I back after a longer pause: had some other business than Early Christians on my plate. As you can plainly see, I am a part-time apostle...the time-proved technique of keeping my sanity.
Thanks to Bruce Dunn for the heads-up on Mark Vonnegut's memoir: there is a connection between this hobby of mine and his dad, in that I was crazy about Kurt's writing and during my episode tried to contact him, through what I believed was a code about his whereabouts in Cat's Cradle. I was sort of a Dwayne Hoover chasing Kilgore Trout. The parallel of my insane chase of Kurt Vonnegut was not available until after. I figured that a legion of nutjobs like me who believed themselves on the same karas as Kurt were likely harrassing him and that supplied the plot of the Breakfast of Champions. I picked up Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So. I saw the beef that there were not enough questions about early Christianity. I will write to Mark about my project. Thanks again, Bruce.
There are themes in the Prolog sketch below which more or less a repeat of the first post on the blog: it is give a quick overview of the subject matter discussed here. Those who read the 'Not Thinking Differently' essay will notice that I changed my rendering of the anecdote by Bertrand Russell. I feel pretty sure that I saw the anecdote in the form I gave out originally, but I could not find it even though I searched very hard. So I changed it to the one in A History of Western Philosophy.
Those Who Would Save Jesus
The idea may seem strange at first but I feel strangely assured that most people will get it - eventually. Jesus seems to have lived on one-way salvation street: did this, taught that, cured the sick, messed with the natural law, called to repentance, and writhed on the cross for our sins. Did I say ‘writhed’ ? It seems an unbiblical (or is it ibiblical ?) verb, but let it stand. It is to make the point that some of us don’t actually mind seeing another human in a heart-rending agony to pay vicariously for our improved health and prospects in the great yonder. No, do not be fooled by the crucifix; you are not looking at a relic worshipping a random act of meaningless barbarity. You are the benefactors of God’s gift to us, his own Son whom he made insane, and killed by his own law, to show mercy to those who have faith in it as the act of divine wisdom and atonement for their sins. No, I am not making this up: apostle Paul said that and from this idea of Paul a religion was born that conquered the world. It may sound insane, but perhaps it is the one of the best insanities humans can hope for.
I say that because people who acquired the cultural reflex of condemning Christianity, or denying any positive influence the religion had on our civilization are blind in one eye. The beam in that eye makes them unable to see that that when Paul wrote to the Corinthians that God made Jesus sin but he knew no sin, Jesus was already dead. Nothing could change that fact. Nothing could change also the perception of it as an act of outrageous barbarity, in people capable of feeling for another human being.
This Saving of Jesus is sort of an experiment. I could tell you that I had a revelation, that an oracle told me, that I too had the light in my body, but we are much older now, and locutions of this sort do not – and should not – sway anyone who is intelligent and has a healthy sense of self. Paul may have struggled with how to present his gnosis, and not sounding like the other apostolic idiots, but we are more sophisticated and public-relations savvy. We know from Abraham Maslow that some of us have messianic personalities. We also know most will end up in psychiatric care if we don’t become great leaders, artists, writers, standup comedians or find another fascinating object to occupy us other than our precious selves. So I simply tell you this: there are certain things I know I know about the origin of Christianity. These are my internal assurances. Whether they are believable to you or not, is not my issue. You may bless, diss, question me or ignore me. The heavens will not fall down because of my reading of the gospel and no-one will be judged on the last day based on his or her willingness to save Jesus. I can promise you that. How is that for good news ?
In the earliest gospel, Mark, the spirit of the Lord swoops on (actually, into) Jesus and obliterates him as a human. From then on, Jesus, though flesh and blood is driven by the spirit. He becomes the one who was sent to save. From then on, there seems to be no other purpose to his existence. He calls folks to repentance, teaches, tames nature, cures the sick, and goes to Jerusalem to fulfill his contract. He doesn’t eat except by implication until the Last Supper; he doesn’t laugh or weep; when he gets tired and falls asleep once upon a gospel he is awaken by the disciples because the ship is sinking and the needy guys complain when he gets groomed by a woman. He only gets kissed once and it is the kiss of death that was foretold by a scripture as it was being written.
If Jesus hadn’t been saved from oblivion we would have not known about him. And if you say the gospels see that differently, then you have not read the above paragraph the way it was intended to be read. They mean exactly the same thing. No-one would have known about Jesus if Paul and an unknown author we know as Mark did not begin writing about him in the two genres of the New Testament: the epistle and the narrative gospel. The two of them, you will see, were the ones who took pity. They took pity on Jesus, and many like him who would have fallen into the same trap as he had, and boasted of God in God’s presence like some some of his followers did. Paul and Mark had a solemn purpose, which was to save others from the fate of an unknown, insignificant, ecstatic Galilean prophet. All that we can be reasonably sure of, concerning him , is that he wandered into Jerusalem in the reign of Tiberius with a small group of followers and was killed there, likely after an arrest in the precinct of the Temple. He would have been forgotten soon, perhaps sooner than Juhayman al-Oteibi, the Saudi messianic leader who perished in the assault on the Grand Mosque in Mecca in 1979, that is, in the age of information overload. He, unlike the Jesus of the Nazarenes, was global news. Who remembers Juhayman now ? Who saved him ? Jesus of Galilee did not register a blip on the history radar, but would not be forgotten by a small community in Jerusalem outraged by the Temple priests and the hated Gentile occupiers who killed him. Without the poor Jerusalem saints awaiting Messiah nothing would have become of the obscure drifter who apparently believed God told him the end of misery was near and the restored kingdom of Israel was at hand. The saints adopted his disciples and sent them out to preach of his martyrdom.
In the early days of my project, I was somewhat naïve about the effect of my ideas. When I told an Anglican priest I held that Christianity (like other religions) owes a great deal to a common mental challenge that in our day and age has a diagnosis (or two), he became upset. He told me that my little theory has obviously a simple goal, to apprehend his faith as a product of sick minds in order to declare its tenets invalid. I asked him if it would help to change his view if I told him I was diagnosed with the disorder myself. After all, I was easily refuted by the fact I would admit to having been sick in the head myself, if one wants to look at it that way. He seemed to struggle with the idea for a moment but then his face lit up as if in a triumphal revelation. ‘I think I will take you up on your offer’, he said with all the philosophy he could cram into his face, as he was standing up and extending his hand.
It was a valuable lesson. It helped me to understand that any new revelation on who Jesus really was, what he really said, how he managed to keep balance when treading water on a stormy sea, or what really happened after he walked away from the botched crucifixion will be always the same old same old. And the reason is simply this: such noble efforts are predicated by the suggestion of Christ as the ultimate authority and oneself as the only one who really understands him. You may rest assured that some efforts to re-invent the wheel of the gospel will be hilarious. Richard Dawkins for example considers God to be Delusion, and yet has run an essay titled ‘Atheists for Jesus’ on his website. He argues that Jesus was a theist with Father in heaven only because there were no brights like Dawkins to teach him the science of 1046 monkeys at typewriters busy producing a line from Hamlet. In another case, a gentleman by the name of Earl Doherty has recently compiled 850 page volume he considers the final proof that Jesus did not exist. But who needs such a proof, given there is no material evidence that Jesus existed, except to those who really need to believe that ? Why would one want to go to such extravagant lengths to argue with the simpler folks who take the Bible literally and who find in Jesus their better self ? Why ? The simple proof of Jesus non-existence would be to say tout çela est bon et bien , and do some gardening instead. But surely, Mr Doherty knows (deep inside) that if Jesus is Neither God Nor Man, he sure is a Suggested Authority. Alas, to arrive at that insight the author would have to grasp that which drives him to declare himself the beholder of the Ultimate Truth worthy of a book the thickness of the Bible. As for the Anglican pastor showing me the door, I do not know what I expected: perhaps, for him to approve of my far-out reading of the Manual of Techniques for the struggle with demons. How could I have been so naïve ?
In one of the revelations I cherish, Bertrand Russell tells a story in (which he got from William James) about a man who whenever he got a sniff of nitrous oxide had the profoundest feeling that he knew and could name the ultimate secret of the universe. However, when the effect of the laughing gas wore off, he could not remember what it was. It bugged him and he resolved to write the revelation down while under the influence. An indeed he succeeded to do that. When his brain shed the effect of the anesthetic, he found the all-important note he wrote while inside the mysterium. It said, “the smell of petroleum pervades throughout”.
The humorous anecdote illustrates a number of important points. First, it shows the difficulty with placing one’s trust in the productions of a pickled brain. Second, it tells us that we just don’t know what else lurks inside our skulls beyond the entity which we are asked to refer to in the first person singular past the age of three, and vouch for legally after puberty. Third, it says that our innermost self is built specifically around the denial of reality and the desire to fuse with the universe.
Evidently, the idea that there is a mental health side to the New Testament creativity is not only not new at all but has been acknowledged by the gospels and epistles themselves, directly and indirectly. In the gospel of Mark, it is not just hostile opponents and a bemused Roman governor, but those closest to Jesus who see his new mantle of a prophet a sign of his being out of his mind. The view that Jesus was possessed by a demon is acknowledged by all gospels, and Matthew (10:25) makes explicit the charge that those who follow Jesus are as much devil-possessed as their master. Only a handful of the epistles are credited by modern scholars to those in whose name they are written, and as these forgeries do not appear motivated by simple gain but extra large would-be moral concerns for humanity in the name of a loving deity, they do give rise to questions about the head space of their authors. And these are not trivial concerns. The deutero-Pauline writer of 2 Thessalonians, goes as far as warning the recipients of his dispatch (2:2) against false writing purporting to be from us. This sort of “deep impersonation” with its implied knowledge of itself as fraud is troubling. In 2 Peter, an epistle usually placed several generations after the gospel events, the author, who I am assured by the experts is not Peter, forswears (1:16) he is not presenting the readers with cleverly devised fables when he gives his testimony of the majesty of the Lord’s transfiguration he personally witnessed on the mountain. The same problem of “knowing one’s lie” lurks here, and with yet another twist. This pseudo-Peter goes as far as claiming that no prophecy of Scripture (of which he considers his testimony to be an example !) is a matter of one's own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God. (1:20-21).
The difficulty with the religious or ideological mindset (as this of course is not a problem unique to the Christian objects of faith) is compounded by the conviction of the believers that no valid external view of it (them) exists, or even, can exist. Paul tells his followers that the spiritual man judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no-one (1 Cr 2:15). This peculiar idea had a way of propagating itself in later gospel writing. Mark while acknowledging that Jesus is looked upon as ecstatic lunatics, and the Holy Spirit, but effects of frank mania, immediately proscribes such a view as absolutely unforgivable taboo worse than blaspheming God himself and one that requires eternal damnation ! Mark’s Petrine editor and censor, we know as Matthew, considered it prudent to excise the concerns of Jesus’ family, while of course keeping the eschatological fatwa against maligning the spirit. Evidently, Matthew did not think the reader of his corrected gospel had the intellectual need to understand the origins of that particular idea.
It should come as no surprise then that if faith depends on the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, that even modern theology will find a way to deny that the NT texts can be penetrated and understood by independent, disinterested analysis. Here is another sample of the view that I have recounted in the story above and encountered in a number of forms and shapes. It comes from Hans Conzelmann who lamented in his Outline of the Theology of the NT back in 1968:
Attempts have been continually made to derive Paul’s theology from his experience. He himself declares that his gospel has been revealed to him. But in what sense is that to be understood ? We can get an answer only when we put the question in terms of the history of religions, not in psychological terms. For ‘inner experience’ explains nothing, it is an ‘x’ which itself needs to be explained. Attempted reconstructions of the experience are useless, as the sources are simply not there. Just as Paul has visions without making personal use of them (2 Cor 12), so he never speaks of the inner event of his conversion, but only of its theological content: his commission to preach the gospel to the Gentiles.
On one level I can of course sympathize with the objection of the theologian . Theology and psychology are rivals. The theologian instinctively disdains attempts to explain away the mystery that is life and its purposes, the ambition of some grand theorists of human psyche. He or she senses that people who think (they think when they write) that way, either do not think very deeply about what they say or do not really know how to align feelings to ideas. Further, and therein I believe lies the crux of the matter, whatever one can say about the creativity and activism of Paul, Mark, the people around them, and the copycats they inspired later: they were challenged and responded with what they had, and whatever one’s opinion of the cultural selectors that favoured their cosmology, and social psychology over their competitors, here we are with them in our cultural baggage.
On the other hand, I hope the problems with a theological attitude that Conzelmann’s view illustrates, are immediately visible, and hopefully not only to non-faith. Does Paul’s experience really explain nothing ? Are the reconstructions of it really useless ? Do the secular (,or religiously not-committed,) views of Paul, or classing Paul’s visitations with known mental phenomena observed medically and psychologically, automatically derogate to Christianity ? I don’t think so. There will be ideas in Paul’s letters that we will never be able to decode by knowledge of theology, study of comparative religions, Greco-Roman history, Greek grammar, 1st century Judaism. There will be verses in Paul which simply boggle the mind, to wit:
….when he who had set me apart before I was born, and had called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles….
The problem with the line that Conzelmann takes is simply that Paul’s commission to Gentiles is not understandable to someone who is sane, and always has been sane. One can rhapsodize around it, and run wild with theology but the simple test that we all use to ascertain the truth of what we are told, the I-am-thou check, will fail. What does Paul say ? God set Paul apart before he was born, God called Paul through his grace, God was pleased (no less) to reveal his Son in Paul in sending him on his way. Any competent mental health professional today reading such a presentation of self, would at once identify them as delusional ideas of reference. Paul projects his feelings of grandiosity into God and makes himself the interpreter of the Jewish scriptures among special groups of Gentiles, who like him believed they were hand-picked by God to save what was worth saving of humanity in an impending destruction of the world. One of the great mysteries that explains Paul’s success is that the basic structure of this delusional scenario is quite common among psychotics everywhere. When Jesus Christ went out to tell them they had Christ in them, they already knew, or knew someone who was saying the same thing and looked sometimes crazy and sometimes not.
That would be the sober assessment of the verses. The argument that the Greco-Roman antiquity accepted such pleadings routinely is in want of proof. Paul would have been generally despised as a devil-possessed psycho in all places he went, except in groups familiar with the phenomena of the manic spirit and its annihilating obverse. The historical development of the Church and its suppression of the oracular spirit as the final authority in accessing the saviour, is the best argument against the notion that the ancients in the Greco-Roman Near East were tolerant of the mentally ill.
For one, I know that Conzelmann’s theological mentor, Rudolph Bultmann, openly discussed the delusional nature of some of the beliefs ascribed to Jesus if there were held by a real human. So, it would appear Conzelmann’s teacher knew there are issues with the historical identity of Jesus, and to push theology out of harm’s way, he declared himself for the view that we can know nothing about Jesus with certainty, historically speaking. His pupil could not say the same with Paul, since he had Paul in his face, historically speaking, so he declared himself for the view that we cannot know anything about Paul, psychologically speaking. The sources are simply not there. This sort of approach greatly distressed Paul Tillich who warned its cumulative effect would be empty theism. As theology locks itself inside its own hermetically sealed little world, it loses touch and relevance. The attitude reminds one so much of the wife of the bishop of Oxford, who on learning of the Darwin’s theory of our biological descent exclaimed: Let us pray it is not true, or if it is, that it does not become generally known.
But the reality is that we have Paul’s letters and they reveal quite a bit about Paul, not the theologian, not the saint, but the courageous human suffering periodically from a debilitating disorder who through creative genius that dissociated a part of his person into a mythical personna, laid the groundwork for the world’s most successful religion. There are direct and oblique references in Paul’s letters to his health and with the cognitive patterns in his theology which – read together – may create a psychological profile which is reasonably close to what we may know of him, a profile which optimally would be candid but compassionate, and therefore perhaps theologically useful to some who dare to rattle the skeletons of dogma, and trying to read the texts differently. As for the rest of the New Testament, the texts, contrary to conservative belief, present an interesting window on the social psychological makeup of the early Christians and may yet shed unexpected insights on the first communities and the development of their beliefs.
My present project then does not focus on the historical person of Jesus, but rater rather on the psychological facets of the first mystical witnesses of him, specifically the writing of Paul and Mark. Both show a strangely ambivalent posture to the historical figure. And, as I am a man known to speak his mind, let me be even more challenging. The two saviours of Jesus, actually had a distinctly unfavourable view of his career and despised what they saw of him in the following he left behind. Yet they were strangely drawn to the figure’s earthly fate, and they explored deep, mysterious connection they felt existed between themselves and him, in the depths of ourselves which we do not understand.
The project started as a sort of apology to myself for going off the deep end, out of shame and frustration that comes with a sudden acquisition of a psychiatric label in a mature individual. I had always thought of myself as a bright type, well-read, down to earth and free of nonsense. Yes, I was thought of as eccentric, some would say very much so, but a professional concern to mental health professionals ? Definitely no. It was hard getting my life arranged to fit the new normal. My reputation was shot during what was described to me by the shrinks as an episode of hypermanic excitation. What I did and said, the way I carried on, made everyone around fearful and distrustful of me. As a freelancing business software designer I had built a niche of clients. It dissolved almost overnight. Even though my creations worked well, I instantly lost most of my business as the word spread that I went insane. My friends became insufferable with their patronizing solicitude. My mother wrote or called almost every day. She insisted I return to her care in my native Prague. On a couple of her calls, my sister intoned. Maggie, my ex-girlfriend, who moved out of my apartment some three months before my episode, came to reclaim her petty possessions. As her bag was getting filled with near-empty jars of cosmetics, an alarm clock radio, Ayn Rand paperbacks, and a pair of slippers she never wore, she kept glancing at me furtively, probing what Sally (my neighbor and mutual friend) was reporting to her about me.
Suddenly, I had no one. No one knew me; I did not know myself. There I was at thirty seven, a babe born again.
During my episode I scribbled profusely and mailed copies of my manifestos and proposals for action to the former Canadian Prime Minister, to the Vatican, and to the White House. The world was going to be destroyed by a nuclear war which would be triggered accidentally, my dispatches revealed. To save life on the planet, instructions entrusted to me by God, would have to be carried out. To make my mission credible, I (or rather, someone standing in the place of I) , wrote, and my credentials beyond dispute, God chose me, an atheist, and someone who never dabbled in politics.
Be it as it may, I was seen talking to myself aloud in the streets. My neighbor Sally said to me later that I looked drunk, and smelled of urine. I remember running upstairs after she told me that and sniffing through my dirty laundry. I found nothing that reeked but the bin had a faint smell, or so I convinced myself. Suddenly, I recalled an incident of losing bowel control during one of the terror attacks a couple of months before. As many things in the episode, it was blocked from my memory. Now I recalled it but I could not remember what I did with the clothes I wore. I was grabbed by a surge of visceral disgust and panic. Yes, it is confirmed, I thought, I am insane.
Everywhere, around me, I was finding evidence of my unsoundness. Here was a note to Henry Kissinger, to make himself comfortable in my loft – I might be late for our appointment. There was a Wordstar printout to John Paul II., addressing him as brother and Keeper of the Keys, informing him of my commission. Scraps of paper with sayings, aphorisms, notes to TV celebrities, addenda to the Bible, mathematical formulas yielding the phone number of the greatest American writer alive whom I tried to contact. I called him dear Baptist (My phone bill was in thousands) . They seemed to come out everywhere: from inside books, from behind the bed, under the flower-pots, in between the cushions of the sofa, out of the drawers of my dresser. One water-damaged notepad I found under the cast-iron bathtub. It was the Book of Sharats, messages or proverbs that were sent to me by God in the form of ants. The messages were decoded by eating them and then transcribed.
I lived in a loft above a pub on a busy Montreal boulevard. In the balanced bio-sphere of my place, the mice normally took care of the insects and the cat took care of the mice. But that summer, after Maggie left with her little predator, everything seemed to be out of whack. It was very discouraging, and kept driving me to the edge of a precipice.
[end of the first segment]
 The lack of grammatical agreement is intentional and mirrors the seeming mismatch in subjects of Mk 3:20-21.