iMonk Classic Series: Christians and Mental Illness (2)
The following is excerpted from part 2 of Michael’s original series.
Because the Bible is authoritative in Christianity, it is often difficult to come to terms with forms of knowledge that ignore the Bible, and especially difficult to deal with systems of knowledge that threaten to transcend or neutralize the Bible. In America, this tension did not fully dawn until the fundamentalist-modernist controversies of the early twentieth century. While Darwin continues to get most of the attention, it is more likely Freud who has created the most perplexing tensions for Christian believers.
Psychology does not appear to be an immediate frontal assault on the Christian view of truth. Many Christians, especially in more moderate communions, have been open to psychology as a way of compassionately understanding human beings. More recently, however, psychology has met with sterner opposition from many evangelicals, who have become aware that the discipline was atheistic, even religiously hostile, from the outset, and that its ways of explaining, understanding and helping human beings have potentially dire consequences for the Christian view of truth.
Today, many serious Christians often reject any and all reference to psychology. (This varies enormously and is an admitted generalization.) A minister may practice Christian counseling, but let him claim to be a Christian psychologist and fully half or more of the Christian community will refuse his assistance. Christian counseling has developed its own alternative approach to dealing with mental, emotional and behavioral problems, with dependence on scripture at the center and a rejection of psychology as mandatory.
This shift has brought the entire concept of mental illness into question for many Christians. Should we be using the categories, vocabulary, diagnoses and treatments of psychology to describe and treat human beings? Many conservative Christians say “no,” and will refuse to recognize common conclusions and approaches of the psychological disciplines. When psychiatric treatment is recommended, these Christians are even more resistant, and often refuse recognized and accepted treatments for mental, emotional and behavioral disorders. As enamored as our culture is with the authority and insights of psychology, many Christians are unconvinced and even belligerent.
This creates conflicts and tensions in the lives of many Christians, however, I believe Christians cannot–and should not–entirely reject or escape the “knowledge base” that exists within their culture, including psychology and the concept of mental illness. These concepts and “namings” of human conditions can, if appropriated correctly, be useful and compassionately helpful.
Psychology, as science, is a discipline largely based on conclusions developed from repeated, careful observations. From observing, listening to and treating millions of individuals over time, a descriptive approach is acquired. These various descriptions are what we refer to as mental and emotional illness, and Christians committed to the idea that truth is the greatest friend to a hurting family or person should always embrace truthful observations, even if they come to us from other sources of understanding the world than our own.
The observations of human beings by psychologists are where we get the language of mental and emotional illness. We should be cautious and careful in appropriating this language, but as much as it is descriptively accurate, Christians should have no fear of it. Calling depression “depression” is not surrendering to the worst assumptions of psychology. Depression is a set of observations. They allow a set of responses. They help us build a plan for treatment. And so on with many many kinds of mental illness.
The persons exist, and their problems exist. It is not wise to reject what repeated observation and treatment have yielded in the quest to help people.
At this point, many Christians will point out that the psychological concept of depression does not contain the Biblical content necessary for a true solution. “Depression,” they will say, is not a disease, but simply a manifestation of sin or loss. This may be quite true in many cases. The Christian vocabulary may be the most meaningful way to approach and respond to an individual case, but when we look at the culture as a whole, this is not going to work. If we insist on refusing the diagnostic language of psychology and using the language of faith, we will have to limit our involvement with people to the Christian community and control the problem so that whatever response we make is understandable.
Mental illness, as a descriptive tool and category, does functionally exist for persons in any culture. Becoming conversant with how a culture describes mental illness is far more useful than rejecting the concept, and it allows the resources of truthful observation to come into the picture.
I will admit that it is not always pleasing or helpful to me as a Christian to be told that Johnny-who-can’t-do-anything-in-school has a syndrome or disorder. This approach seems to shift some of what is needed for Johnny to change into an arena outside of his control. Medication-based treatments have a tendency to minimize responsibility for seeing our emotions, behavior and mental state as part of our own human stewardship. But in the vast majority of cases where mental illness or behavior disorders are diagnosed, these issues do exist, and the diagnosis and the treatment suggested by psychology will most likely be rational and reasonable enough that help can be offered and expected.
Still, even with these observations, I believe the category of mental illness is useful, even essential for Christians in western culture. With a generous allowance for our manifold humanity, we still can look at “collections” of observed behavior revealing to us something that can be called–and treated–as mental illness.
Because the Bible’s description of mental/emotional illness comes in the package of its own culture, Christians have to decide if they are going to reject the contemporary language of psychology and resort to the language of ancient culture, or if they are going to “read” contemporary culture with the Gospel at the center. Can the concept of mental/emotional illness be transformed through the Gospel to be of useful service to Christian compassion?
This same question is present for physical illness as well. The Bible is a pre-scientific book, and most contemporary understanding of human biology and physiology is absent. Science has given us tremendous tools to use in treating disease, and if we reject these in favor of the understanding of disease in the Bible, there is going to be a lot of suffering and death that could have been prevented.
The entire question of accepting contemporary ways of thinking about studying, labeling, analyzing and treating human beings for their mental/physical and emotional illnesses is a question that calls upon Christians to contemplate their view of the Bible and its proper use. If their view of the Bible’s truthfulness includes the assumption that it is a book providing a specific plan for treating illnesses of body and mind, then that commitment will, I believe, take the Christian down a road that is ultimately less compassionate than the acceptance of some form of accommodating the knowledge and insights of science, medicine and psychology.
The Bible is about Christ, and is not a manual for treating mental and emotional illness. The Biblical presentation of the Christian story stands in judgment over psychology and every other form of knowledge because CHRIST IS LORD AND JUDGE, not because the book of Proverbs is the best manual for dealing with emotional illness.