Looking back at seminary it would be hard to name the thinker who had the most influence on me, but someone who must be named in the conversation is George Lindbeck. For instance, his thoughts came up this morning while I was reading this article in the New York Times. One of the most remarkable lines from the article reminds me of one of the more prominent discussions that kept coming up at MHGS. Ethan Watters writes:
Behind the promotion of Western ideas of mental health and healing lie a variety of cultural assumptions about human nature. Westerners share, for instance, evolving beliefs about what type of life event is likely to make one psychologically traumatized, and we agree that venting emotions by talking is more healthy than stoic silence. We’ve come to agree that the human mind is rather fragile and that it is best to consider many emotional experiences and mental states as illnesses that require professional intervention. (The National Institute of Mental Health reports that a quarter of Americans have diagnosable mental illnesses each year.) The ideas we export often have at their heart a particularly American brand of hyperintrospection — a penchant for “psychologizing” daily existence. These ideas remain deeply influenced by the Cartesian split between the mind and the body, the Freudian duality between the conscious and unconscious, as well as the many self-help philosophies and schools of therapy that have encouraged Americans to separate the health of the individual from the health of the group. These Western ideas of the mind are proving as seductive to the rest of the world as fast food and rap music, and we are spreading them with speed and vigor.
What Mr. Watters so clearly shows in this article is that mental health and psychology are products of their environments and the goals (ie what is seen as healthy) clearly stem from very western mind sets about the notion of the self and “health.” While most of the people I went to seminary would agree with his general premise, that it is wrong to export this stuff to different cultures because of the colonizing nature of such an enterprise, thinking with Lindbeck gives rise to a different set of questions. What Mr. Watters sees as marks of different cultures (notions of the self, dualities, health of individuals over the group) is exactly what Lindbeck thinks we should be taking away from our religions (which he conceives of in cultural-linguistic terms). Christianity (or fill in the blank religion) clearly has different answers to many of the question we must answer before we begin on the road of mental health and while Christianity has largely not made this clear the rise of Christian counselors as a class (and in some places even a vocation) seems to further continue this colonization of the mind rather than combat it. But Lindbeck would be clear that buying into the Western answers from the get go lead us away from finding how our religion might encompass our world and teach us different patterns of existence that might not rely on earlier cultural constructions.
Mr. Watters ends his articles with thoughts that point to what Lindbeck is referring to and the questions that must be asked if Christianity and world’s religions are capable of sustaining meaning in the face of such a totalizing narrative.
Some philosophers and psychiatrists have suggested that we are investing our great wealth in researching and treating mental illness — medicalizing ever larger swaths of human experience — because we have rather suddenly lost older belief systems that once gave meaning and context to mental suffering. If our rising need for mental-health services does indeed spring from a breakdown of meaning, our insistence that the rest of the world think like us may be all the more problematic. Offering the latest Western mental-health theories, treatments and categories in an attempt to ameliorate the psychological stress sparked by modernization and globalization is not a solution; it may be part of the problem. When we undermine local conceptions of the self and modes of healing, we may be speeding along the disorienting changes that are at the very heart of much of the world’s mental distress.