Monthly Archives: October 2014

Did Moses Have Epilepsy?

Was it all just in your head? That’s the common question people have after having some sort of a spiritual experience. As it turns out, there are a lot of people who need to answer that question. According to a recent study about 50% of people say they’ve had some sort of an experience where they’ve encountered God, or touched some other dimension of reality. It can happen in various ways, whether by a vision, a voice, or a dream that is more than a dream and is somehow much more real. After having such an experience people always say, “It was REAL!” but skeptics question whether or not that “real” experience was just in their heads.

That’s exactly what Jeff Schimmel believes. The 49-year-old Los Angeles writer was raised in a Conservative Jewish home. But he never bought into God — until after he was touched by a being outside of himself. I read about Schimmel in an article by Barbara Bradley Hagerty, and he recounts to her the following:

“Yeah,” Schimmel says, “I was touched by a surgeon.”
About a 15 years ago, Schimmel had a benign tumor removed from his left temporal lobe. The surgery was a snap. But soon after that — unknown to him — he began to suffer mini-seizures. He’d hear conversations in his head. Sometimes the people around him would look slightly unreal, as if they were animated. Then came the visions. He remembers twice, lying in bed, he looked up at the ceiling and saw a swirl of blue and gold and green colors that gradually settled into a shape. He couldn’t figure out what it was.
“And then, like a flash, it dawned on me: ‘This is the Virgin Mary!’ ” he says. “And you know, it’s funny. I laughed about it, because why would the Virgin Mary appear to me, a Jewish guy, lying in bed looking at the ceiling? She could do much better.” Schimmel became fascinated with spirituality. He became more compassionate, less ambitious. And he wondered: Could his new outlook have to do with his brain? The next visit to his neurologist, he asked to see his most recent MRI.
“My left temporal lobe looked completely different from the way it did before the surgery,” he says. Gradually, it had become smaller, a different shape, covered with scar tissue. Those changes had sparked electrical firings in his brain. Schimmel’s doctor told him he had developed temporal lobe epilepsy — a disease that has fascinated doctors for centuries.
(Are Spiritual Encounters All In Your Head? Hagerty, May 2009)

The flaw in Schimmel’s thinking is that he assumes the brain creates life instead of receives life. If he believed, as is the case, that life came in from the outside, he could see that what has happened is merely a tuning of his antenna, so to speak. Just because the brain is now different, does not negate the reality of what he saw.

As you would imagine, he’s not the only one who had to struggle with the nature of reality. Back in the Cold War era, the US and USSR used to use psychic spies to go into underground military installations that couldn’t be photographed by spy satellites. At the outset, all of these psychic spies went through a rigorous selection process to identify the people who were the most gifted psychics. However, there was one who joined the group who was not a “natural” psychic. He’d been shot in the head. He was wearing a helmet at the time, and so while the bullet didn’t pierce the head, the impact certainly did something to his brain. After the incident he gained new psychic abilities and became a top remote viewer. Something had changed, but for him, it was clear that what he was experiencing wasn’t just in his head. What he was experiencing was verifiably real.

But lest you think this debate is merely a modern one, Hippocrates wrote a book about 2,500 years ago titled, “On the Sacred Disease.” Based on the descriptions of the disease he’s observed, we know that he’s writing about epilepsy. He comments on the “sacred” disease declaring that it is no more sacred than other diseases, but it gets called “sacred” because the ancients thought that sufferers were possessed by demons, or blessed with divine messages and visions. He stresses the importance of the disease having no relation with the divine whatsoever, but instead being purely of human origin, saying:

“Men regard its nature and cause as divine from ignorance and wonder because it is not at all like to other diseases…Men, being in want of the means of life, invent many and various things, and devise many contrivances for all other things and for this disease, in every phase of the disease, assigning the cause to a god…Neither truly do I count it a worthy opinion to hold that the body of man is polluted by God, the most impure by the most holy.”
(On the Sacred Disease, Hippocrates, 400 B.C.)

The implications of this are large. This text is regarded as a great turning point in medical history because it is the first time humanity shifts away from blaming God for disease. This is good. God doesn’t give us diseases. Yet it goes too far the other way by eliminating spirituality altogether. Using this text as our anchor, suddenly we must wonder if Paul really did hear Jesus on the road to Damascus, or was he experiencing an auditory hallucination? What about Joseph Smith and the two angels? Muhammad? Joan of Arc? And what about Moses and that burning bush? Maybe they were all just epileptic and seeing things through the eyes of a malfunctioning left temporal lobe?

One of the great hopes that the New Church promises is that in this new era that we live in, “the scientific, the rational, and the spiritual shall become one, and the scientific shall serve the rational, and both together shall serve the spiritual.” (True Christianity 200) It is a day that I can see coming as more and more studies explore the the connection between the interaction of our spirit with our body. One scientist, who has studied all of these brain scans, at least leaves the door open to spirituality. He was asked,

“Does the fact that we can track spiritual feelings in our temporal lobe mean that there’s nothing spiritual going on?”

“No,” he says simply. “Think about a man and woman who are in love,” he says. “They look at each other, and in all likelihood, something fires in their temporal lobes. However, does that negate the presence of true love between them? Of course not. When you get to spirituality, as a scientist I think it really becomes extremely difficult to say anything other than, ‘It’s possible.’ ”

Clearly not everybody agrees on the conclusions. That promised day when science and spirituality are one isn’t here yet because science fails to understand a basic reality: that we are receivers of life. It’s hard to draw proper conclusions when you have a flawed premise. Moses may have indeed had epilepsy, but that doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t change that I believe what Moses experienced was real.

Depression and Suicide

No doubt that by the time you read this you’ve heard that actor and comedian Robin Williams took his own life on 11th of August. Apparently he had fallen into depression, something he dealt with most of his life. He was on a cocktail of medications to help, but in addition to his anti-depressants he was taking medications to combat early stage Parkinson’s disease which may have exacerbated his depression and led to the suicide. Some of his friends have speculated that he committed suicide because he used cycling as a means to keep him sober and out of alcohol addiction, and he was afraid that when Parkinson’s took away his ability to cycle he would fall back into alcoholism. Maybe it is some combination of both…we’ll never really know.
However, his passing does make it a good time to talk about suicide and depression. When we look through the Bible we can find many instances of people being depressed, and we can find examples of people wanting and actually committing suicide, so they are not problems that are exclusive to modern times. Recently I’ve preached on the subjects individually, and you can find the sermons on our webpage in the media section. But I think this is a really important subject, which is why I want to take some space here to write about some general teachings available to us in the New Church.
First off, let me say that there’s no reason to believe that people who commit suicide go to hell. That’s just not stated anywhere in the Bible or in any of Swedenborg’s Writings. I do think we can say suicide is “wrong” because we are upsetting the natural order of things. When a person is created, God does not intend for them to kill themselves. He intends for them to live a long life and die of old age in their sleep. It just doesn’t always work out that way. Yet despite a person upsetting the natural order of things, that one act does not condemn them to hell. Hell is for evil people. Hell is not for good people who do one evil thing.
A good general teaching on this comes from Secrets of Heaven. It essentially states that good spirits, i.e. people who have passed into the next life but have not yet made it to either heaven or hell, are not punished at all in the next life. In fact, even when good spirits do something bad, they’re given some slack:
But as regards good spirits, if perchance they speak or do evil, they are not punished, but pardoned, and also excused. For their end is not to speak or do evil, and they know that such things are excited in them by hell, so that they have not come to pass by their fault; and the same is also observed from their resistance, and afterward from their grief. (6559)
This general teaching provides comfort that a singular act such as suicide, or any evil for that matter, doesn’t condemn an otherwise good person.
While they are not destined to hell, there is reason to believe that a person who commits suicide is going to have some things to work out on the other side… and it might not be any fun. While in a depressed state we have spiritual associations that aren’t good, and we come to see and be with these associations when we transition into the next life. Swedenborg writes about this in his diary:
A certain one in the life of the body had committed suicide by stabbing himself with a knife, having been driven to desperation through depression, to which he had been driven by diabolical spirits. He came to me complaining that he was being miserably treated by evil spirits, and said that he was among the furies who were continually provoking him… He also seemed to me to have a knife in his hand which he wanted to drive into his breast. He labored hard with that knife, wanting to throw it away from himself but without success. For whatever happens in the last hour of death remains for a long time before it disappears, as I was told. (Spiritual Diary 1336, 1337)
This is a specific instance for one person, not a general teaching, so while this one person went through a process of being tormented by evil spirits for a time, we really shouldn’t make generalizations based off something written in Swedenborg’s diary. However, there are general teachings that say whatever inner problems we have in this life we will generally have to face in the next life… and it might not be pleasant dealing with them.
But what if you can’t deal with them here and now? I think all of Christianity teaches that life comes from the Lord, and that of ourselves we have no life of our own, rather we are receivers of life. At first pass it sounds like a pretty abstract teaching that isn’t particularly useful to us, but when considering depression or any mental illness we start to see why we are taught this. You see, if we are in fact just receivers of life, it does allow for the receiver to be broken. Think of it like this: your radio is a receiver of FM and AM signals. There is no music in the transistors, but when they function properly music is played through them. If however, some electronic part fails, the radio will cease to be a proper receiver of the signals, and a similar situation can occur in people. Something can be biologically wrong that essentially “tunes” us in to more negative frequencies. When this is the case, we’re not able to deal with our problems and change our ways. Here’s how it is written in Divine Providence:
The reason no one is reformed in a state of mental illness is that mental illness deprives us of rationality and therefore of the freedom to act rationally. The mind is sick and not healthy, and while a healthy mind is rational, a sick one is not. The illnesses are things like depression, imagined or illusory guilt, various kinds of hallucinations, mental anguish brought on by misfortunes, and mental anxiety and pain brought on by physical disorders. These are sometimes thought of as temptations, but they are not. Real temptations focus on spiritual issues, and during them the mind is in possession of its skills. The states I am talking about focus on earthly issues, and during them the mind goes mad. (#141)
This can be comforting in one way, because it is nice to be able to think that, “Yes, there is something wrong with me! It’s not my fault I feel lousy.”
There are however, other kinds of depression. There are what amounts to “spiritual” depression and a “natural” depression. The former has more to do with not living up to the kind of person you want to be and the inner fight and acknowledgement of failure can bring on depression. The “natural” depression is more about bad luck, misfortunes and worrying about other issues that don’t have to do with our spiritual life but are nonetheless unpleasant. With these kinds of depression the common problem is the spiritual company we keep. The more depressed we allow ourselves to get, the more depressing thoughts pour in. Even when miserable if we are able to keep our thinking positive we can retune ourselves to only be hearing the good, affirmative and assuring teachings that the Lord loves us, has a plan for us, and is taking us to a good end. We must suffer ourselves to hope, and if we’re good at it – which isn’t always easy – we, with the Lord’s help, can dig ourselves out of the pit of despair.