God and Mental Illness: Part 5, Ensouled Bodies and Embodied Souls

I hoped I showed over the last two posts that one of the things we need to deal with, when we think about the relationship between Christian faith and mental illness, are the dualistic assumptions at work within Christian traditions. These dualistic visions of human persons--that we possess both body and a soul, and the soul is (relatively) independent from the body--affect stigmas concerning mental illness and our attitudes about psychopharmacology. 

These attitudes are also connected to some of the triumphalistic and optimistic views we noted in Parts 1 and 2 of this series, the belief among many Christians that mental health issues can be--in fact, must be--handled solely with spiritual and biblical interventions (e.g., prayer, Bible study, spiritual practices). Often found in Prosperity Gospel churches, some Christians assume that secular psychotherapy, along with psychopharmacology, are not simply unnecessary, but spiritual and moral failures displaying a lack faith and trust in God.

To be clear, the Prosperity Gospel can be overly triumphalistic and optimistic about everything, the medical, the psychiatric, and the psychological. God can heal you of cancer and depression. If you have enough faith, God can heal everything. Point taken. My observation is that, given what I've described over the last two posts, mental health struggles are particularly susceptible to triumphalistic and optimistic expectations. Mental health struggles, being so akin to spiritual struggles in a dualistic worldview, seem to be particularly amenable to the interventions of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, expectations for healing get supercharged. The only issue is having enough faith. 

Going forward, I'll have more to say about all this, about what we can expect from God in the midst of our mental health struggles. But before we get there, we do need to talk about how widespread dualistic assumptions among Christians are affecting how we think about mental illness, therapy, and medication. So, let's turn to that work.

Let me start by saying that we need to avoid two extreme positions. One the one hand, we need to avoid the extreme dualism we've been worrying about over the last few posts, a dualism that posits a qualitative distinction between body and soul/mind. Sometimes this view is called "substance dualism," the view that body and soul/mind are different "things." As we've seen, there are some problems with positing a radical discontinuity between body and soul/mind.

And yet, we also need to avoid the opposite extreme, reducing the soul/mind to the body in a complete identification. For three reasons. 

First, it is true that mental health issues can be effectively addressed with psychological and behavioral interventions. There is a concern that an overly medicalized view of mental health issues, where everything is just "brain chemistry," will marginalize treatments that are as effective, and are often more effective, than psychopharmacological interventions. 

Second, I find the mind/body relation sufficiently mysterious to treat consciousness as something quite different from biochemical processes. For those who've read about "the hard problem of consciousness," I'm of the opinion that mind cannot be reduced to materiality. 

Lastly, as a Christian, I believe in the soul. I think the soul names something that cannot be captured by empirical, scientific description. Minimally, the soul does work in the grammar of anthropology, naming and describing real things about human persons. To say "soul" is to say something different than "brain."

So, to summarize, we mustn't assume a radical separation and distinction between body and soul, nor should we reduce the soul to the body. How, then, should we think about this relation?

Scholars who have done work in the area of theological anthropology have argued that we need to think of ourselves as "ensouled bodies and embodied souls." The soul and body are intimately connected in ways that are hard, if not impossible, to disentangle. Admittedly, this fusion is hard to imagine, but no harder than mind/body problem itself. 

Now, we could go far, far down this rabbit hole. The literature here, theological anthropology, is very large. But I don't think that will be necessary. The only point I think we need for this series is the point that the soul is embodied. What happens to the body affects the soul, and what happens to the soul affects the body. We don't want to reduce the soul to the body, but neither should we think that what happens to the body doesn't have radical and direct impacts upon my soul. 

The examples here abound. Who we are as persons is affected by genetics, brain injury, disease, and age. Who we are as persons is affected by how much sleep we've gotten or if we've eaten dinner. To illustrate these points with my students, I often talk about those Snickers candy bar commercials: You're not you when you're hungry. The point of those commercials is that we are very different people when we're hungry. Our soul is tightly connected to our bodies.

This is, in fact, the biblical view. A few weeks ago I did a series on the biblical understandings of the words soma (body), psyche (soul) and pneuma (spirit). One of the things we talked about in that series is how we moderns tend to associate psyche (soul) with pneuma (spirit). We group the "invisible" spooky stuff--soul and spirit--together over against the body. But in the ancient and biblical imagination, psyche was more closely associated with soma than with pneuma. We are, as the Bible sees us, ensouled bodies and embodied souls. 

If we are ensouled bodies and embodied souls then that means our mental health struggles will be embodied, they will have biological, physical, and medical aspects. Relatedly, our treatments will be embodied, will have biological, physical, and medical aspects. Another way to say this is that our treatments will be holistic, incorporating a mix of spiritual, psychological, psychiatric, and medical perspectives and interventions. 

To be sure, there's a lot of heavy lifting to do to inculcate this embodied imagination in our churches. But we can go a long way in pushing against dualistic assumptions by simply reminding ourselves, over and over again, that, say, depression has an embodied aspect. So does anxiety. So does addiction. So does everything. To be sure, again, these things aren't *just* the body, but the body is always in play, and may, in fact, play a critical and decisive role in our well-being. Every time we think about wellness, we have to take the body seriously, for our flourishing is, and will always be, embodied. 

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