You have probably seen him before: the Evangelical Christian who is distraught over God’s will for his job change, or speaks too strongly one minute and desperately seeks reconciliation the next. Who pours his soul out at accountability groups, but finds it difficult to comfort his recently divorced friend.
American Evangelical Christians seem, at times, to be afflicted by neurosis. But it may not be such a bad thing.
In the traditional psychological formulations, psychosis refers to a loss of contact with reality—think, catatonic schizophrenic or the man who insists he is Jesus Christ. Neurosis keeps contact with reality, but social functioning breaks down. To put it another way, a neurotic is probably aware his life is a wreck.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) dropped the term “neurosis” in the 1970s; it is replaced by a litany of specific anxiety and personality disorders: chronic anxiety, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, borderline personality disorder, etc. The APA shrinks from references to the Freudian past of its terminology, but the psychosis/neurosis schema is still helpful.
There is no clear etiology for these disorders. Rather, the DSM lists a series of criteria, to which behavior is compared. A proposed revision to the new DSM, due out next year, lists the following as a mild impairment of interpersonal intimacy, and thus a criterion for the neurotic/personality disorders: the patient has the “[c]apacity and desire to form intimate and reciprocal relationships, but may be inhibited in meaningful expression and sometimes constrained by any intense emotion or conflict. Ability to cooperate may be constrained by unrealistic standards.” So we might describe the Christian neurotic.
In the early twentieth century, American Protestants became split over how to interact with the persistent “historical explanations” that had been exploding into nearly all the human sciences: Freud in psychology, Charles Beard in history, John Dewey in philosophy, Oliver Wendell Holmes in law, Max Weber in sociology, Franz Boas in anthropology. According to historian Grant Wacker, liberal Protestants “made their peace with modernity” by insisting that revelation must be mediated by the historical process, whereas conservatives became increasingly insistent that God’s revelation had somehow bypassed that process. The latter’s impact on Evangelical Christianity in America has been persistent.
In the 1960s and 1970s, many mainline Protestant denominations discovered the “Second Wave” Pentecostal movement, with its emphasis on personal interaction with God. Thus, many American Christians have had their minds wrung by the challenges of extrahistorical standards (due to the fundamentalist response to modernity) while their epistemologies have been strung out on the throes of immediate communication with God. This is not an enviable situation.
Now, this mental exercise pushes some people to extreme confidence, and others to exasperated apostasy. Nevertheless, there are a great many faithful believers that struggle toward daily balance: the demands of responsibility in a capitalist society, seeking to hear God’s voice, living in a seemingly self-sufficient world, vastly expanding that world through belief in a spiritual reality.
The issue of day-to-day living is the greatest import of faith for most American Christians. The majority are constrained to live in and alongside a world whose expectations of reality do not always correspond to their own. Is Jesus speaking to me? Was that a sign? Do I give comfort to a dying friend, or should I make sure she hears the full weight of the gospel? These pragmatic questions of quotidian spirituality are the concerns of the faithful, many of whom find themselves frequently distraught. In psychological terminology, evangelicals’ “ability to communicate may be constrained by unrealistic standards,” as the American Psychiatric Association put it.
On the one hand, the DSM might fault (or diagnose) a Christian for failing to interact healthfully with the world around him. On the other hand, the Christian’s pastor will likely reassure him that the world is unhealthy. Still, this average Evangelical is going to feel the vortex within him of conflicting assumptions about the world. Whatever theological reassurances might be given, the actual epistemological impact of partly fundamentalist, slightly charismatic spirituality is very hard to contain.
Another proposed revision to the new DSM qualifies the definition of personality disorders: this diagnosis “excludes culturally normative personality features.” That is, the writers of the DSM recognize that the norms of some cultures could fall under the label of “disordered” even though they work healthfully in their own context.
The Christian (of any stripe, but especially the American evangelical) lives in a unique culture. The culture of his faith worships a God that cannot be seen, and assumes a level of spiritual reality that sociologists discount. They think that prayer is an appropriate response to sickness. The ekklesia is described in the Scriptures not only as a body, but as a distinct kingdom and nation, which therefore has its own norms. And yet the majority, surrounding culture is also always there.
The psychological conflict of living in two cultures at once can be overbearing. However, it should also be observed that immense creativity is latent within the stress. Hannah Arendt, Leo Strauss, Karl Marx, and Amedeo Modigliani were all European Jews. C.S. Lewis and T.S. Eliot were adult converts to Christianity in a modernizing world. Kierkegaard, Solzhenitsyn, and Tolstoy all felt like outsiders.
Is the neurotic Christian unhealthy? Possibly. But you would have to judge him according to the norms of both his cultures. Moreover, this tension may be merely an enhanced version of the tension that all people are susceptible to when living in a finite, hurtful world. The world is good, and yet it is bad. People are spiritual beings, but find themselves far from God. The Christian neurotic, with the right guidance, might have the best experience to relate to when the world seems cruel and contradictory.
Bryan Wandel is a Research Fellow for the John Jay Institute and blogs at humanepursuits.wordpress.com. He resides with his wife and daughter in Washington, DC.
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