Thursday, August 16, 2018

On Mental Health, Christian Theology and Education

(Recently I attended an RZIM Summit, a Christian conference attended by some 80 or so people from across Canada. The subject of the gathering was 'Clarity in a Culture of Confusion'. During the event I randomly sat next to two other persons who shared that, like me, they had spent time in a psychiatric hospital. All of us agreed that our stories need to be heard. I would add that our experiences need to be understood biblically and theologically and that both self and communal understanding may assist others to avoid or at least minimize further suffering. The following was posted originally in April of 2009 and has been edited somewhat this summer.)

Christ is risen from the dead! So we Christians say.
He is risen indeed; He's alive today!

Some important questions and points to ponder. Hopefully we can together finds some answers, God's mercy being upon us.
Why, one wonders, does mental illness, and even suicide, afflict Christian families?

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association, one in five of us suffers mild forms of mental distress. One in ten will suffer a major crisis in their lifetime. One in a hundred will suffer from schizophrenia.

Just as cancer was once a taboo subject, not discussed and certainly not admitted to, schizophrenia, psychosis and major depression have until recently been unworthy of serious public attention, even in our churches. In spite of the prevalence of mental illness in the general population, somehow it has not been given the necessary attention. We talk more about distant, and sometimes too near, terrorist acts and threats of economic disaster. Yet we struggle to address this widely known crisis.

It is but a window on an even deeper issue: our spiritual health, or lack thereof. Some of us, even some of our leaders, exhibit questionable symptoms and appear somewhat disconnected from God, His people and the world, functioning in our own virtual world, even using jargon unintelligible outside that world.

Scripture says, "Clap your hands all you peoples, Shout to the Lord, all the earth, with loud songs of joy", yet from childhood we're taught to be quiet in church. We're called to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs to one another, yet few churches really allow this to take place. Everything is 'pre-scripted' and the Holy Spirit is made redundant. We're expected to be able to talk about our faith to our neighbours, however most of the time ordinary believers are not even allowed to address the regular assemblies of God to share what the Lord is doing in their own lives!

Are our leaders acting as servants of the Living God? Or are they exhibiting a form of spiritual schizophrenia, hearing the Voice of God and seeing visions, but then doing things contrary to their own words and beliefs?

Here in Canada, as in other places, there has been a tendency among some officials in the more liberal Christian churches to foster unrest and legally push toward denominational division. The governors of our churches have used religious structures such as synods and presbyteries for socio-political purposes. This is both unbiblical and anti-Christian. Anglican Church leaders have brought legal arguments against godly ministers and their congregations before the secular courts. This has happened despite the clear injunction against such action found in Holy Scripture. In the U.S. denominational officials have even tried to install as church leaders people who believe in and practice non-Christian faiths. Their abuse of position and pseudo-spiritual authority is being seen for what it is: hypocrisy, arrogance and willful deceit.

Those who insist on pharisaic disobedience, which often comes with top-down leadership, will eventually discover the bankruptcy of their position. They show by their actions that they deny or ignore the reality that both our global society and the ecclesial family have changed and can no longer be held within the denominational boundaries outlined since the Reformation. Such a break between thought and action, or lack of appropriate engagement with reality, is one of the ways that schizophrenia has been described.

Why do some church leaders, and those who follow them, act in spite of reality, sometimes even against biblical values? Why are so many church meetings devoted exclusively to budgeting and servicing money? Why is church growth considered so important? Why do we rarely speak in our churches about ministry to and by Christians outside of traditional church settings?

Have deficiencies in theological study and application contributed to the prevalence of mental illness among Canadians?

For those of us whose churches are more formal, we have an "inherited attitude toward the liturgical act (which) reflects a kind of schizoid state. We hear but do not really hear. The liturgy is an encapsulated experience, entered into in isolation from real human experiences. It does not connect with the real world because it has been shaped by a piety which is often consciously an escape from the pressures of the real world. Liturgical time is seen as ‘holy time’ working according to its own laws, and feeding our hunger and thirst for God. But it does not connect for the great majority of our people with the real choices of daily life." - from 'Sacraments and Liturgy: The Outward Signs', by Louis Weil.

Perhaps there might be redemptive value to some degree of dissociative thinking and behaviour. The prophets of Israel often showed schizoid tendencies. The difference between clinical illness and prophetic insight can be razor thin. Madness is after all a matter of judgment. A measure of openness to the Holy Spirit has often been seen as eccentric. Just look at the record in chapter two of the Book of Acts!

Anton T. Boison discussed his own psychotic breaks and suggested that they represented efforts to reintegrate his personality. He developed an empirical theology which sought to study the patient, his symptoms and the healing process. He became one of the founders of clinical pastoral education. This field has largely been taken over by secular psychologies which allow the patient to become a subject for experimental testing of theory. Pastoral theology has thus been transformed from the divine cure of souls into the pseudo-Christian effort to correct human flaws by human techniques.

Arno Gruen describes the folly of so-called normal behaviour when it is shown to be counter-productive. (see his book, 'The Insanity of Normality') Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry, has been pointing out, for several years, inaccuracies in the financial formulae used to predict market behaviour. Could there be similar errors in the spiritual formulae which our churches develop to meet their 'objectives'?

Psychosis is too real. Suicide is too real. Does it matter what label is used? Whether mental or spiritual illness, it cannot be denied but it is often avoided, and is shuffled back into the pack of issues for society to deal with. The presenting problems are dealt with in sullen isolation by individuals, families, close friends and clinical support teams.

The pain of exposing these wounds is intense. But it must be so. Just as physical disease demands treatment, the 'cure of souls' is essential, not optional.

Is your church comfortable with discussing poverty and mental illness? How do we address such difficult issues? Do we really believe in the power of prayer? If so, how should we pray in particular circumstances? Why are we so willing to leave it to other professionals to tackle these problems with sociological or medical techniques? Do we doubt the promises to heal which God has given to us? Why do some clergy deny the reality of mental illness? (See the study done by researchers at Baylor University at )

True leaders cultivate the ability to foresee events and potential circumstances. Robert Greenleaf claimed that it was actually "necessary (for a good leader) to live a sort of schizoid life, always at two levels of consciousness, both in the real world -- concerned, responsible, effective, value oriented and also above it, seeing the actual reality, being deeply involved in daily events, but having the perspective of a long sweep of history and looking to, and planning for, the indefinite future".

Our culture today seems highly schizophrenic, having lost its bearings on issues of truth and morality. However the schizophrenic features of our churches, and of our various denominational divisions, are hardly conducive to good mental health. Many families are divided by ideologies, both political and religious. We come to accept as irreparable these fractures in our communities. We know that Jesus prayed for unity among His followers yet we sometimes fail to build links with other Christians. We're sometimes told not to bother even with other churches within our own denominations: there's too much inertia against change! Is it possible any longer to believe Holy Scripture and at the same time tolerate and support the unbiblical systems which separate us from one another?

We must recover the model for servant leadership given to us by the Lord Jesus. Some are called as overseers, some as pastors, some as evangelists, some teachers, and some healers. These are identified by the body of Christ and not by secular non-believing institutions. What then is the purpose of theological education and how is it related to Christian leadership?

Too often, “emotional pressures (have been) adapted to the use of those who wish to impose what to think without regard to how to think...Teaching the young those aspects of religious doctrine which are beyond their intellectual capacity and relevant experience to understand and to assimilate often lays the groundwork for emotional collapse and serious mental disorder of which guilt complexes and disabling fear are the symptoms.” So wrote Donald G. Stewart in 'Christian Education and Evangelism'.

Students must pay large fees to participate in theological reflection, study and discussion. Until recently Christians lacking financial resources were denied a part in theological discussion. The internet has changed matters somewhat. Our leaders have been trained by many who gained their credentials either by manipulating and using the educational system or by tolerating and surviving it. In some circles the value of theological education has long been suspect. Academic study tends by its nature to reinforce a certain detachment from reality. It promotes the analysis of concepts and the search for historical context, usually with adherence to a denominational worldview. It reinforces an artificial gap between church and seminary, between life and study. In some cases we have even allowed non-Christians the exercise of authority in these institutions. Is it wise, some ask, to entrust students, and their questions, solely to professional theologians?

Lee Smolin writes in his book, 'The Trouble with Physics', about the way that academic studies can be diverted from experimentally verifiable truth towards highly speculative theory. Christianity is often formally taught as a set of propositions to be believed, or else! We may have avoided false philosophies, as Paul advises, but we have often not recognized the importance and value of a theologically sound biblical philosophy. This has not helped The Lord's people in developing a faithful, lifelong relationship with the Living God.

Education, done well, involves much more than filling students with facts and theories. At its best, it is an attempt to lead people out of darkness and ignorance into light and wisdom, an attempt to develop competence and ability in the area of study. In short, good leaders show the way as well as talk about it.

Isn’t it interesting that young people and new believers are quite perceptive in pointing out inconsistencies in church life? Secular processes that assume the ignorance of the student tend to undermine the beliefs and experiences of candidates for ministry. Yet, isn’t the experience and wisdom of even the biblically grounded student usually ignored by the seminary? This is a tragedy. How many lives have been ruined as a consequence of inadequate approaches to the training and development of potential leaders?

For some years, "seminary and divinity school students (have) complained that practical courses lack intellectual rigor and that scholarly courses seem irrelevant to their vocational and professional goals. The classical fourfold curriculum (church history, biblical, systematic and practical theology) creates an enormous gap between the academic and practical aspects of a ministerial curriculum. Just as important, this standard curriculum eliminates theology from the core of both practical and academic studies. Theology as a theoretical discipline appears disconnected from the skills needed to be a successful parish pastor. Theology as an inquiry emerging from faith and piety appears to lack the marks of an impartial and critical discipline." - Dr. Ronald F. Thiemann, 1987, Harvard Divinity School, Cambridge, Mass. taken from this article which appeared in the Christian Century, February 4-11, 1987 date, pps. 106-108. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation;

...Why do so many newly ordained clergy report being unprepared for pastoral ministry?

Front-line ministers of the gospel are isolated from and can feel abandoned by ivory tower theologians. Students are caught in the crunch, trapped by desire for ordination, emerging only to perpetuate a sick system. Yet many Christians have refused to undergo the theological re-education process imposed by institutional religion and have chosen lay ministry as being more effective, pursuing self-directed study, independent counsel and only occasionally partaking of the standard academic fare.

It seems to escape the notice of some professional academics, and others, that true followers of Jesus, both young and old, are already primarily theologians, already leaders. Some lead behind the scenes. Others share reflections and insights through writing or speaking. Some are pastors. Some are called to the battlefront in politics and administration, in secular or spiritual realms.

Do you know of any seminary which has these issues on its radar screen? Where do you find theological work being done to investigate and comprehend the ways that spirituality informs and supplements medical practice? Given these questions, and more, how do we identify and engage theologically informed people who can help put the experience of the average believer in proper context? Is it acceptable, or even possible, for only one or two people to fill this role for a whole congregation? What means should we use to access the combined wisdom of the community?

I submit that, for our day, the crucial need is for God’s people to pray against our national and international schizophrenic behaviour and to pray that faithful Christians quickly regain effective oversight and control of their theological seminaries. We must defend against interference from the secular authorities of the university. The local church must be fully involved in the seminary teaching and learning experience. We must find a way to truly do Practical Theology. Clergy must be prepared to chastise, exhort, inspire and empower both parishioners and students under their charge. Anything less falls short of their call as pastors of God's church. Likewise we as laity must, when necessary, gently but firmly hold our leaders to account, as taught by Holy Scripture.

Is your church part of the problem? Do your leaders preach freedom or legalism? Are you part of God's solution? Do you follow Jesus, no matter what anyone says? Have your leaders been trained to identify and empower people to use their gifts and talents in both church and society?

It appears that churches with conservative, biblical agendas are growing. Christians in Canada, and elsewhere, are showing signs of rising from a deep slumber. We are beginning to realize that not a few of us are dealing with mental illness. We are learning again the power of prayer and utter reliance on the blood of Jesus as the only power effective against certain conditions. God's Word calls us to pray and to rejoice without ceasing, even in the midst of our personal and corporate struggles.

Popular opinion and political influence too easily push truth aside, at least until disasters force belated adjustments. How do we cope with the frantic pace of life, the constant bombardment by bad news, the instantaneous communication of ideas on all conceivable subjects? Two books, Nancy Pearcey's 'Total Truth' and Abdu Murray's 'Saving Truth', both point out the ways our post-truth culture of materialist or naturalist scientism has distorted and almost lost our Christian heritage. No wonder confusion and so-called 'political incorrectness' is so prevalent in our public and private discourse.

Only as Christians live and work together can we be of any value to God and His World. Can we be really be inclusive and evangelistic, catholic and reformed, orthodox and charismatic, faithful and post-modern? Is it possible to live out such a convoluted faith? Do we concentrate on details at the expense of grasping the overall picture?

Several years ago I heard a story of a godly woman who gave a testimony to a group of believers. She had been paralyzed for years and was brought into the gathering on a stretcher. Her disease left her with diminished and sometimes blocked flow of blood through her body. In prophetic utterance, she compared her physical health to the spiritual state of the Church, the Body of Christ Jesus. She suggested that the barriers between different denominations actually restricted the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit in His Church. She illustrated the way we reinforce the separation of the spiritual from the worldly.

We know there are many valid historical and theological differences between us, yet if we say we believe in one Lord, one faith and one baptism, we are compelled by the love of Christ Jesus to find ways to remain in fellowship with all who love Him.

I've worked for nearly 30 years in an evangelistic ministry setting. When I join my brothers and sisters through the week I do not leave my church behind. I represent my tradition and bring my heritage with me to work with and draw upon as I serve the lost and encourage my co-workers. This includes all that I have learned, whether from my own tradition, or that of a co-worker. Indeed whenever Christians work together, God’s Church, both visible and invisible, is truly present with all its warts and powers. It never has been confined within our man-made denominations! People come to us on the understanding that we as individuals have banded together to reach out to them with practical help. Many come with struggles that go far beyond being resolved through physical or material assistance. They often recognize their needs before we do. We struggle to put them in a particular ministry category, and discern how we might proceed.

As someone who has personally struggled with major mental illness, I know that healing can only take place as we, in community, directly address any and all schizoid, psychotic or manic depressive behaviour, wherever it may be found. The historical, dare I say schizoid, separation between theology and psychology has for one thing, been distinctly unhelpful. The efforts of Dr. Pauline Emma Pierce in her PhD dissertation make a start at remedying the current situation. See A practical theology of mental health: A critical conversation between theology, psychology, pastoral care and the voice of the witness

Considering the woeful state of many of our churches, it's a wonder that we are able to survive, let alone prosper. It's only by the amazing grace of God that He shows us the Way. Some of our leaders are standing for God’s kingdom of righteousness and the sifting is taking place.

Let us all return to speaking plainly about Jesus and the gospel. The Lord is shaking His Church, moving His people in Spirit, truth and power. Our God is able to heal even a schizophrenic people; He is mighty to save and the gates of hell shall not prevail against His Church.

Let us live as Ones who truly believe in the Resurrection. Perhaps then our joy shall be rekindled and overflow to our neighbours and
... Death shall lose its sting. Amen!

Wednesday, July 25, 2018