Prophets in a Freudian age

We live in an age of mental illness, with every human behavior ascribed to some psychiatric pathology. Nobody suffers anymore from the sin of vanity. Instead, they’re narcissistic. People don’t keep their house immaculate, as they used to in my mom’s era, they’re obsessive. That gal you know who has a flair for drama is histrionic. Everything comes with a label.

Those are just the small behaviors, of course, and I’m being a bit tongue in cheek.  I know that there’s a huge difference between the gal who keeps her house clean and the one who obsessively scrubs all surfaces with bleach, several times a day. And there’s a difference between the man who appreciates his own undoubted good looks, and the man so insecure in himself that he can make himself feel better only by womanizing (Clinton and Kennedy spring to mind) or by denigrating and controlling everyone around him (take your pick of candidates, because I bet you know someone like that). In other words, the itches and twitches of human nature have always been there, and our modern age simply reclassifies them as psychiatric disorders, rather than character flaws.

The really big change from days of yore has come with the major mental illnesses. In times past, people who heard voices, depending on the nature of the voices, were considered possessed of the devil or touched by God. Now, depending on the range of symptoms, they’re “merely” delusional or they are worryingly paranoid schizophrenic. I’ve seen a lot of those people, since I grew up in San Francisco after the ACLU’s successful campaign to deinstitutionalize the mentally ill. Many of these wretched souls did not have families who could care for them (whether because there was no family at all or because they were too destructive to have at home). Unable to work and unable to pay rent they drifted inevitably onto the streets, where the ACLU has consistently made sure they had the right to live, regardless of the unbelievable burden this imposes on ordinary taxpayers trying to create a clean, safe environment.

Some of the homeless sat there like alcohol-sodden, smelly lumps, faces buried in their chests, tin cup placed discretely in front of them. Others stood up and actively begged: “Will work for food.” “Haven’t eaten in three days.” I believed the latter, not the former. The scary ones, however, talked, not to those around them, but to some invisible conversation partner. If you got too close, you could hear gibberish, or pleasant visions or, more frighteningly, harangues rich in blood and violence. Although most of the delusional homeless people were harmless, even the ones with the wildest and most scary internal lives, bad things could and did periodically happen. (Indeed, a police officer was the victim of the latest violent attack from a San Francisco homeless person.)

As a child of the modern era, the one thing I’ve always known about the wild ones, the talkers, is that they were mentally ill. Since neither I nor my friends and colleagues were trained in psychiatry, we had convenient pop culture psychiatric terms by which to describe them. The ones who were just hearing voices were “delusional.” The ones who were scary, since they seemed to have a sense of persecution and the rage to respond, were “paranoid schizophrenic.”

I’ve always realized, of course, that these syndromes are not unique to the modern age. As I noted at the start of this post, they’re just labeled differently now, and we have an entirely different understanding of their origin. In other words, it is impossible to imagine a prophet living now, not because prophets cannot still walk among us, but because we are pretty much incapable of acknowledging that such talk can come from God, rather than from a malformed brain or mixed up neurochemicals.

I got to thinking about all of this because I’m reading Robert Spencer’s The Truth About Muhammad: Founder of the World’s Most Intolerant Religion.  In it, Spencer relies solely on original Muslim texts (the Koran, the Haditha, etc), to examine who Muhammad the man really was, as opposed to the idealized figure presented to the West (and presented to most non-Arab speaking Muslims).  Muhammad, by his own admission and by the acclaim of his followers, heard voices.  As Spencer demonstrates, an amazing number of these Angelic voices either repeated, with varying degrees of accuracy, stories from the Old and New Testaments (or from supporting analyses prevalent at the time) or they authorized Muhammad to do exactly what he wanted to do in the first place.  Given these facts, my inclination is to believe that the only voices he heard were those of his own desires, but that’s just me.

Assuming Muhammad did hear voices, so many of those voices were hostile and violent.  Jews were out to get him and they must die.  Christians were out to get him, although not as badly as the Jews, so they didn’t have to die as much.  Neighboring tribes were out to get him, so they must be defeated in war and brought to heel.  Women, his favorite wives notwithstanding, were evil temptresses and must be controlled.  If I were hearing him on the streets of San Francisco in the 1980s, I would have turned to my friends and muttered “paranoid schizophrenic.”  They would have nodded, and we all would have wondered when he would finally be picked for the 5150 observation that allows homeless people to be locked up and observed for three days to determine if they are a danger to themselves or others.

Now, if Jesus were standing on a street corner in this psychiatric age, we also would have listened to him, nodded profoundly to each other, and said “delusional.”  We would have been dismayed by his hearing voices (only crazy people not only talk to God, but hear God talking back), but we would not have been frightened by his visions.  They are humane and generous (which is why it was so bizarre when MSM types were both horrified and snide about the fact that Bush, in 2000, said Jesus was his favorite philosopher).   Nowadays, Jesus wouldn’t be 5150’d (clearly harmless), but he’d definitely be disregarded, treated not as a prophet and Son of God, but as the product of mental illness.

My question for you is, if you lived in a psychiatric age, but were nevertheless required to place yourself in the camp of either Jesus or Muhammad, would you choose to ally yourself with the man who is delusional, but humane, or the man who is paranoid schizophrenic, with all that this diagnosis entails?  I know what my answer would be.  And I find it interesting that in this modern era, where religion and psychiatry intertwine but never merge, so many people choose the latter, not the former.

17 Responses

  1. You’re not that far from the truth, Book. Jesus was very humane but he also had a very large following and a rabbinic knowledge of the Old Testament. I am not sure that your corner philosophers in San Francisco can claim the same. Nonetheless, the Pharisees of the day did treat Jesus as if he was delusional. Pontius Pilate had Jesus committed to Herod’s court for “psychiatric evaluation” and it was Herod that pronounced him delusional but harmless, in today’s terms. The miracles that He performed were somewhat more difficult to explain away, however.

  2. Ah, I just think that Mohammed and Islam are the New New Thang, and that’s all. For the vast majority of Westerners, that is. Once they get a closer look at life under Islam – and by that I mean Sharia – once it looms and becomes far more immediate, the fascination will end.

    Back before 9-11, Dune was my favorite book and the Fremen were fantastic heroes of the greatest mythic caliber. Now I find the book and the Fremen culture a sad and vicious commentary, a lie and a distorted joke.

    Lawrence of Arabia used to be great movie to me about a great hero and a great, mythic, mysterious people. Now I sneer.

    The Middle East and its people used to be exotic, mysterious, even erotic. Now I find it savage, backward, barbaric, and useless.

    I suspect most of my former liberal breathren still find themselves somewhat captivated by the allure and mystery. It’s dead to me.

  3. Don’t forget Moses, Book.

  4. You’re right, Lulu. Another one who heard a voice and followed that voice to stage the first slave revolt.

  5. I kind of doubt that either Jesus or Moses or any of the other prophets (Jonah, Isaiah, etc.) went around saying, “I hear voices in my head”, though.

  6. You’re right, Danny. But nowadays we assume that, if someone hears voices, they are in his head. Incidentally, I’m not coming down one way or another on whether Moses, Jesus or Muhammad heard voices (although the latter’s were awfully self-serving); I’m just saying that, nowadays, they’d be stuck with a psychiatric label and, if I had to follow someone, it wouldn’t be the guy labeled “paranoid schizophrenic.”

  7. I’m an atheist, but I vote for Jesus. Disregarding the whole issue of “hearing voices” or psychiatric state, let’s just consider the actions of the two men Jesus and Muhammad.

    Jesus taught peace, brotherhood, charity, and faith in God. When his enemies captured him and put him to death, he submitted without violence, prevented his followers from fighting, and forgave his enemies with his dying words. Regardless of whether or not he was God, or inspired by God, he was a good man.

    Muhammad taught his followers peace — with each other, brotherhood — with each other, charity — for the faithful, and faith in God. When he ran into opposition, he took his followers off and made war against his enemies until he destroyed them. Then he commanded his followers to make war against everyone who did not submit. Again, regardless of whether or not God told him to do this, his actions were those of a selfish, bad man.

    This is why, a few days ago, I told our former friend the snake-bearer that I’m bigoted against Islam. Osama Bin Laden, who gathers his followers in a cave and makes war on the world, is being a good Muslim, following exactly in the model of the Prophet. That is why Islam cannot coexist with the rest of humanity — it was established by an evil man who embedded cruelty and evil in the very heart of the religion.

  8. Dunno that Mo was paranoid schiz – it’s a specific term with a specific meaning, and I don’t know enough detail about his life to know whether it fits or not. I seem to recall reading that he began to get his visions in his late teens, which, if true, is text-book onset time for schizophrenia, but I’ll have to check it.

    I do know, however, from reading descriptions about the state he was generally in when having a “revelation” that what was happening was almost certainly an epileptic episode. (Can’t say “fit” any more, it isn’t PC – which is too bad, because the term seems tailor-made for him.)

    There’s quite a difference between thrashing around in the sand, foaming at the mouth and screaming unintelligibly while the “revelation” is upon you, and having a quiet conversation with something unseen.

    I’d have to go with the latter.

  9. Years ago I went to church with a man who ran some personality tests on Jesus. I don’t remember if he was a psychologist or a psychiatrist, but he answered the test questions as best he could based on the New Testament.

    One of the questions asked if the testee was a messenger from God, or something to that effect. It was a bit of a dilemma for him, knowing that to answer it in accordance with his beliefs would skew the results.

    I don’t remember much about the results, except that Jesus fell pretty much in the normal range across the board. I do remember one indicator was that he was someone who would like a nice home.

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