Today’s topic has been brewing in my head for a while, as it is one that affects my own life and the lives of those close to me. My purpose is to clarify exactly what the difficulty is in thinking about one’s faith and one’s mental illness. I will start at what seems to be the most surface part of the tension, and try to work my way into what is actually going on.
Very simply put, the surface issue seems to be this: Christianity speaks to us and calls us to Christ as rational human beings responsible enough to take initiative for things; that, at least, is what we mostly seem to presume when we exhort our congregations from pulpits to be more fully Christian. Mental illness on the other hand takes away our volition and ability to control ourselves – we are vulnerable and at times not even functional enough to take in the content of a sermon if we would. This, at least, seems to be the surface tension: we perceive the gospel to be one preached to sane, normal, rational people, and mental illness as something that keeps us from being one of these people; hence, the difficulty posed in this post is knowing what exactly a gospel for normal people might have to do with us who are insane.
As one might guess from the above paragraph, part of my means of dealing with this is to trouble the idea that Christianity is for normal people and also that people with mental illness have no volition. It seems to me that Christianity starts with the basic presupposition that we are all freaks – we are stuck with sin and the effects of sin; please note here that I am not saying that those who have mental illness are so because they in particular have sinned, but rather that mental illness seems more generally to be the sort of thing that could only come about in a fallen world. In any case, the gospel seems to be the good news that Christ has come to save freaks – from themselves, from others, from their own freakishness – and believing this would seem to be a precondition for receiving God’s grace, so that perhaps the real problem is not how we can help those mentally ill “freaks” receive the gospel, but rather how we can bring the gospel to those who think it is for normal people, that is, those who are probably the majority of people in our churches. I have been thinking a lot about the parable of the wedding banquet – how the master at the end of the parable brings in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. We often look at this and tell each other how nice it is that God cares even for these people, even for the least of these. I wonder though if the reality is not more shocking. Maybe it is because we need these people at our “normal” banquets to convert us, to teach us what the gospel really is. Maybe we need to see them to realize that we ourselves are in a worse state than they – not physically affected, but heartblind, crippled in our wills, and poor in righteousness.
So I have troubled the waters of the “normal” church, but now I would like to trouble the waters regarding the helplessness induced by mental illness. The point I want to make here is that, though mental illness will limit the ways I can make choices, I am never wholly without choice. A good example is this. Imagine that I am depressed, and I therefore treat everyone around me miserably. In many ways, once I am in a situation where depression is in full swing and there is something to aggravate it and make me act bitterly toward others, there is very little I can do – the reaction is sometimes as inevitable as mixing baking soda and vinegar. But there are some things I can choose. I can know my own weakness and deliberately withdraw myself (where possible) from situations where the reaction will take place. I can explain what is going on to others so that they know the damage I may cause is not as intentional as it may seem. We are also in a society blessed with antidepressants and counseling, which offer yet another choice. In my opinion, one of the most cruel choices a mentally ill person can make is to refuse treatment and just “get by” when that getting by is taking a horrible toll on those around them. Christians are often very worried about antidepressants etc., whether it is right to be influenced by a drug. What they should worry more about is whether deciding to refuse drugs and forcing those around one to shoulder the burdens caused by this refusal is in fact concordant with loving one’s neighbor. There are of course many more factors than can be discussed here, and I don’t at all mean to suggest that those who refuse medication or refuse treatment are categorically bad people. But I would suggest that the question is framed wrong and the actions and intentions therefore skewed when we are more worried about preserving an intact “all natural self” (which we do not preserve in any other area anyway) than about loving God and loving one’s neighbor.
There; I have hopefully upset everyone equally. I had initially intended to post about my faith and my own particular brand of mental illnesses, OCD and depression, but realized that in order to do that I would have begin figuring out more generally the tension or perceived tension between faith and mental illness; you can expect further on these things in later posts. As a side note, I have also chosen very deliberately to use words like blind, freak, lame etc. because I think that the more publicly acceptable terms are tools that we use to trick ourselves into believing we are sensitive and caring – we speak of the visually impaired because we would rather not deal with the blind, let alone love them or see ourselves reflected in their condition. Also, it annoys me that most politically correct terms simply replace a Germanic word with a Latinate based word, and so in our own way we are simply promulgating another longstanding stereotype, that Germanic words are more vulgar than sensitive Latin words.