This post started for me when I read a headline that said “What Made Mental Illness a ‘Sin’? Paganism.” It was by the staff of Christianity Today.
The article spoke of an evangelical women’s conference where “speaker Rebekah Lyons, in telling about her daughter’s anxiety attacks, suggested that mental illness could be healed through prayer.”
That’s a subject that I took up not long ago in this blog . In that post, I said, “In my opinion, what you can’t do is ‘pray away’ the bipolar disorder. If you’ve got it, you have to find a way to live with it. If prayer helps you do that, more power to you.” I stand by that.
But the CT article did not really explain how paganism was involved. To get a grasp on that, it turns out that you should go to the podcast “Quick to Listen,” episode 94, on Apple Podcasts. There Amy Simpson, author of Troubled Minds: Mental Illness and the Church’s Mission, explains that by paganism, she means the early Greek and Roman civilizations and their many deities, who saw some physical and psychological conditions as punishments from on high.
This link between mental illness, sin, and spirituality “isn’t really a Christian or religious idea,” says Simpson. “It’s really rooted in superstition and a misunderstanding of what mental illness is.”
The Christian Bible betrays some misunderstanding itself, when at least some of what we would today consider schizophrenia, other psychoses, or even epilepsy are defined as demonic possession. The Catholic Church, it should be noted, still – though rarely – performs exorcisms. And there are definitely still churches that equate mental illness with sin:
The bible makes it very clear that insanity, depression, anxiety, stress, paranoia are the punishments for living a sinful rebellious life contrary to the moral pattern revealed by God in the Bible. Remember, insanity is not a bodily disease, it is a behaviour choice. The only “cure” of insanity, is repentance of the sinful lifestyle and the sinful behaviour choices to solve the problems such a sinful lifestyle creates.
Leah Godfrey wrote an article that appeared on TheMighty.com. It was titled “5 Unhelpful Things Fellow Christians Have Said About My Mental Illness (and My Responses).” In it, she addresses the complicated topic of mental illness and the sometimes insensitive reactions of Christians to it. For example, to those who represent prayer as a power that can heal mental illness, she responds:
Yes, I do believe in God’s healing, that’s why I’m taking medication… because I’m blessed with enough resources to get help to be healthy again. I understand that some people … heard a sermon and *poof* they were healed; I am not that case.
And on the subject of suicidal thoughts, she says:
Yes, you can be a Christian and have suicidal thoughts. We all have thoughts of things we shouldn’t do or won’t do….I don’t believe anyone has the right to take a life, including their own. I’m a Christian who has had years of suicidal thoughts or thoughts of self-harm… Suicidal thoughts are lies we tell ourselves.
Such issues are not limited to the Christian community, however. In researching modern-day paganism (which is what I thought Christianity Today was going to talk about), I found a number of interesting resources. One talked about problems of sexual and emotional abuse within pagan groups and among their leaders, a subject hardly exclusive to the pagan community.
In fact, in my reading, I was interested to learn that pagan communities and Christian communities sometimes address mental illness in similar ways, and how one could benefit from the other’s perspective.
For example, I found this statement:
Many religious communities have support groups and other resources for members who suffer from mental illness. These kinds of services are desperately needed in the Pagan community. We need to learn from other religious communities and adapt to the needs of our own community.
Another pagan author, Luthaneal Adams says:
Can a person find that paganism is beneficial for their mental health? Certainly. I’d say that spiritual fulfillment is one element of mental wellbeing. If Paganism is what helps you find that spiritual fulfillment, then great. However, that is not the same as saying that Paganism (or things within Paganism) are themselves tools for achieving better mental health…. When it comes to mental illness, we’re talking about major, chronic illnesses. No single ritual or ceremony is going to make that just go away.
Other fascinating subjects regarding Christianity, paganism, and sin are the multiplicity of sects and practices and beliefs in both forms of spirituality; the circumstances for excommunication and disfellowship as regards “sin” or disruption of the community; the question of “sinful” behaviors caused by mental illness; and so on.
I don’t have the theological background to address these points. But, to sum up what I found: that mental illness is or is not a sin, depending on whom you ask; that paganism, as well as Christianity, concerns itself with the mental health of its practitioners; and that many spiritual traditions advocate compassion for the mentally ill and an understanding of their suffering.
Certainly there exist both Christian and pagan communities that are more judgmental or less inclined to minister to the sinful or the mentally ill, rather than rejecting them.
These are things that all faith communities need to address.