St. Paul as a “One Idea Man”?

Was St. Paul a healthy-minded missionary, or an obsessed madman. Let’s consider a few quotes from the 19th century and early 20th century to bring some consideration to this thought. This is not an idle consideration. Many see Paul as the ideal missionary. We should consider whether our ideals are, in fact, ideal.

One of my favorite essays is “Men of One Idea”

Image result for joshua g. holland
Joshua Glibert Holland (1819-1881)

written by J.G. Holland back in the mid-1800s. His thesis is that individuals who obsess on one topic only develop a certain mentality that could be described as insanity. He suggests that the human mind was designed to be healthy with a number of ideas; not just one, much as the body is healthier with a range of foods rather than a diet of one food item or category. One time I transcribed that essay but now I can’t find it. Oh well. I have a paper copy in Sanders Union 6th Reader. It originally came from “Lessons in Life: A Series of Familiar Essays.”


The essay starts with a quote that expresses the idea:

“Cultivate the physical exclusively, and you have an athlete or a savage; the moral only, and you have an enthusiast or a maniac; the intellectual only, and you have a diseased oddity, it may be a monster. It is only by training all three together that the complete man can be formed.”   -Samuel Smiles

The idea that the “one idea man” is bad is far from universal. A quick websearch shows many who feel that this type of person is healthy and perhaps even bound for greatness. Within Christian circles, I will take another old and rather obscure quote:

being a man of one idea “… was not so bad after all; for were not the best and greatest men, who had achieved most for mankind, men of one idea? Paul himself was a man of one idea; so was the philanthropist Howard. A man of one idea was not to be dreaded, unless he had got a wrong one; if his one idea was a right one, let him have free course. The one idea system has done a great deal of good in this world.

<The Christian Messenger and Family Magazine, Volume II, p. 469.  (1846).>

So here are two very different ideas from the same period of time regarding a person who appears to be obsessed with a single idea. One possible way of synthesizing them is to note that Holland felt that God was a bit of an exception in that God is big enough (speaking about ‘God’ as idea in this context more than being) for a person to be single-minded about. Now, I don’t know about Howard listed above (perhaps John Howard, British philanthropist) applies, but regarding Paul, he had a singlemindedness to obeying God. However, during much of his ministry that singlemindedness led him to a wide range of activities. It led him to evangelism, churchplanting, leader development, writing, and charitable work. The ultimate idea

Image result for anton boisen
Anton T. Boisen (1876-1965)

may have been singular but it manifested itself in a wide range of activities. However, later in life, Paul gained a more focused singlemindedness on the need to stand before and speak to Caesar. This took several years and (possible) resulted in his death. Perhaps that more narrow single idea was self-destructive.


I would add an additional voice, that of Anton Boisen. He was a theologian who founded Clinical Pastoral Orientation. He also had several bouts of mental illness where he spent time in mental hospitals. I think his perspective could be said to have bearing on this. In his autobiography,

As I look around me here and then try to analyze my own case, I see two main classes of insanity. In the one case there is some organic trouble, a defect in the brain tissue, some disorder in the nervous system, some disease of the blood. In the other there is no organic difficulty. The body is strong and the brain in good working order. The difficulty is rather n the disorganization of the patient’s world. Something has happened which has upset the foundations upon which his ordinary reasoning is based. Death or disappointment or sense of failure may have compelled a reconstruction of the patient’s world view from the bottom up, and the mind becomes dominated by the one idea which he has been trying to put in its proper place. That, I think, has been my trouble and I think it is the trouble with many others also.

          -Anton T. Boisen, “The Exploration of the Inner World– A Study of Mental Disorder and Religious Experience”, 1936 original publication, 1962 edition, p. 10-11.

Boisen suggests that a toxic fascination on one idea is generally driven by deep trauma that fractures a person’s worldview. That trauma then can lead to fixation on one thing that he or she cannot properly integrate into a new whole person.

Considering Paul again, his Damascus experience would certainly be a fracturing of world view. This fracturing would also bring about guilt and trauma. However, the focus on God is a big enough “idea” for fixation. As such, he was “healthy” with such a fixation. One could argue that his refusal to listen to church leaders and go to Jerusalem, and then avoided early release from jail so the he could see the Emperor, perhaps, shows a more narrow obsession with an idea that was not broad enough. Reading the book of Acts, it certainly seems clear that Luke was uncertain on whether Paul was right or wrong. This is particularly clear in Luke’s recounting of Paul’s arguments with the churches in Asian Minor about returning to Jerusalem.

Jesus speaks that where our treasure is, that is where our heart is also. Perhaps, one idea is too small because it becomes our cherished idol. Only God is worthy of worship so God alone can be our singleminded passion. Ultimately, one might make some tentative conclusions that apply to us:

  • Trauma can disrupt and lead to obsessive thinking.
  • Obsessing on a bad idea, is always bad.
  • Obsessing on an idea less than God is too narrow for humans, and may lead ultimately to unhealthy, even mad, thoughts and actions.
  • God is broad enough to encompass man’s passion/obsession. However, when such passion shows itself with total committement to one narrow activity, the same problem of unhealthiness results.

Out of Madness

One of my several unpaid jobs is registrar for a certifying/accrediting organization for Clinical Pastoral Education. Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) or sometimes called Clinical Pastoral Training (CPT) grew, largely, out of the experiences and work of theologian, Anton Boisen, 1876-1965.

Anton Boisen, (ca 1900) Shortly after first psychotic break

(Side thought: Boisen lived to to be almost 89. Looking at other great Christian theologians of the 20th century, most  (unless killed by violence or misadventure) appear to live well beyond normal life expectancy for their time and demographics. Does that mean that theology is good for one’s health? Or does it mean that one can become considered a great theologian if one is able to outlive others?)

Anton Boisen had several psychotic breaks (five I believe) during his lifetime, requiring him to be institutionalized for periods of time. He came to the conclusion that sometimes, particularly if not due to an organic cause, a psychotic break is due to a “problem of the soul.” As such, it may have a religious cause, and a potential religious cure. Now to some this may appear to be… to choose a technical term… gobbledygook. But if you think about it, it actually holds merit.

Religious concerns are tied to issues of:

  • Ethics
  • Meaning
  • Belongingness

Is it possible that some psychotic breaks could the mind’s way of addressing issues of ethics (Is my actions and beliefs consistent or in conflict? Am I, essentially, a good person or an evil person?), meaning (Do I have value as an individual? Does life (or more specifically, my life) have meaning? Am I living the life I am supposed to live, or have I taken a wrong turn?), and belongingness (Am I a loyal child of God? Is God someone I can trust? Do I have a healthy role in church/family/God’s kingdom? Is their ultimate hope?)? If these issues (existential doubts and otherwise) are left undealt with, could a breakdown occur? And if so, is drugs and quarantine the best solution?

Boisen brought in theology students to the hospitals, especially mental hospitals, to learn Clinical (“bedside”) Pastoral Care. .The skills there, and the training process associated with this program have been found useful in a broad range of locations beyond hospitals, mental hospitals, and hospices, including jails, parishes, and communities.

I don’t know about you, but reading Zechariah and Ezekiel, it is not hard to wonder if they were mad. Perhaps the same could be said of John the Baptist. Frankly, if they were mad… would that negate their message, or can God use the illness?. Of course, even if they were 100% certified mentally competent, some of their actions could be seen by outsiders as demonstration of mental illness— and then discounted.

And that’s a shame, I suppose. Mental illness may not have the stigma it used to. People do not think of the mentally ill in terms of rubber rooms and straightjackets anymore (or do they?). The big problem is that the label of mental illness often stigmatizes the individual, sometimes for life, and tends to negate their insights. Dr. Cabot, a medical partner of Boisen, cut ties with him after a psychotic break. Understandable, I am sure… but a sad mistake none the less.

I have never been diagnosed with mental illness. I doubt I drift far enough away from the middle of the Gaussian plot, yet, to be so labelled. As a melancholic I do have depressive periods of my life, but I doubt severe or long enough to meet criteria for the DSM-V (for various forms of depressive episodes or disorders). However, I have also utilized a bit of “Boisenian” logic when I have been down. When I am going through a depressive period, I take time to reflect. I consider whether it was triggered due to a disconnect. I know I should be doing A, but am doing B. I have found such reflection quite useful, frankly.

Three quick thoughts:

  • The mentally ill need God’s love. In fact, sometimes the recognition of the meaning and belongingness before God is the start of their “cure of soul.”
  •  Genius may come from, or be confused with, madness. This is not surprising since both genius and mental illness are defined first of all by their distance from the “normal.” Sometimes, the truth is found in the “voice crying in the wilderness.”
  • Mental illness should not be stigmatized. In fact, as in the case of Boisen, the process of psychotic breaks gave him a perspective that helped him serve God more effectively.