Thursday, March 15, 2007

Schizotypal for God!

I recently read a very interesting lecture by Robert Sapolsky about four neurological conditions and how they relate to religion. Since Sapolsky is lecturing in a manner quite antagonistic to God I'll recommend that my devout readers postpone reading his lecture until after I finish introducing concepts in this blog entry. Also, I am only going to discuss the schizotypal personality, since it is the only item that normally relates to ministry work.

First, recall all of the instances of a bell curve in the distribution of human traits. With all sorts of physical characteristics (height, weight, arm strength, keeness of eyesight) most people in a population are "average", a few people are above or below average, and the further from average the fewer the number of exceptions.

Some mental traits also fit this pattern. People might hotly disagree on what IQ tests really measure, but in most populations the scores on IQ tests definitely fit a bell curve.

Psychologists have, fairly recently, been finding more mental traits that fit a bell curve. One of these mental traits is what American Christian culture might call "dysfunctional legalism". Someone that is noticeably above average in this is said to have a schizotypal personality; someone extremely above average is called schizophrenic.

Notice that I'm not voicing any opinion about how much this variance is due to nature or nurture. Like IQ scores, I'll leave that discussion to others.

Consider the observable tendancies that accompany diagnosis of schizotypal personality. I'll describe these observables as I often see them in ministry work:
  • treating a source of authority (i.e., scripture) as if it had a single, unarguably obvious interpretation
  • unrecognized superstitiousness, including the habit of trying to understand every circumstance as a meaningful message
  • inability to discern if thoughts, visions, and dreams of from God or not, manifest as a track record of fruitless and often contradictory decisions based on what were claimed to be revelations
  • overly suspicious, continually anxious in social situations, and showing a refusal to see excessively worrying about tomorrow as a sin (Matthew 6:24-34)
  • difficulty maintaining emotionally close relationships, manifest in a complete lack of close friends (usually besides a relative or two)
  • eccentric and odd appearance and behavior
What is new news in the field of psychology is not that people have such traits, but how this collective set of traits normally appears in an "average" amount, with some people having more or less than average amount of this collective set of traits, exhibited among the population in an extent that follows a bell curve pattern.

As a minister I sometimes have to deal with people visiting the congregation who are clear examples of this "dysfunctional legalism". They are never happy people demonstrating the peace and joy of knowing God intimately. They are "high maintenance" and for the duration of their contact with the congregation try to suck up as much of my time as they can and also create small problems as they interact with congregants.

To some very small extent I can help these people let God give them more peace and joy. I try. The congregation would be a very poor example of the Kingdom of God if I and other congregants did not try. These people are trying to be devoted to God -- often trying very hard. But it is not working. No one understands them, and they are often haunted by the suspicion that that even God does not understand them, made worse by their conviction that they understand God very well.

Helping such people is always fatiguing work, and once they move on I always wonder if the benefit will wear off after a few weeks. So it is very interesting to now read Sapolsky's lecture and other essays that share how psychologists are finding that what I've dubbed "dysfunctional legalism" is a well-ingrained part of personality by adulthood, and similar to height and wieght in both distribution through the population and in difficulty to change.