Maybe “tumor” is the term?

What do you call a post that starts out as a comment on another blog, probably doesn’t make sense without the original post, but is also so long that you feel weird about basically hijacking someone else’s topic?

Anyway, that’s what happened. E Lawrence wrote a thoughtful article over at WIT entitled “Do we care about mental illness?” and then I basically replied with a novel.

Here is what I said, expanded (depressingly little) and with links cleaned up:

I have a LOT of thoughts about this topic. Thanks for this post! It opens up some exciting (wc? whatever) areas for discussion.

1) I appreciate and agree with your calling out the “we” versus “them” language when it comes to mental illness. I have many friends and family members in the academy. I have many friends and family members in the church. Put simply, most of us deal with mental illness. It is “we”; it is not “them.” When I tell friends about my depression, I’ve learned to expect the, “Um, yeah, me, too” reaction, because that’s almost always the reaction I get.

2) “I believe that we in the academy are perhaps in a position to evaluate mental illness with a social, structural lens in place, especially because these issues affect society as a whole beyond the academy.”

You gesture toward the falseness of claiming any “objective” viewpoint later, but I think you could and should go much, much farther. In my experience and those of my nearest and dearest, the academy is itself deeply sick. If we want to call attention to the social, structural aspects of mental illness, what exactly do we call the phenomenon of the prelim? What do we call adjunct positions? What do we call the tenure review? Within psych research, how would you classify Diederik Stapel? To put it harshly (perhaps too harshly), I think the academy is far too busy fostering and exploiting mental illness to be in any position to evaluate its social and structural aspects.

3) And if you made it past that rant, here’s some embarrassing self-disclosure. I was struck by the repeated phrases “contemporary psychological approaches to the human person” and “psychological insight into the human person.” I’ve dealt with debilitating depression for literally as long as I can remember, but only in the last year have I had to deal with feeling as though I had lost myself. I cycled through more than a dozen psychoactive drugs, some of which affected my personality (as described by a previous commenter); I left a job (academia) that had given my life meaning; and I underwent ECT, which led to extensive memory loss.

Here is an example. During or slightly before the ECT, I heard a beautiful and moving sermon about suffering and the incarnation. It helped me to crystallize my thoughts about God’s role in my own unbearable suffering, and to feel, for the first time ever, that I could accept the incarnation into my personal theology. Through Jesus, I came to believe, God does not take away my burden of pain. I mean, I knew that God doesn’t take the pain away, because the pain was still there. It was a fact. I had, and have, no use for the “all the suffering will be worth it in heaven” line. Even when I get well, the pain will still have been real, and it will never have been worth it. So God doesn’t take it away; but God, in Jesus, might perhaps choose to share it with me, fully. And that’s something.

This is approximately what I thought. Then, two months later, it was gone completely, vanished with so much else from my memory. Four months after that, I came across a description of the sermon while re-reading my journal (looking for precisely such lost things), and I reconstructed it as best I could. But, dude, this was a pretty big idea, pretty central to my spirituality and my construction of myself. My relationship with God, my prayer life, was really really different before the ECT vs. after.

I would describe myself as a well-read amateur in theology, so I have no idea what work might be out there on the malleability of self in the face of trauma. But in the past few months, all talk of “the soul” has left me cold, empty, slightly contemptuous. The model of personhood taught within mainstream Christianity is no longer adequate for me.

4) Perhaps “exciting” is the right word choice, after all. When I think about all these questions right now, there is sadness, anger, confusion, hope; but there’s also that spark of excitement, the catch of the breath that I rely on to tell me: this is a problem worth working on. This is something that could be really, really cool. Theologians, I think, should concern themselves with psychology and with contemporary models and experiences of mental illness, but not (just) because it would be the useful or the compassionate thing to do. You should work on this because it would be awesome. Because it would be interesting. Because it would open up new ways of thinking about people and about God and about people with God. And if awesome, interesting, novel ideas don’t beat back the darkness, then I don’t know what will.

The Ministry of Availability

I took a day off work today.  Yes, I am “sick.”  My minor medical condition could justify a day off.*  But more than “sick,” I am tired.  My work exhausts me in a way that it really hasn’t for the last two years.

This year, I have moved into a direct ministry role.  For the past two years I have done some combination of teaching and service learning and saw my role as ministerial, as I firmly believe that teaching is a ministry.  But this year, I am The Campus Minister of the school.  I coordinate the retreats, I stock the Campus Ministry candy bowl, I am the supplier of tissues for those who come into my office crying.  I did not think this transition from ministerial to minister would be so challenging.  After all, it’s the same school, same students, same colleagues.  But what I’m finding at the end of each day is that I am exhausted mentally, emotionally, to a deeper level than I have been by any other work.

Beyond the retreats, liturgies, and service work, ministry taxes me so much because how available I have to be.  What I didn’t know before I started is that being a minister means being available to whoever drops by my office and to chat, or discuss a problem, or find advice and encouragement.  Students and staff alike come into my office seeking something–they flop down on my couch and start talking and I have to turn away from my computer and listen.

At first I was annoyed.  I thought, “I don’t have time for this!”  (Especially since it happens approximately 200 times a day)  “This work is really important!  Do you think retreats plan themselves?” I thought self-righteously.  And I began to worry a lot about being able to get everything done–every time I had to stop working, I grew anxious or preoccupied and I couldn’t focus on the person in front of me.

But somewhere after I directed my first major retreat, I realized that listening and being available everyday in my office doesn’t take me away from my work as a minister–it is my work as a minister.  I can’t be a good minister unless I listen to my community, even in the most casual and mundane ways.  By stopping to chat with a student on her way to lunch, or a test, I became a little more attuned to what students worry about and how to best reach them spiritually.

And beyond my students and my work, as I listened more and more, theology came pouring out of me.  In the years since grad school, I have not picked up a theology book once; being in grad school just seemed so disconnected from the life of the Church and by the end, I mostly felt that I was done talking about theology and ready to start doing theology.  But as I listen to students’ questions and problems, I suddenly have so many ideas swirling around in my head.  With my ministerial experiences as my foundation, I see so many connections to what I’ve studied and want to develop those ideas into theology.  Being a minister has breathed life into those ideas I spent two years discussing in grad school and reinforced to me the importance of doing good theology.

So that is what I have been thinking about lately.  What if we made ourselves more available to each other?  What if the leadership and theologians of the Church made itself more available to the faithful?  If listening makes us better ministers, and being ministers makes us better theologians, shouldn’t we intentionally seek out opportunities to listen?**   I understand specialization makes ministry and theology more sophisticated, but in the process, we also divorce theology and ministry and prevent the kind of good theology that flows from ministry and good ministry that is rooted in theology.

The importance of availability not a novel idea, but I’m not referring to the kind of instant availability smart phones and the internet give us.  I can tweet at the Pope now, but I know he is not truly available to me.  I’m talking about availability on a person to person basis, built into the schedules and training of Church leaders and theologians.  To academics, this might seem outrageous; I know most academics would give me the standard answer–specialization gives academic theologians the freedom and time to produce good theology.  But I honestly think that specialization comes at the cost of theology rooted in the actual experience of the Church.  Given the rate at which Catholics are leaving or disengaging the Church, it seems that one of the highest priorities of those interested in the Church’s future should be to understand and respond to the needs of the faithful.  Being available ministers is the first step in that process.  

 

*Psst!  Don’t tattle on me!
**I won’t make the mistake of assuming my experience should apply to absolutely everyone, but I think in general, better connections between theologians, Church leadership, and the faithful is a good goal we ought to pursue.

Secularism and Biblical Studies

I think there’s a general perception that Biblical scholars have a secular worldview. I know that when I first began thinking about graduate programs, that was my expectation. My undergraduate experience was in a religious studies department at a public university, and while many or most of the students had a religious background that informed their studies, it was clear to me then that we were expected to check those at the door, so to speak, and approach a religion from the outside in. For me, with interests (at that time) in the formative periods of Judaism and Christianity, that wasn’t hard (perhaps surprisingly?). It was clear to me that even if we thought of the same texts as sacred, my religion was not the same as that of second Temple Jews, or even of the early Christian communities. My little cousin looks astoundingly like his grandfather but is clearly a different person.

[Now that I think about it, that was kind of a strange situation to be in—many public universities don’t have a religious studies department at all. I’d like to talk with my professors there about how their teaching is influenced by the type of program it is, whether they would teach from a different perspective in a different situation, and whether they have to tread carefully with the constant spectre of the state breathing down their necks. But I digress.]

I think that this perception becomes a stigma, even. The Bible is a career to you, and you spend your whole life picking it apart and de-sacralizing it, so to speak. How can you possibly take it seriously as a religious text? (Your mileage may vary, however—I’d be interested to know whether others have the same sense.) The question of how such a thing is possible is a great topic for another day. The point is that it is the case; the more I get to know others in my field, the more I realize that most of us do have some sort of faith commitment.

And yet– and yet—we’re still expected to check those at the door. It’s not that we pretend they’re not there; we just don’t really talk about them. We talk as if they didn’t inform our every thought; as if they didn’t matter. This is less true in theology departments, as I’ve since learned—there’s more of a space, in classrooms and conversations, to be more than a brain with legs. One of my great memories from [mystery program] is of the last ten minutes of a seminar class dealing with canon formation. We’d spent the past two and a half hours taking the canon apart, looking at how canonical choices were made, asking ourselves, “What is a canon, anyway?” and coming exhaustively to the conclusion that really, we had no idea. (That also is another post for another day.) Finally one man—an Episcopal priest, and a very good one, as it happened—sat back and said, “Okay. So what do I tell my congregations about this?” And suddenly everyone started talking at once. This was a fascinating intellectual question, but also a serious challenge to faith. What did it mean to be part of a “religion of the book” if we couldn’t decide on the nature or the content of the “book” in question? And we all really wanted to talk about that; and in that place at that time, we could.

Those kinds of conversations are rare in the classroom; and my experience so far has been that people want to have them in private but need a real atmosphere of trust before they’re possible. For me, this blog is a place to make that possible—hence the insistence (however illusory) on privacy; I want it to be very clear that these are not the things I am publishing or teaching. This is a separate space.

So, now we get to the question: is this a good thing? Isn’t this fragmenting of ourselves completely artificial? Isn’t this insistence on an “outside-in” attitude toward religion just a holdover from the Modern period? Aren’t we just placating the atheistic god of Science, trying to be a science (which we’re clearly not—don’t get me started on the “social sciences”) in a vacuum-sealed world cut off from our essential humanity?

And I would say: “Yes, it’s a good thing,” but with footnotes. Yes, we should check our beliefs at the door (but we should also realize that that’s impossible). Yes, we should insist on critical distance from the text for ourselves and for our students (but we need to have so much patience with students for whom that comes hard). Yes, we should keep the “public” conversations—the papers and the conferences—on the “secular” level (even though secularism doesn’t exist in the way it was originally conceived). And here’s why: that is the only way (that I can think of, anyway) we can all have a place at the table. That’s the only way I, the then-nonbelieving child of a low-church Episcopal priest, could have fallen in love with this field with the help of a Jewish convert professor and a deeply committed Catholic friend (who, incidentally, ended up studying Hinduism, in large part because he didn’t feel able to maintain that critical distance). There needs to be a safe space to talk about how your work informs your faith; but we also need the space in which we talk about the work itself to be safe. It can’t be okay, for example, for Jewish scholars to be the targets of proselytization at conferences. As I see it: for now, at least, secularism is like a language that’s foreign to all of us; but it’s the only language we all speak.

(That’s what I think these days, anyway. I’d like to know what you think.)