Szasz and Beyond: The Spiritual Promise of the Mad Pride Movement

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The Messianic-Redemptive Perspective

Messianism is I submit the strongest basis of Mad Pride. It is the messianic traits of the mad which enable the mad to make a major contribution to saving the planet. These are among the greatest “mad gifts.” Before I discuss the messianic sensibility I feel compelled to say a few words in defense of the messianic perspective.

The term messianic is often disparaged in the modern Western world; it is particularly at odds with the postmodern sensibility with its militantly secularist stance. Most persons do not know that many of the most eminent philosophers and theologians since the Enlightenment had an explicitly messianic (or utopian) perspective, although it is less common today. If we exclude those messianic thinkers who are spokespersons for a religious tradition we are still left with the tradition of European philosophical idealism such as Hegel and Schelling  as well as the entire (virtually) Western Romantic tradition –including such titanic figures as Novalis, Schiller, Marx, Blake, Coleridge and Shelley. (Abrams, 1971).  Or I might mention some renowned if not iconic messianic figures in American history (mostly Christian): Theodore Parker, William  Lloyd Garrison, John Humphrey Noyes, Charles Finney, Walter Rauschenbusch, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr and Herbert Marcuse (described by The New York Times as “the ideological godfather of the New Left”). Among leading Christian theologians the German socialist Jurgen Moltmann, founder of the theology of hope, led the way in reviving messianism in Christianity.(Moltmann was a protégé of the messianic Christian-Marxist atheist, Ernst Bloch.) In America two modern outstanding messianic theologians were John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. The  Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, one of the leading modern Christian historians, is another modern figure who has affirmed the messianic interpretation of Christianity. Among Catholics there are some liberation theologians and Johann Baptist Metz.  I have argued Sri Aurobindo is the greatest messianic philosopher- seer of the modern age (Farber, 2012). The messianic vision has been embraced by some of the most formidable minds in modern Western thought. It is however often disparaged today due to its incompatibility with secular liberal and scientistic thought.  On the other hand the emergence of non-materialistic paradigms in modern physics has made messianism more credible (Laszlo and Currivan, 2008).

For the messianic thinker the historical movement of humanity follows a spiral trajectory from simple unity (with nature, with others, and in religious thinkers with God) to alienation and conflict to a higher stage of unity—a recovery at a higher and more conscious level of the unity lost in “the Fall” (as it is called in Christianity). In the Christian narrative the cause of the conflict is humanity’s rebellion against God. But apart from Biblical literalists and fundamentalists, whose view of God is misanthropic, Christian theologians do not believe that suffering and death is inflicted by God; rather it is a consequence of man’s estrangement from God, the source of spiritual sustenance. “God in his compassion does not abandon his creatures under any circumstances. Man has fled and is called upon to return.”(P. Nellas,1987, Deification in Christ p177). Redemption is achieved when union is restored, union with God and with others. But the union at a higher stage of development is a differentiated unity based upon the full development of human individuality.

While many Romantic thinkers viewed the messianic state as an inevitable product of evolution, most messianic thinkers today would note the almost intractable human resistance to a society that require a profound shift in priorities. The Romantics tended to be “cosmic optimists.” But such confidence is harder to maintain now almost 2 centuries later. We have witnessed the demonic forces within the human soul; the horrors of the 20th century are still imprinted upon our psyches. In the last few decades neo-liberalism has unleashed the forces of unbridled capitalism. In the last decade we have seen that even the specter of the destruction of the earth by global warming is unable to mitigate the greed of the capitalists, or to arouse within our political leaders any sense of responsibility to the common good. Writing in October 2012 the ominous predictions of environmentalists and climate scientists seem to be coming to pass. Yet the messianic thinker is never warranted in trading hope for resignation.

I think Sri Aurobindo, whose philosophy transcended religious divisions but who drew most often upon Hindu archetypes, was able to most persuasively describe the messianic-redemptive ideal: “The ascent of man into heaven is not the key, but rather his ascent here into the spirit and the descent also of the spirit into his normal humanity and the transformation of this earthly nature.” This, and not “some post-mortem salvation,”Aurobindo tells us, is “the new birth” for which humanity waits as “the crowning movement” of its “long, obscure and painful history.” Society will  be based on a sense of the unity of humanity. “There [will be] a growing inner unity with others. Not only to see the Divine in oneself, but to see and find the Divine in all . . . is the complete law of the spiritual being. ..Therefore too is a growing inner unity with others. . . . [Man] will seek not only his own freedom, but the freedom of all, not only his own perfection, but the perfection of all” (Farber, p374).A society in which each person is guided by an intuition of unity would be a harmonious society.  In Sri Aurobindo’s epic poem Savitri he calls this messianic state the union of heaven and earth, the marriage of the eternal bridegroom with the eternal bride. It is the victory of love, the conquest of death.

According to Aurobindo the “laws” of nature, will be transcended by newer ones more conducive to human happiness (Farber, p12). The “laws” of nature are really habits of nature which will spontaneously change once we have recovered the sense of unity.  In Isaiah also the idea is conveyed that the laws of nature will change. The world will become peaceful. Men will give up war; the lion will lie down with the lamb, the predator with the prey. The recovery of paradise which has haunted the imagination of humanity for millennia will be realized. From the messianic perspective what we considered to be natural laws are products of our fallen state—our estrangement from each other and from God.

Human beings cannot create a perfect society on their own. They depend upon a supernatural Intelligence—God, in theological terms—to which they must surrender. But neither can God create such an order without human cooperation and participation. God cannot override human beings, or manipulate them like puppets. The Kingdom of God seeks to break into the profane world and to transform it. Rudolph Otto, the philosopher, wrote in The Kingdom of God and the Son of Man, “Jesus did not bring the Kingdom. The Kingdom brought Jesus.”  God is continuously seeking to save the world.  It is up to us to cooperate with the divine initiative.

The Christian idea of the incarnation is a mythical representation of this reality, of the redemptive drive of the Transcendent, of the eternal mercy of God. But orthodox versions of Christianity underestimate the redemptive will and force of the Transcendent.  They depict the incarnation as a single unique messianic event.  I argue there are many messianic events throughout history. The messianic event is the ingression of the Transcendent into the profane; its goal is the union of heaven and earth, the transformation of the earth.  It is only because of the recalcitrance of the human heart that it has not yet succeeded, that Jesus was executed.

Today we are faced again with the same choice that Jesus presented: “Repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”  This starkness of the alternatives, the threat of God’s wrath/ the promise of his benediction, is clear to those who are willing to honestly face the facts. Even in America the majority of citizens are aware of the threat of ecological catastrophe. But few have had the kind of messianic vision described by Sri Aurobindo, by Isaiah, by Jesus, or by Serine the “bipolar psychotic” whose post I saw on TIP forum (see below). Few persons have the messianic sensibility that is so common among the mad. “Most of us don’t even acknowledge the existence of God,” Serine said.  But “the time will come when we will know God, the Spirit that flows through all things.” In order to make a choice humanity needs to have both options placed before it. They need to attend to the visions of the mad.

Jung said that God is seeking to incarnate now through all of humanity. Paul Levy describes it, “Christ was the first attempt by God to incarnate and transform itself. Now humanity as a whole will be the subject of the divine incarnation process” (p146).

It is my contention that the Kingdom is now seeking to enter history, to incarnate, through the psyches of the mad. This is the unprecedented messianic event of 21st century. There are others with this messianic sensibility –e.g., visionary activists; some Christians; new age authors– – who are sane by conventional criteria, but my focus here is on the mad. For the mad are among the first to awaken. There is a greater percentage of persons with a sense of mission among “schizophrenics” than among any other group in the country.  “All great changes find their first clear and effective power and their direct shaping force in the mind and spirit of the individual or a limited number of individuals,” wrote Aurobindo (Farber, p.372). It is the mission of the mad to share their messianic vision.

Those with a messianic sensibility could change the world—if they prepare themselves for the mission.

The Messianic Sensibility 

The overtly messianic sensibility has three salient features. First, as the quote from Laing on the Bomb suggests, it confronts life without blinders. Laing wrote this not long after the Cuban Missile crisis and he certainly must have met mad people who claimed the Bomb was inside them. Today the mad person would be more likely to say she can hear the screams of the earth.  Laing believed that the “metaphorical” images of the mad were a potent means of communication. Laing of course realized that the mad person took his metaphors literally, but nonetheless the mad person was aware of realities normal people preferred to avoid. Psychiatrists, on the other hand, dismissed their statements as meaningless symptoms of pathology.

Of course not everyone with a messianic sensibility is mad, but madness often accompanies messianic experiences. In those cases the subjects speak in this unusual discourse—one might call it the language of dreams, of poetry. The psychiatrist would dismiss it as gibberish or “schizophrenese.”  I contend that the ability to speak in this manner is another mad gift. It serves the messianic-redemptive function—when people are listening. The fact that the mad person takes her metaphorical statements literally is not a cause for concern: Madness is not pathology. It is an altered state of consciousness.

A second characteristic of the messianic sensibility is that the person feels she has an important mission, a mission from God. The first mad person I became friends with told me when I met her in 1972 that she was “the mother of the new messianic age.” The author Anton Boisen a “recovered schizophrenic” in the 1920s (when recovery was highly rare) became a chaplain in a psychiatric ward. He was a man of profound religious insight. On the basis of years working in psychiatric hospitals he concluded that the idea that one is going to play an important role “in resolving a world catastrophe arises spontaneously in completely different historical eras in persons who are going through a profound inner struggle.” This sense of a social mission Boisen discovered is characteristic both of psychotics in “hospitals” and of  men of “outstanding religious genius.” In other words, contrary to the claims of many theologians, the sense of messianic mission is not a product of an apocalyptic culture—it arises in all kinds of cultures, and seems to be an artifact of typical “psychotic episodes” which both Laing and Jungian psychiatrist John Weir Perry believed were potentially regenerative experiences.  This sense that one has a mission is the mark of the messianic or prophetic calling. (Of course it can be specious.) In psychiatric terms it is considered a symptom of narcissism, grandiosity etc. But during messianic ages in history messianic expectations have been common and mania has been the prevalent mood of the masses.

The third trait characteristic of the messianic sensibility has been described aptly by the Jungian psychiatrist John Weir Perry. “Almost always within acute psychosis lies a messianic vision of a new world order.” This is characterized by a sense of unity, of oneness. “The vision of oneness is expressed in the messianic ideation, along with the recognition that the world is going to be marked by a style of living emphasizing equality and tolerance, harmony and love. This hope is almost universally seen in persons in the acute [psychotic] episode.”  (Farber, p. 375)

The Second Great Awakening: The Kingdom of God as a Force within History

During the 2nd Great Awakening in the early 19th century America was “drunk on the millennium,” as one writer put it. One could also say they had a “mania” for the messianic age. During that period virtually all Americans were evangelical Christians—but that was a very different animal than it is today.  H. Richard Niebuhr (brother of Reinhold) captures the popular mood well in The Kingdom of God in America, written in 1937, “[A] great wave of expectancy came over men. . . . A Christian revolution was evidently taking place; a new day was dawning.” The expectation of the coming kingdom on Earth was “nurtured by the continuing [religious] revival until it became the dominant idea in American Christianity.”  (Farber, p311)

As discussed in my book because it became the dominant idea in American Christianity—and in American history at that time (in the North, not in the slavocracy) –it became socially volatile: it fueled what today would be called progressive activism. The idea of the imminence of the Kingdom of God on earth engendered the greatest reform era in American history, including most prominently the abolitionist movement. Numerous historians believed that the sweeping movements for radical changes in this era would not have occurred had not the messianic expectations been ignited (Farber, pp. 306-324). John L Thomas attributed the social activism (e.g., abolitionism) of the period more generally to the Romantic faith in human “perfectability” which spread across “the whole spectrum of Protestantism.”

Perfectionism was the opposite of the doctrine of original sin. (Farber, p309).  It must be emphasized that Evangelical Christianity was completely different than it is today—it was spiritual, populist and to use an anachronistic term it was politically progressive.  It underwent a great reversal in late 19th century—the epitome of its reactionary trajectory was its embrace of the bizarre doctrine of dispensationalist premillennialism (including the “rapture”) which was antithetical to perfectionism. Since Jesus’s own teachings were relegated to the distant future, it effectively destroyed Christianity.

The kingdom of God entered history through the miracle of the mass conversions of the 19th century; this produced a transformation of collective consciousness. H Richard Niebuhr, the Christian theologian wrote in 1937 “This gospel of the coming kingdom which began with men in their solitariness became definitely social, for it had social effects in mind. It insisted it needed to appear and would appear in the whole common life, in science, art, agriculture, industry, church and state.” (p148)

Theodore Weld was a stellar example of the fusion of the personal and political dimensions represented by the awakening. He was a convert to evangelical Christianity who became one of the leading abolitionists. He went from town to town preaching against slavery and braving the wrath of pro-slavery mobs in the Midwest. Weld was passionately convinced that the abolitionists would triumph because ending slavery was the “cause of God.” The days of slavery are numbered, he asserted, “in this land of liberty and light and revivals of millennial glory.” It was the same spirit that led Edward Beecher to cry out in 1865, “Now that God has smitten slavery unto death, he has opened the way for the redemption and sanctification of our whole social system.”  Weld  regarded the revivals, moral reform, temperance, women’s rights and the anti-slavery movement as part of one whole—the  realization of God’s kingdom on earth  (Niebuhr, p158).

This period  combined left-wing political radicalism (one is compelled to use modern terms in order to make comparisons) with messianic expectations. It was a unique phase in American history yet it has been mysteriously occluded from the American imagination.  Perhaps because the reversal of evangelical Christianity after the Civil War makes it difficult to conceive that Evangelical Christianity was at one time the opposite of what it is today. What took place during the Second Great Awakening was a popular theological revolution. Christianity was democratized, Christians en masse rejected their Calvinist past: the burden of original sin, the bondage of the will. Instead it affirmed the perfectibility of every person and the freedom to prepare the condition for the realization of the messianic ideal. This was a mass based theological revolution—a paradigm shift (Farber,Ch.15).  But the Christian revolution had no impact upon Christians in the South—they were too corrupted by slave-owning, even though most could not afford slaves.

Metaphorically speaking, after the Civil War Satan took over evangelical Christianity, and wiped out the memory of its progressive past.  In the Gospels. Jesus had made his followers pledge to practice forgiveness, non-violence, and universal love. Post-war evangelical “Christianity” preached religious exclusivism, national chauvinism, guns and vengeance; it cultivated a perverse romance with the military, and the American killing machine.  Tragically as a result of the reversal of Christianity after the Civil War, progressive political activism was sundered from the kind of messianic vision that had such a galvanizing effect on political and social activism in the first half of the 19th century.

This is precisely why I argue that the messianic sensibility of the mad has such a potentially transformative power—it could reintroduce the messianic dimension into political activism.  Messianic themes emerged spontaneously in the counter-culture of the 1960s—in the music, in the political manifestos– but they were isolated images:  The metanarratives that dominated were primarily secular, unlike the 2nd Great Awakening when Christianity was still a revolutionary force. We need to revive a messianic-redemptive metanarrative.

Mad Messiahs in Search of Mad Pride

In 2007  I came across the following statement on  a TIP forum: “I am a 31 yr [sic] old single mom, and I have BP [“bipolar disorder”] with psychosis. When I go into mania, I have conversations with God and He has told me how He plans to bring together the plan for the ages. Or how he is going to bring about global awareness. And of course it is something that I have to do. Now every time I go into mania, I am consumed by it, when I come out I am ‘normal’ but still believe it. I mean what better thing is there to believe than God has chosen you to do an earthly mission for Him. Anybody else out there in the same boat? What do they call it. . . . Grandious [sic] delusions?”

Was this woman mad or is this a messianic call? Both. What if Mad Pride became a force for encouraging people like Serine to become prophets? I wrote her immediately in 2007. I told her I was a renegade psychologist and that I believed she was right– God had chosen her for a mission. I don’t think she believed  I was a psychologist. She asked me if I was also a bipolar psychotic. I said I had never been locked up or labeled psychotic. She wrote “The reason I asked if you had a mental illness is because of your ideas. I will continue thinking you do [have a mental illness] and if what you teach is correct it should be considered a good thing.” (I think she meant my teaching would be a good thing despite my mental illness.) I was amused that she thought I was “psychotic.” I tried to disabuse her of the idea of being cured of her “mental illness,” but the pressure from her parents and her psychiatrist was too great.

There are thousands of people like Serine — they become incorporated into the psychiatric metanarrative and they learn to view their messianic calling as a symptom of mental illness.  When I said to her “Serine, you are called by God” that was evidence to her that I too was mentally ill.  I became incorporated also into the psychiatric metanarrative she had internalized.   It was a vicious cycle. I might have been more successful had she lived near me and I met her in person. Or if we had a Mad Pride organization based on a messianic narrative.

Serine also had the two other traits of the messianic sensibility. She was aware of the evil in the world—and the fact that it manifests itself socially, not just in the individual psyche.  She wrote me “Do you know only 15% of humanity have a roof over their head, food, clothing, and a violence free life? What we should be doing is to free our people from the tragedies of the world.  Jesus’ victory was partial. He did not defeat Satan on earth.” She’s right, I thought! Her perspective was what Christian theologians call an “inaugurated eschatology.”  From this perspective Jesus did defeat evil but his victory was partial. It was up to the Church to carry on his mission since his victory has not been consummated. But in my experience the Church—any of the major Churches– has no interest in doing this. It had accommodated itself to the world. We can’t depend upon the Church.  “We are and always have been the very Messiah we have been waiting for.”  (Levy, pp138-9)

Serine beautifully described the final goal. “When the time comes, our eyes and hearts will be opened, and we will see what is Love, our hearts will be filled with fire, to light that darkness, and the 2 commandments (love God above all things) how could we not with a direction relationship with Him!!  And love your neighbors as ourselves (we will have no more war) I was being told to gather earth children, and all that, there was many people around who were in on the conversation, we were speaking telepathically,  as they were in different countries, and spread all over North America.  Jesus is coming to establish his kingdom, and I think there will be a huge awakening.  I think that we will no longer feel pain, and no longer feel any evil thought, or disappointment, we will be able to speak to all things.  We will do different things on earth, different desires will come into play, God’s desire. The time will come, I tell you, we will be aware of the most prominent parts of ourselves, our spirit, and we will know God, the spirit that flows through all things.”(Although Serine’s panentheistic  (yes the word is spelled correctly) theology was similar to many Christian mystics I had read  I knew in her case it was derived exclusively from her own experiences.

Serine was clearly mad: She was in an altered -and inspired– state of consciousness. And yet had she said something like this during the 2nd Great Awakening, she would have seemed perfectly “normal” because many people during that period were “manic” or mad. Here we have a perfect illustration that “mania” can become a statistically normal characteristic, and that further it can be socially adaptive.  But to talk about being chosen to inaugurate the Kingdom of God to a psychiatrist in America in 2006 was not socially adaptive. She was alone in a small town—although the Internet mitigated her isolation. Her experiences of the divine constellated complementary experiences of the demonic—these terrified her.  The demonic is a reality, otherwise the desire for money would not prevent our leaders from immediately restricting the burning of fossil fuels which threatens to destroy humanity. Although there were a few others on TIP forum who told Serine they had similar experiences, I was the only person trying to present her with a messianic-redemptive metanarrative that valorized her experiences. (I was the only person who wrote her privately.) But I was on the other side of the continent.  I was not able by myself to empower Serine. The mental health system was the only organization offering to help her allay her anxieties.  After holding out, she succumbed: She took psychiatric drugs and suppressed her spiritual visions.

I want to see the creation of a Mad Pride organization based on a messianic-redemptive narrative that will help budding prophets to become catalysts of messianic transformation. After Sascha’s retreat he told me in 2011 that he repudiated any messianic beliefs and embraced a narrative of healing; I told him that they were not mutually exclusive (Farber, pp 250-9).

For example when patients are immersed in their madness they sometimes need support and guidance—healing. But there is no need to prevent them from assuming greater responsibilities in accord with their talents.  For years the transpersonal psychology movement embraced the psychoanalytic idea that the ostensibly damaged ego of the “schizophrenic” needed to be built up before she should explore the spiritual world.  But transpersonal psychologists use this analogy to support their dogmas. If a talented pianist had a breakdown, playing Bach’s concertos before an audience would be contributing to the audience’s inner life and reviving the musician’s inner strength simultaneously.  It would not help the healing of the ailing pianist to avoid exercising her gifts. For a person with a messianic calling to share her inspiring vision is analogous to playing  Bach. Paul Levy writes, “Each of us is being asked to incarnate the truth of our being in a particular unique way.  If we refuse this calling we give away a part of our power and dis-own a part of ourselves. If we are not willing to step into our truth, we literally become part of the problem”  (Levy, p.166)  One grows strong through exercise, using one’s gifts–even if one is in a state of trauma. The mental patients’ liberation movement of the 1970s showed that political activism was therapeutic and empowering for so called disabled schizophrenics. Eventually thousands of schizophrenics embraced the Szaszian metanarrative and became highly competent and effective political activists.

What if Serine and other mad persons are channels for the divine, what if Laing was right, that their madness has a “sociobiological function”: to save humanity from extinction by well-adjusted bomber pilots, well-adjusted CEOs and well-adjusted politicians, including our well-adjusted President?  Clearly such messianic powers should not lay fallow.  The mad person who becomes a messianic catalyst in a secular society must undergo a growth process.  This requires emotional support and spiritual validation. In the absence of this support the mad will not be strong enough to resist being incorporated into the psychiatric metanarrative.

The messianic consciousness typically appears spontaneously in the experience of madness. But so far it has not been fully and consciously affirmed as a foundation for any Mad Pride organization. 

We could create today a Mad Pride organization determined to support and cultivate mad prophets who will recreate (what kind of activities is a question for another essay) the messianic Zeitgeist that existed in 1830, and cultivate the expectation that it is within the power of human beings to act as conduits for the Kingdom of God, to make it a living force within history that will overcome with its message of eternal love and salvation the power of those who are destroying the earth in pursuit of money, power and vengeance.  This would not be a substitute for political activism to abolish coercive psychiatry, to curb corporate power ( in psychiatry or elsewhere); to the contrary, it would inspire and infuse such political activism. It would make it possible to stop living in denial and confront the fact that this may be our last chance to save the earth, that the worship of Mammon is leading us into the bowels of hell.

Vaclav Havel said in 1991, “Without a global revolution in the sphere of human consciousness, nothing will change for the better and the catastrophe towards which this world is headed will be unavoidable.”

Both Mind Freedom and TIP have shown that they could offer the mad and many other psychiatric survivors a viable alternative to a life as chronic schizophrenics or chronic depressives. Their greatest social accomplishment was to provide vehicles for the spiritual growth of mad persons. That was a major social accomplishment. But the Mad Pride movement today can and must go further, not for its own sake, but for humanity’s.

If we cannot save the planet from being destroyed does anything else matter?

I see Mad Pride as a force that will empower and inspire many of the mad (even just a few hundred persons could make a difference) to be catalysts for a new Great Awakening which could be the first major step towards ushering in the Kingdom of heaven on earth, thus saving humanity and our sacred mother earth from destruction.


Morris Abrams, Natural Supernaturalism (Norton and Co., 1971)

Peter Breggin, Toxic Psychiatry ( St Martin’s Press, 1991).

Seth Farber, The Spiritual Gift of Madness: The Failure of Psychiatry and

the Rise of the Mad Pride Movement (Inner Traditions, 2012).

Seth Farber, Madness, Heresy and the Rumor of Angels: The Revolt against the Mental Health System (Open Court, 1993).

R D Laing, The Politics of Experience (Pantheon, 1967).

Erwin Laszlo and Jude Currivan, 2008 Cosmos: A Cocreators Guide.(Hay House, 2008)

Paul Levy, The Madness of George W.Bush (AuthorHouse, 2006)

Linda J Morrison, Talking Back to Psychiatry  (Routledge, 2005)

H.Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America (Harper and Row, 1937

Thomas Szasz, The Myth of Mental lllness (Harper and Row, 1961).

Thomas Szasz, The Manufacture of Madness (Dell, 1970).

Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic (Crown Pubishers, 2010)

Seth Farber is the author of “The Spiritual Gift of Madness: The Failure of Psychiatry and the Rise of the Mad Pride Movement

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