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Religious Mental Illness

There was an annual meeting a short time ago of the “Academy of Religion and Mental Health” which met in Washington. At this meeting a group of clergy-men and psychiatrists gathered to discuss the difference between religious faith and mental illness. They found some difficulty in drawing the line (according to Timemagazine, which reported the conference) for they found that much of what passes as “faith” is nothing more than abnormal neurosis.

There were some examples given of neurotic tendencies which go under the name of religious belief. Authoritarian religion (by which is presumably meant any faith which holds to some authority of truth) is said to be a major cause of mental illness. Indications of such unhealthy faith are supposed to be irrational tendencies of belief in a new doctrine, greater concern for form and theology than for ethical and moral principles, hatred of past beliefs, intolerance of deviation, the desire for martyrdom to prove devotion. One theologian took it upon himself to define the difference between a healthy faith and religious neurosis.

(A healthy faith is measured by) its ability to remain in relation to the threatening aspects of reality without succumbing to fear, shame, anxiety or hostility. An unhealthy religion runs away, becomes obsessed with a part in order to avoid the whole. The body is denied for the soul’s sake; the future becomes so fascinating that it blots out the present; all truth is limited to the Bible. A healthy religion unites existence, an unhealthy one divides it.

If one tries to translate this jargon, then one discovers that these men consider mental illness of the religious variety to be found in those who maintain doctrine firmly and without compromise; who are willing to suffer for the sake of their beliefs; who are concerned with their soul to the extent that they deny the body; who look for their salvation to come not in this life, but in a life hereafter; who insist that the truth is to be found only in the Word which God speaks. 

While it is no doubt true that these leaders in psychiatry and religion have their eyes fastened upon certain sects in our day who, under the name of religion, hold to strange doctrines and engage in strange practices (whether this is always mental illness is quite another question), their condemnation of a neurotic religion comes perilously close to a condemnation of the truth of the people of God defined in Scripture. 

This trend follows the general pattern of our times in that more and more psychiatrists are finding mental illness where there is not any. It is becoming fashionable to deny the reality of sin and refer it all to mental disease of one kind or another. I have heard psychiatrists (who ought to know better because they are Reformed) admonish ministers not to censure a man for stealing or for committing adultery, but rather to urge him to seek psychiatric treatment, for, obviously, he wouldn’t do such things unless he were mentally disturbed. He does not need the gospel and the Word of Christ; he needs the care of a trained psychiatrist. So, gradually, there grows the idea that sin is really nothing more than neurotic or psychotic ills, to be cured, not by the cross, but by the psychiatrist’s conference room and by the tools of psychoanalysis. 

The same thing becomes the judgment on false religion of strange kinds. This is not false doctrine any more nor the attempts of sinful man to worship his images, but the manifestations of a diseased mind to be cured by the methods of worldly psychology. 

But there is another grave danger. A conference like the one described above sets a pattern that could very well be followed in the future. Modern day ecumenical religion and humanism become the only “healthy religion;” while commitment to the Word of God and faithfulness to the truth become “unhealthy religion,” and its adherents judged as in need of the care of a mental institution and psychiatric treatment. 

Selma And The Clergy 

Negro protest demonstrations have been in the news spotlight for some time now. The marches of demonstrators here and there throughout the South have been part of a longer march towards greater civil rights. In these marches, increasingly, clergymen have taken a part. Dr. Martin Luther King, in preparation for the voter registration march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama said, “The people of Selma will struggle for the soul of the nation, but it is fitting that all Americans help to bear the burden. I call, therefore, on clergy of all faiths, representative of every part of the country, to join me in Selma for a ministers’ march on Montgomery.” In answer to this appeal, clergymen, priests, rabbis and even nuns streamed by the hundreds to Selma to take part in this crusade. In all the civil unrest surrounding this protest, one clergyman, Rev. James Reeb, Unitarian minister, was clubbed to death. 

Inasmuch as the church is violently caught up in this drive towards civil rights for negroes, a few remarks seem to be in order. 

There is no question about it that negroes have, in many cases, been denied their legal rights guaranteed to them under the Constitution of this country. But this is not our purpose in writing, for the problem of the state ought to be solved on that level. 

Nor is the killing of a man to be condoned. It was a brutal and cold-blooded murder. 

Nevertheless, those demonstrating for civil rights are also themselves guilty of violating the laws of the nation, of the state and of the county. And clergymen are participating in this civil disobedience. In fact, Martin Luther King has openly advocated the breaking of the law if this becomes necessary to gain his goals. Other clergymen, e.g., Eugene Carson Blake, have shouted their assent. The justification of this disobedience to civil law is supposed to be that the negro has been oppressed long enough, that it is difficult at best to secure the rights of the negro, that the laws are in many cases unjust; and therefore that the violation of law is good to secure the end of civil rights for this segment of the population. In other words, “the end justifies the means.” But this is terribly wrong and no good can ever come of it. It is to be deplored that clergymen condone this sort of a thing. I wonder how those who justify breaking the law can, in good conscience, condemn the murder of a white minister. 

But there is another angle to this problem that needs clarification. The church’s involvement in these civil rights disputes is also wrong. It may certainly be true that negroes are being denied their constitutional rights. But this is surely a problem that must be solved in the sphere where the problem exists, namely, the sphere of the state. And the courts are open to appeals from injustice. 

But when the church enters the civil rights arena, it engages in activities which are none of the church’s business. The Church is called to preach the gospel, not to march in civil rights demonstrations. The Church is bound to the power of the Word of God; not to the power of mob-rule and sit-ins. Through the preaching of the gospel, the Church of Christ is gathered; and within that Church of Christ, among those who are redeemed and called out of darkness, social problems will be solved be cause the hearts of God’s people are changed. But this is within the communion of the saints, and is the only possible solution to the problem. When, instead of preaching the gospel, the church engages in these social protests, it is obvious that the church has ceased to concern itself with the salvation of the people of God. It seeks for the redress of civil wrongs. At best, the motivation of such action can only be the ideal of a post-millennial kingdom of Christ in the world brought about by a social gospel; at worst the result will be the kingdom of Antichrist. But when the ministers in the church turn away from the gospel and have no gospel left, then there is little else to do but walk in social protest with marchers seeking goals which are foreign to the kingdom of heaven. 

Mergers, Etc. 

To keep abreast of current ecumenical developments, there are two recent events worth reporting. 

The first is that of a merger among Presbyterians. The Reformed Presbyterian Church in North America has merged with the Evangelical Presbyterian Church to form a new denomination called the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod. Together now, the new denomination numbers about 100 congregations and has a membership of 10,000 communicants. 

Both groups are conservative Presbyterian groups who maintain the Westminster Confessions. 

The second event is not one of merger, but of withdrawal from the National Council of Churches. 

There has been an increasing amount of criticism of the liberal National Council of Churches by members within this organization as well as church groups on the outside. Not only this, but several denominations are under increasing pressure from their membership in this body. Among these denominations are the Southern Presbyterian Church, the Methodists and the Episcopalians. The criticism mostly is concerned with the declarations and pronouncements of the NCC on social and political issues. The NCC has become well-known for its continual barrage of advice to the government, the UN and other social agencies, expressing its opinion on matters all the way from the admission of Red China into the United Nations to cigarette smoking. 

Evidently the criticism is hurting because a special agency has been appointed to answer critics and to “establish a more favorable image” of the NCC. 

One denomination has withdrawn. The Unity of the Brethren Church, the smallest of NCC member churches with 6,030 people, has resigned from its membership. 

The trouble is that the protests against the NCC are not so much against the liberalism of this body; nor are these protests against the fact that the NCC has no business speaking out on all issues which do not concern the Church; rather the protests are most because there is disagreement on what the NCC should say when it does speak. It advises a cease fire in South Viet Nam, and there are voices of opposition because some would rather continue the war there. This kind of objecting is futile.

A Quote On Federal Aid To Schools 

In an article entitled “The Surrender to Federalized Education” written by John A. Howard in Christian Economics, the author answers the question of whether federal aid will bring federal control. There are many who maintain that it will not. The author writes:

That is stark nonsense. Every single program of grants has to stipulate either in the legislation or through a policy board the terms for deciding who gets how much to do what under what circumstances. This isn’t control? Of course it is, and it is only the mild beginning of the controls. 

It should be observed that a great part of the control exerted by Federal aid is what might be called carrot control, in contrast to . . . stick control. Carrot control is accomplished by coaxing a college or a department or a professor into doing something that would otherwise not be done by dangling before the nose such an attractive offer that it just cannot be passed up. This may appear innocuous until you remember that when the carrot project is undertaken something else may have to be set aside. For instance, one grievous result of the Federally sponsored research projects that are becoming so numerous on some campuses is that the education of students which once was the principal reason for the existence of a college or university is losing out.