A friend of mine recently sent me an article to read about ‘Salvation, Human Flourishing and Mental Health’ which I found very thought-provoking.
It says there are three basic Christian responses to mental illness:
- Mental illness is irrelevant to salvation, which leaves room for sensitive pastoral responses but risks making salvation something other-worldly, irrelevant to the here and now.
- Mental illness is antithetical to salvation, which ensures suffering is not idealised but can lead to the identification of mental illness with spiritual weakness.
- Mental illness as instrumental to salvation, which may help suffers make more sense of their experiences but risks idealising suffering.
The paper argues for a nuanced version of the third approach, with mental illness having the potential to be redemptive or transforming. Drawing on the experience of Henri Nouwen, mental illness needs to be experienced for what it is, what it has to teach, what its purpose is. Both Nouwen and Carl Jung maintain that “the experiences involved in mental illness are not a good in of themselves, but (once we realise that they should be used rather than simply escaped from) they can be ‘transformed’ into redemptive experiences”.
In response to the criticism that focusing on an individual response undermines the primacy of God’s grace, it is argued that there is a false dichotomy between grace and works, objective and subjective. Peter Goldie argues that emotions need to be understood within the overall narrative of a person’s life rather than being treated in isolation, and the paper posits that this approach could apply to mental illness. Instead, therefore, of seeking to ‘cut out’ the broken bits of ourselves, that would involve losing good aspects too, we should seek the transformation, rather than escape from, negative experiences.
There’s a lot I found helpful in this approach. The aim of therapy is, I think, to achieve some sort of more integrated self (though the language of achievement may not be helpful, now I think about it), and this involves acknowledging the painful experiences and the validity of anger, pain, sorrow, hurt, guilt. It then, having named the beast, can seek to undermine its continuing hold on the person.
Easier said than done (as I am all too aware with my current attempts to work through some deeply painful aspects of my past) and a process rather than an instant event. This does mean, I think, that good can be seen to come from the past (I think my experiences have made me more sensitive and able to walk alongside others) but without idealising the experiences. Good can come out of shit without pretending it was anything other than shit. This takes us back to the cross and resurrection of Jesus, the ultimate transformation of the sin, suffering and bitterness (and inward-looking human nature, for that matter) of the world. I must confess, Jurgen Moltmann’s theology of the cross as a Trinitarian event makes more sense to me in this context than a ‘traditional’ view, but I need to think about that more.
Tied in with this is how we understand what might constitute appropriate self-love. When I was really down a couple of years ago after the end of a violent relationship and was beginning to come to terms with the reality of that, I came across this post from a university chaplain. Don’t know what to make of all that now, but it seems to me that grace and ‘works’ here don’t have to be pictured as opposites, and that not being completely ‘sorted’ might not be the end of the world (tell it to the ordination process folks!).