by Paul Walker
I now work in mental health. The experience is beginning to
bring me up short as a Christian Minister. I thought I might share some
Many patients who are considered mentally ill have what doctors call
delusions. A patient on a hospital ward might, for example, believe that
he or she is in constant touch with the Duke of Wellington. Such a patient
may know a great deal about how the Iron Duke thought and acted. This
patient quite consistently acts as directed by the Duke. For the patient
such a relationship is absolutely real. Conversations with the Duke of
Wellington are as valid as conversations with a nurse or a family member.
The patient may find the situation compounded by a fear that health
professionals are working for Napoleon. For those unfamiliar with the
world of mental illness this may seem silly. Perhaps you the reader are
allowing yourself to smile at the situation, with reason.
In reality there are unlikely to be many patients having conversations
with the Duke of Wellington as such. Yet there are many with
similar delusions. They often talk in a similar vein to pop, sport or film
stars who likewise direct their actions in ways that to them seem very
One delusion seems, however, more common than most. It is a belief that
the patient is able to communicate directly with God or with Jesus. An
incredible number of patients have just this absolute belief - that their
actions are directed by God. Such people are often well-versed in the
Bible. Actions can therefore be quite consistent with an understanding of
the biblical God. Such patients have a real and intimate relationship with
God, who is just as real to them as their nurse or members of their
family. The patient may find the situation compounded by a fear that
health professionals are working for the Devil.
Here is the problem. Many people walking our streets also believe, with
equal certitude, that God talks to them and that they have a real
relationship with him (for it is still usually a he). I have no desire to
commit to hospital people who have such a belief. I simply thought it
worth pointing out similarities.
In this area are two extreme polarities with which I am not
On the one hand there is the belief, held by many professionals, that
any sense of a reality beyond the material is a delusion. On the other
hand there are those whose religious faith appears delusional, in the
sense that they seem to have an intimate relationship with a God who finds
them parking spaces and explains to them that on any issue they are on
These two polarities perhaps feed on each other. Many of us have a
sense that there is more to reality than the material. At the same time we
are aware that whatever might lie beyond the material cannot be explained
in simple, or even in religious terms.
There is clearly no obvious and absolute dividing line between some
forms of mental illness and some types of religious experience. But then
again, I�m not sure that there is an absolute dividing line between mental
illness and mental health.
Those of us interested in faith must, however, be aware that we are
working at an ill-defined margin, not only between the material and the
spiritual but between sanity and madness.
I wonder if it is not somewhere on that line that reality is to be