Faith and Mental Health: Part 5, Nature and Grace

To answer the puzzles before us--Psychologically, how can faith be robustly associated with mental health, and spiritually providing a connection with the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit, yet the faithful still struggle with mental health problems?--I want to turn to the relationship between nature and grace using the work of Kathryn Tanner.

Our starting point today is the Catholic and Protestant debate concerning the relationship of nature and grace. 

In Protestant theology, human nature has been so corrupted by sin that it lacks any ability to help itself. When applied to the issue of mental health, such a theology suggests that human nature, relying wholly upon its own psychological and theological resources, cannot reach a state of emotional well-being. Sin would keep undermining our ability to self-actualize. 

Such a view is problematic for two, related reasons. First, clearly there are emotionally healthy people who are not Christian. How could that be possible if sin subverts well-being? Second, and now familiar to the readers of this series, there's the problem of Christians who struggle with mental illness. Why hasn't the gift of grace radically rehabilitated our emotional health? Such a situation nudges us back toward shaming those who are struggling. We suspect that people with psychological issues are still under the power of sin, haven't yet fully embraced grace. Mental struggles become stigmatized and a sign of sin.

In contrast to Protestant theology, Catholics have a different view of the relationship between nature and grace. You might have heard this before, but there's a saying among the Catholics from Thomas Aquinas: "Grace perfects nature." According to the Catholics, nature isn't destroyed by sin. There is an inherent goodness to creation as it stands. The problem, then, isn't that nature is "totally depraved," but that nature has lost its spiritual connection with God and therefore cannot find its way back to God.

Here's a metaphor to illustrate the contrast. 

Human nature is a sailing ship. Protestants think the ship is broken, holes in it and sails tattered and torn. The ship, on its own, is unsailable, it'll sink. This is "original sin" and "total depravity." In this view, the ship needs repair. What was damaged needs to be fixed. 

The Catholics, by contrast, think the ship is fine. There's nothing inherently broken in human nature. The human animal is no more broken than a lion or a sunset. Nature has an inherent goodness. The problem with human nature is that the ship needs a captain and a competent crew, someone to direct, navigate, and sail the ship toward its true destination, toward home, which is God. To keep with the metaphor, according to the Catholics our problem isn't that the ship has holes in it and will sink. Our problem is that without grace we're incompetent captains and sailors. The ship is seaworthy, we just keep crashing it into shoals, getting stuck, or finding ourselves drifting lost in a vast ocean of wayward desire and confusion. 

Shifting back to mental health, there's things to recommend the Catholic view. Human nature is good, we're not damaged. So we can avoid all that talk about our "sin nature" and "depravity," poor starting locations when you want to have a conversation about mental health. And yet, at the end of the day, the Catholic view of nature and grace creates a puzzle similar to the Protestant's. Specifically, if grace has given me a good captain and crew why am I not, from a mental health perspective, navigating my life much better? Why am I still frequently crashing the ship or lost at sea? Sure, I don't have to view myself as "depraved" or "damaged," which is a therapeutic win, but I'm still struggling and confused. Why is that happening? The question draws us back into blaming each other, as it suggests we've not properly and fully allowed God to assume full command of the ship. 

But here, at this seeming impasse, the work of Kathryn Tanner will prove useful to us. I'll turn next to her treatment of nature and grace, and how I think it helps us think about mental health, in the coming posts.

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