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.
Any student of Freud will realize that the founder of psychology bequeathed a view of religion to the discipline that can quickly begin treating religion itself as an aspect of mental illness, and God as a manifestation of human wishful thinking. While responding to Freud’s critiques of religion isn’t difficult, the basic tension is there, and doesn’t go away by putting the word “Christian” somewhere in the sentence, as in “Christian psychology doesn’t have these tensions.”
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. Psychology, in various forms, exists everywhere in our culture. It is part of the cultural imagination of any semi-educated, semi-literate western person. “Pop-psychology” is an entire phenomenon that exists on the casual acceptance of psychology as authoritative in our culture. If a crisis occurs or an answer is needed, our culture brings on the psychologists. They are, in many ways, the secular chaplains of the American religious/cultural mileau.
What is a young Christian in college to do? The courses are required and the concepts are everywhere. Is a graduate education in psychology a betrayal of the Bible? Is a family seeking help for a depressed, acting out or suicidal loved one sinning when they resort to the help of psychology or psychiatry? Is it wrong to take medications if you believe in God? Can a Christian choose psychology or school counseling as a vocation? These are important questions that defy simplistic solutions.
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.
For example, my wife and I love the CBS show, “Criminal Minds.” The FBI profilers in the show know the various kinds of mental illness so well that, once a person is diagnosed, they can anticipate his/her thoughts, actions and reactions. This is not mystical or about intelligence or insight particularly. It is statistics. Repeated observations create categories like “paranoia” and “psychosis.” These are described in detail, and over time, treatment options are developed that alter or solve the problems observed.
Imagine that Toyota manufactures a car, a Camry. Over time, the flaws and problems of that particular car become evident. While it may have any and all problems, in actual fact it tends to have a particular set of problems, which are labelled and “treated” based on repeated observation and methods of treatment. The car may develop an unknown problem, but statistically, that’s unlikely. The squeaking noise in the front brake will be the same thing 98% of the time, and the solution will be the same each time, with minimal variation.
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.
It is also important to note that the concept of “normal” mental health is another tension. Human beings present a wide array of behavior and personalities. Who is empowered to say person A is mentally ill and person B is merely irritating or quirky? Society does “hold the keys,” so to speak, and the “key keepers” have been known to be capricious in what they label or unlabel as mental illness. For instance, homosexuality is no longer listed as a psychiatric disorder. One day homosexuality was mental illness. The next it was not. (BTW–I consider this an appropriate move. Labelling immoral or unpopular behavior as mental illness is something Christians should always oppose.)
There is no doubt that there is a particularly insidious aspect to the ability to label anyone mentally ill. For example, is a person who wants to kill himself mentally ill? Should this be “in his folder” for the rest of his life? I work and teach many people who have had serious suicidal episodes. Many healthy adults have been so unhappy or despondent about an event in their lives that they have verbalized suicidal thoughts. Is this mental illness? Is a person desiring death rather than a year of cancer treatments mentally ill? Is a person who emotes strongly at particular times, but functions normally in all areas of life, mentally ill?
Is depression mental illness? Yes, but at the same time, many healthy people have depressive symptoms. A recent article in The Atlantic recounted how Abraham’s Lincoln’s depressive side probably contributed to his effective presidential leadership. Thousands of gifted people have been “melancholy,” from Paul in Philippians 1 to Charles Spurgeon to presidents like Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. (I wonder what Spurgeon might have written in a journal during his depressive periods? Let’s be glad his modern-day fan club doesn’t have to digest Spurgeon saying he hated the ministry or wished he’d never been born.)
Is Manny Ramierez mentally ill? “Normal” for Manny is a world uniquely his own, but should he be treated? Medicated? Made “normal?” Would you want Manny to be something other than Manny? Is J.D. Salinger mentally ill? Is a person covered with tattos “mental?” Is a young man who quits law school to go live in the woods in need of “help?” Are eccentric artists “crazy?” Do you consider those who take viewpoints strongly different from yours to be “mentally ill?” Would you act on that conviction if you had the chance?
I meet hundreds of students who are diagnosed with disorders such as ADD, ADHD, Oppositional-Defiant and so on. Many are the subjects of counseling, hospitalization and medication. Yet, the “normal” from which they have deviated is defined by public schools and middle-class American suburban values. In these cases, “normal” is a kind of social/behavioral conformity forced upon the young by experts and educators. (See “Girl Interrupted.”) The wonderfully diverse and non-conformist side of human beings is the enemy in this definition of normal.
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. My young friend who thought he was God could not function. Psychiatric drugs and counseling gave him back his life and a future. To have ignored this would have been foolish.
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 prescientific book, and most of 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 acceptace of some form of accomodating 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 judgement 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.
Now that I have concluded that mental illness does exist, and we can–prudently and cautiously–accept the language and treatments of psychology as potentially helpful, I will move on to “Is mental illness a manifestation of spiritual forces (demons) or the results of personal sin?”