Might a Disruptive Episode Involving Hearing Voices Be Both a Mental Illness and a Genuine Religious Experience?

Tasia Scrutton
Thursday 4 November 2021
  1. Introduction and Hypothesis
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

Consider the following case recounted by psychiatrist Mohammed Rashed. A 29-year-old man, Femi, began to be involved in a church in his birth-country in West Africa, having become bored of his (Pentecostal) church in London. At this time, Femi became isolated and stopped going to work, though he did go for long walks. Soon after this, he started to have intense experiences involving what he regarded as hearing God consoling and counselling him, and advising him to get rid of his possessions. At times he also felt that the Holy Spirit was ‘taking over’ his body. He felt these experiences gave his life significance. Femi’s father and the church pastor at Femi’s previous, London church regarded these experiences as harmful and excessive. Femi eventually received medical treatment after he was found “confused and disorientated”, and “physically challenged” as a result of the fasting he had undertaken. He resisted treatment, regarding his hospitalisation as a test from God. Following (initially involuntary) treatment, he ceased to hear voices, and regarded himself as having had an illness instead. He is described at the end as without psychotic symptoms. However, his story doesn’t have an entirely satisfactory ending: by the end of his treatment he is described as an “unsure young man, unmotivated and apathetic”, who “no longer felt the expectancy of a major change in his life” (Rashed 2010, 188, 185-204).

Psychiatrists and psychologists face a problem when responding to cases like Femi’s. If they medicalise people like Femi, then the meaning-making aspects of the experience (e.g. Femi’s sense that his life has significance, and the motivation that this gives him) might be lost. If, on the other hand, they don’t medicalise people like Femi, the dysfunctional elements of his condition – the fact that Femi is confused, disorientated and physically challenged – may significantly worsen, and a severe schizophrenic condition develop that is far more destructive than it would otherwise have been, and far more difficult to treat at a later stage.

People with pastoral roles in churches, too, may face a similar challenge when presented with someone like Femi, whose experience has both worrying and also salutary aspects. They may wonder whether they should encourage the person to regard their experience as a genuine religious experience, or whether they should instead advise the person to seek the help of a doctor.

Responses to this puzzle have given rise to a number of studies in which psychiatrists, psychologists and others seek to provide criteria differentiating psychopathology from genuine (or at the very least) salutary religious experience (see Menezes and Moreira-Almeida 2009). These studies often presuppose that an experience like Femi’s could only be either an instance of psychopathology, or else a genuine/salutary religious experience. In this paper I am interested in exploring the possibility that someone might be having both a genuine religious experience and psychopathology at one and the same time, where a genuine religious experience is one in which someone really encounters a religious entity, such as God.

In order to do this, I will use psychiatry and psychology, and theology, to test the plausibility of two models, both of which are instances of a ‘both-and’ view.

The first model is the mysterium tremendum view, according to which an encounter with the divine might be so awe-ful that it results in, what is in human terms, psychopathological. On this view, encountering God is psychologically dangerous: someone like Femi may be having a genuine religious experience that is sufficiently disruptive that they experience mental disorder as a result. Proponents of this view may point to the examples of numerous saints whose behaviour was extremely disruptive and even disquieting, and/or who might be thought to have experienced some kind of mental disorder, but whose experience is nevertheless regarded as genuine – for example, St Francis of Assisi, St Teresa of Avila, St Ignatius of Loyola. Proponents may also point to motifs of God’s presence being challenging and even unsafe within the Christian tradition. For instance, Exodus 33.20 tells us that no one may see the face of God and live, and in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe C.S. Lewis tells us that Aslan is “wild, you know. Not like a tame lion” – something that has been taken up and cited by recent proponents of mad theology (Lewis 1959, 165-166; Collicutt 2020, 51).

The second model is the ‘honeysuckle on a broken fence’ view, according to which someone might encounter psychopathology (for natural, biopsychosocial reasons), and that God might use this to draw the person closer to Godself. I call this the ‘honeysuckle on a broken fence’ view because the image I want to conjure up is of something beautiful and good – the person drawing closer to God – being somehow supported or (at one level of causation) coming about as a result of something dysfunctional and undesirable, such as a broken fence or an instance of psychopathology.

With respect to both of these models, I will test each model first against scientific, and then against theological, criteria.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Psychiatry and Psychology

The mysterium tremendum view may be objected to on the grounds that there is a consensus among psychiatrists and psychologists that psychopathological experiences of phenomena such as voice hearing can usually be clearly distinguished from genuine or salutary religious experience. Thus, in their 2009 meta-study, psychiatrists Adair Menezes and Alexander Moreira-Almeida draw up the following criteria for distinguishing psychopathology from religious experience, beginning with those criteria for which there is the most consensus:

  1. Lack of suffering. While “the initial stages of a religious or spiritual experience can be accompanied by great personal suffering”, this is “overcome as the individual progresses in the comprehension and control of his experience” (Menezes and Moreira-Almeida 2009, 80).
  2. Lack of functional impairment. While people who have had a (genuine and/or salutary) religious experience “can temporarily feel unadjusted in relation to their everyday lives”, when they have comprehended their experience they “return to their normal lives” (Menezes and Moreira-Almeida 2009, 80).
  3. The experience has a short duration and happens sporadically: it does not have an invasive character in consciousness or disrupt the individual’s daily activities.
  4. A critical attitude exists regarding the objective reality of the experience. The capacity to perceive the unusual nature of the experience is preserved. The person will consider the experience suspect until it is religiously validated.
  5. The experience is compatible with the person’s cultural background, including their religious tradition.
  6. There is an absence of psychiatric comorbidities. In genuine and/or salutary religious experience, there are usually no other symptoms suggestive of mental disorders.
  7. The person has control over their experience so that it doesn’t impair their everyday life.
  8. The experience promotes personal growth over time: “The spiritual experience promotes enriching significance to the personal, social and professional life of an individual. However, the pathological experience, poorly structured from the outset, amplifies the disequilibrium of the individual over time, resulting in a general deterioration of the quality of life” (Menezes and Moreira-Almeida 2009, 81)
  9. The experience is other-directed, whereas a pathological experience tends to be isolating, and is described as “ego-centred” (Menezes and Moreira-Almeida 2009, 81).

This speaks against the mysterium tremendum view, because it indicates that people experiencing mental illness on the one hand, and people encountering God on the other, will typically have very different qualities to their experience, and that the direction of travel of their experience will be quite different. This does not seem like conclusive proof against the mysterium tremendum view since there clearly are still people such as Femi who constitute sufficiently complex cases to faze psychiatrists – nevertheless, these do seem to be the exception rather than the rule: it is usually easy for psychiatrists to discern when someone has a mental disorder such as schizophrenia because they are usually extremely ill (Sims 2020, personal correspondence). This should thus give us some reason to reject the mysterium tremendum model with respect to psychotic experience in general, and so pre-empt the idealisation of psychotic experience as intrinsically profound or spiritual. However, it does not rule out the possibility that the mysterium tremendum view could be true in unusual cases such as Femi’s case.

At least one strand of psychology may yield a more positive response when we come to think about Model 2, the ‘honeysuckle on a broken fence’ view. According to post-traumatic growth literature, there is some reason to think that ‘brokenness’ itself can constitute fertile ground for personal, including spiritual, growth. Thus, for example, psychologists Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun evaluate whether and to what extent someone has undergone change after trauma on the basis of five criteria: appreciation of life; relationship with others; new possibilities in life; personal strength; and, importantly for this discussion, spiritual change (Tedeschi and Calhoun 1996). Experience of severe mental illness involving psychosis is a significant cause of trauma, and (while this topic requires more research) preliminary studies suggest that people who have experienced severe mental illness involving psychosis can experience post-traumatic growth, and that post-traumatic growth is mediated in part by meaning-making (Mazor et al. 2016; Mazor et al. 2018).

The psychological literature on post-traumatic growth, then, may suggest that someone like Femi could experience psychopathology (with natural, biopsychosocial causes) – but that the experience may have the potential to bring about spiritual growth (evident, in Femi’s case, in his feeling that his life had come to have meaning and significance). Proponents of post-traumatic growth will often point to intrinsic properties about a person that give them the capacity for meaning-making following trauma; however, we might also point to contextual ones such as whether a person is provided with spiritual guidance and encouragement (on the one hand), or whether it is implied that their psychiatric diagnosis rules out anything of spiritual value (on the other). In other words, perhaps Femi need not have become an ‘unsure young man, unmotivated and apathetic’ had he received appropriate spiritual direction as well as medication.

While not discussing the concept of ‘post-traumatic growth’, the work of psychologists such as Charles Heriot-Maitland, Matthew Knight and Emmanuelle Peters which pinpoints factors that differentiate clinical from non-clinical voice hearers is relevant here: differentiating factors include contextual ones such as having access to multiple interpretations of their experience, and interpersonal validation in the case of the non-clinical (but not the clinical) voice-hearers (Heriot-Maitland et al. 2012; see also Brett et al. 2007; Jackson and Fulford 1997). While voice hearing is typically triggered by a traumatic event, whether the person goes on to become seriously ill (on the one hand), or incorporates it into a wider narrative involving spiritual growth (on the other), then, seems to depend on aspects of their response to it, which owe much to contextual and interpersonal rather than just individual-level factors.

The psychological literature on post-traumatic growth indicates spiritual change is possible as a result of severe mental illness such as psychosis. However, it does not tell us whether a person’s religious experience is genuine – something beyond the remit of psychology – but only whether it is salutary. We need to turn to the theology of suffering and evil to consider whether such an experience might also be genuine – and also to test the two models against theological as well as psychological/psychiatric criteria.

2.2 Theology of Suffering and Evil

Model 1 does not seem to fare well on theological grounds: it implies that God inflicts suffering on people, and therefore we would either have to hold that suffering is a good rather than an evil, or else that God causes or creates evil. Both of these are unacceptable conclusions.

Regarding the idea that suffering is a good rather than an evil, St Augustine of Hippo says that “while some sorrow is commendable, no sorrow is to be valued for its own sake” (Confessions 3.2.3). Saints’ lives often do involve suffering – for example, they might be martyred or called on to give up their wealth and minister to the poor. However, this suffering is a means to an end – that of standing up for Christ and against coercion, or because the poor need ministering to – it is not because the suffering is a good in itself. If we begin to see suffering as a good, we end up idealising suffering, and developing a sado-masochistic form of faith. We also undermine attempts to overcome or eradicate sources of suffering, such as poverty, illness, oppression and violence, and instead put pressure on sufferers to ‘bright-side’ their experiences (see Ehrenreich 2009). The idea that suffering is a good, then, is ethically disastrous.

The idea that God causes or creates evil is also an unacceptable conclusion. This is why, for a significant strand of the Christian tradition represented by St Augustine and St Thomas Aquinas and others, evil is thought to be the privation of good rather than a substance in itself, where a privation is the absence of a proper good (Conf. 7; Ench.; STh1 Q48 A1). According to the Christian tradition, God created everything that exists (apart from God). Contra dualists, there is not some creator or force who created the evil stuff alongside or independently of God. Furthermore, God, being good, cannot have caused or created evil: “All of nature, therefore, is good, since the Creator of all nature is supremely good” (Ench. 4). Once we reject dualism, or other, clearly untenable options such that evil is illusory, the idea that evil is privative is the only viable Christian understanding of evil. This is because it is the only one that preserves God’s sovereignty and  goodness, the latter of which is incompatible with God causing or creating evil.

Since suffering is an evil (and not a good), and since God does not cause or create evil, Model 1 looks shaky. Mental disorder, including disorders involving psychosis, are characterised by both distress and dysfunction, both of which are or involve suffering. In fact, while different psychiatric diagnoses have various symptoms, distress and dysfunction are stable criteria for mental disorder in psychiatric manuals across diagnoses (see APA 2013). Suffering is at the heart of illness, including mental illness. Of course, we might argue that a psychiatric patient’s voice hearing was not characterised by suffering or dysfunction, but in this case the claim would be that the person was wrongly diagnosed, that they were not in fact suffering from a mental disorder, rather than that they were experiencing both psychopathology and genuine religious experience – which is the focus of this paper.

A further objection to Model 1 relates to the fact that, at the heart of psychosis (whether experienced as delusion or hallucination or both), is that the person’s perception of reality is broken. In other words, they are less able than others to perceive what is really true, and more likely than others to regard something that is false as true. In the Christian tradition, God’s being is identified with truth, and God is thought to impart truth to those who seek God. For example, in the Gospel according to St John, Jesus says: “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life”; “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 14:6; 8:32 NRSV). Conversely, lies come from the devil, and not from God (John 8:44). God, then, is thought to reveal (and even to be) the truth, and not to lie. But, if God causes psychosis, and psychosis is characterised by a broken perception of reality, then it seems that lying or at least misleading is exactly what God would be doing. Again, someone might respond that perhaps a psychiatric patient who appears to have delusions or hallucinations is in fact perceiving the truth, since the Christian tradition is full of examples of people who did experience God in extraordinary ways, and psychiatry and psychology have not always been careful to distinguish what is psychopathological from what is merely unconventional. However, in such cases we would be talking about a misdiagnosis of the person – they would not in fact be experiencing psychosis but, rather, the truth – and so we would not be talking about a situation in which someone is both psychopathological and also having a genuine religious experience.

A final objection to Model 1 comes from pastoral theology. Within some strands of the Christian tradition, there are practical criteria for discerning when an (ordinary or extraordinary) experience comes from God (see e.g. St Teresa of Avila 1950, St Ignatius of Loyola 1951). These criteria involve what the ‘fruits’ of the experience are, and whether they are characterised by peace, humility and love of God (on the one hand) or anxiety, hopelessness and loss of love (on the other).

These theoretical criteria continue to be put into practice in pastoral contexts today. Thus, for example, a spiritual director at an Ignatian (Jesuit) retreat centre says:

Most spiritual directors will be quite cautious about extraordinary experiences, and I think ‘discernment’ is needed (is this from God?  Where does this come from? And where is it leading?  What fruits are there from this?) [….]  I think an experience needs to be tested in terms of its context and its fruits.  Does it lead to greater holiness?  Increases of faith, hope and love?  How ‘grounded’ is this person in the rest of their life – can they, as Freud said, love well and work well?  And importantly is there a practical love of neighbour? (Roger Dawson SJ 2020, personal correspondence). 

In similar vein, another spiritual director at the same retreat centre says: ‘In Ignatian Spirituality, I think this would come down to an important theme for Ignatius: the discernment of spirits.  Is this experience bringing a person to life or not? What are its fruits? Quite simple questions can make that clear’ (Jonathan Lawson 2020, personal correspondence).

Within these Christian traditions, there is no implicit assumption that someone can’t be having a genuine religious experience and also be psychopathological at the same time, and indeed God may be found in the midst of mental illness and other human suffering (Dawson SJ 2020, personal correspondence). However, where someone’s experience is characterised by dysfunction and suffering, as is the case with psychopathology, the person is usually not grounded in the rest of their life, or able to love their neighbour in practical terms, and so we should not think of this experience as being caused or created by God, but, rather, as being about the diminution of human flourishing and the privation of the good.

The psychiatric and psychological criteria summarised by Menezes and Moreira-Almeida point to the ways in which clinicians can distinguish psychopathology from salutary religious experience; the Ignatian criteria supplement this by pointing to the relationship between an experience being salutary in particular ways, and it being genuine. The Ignatian criteria also partially complement the psychiatric and psychological ones, though we might expect to find some at least potential tensions between purely clinical and Christian values. For example, the Christian tradition is likely to see at least some instances of interruption in the person’s life (within certain contexts and for certain ends) as compatible with genuine religious experience. A business tycoon who finds himself called to stop his exploitative employment practices, redistribute his wealth, and devote himself to ministering to the poor may, at least on the face of it, be regarded as having his occupational functionality impaired (one of the Menezes and Moreira-Alemeida’s psychiatric criteria for an experience being psychopathological). Within the Christian tradition, on the other hand, it may be seen as a healthy re-alignment of values and as evidence of God working in the person’s life. The psychiatric/psychological and theological criteria agree, against Model 1, that psychopathology (properly diagnosed) is not a sign of God working in the person’s life and that, conversely, spiritual growth, however unconventional, should not be mistaken for psychopathology, while understandably reflecting secular clinical or else Christian values which sometimes coincide but which might at other times be in tension with one another.

How about Model 2? While Model 1 relies on the theologically-disastrous idea that either suffering is good or else that God creates or causes evil, Model 2 can appeal to the more theologically promising idea that God brings good out of evil. This idea is central to the Christian tradition. For example, the ancient theme of felix culpa (or ‘happy fault’) holds that sin is both an evil in itself, and also something through which God works in order to bring about an even greater good – namely the incarnation (life, death and resurrection) of Christ. Far from conflating good and evil, this motif shows that God is ultimately victorious over evil, both in the victory itself, but also in using evil precisely to bring that victory about. We see this in Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The crucifixion is, and should always be regarded as, an evil: the torture and execution of one human being by others, as a result of political expediency, concern to maintain the status quo, and to preserve the status and power of the elites – in short, as a result of human sin. The resurrection both brings about and also shows us God’s victory over “the final enemy”, death (1 Cor. 15). “Human beings, not God, prepared the cross for Jesus – though God did not allow himself to be checkmated by this” (Schillebeeckx 2014, 32). Evil remains an evil, but God uses it to bring about a greater good.

Proponents of the ‘honeysuckle on a broken fence’ view can regard psychopathology, something that involves suffering and dysfunction, as an evil: a privation of the good rather than something caused or created by God. Nevertheless, they might think that God can bring something good out of it. Indeed, drawing on the post-traumatic growth literature, they may think there is something about the brokenness itself that is particularly conducive to spiritual growth, which includes genuine experience of God – perhaps something about the experience of crisis that can provide fertile ground for the person to meet God, experience healing, and consider what values are of real importance in their lives.

Three questions or objections to Model 2

Considering some questions about and objections to the ‘honeysuckle on a broken fence’ view will allow us to understand it better.

First, someone may raise the question, even if God doesn’t cause or create evil but only brings good out of evil, isn’t God nevertheless responsible for evil (including the suffering and dysfunction involved in psychopathology) by virtue of allowing privations or absences of good?[1] The ‘honeysuckle on a broken fence’ view does not, on its own, seem to suggest an answer to this question, since, while it rejects one aetiology of evil (that God causes or creates evil), it does not suggest another in its place, but merely points to the way in which God responds to evil.

I have already indicated that Model 2 lends itself to a privative view of evil, since both are rooted in the rejection of the idea that God causes or creates evil. We might therefore wonder whether the proponent of Model 2 should turn to the privative view of evil for an answer to this question. Vexingly, the privative view cannot help her here, since it is the solution to a different problem of evil to the one most familiar to people today. Rather than answering the question “why might a good, all-powerful God allow evil?”, the privative view answers the question, “if God is good, and if God created everything that exists apart from Godself, how can evil exist?”. It leaves the more familiar problem of evil unanswered.

In connection to the privative view, St Augustine hints that perhaps creation is mutable – where mutability includes the possibility of evil – because it is created out of nothing (e.g. City of God 14.13). This would be a neat solution, because of course God had nothing to create from (creatio ex nihilo), and so a proponent of this view could say that, if there was to be any kind of creation at all, it would necessarily be one that involved mutability and thus the potential for evil. This would be a kind of ‘greater good’ theodicy, whereby the greater good would be any creaturely existence at all, rather than the existence of creatures with free will. However, this idea suffers fatally from the problem that it reifies ‘nothing’ and makes it into a kind of stuff out of which something could be created (Hick 2010, 46). (In fact Augustine himself may have found himself agreeing that this is a problem, since in an exegesis of John 1.3, he criticises interpreters who do not realise that “nothing” [or nihil] just means “not anything” [The Nature of the Good 25; Hick 2010, 47].) A further problem with the idea that creation out of nothing entails mutability and thus the potential for evil is that some abstract objects are widely (and I think rightly) believed to be created, but these are not always mutable (for instance, in the case of numbers: two plus two always equals four).[2]

The proponent of the ‘honeysuckle on a broken fence’ view, then, cannot appeal to the privative view of evil (or to the flawed ‘add-on’ option that creation is mutable because created out of nothing) in order to answer to the question of why a good, all-powerful God might allow evil. Therefore, she finds herself in the same situation as other theists, who can only appeal to the already-familiar range of possibilities. Thus, she might, for example, be persuaded by the free will defence and/or the soul-making theodicy. Alternatively, perhaps she will regard God’s allowing evil as a mystery, and yet trust that there must be a good reason for it. And/or again, perhaps she will be more interested in the forward-looking question of how we can eradicate and overcome evil, taking as her starting-point the biblical revelation that God is in solidarity with those who suffer. These latter two options are, I take it, the most commonly held attitudes by people within the Abrahamic faiths, while the first option is debated much more within academic philosophy and theology.

Second, someone might object to my argument that post-traumatic growth and the idea that God brings good out of evil seem to be talking about two separate things: one about human, and the other about divine, agency. But according to the strand of the Christian tradition I have represented in this paper – one endorsed by St Augustine, St Thomas and St Ignatius and others – grace perfects nature, and so spiritual growth through natural, psychological causes is entirely compatible with saying that it is God who is working in the person to bring about spiritual growth. There is no conflict between the two because they are not operating at the same level of explanation: God is not another thing in the world (McCabe 2016, 33-46).

In the section on post-traumatic growth, I discussed psychological studies that suggest that context (as well as a person’s own responses) is important when it comes to whether the person experiences a disruptive episode as a time of spiritual growth over time. Again, this resonates with the way in which grace may be thought to perfect, rather than to be in conflict with, nature in this strand of the Christian tradition. For example, the Carmelite mystic St John of the Cross emphasises the importance of interpersonal and contextual factors in not hindering the work of divine grace on the person when he says that, in the context of people experiencing a dark night of the soul, spiritual directors need to “give comfort and encouragement” rather than telling people they are “falling back”, so as to leave “these persons alone in the purgation God is working in them” (Ascent, Prologue 5). Whether grace is accepted or resisted will depend in part on contextual factors such as the community’s support and validation (or, on the contrary, its condemnation and exclusion).

Third, someone might query my suggestion that there is something about brokenness (in particular) that is conducive to spiritual growth, and (as I have put it) “something about the experience of crisis that can provide fertile ground for the person to meet God, experience healing, and consider what values are of real importance in their lives”. They might ask, why should this be so – and why could God not give someone a religious experience without allowing suffering and dysfunction?[3] This is a helpful question, because it allows me to clarify that I do not think that religious experience can only happen in cases of suffering, crisis and dysfunction. For example,  I think religious experience might also happen in situations of human flourishing – perhaps in the context of wonder in the face of some natural beauty that could not have been imagined before seeing it, or when a person is told and believes that God forgives them having previously been oppressed by feelings of guilt or fear of hell, or when a person experiences deep and unconditional creaturely love for the first time and can begin to believe in the love of God.

Conversely, situations of suffering can be contexts in which people do not grow but, on the contrary, that diminish human flourishing – consider, for example, the child who experiences ongoing abuse by her parents who comes to believe that she deserves it, or the person whose experience of poverty makes her anxious and joyless. To overlook this is to romanticise suffering, and suffers from the same ethical problems I have already noted above in relation to the idea that suffering is not an evil.

Nevertheless, I am saying that some experiences of suffering and crisis can be fertile ground for religious experience in distinctive ways. At a psychological level, this thought is well-attested, both in relation to bodies of theoretical literature such as post-traumatic growth, and also in relation to people’s descriptions of their own experiences of suffering. Consider, for example, the following account by Kimberlee Conway Ireton, who recounts having something we might regard as a religious experience in the context of depression:

In the midst of that time [of depression], which I mostly remember as if it were shrouded in thick, dark clouds, I can recall one moment when these clouds parted and I was able to see the reality beyond the one in which I was trapped. It happened, of all places, in the kitchen. I was washing a bunch of Swiss chard in the sink when suddenly I became aware of how beautiful it was – the crinkly green leaves with their bright red veins, the thick yet silky texture of the leaf as I gently pulled apart each fold to wash inside it, the way the leaves glistened in the sunlight slanting through the kitchen window…. Time seemed to stop – or at least cease to matter – as I wondered at the beauty of the chard….

It didn’t instantaneously end my depression and bring me to a place of joy. But it stirred my desire to love. It enticed me to notice and pay attention to the world around me. And at a time when I felt hopeless, this moment of mystery gave me hope that there is more to life – my life, the life of the world – than usually meets the eye, or the ear, or any of my physical senses. In the moment when the veil parts, we see the not-yet now, we glimpse the mystery and beauty at the heart of all that is, we see things as they really are and not as they usually appear. (Ireton 2008 113, 114, my parentheses)

It would be difficult to give an account of what makes some situations (whether of suffering, or of happiness, or anything else) conducive to religious experience, and what makes other situations merely pleasant or unpleasant, stagnating or debilitating. Perhaps one common factor is the presence of change in the person’s life, which can prompt the person to see their life in a different way. But change in itself is unlikely to be sufficient (as an explanation at the natural or psychological level) for religious experience, and it seems like that there are many other factors at play.

In addition to a psychological question about why suffering and crisis might sometimes be conducive to religious experience, perhaps there is also a theological question to be answered. Why should God choose to make Godself known through those situations distinctively or in particular, rather than through situations of (for instance) people travelling very fast, or being very high in the air? The proponent of Model 2 might say here that, while we can’t know God’s reasons for sure, turning evil (including suffering) to a good end seems to be part of God’s modus operandi in relation to overcoming evil, citing the Fall and redemption, cross and resurrection as examples. In addition, she might suggest that God is always trying to communicate with God’s creatures, but that (for psychological reasons – perhaps such as those gestured towards above) people are more receptive to God in certain situations, including situations of suffering and crisis. 

3. Discussion

My analysis suggests that there are weak scientific (psychological and psychiatric) reasons, and strong theological reasons, for preferring Model 2 to Model 1.

The narrative Model 2 suggests for Femi-type cases is that a period of mental disorder involving psychosis should not be understood as resulting from an extraordinary encounter with God. However, it might be that (were certain responsive, inter-personal and contextual factors in place), Femi’s experience of illness could go on to bring him closer to God – and thus may become part of a genuine religious experience.

Femi believed his religious experience lay in genuinely hearing the voice of God, and it is tempting to make this the focus of discussions about this topic. However, according to Model 2, Femi was mistaken about this, though he wasn’t mistaken about the fact that God was in some sense speaking to him. This view, at least when applied to Femi, involves thinking that people can be mistaken about what aspects of their experience are genuine (especially if they are suffering from psychosis). It also suggests that ordinary religious experience is valuable – even just as valuable – as extraordinary religious experience (such as hearing God’s voice) – even if it is the latter often sounds a bit more interesting.

4. Conclusion

This paper set out to test the hypothesis that a disruptive experience involving hearing voices might be both a genuine religious experience and also psychopathological. In order to test this hypothesis, I tested two models of how this ‘both-and’ view might be the case. I argued that there is weak scientific and strong theological evidence against the first, mysterium tremendum, view, and that there is weak scientific and strong theological evidence for the second, honeysuckle on a broken fence, view. The answer to the question, “could a disruptive experience involving hearing voices be both a genuine religious experience and also psychopathological?”, then, is “yes” – though it is a qualified “yes” that excludes particular versions of the ‘both-and’ view.

Practical implications of this view I have argued for include the importance of context (e.g. appropriate encouragement and spiritual direction) in fostering spiritual growth and enabling the work of divine grace in the person’s life, and attentiveness to ordinary as well as extraordinary religious experience in work on religious experience in the context of psychopathology.


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[1] Thank you to Mikael Leidenhag for this question.

[2] Thanks to Simon Hewitt for this point.

[3] Thank you to Mikael Leidenhag for this question

Cite this article

Scrutton, Tasia. 2021. “Might a Disruptive Episode Involving Hearing Voices Be Both a Mental Illness and a Genuine Religious Experience?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 4). https://www.theo-puzzles.ac.uk/2021/11/04/tscrutton2/.

Contact the author

Tasia Scrutton
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