Faith and Mental Health: Part 7, Solving the Paradoxes

In a recent series of posts I introduced Kathryn Tanner's notion of "strong" versus "weak" imaging of God. Recall the key question: What does it mean that humans reflect the "image of God"?

For Tanner, a "weak" version of this image is how creaturely human characteristics, such as rationality or creativity, might reflect the image of God. For example, God is a Creator and we humans are also creators. Thus, as we create we reflect back the image of God.

And yet, Tanner calls this sort of thing "weak imaging" as there is a qualitative distinction of such an infinite magnitude between any human trait and God that to suggest any correspondence between the two is so degraded it's difficult to characterize that relation as an "image" or, at the very least, an accurate image. The situation isn't mirror-like.   

For Tanner, then, a "strong imaging" of God is direct participation in the life of God. We reflect the image of God because God lives in us and we in God. What reflects the image of God in human life is God's own image, like here mirroring like.

Building upon this distinction in her reflections on human nature Tanner makes some observations regarding the relationship between nature and grace, with implications, I think, for mental health.

Specifically, recall the Protestant versus Catholic views of nature versus grace. According to the Protestants, sin ruins human nature (e.g., total depravity). And if that's so, it would suggest that mental health and wellness is 100% a grace issue, that nature can be supernaturally repaired by grace. Spiritually, that view of nature and grace might make sense, but as we've seen, such a view creates problems when considering mental health. Faithful Christians struggle with mental health issues, so are they not relying on grace? And non-believers can be mentally healthy, so how is their ruined nature able to function so well without grace?

But according to Tanner, we don't need to follow the Protestants down this road. Sin does not ruin human nature. Sin, rather, simply separates us from God's presence in our life, from our ability to participate in the "strong imaging" of God.

Two implications follow. 

First, the creational situation of the human being has a goodness and integrity on its own. This is the "weak imaging" of human nature. Second, it is also the case that God's Spirit unties us with God's very self, a connection that gives us access to divine power and life. But what is key to keep in mind here, given the insights from the last post, is that the presence of God in human life doesn't nudge the creature aside. The divine life leaves traces in our life, we can bear witness to its effects, but it doesn't remold or remodel creaturely existence. God doesn't rewire your brain or adjust your neurotransmitters. Again, God makes a difference in our life, but differently.

Here's how Tanner describes this "connection via disconnection" at the boundary of divine power and creaturely existence:

The gift of the Holy Spirit to us does not give rise to new powers and capacities in us; there are certain created correlates of the gift of the Holy Spirit in us--new human dispositions, for example, of faith and love--by way of which our whole life is eventually renovated in Christ's image. But there is no adequate created correlate for the power the Holy Spirit itself. That power cannot be made our own in the way the created powers proper to our nature are our own. Like any power of one nature that resides in another nature quite different from itself, divine power, because it surpasses human nature, can be in us only improperly and imperfectly. Divine power is in us only as light is in the air or the way heat from a flame is in iron.
These moves by Tanner--the distinction between weak and strong imaging and the metaphysical commitment that God differs differently in our lives--brings us, I think, to the point of solving the paradoxes we've been dealing with in this series. Let me try to unpack this.

First, one of the sources of the paradoxes regarding faith and mental health is the Protestant assumption that sin ruins human nature. Such an assumption, as pointed out above, creates twin problems. Why doesn't grace immediately and wholly heal our mental health? And why can non-believers be healthy outside of grace?

The answer is that there is a psychological flourishing available to us that is proper to our creaturely existence. And we reap the benefits of being good stewards of this creaturely life. The close analogy here is physical health. Exercising, eating well, practicing good stress and sleep habits, all cultivate physical well-being. Psychological well-being as well. And in addition, there is all the therapeutic advice about cultivating emotional and mental well-being. None of this requires or demands faith or grace as our physical and psychological flourishing is simply following the logic of creaturely existence.

Importantly, this also means that we can slide in the opposite direction as well. Stressful environments, trauma, physical vulnerabilities, lack of social support, poor self-care, bad habits. On and on. For a multitude of reasons, our physical and psychological health can deteriorate. And all of this continues to follow the logic of creaturely existence.

And yet, all along this psychological continuum, from mental illness to mental health, God's life and grace is present to us, if we make ourselves available to God. This is the gift and grace given to us in the Incarnation. Because of Christ and the grace of the Incarnation, God is unconditionally available to us, no matter our moral state or psychological well-being. As Tanner writes, 

Our unity with Christ by way of the humanity we share with him precedes any change in our wayward dispositions that re-orients us to God...[and] those dispositions do not have the capacity by their frailty to alter this unity we have with Christ. To the extent it did not come about to begin with by way of our dispositions, our unity Christ is not affected by any fall back into sin by us. The Word's making itself one with us in Christ remains, however much we might backslide. Christ is one with us in virtue of our humanity whatever we might do.

So no matter where we are right now, wayward sinners or struggling with depression, God through Christ is perpetually, consistently, and reliably present and available to us, in our sin and in our mental distress.

What happens with sin, then, is how we turn our face away from God. We sever the connection from our side. We pull the plug. We hang up the phone. We flip off the light.

The important implication of all this is that grace is operating across the mental health spectrum. God is present to us, and God's grace available to us, no matter where we stand.

And since God makes a difference in our lives differently, when we turn toward God we don't see God changing or modifying our brains, causing our depression, for example, to evaporate. The depression remains, but God is present to us in our depression. In the midst of mental illness, God gives us grace, support, power and aid that we could not have all on our own. All this explains the seeming paradox when Christians say, "I suffer from depression, but without God I couldn't face another day."

And looking at the top end of the spectrum, at the mentally healthy and flourishing, there is a Life that is available to the happy and well-adjusted that transcends any joy, peace and hope that therapy, good genes, healthy habits, proper self-care, or good meds could provide. The abundant life isn't a therapeutic project.

This then, it seems to me, solves the paradoxes regarding faith and mental health. How the godless can be happy and well-adjusted. How the faithful can suffer from mental health problems. And how faith is always associated with greater well-being.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply