Friday, 16 June 2006

Depressed theologians?

I was talking with a friend recently about depression. And this got me thinking about some of the Christian theologians who have suffered from depression. Of course, there are problems involved in diagnosing people from earlier centuries, but it does seem that many important theological thinkers have suffered from depression, and sometimes from severe depression.

Some names that come to mind are Augustine, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, Søren Kierkegaard, Adolf Schlatter, Rudolf Otto (who may even have attempted suicide), and Paul Tillich. Interestingly, in some cases, the experience of depression seems to have played a formative role in the person’s theological development—just think of Luther or Kierkegaard!

Anyway, do you know of any other theologians who have experienced depression?

33 Comments:

byron said...

Are you feeling down, Ben?

Chris Tilling said...

Maybe not strickly theologian, but Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a depressive I believe.

kim fabricius said...

Ben, you raise an important issue. One of the questions to ask as we look at theologians who suffer from depression is: Is their pathology explainable in psychodynamic terms and treatable by purely secular counselling techniques? Or is something going on here that requires a theological hermeneutic and treatment by the pastoral care of the "cure of souls" - if, indeed "treatment" is the word to use?

Experiences like Luther's "Anfechtung", or John of the Cross' "dark night", or Kierkegaard's "sickness unto death", or Thérèse of Lisieux' "desolations" - clinical psychologists might invoke the term "depression" and engage in reductive explanations, whereas Christians, first, will want to be careful about collapsing these experiences to a common denominator, and, second, will want to claim that, in principle, pneuma is not reducible to psyche, and will surely insist on invoking terms like "sin" and "grace".

The relationship between psychological counselling and spiritual direction is complex and vexed, particularly in these times when there is far too much slick talk about "healing and wholeness". One of the best books I know on the subject is Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger, Theology and Pastoral Counselling: A New Interdisciplinary Approach (1995), which brings the theology of Karl Barth into conversation with depth psychology.

In Open to Judgement (1994), in what what originated as an Oxford University Sermon for All Saints Day, Rowan William explores the life of the Abbé Marie-Joseph Huvelin with psychological subtlety and theological penetration. He observes that Huvelin was "a deeply injured and fearful man, psychologically scarred." "The question I want to put is this: can we, with our rhetoric on the identity of holiness and wholeness, begin to cope with the 'sanctity' of a man whose mental and emotional balance was so limited? A man less than perfectly sane? We do not here have to do with the question of the holy fool, but the question - harder for our day - of the holy neurotic."

Edmund said...

The apostle Paul, I would say -- as expressed in 2 Cor.

Exiled Preacher said...

Spurgeon suffered from bouts of depression. I'm a bit depressed too because Chris Tilling thinks that Lloyd-Jones wasn't strictly a theologian. He was quite strict and into theology so what's the problem?

John P. said...

As Kim describes, it seems that depression runs in the mystical tradition: for example, both Margaret Porette and Mechthild of Magdeburg seem to have struggled with psychological afflictions.

I would argue, also, that the Letters and Papers From Prison give as an acute insight into Bonhoeffer's mind during his last days. I think it is possible to make the argument that depression (or at least an deep sadness/sorrow) gripped him in his final months...

a fascinating topic, thanks!

kim fabricius said...

Writers within the Christian tradition who suffered from depression include Blake, Coleridge, Emily Dickinson, G. M. Hopkins, Tolstoy and T. S. Eliot.

Ben will know that our beloved Herman Melville was also bitten by the "black dog" (Churchill's vivid term for depression).

George Herbert, if not a depressive, certainly knew a thing or two about what he called "Affliction": "A wonder tortur'd in the space / Betwixt this world and that of grace".

And here is Coleridge in his poem "Dejection":

A grief without a pang, void, dark and drear, / A drowsy, stifled, unimpassioned grief, / Which finds no outlet or relief / In word, or sigh, or tear.

Ray Anderson said...

With regard to Bonhoeffer, his former student and biographer, E. Bethge, says that he suffered from depression (accidia, tristitia) due to some periods of self-contempt, not due to weakness, but due to weariness and on occasion at times when he was most successful. After returning to Germany in 1939 and entering the conspiracy, and particularly in prison, he never again had these experiences, because he now felt that his life of discipleship had concrete reality in action, not merely in theory. pp. 503, 833, 2000 edition.

Apolonio said...

Msgr. Romano Guardini comes up to my mind. Here is his story:

http://www.jknirp.com/center.htm

Anonymous said...

I believe NT Wright suffered from depression - perhaps during his time in Canada. Not sure about now. Happy to be corrected.

thunderbeard said...

anyone who spent time in canada would be depressed. HAHAHAHAHAHAH....i slay me...not really.

David Wilkerson said...

More obscure perhaps...E.J. Carnell, evangelical apologist/ theologian at Fuller Theo. Sem. He definitely suffered from depression and his death was likely a suicide from overdose of barbituates. Gary Dorrien's history of american evangelicalism features his story and intellectual development as a sort of metaphor for the neo-evangelical movement.

Anonymous said...

i take exception to the canada comment, thunderbeard - although i am a canadian and suffer from depression i don't consider the two related!!!

my thesis advisor likes to tell me that i suffer from a "Lutheran conscience"...

it's good to hear of other great theologians whose faith has coexisted with melancholy - one is less likely to attribute one's own dark times to lack of faith when one considers the company.

gracie said...

Many of the great theologians were undeniably gifted individuals with impressive intellectual ability. The relationship between IQ and emotional intensity has been demonstrated in the research on gifted individuals.
Experiencing these heights and depths at such intensity would surely contribute to greater questioning, deeper thought, and more powerful expression.

The struggle with depression is a fire that reveals the deepest epiphanies in the refining of faith.

Les said...

I suffer with depression and can state, quite categorically, that there are no easy answers in the Christian faith.

Martin Lloyd Jones is interesting because I have read his "Spiritual Depression" which touches a lot upon what might be called "depression" in a more secular sense and I found it to be very patronising and superficial at times.

Perhaps the reason for those of the mystical tradition being depressed is that depression causes one to reflect on the nature of one's faith; upon one's relationship with God and upon the nature of prayer when one is in a barren place psychologically and emotionally.

To be a mystic is to explore only one avenue of faith. I recall in the midst of a particularly harsh episode of chronic depression that I couldn't even pray except to say "God, are you there?" Although the clutter in my head kept me from listening and resting I have since found out that He has been there all along and still is as I continue on this journey called mental illness.

Paul W said...

This is an interesting comment thread, but I think we need to distinguish between the "melancholy" driven and brilliant individuals like Kiekegaard experienced and clinical depression, which impairs normal functioning and only erodes the capacities required for theological work and reflection.

Chris Tilling said...

Sorry Guy! OK, OK, Lloyd-Jones was a theologian!

Exiled Preacher said...

Hi Chris, my depression is lifted by the joy of seeing a sinner brough to repentance! ;-)

kim fabricius said...

No so fast, Guy - Chris didn't say Lloyd-Jones was a good theologian!

Matt Edmonds said...

I wrote a very simplistic article on depression and the church about a month ago for a parish magazine. Its not particularly good and in no way am I an authority on the subject (my subject is learning disability and doctrine). It was just working out a thought experiment really. Its too long to post here, but if anyone would like to read it drop me an email at moe277@hotmail.com and Ill let you have a version.

Kim Re:wholeness - Im very wary of dominant notions in that particular field of rhetoric. On a related subject, Nancy Eiesland's 'the disabled God' has some poignant stuff detailing how certain Christians with physical disabilities that she interviewed considered their own wholeness. An incredible and challenging read.

Exiled Preacher said...

No need to state the obvious, Kim! ;-)

T.B. Vick said...

I just recently learned that E.J. Carnell suffered from depression and ultimately killed himself.

I can't but wonder if the fundamentialist evangelicalism that he, later in life, moved away from quite readily, was a factor. Hmmmm. . .

Jon said...

I can think of plenty of theologians who should be depressed...

Ben Myers said...

Carnell's depression and suicide are discussed in Julius H. Rubin's Religious Melancholy and Protestant Experience in America (OUP, 1994) — Rubin (rather dubiously) argues that Protestant faith is the cause of depression.

Personally, I'd prefer not to draw any direct connection between Carnell's depression and his fundamentalism. Like any other illness, depression knows no denominational boundaries.

Paul W said...

Speaking of E. J. Carnell, he actually wrote these words in _The Case for Biblical Christianity_:

Illness is an evil because it saps our strength. It leaves us damaged, like a wormy apple of a chipped vase. When we are ill, we are not the self we wish to be. We cannot do the things we want, and there is so much we really want to do. ... When we become ill, some part of our body is failing us; and when an important part fails we die, that is all.

Although Carnell is speaking of ilness generally, these words seem to have an autobiographical pathos about them.

T.B. Vick said...

Hey Ben,

I tend to agree with you, however, I have read interesting research which demonstrates that suicide rates tend to be higher within quite rigid legalistic environments (e.g. Mormons in Utah tend to have high suicide rate - and Mormonism is quite legalistic, also very legalistic fringe groups, etc.).

While I am not saying this is actually the case with Carnell, I do find it interesting that he was, at one time, a leader in that type of environment (i.e. fundamentalism).

Just thinking out loud, not suggesting anything.

Paul, interesting quote.

Eduardo said...

Ben, you definitely strike a chord here. I don't know if the Ecclesiastes can qualify as a theologian, but Ec. 2:17 definitely show he was depressed at some time. Perhaps Elijah (1 Kings 19?) could qualify, too.

I am exploring some questions of interpretation of Ecclesiastes in my blog and this is one of the issues I intend to explore.

And this is not only an academic subject to me. I even studied for a Th.M. at Calvin Theological Seminary, and I was clinically depressed. I was diagnosed with major depression and I got Prozac prescribed. But what got me through was the counsel of a great Christian psychologist who told me two things: 1) Change your local congregation, and 2) seek suitable Christian fellowship.

Blessings,

Eduardo

kim fabricius said...

In her book Depression (1983) the psychologist Dorothy Rowe describes a cluster of feelings of the depressed: terrible isolation, self-absorption, fear (angst), shame and guilt (you actually feel guilty about being depressed. The depressed describe their no-exit condition with images of prisons and wastelands.

Rowe suggests that "If you are a Christian you can call it damnation."

And Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger (see above), in the context of a case study of a Christian - "Eva and Her 'Black Despairs'" - observes that "the core issue" as Eva saw it was that her depression was "an offence against God". Van Deusen Hunsinger suggests a sin-seeking God-image (which she traces to Eva's childhood experiences at the hands of a cruel father) lies at the heart of Eva's illness; and, exploring Eva's therapy, she approvingly cites what Barth says about Jesus' encounter with sinners: "The evident point of the stories . . . is not human sin but divine healing." The important thing about these people "is not that they are sinners but that they are sufferers."

No doubt the image a of God who is not love all the way down, who might always wield the stick damnation (if you're not repentant, good, orthodox, etc.) will connive with Christians who suffer from depression. I think T.B. Vick is on to something.

mpalardy said...

Somehow, I rather wish more parish pastors were depressed or melancholiac, like Bernanos's curé de campagne.

Anonymous said...

William Cowper, poet and hymn writer, worked closely with pastor John Newton, composer of the Olney Hymns including Amazing Grace. Cowper suffered from clinical depression and attempted suicide several times.

Thank you for braving this controversial topic. I am a Christian who has suffered from low-grade depression myself, and it can at times shake one's faith to the bones. In my doubting moments, I have had many a fellow "Christian" look me straight in the eye and tell me I do not have enough faith. (Like I can go out and muster up some.) It's devastating.

Anonymous said...

Martin Lloyd-Jones not a great theolgian? have any of you read Great Doctrines of the Bible?

Edward T. Babinski said...

BI-POLAR PENTECOSTALS

Duke University Medical Center’s Epidemiologic Catchment Area survey (Meador, Koenig, Hughes, Turnbull & George, 1992) examined the relationship between religious affiliation and major depression. The six-month prevalence of major depression among Pentecostals was 5.4 percent compared to 1.7 percent for the entire sample.

Edward T. Babinski said...

I have a book at home, part of a detailed multi-volume set on Reformation History that cites evidence of Luther's depression, as well as the suicides of several of his friends.

I also have another book that mentions that Protestants in Europe had a higher rate of suicide than Catholics.

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