What would a theology of mental health look like? Revd Prof John Swinton is in an ideal place to think about this question. Having worked as a mental health nurse for sixteen years, he spent several years as a hospital and community health chaplain. He is now Chair of Divinity and Religious studies at the University of Aberdeen, where he is the founder of the Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability. In his recent lecture at the Faraday Institute’s short course, ‘Faith and Science in the Local Church’, he gave his own perspective which I will summarise here.
The medical community focus on the material body, while the spiritual or theological focus is on the whole person. Both these dimensions are needed in order to understand an illness. For example, we could become much more aware of the descriptions we use. What we believe affects how we look at the world, which in turn affects how we name things, which affects how we respond to them. Naming mental illness badly can create stigma. Naming a condition purely neurologically means that is what it will be to us. But what if we described a mental health challenge theologically?
To start with, what is good mental health? A Christian might use the word shalom to describe right relationship with God. That term does not imply the absence of illness, but the presence of hope. Although a cure is what we all want, it does not always happen. Healing, on the other hand, means (alongside medical interventions) bringing someone back to a place of peace with God, and restoring relationships with other people.
Taking the example of depression, there is so much more to it than a clinical description can provide. The feeling of being depressed is not like sadness, but the removal of every emotion. The person affected can feel disconnected from, or abandoned by, God. The Bible describes this experience in passages such as Psalm 88 which ends ‘darkness is my closest friend’, or Isaiah 45:15: ‘Truly you are a God who has been hiding himself’.
What would happen if we let insights like these affect our practices in the church? To begin with we could jettison our casual theodicies, such as ‘there’s always a silver lining’ or ‘these things happen for a reason’, that can hurt as deeply as casual racism. We could also recognise that happiness isn’t the same as faithfulness.
John’s book Finding Jesus in the Storm looks at Christians who live with mental health issues. One of the people he spoke to said, “We need to find language to talk about depression that is spiritually meaningful for people…False joy is a terrifying thing if you are depressed because it is something you actually learn to mimic to survive. And if you start mimicking your spiritual life then you are in real trouble…”
One antidote to false joy is to include Biblical lament in our corporate worship, but without losing the element of joyful praise. The same person said, “People would be standing alongside me in prayer like during the worship time they’d have a hand on my shoulder while they were just fully, singing, worshipping and rejoicing. And I was just a wreck, crying, but I found that incredibly profound because it’s that sense of someone’s willing to be alongside me, and yet they were not forgetting the truth that I couldn’t grab a hold of at that point.”
This example shows how thoughtful interventions from the body of Christ can be very healing. It’s also worth remembering that joy is not the same as happiness, but for the Christian is a gift found in Jesus. This type of joy is durable despite suffering – whether we are able to hold onto God ourselves, or need to rely on others to hold onto him for us at times.
All mental health challenges are on a spectrum, so we’re together on the same journey. The current pandemic has left many alone with their own thoughts for too long. If you add to that difficult social circumstances, as well as increased expectations and competitiveness in recent decades, it’s not surprising that so many are struggling. When asking for help we can find enlightenment from medicine and theology. Looking across the board, we can see new possibilities for healing, and possibly cure.
Taking it Further
Watch or listen to John Swinton’s lecture at the Faraday Institute, ‘Thinking About Theology and Mental Health’.
John Swinton, Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of Christians with Mental Health Challenges (SCM Press, 2020)
John Swinton, Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People with Mental Health Problems (Abingdon Press, 2000)
John Swinton, My Theology: Walking with Jesus in Strange Places (Darton, Longman & Todd, 2022)
Revd Dr Joanna Collicutt, Dr Roger Bretherton & Dr Jennifer Brickman, Being Mindful, Being Christian: A guide to mindful discipleship (Monarch, 2016)
Faraday Churches post: Resilience in a Time of Pandemic: Mental Health Ideas and Resources