason that Paul persecuted the Christians was because they were Jacobin terrorists like all the other descendents of Jacob who had never stopped feuding with the descendents of Esau. It was fascinating to hear the Israelite patriarchs, the French Revolution, and the Pauline persecution collapsed and conflated into the same confused reality.
It made me contemplate what really is the boundary line between schizophrenic and “normal.” Origen and Augustine (and St. Paul for that matter) could make wild midrashic connections between seemingly unrelated Biblical events. When I see Augustine explain in books 11-13 of his Confessions how all of Christian salvation history is explained allegorically in Genesis 1, it’s beautiful and brilliant even if it’s not self-evident to an empirical/literal modernist mind. But obviously there’s something broken in my mind if I meet somebody named Peter and decide that he must be from St. Petersburg. And yet, a five year old could be perfectly sane and think that. When I was out walking with my son a few weeks ago, he saw a random black girl on the sidewalk and asked if she was the same girl who comes and plays with him every Wednesday night. It was embarrassing, but hopefully not indicative of mental problems.
In any case, I tried to engage Grace in conversation. I couldn’t really translate to Maritza what Grace was saying or what I was saying because it made so little conceptual sense in English that there was no equivalent in my limited Spanish vocabulary. Grace wasn’t belligerent or paranoid but every time I tried to explain a very basic Christian faith concept in the simplest of terms, her mind would turn it into something that involved policemen or the Air Force or the electrical grid. So I tried to enter into Grace’s world to the degree that I could and somehow speak grace into that world. It’s very hard to translate the gospel into a conceptual framework that is completely fluid and perpetually evolving into chaos. I gave it my best shot for about 20 minutes. Then I looked at Maritza and she said, “Peticiones?” so we took Grace’s prayer requests and called it a day.
In any case, my experience with Grace caused me to reflect on how bankrupt our theological systems appear before the phenomenon of mental illness, especially if we have a modernist/rationalistic understanding of Christian conversion as a “decision.” How in the world could someone like Grace “accept Christ as her Lord and savior”? I imagine she’s probably done it a dozen times already in her life in order to satisfy sidewalk evangelists who offer sandwiches in exchange for saying the sinner’s prayer. But there’s no way to “pin down” whether someone like Grace has had a “valid” conversion experience whether that’s measured in Arminian or Calvinist terms. Of course, one way to respond to the discongruity of mental illness with whichever systematic theology we choose is to deny the existence of mental illness like the Christian radio program Wretched basically did with their segment for July 26, 2011: “Is psychology based on lies?”
Because I interact with people like Grace every week that I go to the homeless shelter, I need a practical theology of grace that accounts for their existence. Anything which binds God’s grace to a rational decision that we have to make in response to Him is inadequate. Likewise, I cannot accept any theology which says that people with broken minds are just “objects of wrath—prepared for destruction,” even though this was probably the official church perspective on madness for most of its existence before Christians were “compromised” by the “worldly” thinking of modern psychology. I know that my God is loving and just enough to heal the minds of people like Grace so that they can spend eternity in peace with Him even if they never find it on Earth (and even if they never find the right med combination to enjoy a rational existence). I’m sure somebody will ask if schizophrenics get a “disability pass” into heaven, then what about people who are bipolar, borderline, depressed, alcoholic, sexually addicted, etc?
I’m not interested in speculating about which forms of mental illness constitute what St. Thomas Aquinas termed “invincible ignorance” (his form of a heaven “disability pass”). I just think we need a much better way of imagining heaven than to see it as an amusement park with turnstiles at the gate where the angels check you for some kind of spiritual hand-stamp. God is infinitely loving and infinitely holy. He sent Jesus to us so that “through faith in him we may approach God with freedom and confidence” (Ephesians 3:12). Whether Grace can ever explain what Jesus Christ has done for her, I have to trust that God will find a way to reach with love into her schizophrenic reality so that she doesn’t run in terror from His holiness but approaches His throne with freedom and confidence in His grace.