Healing: Psychological and Theological Perspectives
The relationship between religious leaders and mental health professionals has a long history. At some points the relationship has been antagonistic and at other times more collaborative, with a desire to form a partnership in order to serve those who needed care and counseling. Fortunately, in contemporary society many health professionals consider religion and spirituality an essential component in a holistic approach to health, and many religious leaders in turn recognize the benefit of using scientific and psychological perspectives to understand, assess, and treat specific symptoms of an individual’s distress.
At its best, the relationship between the two groups is dialogical, dynamic, and mutually transforming for the purpose of promoting the healing experience of people in crisis and suffering. Many in the church actively support the goal of mental health professionals in their effort to treat the symptoms of mental illness and reject the notion that mental disorders are simply the result of spiritual failure and lack of faith and thus deserve the shame and stigma associated with mental illness.
With their rich traditions and resources, religious leaders have much to contribute to reframing, expanding, and critically reflecting on the meaning of human nature, healing, and suffering. Yet unfortunately they tend to shy away from an active partnership of dialogue, often claiming that compared with their scientifically trained colleagues, they don’t have the skills to talk about mental health. I suggest that religious leaders, as genuine partners in the ministry of healing and health, share their hopes and concerns as well as traditions and knowledge with physical and mental health professionals. In this article, I suggest a way that religious leaders can engage in the dialogue and partnership.
Psychiatrist Judith Herman has proposed a three-stage model of treatment and healing for people with childhood traumas.1 The goal of the first stage is to build a strong foundation for the self by achieving personal safety, genuine self-care, stability, and the capacity to regulate one’s emotions. The focus of therapy here is to develop a basic ability to take care of oneself, but not to discuss, recover, or “process” memories of traumatic experiences. Without a strong sense of self, the individual is unable to process difficult and painful experiences and, therefore, re-traumatization can occur. It is only after establishing this strong sense of self that the individual should be encouraged to deal with traumatic experiences that continue to disrupt his or her life. Various “memory processing” methods and techniques may be used during this stage. Therapists help clients to re-experience the past within a safe and healing therapy setting with the goal of redeeming, reconstructing, and transforming their painful experiences.
Both the first and second stages contribute enormously to the individual’s well-being. However, Herman contends that the process of healing is incomplete without the last stage in her model, which focuses on reconnecting the wounded individual with other people, their community, and society. The implication is that genuine healing is complete only when healthy, meaningful relationships with others are developed or restored.2 Healing is a relational enterprise.
Contemporary psychotherapy, however, predominantly focuses on the first and second stages of Herman’s model with a priority of strengthening an individual self or ego and of processing the traumatic memories. This focus is based on a medical model of health, which revolves around diagnosing and eliminating symptoms. In this medical model, health means the absence of mental and physical illness, and “cure” is its ideal goal. Religious leaders, however, are more concerned about healing. Healing has a broader, holistic meaning and implies having a physical, psychological, emotional, ethical, and spiritual balance and integration. It includes a sense of reconciliation with self, others, reality, and God or what the individual regards as sacred. Therefore, it is theoretically possible that people can be cured without being healed and healed without being cured.
With its priority of the so-called “cure” of an individual ego, contemporary psychotherapy has become gradually absorbed in self-care, self-interest, and self-concern. The intention is good, but the unexpected consequence is an individualistic and even egoistic approach to health and treatment of self in isolation. This agenda of self-interest, self-sufficiency, and self-preservation is the legacy of the liberalism that originated in the Enlightenment with its respect for and valuation of an individual’s right and freedom as the ultimate value in decision-making. Care of self-interest has its own value and role in healing, but when this liberal agenda becomes an ideology, it turns into “rugged” individualism. This is the moment that calls for critical theological reflection to recover the balance between self-care and care of self-in-relation.3
In the article, “Psychotherapeutic Triumphalism and Freedom from Mental Illness,” psychologist Alan C. Tjeltveit asks, “What theological perspectives may be brought to bear on that meaning of mental health?”4 In trying to answer the question, he avoided the medical definition of mental health, which is simple elimination of individual distress and symptoms, and warns against “a triumphalistic replacement of Christian faith with a ‘gospel’ of self-interest” (139). He suggests that mental health needs to be seen in the context of an overall theological vision and that the vision be holistic health, embracing physical, mental, moral, and spiritual health. Such a vision includes restoration to one’s community, God, and grace.
Christian theologian Miroslav Volf argues that healing takes place when the self can integrate its painful experience “into a broader pattern of one’s life story.”5 According to Volf, such integration occurs in the subjectivity characterized by the decentered ego in contrast to the self-enclosed in its ego. The latter is self centered in its ego and thus inherently absorbed by the pursuit of self-interest. The self in the ego sees others as “objects” to satisfy its own needs and desires. Volf regards such an egoistic self as a source for oppression and injustice. That does not mean that the ego itself is bad, simply that it is inherently limited in its ability to reach out to others because its basic function is the self-preservation and self-protection essential for any individual to survival. Strengthening of the ego, as in the first stage of Herman’s model, is absolutely necessary for the survival of the victims of traumatic experiences.
Thus the ego must be dethroned from the center in order to be re-centered by the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in the crucified and resurrected Christ. The fragile ego has now been restored and strengthened, but it is no longer in the center of the healed self, only in the periphery. The ego is firmly rooted in the loving and almighty God as the center. Only such a self that is centered in God is capable of healthy relationships with others, without being trapped in a vicious cycle of vengeful reactions to others, and this is the true sign of healing. In this way, the individual’s identity is not defined by the past; his or her painful memories are redeemed, and “the grip of the past on [his or her] identity has been broken.”6 The individual is much more than what he or she has suffered.
This kind of theological reflection can be a corrective to the contemporary psychotherapeutic approach to healing, which is predominantly motivated by a self-interested and self-focused agenda. When the balance in our understanding of self, others, reality, and relationship is skewed or broken, we need new insights to restore a healthy balance. Instead of being hostile toward or apprehensive about each other, theology and psychology can and must work together as active partners in a creative dialogue of human suffering and healing. Each has its own unique role and contributions to make. Psychology is a discipline that inherently focuses on, or starts with, an individual’s inner self with its personal motives, needs, wishes, and conflicts. This approach, therefore, can easily and unintentionally end up with producing “self-absorbed” individuals, and that is another problem rather than a solution. Pastors and believers in the community of faith have to step forward to help expand this reductionist approach, actively using their rich theological resources and reflections in harmony with Christian faith.
“Heal me, O Lord, and I shall be healed; save me, and I shall be saved, for you are my praise.” (Jer. 17:14)
“Behold, I will bring it health and healing; I will heal my people and will let them enjoy abundant peace and security.” (Jer. 33:6)
1. See Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic Books, 1997).
2. Though described in stages, the healing process of Herman’s model is not linear but dynamic.
3. Self-in-relation means that one’s sense of self emerges in the context of the interpersonal relations experienced in one’s family, social networks, and culture.
4. Alan C. Tjeltveit, “Psychotherapeutic Triumphalism and Freedom from Mental Illness,” Word and World 9, no.2 (April 1989): 132-139, accessed March 10, 2014, http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/issues.aspx?issue_id=34.
5. Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2006), 28.
6. Ibid., 199.