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Question 2 of the Patheos Conversation on Mental Health

Research suggests that religious faith protects against suicide. Why do you think that is in light of how your community responds to suicide? How can we tread the fine line of discouraging suicide while not making the grief of family members worse?

The devil took me up on a high mountain and showed me all the kingdoms of the world. And he gave me a research statistic. With this, he said, you will conquer the kingdoms of the world for you faith. Under this sign you will conquer.

As the prior creative bit might suggest, I think a statistic like this must first of all for Christians and others of faith included in the research be a great source of temptation. It is tempting to use it in a triumphalistic way. After all, in a culture of death (as the late John Paul II described it) it is no surprise that suicide is prevalent, and it is no surprise that faith is a deterrent in such a culture. If we would turn back to God, have a revival, become a Christian nation again, we would answer the problem of suicide. As usual, God has the answer all along, and we are just ignorant of it. Of course science supports us.

Before interrogating this attitude, I would like to say a bit about the research itself. From my own experience, it rings true. It is always difficult to play the “what if” game, but, as someone who is often depressed, and for whom suicide seems at times the least unattractive option, I do think it is possible I am alive because of the habits of hope that are part of Christianity. I say habits because I am not good a feeling hope, but there is something in the Christian insistence that one must get up again after falling, and being steeped enough in the church has instilled that in me, to my benefit. But then, I also wonder what kind of study produced this information. What if it is statistically true but only because those who do end up killing themselves are alienated in church and leave long before they actually do it. What if it is just because the church does not have a place for those so troubled they are on the verge of suicide?

But to return to the prior point, suicide is complicated, and a church that merely rests on its scientific ability to discourage suicide (and implicitly or explicitly blames secular culture alone) will be marvellously ill equipped to deal with depressed people, particularly as such churches are modelled on a culture that presumes there are “normal” people and then those ill people who want to kill themselves. For a moment I want to turn this on its head. We presume that the reasonable thing is to not want to commit suicide, and that people in their natural state are and should be happy, wanting to live life. But I actually wonder if this is the case.

I wonder because for very sane people throughout history, suicide, far from being a categorical sign of madness, has in fact been a deep philosophical puzzle – we need only think of Donne’s Biothanatos or Camus’ Myth of Sisyphus to see that suicide is not only taken seriously by “crazy” people – it is perhaps also taken seriously by people who can actually see the groaning world around them. And I would suggest that at least some of the attitude that distinguishes the modern division between “normal people” and “suicides” is the result of a great modern whitewashing of the world via a media that acts as an opiate of the masses. We do not consider suicide reasonable because we have swept under the carpet all the ugly bits that might in fact drive us to it. Modern society is a culture of death. But it is a culture of the kind of death that wants eternal life, and suicide is a chink in its armour. We do not appreciate the suggestion that the world might be so bad we might not want to live in it, and we appreciate it less for the nagging bit of our soul left that reminds us there might be parts of this critique that are true. (For further clarification here, please see Addendum)

As long as Christians do not see the compelling nature of suicide and simply think of it as a madness that their own sane faith can cure, they will not be helpful. And I hope to demonstrate this via Romans 7 and 8. Read Romans 7. But omit verse 25. I suggest that the picture painted here, minus the turn to God, leaves little option but suicide. Yes, this chapter is talking about a particular kind of despair pertaining to our inability to perform the law. But I think there are lots of ways one can take this. Biblically speaking, all such frustration is the result of original sin; for instance, though the degree of my culpability is something only God can know, I feel exactly like Paul here when I look after my son, knowing how many stimulating, encouraging, and beneficial things I could do with him, but sitting there paralyzed by fear and sadness while he watches TV. The good I want to do I cannot do, or so it feels.

But now I want to pars Romans 8. On a surface read, one might feel this is saying exactly the kind of thing I caricatured before. Everything is despair, but when we turn to Christ it will all be hunky dory. But I am not quite sure this is what Paul means, and I think the distinction hangs on what is meant by Christians having “the first fruits of the Spirit” (23) and the rest of creation groaning in expectation. The problem from a very practical perspective is of course this – there are very much some kinds of help that one can get for such despair outside the church, and I do believe that in the best instances these constitute real help. At the same time, there are those in the church who are very much being not helped – where is the glorious freedom we seem to be talking about?

What I want to say is that, though what is primarily talked about here are the “first fruits” of Christ, that is, his personal adoption of us, there is in this passage an implicit sense of second and third and fourth fruits. Though Paul describes what is probably the highest form of Christian interaction with Christ, we can imagine the Spirit (who hovered over the water) at work in so very many aspects of the creation we don’t understand or can’t trace, even as he is at work in so many prayers beyond the groans of our understanding. My point is that, if every good and perfect gift is from above, the business of us who have what Paul calls the first-fruits is not simply an act of entrenchment against everything else happening in the world, but rather an act of looking for places where the Spirit is working in the world – the flesh here does not in fact mean created material but rather the improper use and orientation of it. It is a Christian’s business to look for and applaud places in society and the world where God’s Spirit is working in and with material, even as it is the Christian’s business to ensure that those within the church can benefit from such material work (e. g. medicine, psychology, etc.). The church is the place where God’s first fruits have been endowed, and is thus the instrument capable of naming most fully such blessings. But the blessings themselves, like rain, fall on the righteous and unrighteous alike, the hardened atheist clinician and the habited nun, and the church’s business is not so much to have a corner on this grace as to recognize and name it when they see it.

Hence, Romans 8 answers the suicidal impulse, not by suggesting the Christians have a corner on the kind of grace, hope, and discovery that helps fight it, but rather by highlighting the first origin of all these secondary graces in Christ, as well as the Christian ability to name them and recognize them in their fullness. The heavens declare the glory of God, and the rocks cry out, and it is I think not untrue to say that the infinitely more odd things of God’s creation – psychologists, medications, treatment etc. – also glorify God in their way too.

This being said, the effect is not immediate. Paul still speaks of suffering (v. 18). The full redemption of creation is a long time coming. And so sometimes we need to wait with each other. There is no good excuse for sitting amidst suffering that can be avoided or helped in a healthy way, and many churches are culpable in this area. But when created matter has not caught up with our spirits, when (as with the experience of only partially treatable OCD), the tic in our brains has not yet caught up to the deeper spiritual knowledge of a graced world, we must wait with each other, weeping and laughing by turns. For this, I think, is what it means to be the church amidst a world still realizing the freedom Christ has bought and its extent into the deepest reaches of some of the very darkest corners of creation.

Addendum: I want to here clarify that I do not here mean to imply that depression is always due to societal problem that are ignored or not redressed. Indeed, depression in its most biochemically potent form will cause depression even in what is ostensibly the most perfect of external situations and environments. Of course, it is often the very fact of such an experience that many in the church implicitly or explicitly deny, for things that do not fit formulae trouble us, and when not confronted by them directly, we find it more comfortable to pretend they don’t exist.