The Bipolar God

The Bipolar God July 24, 2015

by Aaron Maurice Saari

shutterstock_212202106On the day that my first piece for Patheos, Coming Out as Bi (polar), was published, I entered my first 24-hour period without a filled antipsychotic prescription. By the time it reached 72 hours, I was unable to take care of myself. Owed to miscommunication with the psychiatrist’s office, insurance snafus (that still plague me) and my local pharmacy not having the medication on hand, my levels dropped to a dangerous point. I found it difficult to walk. I could not hold myself still or control my own mind. Sleep was impossible. Waves of panic and confusion washed over me as I tried to find some way to soothe myself into a calm place. Such was impossible. Not until my family took over, located a pharmacy, and convinced them to give me enough medication to get through the weekend and to my next psychiatrist appointment, was I able to find some relief. I slept for the better part of two days, and am currently on emergency medical leave. It has been a hell of a weekend.

I wrote in the previous piece that aside from a few side effects, I have been doing well on medication. That’s true, but not the whole truth. I went to the emergency room once and a planned vacation was altered as a result of medication issues. I’m trying to adjust to having far less energy than I used to, and I am certainly aware of my drugged state. Most people would not notice unless I told them—or they follow my writing—but I notice. My concentration is better, but my stamina is a fraction of that had by my former self. Other people with bipolar tell me that this is pretty common so early in the process, a period of experimenting and figuring out the “new normal.” God I hate that expression, but I am using it all the time now. I guess it depends on what one means by “new” and “normal.” Discuss.

As I am first and foremost a deeply believing Christian man, I’ve been thinking about the story of the Gerasenes Demoniac, a text I mentioned in my previous post. I wrote about the importance of church communities accepting the recovered and well person at the center of town. And perhaps it was just the state I was in when writing the essay, I now look at the pericope differently. The fact is, the expelling of the demons from the man into the pigs is the most curious and compelling aspect of the narrative. First, from a biblical studies perspective, there are problems with the narrative. Gerasene is 30 miles away from the Sea of Galilee, so Jesus has them engage in the first documented porcine decathalon, a 30 mile run followed by a swim. Which leads us to the second problem: pigs can swim. So while 2,000 head of swine falling off a cliff might have made a terrible mess, it was not necessarily a death sentence for all the pigs. Further, what about the poor shepherd or village that just lost its main source of income?

But more to the point, it takes a while for those pigs to run to the cliffs. Set aside, if you will, the rather crude imagery of massive suicide (suis-cide?), and think more fully of the process. The man housing Legion is not fully changed until the demons have been killed. There is time that elapses from the initial action (diagnosis) to the final outcome (stasis), that of sitting in the center of the village with Jesus. What does this tell us? That even if we believe God can take things from us that we offer up (which most Christians, on some level, believe), the timetable is not immediate. Those pigs gotta run, baby. They have to make the long journey to the cliffs and await their turn to jump. Wellness is a process.

Some people have cautioned me about being so open. I know that this is born of good, compassionate motives. They are not, in any way, trying to silence me. They are just afraid that I share too much, that I’m too revelatory and, given my status as a pastor, that I might be best served by confining my thoughts to a smaller group. I don’t quite know how to live that kind of life. Perhaps it is part of my disorder, but I regard talking about the reality of my diagnosis to be a form of ministry. Too often, pastors are placed on pedestals. Yes, we take vows. Serious vows. Important vows. But we are mortal. We struggle. We make mistakes. We have dedicated ourselves to being present at the most difficult points in the lives of others. For me, though, to do that effectively, I have to bring the whole self. I have to lay bare the totality of my being in order to serve effectively. Perhaps it is not how others conduct their ministries, but it is how I want to conduct mine.

If I take seriously the idea that we are created in God’s image, that means that my bipolar condition is part of that image. Such is a shocking and, perhaps, unsettling statement. Would I say the same thing if I had cancer or HIV? Is God diseased? Is God mentally ill? No, I would not make that statement. But I don’t think God is without bipolarity, HIV, or cancer. An apophatic theology is one built through negatives—“God is not xyz”—while a cataphatic theology is assembled through positives—“God is xyz.” Using the Hegelian dialectic (every thesis has an antithesis, and the tension between the two resolves into synthesis), we would need a resolution between the cataphatic (“God is bipolar”) and the apophatic (“God is not bipolar”), a resolution that might be “God is not not bipolar.” God transcends bipolar, but has contained in God’s being the ability to be both bipolar and not bipolar without excluding the contradictions. God is.

So God is in the man, in the pigs, even in the demons. God is the ground upon which the pigs trod and the water into which they hurl their bodies. God is more than just this, of course, but we should not deny God’s presence in even the smallest of details and realities. In that way, I see my bipolar disorder as part of God’s image that my illness helps me to more fully understand and discern; I live more fully into the miracle of being incarnate, or being a spirit that dwells, however temporarily, in flesh, because I am bipolar. I understand emotional and spiritual pain, and I more fully appreciate the free gift of grace.

The Rev. Aaron Maurice Saari is Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs, and a Multifaith Campus Minister at Sinclair Community College. He’s also a Doctoral Student of Intercultural Studies at United Theological Seminary.


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2 responses to “The Bipolar God”

  1. Nice to see Hegelian dialectic applied to apophasis vs. cataphasis. On the subject of formulations, I would say God’s bipolarity is not part of what makes God God, but is part of what the Holy Spirit in-dwells. God is not God’s complete self without flesh to love and be within.

    I really hope your openness bears much fruit. You are giving people the gift of trust, and that can create a lot of joy and peace and gentleness, etc.

  2. I’m bipolar and so is my spouse. processing the pain of 64 years of suffering this, being married to someone with this for 39 years, has given me unique &, valuable to the kingdom, insight and empathy I can relate to others who suffer. I rely on
    the gifts of the Holy Spirit to simply survive the sanctions and restrictions of structural violence of empire. social death
    is very real to me and for everyone I encounter experiencing this hideous disease!