Monday, October 6, 2014

Peace Between Spirituality and Mental Health

Tomorrow, October 7, is the National Day of Prayer for Mental Illness Recovery and Understanding, and this post is part of a synchroblog on the topic. A list of other posts in this theme are at the bottom.

Many of my readers know I am a psychologist with a specialty in spirituality and psychology. My BA is in Religious Studies, my PsyD (Doctor of Psychology) had an emphasis on spiritual integration, my dissertation and other scholarly work has focused on the topic, and I'm currently the chair of my organization's spirituality awareness committee. I have provided many trainings on the topic of spirituality and mental health.

Through it all, one of the most common issues is the apparent contradiction of spirituality and psychology, especially within the Christian traditions. Scathing comments from some of psychology's biggest initial names (like Freud, Ellis, and Watson), have really shaped the landscape of interactions between spirituality and mental health providers. Both sides are often afraid to talk to the other based on the assumption that they hate one another. What we need is peacebuilding.

Accurate information can be extremely helpful for peacemaking efforts. So I want to share some history about spirituality and mental health to help demonstrate that the two have, historically, actually been more partners than enemies.

In fact, the earliest people to provide assistance were faith communities. The fourth and fifth centuries included the building of monasteries for the mentally ill by St. Basil in Caesarea, St. Jerome in Bethlehem, and St. Benedict in Monte Cassino. Just by the individuals' titles emphasizes that these were not small, unknown efforts, either. The Middle Ages provided government asylums, where the public could sometimes pay to watch the mentally ill in chains for entertainment. Phillipe Pinel, a French Roman Catholic, was a major advocate for reform of these asylums, and his reforms spread throughout Europe. An English Quaker, William Tuke, established the York Retreat for the Humane Care of the Insane, and his model spread to the US. Today, many faith-based or faith-friendly organizations and institutions focus on humane, ethical treatment of the mentally ill. Some examples include LDS Family Services, Jewish Family Services, Jewish Federations, Institute for Muslim Mental Health, the Christian Association for Psychological Studies, NAMI’s FaithNet, and Mental Health Ministries.

Much to the surprise of many in the mental health world, it has, in fact, been individuals of faith who have led many of the efforts to improve the treatment conditions of the mentally ill. Some of the most inhumane efforts have been from the biggest critics of spirituality.

On the mental health side, virtually every major professional organization lists appropriately addressing religion or spirituality as part of their ethics code now. This includes the American Psychological Association, the National Association of Social Workers, the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapy, and NAADAC, the Association for Addiction Professionals. The public mental health system even acknowledges the importance of spirituality in treatment. See the California Mental Health and Spirituality Initiative and LA County's spirituality efforts, including a Clergy Advisory Committee and an annual conference.

While not everyone on either side of spirituality and mental health are interested in collaborating and making peace, increasingly, most people are interested in not only being cordial, but finding ways to be mutually reinforcing and beneficial. So let's stop making assumptions about each other and assume we have the same goals at heart.

Shameless plug: For those in Southern California and interested in these topics, I'll be on a panel at the University of Redland's Symposium on Integrating Spirituality and Mental Health on October 29. More information is available here and here.

Other synchroblog participants:

Monday, September 29, 2014

Fighting Biblical Literalism with Literalism?

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I'm not a fan of literalistic readings of the Bible in general. There's just no argument from any worldview, in my opinion, that supports this exegetical method. Even if every word was spoken by God and transcribed by humanity, that doesn't mean every word is literally true, as no one (even Jesus) spoke that literally all the time. And even Jesus' words were obviously highly contextualized, so "plain meaning" in our time just doesn't make any sense.

When taken too far, there are some extra special absurdities derived from literal interpretations of biblical text. Therefore, some people like to argue against a universally literal reading of the Bible by pointing out inconsistencies generated by such a reading. I can find this humorous (and appropriate) at times, as it helps keep all of us honest. As an example, one could argue against requiring a belief in a 7 day creation period by showing what else we would have to believe by the same interpretive methodology. The point of the argument is not to promote a particular interpretation necessarily, but to argue against a particular interpretive methodology.

However, then there's other times when I see people fighting conclusions made by literal interpretations by making another literal interpretation after criticizing this exegetical method. This is different than what I described above, as the methodology is undermined, but then the same methodology is used to come to a different conclusion.

Let me give an example. In our Sunday school class, we're exploring Borg and Crossan's The First Paul, discussing authorship and interpretation of the Pauline letters. For those who don't know, Borg and Crossan are squarely liberal scholars. They do not ascribe to literal readings of the Bible. In fact, a central component of their thesis is that only some of the letters attributed to Paul were authentically written by Paul. The rest, Borg and Crossan argue, were attributed to him in a way that often happened at the time. This argument alone helps undermine a literal reading of Paul.

However, part of the way they argue for different authorship is through a literal reading of the texts. They have several examples, but one is the topic slavery, as they see Philemon advocating for abolition (perhaps only of Christian slaves), while reading Colossians 3:22-4:1 and Ephesians 6:5-9 as advocating for the maintenance of slavery. However, the latter verses never explicitly support slavery. They could definitely be read that way (and have been in the past, of course). However, I see both of these as very superficial, literalistic, non-contextual interpretations.

Borg and Crossan's conclusions may be absolutely correct, but methodology matters. At least in this context, I do not find they have a rigorous explanation for their exegesis, as they are relying on a plain meaning of the text, which they clearly do not support themselves.

I find it interesting that some liberal scholars seem to do this. They clearly reject biblical literalism (and have changed their belief structure often in reaction to it, sometimes to the point of rejecting Christianity, like Bart Ehrman), but then use literal interpretations to make their arguments. I wonder if they seem to believe that the Christian community only values literal interpretations and in order to be heard, they have to use that methodology. Obviously, that's not true.

Historically and currently, a significant portion (perhaps even the majority, although they tend to be quieter) of Christians appreciate and value good non-literal exegesis. In fact, demonstrating that faithful Christians can interpret the Bible non-literally and still value it is critical to maintaining the faith of many and even evangelizing to many. So personally, I find it detrimental to the community of faith when those who have rejected literalism primarily use a literal interpretation to get to their points. Biblical literalism has already been effectively discredited for decades, if not longer. Rather than continuing to use it to make our arguments, lets show how good, faithful scholarship can actually be done.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Meaning Without Transcendence?

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This is the third in a series on meaning. A conversation I've had with others and is central to a universal concept of meaning is whether transcendence is needed for meaning. Viktor Frankl and others have argued that meaning is a central human need, and I'm inclined to agree.

There are many people who argue that transcendence is not at all necessary for meaning. They explain that they find meaning in simply enjoying the world around them, from sunsets to close relationships. However, nothing more than that is needed.

Others argue that such situations are insufficient. I'm in this camp. One way I'd phrase it is that survival for the sake the survival is not compelling nor meaningful. For me, there necessarily needs to be something more, something inherent, something transcendent to find meaning. That's where faith becomes central to me.

From the first perspective, having kids is important and meaningful only because that's just part of human nature, and we've evolutionarily been wired to have those drives. There's not necessarily anything transcendent about it, so just enjoy what biology has given us.

In the second perspective (using Christian language), God has used evolution to give us a desire for family because there is something inherently, transcendently meaningful about building life and relationships, and guiding little lives and character. Adoption is meaningful and relevant in this second context for me. I think it's harder to argue for in the first.

There's so much pain and destruction caused by humans that if there's nothing transcendent about them, then I find it hard to argue for our continued existence, frankly. But if there's something transcendent and valuable about all life, then we should continue on (and be good neighbors to our non-human friends).

What keeps me going is the faith that transcendence gives life and struggle meaning. I really have trouble understanding finding meaning without that. How about you? Do you find that meaning requires transcendence?

Monday, September 1, 2014

Meaning in Tradition

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Continuing my series on reflections on meaning, I want to consider the idea of tradition. Last week, I talked about the limited value I've increasingly seen in church services. I've reflected before that I have trouble understanding why people continue singing songs that sound like funeral dirges with affect that matches. Extreme structure and routine that is devoid of passion just doesn't strike me as compelling.

However, what seems to be a driving force for many is tradition. In various settings, I've heard people talk about being motivated to engage in an activity that others have done for decades, centuries, or millennia. Sometimes it's about doing the same thing others are doing at the same time around the globe. I find the latter more compelling because it emphasizes global unity, which is significant in many ways.

For one reason or another, I just have never been able to experience meaning or emotion connected to tradition. I've come to really appreciate some of the more historical images and processes, but not because of tradition; because of knowing that each element of an icon is intentionally placed and means something. But structuring a service or singing a particular song because others have done it before us just isn't compelling to me.

Maybe it goes back to my sense of meaning needing a relational and/or transformational quality. I just don't see either happening attached to tradition for the sake of tradition. That doesn't mean tradition is bad, but sometimes we can get too rigidly attached to it because that's how we've always done it. Perhaps there's a more effective or meaningful way...

Monday, August 25, 2014

Meaning in Church

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I put a lot of emphasis on meaning-making, for better or for worse. My heart feels at home with Viktor Frankl's logotherapy orientation, focused on meaning as the way to deal with psychological problems. And I pursued a career in psychology because I saw it having more meaning for me than other paths. So this will start a little series on reflections on meaning.

Most people would agree a major component of church and religion is to contribute to meaning. But how does it contribute to meaning? Does everyone even want meaning from church or its analogues?

When people think of church, they often think of certain songs and sermons. Style preferences can create great debate and even schisms. What I've come to realize over the years is that the "service" (I still don't like that word, thanks to the criticisms of it from the emerging church conversation) doesn't give much meaning to me. I can enjoy them, but they're not really transformative or filled with meaning.

Even in writing that sentence, I realize that central to meaning for me is some process of transformation. If no transformation of any kind occurs, can there be meaning? Songs and sermons can be stimulating in a variety of ways and encourage us to do things differently, but I have a hard time believing that they are the primary drivers of true change.

Relationships cause change. Change occurs within relationships. This is the core of the interpersonal approach to psychotherapy, which has some strong evidence base. Church services really aren't about relationship, for better or for worse.

It's been many years since I've felt like I've found much meaning in that hour (or so) on Sunday mornings, and it's not for lack of good music and speaking. I have found much more meaning in conversations, discussions, and ways of living life together.

Where do you find meaning in your faith practice? Not enjoyment, pleasure, or confidence, but actual meaning that's long-lasting?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Violence Against the Other

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The news lately has not been pretty. News in general is rarely happy, as trauma tends to be more sensational and better for headlines than generosity, grace, and love. But it's been extra bad, at least in my perception.

Neighboring countries bombing one another. Children being beheaded because they're of the wrong tribe/religion. Women being stoned because they didn't follow the right religious observance. Police wearing military gear against the communities they were sworn to protect.

What is with the lack of value of human life?

Even in my attempt at downtime, a fictional audiobook I'm listening to is focusing on lynchings in the South in the early 20th century. Why is our history (and present) so focused on killing the Other? Not just ostracizing, shaming, or trying to change the Other (all of which can be bad enough), but flat out destroying them?

I keep coming back to my reflections when I preached last month. The title of my sermon was Identity in Love, and my thought was that it has to do with our identities. When our identities are tied up in tribes, which are focused on sameness, then difference becomes a threat to who we are. Since that sermon, I keep seeing this pattern over and over across cultures and time.

Is there another explanation? If this idea of how we form our identity is at least a piece of the cause of violence against the Other, then how do we promote this kind of identity formation? It's beyond the prosocial behavior building promoted by positive psychology (which I think is wonderful). Identity is deeper than behavior, at least in my view. Spiritual formation seems to start getting in to some of that, as a core idea of spiritual formation is identity, at least spiritually. But most spiritual formation tends to be very individualistic.

It seems what we need is a new corporate identity. We need to change culture. I guess that starts with individuals, but it doesn't seem to be happening quickly enough...

Monday, July 28, 2014

Book Review: Grace for the Contemplative Parent #SpeakeasyContemplativeParents

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One of the spiritual formation concepts most dear to my heart is Brother Lawrence's practicing the presence of God. It is core to the Incarnational stream that Richard Foster describes in Streams of Living Water and feels like my spiritual home. For these reasons, Lily Crowder's book, Grace for the Contemplative Parent: A Practical Guide for Mothers Practicing the Presence of God caught my attention.

Crowder does a nice job of applying Brother Lawrence's concepts to the daily life of parenting. She will also probably make many mothers feel quite validated through struggles of the daily grind of life with kids. The points were good and could be powerful, although I didn't feel like there was anything particularly new in what I heard, even though I need to remember to give myself room for grace in many of these same circumstances. Many of the ideas were similar to ones I have conveyed to parents during the course of family therapy, which was validating to me, but not necessarily helpful in my own growth. Since I can still struggle with practicing God's presence, I was hoping this book would give me some new outlook that would translate to transformation. One of my reflections during the book was remembering that insight doesn't necessarily lead to behavior change. Learning something new about ourselves and the world is good and important, but sometimes we need practical skills to actually experience something different.

Even though the main title is "parent," the subtitle is "guide for mothers," and Crowder acknowledges early on that these principles are relevant to all parents, but she is targeting mothers. This is my biggest complaint. During our adoption process, almost all adoption resources were targeted at mothers (you'd be amazed at how many were pink and literally flowery--and my wife doesn't really like either). I felt really left out and invalidated, and I was just as active. Most parenting resources are similarly targeted toward mothers. Thankfully, there is increasing recognition that fathers are often active (and important) in parenting. I don't think it would have been that difficult to make this book more inclusive of fathers, and it would open up another huge audience. And believe me, fathers need grace, as well.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


Got a question, struggle, or doubt you'd like to see addressed here? Contact me, and I'll try to discuss it (and may even help you get an answer).