Paranoia and Metanoia

or What Are You Looking At?

by Steven Opp


I feel their eyes all over me
Itʼs lookinʼ like conspiracy
Iʼm outta friends that I can trust
Maybe theyʼre onto us!

- Needtobreathe: “Maybe Theyʼre Onto Us”

Everybody knows what the word “paranoid” means. Itʼs when somebody is irrationally afraid of something. People who are paranoid are always on the lookout for what might jump out and get them. Comedian Richard Lewis understands this: “Even at home, on my stationary exercise bike, I have a rearview mirror.”

But besides the fear aspect, which is really the result of the condition, the word paranoia can be expanded to mean craziness in general. In the Greek para = beside, and noia = mind. The meaning is that you are double-minded, beside yourself, or out of your mind (or gourd, which is more fun to say).

Now if weʼre honest, we can confess we are all a bit paranoid from time to time, and it never turns out well. It results in lashing out in fear at others, shooting from the hip at the first thing that moves. Chestertonʼs Gabriel Syme in The Man Who Was Thursday candidly speaks of the trigger-happy in all of us: “My reason is quite clear. I attack him rashly because I am afraid of him.”

The Voice in the Wilderness

Paranoia is the human condition. It is what drives sin. Douglas Wilson says that sin is insanity. Sin is broken-mindedness. No one is born free of paranoia because it goes back to Adam, whose first inclination after disobedience was to hide in the bushes from the only one who could help him. Fear of the unknown has plagued man ever since.

By the time of the incarnation things had gotten really bad. Israel was as paranoid as could be. To protect themselves the leadership had become OCD and concocted a bunch of scrupulous, superstitious rituals. And the craziness manifested itself in the sins of the people, who were characterized by tax collectors, prostitutes, and demoniacs, all double-minded in their own way.

John the Baptist and Jesus came along to wake everyone up because there was a kingdom about to come. Fully aware of the problem–paranoia/bad thinking–they declare the only possible prescription. What did the voice in the wilderness cry out? What did the Good Doctor order for paranoid Israel? One word: metanoia.

In the late nineteenth century an Episcopalian minister named Treadwell Walden wrote a book called The Great Meaning of Metanoia in which he very beautifully describes what this word means. It is a short but wonderful book which you can read for free online here.

For starters, meta = after, or change, and noia = mind. So it means an after-mind, a changed mind, a new mind. Remember, the disease is paranoia, a divided mind. The cure is metanoia unto a right mind.

Walden explains how the word had a meaning so rich and full that it is difficult to describe. It is a reprogramming of the whole self through the portal of the mind.

“The Mind has entered upon a new stage, upon something beyond… Metanoia is a state of mind after experience; the mental condition which has developed itself after an entirely new set of circumstances has encompassed and invaded the consciousness.”

Walden wrote his book because the Revised Version of the Bible had just been released and metanoia had been mistranslated again. Instead of using a word which communicated the full, positive, powerful meaning of metanoia, or even the surface meaning of “changed mind”, the same word from previous translations was again used which conveyed a very different idea. That word: repentance.

Penitence Wonʼt Do

A house divided against itself [paranoia]…
Would be better than this!
- The Lego Movie: Honest Abeʼs response to Emmetʼs self-deprecating speech

Walden explains how the word “repentance” comes from the Latin penitence, the root of which means pain. The “re” of repentance implies a revisiting of your pain. Hurt again for what you did! Think on the agony of your situation! Feel really bad about yourself, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!

But metanoia, the word translators wrongly call repentance, has no such meaning, and neither John nor Jesus meant it to. Walden explains:

“Despite himself the reader hears the ʻRepent ye!ʼ of John the Baptist and of the Saviour, like a cry, a note of danger, full of terror, amid which the hearts of the people stood still, instead of what it really was, the invocation of a mind, heart, and life which should befit such a glad and glorious ʻchangeʼ as the kingdom of heaven on earth. If the call had really been ʻRepent ye!ʼ it would have been only an appeal to the feelings.”

But metanoia is not directly concerned with emotion. As Jim Wilson says in regards to the Gospel, “There are no bonus points for feeling bad.”

Repentance is not sufficient to deal with paranoia because it doesnʼt put the mind back together. It just sits in the gap and feels sad about what this broken mind has done. This just leads to more fear. Round and round it goes. Whatʼs needed is a new mind, a whole new way to see things which overcomes both the paranoia and the pain:

“Fear has no genuine ethical power. Sorrow has no sure ethical consequence. Excitement of any kind can bear, of itself, no ethical fruit. None of these can have respect with God. The only thing that can be regarded by Him is that which He has arranged everything to bring about in us: that spiritual perception of the right and the true which grows within and around a Mind that is being gradually educated up to the divine standard; the nature wide open in front, not only looking behind, and receiving the whole counsel of God, not a part of it; every faculty enlightened, every feeling inspired; the entire man engaged; conviction, not excitement; earnestness, not impulse; habitude, not paroxysm; the heart tempered by the understanding, the understanding warmed by the heart; this, the consummate and yet attainable condition, this, the Metanoia, lived alike by Master and disciple, this, the “Mind” of Christ, and made possible to all by the Spirit of God–this is not conveyed in the ʻRepent ye!ʼ of our gospels.”

Walden explains that the call to metanoia is not a call to feel bad when people already know what’s wrong. He gives the example of Acts where most translations say Peter told the people to repent. But the word there is metanoia, and he is not telling them to feel bad about what theyʼve done, to “re-pain”. He is telling them to change their minds, which is entirely different:

“How little the repent of our version takes in the compass of the counsel! They [Peter’s audience] had repented already, in the usual sense; they were deeply penitent, they were “pricked to the heart.” But Peter made them understand that compunction or any other like feeling was not all. Their minds must seize the new situation, so that God might send Him who was before proclaimed to them, Jesus Christ. They were to turn from ignorance to knowledge.”

And what was the new situation? The Heavenly Kingdom…

How Metanoia Changed the Mind of the World

Some sort of idea, as it were, was coming to reign in his mind—now for the whole of his life and unto ages of ages.
- Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov

Metanoia is not about penitence, about suffering. Itʼs like what Bob Marley says about music: one good thing about metanoia: when it hits you, you feel no pain!

But it does hit you. And it hit the world in such a way that it was changed forever. Walden again:

“Did ever the world see so mighty and so radical a revolution as came upon it then? Judaism gave way to a universal religion. The Mosaic night broke into the dawn of the perfect day. The Fatherhood of God was revealed to all men, and the brotherhood with the Son of God! Now were they the sons of God! Partakers of the divine nature! This world was discovered to be within the boundaries of the other world, and death was merged into a resurrection of the dead! Righteousness and truth were to prevail, for the power of sin had been destroyed! And the efficacy of all this lay in the person of the Christ. It was He who gave all this light. The order of human life reversed itself in Him. All conduct was to flow from a spirit within, not by a law without. Selfishness was turned into self-surrender and self-sacrifice. The affections were to be set upon things above, not on things on the earth. The spirit was everything, the flesh profited nothing. In all human action was to be the consciousness of Eternity; in all intercourse of man with man no less than the magnanimity of God.”

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2 Responses to “Paranoia and Metanoia”

  • Mike Bull Says:

    It’s interesting that the end of the divided mind came with the end of the Jew-Gentile division – all while the Herods were busy trying to stitch Jew and Gentile together through State legislation, and the Pharisees were trying to keep them apart through Church legislation.

  • David Says:

    Mike, thanks for another great mind stimulating blog, and the icing on the cake is your added comment at the end. That was an amazing thought. I often wondered what James meant by ‘ a double minded man is unstable in all his ways’. Sin has broken the mind in two as it were, and Christ has united the the two (double mind) back into one whole mind again.