Posts Tagged With: Martin Luther

Psychology and Suicide in the Church

Saturday night I was surprised to read that Rick Warren‘s son, Matthew, committed suicide after a long struggle with mental illness.  You and I know Rick Warren as one of the most prominent pastors in America today.  He wrote the books The Purpose Driven Church and The Purpose Driven Life. He is the pastor of Saddleback Church in California and you may remember that he offered the inaugural prayer in 2009.

The statement given to his church community on Saturday reiterated that his youngest son, Matthew, was “an incredibly kind, gentle, and compassionate man.”  He made special efforts to spot and encourage others who were struggling in the church.

But ultimately, he succumbed to his own anguish.  “In spite of America’s best doctors, meds, counselors, and prayers for healing, the torture of mental illness never subsided.  Today, after a fun evening together with Kay and me, in a momentary wave of despair at his home, he took his life.”

I am glad to see that the church community at large is supporting Warren’s family during such a tragedy. I too am very sad to hear about the news, particularly because mental illness likely contributed to the suicide.

But I am also saddened for another reason.  I’m surprised that there are still a number of people within the church who champion archaic notions about psychology and about suicide.  When I read the reports of the suicide, saw several of the comments people left.  While most of them were supportive, others were just mean.

Some were from folks who simply hated Warren and his church. I doubt that anyone takes them seriously–after some of these comments, I wouldn’t take them seriously about anything from that time forward.  But I’m more concerned about the Christians who say things like:

“What’s really sad about all of this is that he went to hell because he committed suicide.”

What a heartless and mindless thing to say, especially in a public forum.  Though I don’t care to delineate the biblical reasons why I think this kind of theology about suicide is ridiculous, I will say this. A person who thinks that a vibrant relationship with Christ instantly becomes null and void because of one bad decision is a legalist.  He has a poor understanding of theology and probably sees God as more of an ice-cold robot in the sky.  As long as you are sort of good and never do really terrible things like suicide, you’re in good standing.  But, even if you walk with Christ your whole life and then in a wave of abnormal despair take your own life, do you think God would toss you aside in disgust?  That is not a good relationship.

Truthfully, I am sad for the people who think this way.  The kind of people who think that God has a list that you must keep.  He likes you if you do all of these things; but if you do one of the major bad things, hit the road, buddy! There is no room for love in a relationship that demands such strict obedience. Your behavior may indicate your affections for another person, but do you really think that we will always win every battle in this life?  Do you think that the type of battles that we win or lose has bearing on our eternity?  I was under the impression that it was really about one particular battle that Christ fought on our behalf.  I think I heard that in a sermon just over a week ago.

Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk

Portrait of Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m reminded of a scene from the movie Luther, where Martin Luther buried a boy who took his own life.  The church would not allow the boy to be buried on church property since they believed that victims of suicide go to hell.  Luther rejected that notion and dug the boy’s grave on church property with his own hands.  He explained that the Devil used despair to kill the boy, the same way a robber kills his victims in the woods.  To Luther, one who dies of suicide loses a battle, and that is not a damnable offense.  I think this approach works best.

There is another attitude in the church that bothers me.  It’s the notion that psychology, psychiatry, and (secular) counseling is somehow unbiblical or unchristian. I would like to be godly enough to say that this grieves me, but really it just ticks me off something awful, especially since some mainline churches still take this position.  I remember a church I attended some years ago was one of the most prominent in the area.  I went with one of the pastors to visit a church member at a local hospital.  The young lady we visited had struggled with depression for years.  Recently, it became very intense.  She couldn’t manage it on her own any more.  Now, thanks to the medicine and therapy she was clear-headed and on a stable road to recovery. That’s when my pastor said “Have you considered that you just need to pray more and meditate on the scriptures instead of taking medicine?”

I wanted to slap the man. Here is a woman who was living a godly life who got sick.  Now she is making huge strides in recovery and my pastor friend thinks that this is some kind of sin.  The truth is after she recovered, her godly life continued and she thanked God for the hospital and the medicine. She didn’t abandon the faith, she could now embrace it more.  Although I will say, she didn’t have much desire to attend that church anymore!

Part of the church’s mission is about physical and spiritual healing. I hope and pray that we can eventually weed out these erroneous notions which are counterproductive to the church’s pursuits.  Clinical depression and other forms of mental illness can and must be managed with counseling and even with medicine.  The church ought not be afraid of these things, because they work!  Isn’t that reason enough to do it?  And when some people lose loved ones to these diseases, we will not be judgmental.  Instead, we cover the family with love, prayer, and support. I’m very happy to see most of the church moving in the right direction.

Categories: Practical, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

A Diet of Pasta and the Diet of Worms

Pasta again!

Pasta again! (Photo credit: HatM)

What better place to discuss a break from Rome than in an Italian restaurant?  I connected with a couple of fellas at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) and later we went to dinner at a nice Italian restaurant in Chicago.  It was one of those great evenings of conversation that theologues savor.  I knew one of the guys already, and the other was a newer acquaintance I hadn’t seen in a while.  We talked about the so-called ‘quests for the historical Jesus‘ all down the sidewalk until we decided on where to eat.  After sitting down and placing our order, we talked about the weather, food, and drink.  Then, the three of us got into a rather aggressive theological debate about Luther’s break from the Roman Catholic Church.

Can you see the picture?  Three of the most un-Italian guys you can think of raising a ruckus about the Roman Catholic Church in an Italian restaurant.  The thought still makes me chuckle.

Anyway, the food was good and the conversation stimulating.  The question we addressed was this: Was it right for Luther to create a new ecclesiastical body separate from that of Rome?  Why divide the church again?  Of course, I thought this was a no-brainer, and one fellah agreed to a point.  Luther was excommunicated.  What else could he have done?  But the other gentleman disagreed.  His argument went something like this (my responses follow each):

(1) Luther was a nut. –I have no disagreement there.  Luther was probably one of the smartest and strangest dudes in church history.  Some of his actions were comical, others were just downright macabre.  But it takes an eccentric personality to make the bold history-changing moves he did.

(2) Why didn’t Luther use proper channels to seek reform? — I’m no church historian, but I thought he tried.  Furthermore, when you’re being excommunicated from the church, that pretty much stops your in-house efforts.

(3) If Luther sought to create a comparable church (a true church), then why did he make it look so very different from the Roman Catholic Church?  The protestant churches were different from Rome on virtually every level.–I think the coming of modernism and individual thought had something to do with that.  In Rome, you’d be struggling to change pre-established tradition.  The Protestants had a clean slate to start over with no traditions to stop them.  The decisions they made reflect Luther’s words at the Diet of Worms: the new doctrines were based on reason and Scripture instead of traditions.  Obviously, that would make the church look much different.

No one won our little Diet of Pasta that evening.  But it was a stimulating conversation nonetheless.

Categories: History, Theology | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

A Short History of “Po-Mo”

In a word, postmodernism is rebellion.

As I said in an earlier post, I’ve recognized some postmodern leanings in my own views, and that’s not a bad thing.  So when you’re investigating something anew, it’s a good idea to start with the basics.  Heath White, Ph.D. (Georgetown University) wrote a great primer on postmodernism in Postmodernism 101, which I’m currently working through.  Virtually my whole life I’ve been taught that postmodernism is wrong in every way. For a while, I’ve had some existentialist views of my own Christian faith, but only recently have I come to understand that I was more postmodern than I thought I was.  Reading even a basic book like this one provided several important “Ah ha!” moments for me.  White isn’t selling postmodernism, but gives a nice overview of its propositions and history.  These are some gleanings of White’s book with several of my own observations.

Postmodernism is more of a mindset than a philosophy.  That helped me quite a bit, drawing a distinction between my own existentialist ideas and postmodernism itself.  Existentialism played a part in postmodernism’s arrival, but they appear to be exclusive categories.

The pre-modern leaders of the world were born into positions of royalty or into wealthy families.  Commoners were uneducated and illiterate, and understood that God had ordained the powers that be–kings, lords, etc–to be the rightful leaders. This system of power held by kings and lords–the feudal system–was the way of things. On some level, opposing this system was speaking against the will of God.  You could find this kind of lineage endowed authority in the Church, too.  If you were blessed with a good king or lord, in a way you would be set free from a life of hardship.  If you had a good religious leader, you would be set free from the fear of death and damnation.  So this system wasn’t inherently bad as many folks might believe.  A person’s freedom or bondage really had to do with the leaders that God (or fate) determined that you should have. A good example of this is the legend of King Arthur.  In Arthur’s heyday, virtually everyone in the land was happy and prosperous; but when he made poor decisions and when his closest friends betrayed him, he became a shell of a man…and the land suffered.  Everyone became poor and destitute.  If you’ve ever seen the movie Excalibur, Percival makes a statement that sums this up nicely.  He sees a vision of King Arthur and says: “You (Arthur) and the land are one!”  So the people are only as blessed as the rulers they have.

King Arthur in the film Excalibur. A movie, by the way, that gives the best portrayal of Merlin I’ve ever seen.

The Enlightenment Era (also called the “Age of Reason”) was the transitional period between the pre-modern and modern era. Information was easily disseminated through the printing press and so many more people were learning to read and think critically. The Bible was even translated into their language.  This new era gave people the ability to scrutinize politics and religion a lot more.  A new mentality and confidence with education and logic led to a rebellion against the premodern authorities.  The commoners were set free, and you see the appeal to reason in some of their statements.

Martin Luther appealed to scripture and reason to make his defence against the pope’s council at Worms:

“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason–I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other–my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”

A few centuries later, Jefferson’s words in the Declaration of Independence proposed that certain truths were “self-evident, that all Men are created equal…” Also, that when people in power become tyrants, it just makes sense that common people have the right and responsiblity to stand against such oppression.  To Jefferson and the other founders, this was a reasonable move.  Reason and logic justified the American stance against tyranny.  Reason led to rebellion against the supposed God ordained kings and rulers.  Reason set people free.

Assmilation of Native Americans.jpg

The Assimilation of Native Americans

As modernism developed, there was more talk of one right way to do everything–the logical way.  There was even great hope that all cultures would soon fade away as everyone learned how to come to reasonable conclusions.  A plurality of cultures would inevitably give way to the rise of One Culture.  We see that in the treatment of the Native Americans, who were considered a primitive people who needed to be modernized.  Christian Missionaries didn’t just convert them, they made them into modern Europeans–a reasonable society.  (A postmodernist sees that the issue really wasn’t which society was right, it was about which one was in power).The modernist era was in its prime during the early 1900s, and the promise of the most reasonable people around was that Utopia was right around the corner.  They certainly accomplished quite a bit in this timeframe.  Medical science advanced a great deal as did technology.  However, the twentieth century proved to be the most violent era in human history.  World War I was terrible, and World War II was horrific.  Battle tactics and weapons advanced, killing people much more efficiently.  Trench warfare was bad enough, and then the atomic bomb arrived.  The Nazi regime actively pursued the elimination of all other cultures to realize the dream of the One Culture (are you disturbed yet?).   And this wasn’t just a Nazi idea, eugenics was popular in the early twentieth century.  Some of these guys were the best educated–the most reasonable and logical members of society.  The new atomic age led to efficient nuclear power stations…and to the Chernobyl disaster. It also led to the Cold War between the US and USSR.  During that time, the Cuban Missile Crisis led to teachers in high school telling their students what to do in case of a nuclear warhead attack: get under your desks and cover your heads…to which the students gazed incredulously at the wooden desks and joked “…and kiss our butts goodbye!”

So modernism came from the new use of reason by the common man for the purpose of liberating us all from the oppression of kings and lords.  Our reason set us free from ignorance and feudal oppression.  But later, the masters of reason and logic [like philosophical Pharisees], warred with each other and oppressed the rest of us.  Our accomplishments blessed us greatly on the one hand, and cursed us on the other with even more difficult challenges.  Eventually, people became cynical and depressed.  After the bloodbath of the 1900s, Utopia is still nowhere to be seen.

Jean-Paul Sartre: The Adonis of Nihilism

As modernism rebelled against the pre-modern holders of power; postmodernism rebelled against logic itself.  That’s because logic can show us measures of truth and reality…and it can also be used to manipulate and enslave.  They hear the modernist say the following: “If you want to do the right thing, be like us and do what we do. Dress like us.  Watch what we watch and read what we read. We can never do you wrong, because we’re committed to logic. Our ways make sense.”  The postmodernist rebels against all such ideas, not necessarily because he doubts all forms of truth, but because he’s seen what the most logical of the human race is capable of.  He’s seen what the truth experts have done throughout history and it scares him to death.  This is why the postmodernist can be cynical to authority figures and…well, everything. Some of them are enveloped in their own negativity and don’t think that anyone will ever be able to arrive at an ultimate truth.  These folks are like the existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.  He took a nihilist position (invented it?)–we come from nothing and go to nothing.  Life is meaningless.  It only has the meaning that we make it have.  Therefore, life is what we make it.  We create our own truth and meaning.But there are others who have more hope, wielding the more positive side of postmodern thinking.  Though they are extremely skeptical about anyone who asserts absolute ideas about right and wrong, they still believe that one can arrive at some form of truth even though consensus is lacking.

But all postmodernists have rebelled against traditional views of logic and reason simply because they have proven to be tools to oppress folks.  And here’s the slippery thing about it all, postmodernists will use reason and logic to create their own thinking systems–systems that reject traditional ideas of reason and logic.

What’s behind postmodernism is the same thing that was behind modernism–personal liberty.  The modernist used logic to gain liberty, the postmodernist will use his own version of logic to find his own way. The modernist says: “I’ll use logic to find the one right way,” the postmodernist says: “I’ll find my own way, one way or another.”

This is a very lean description, and there’s an ocean of material that one can read on postmodernism.  I suggest you check White’s book out, and stay tuned to some of my later postings.

Categories: Existentialism, History, Postmodernism | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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