Platonism, Mental Health, Bodies, and Souls

I was out on a run the other day, and I had a stray thought about the soul, and it kind of whirled out into an extended rumination on a couple of trends that I’ve been wondering about for a while.

There are two Christian bloggers that I read regularly these days: Samantha Field and Fred Clark.  Field’s expertise is in deconstructing the harmful assumptions that are endemic to fundamentalist Christianity from the perspective of a survivor of that culture, while Clark’s interest is more broadly focused on issues of social justice and calling out hypocrisy among conservative Christian leaders.  Recently, they’ve been discussing slightly separate topics in some depth, and the stray thought I had on my run led me to realize that they’re pretty closely connected.

One of Field’s hallmarks is her ongoing reviews and critiques of seminal evangelical advice books, particularly advice books related to marriage.  Not too long ago, she wrapped up her series on Tim LaHaye’s How to Win Over Depression (first entry can be found here), which is a notable book in evangelicalism for its central premise that depression is a condition which can be overcome through prayer and sufficiently disciplined practice of Christian faith.  Field, who’s very open on her blog about the challenges she faces dealing with clinical depression and several other chronic illnesses, takes LaHaye to task repeatedly over his sexist, dismissive characterization of depression as a moral failing rather than a legitimate illness that requires treatment and understanding.

In another vein, Clark wrote a recent post about the challenges of discussing the concept of the soul.  In that post he refers to the fact that the idea of the soul, the eternal, spiritual aspect of a person’s being has pervaded our cultural consciousness since the days of Plato, with his philosophy of the Ideals from which all material things emanate as pale imitations.  Clark’s point is that the talk of the soul as a separate thing which temporarily inhabits a material body is an unfortunate linguistic pattern that subtly reinforces the idea that bodies don’t matter in relation to the eternal aspects of a person, which in turn contributes to the dominant narrative of American evangelicalism that focuses on the eternal afterlife at the ever expanding expense of the temporal present.

Clark’s point about the way we tend to think about the soul is a significant one because it points towards how contemporary evangelicalism has allowed elements of gnosticism to creep into its theology (it’s arguable that gnosticism has been exerting influence on Christianity since the beginning; Paul did write several letters to early churches addressing the issue) through a decoupling of the importance of both body and soul to a person’s spiritual well being.

Bringing that back to Field, I realized that part of the evangelical distrust of mental illness that LaHaye’s book typifies stems from this Platonist/gnostic line of thought.  Bodies are less important than souls, and the influence of the body on the soul is something to be minimized as much as possible.  Framing depression as a spiritual malady limits one’s capacity to seriously consider how bodily factors contribute to mental illness, primarily because we don’t want to think of our minds as being subject to the whims of our meatbags.  In evangelical thought, the preference is to imagine a system akin to the ancient concept of the homunculus, a little person sitting inside us who manipulates our bodies, rather than admitting that there are material factors that influence our minds.  Mental illness, we’ve continuously learned, is a result of both environmental and biological factors, which threatens the homunculus theory.  God forbid something about our bodies could directly influence the operations of our minds.

So in one sense, yes, of course LaHaye treats depression as a moral failing.  His theological schema, influenced by Platonism to the degree that we all are, precludes him from seriously considering that a quirk in the body might be the source of something like depression, and that treating depression is therefore a task best approached from a material perspective (the great exception to this of course is whether a person has a vagina, since, as Field points out, LaHaye almost invariably characterizes depression as a woman’s problem; even then, he’d couch the distinction in complementarian terms like the intrinsically different natures of the male and female souls; don’t try to examine that too closely, because the contradictions inherent in describing multiple categories of a metaphysical concept using biological, and therefore physical, characteristics will make your head explode).

So where does all that stuff leave us?  Speaking from my own experience, I recall a time when the idea of material influence on my soul was a pretty scary idea.  Considering that possibility can very quickly lead to the conclusion that we might simply be organic automata, devoid of any eternal component.  That’s not a position with which I’m comfortable, because for all my criticism of the idea of the soul as a separate, eternal thing, I still want to believe in a system in which something about us lasts past the destruction of our bodies.  Whether that’s possible to do consistently, I’m not sure, but it does lead me to believe that within the closed system that we call ourselves, our bodies do matter.  They are on equal footing with our souls, and that means that we have a responsibility to care for them here, now, today.

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