Religion and Mental Illness
Read this interesting interview on Sam Harris’ blog where the interviewer was connecting religion with mental illness.
I do think there is sound anthropological evidence that the first “priests”, the shamans of Siberia, were probably psychological misfits or malcontents, and that throughout history we have gone on from there, because many well known religious figures – some of the Hebrew prophets, John the Baptist, St. Paul, St. Augustine, Joan of Arc, Luther – were psychologically odd. Religion is not so much neurosis as psychological adjustment to our predicament – that’s the key, religion is to be understood psychologically, not theologically.
The bold face was mine. That idea stuck out at me.
A Ravi Zacharias book was on sale for 2 bucks on Kindle so I picked it up. Early in the book he talks about how he became a Christian. It was not so much the evangelist meeting that he had attended but rather a suicide attempt. He is Indian and begins the story here.
I knew God had to matter. I just did not know how to find Him.
I left that night with a hint in my mind that there was something so right about the message, even though I had not got it all together. My confusion notwithstanding, a very important context was put into place. As the weeks went by, I continued to attend all of the popular Hindu festivals and to enjoy watching dramatic presentations of their mythology. I had an ardent Hindu friend who worked very hard at getting me to embrace the Hindu view of life.
Then a very significant event took place. I was cycling past a cremation site and stopped to ask the Hindu priest where that person, whose body was nothing more than a pile of ashes, was now.
“Young man,” he said, “that is a question you will be asking all your life, and you will never find a certain answer.”
If that is the best a priest can do, I thought, what hope is there for a novice like me?
As the months went by, without the further explanation that I needed, the continued loss of meaning led me to a tragic moment. Had I read the atheistic philosopher Jean Paul Sartre at that stage of my life, he would have confirmed every sense of isolation that I felt. Two of his best-selling books, Nausea and No Exit, exactly described my state. Sartre went so far as to say that the only question he could not answer was why he did not commit suicide. Is it not amazing that when life seems meaningless, the poets and artists are unafraid to plead guilty while the rationalists denounce that posture and wax eloquent with little reason?
My decision was firm but calm. A quiet exit would save my family and me any further failure. I put my plan into action. As a result, I found myself on a hospital bed, having been rushed there in the throes of an attempted suicide.
Zacharias, Ravi (2002-02-08). Jesus Among Other Gods: The Absolute Claims of the Christian Message (pp. 14-15). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
Now it would seem the suicide attempt to be confirmation of the assertion that what is behind religion is psychology, not theology. We should explore this further.
What is Mental Health?
As a pastor in a neighborhood with a large number of group homes, which have become the mainstay of California mental health care (or lack of it) I have a regular opportunity to work with a population that is considered to be clinically mentally ill. Also as a pastor I get to know a lot of other folks who would not fall into that category. I am not a professional counselor nor do I have a degree in psychology but I have a layman’s working definition of mental health and illness along these lines.
1. No one is fully well. We all struggle. Just as none of our bodies are fully healthy neither are our minds nor our persons. We are all on a spectrum, perhaps even able to be plotted on a bell curve with the most common in the middle with the population thinning at the extremes.
2. The Ability To Create and Sustain Productive and Life Giving Relationships: I think there are few better tests for one’s mental health than their ability to interact with other human beings in a good way. “Good” will require a bit of defining I know.
There are many people who are emotionally needy. They need attention. They need someone to take an interest in them, to listen to them, to respond to them in love and kindness, to respect them and take them seriously.
A naive view on the matter of this need imagines that a group of needy people can together meet each other’s needs. I have found this to not be the case. There seems instead, to be something of a limited relational, emotional resource in the relational world. It requires energy, interest, love, this emotional resource to expend on behalf of the relationally and emotionally needy for there to be a productive, beneficial and healing exchange. One of the most important things I do as a pastor is to simply listen to people and care about what they have to say. There are few things more valuable for me to offer, and sometimes few things more difficult for me to provide.
I find in a community like a church there are “haves” and “have-nots” when it comes to this emotional, relational energy. There are those who give, and give and give and those who need and need and need.
It is a difficult thing to sustain relationships with needy people. It is a difficult thing to sustain relationships with people who hold different or contradicting values from yourself. It is a difficult thing to create sustained relationships over time where loss and evil and brokenness try our bonds. Healthy people are able to do this in ways that unhealthy people are not.
The health gets manifest sometimes in all sorts of other benefits. Relational illness is costly in terms of money and health. Divorce is enormously costly in terms of health and money. People who don’t have the emotional wherewith-all to sustain relationships spend more money on substitutes to make up for their relational needs. Healthy people don’t need much to live and are able to give so that others might live.
3. The ability to manage and process information judiciously: Mentally, emotionally and relationally healthy people are all over the map on many subjects but they are able to not only learn from this world but develop wisdom. My definition of wisdom is that it is applied knowledge to life for human thriving.
Not only can mentally, emotionally and relationally healthy people manage living in this world with other people but they can also manage ideas and facts and truth in a way that helps other people and develops community.
We are limited creatures whose knowledge is always limited by our short time spans and our limitations of experience. Healthy people are able to be balanced, to sift through the data and to apply what they learn judiciously. When they are mistaken they can change their minds. When new information comes they can weigh it both without having to immediately capitulate or without stubbornly resisting it. They learn as the go and they are humble enough to grow from their own failures and the failures of others.
The Hiding Place
I’m also reading The Hiding Place, a book I surely must have read years ago but and now enjoying it immensely. The sense that you get from Corrie Ten Boom is that her father, a Dutch watchmaker was an enormously wise man. He in many ways was the picture of the kind of health I have described above.
At one point in the story he took in as an apprentice a German lad who was under the sway of Nazism. Her father would give him a job and always try to give him the benefit of the doubt. He was the only person her father would fire in his 60 years in business because he abused an older employee in the shop. Her brother would explain.
Willem shook his head. “It’s very deliberate,” he said. “It’s because Christoffels is old. The old have no value to the State. They’re also harder to train in the new ways of thinking. Germany is systematically teaching disrespect for old age.” We stared at him, trying to grasp such a concept. “Surely you are mistaken, Willem!” Father said. “Otto is extremely courteous to me—unusually so. And I’m a good deal older than Christoffels.”
“You’re different. You’re the boss. That’s another part of the system: respect for authority. It’s the old and the weak who are to be eliminated.”
Father tried to reason with Otto as he let him go, to show him why such behavior was wrong.
Otto did not answer. In silence he collected the few tools he had brought with him and in silence left the shop. It was only at the door that he turned to look at us, a look of the most utter contempt I had ever seen.
Boom, Corrie Ten; Elizabeth Sherrill; John Sherrill (2006-01-01). The Hiding Place (p. 76). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
So what does this say about health? Is health an individual function of the brain or is health a function also or a broader community and the values and ideas they hold? We all know that an unhealthy family can make a child unhealthy and suffering abused can bring disease just as an unsanitary environment can bring disease?
It is interesting what led to Zacharias’ suicide attempt. Ideas. It also seems that his conversion, another set of ideas, brought him health. He would go on to quickly recover from what led him to attempt suicide and to become a highly functional individual who could sustain relationships and engage productively with others.
Reason and Madness
The pragmatic ideal of eliminating the weak and the old that the Hitler youth expressed is utterly rational but it is unhealthy. It fails to value the thing that it imagines to protect. If you listen much to Ravi Zacharias he too is utterly rational but his rationality points in a different direction. So what are we to make about this assertion that religion is psychology and not theology?
Lunatic, Liar, Lord
CS Lewis famously made the argument in Mere Christianity about the conundrum of Jesus. If he is a liar he is the worst of liars. Perhaps he was a lunatic to claim divinity. If he’s not a lunatic or a liar he must be Lord.
Of course many don’t find the article convincing and plenty have worked it over. What grips me are the liars and lunatics I’ve known.
The liars I’ve known have been manipulative and selfish individuals. They might lead you on for a while but in time the plot to take and not give will be exposed. Liars are takers.
The lunatics I know tend to not be givers. They are not necessarily takers because some of them don’t have a coherent enough self in order to take. What they cannot do, however is to give. They lack that emotional, relational substance that all healthy relationship subsist upon. They cannot give.
What we find in Jesus is one who is not a taker, but a giver. He lives “your well-being at my expense”. This seems to be heart of health. Physical health, emotional health, relational health, mental health.
Because none of us are fully well, and because extremists are at times unwell in unusual ways, I can easily imagine that great religious leaders are sometimes outliers.
That doesn’t bother me too much. Many who make contributions to civilization are outliers as Malcolm Gladwell has written about.
What I don’t find in any way reasonable is the suspicion that religion is mental illness. As I watch people interact and as I try to shepherd the communities I participate in what we need is MORE people with the capacity of “your well-being at my expense”. We need more people who are able to give on all different kinds of levels.
What I see in the Gospel in misery-deliverance-gratitude is the reverse of “hurt people hurt people.” It is essentially “graced people grace people”. This is not mental illness, this is inner health made visible.
Hi Paul. Your title’s flow caught my interest. What you said was not what I expected based on the title. But nonetheless it has the synapses firing, so I thought I’d fire then through my fingertips and leave evidence.
First, I read Ravi’s suicide attempt as sociological, having majored in sociology. If he is referring to Sartre, then he is referring to social disconectedness which coinicides with a disconnect from meaning. In other words, relationships are a conduit of meaning.
On Givers and Takers: From what you write, I think that healthy people are those who can give and take and know when each is appropriate or suitable. That involves Psychological health (knowing your internal self) and Sociological health (knowing others and relationship) and Theology (maybe I mean values here).
I have long been fascinated by the idea that the mentally ill were often shamen because they could easily see beyond reality.
My greatest struggling point in what you said above is in this quote:
“What we find in Jesus is one who is not a taker, but a giver. He lives “your well-being at my expense”. This seems to be heart of health. Physical health, emotional health, relational health, mental health.”
I hear this as reinforcing a — to me — false view that giving without boundaries is Christlikeness. I have known a number of people (all women) who could give and give and give but it was out of a lack of self. The behaviour is honored, especially in churches, as Christlike. The behaviour is expected of pastors. It is an issue I have not resolved yet, no where even near.
I agree with your “yeah but” on my “your well-being at my expense” as well on your assessment of giving and receiving. We both sat under dear Prof. Minnema repeating and repeating “giving and receiving…”
I suppose that the kind of unhealthy “your well-being at my expense” is related to what we call co-dependency. It isn’t a true giving necessarily it is a false giving. As limited creatures our capacity to give is constrained, as broken creatures we can turn giving into taking. I may exchange time, energy and money because I more highly value being needed or the reputation of saint. I think we’re probably tracking together in this. We do see it all the time in ministry and this kind of giving can get a pass in the church.
Part of what I see, however, is Jesus’ admonition in the Sermon on the Mount to “be ye perfect”. I had always heard this command in the context of moralism but the context of the command is in fact generosity. “God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust…” The kind of perfection Jesus admonishes his disciples to his the Father’s generosity.
Thanks as always Pete for sharing your helpful thoughts. pvk