The disintegration of the person

Posted: February 10, 2012 by J in Bible, Discipleship, Theology

Having been in pastoral ministry now for the impressive total of 1 year, I’m struck by how very prevalent what we call ‘mental trouble’ is. Things that are normally identified as mental illness (I’ll get back to the name thing later) are just everywhere. Depression, of course, is massive, and anxiety; but also obsessive/compulsive disorders, addictions, bi-polar, passive-aggressive issues, aspergers (our boy has been diagnosed with that), phobias like shut-in sydrome, attention deficit, and just a general inability to connect with everyday reality – not sure what you call that! And to this I want to add, a crushing, destructive sense of aloneness that isn’t easily cured by human contact.

Most of the people in our church either have currently or have had struggles with one or more of these things. Most of us! And the people we meet in Canterbury, it’s not long before we hear about serious ‘mental’ disturbances in the immediate family. Again and again. If it’s not the parents, it’s their kids. Often it’s both. As I took Asher to school today, we passed a family where the little girl, maybe 5 years old, was clearly in distress, wailing loudly, pulling backwards. ‘It’s a mess, it’s a mess’, she kept screaming. Over and over. This is not just, I don’t want to go to school, there’s something worse going on for that child.

I want to do some thinking about what we normally call mental illness or disorder. Disorder is a better name I think, for what’s happening – which is that the normal, ordered, balanced functioning of the mind and body, the whole person, is coming undone. The normal, healthy structures of the personality – of the person – dissolve, and the forces of chaos gain control.  Reason gives way to confusion. Personhood (and indeed all of creation) involves order. By ‘person’ we mean a free agent, able to respond freely to others within the relational structures of the real world in which we live. But in the grip of disorders, this free agent recedes, replaced by a slave, trapped in some chaotic inner world, driven by internal forces and uncontrollable thoughts, unable to connect with the created order around us. And that is something less than true personhood.

Scripture is very attuned to these issues. It confronts us with the problem of this confusion that afflicts us, of these dark powers that enslave: that’s what the whole salvation-history story is about, really. The story of mankind is one of struggle to maintain true personhood in the face of this constant attack – the struggle to not be overpowered. A struggle we see mankind lose again and again, as it leaves the path of wisdom and descends into folly and madness. Persons become the entry points into the world for the forces of destruction. That’s ultimately the story of Israel, isn’t it: the victory of de-humanising powers.

Scripture gets to the heart of the matter by giving us a theological description of these forces. It portrays them as powers of uncreation.  Mankind, and then the very creation itself, having been loving knitted together by God, is unknitted. We gradually return towards the chaotic impersonal mass from which we came. Male/female unity is dissolved early on (think Genesis 3). Society (represented by the family) comes unstuck as murder, isolation, and infinite revenge take charge (the story of Cain and sons). And it is a ‘taking charge’, there is a dark force at work here: “sin is lurking at the door; its desire is to master you, but you must master it” (Genesis 4:7). Cain’s crime is the expression and occasion of the loss of his own freedom. And with that loss, human society is also unravelled: it is not good for man to be alone, but the first family dissolves into hatred and violence, and Cain is exiled (Genesis 4). The life-potential built into creation (Genesis 1) is reversed as death takes hold (Genesis 5). Ultimately the uncreation goes so far, the very ground sinks back under the waters, and time itself stops moving (the flood narrative).

This theological diagnosis is of great help in understanding what is at stake, what is the meaning of this constant attack on mankind and our personhood in particular. It is not a natural part of the experience of createdness, but rather the expression of an anti-God power attempting to reverse and destroy his good work of creation and all his purposes for the world.

In Jesus’ day, this becomes especially clear: disorder manifests itself dramatically in the overt possession of the person by unclean spirits. These demons drive people to madness and self-harm. Israel has by then fallen deeply under the power of the forces of chaos and death. In Luke’s Gospel, the nation is symbolised by a demoniac, so powerfully possessed that he is driven completely out of his mind (Luke 8).

And the focus of these attacks is the mind. As the apostle Paul puts it, ‘The god of this age has blinded the minds of those who do not believe’ (2 Corinthians 4:4), who suffer under ‘powerful delusion’ (2 Thessalonians 2:11), walking ‘in the futility of their minds’ (Ephesians 4:17). It is at this point – the human mind – that the forces of disorder especially aim their attacks.

But the person is more than mind. Disorders radiate out from the mind, through the body and into the relationships that are so basic to our personhood. And that means that they come in the other direction also, from others to us. Although disorder isolates, its causes are not all to be found in the person bearing the symptoms. Rather personhood itself is subject to attack, in all its combinations – marriage, family, community, society.

We are ready to say, then, that the bigger picture, the context in which to understand what is normally called mental illness, is the disintegration of the person. This is the threat which confronts us when we are taken captive by dark and chaotic thoughts.

This is what we’ve seen so much of this past year in Canterbury. People struggling to grasp or maintain normal personhood, normal free agency. People longing for the good, yet finding themselves diverted to choose the evil and the destructive time and time again. People seeing the good, but seemingly unable to reach for it. And an accompanying sense of powerlessness.

One way in which this view of things is helpful is that it avoids the perception of an isolated problem which the term ‘mental illness’ can convey. Rather ‘personal disintegration’ immediately suggests involvement from and a follow-on threat to family etc. If the persons come unravelled, family and community cannot escape damage.

This is often the form in which we encounter the problem here in Canterbury: hurting families, struggling to cling on to some fragment of normal family life, facing sometimes overwhelming disintegrative forces. A disordered, fragmented community. Lonely, isolated people losing their sense of personhood and humanity.

I think there is probably more of this around now than there has been in other times and places. My hunch is that our society has become a less healthy place for persons to thrive and be human. Living here and now predisposes us to becoming disordered, we become easy pickings, vulnerable to destructive powers. And isolation traps us in our internal worlds, intensifying the problem. In short, we seem to be sitting ducks. And so we have what appears to be an epidemic. An epidemic of disintegrating persons. I’m sure they have one in Sudan and elsewhere also, but it’s Sydney that I see being overwhelmed.

This wider perspective given by Scripture – that ‘mental trouble’ means personal disintegration – also suggests that this affliction is not to be accepted as inevitable. It is not the right state of affairs, but the undoing of a right state. Many people live under the terrible burden of ‘mental illness’ (and associated family and community-illness) for years, without help or hope. Understanding that this is not living but rather a kind of uncreation, a death-in-life, challenges us to take action. Facing the reality that anti-God powers are at work to dissolve our personhood, in particular prompts us to cry out for deliverance.

Where will we turn for help?

I never thought I’d be recommending psych help as often as I am. Psychs seem to me to be in the front line of dealing with this disordering, this dissolution of the person. They don’t have all the answers, but they do seem to have some. Their weakness is that they so often seem to deal with the symptom-bearer in isolation from the family-network in which the disorder has arisen.

I never thought I’d be suggesting the possibility of medication as often as I am. But when people are so far down the pit, anything to give them a boost, break the destructive circuit, is a Godsend.

I myself am just at the tail end of over two years of antidepressant medication, which was of great help. I’ve tapered it off to almost nothing now: don’t seem to need it the way I did, thank God. If I need it again, I won’t hesitate to take it.

But the main things we’re doing are:

  • trying to get close to Jesus, who maintained and established free personhood against the onslaught of the dehumanising powers. Jesus was not taken captive. Rather he took death itself captive and broke its power. Here is all our hope. So we are –
  • seeking to share in his renewed humanity, and be ourselves re-humanised by faith in him.  And that means also –
  • trying to build a gospel community which stands in the grace of God by the power of his re-creative Spirit. In which we can draw others to find healing in Jesus also.

Gradually our Father is knitting us back together.


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