John Swinton on Spirituality and Mental Challenges

John Swinton on Spirituality and Mental Challenges January 27, 2021

John Swinton
Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of Christians with Mental Health Challenges
Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020.
Available from Eerdmans

Reviewed by Scot Harrower

John Swinton is a former nurse whose work and training focused on mental health and disability care. He is now Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at King’s College, University of Aberdeen. He is well known as the author of important cross-disciplinary works on theology to do with the human condition and human care, such as Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship; Demenita: Living in the Memories of God; as well as Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil. Uniquely, Swinton writes with a theologian’s eye, as well as a nurse’s compassion and skilled hands. For example he writes:

The absence of preaching on mental health issues leads to a gap in the spiritual lives of a congregation in which the power of the gospel is not brought to bear on a fundamentally important issue in many people’s lives. The word of God needs to be preached into all areas of human experience … Similarly, Bible study and preaching that do not take lamentation seriously deprive people of a powerful biblical resource –the psalms of lament –that has the potential to bring about the holy articulation of pain and sadness, which leads to a sense of shared experience belonging in the midst of brokenness (p. 210).

John Swinton’s new book Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of Christians with Mental Health Challenges is a gem. The work aims to avoid reductionism in the way that Christians understand, speak about, and also engage with mental health challenges. Depression, Psychosis and Bipolar Disorder are the three areas of focus in this work. You may have noticed I am using the language of “mental health challenges.” This phrase is the preoccupation of the first part of the book: “The Art of Redescription.” This first part is comprised of two chapters, “Redescribing the World of Mental Illness, and “Resurrecting Phenomenology.”

This first part is very important to the author in that it achieves one of his key aims, which is to caution medical professionals, family members and patients alike from reducing people to mere diagnoses as well as pharmacological approaches to health and illness. Problems with reducing people to diagnoses include the facts that these labels are often imposed on them, seemingly robbing them of a fuller identity, a sense of being and the high dignity appropriate to being a person. Furthermore, Swinton argues that the diagnoses are highly problematic because their substance as well as criteria shift, evolve, and even vanish. For example, he writes, Asperger’s syndrome has now simply “disappeared” as a result of the redefinitions that have taken place in the DSM-5 (p. 22-28). Importantly, Swinton is not against diagnoses per se, but against a “thin” reductionistic use of them. His arguments for rich descriptions and engagements with various forms of mental health challenges begin with the next chapter.

The transitional chapter, “Taking Our Meds Faithfully,” comprises Part II. Swinton shows us how theology can fall into the trap of reductionism as easily as other reductionistic approaches, such as the mostly pharmacological or social approaches to mental health challenges. Swinton argues against both an overly theological diagnosis of mental illness, as well as “lazy theodicy.” Instead, he begins to suggest ways forward for an appropriate and full integration of a Christian theology of divine care with a person’s story and their medical realities. Swinton provides apt examples that illustrate his concerns and aims.

The remainder of the book is divided into three parts, one for redescribing each of depression, psychosis, and bipolar disorder. For example, Part III, “Redescribing Depression” has two chapters. In the first, “Lament and Joy,” we are familiarized with depression, offered a “thick description” of it via medical science and personal accounts, then Swinton treats joy (and the presence of Jesus) in its relationship to depression, in turn describes depression as “Anti-feeling,” then finally speaks about how care-givers can hold onto faith and its possibilities for those who are seemingly numb to God and his care. On this last point he writes we should not fall into the poisonous trap of faking faith: “Feeling that one has to mimic one’s spiritual life in order to fit in with what other human beings think is the norm can only be destructive.” Rather, we need to be honest with one another through life’s seasons and challenges:  “When our brother or sister in Jesus struggles to hold onto the great joy of Jesus, other brothers and sisters hold it for him or her.” We can say to one another:

OK, for now it feels like Jesus has abandoned you … At this moment you don’t feel the way I feel, but I desperately want to help you hold on to the possibility that God exists, and the possibility that God loves you, and the possibility that joy might be closer than you think. I know that’s not how you feel, but it remains a possibility, and I want to hold that for you (p.87)

The next chapter more fully deals with “Finding God in the Darkness.”

Following two chapters each on psychosis and bipolar disorder, the book concludes with “Redescribing Healing.” Here, Swinton wrestles with healing (we can think of in terms of processes and goals), as well as what this may require on multiple registers: the cultural, liturgical, biblical, theological, epistemic (and epistemological), testimonial and relational aspects of healing.

This work is a must read for all Christians, regardless of their medical situations. I don’t often recommend books with such force, but I cannot recall any other equally helpful, astute, empathetic and theological intervention in the realm of mental health challenges. This work repays multiple read-throughs, then selective use in Christian life and ministry. Even though one may have misgivings about, for example, Swinton’s definition of joy, Swinton’s work will encourage, rather than dissuade, those who may approach these select themes in a different yet life-giving manner. Tolle Lege –Take this up and read it!

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