Faith and Mental Health: Part 8, Sin, Virtue, and Grace


Let me clean up something from the last post.

A key point that Tanner makes when it comes to human nature is that we don't have to think of sin as ruining human nature. Rather, sin severs our connection with God, causing us to lose access to grace wherever we find ourselves on our mental health journey. 

And yet, sin does more than sever us from God. Sin does do damage to creaturely existence. The important thing to note, however, following Kathryn Tanner, is that sin doesn't separate us from God's presence, a connection secured and guaranteed to us by the Incarnation.  

So we can think of sin as operating in two different registers. 

The first register is that of creaturely stewardship. Sin, in this view, is a failure of stewardship, a failure of care. If you don't take care of your house, car or yard it all goes to hell. The same goes for your physical and psychological health. Following from what we've shared before about Tanner's "weak imaging" of God, there is a logic inherent in creaturely existence that reflects back the image of God. When God asks Adam to care for the garden, as one created in God's image, we can note that Adam himself was a part of that garden he was to care for. That is, beyond plants and animals, Adam had to take care of himself, physically, psychologically, and relationally. And the logics of stewardship at work in the garden, from horticulture to animal husbandry to physical health to mental wellness, remain available and open to investigation as they have always been. Given the logic of creation there is an implicit technology available. Since Adam, we've learned a lot about gardening, medicine, and therapy. And these discoveries help us in our stewardship of creation, our bodies, and our psychological health. 

The technology of human flourishing is the study of virtue, the healthy habits and mental dispositions that lead to a happy, well-adjusted life. These virtues are matters of stewardship, how to best care for your body and mind. Sin, in this view, is a failure of stewardship, a failure of virtue, a failure of self-care. 

Importantly, one doesn't need to appeal to religion to point any of this out. Again, the logics at work are intrinsic to creation, available and accessible to all given how God put the world together. 

And yet, we can also think of sin in a different register, the way Tanner has described sin as severing our connection with God. Specifically, there are virtues that push beyond creaturely self-care, beyond mere failures of stewardship. 

In the Christian tradition there are what are called the "theological virtues." These virtues are faith, hope, and love. These virtues are theological in that they aren't concerned with creaturely stewardship, they are concerned with our connection to God. To use a metaphor from the last post, these virtues plug us into God and flip the light switch on. Sin in relation to these virtues is less about damaging creation and ourselves than turning away from God. True, turning away from God can lead to failures of stewardship. So there is link. 

Regardless, the point of making this distinction is that it helps us see that psychological science and practice has an integrity on its own, as a creational technology, independent of faith. Therapy is simply a school of self-stewardship, learning the habits to care for yourself and others. And anyone can benefit from this school. It's not unlike taking a class in gardening, only in this school the garden you're learning to care for is your own body, mind, and social relationships.

But there's more to life than mere stewardship, there is the abundant life found only in God. Beyond the therapeutic there is the grace and Life available to you in God. Sin isn't just not taking proper care of yourself, sin is also turning away from the grace available to you in Christ through faith, hope, and love.

Therapy matters. And so does God.

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