Faith and Mental Health: Part 6, God's Non-Competitive Relation to the World

According to Kathyrn Tanner, the key to understanding God's relationship with human nature, and therefore how God relates to our mental health, is found in understanding God's non-competitive relation to the world. 

The issue here is metaphysical, and follows from St. Thomas Aquinas's famous assertion that God is not a genus nor a member of a genus. Phrased differently, God is not a being as we understand beings. God is not an object locatable within creation. God cannot be found among the furniture of the universe. 

And this implies that God cannot be located in your brain either.

God, as a the Source and Ground of being, has a qualitatively different relation to the world. As Katherine Sonderegger describes it, "God is His own relation to the world." Or, in the words of Henk J. M. Schoot, "God differs, differently." And for Tanner, and many other theologians, this unique relation leads to a very important to insight: God's non-competitive, non-rivalrous relation to the world. 

Specifically, God's actions in the world do not compete with or displace creaturely action or integrity. Nor does God's actions supplement, augment or "supercharge" creaturely powers and potentialities. God doesn't "add" anything to the creature.

Now, of course, our minds rush to raise objections here. If God doesn't "add" anything then God isn't making any "difference" to us. Well, yes and no. Let me keep preaching the metaphysical lesson: God differs differently. God makes a difference to us, and to our brains, differently. We cannot think of the word "add" in a literal sense, thinking Me + God = 2. Again, God isn't locatable or denumerable like that, meaning that God's can't, arithmetically speaking, "add" anything to us. 

And yet, at the same time, God is making every difference to your mental and physical well-being. God is present to and actively sustaining every last bit of you, across every spiritual, psychological, and physical register. God is, as Augustine puts it, closer to you than you are to yourself--always there, always sustaining, always supporting, always empowering. Just not in a way you or I can understand or describe. 

Another way to say this is that this connection between God and myself is primarily in an apophatic register--it cannot be described or verbally specified. The difference God makes to me and my mental health defies any clear conceptual modeling or therapeutic understanding. Since this connection is with God it will always be and remain an explanatory mystery in my life, resistant to any psychological or therapeutic specification. As Kathryn Tanner observes in her book Christ the Key, there is "something incomprehensible about human nature as it is shaped by a relationship with God."

Which bring us back to God as a "coping strategy." 

Given God's non-competitive relation to the world, God cannot be a "coping strategy." Not strictly or literally. Since God is a member of no genus, God cannot be a "coping strategy" among and alongside other coping strategies. God is what makes coping strategies exist. 

And neither does God displace creaturely reality, integrity, or agency. God doesn't nudge aside neurotransmitters to get your brain working better. God doesn't "compete" with neurotransmitters. Neither does God nudge aside bad thoughts or choices to "insert" more healthy ones. God doesn't compete with you, not physically or psychologically. Again, God differs differently. 

But again--remember, remember the metaphysics!--this doesn't mean that God is unavailable or unhelpful. God is always present and helpful, affecting every neurotransmitter and every thought. God is always holding you, moment by moment, in being. The issue is that God's presence and aid is available to you in an apophatic key, in a way I'm not able to explain or you to understand. And if you're willing and committed to keep that distinction in mind, we can, tentatively and poetically, say that God does help us cope, just in a way that doesn't correspond to any therapeutic understanding of what we mean by coping. 

God helps us cope, but differently.

More on that in the coming posts.

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