Sunday, January 01, 2006

Cure of the soul, part 1

Before Freud, Jung, and Adler — before psychoanalysis, psychotherapy and the rest — people spoke instead of the "cure of the soul".

The concept sounds like a relic from a bygone era, but it is still dusted off and trotted out from time to time. For example, here is an excerpt from a recent treatise by an Orthodox priest:
Contemporary man, tired and discouraged by the various problems which torment him, is looking for rest and refreshment. Basically he is seeking a cure for his soul. …

According to Orthodox tradition, after Adam's fall man became ill; his nous [mind/heart] was darkened and lost communion with God. Death entered into the person's being and caused many anthropological, social, even ecological problems. …

Many psychological illnesses are caused by the anxiety of death, the lack of meaning in life, a guilty conscience and the loss of communion with God on man's part. Surely the theology of the Church can help by either preventing or by healing people suffering from such existential dilemmas.
I'd like to open up a dialogue on this subject. At least three questions are relevant to the dialogue:
  1. Do human beings suffer from a spiritual or psychical malaise?
  2. If so, what precisely is wrong? (What is your diagnosis of the malaise?)
  3. How can the malaise be remedied? (What treatment would you prescribe?)
In this post, I'd like to focus on the first question. I intend to address questions 2 and 3 together in a follow-up post.

In my opinion, the answer to question #1 is a definite Yes.

Consider the astonishing technological advances made in the West in the past few hundred years; but consider also how little progress we have made in terms of human nature itself. Among the innovations that spring to mind: democracy; human rights codes; the emancipation of women; the Industrial Revolution; the virtual eradication of many diseases; the mapping of the human genome; the ability to travel to the opposite side of the globe in a matter of hours; the exploration of space; and the invention of computers and associated information technology.

In short, we are profoundly privileged to live in this part of the world at this point in history. Why then is depression so commonplace among us? Why haven't we achieved anything like an equitable distribution of wealth? Why is the incidence of murder so high in our cities? Why do racism and hate speech continue to sprout up like bad weeds? Why is it still unsafe for women to walk alone at night? Why are totalitarianism and attempted genocide still recurrent themes of geo-political history?

Or perhaps I should narrow the focus to just one straightforward illustration. Many of us North Americans drive cars and live in homes that are far bigger than we need. Sometimes it's a matter of "conspicuous consumption":  i.e., consuming more resources than one needs just to impress one's neighbours. Other times, it's just a matter of thoughtlessness:  e.g. when people who ought to know better put things that could be recycled into the trash.

Whether or not you believe in global warming, everyone knows that the West's bloated way of life is unsustainable. It is not possible for everyone in the world to live as we do without rapidly despoiling the environment, resulting in a global ecological disaster.

In sum, human beings are both spectacularly advanced and spectacularly backwards.

The analysis is hardly original to me. Christian theologians have always maintained that human beings have both a semi-divine nature and a beastial nature, in approximately equal measure. I believe it was St. Augustine who likened humanity to the ruins of a once-great civilization. We are created in the image of God, which is evident in our sublime achievements; but that the image of God in us is corrupted and defaced is also manifest. Here we return to the argument of the Orthodox priest, that the human race has fallen from a great height and every individual suffers the consequences.

In my view, this is still the best explanation of the evidence. But I'd like to how my non-Christian readers would answer question #1. Do human beings suffer from a spiritual or psychical malaise, in your opinion?

copyright © 2006, Stephen Peltz


At 10:55 PM, January 01, 2006, Blogger Jewish Atheist said...

Hi Q,

While I believe it would be too simplistic to say that all humans suffer from a single spiritual* malaise, I do think that many of us in the first world do suffer. For one reason or another, the feeling and actuality of human connectedness has decreased for many over the last few generations. As Vonnegut wrote, "Human beings will be happier - not when they cure cancer or get to Mars or eliminate racial prejudice or flush Lake Erie but when they find ways to inhabit primitive communities again. That's my utopia."

* Obviously, as an atheist I use "spiritual" metaphorically.

At 8:54 AM, January 02, 2006, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

hmmm, I guess it depends on your definitionnof "malaise".

Being human means that we are never satisfied - it's what drives our curiosity, intelligence, technological advances & cultural changes.

Our current society (an most of the historical ones I can think of) means that we have no direct control over many aspects of change in our lives, so this manifests as a general angst accross the first world nations. It is not so noticable in third world countries, because when your whole mind is consumed with the need to find food/shelter etc, you don't have the time or energy to ponder "spiritual" questions.

So, in answer to your question, yes, I would say we are genetically programmed to be unhappy with our lot! However, I do not agree that many Psychological ailments arise from this, nor that it is due to our lack of discourse with God.

I wonder, have any studies been made into the statistics of mental illness in devout believers vs atheists?

I do believe we have hardly started to understand the mind/brain, and the 20th century psych treatments/ideas will be treated in the same scandalised disbelief by future generations as "quacks" are now.

At 3:23 PM, January 02, 2006, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

I've checked out my own question, and apparently no, no-one has done any reliable scientific work on the liklihood of theists & atheists having a mental illness, or on their recovery times.

I found an interesting article on it here , but no real evidence one way or another. Oh well, I'm sure someone will do it eventually.

At 10:19 AM, January 03, 2006, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Jewish Atheist:
Thanks for the comment. I appreciate the distinction you're making, that human beings do suffer but there may not be one universal root cause.

The quote about restoring "primitive communities" is also interesting, and connects with the letter Mrs. Aginoth links to.

• Mrs. Aginoth:
I would say we are genetically programmed to be unhappy with our lot!

Genetically programmed to be depressed even in the midst of affluence? Genetically programmed for men to oppress and exploit women? Genetically programmed to despoil the environment with no regard for the welfare of future generations?

I think it's true that we're always questing to explore and improve, but I'm not sure that your explanation gets to the core issue.

That said, I found the letter you linked us to quite interesting. First, "patients who attended church and other religious activities had shorter hospital stays than did those whose religion was just in their heads". The author of the letter offers an interpretation similar to JA's, that "the human-to-human contact is the important one, not the human-to-God contact." If that interpretation is correct, it's still an important finding — that being active in a religious community brings psychological benefits.

But (as you know), it's difficult to interpret such data. For example, this comment: "The intensity of religious beliefs was more pronounced among the more severely ill subjects." But which is the cause and which is the effect? Churches have always reached out to people in difficulty, people who start out life with two strikes against them. And it's obvious that many people with psychiatric difficulties have a fixation on God and religious leaders; I don't think it proves anything about religion one way or the other.

I wish it were possible to sort out sociological questions with definitive scientific studies, but it's so hard to make meaningful headway.

At 10:52 AM, January 03, 2006, Blogger Juggling Mother said...

I was trying to say that we are destined to be eternally unsatisfied, not that we are designed to opress, repress or depress each other:-)

When I googled "mental illness & faith" I got loads of pages telling me how religion is a mental illness in it's own right! Worrying stuff really.

I agree with you about cause & effect. those who show unusual fervour in worshipping something (God, leaders, plastic tea-pots), are exhibiting signs of possible mental illness, but even then, you need to look at social and cultural influences too.

I think that human contact is obviously a vital ingrediant to mental health - we are social animals, and modern society can make it difficult to find that face to face contact sometimes. Having said that, I'm sure your church is wonderful & greets all new members of the community without prejudice, giving help and support wherever needed. My experience of churches has not been so good.

At 5:51 PM, January 03, 2006, Anonymous J said...

I'm not a non-Christian reader, so I guess the question doesn't really apply to me, but I'll throw in a thought anyway.

It definitely seems like the majority of people (if not all of us) deal with a deep sense of dissatisfaction, and of longing for something. Now, sometimes longing is a good thing, but I'm under the impression most people feel it in a not-so-good sense (i.e. it's not something positive like mere curiosity or the desire to be creative or something like that). The prevalence of human dissatisfaction seems clear based on how many different ways people try to fill their inner holes (alcohol, drugs, strings of romantic relationships, pursuit of fame/wealth/power/etc.).

Actually, the very fact of the human fascination with the divine (whether the Christian God or some other spiritual power) seems indicative of the fact that most people deal with a lack of fulfillment. Just my opinion, then, but all this definitely seems to point to spiritual malaise.

At 6:39 PM, January 05, 2006, Blogger Stephen (aka Q) said...

• Mrs. Aginoth:
I was trying to say that we are destined to be eternally unsatisfied, not that we are designed to opress, repress or depress each other.

I know, but the other things — the things you haven't accounted for — are part of the evidence that human beings suffer from a spiritual (or psychical) malaise. It isn't adequate just to say that we're always dissatisfied and questing for more … there's more to the malaise than that.

• Jamie:
I'm glad you commented: I didn't intend to exclude fellow Christians from expressing an opinion!

I appreciate the way you're structuring your argument. You are expressing agreement with Mrs. Aginoth on the basic symptom, dissatisfaction. But you argue that it stems from a universal longing for God.

That's a classical Christian position. This time I'm sure it was Augustine who said, "You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you." Thanks for bringing out that point of view.


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