Milton and I have been plodding along our book. The title has evolved to Whirlwind: Journeys with Job through Grief, Anxiety, and Pain. Here’s another chapter….
20. How Much Less a Mortal
If even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in his sight, how much less a mortal, who is a maggot, and a human being, who is a worm!
When do we cross the line between authentic humility and self-rejection? The writer of the New Testament book of Hebrews declares that we humans are only a little less than the angels (Hebrews 2:7), while Bildad suggests otherwise.
Job’s friend Bildad resorts to an extreme viewpoint that ultimately robs humanity of any innate moral worth. His language, obviously used for its rhetorical force, taken literally, eliminates any possibility of real relationship with the human creator.
What if a person’s faith, though, turns upon his or her own mental illness? These reflections are inspired by the question of how mental wholeness contributes to what it means to be human and thus what it means to be “saved.”
I imagine Bildad’s rethinking his words after he went home. After all, haven’t we all thought that one ought not to be held accountable for what he says in the heat of theological debate? There ought to be a special grace for such situations. The rhetoric used in such exchanges is possibly not necessarily what one actually believes. The rhetoric of conflict, we all know, is extreme. It has to be in order to win the debate. Who would ever expect one to live by such extreme language used in the context of competing argument?
I raise that point because in this partial chapter, Bildad takes an extreme position on the general moral impurity of humanity. It’s difficult to believe that anyone could really believe this, even though readers have already heard a less extreme form of it from Eliphaz (Job 4:17-19). Bildad says to Job, “If even the moon is not bright and the stars are not pure in his sight, how much less a mortal, who is a maggot, and a human being, who is a worm!” Human inferiority to God is evidence of their inherent moral impurity.
I once had a friend who gave me a two minute (quick and dirty) explanation of the Reformed notion of human depravity. I remember the explanation, because it came from her as though it were simply a statement from the most authoritative sources. Such sources were never to be questioned. She clarified two aspects of its meaning, as I recall. First, that depravity is a result of original sin (Augustine mostly gets saddled with this) and describes the human incapacity to choose to love God. Unless God were to intervene, she went on to clarify, humans would never love and serve God on their own.
But secondly, depravity does not mean that humans necessarily always only choose what is evil. Only that even when they do choose what is good, that good is affected by their selfish depraved nature. Thus even a good thing is tainted by human selfishness. I thought it was a very clever argument, perfect for people who were in need of explanations (like Job?) for the existence of evil under the rule of an allegedly good God.
I also remember thinking such a notion of human depravity was quite comprehensive. If one accepts it, there is really nothing inherently good about humans at all. And while I do not think that Bildad’s speech in these verses is nearly so thoroughly conceived as the much later notion of human depravity, it is at least as extreme. For Bildad, humans are maggots and worms. And in the biblical story these creatures are metonyms for death and the grave (Job 17:14; 1:26; Isaiah 14:11).
So, the image appeals to the ultimate end of humanity, which it sees as death. And therefore it is a basis for arguing that humans lack moral worth. And yet, does Bildad’s view go as far as the Reformed Christian view that says humans cannot even choose to do good unless God equips them to do so? For Bildad, humans may be more like maggots and worms in God’s presence, but it does not venture so far as to conclude that humans cannot choose good.
Such positions seem a high price to pay, though, for the comfort that comes from religious faith in God, don’t they? I mean does one really have to accept the extreme position that Bildad sets out in order to find meaning in one’s faith? Doesn’t the idea of depravity in itself offer a strange comment upon the claim in Genesis 1 that God saw that everything was good? Yes, I know; that occurs in the biblical story before the so-called fall. But can we really accept the far-fetched notion that everything ceased to be good once humanity were banished from the garden (the actual reason given is that they might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever)? I just think that when he returned home, Bildad was hoping no one but Job and a loving God were listening to what he said.
I thought of the voices as… something a little different from aliens. I thought of them more like angels… It’s really my subconscious talking, it was really that… I know that now.
“She was back last night. She was sitting right there on the end of my bed. I know she’s not real.”
“But it’s still scary?”
“I guess so… a little bit. I just never know what to do with her rantings. I seem to be five years old all over again, listening to momma tell me I’m going to hell.”
What picture comes to mind when you hear the phrase earth mother? For me, it’s Marianne. She’s in her mid-fifties, long, gray hair that she wears in a loose braid. Always dressed in billowing, cotton clothing, she could be a character in Little House on the Prairie. But Marianne is particularly unique. She wrestles with a severe thought disorder, and she knows it. Think John Nash in A Beautiful Mind. She was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a young adult, and inflicted a lot of pain on herself before she acknowledged her need for help. Other therapists and doctors had helped her come to terms with her challenges. She was referred to me because of the religious content of her hallucinations.
“Tell me more?”
“Well… I find it much easier now to accept that she’s a personification of my fear. And when she tells me I must draw blood to cleanse myself, I don’t feel a need to go searching for the Exacto knife.”
“I’ve been concerned that our conversations might really stir up your wounds. You do an amazing job of sitting with the anxiety, of using the skills you’ve learned.”
“Yeah. I can be okay with momma showing up, and if she never goes away, I can live with that. I know I don’t have to do what she tells me to do, or believe what she tells me to believe.”
“Last week you said that there was something about how we were talking about God, and grace, that was really piercing something in you.”
“Oh yeah. No doubt. That’s what momma was raving about last night. How did she put it… You think God has forgiven you? You think you can sleep well at night? God rained down fire on the prophets of Baal, and you can bet he’s coming for you!
“Yikes! Didn’t you tell me that was one of the Bible stories she used to read to you at bedtime?”
“Yeah, if she was sober enough. Anyway, I think I know why she made an appearance. I’ve been reading The Shack. Last night I read the part where Mack tells Jesus that he feels lost. And Jesus says something to him, like, I’m sorry you feel so lost, but I am with you. And then Jesus underlines it, You are not lost.”
“Yeah, but I’ve read stuff like that for years. Last night, though, something in me said, Marianne, you finally believe me, don’t you. And I thought, I think I actually do. I drifted off to sleep sort of marinating in that. Then momma showed up, all decked out in that same blue dress she wore to church every Sunday.”
“The broken parts of our minds can sure remember the details.”
“Why does she… I mean… why do I have such a need to intimidate myself? What is it in me that is so afraid to shift how I think about God, and God’s grace?”
“Oh, I can come up with a good theory to answer that why question, but who knows if it would be true. I’m pretty sure, though, that for most of human history groups have used dysfunctional religious ideas to try and maintain cohesion. If someone starts raising questions about beliefs, things can get nasty quickly. It takes a brave man or woman to ask, But what if we’re wrong about God?”
“That makes sense, but what do I do about it?”
“It seems to me that you already are doing something about it. You are exploring your faith and spirituality. And when your anxiety pops up, you don’t react to it. You sit with it. I don’t know why some people get a Damascus road sort of transformation. I just know that most of us have to muddle along like Peter.”
“She’s here, you know.”
“What do you mean?”
“Momma’s here. I noticed her standing over there in the corner a few minutes ago.”
It takes every bit of concentration I can muster not to glance at the corner Marianne is nodding towards.
“Really? What do you suppose that means?
“She’s glaring at you, but she’s keeping her mouth shut.”
“You seem very calm right now.”
[Smiling broadly] “Indeed I am. Momma, I know it’s not a good idea for me to speak to you as though you are real, but I want you to know that you are welcome in here any time you want show up.”
“I think I believe you.”
“What do you mean?”
“You are not lost.”
Milton: You know, Wes, mental illness is something I wish theologians talked about more. So much of a theological perspective rests upon some shared assumptions about what is real and how we know it. And I find that persons’ emotional states can change such notions of reality.
Wes: That’s true. Mental illness can be a blurry concept. We find it easy to judge a woman’s mental health when she literally sees the physical presence of her dead mother. But what about when you hear the tepid compliment of your sermon as a ringing endorsement of your preaching skills? Both reflect disconnections from reality.
Milton: Funny. But what about when a person’s mental state renders her unable to participate within the boundaries assumed by the long-standing doctrines of religious faith? I guess I am wondering how that changes your understanding of those accepted boundaries. Is religious faith just for people with certain mental capabilities?
Wes: I wonder if you’re bumping up against one explanation of why there are so many different brands of Christianity (and of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, for that matter)? A person who experiences ecstatic visions and is convinced of miraculous healings is going to feel much more at home with our Pentecostal brethren than in a traditional Episcopal setting, but that’s not really the question you are raising. If I’m going to believe that meaningful religious practice is not limited to only those with advanced education, then I’ve got to believe it’s not limited to those with good mental health, whatever that means.
Milton: So how do you think about the religious faith of the Mariannes you’ve worked with over the years?
Wes: I suppose my approach has been shaped by the encounter between Jesus and the demon possessed man. On many levels, this is a very confusing story for me, but it offers a stark picture of two key features of mental illness: Isolation and self-destruction. The story begins with the poor soul consumed by both. For as long as I’ve been studying psychology and spirituality, it has been a commonly held assumption that isolation and self-destruction are key elements of an unhealthy mind.
Milton: So you’d be more concerned about whether or not Marianne believes what her dead mother says to her than her perception that Mom is present?
Wes: Yeah. That’s not to say that I don’t think it matters that Marianne literally sees her mother, but almost all of the client’s I’ve ever had who deal with such things have received lots of medical treatment, but to no avail. On the other hand, I’ve worked with people whose terrifying delusions disappeared when they’ve taken an atypical antipsychotic. What I want people to trust is that one doesn’t have to remain immobilized even when the medications don’t bring relief.
 Matthew 8:28-34, Mark 5:1-10, Luke 8:26-39