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I’m Christian & I don’t believe mental illness is “spiritual”

(Except we can agree malaria and measles are, too.)

(Credit: Elisa Riva)

On October 30, 2016, a prominent and otherwise widely respected Nigerian pastor tweeted:

“The root cause of mental illness is Sin (Rom 6:23) and the foundational solution to mental health is Salvation.”

Let’s just say the tweet ended up deleted.

Amid the subsequent furore on Nigerian Twitter and social media, the old issue of how we spiritualise mental illness was raised again. You can’t live among religious people and not be familiar with this tendency, even if you disagree with it (which will almost certainly place you in a minority). Not even doctors and other health workers are exempt. I’ve had medical colleagues say to me, “But you know all this stuff is really just demons, right?”

Yes, that really happened.

Now, I’ve actually written before on why I don’t see mental illness as spiritual, arguing from general principles anyone could agree with, irrespective of religious beliefs or lack thereof. But I want to write on it again, but this time with Christians in mind, which, as a practitioner of the faith myself, allows me to say things that would be presumptuous to say about other faiths. I should point out, though, that my points, controversial as they may appear, are in line with traditionally accepted Christian thinking as I understand it.

That said, this isn’t for Christians only: it’ll help you in conversations, as long as there are people you care about who are Christians, this should help you in conversations with them, especially if they spiritualise mental illness. Overall, my goal isn’t to argue for Christianity as true, but for Christianity as not incompatible with seeing mental illness as physical.

What do people mean when they say mental illness is spiritual?

Underlying this view of mental illness is a worldview in which human experience is split between the physical and spiritual. So, other people, food and the planet are physical, for instance, while angels, demons and God are spiritual. And it’s easy to recognise someone who holds this worldview: when something isn’t obviously physical, they — or maybe you? — don’t hesitate to interpret it as spiritual. Favouring prayer and other spiritual remedies over physical ones is only a logical next step.

This dualistic view of reality, if we unpack it into its components, can be expressed in its simplest form as the following syllogistic argument:

  1. Everything is either physical or spiritual.
  2. Mental illnesses are not physical.
  3. Therefore mental illnesses are spiritual.
  4. The root cause of mental illnesses must therefore be sin.

Now let’s think through the problems of each of these points from a Christian perspective.

Claim #1. Everything is either physical or spiritual.

This is of course the root of the problem.

If things are either A or B, it actually makes sense to assume that once they’re not one, then they are the other. But what if they’re not A or B? What if, for instance, they’re neither?

Or…both?

The biblical portrayal of humanity is always as physical and spiritual beings. Always. Both the first human, Adam and the ultimate human, Jesus, are so portrayed. In fact, Jesus is recorded as taking great pains after his resurrection to prove he had a real body and was no ghost.

Furthermore, at least twice in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 10:31 and Colossians 3:17) are clear instructions to do all things to God—words and actions, even eating and drinking—indicating we are not only both spiritual and physical, but should also learn to see the spiritual in the mundane. And as I argued in my last post, the bible doesn’t seem to indicate one is better than the other.

Life doesn’t get more mundane than eating and drinking.

How then did Christianity come to be so largely dualistic? A detailed explanation is outside my scope here, but long story short, you can blame Plato. (Yes, that Plato. Want more detail, complete with references? Go here.)

The Bible doesn’t present a dualistic, either-or view of physical reality as being mutually exclusive of spiritual. Instead it firmly rejects this, and insists on a both-and view: that spirituality is embedded within and around physical reality, like gravity to the universe.

Either everything is spiritual, or nothing is.

And if we are willing to accept broken bones and tummy upsets, diabetes and HIV/AID as spiritual, then it’s okay to declare mental illnesses as spiritual too. What we have no biblical basis to do is single them out.

Claim #2. Mental illnesses are not physical.

I explained the physicality of mental illnesses in the article I linked to earlier but here are a few main points:

  • Medications work. It’s that simple. And they not only work quite dramatically (at least some of the time), for some conditions, they’re almost the only way to go. Simple as this is, it at least shows that there must be something physical for them to work on.
  • Mental illnesses aren’t even just emotional. Symptoms often include physical components. People with depression, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia experience everything from losing appetite and weight, missing periods and getting higher rates of health conditions like heart problems and diabetes.
  • Even the brain is different. For instance, brain imaging has shown differences in the brains of people with various mental illnesses that don’t tend to show up in people without those illnesses.

In summary, although there’s a lot we still don’t know mental illness (and about physical illness, at that), we know too much for its physicality to even be in question. Our minds and our bodies are inseparably linked. Or as the Bible puts it:

A tranquil heart gives life to the flesh, but envy makes the bones rot. (Proverbs 14:30 ESV)

Claim #3. Mental illnesses are spiritual

Invoking “God” (or the “supernatural”) as an explanation for things we don’t have an explanation for—aka “God of the gaps” thinking—is both bad logic and bad theology, as evidenced by its very origins among Christian theologians as an example of a fallacious argument. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it best (emphasis mine):

How wrong it is to use God as a stop-gap for the incompleteness of our knowledge. If in fact the frontiers of knowledge are being pushed further and further back (and that is bound to be the case), then God is being pushed back with them, and is therefore continually in retreat. We are to find God in what we know, not in what we don’t know.

I can hardly say it better, except to add that using God as an excuse for our ignorance is a disservice to our faith and our reason alike. And we are reminded again that either we see all things as spiritual, or nothing is.

Claim #4: “The root cause of mental illness is sin”

This brings us full circle, back to that tweet about mental illness and sin. And now, for what I really think about it:

I think the pastor was right in an unhelpful way.

If you’re thinking, “Wait, what? I thought you said…” Chill. I know what I said. Just let me unpack this and explain what I mean.

First, no one would argue that physical reality has a tendency to go wrong, as do human beings. In fact, the disparity between the reality of this tendency and our sense of fixing it is at the root of religion and science alike. In Christian thinking, this tendency to go wrong is traced back to an original going wrong (theological term, “original sin”), not to be confused with each human’s unique patterns of going wrong (which we can term “personal sin”). The fixing of this deep-rooted going-wrongness (theological term, “salvation”) also has a general and a personal component.

So the traditional Christian statement that all physical and human disorder is due to sin, and is in need of salvation, is theological code for: “There’s a fundamental brokenness that extends to all of reality, and which begs for restoration.” Which, even if you reject the Christian worldview, is a pretty defensible statement.

But—and this is the critical bit—you’d have to apply that to everything that’s disordered, not just some chosen aspects.

And that’s where the tweet was unhelpful: while the larger sermon the tweet belonged to was arguably more nuanced, the tweet had to, as all tweets must, stand alone. And alone, it wasn’t helpful.

But this matter of blaming mental (or for that matter, any) illness on sin has one more serious argument against it, and from no less than the founder of the faith himself: faced with the question of where to lay blame for people’s suffering, Jesus was consistent in his refusal to blame it on personal sin.

Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” (John 9:3 ESV)

Another time he asked his followers, “Those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem?” Sort of like how, with many health conditions, we know why people get diabetes, or stroke, or asthma — but no doctor will confidently affirm why this particular person gets that particular condition. And even where we can confidently attribute a health condition to the cumulative effects of a disordered lifestyle (or in Christian theological terminology, “judgement for sin,”) there’s no reason, whether from healthcare ethics or Jesus’ example from the Bible, to take the illness any less seriously.

A 5-point theology of mental illness

This is a long post—so here’s extra length in the form of a summary of my main points! Below is my understanding of the Christian position as it relates to mental illness.

  1. Human experience of reality is always spiritual and physical, not one or the other—a mutual, not dual, relationship.
  2. Mental illnesses, as part of this experience, are certainly physical. They’re also spiritual if you see all of normal mundane life as equally spiritual.
  3. Mental illness being spiritual (in the sense of human experience as a whole), does not make it supernatural — that is, explaining it does not require us to go outside of nature. In the same way, that it is natural (perfectly explainable by natural causes) does not make it any less spiritual. (More on this in my article on God preferring the natural to supernatural—link below.)
  4. Mental illnesses can be attributed to human brokenness, as long as this attribution is not unique to mental illnesses.
  5. We must refrain from attributing illness or suffering to people’s personal failings.

Final words

If you’re a Christian, I hope this helps you think more wholesomely about mental illness.

If you practice another faith, I hope this helps you stimulates you to think about mental illness through the lenses of your faith.

If you’re not religious at all, I hope this helps you have more wholesome conversations with the almost certainly inevitable religious people in your life.

Thank you for taking the time to read this. If it contributes to richer and more meaningful conversations about the intersections between what we experience and what we believe, my work is done.

To better dialogue in an increasingly diverse world.

Want more on this subject? Read the 2 articles preceding this one:

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