Line between inspiration and insanity is a narrow one

December 13, 2010

(RNS) A teenager says God and Jesus appeared to him in a grove and told
him to start a new Christian church. Another person claims the Almighty
talks to him through the radio.

A French girl gets messages from heaven to lead an army against the
British, while a Utah woman thinks she is meant to have Jesus' baby and
12 husbands.

Some of these figures were considered prophets and saints, while
others were judged insane. The question is: How do you tell which is

Brian David Mitchell, convicted Friday (Dec. 10) of kidnapping and
raping Elizabeth Smart, insisted that God gave him license to do so,
though his attorneys argued he was mentally ill.

The main difference between a prophet and a psychopath, says Ralph
Hood, who teaches psychology of religion at the University of Tennessee
in Chattanooga, is "whether or not (they) can get followers."

Historic figures who started new religious movements -- including
Martin Luther (the Reformation), Joseph Smith (Mormonism), Mary Baker
Eddy (Christian Science), Ellen White (Seventh-day Adventism), Jim Jones
(People's Temple) and David Koresh (Branch Davidians) -- were viewed by
outsiders as delusional.

But followers, ranging from the millions to the hundreds, found each
of them to be credible guides to divinity.

"There is ample research to suggest that, for the most part,
religious people are no more inclined to mental illness than
nonreligious people," says Wendy Ulrich, a Mormon and founder of Sixteen
Stones Center for Growth, a small group of mental-health professionals,
in Alpine, Utah.

The pathology arises, Ulrich says, when a person's search for
meaning "goes into extreme overdrive" and people "lose touch with vital
aspects of reality."

From the start, psychologists must weigh a person's religious and
cultural expectations. The more important faith is, the more prominent a
role religious language will play in a person's mental process.

Maybe the person is speaking in tongues, communing with the dead,
sensing the presence of a guardian angel or getting messages from milk

So the first question becomes: Does the experience fit with some
religious tradition that is dominant in a culture? Does it make sense to
a particular faith community, or is it out of the norm? Is it consistent
with the faith's scripture, practices and beliefs or does it challenge

As a clinical psychologist, Brent Slife might bring in a pastor or
priest to help answer that question.

"I would want to know how contextually appropriate their behavior or
the things they are espousing are," says Slife, a Protestant who teaches
at Brigham Young University. "Are they able to adapt to different

Unbalanced people may repeatedly quote scriptures or obsessively
perform rituals or adopt a grander, more spiritual identity such as King
David, Moses, Muhammad or Jesus.

"If the pope says he's the Vicar of Christ, that's OK because it
fits with a centuries-old tradition," Hood says. "If I think I am, I'm
in trouble."

There are at least two common ways in which mental patients describe
their delusional experiences with God, Ulrich says. Schizophrenics hear
voices or see things that are not there. Those suffering from paranoia,
meanwhile, see conspiracy in everyday events or think God is speaking
specially to them.

"They over-interpret common experiences to mean either someone is
out to get them or God is out to help them," Ulrich says. "Ideas of
grandiosity and thinking of themselves as special or chosen in some way
are not uncommon."

But it never is easy to assess the authenticity of another person's
spiritual experience.

Ulrich has known people whose behavior could be inspiring or could
signal a muddled mind. Many of them take part in church services without
fellow believers even being aware.

She has known some religious folks who are unusually clairvoyant,
with a penchant for and openness to revelatory experiences. They largely
are calm, highly functioning, rational people, who are socially engaged
but don't call attention to themselves.

"They pretty much play by the rules of society and don't think of
themselves as special," she says. "They know their `gifts' are not
always believed in or valued, so they have a sense of humor about them."

She's also seen people who are "very high-functioning in some areas
of life and can be quite charismatic, intelligent and charming," but
they begin to "over-interpret impressions or events as messages from God
in ways that make other people nervous, even people within their own
value system or religious system."

Such people think the "rules" of the community don't apply to them
and may start to feel that others are out to get them, she says, and
they don't understand why.

If you ask a religious person how God communicates, she might say
through impressions or a kind of whispering. But if you ask a mentally
ill person that question, he might say, "I shook hands with him

Studies show that reasoning with schizophrenic patients about God
never works, Measom says. They cannot be convinced of any other
interpretation. It's a matter, he says, of core beliefs and brain

For a believer such as the Rev. Gregory Johnson, the line between
genuine religious experience and madness sometimes is blurred.

Johnson, who directs Standing Together, a Utah group of evangelical
pastors, is not a charismatic Christian, so he doesn't speak in tongues
or engage in the more ecstatic practices. But he does believe God heals,
speaks and leads.

"I see a range of healthiness and levels of extremity within the
confines (of Christianity)," he said. "I see people who are zealous but
not insane."

One of the tests, Johnson says, might be the "fruits" or outcomes of
the divine communication. Does the experience lead a person into more
altruistic actions, greater caring for others and deeper relations, or
does it simply draw the recipient further into narcissism?

As a pastor, Johnson says, he would worry about actions that are
"destructive to other people or to themselves."
Mormons are urged to seek and receive God's guidance for themselves
and their families. But only the church's "prophet, seer and revelator"
can receive messages for the whole faith and the world. Such
institutional controls may inhibit individual experiences, but they do
prevent mentally ill members from distracting or confusing the faithful.

Even as a young Mormon teen, Elizabeth Smart says she knew the
difference between a genuine religious leader and Mitchell.

"God would never tell someone to kidnap a young girl from her
family's home in the middle of the night from her bed that she shared
with her sister ... and sexually abuse her and give her no free agency
to choose what she did," Smart testified. "I know (Mitchell) was not
called of God because God would never do something like that."