How Not to Hear to God

Over the course of my very short (so far) pastoral career, several people have thrust into my hands copies of Craig Rennebohm’s (with David Paul) Souls in the Hands of a Tender God: Stories of the Search for Home and Healing on the Streets, mostly because I have worked with the homeless and the mentally ill on Chicago’s north side (at Uptown Lutheran Church) and have loved every minute of it. Rennebohm is a UCC pastor who has worked with the homeless and the mentally ill in Seattle, and he appears to have done it with compassion with faithfulness.

I am about a third the way through the book, and so I make this comment knowing he may deal with this matter later in the book. But I’m also somewhat bothered by an attitude that Rennebohm and Paul take in the book. In the fourth chapter, “Approaching Mary,” Rennebohm and Paul tell several stories of people who struggled with mental illness, and how often the grandiose — religion, government, extraterrestrials — are present in the hallucinations and visions of the schizophrenic. They write:

Each type of illness expresses itself according to its own patterns. Hallucinations and delusions, for example, are generally symptoms of schizophrenia–as when a woman I’ll call Veronica believed she saw a store-window mannequin come alive and start talking to her, or when Al heard God’s voice in the shower telling him to stop washing because he was hopelessly dirty and there was no way he could ever be clean. Both were in fact experiencing schizophrenic episodes. (pp. 60-61)

After a brief discussion of the role guilt plays in depression, the authors then emphatically state the following:

God was not speaking to Al in the shower; his neurotransmitters were creating hallucinations and playing havoc with his sense of reality. (p. 61)

I find this statement troubling. Very, very troubling.

Some years ago, my friend John Hartwell (God rest his troubled spirit) told of a a time he had spent in a mental hospital, and of a young lady who claimed God was speaking to her. “What was God saying to her?” I asked him. “Oh, that we should love and care for each other,” John responded. “Was God really talking to her?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said. “She wouldn’t stand still long enough for me to ask. She liked to jump up and down.”

I find myself wondering about Rennebohm’s God. How exactly is that God present with people? How does that God speak to humanity? And, if every voice we ever hear God say to us is merely malfunctioning neurotransmitters, are we really capable of listening to God? Or are we now missing something?

Rennebohm could have said that Al wasn’t hearing God’s voice because of what God said — a kind and compassionate God would never have said such a thing. But he didn’t said that. Instead, Rennebohm made a categorical statement: the voice of God, as such, doesn’t exist — it is merely our brains going haywire.

Which makes me wonder — what then of all the times God speaks in scripture? To Abraham? To Moses? What of all the speaking God does to and through the prophets, many of whom see, and speak, and act in ways that would today be clearly indicative of some kind of illness. What would Rennebohm have made of Hosea marrying a prostitute on the “command” of God? Or Ezekiel’s visions of cherubim and wheels and the scroll he ate that gave him the power to prophesy judgement to unfaithful Israel? What of the word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah, which included a command not to pray for God’s people because God won’t hear that prayer? Or Isaiah’s unclean lips, made clean with a burning coal? Or Mary’s “meeting” with the Holy Spirit? Or Paul’s being struck blind on the road to Damascus?

For Rennebohm (at least so far in the book), God’s presence seems merely to be a non-anxious, compassionate, professional and caring presence. And this is fine. But it is limited entirely by being incarnate. In this construct, God can only be present to us as and in another human being. There can be no supernatural presence, no communication from outside our ordinary experience. Nothing save the sweet and pleasant presence of the rightly guided and properly trained.

I bring this up for several reasons. First, because twice in my life, God has spoken directly to me. Been in my head. (At prayer, alone, in mosques in San Francisco, 1991, and Columbus, Ohio, 1994.) It is an absolutely terrifying experience, one I do not hope to ever repeat. I have also had other-than-ordinary encounters (I do not know any other way to explain them) with something divine, at the Greyhound bus depot in San Francisco in 1991 and again at the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Someday I will explain these things in greater detail. But not today.

The point is, God is still speaking to human beings in ways that don’t involve being incarnated in some non-anxious professional listener. God has at least spoken to me, and I know that God has spoken to others as well. As the UCC is happy to say, God is still speaking.

Which leads me to my second point. Are we still capable of listening? Are we so concerned with health and wellbeing on the one hand, and conformity to social norms and having people become well-adjusted contributing members of society that we are no longer capable of hearing God when God speaks to us through prophetic voices? Many compassionate, caring people wish to see others conform and be well-adjusted, but the desire to have people conform and be “properly socialized” and well-adjusted can also be an incredibly brutal, uncaring and violent act, one that damages people.

Would Isaiah (or any of the three Isaiahs) been able to give us any of those visions had they been medicated and hospitalized? What of Jeremiah on prozac, to make him better-adjusted, and thus more supportive of the government? Or Ezekiel on haldol and risperdol? What of his visions? It may be that God no longer speaks to God’s people prophetically, but it may also be that we, in our “scientific” understanding and acculturation, and our desire to create and impose a very narrowly constrained normative human existence, with the ability to medicate people toward that norm, it may be we are simply no longer capable of listening. Or even hearing.

And this brings me to my final point. I do not have a major, or even minor, mental illness, so I do not have that struggle. I do not wish to seem uncaring, but I have come to believe that what we call mental illness tells us something fascinating about God. I have come to believe that all human beings are whole and complete, and each whole and complete human being says something wonderful and interesting about the God whose image we are made in. My wife is severely dyslexic. This is not a disorder, and she is not incomplete because of her dyslexia, as difficult and painful as it is for her to function in a non-dyslexic world. But her dyslexia tells me something about the God whose image she is made in.

I see the same with the “mentally ill” that I have met. To treat someone who has schizophrenia as someone who is somehow not whole or right is to miss what such a thing tells of us God. The God whose image they were made in, the God whose wholeness and perfection they reflect. Mostly, I find this something to meditate, to help me as I encounter the “mentally ill.” And no doubt the Rennebohm does too, at least to an extent.

I have no easy answers. And I know how some of this might sound to those who struggle with mental illness. And I fear, perhaps too much, the desire of some to make others conform to a norm, whatever that norm may be. Tolerance, for me, is how much room is open for non-conformity, for the weird, the odd, the aberrant, and tolerant bourgeois social democratic liberalism is rarely as tolerant as it claims because its desire for conformity — however expanded and inclusive that conformity might be — is so powerful and unyielding.

But it may be that the God that bourgeois sensibility has reduced to a sentimental, non-anxious professional presence is too small a God. Far too small a God. The Israelites, and the followers of Jesus throughout history, often times found the experience of God to be as terrifying as it was comforting (and often times terrifying and comforting at the same time). To be met by God was to be overwhelmed (as Mary was), to be engulfed, to risk annihilation at the very hands of the infinite. This terrifying God who calls, gathers, redeems and loves God’s people may sometimes only be truly be apprehended by human beings on the ragged edges of reason and sanity, a God whose infinity fills our finiteness and utterly overwhelms us. I’m not sure Rennebohm gets that God.

And I’m not sure how much the church really gets that God either.