Could the church play an active role in promoting mental health?

Could the church play an active role in promoting mental health?

Credit: cc by Gianfranco Blanco via Flickr

It is supposed to be the most joyful time of the year, preparing the home and hearth for the arrival of the Messiah. The gifts, the music and the parties promise to make the Christmas season bright. Still, for many in our congregations, this time of year can be one of the most difficult, whether it is due to the loss of a loved one, loneliness or general hardship. It can be a season of darkness rather than light for many.

The idea that depression is prevalent in the pews just as it is in society is only just beginning to be discussed widely. Emerging also is the research into how religion can play a powerful role in eliminating the societal stigma of mental illness in addition to becoming a source of solace for those suffering in silence.

For Marti Priest it was the realization that her genetic make-up included the likelihood of depression that was part of her personal breakthrough. And as she began to speak more freely in her Minneapolis ELCA congregation, it was evident that she had supporters surrounding her on any given Sunday.

“The world itself stigmatizes mental illness,” she says. “The church is vastly different than that and loves me no matter what.”

She was volunteering in her church, but the high degree to which she was giving of her time was a sign of the mania common in bipolar disorder, she says in hindsight. It still took some time to “come out” to those with whom she served with on church committees and she adds that she was immediately met with a response of surprise – “Oh you?” The support, however, was there even as she told her pastor of her diagnosis and how she needed to back away from some of her commitments in order to gain more “balance” in her life. “My pastor was really cool about it,” she recalls. “When I stepped down I had a health reason and that made it easier.”

This is not new. Martin Luther is thought to have suffered from depression or at the very least severe anxiety and melancholy, quite clearly in older age if not before. A Patheos blog post earlier this year by Catholic author and apologist David Armstrong points to some historians’ findings on Luther’s spiritual anxiety. In his article, Armstrong questions whether these periodic troubles may have had some physical basis. Armstrong quotes findings of scholars Heiko Oberman, David Steinmetz and Roland Bainton in describing Luther’s suffering and struggle against bouts of “persistent maladies.”

Luther is quoted as saying, “I more fear what is within me than what comes from without.” But in true fashion to what many of us may experience in the ups and downs of life, he cited hope about God’s future with such strengthen that he legendarily said “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree today.”

We will likely never know whether Luther suffered from clinical depression, but what we do know is a rising number of the US population does today.

Mental Health America (MHA), a long-time, community-based nonprofit dedicated to helping Americans to live mentally healthier lives, has completed one of the most ambitious mental health screening programs ever launched. Nearing almost 1 million depression screens being completed, the group reported almost 1,400 people screen for depression daily of which 66% are under 25 and in total 59% are found to have serious depression.

Approximately 32% of all screeners report that they have significant thoughts of suicide or self-harm. And at risk are those who self-identify as youth and LGBT, 41% of which score for severe depression. Experts say the numbers of individuals seeking help is rising.

“The sheer volume of individuals seeking mental health screening and supports is astonishing,” said Paul Gionfriddo, President and CEO of MHA in a press release. “But when you couple this volume with these facts – that the depression screening tool is the most common screening tool they use; that most depression screeners are young; that two in every five depression screeners have severe depression; and that the majority of people coming to our screening program have never been diagnosed with a mental health condition—this is a national wake-up call.”

He says that there needs to be better mental health services. Practitioners, employers and educators need to offer mental health screening to all children and adults, and policy makers must pass meaningful mental health reform legislation that emphasizes earlier detection and integrated services for recovery, experts say.

So the key question remains about what roles faith communities can play in supporting those with mental illness and in encouraging mental health generally.  Many of these roles are highlighted in the ELCA social message “The Body of Christ and Mental Illness, which has been cited as one of the clearest and fullest statements by a Christian denomination.”  (Visit to see this message.)

From a social science point of view, a recent article published in JAMA Psychiatry, found that women who attended religious services had a lower risk of suicide compared with women who never attended services. The study was done using data from the Nurses’ Health Study and included nearly 90,000 women and self-reported attendance at religious services.

Tyler VanderWeele, Ph.D. of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston, and co-authors looked at the association between religious service attendance and suicide from 1996 through June 2010. Among the women, most were Catholic or Protestant. There were 36 suicides during the period. Compared with women who never attended services, women who attended once per week or more had a five times lower risk of subsequent suicide, according to the study.

The authors note their study used observational data so, despite adjustment for possible confounding factors, it still could be subject to confounding by personality, impulsivity, feeling of hopelessness or other cognitive factors. The authors also note women in the study sample were mainly white Christians and female nurses, which can limit the study’s generalizability.

“Our results do not imply that health care providers should prescribe attendance at religious services. However, for patients who are already religious, service attendance might be encouraged as a form of meaningful social participation. Religion and spirituality may be an underappreciated resource that psychiatrists and clinicians could explore with their patients, as appropriate,” the study concludes.

While it may not be enough data to support any concrete conclusions, it is not the only study to ask whether faith can be of some aid to mental health.

A group founded several years ago at the University of Chicago – The Chicago Social Brain Network – has closely studied how belief in God impacts an individual’s mental state. The network is a group of more than a dozen scholars from the neurosciences, behavioral sciences, social sciences and humanities who share an interest in who we are as a species and the role of biological and social factors in shaping of individuals, institutions and societies across human history.

“Theology and religion have always relied on unseen forces as the basis for explanations of human behavior and experience,” write researchers in the preface to the book Invisible Forces and Powerful Beliefs, published in 2011. They add, “Science has been able to explicate those forces even if along different lines than originally conceived. As we start to consider some of the more complex aspects of human nature, science and theology may be able to work together to shed light on some of these complexities.”

The team of researchers outline a number of interesting findings in the book and say that because Christians view themselves as creatures of God, they feel related to God whatever happens. They remain in relationship with God, no matter how abandoned they may feel by others. Kathryn Tanner of the University of Chicago Divinity School was the lead researcher on this portion of the project and found that Christians can “always avail themselves of a completely counterfactual sense of social connection with the best connected ‘superfriend’ of all: the God who remains, they believe, in a relationship of ultimately beneficial causal efficacy with not just themselves, but everyone and everything.”

These are indeed powerful beliefs, researchers say. On a more practical level, it is an idea that keeps Christians like Priest motivated on a journey of faith. For her, the church has become her family. “In church there is a level of intimacy and a level of trust that you may not have even with your friends,” she says. “There is a vulnerability there.”

At St. Paul Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in the Quad Cities, there is a specific mental health ministry that operates with the understanding that among people worshiping in any American church up to 25% are likely touched by mental illness. It may be a person in the pew, a family member or a friend.

Pastor Sara Olson-Smith says the Mental Health Awareness team meets regularly and partners with the local National Awareness of Mental Illness (NAMI) chapter and other professionals in providing learning opportunities.

St. Paul’s has been involved for nearly two decades with a local mental health care organization (Vera French) to use a home on the church’s property as a home for people living with chronic mental health issues.

The Mental Health Awareness Team effort was led by Anna Goodwin, who worked doing faith formation on the church’s staff and had done her master’s work in the area of mental health, Pastor Olson-Smith recalls.

“She has done a lot of work over a decade to help create caring congregations for people living with mental illness, teaching congregational leaders/clergy about mental illness and to foster awareness, learning and circles of care,” she says.

The church congregation, in partnership with the local NAMI chapter holds Family-to-Family sessions, or Peer-to-Peer sessions at the church that are open to those in the congregation and the community. Members also participate in the NAMI fundraising/awareness raising walk and have hosted a Mental Health First Aid Course.

The greatest thing the team has done, according to Olson-Smith has been to organize monthly learning events. It may be a panel discussion on a weeknight, which draws a wide variety of people around topics like depression, anxiety, PTSD, suicide etc. They also have speakers from the community come to teach on Sunday mornings, about a whole variety of topics. Every July, St. Paul’s hosts a movie series featuring films that deal with mental illness and that is followed by a discussion.

“I do believe we’ve made an impact on people’s lives,” Pastor Olson-Smith says. “I pray that we are breaking down stigma, and also giving people some tools as they live with mental illness, or care for the people they love with mental illness.”

Lutheran roots intersect with the dawn of the scientific revolution

Lutheran roots intersect with the dawn of the scientific revolution

The Badab-e Surt formations that has been created over thousands of years as flowing water from two mineral hot springs cooled and deposited carbonate minerals. Credit: cc by Phil Camill via Flickr

The Lutheran church is celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and while modern science arose just after the Reformation there seems to have been little attention paid to what the reformers thought about science.

The leader of the Protestant Reformation Martin Luther is often quoted as saying, “God writes the Gospel not in the Bible alone, but also on trees, and in the flowers and clouds and stars.” But what knowledge, if any, did Luther have of the emergence of science?

The publication in 1543 of Nicolaus Copernicus‘s De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) is often cited as the starting point for the scientific revolution. And historically, Luther is often said to have been a critic of Copernicus. According to Roger Timm, who published an essay available in Covalence earlier this year on the topic of Luther and Copernicus, people often quote a portion of Luther’s Table Talk as recorded by Anthony Lauterbach in 1539 that may itself be misleading.

In Lauterbach’s account Luther supposedly said: “Whoever wants to be clever must agree with nothing that others esteem. He must do something of his own. This is what that fellow does who wishes to turn the whole of astronomy upside down. Even in these things that are thrown into disorder I believe the Holy Scriptures, for Joshua commanded the sun to stand still and not the earth.” According to Timm, Luther’s Table Talk is not considered to be a reliable source for Luther’s opinions. Secondly the quote, if correct, would have preceded Copernicus’ book by a number of years.

Again Timm writes that Luther’s supposed criticism of Copernicus has been used to support a claim that the Luther was anti-science, but that is a simplistic reading.  Yes, Luther seems critical of the heliocentric system (the idea that the sun was at the center of the universe) proposed by Copernicus but we must remember that so were many scientists of the day who were supporters of the Ptolemaic system.  The Ptolemaic system was the “science” of the day and assumed that the earth was stationary and at the center of the universe. Proof of Copernicus’ theory had to wait until a century later and for Johannes Kepler and Galileo.

At the same time, Timm points out that two professors associated with Luther in Wittenberg are believed to have been instrumental in encouraging Copernicus to publish and even arranged for the printing of his now famous book.

But besides this snapshot of the early days of the Reformation, what can we say of Lutheran theology and its interaction with science? Did the Reformation and the rise of science go hand-in-hand?

There are a number of connections between faith and science and Lutheran theology, according to a discussion piece (also available on the  Alliance website) drafted a few years ago by George Murphy, physicist and retired pastor in collaboration with Lea Schweitz, theologian and professor at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and Director of the Zygon Center for Religion and Science and Roger Willer, Director for Theological Ethics who serves as liaison between the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology and the ELCA Churchwide Office.

One is evident in that earlier quote of Luther’s about God writing the gospel in nature. According to Murphy, Schweitz and Willer, Lutheran tradition is “a positive evaluation of, and rejoicing in, the natural world recognized as God’s creation.” In Luther’s Small Catechism, God is continually at work in the world and the phrase “the finite is capable of the infinite,” sums up the belief that God is present “in, with and under” the sacramental elements. This same idea can also help promote scientific study of the material world as a vocational calling.

The trio also looked at the Lutheran concept of justification. Justification is the idea that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, and for Christ’s sake alone or in other words there is no way one can “earn” salvation based on merit or works. In scientific terms, this principle is important in that we are not justified by simply making the right decisions about applying science correctly. This, they say, means that we are able to make ethical decisions about the use of new technologies without being “100% certain” that they will indeed work out “flawlessly.”

Lastly here, but just as important, is Luther’s theology of the cross. The theology of the cross presses the point, among other things, that we are brought to know the true God only from God’s historical self-revelation centered on Christ crucified. Here Murphy, Schweitz and Willer say that we cannot truly know who God is, how God acts, and we cannot discover “the mind of God” by a study of natural phenomena or the laws of physics.  We cannot be certain of the deep nature of God independent of the historical revelation of the Christ crucified. This is an important distinction since some in the disciplines dedicated to evolution or neurobiology, for example, believe with those theories and data they completely can explain religion or can answer the question about whether God exists and what God is.  They have faith that science alone has or will have knowledge to explain everything.

In contrast to the supposed anti-science bias among Lutheran reformers, there are theologians and philosophers eager to maintain an active dialogue with biologists and neuroscientists. Looking at a wider scope of this dialogue, a number of prominent Protestant and Lutheran theologians have also made distinctive contributions over the years. Theologians Joseph Sittler, Ted Peters and Philip Hefner are just a few who have become prominent in the twentieth century alone and each of them draw significantly from the Lutheran theological heritage.

It is also worth noting that there are a fair number of Lutheran scientists today, who feel an obligation to discuss why their faith is not separate from their daily work. Then there are also a number of groups, such as the Lutheran Alliance for Faith, Science and Technology, devoted to the further study of religion-and-science and its role in the modern world.

Lutheran institutions and colleges have historically been supportive as well. Headquartered within one ELCA seminary, the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago, there is the Zygon Center for Religion and Science. This group grew out of early efforts by theologians and other scholars to engage directly with the sciences on a myriad of new levels and was historically located conveniently near the University of Chicago. Numerous pastors in training, theologians and members of the public have engaged in public dialogue on religion and science for decades at the center.

This past month a former director of the Zygon Center and now the Archbishop of the Church of Sweden Antje Jackelén participated in the commemoration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation in Sweden.  The event brought Pope Francis to Sweden on October 31 in a historic visit that brought Catholics and Lutherans together. It was the first papal visit to Sweden since John Paul II was there in 1989.

Prior to her move to Sweden, Jackelén served as professor of Systematic Theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago and prior to that served as the President of European Society for the Study of Science and Theology (ESSSAT). Key theological contributions of Jackelén range from published works on physics to human uniqueness and hermeneutics related to religion and science.

In Archbishop Jackelén’s installation homily a few years ago, she identified the strength of the Church as a “global network of prayer threads.” Of the meeting in Lund with Pope Francis, she said, “It is a step forward in the churches’ work. In a time of major global challenges we have a joint mandate to proclaim the Gospels in words and actions.”

The meeting in Lund stems from a process of dialogue spanning five decades. A milestone in this process consists of the document called “From Conflict to Communion.” In this document Lutherans and Catholics express sorrow and regret at the pain that they have caused each other, but also gratitude for the theological insights that both parties have contributed. At the same time, there is an emphasis on the joint responsibility to talk about Christian faith.

In reflecting on the rift caused by the Reformation, it is evident that a Lutheran approach in engaging with science has emerged over the years as has a unique Catholic approach—recently encompassed in the Laudato si encyclical of Pope Francis on the topic of climate change.

When it comes to change it seems it is in their air. It is also undeniable that the idea that the church is always to be reformed or Ecclesia semper reformanda est in Latin can be applied in many ways with respect to the way Christians embrace their faith within a modern scientific and technology-driven world.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) supports the role of science in approving ‘Affirmation of Creation’ at its General Assembly

The Presbyterian Church (USA) supports the role of science in approving 'Affirmation of Creation' at its General Assembly

A Chandra X-ray Observatory image of Messier 82, or M82, shows the result of star formation on overdrive. Credit: cc by
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
via Flickr

Editor’s note: What follows is the text from the Affirmation of Creation that was read and approved at the 222nd General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA) earlier this year (June 22) with a vote of 305 to 264. Following the Affirmation is a rationale for its approval as drafted by the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology and the Christian Faith (PASTCF), which called on the church to approve the overture. A full copy of the document can also be downloaded here.

Affirmation of Creation

From early in its life the Christian church has affirmed metaphorically that God is the author of two books of revelation: the Book of Scripture (the Old and New Testaments) and the Book of Nature. Because God is the author of both and God neither deceives nor is incoherent, these books cannot in principle be in conflict even though they are expressed through fallible creatures.

However, over the centuries some Christians have sought to deny observations of Nature by reference to Scripture. In the 5th century CE, Augustine warned that claims about Nature, contrary to human reason and experience but supposedly derived from Scripture, should be avoided, lest they make Christians seem ignorant and objects of scornful laughter. Yet, we recognize that God has called forth in Homo sapiens an exploratory curiosity and a critical intellect. A fruit of these gifts is our capacity for scientific inquiry.

The results of this inquiry are provisional because they are open to new discoveries and revision. Yet these results are also highly reliable because the Creation itself, through observation and experimentation, attests to them. Scientific inquiry to date has provided descriptions and ever more profound understandings of the scope of God’s creation in space and time of the myriad of creatures which inhabit and have inhabited this Earth and of the means by which the Creation itself has shared in the work of creation.

In light of these discoveries, today with confidence we can affirm:

  • That God has been calling this universe into being for at least 13.8 billion years and continues calling upon the Creation to bring forth new creatures;
  • That God’s creative call has resulted in virtually countless stars and planetary systems, and new stars and planetary systems are continuing to be created;
  • That, in response to God’s creative call, the Earth took form at least 4.6 billion years ago;
  • That, in response to God’s call, living creatures emerged on the Earth at least 3.6 billion years ago;
  • That God has connected all life on Earth in a network of kinship by virtue of biological evolution from common ancestors;
  • That, in response to God’s call, we Homo sapiens (modern humans) emerged, in our wide diversity and different cultures, as a species over more than 6 million years of hominin development;
  • That, since our line of descent split from the line that resulted in our contemporaries, the chimpanzees and bonobos, we Homo sapiens were preceded by at least eighteen already identified hominin species, all of which are now extinct;1
  • That, in the providence of God, we Homo sapiens have come to exercise extraordinary power over other creatures and their habitats, the Earth’s geological structures, and the meteorological systems of the Earth;
  • That, by virtue of the powers of intellect and creativity called forth in us by God, we bear exceptional responsibility for the future of the Earth and all its constitutive creatures.

This affirmation provides a framework in which we are called to worship God, are called to proclaim the Gospel of Grace, and are called to live as faithful expressions of God’s love for the whole Creation.


The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
and their words to the end of the world.
– Psalm 19:1-4

With these words the Psalmist declares that the Creation gives witness to its Creator. This theological sense of nature spurred Christians to study nature as a way of honoring God.

At the beginning of the western scientific revolution in the 16th century Nicolas Copernicus captured this sense when he wrote,

To know the mighty works of God, comprehend His wisdom and majesty and power, to appreciate in degree the wonderful working of His laws, surely all this must be a pleasing and acceptable mode of worship to the Most High to whom ignorance can not be more grateful than knowledge.2

In the 20th century Albert Einstein expressed the mutuality between inquiries about nature and religious life when he wrote: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” 3

This is not to say that religion is obligated to tie its theological cart irrevocably to any particular scientific horse. As Presbyterian teaching elder, ethicist, and philosopher Holmes Rolston III notes, “The religion that is married to science today will be a widow tomorrow.” 4 Yet he goes on to add this caution, “But the religion that is divorced from science today will leave no offspring tomorrow.” 5

Evidence for this latter effect can be found in the results of the 2011 Barna Group Study that reported that among the reasons given by teens and young adults for their disassociation from churches were that “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in” (29%) and “Christianity is anti-science” (25%). 6

Yet the idea is not new that a Christian faith, uninformed by a credible understanding of nature, is compromised in its ability to faithfully proclaim the Gospel. Augustine of Hippo perhaps most eloquently expressed this concern in the 5th century when he wrote,

Often a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other parts of the world, about the motions and orbits of the stars and even their sizes and distances, … and this knowledge he holds with certainty from reason and experience. It is thus offensive and disgraceful for an unbeliever to hear a Christian talk nonsense about such things, claiming that what he is saying is based in Scripture. We should do all that we can to avoid such an embarrassing situation, which people see as ignorance in the Christian and laugh to scorn.… 7

All Christians affirm that God is Creator. Many, perhaps most Presbyterians value science as a means to gain appreciation of God’s creation. Scientific inquiry also makes possible insights into nature that enable more effective service to God through service to neighbor. Yet these same scientific discoveries also challenge traditional ways of thinking about God, God’s creation, and God’s creative ctivity. In 1947 the Jesuit paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin described this challenge.

When we speak of a ‘theology of modern science,’ it obviously does not mean that by itself science can determine an image of God and a religion. But what it does mean, if I am not mistaken, is that, given a certain development of science, certain representations of God and certain forms of worship are ruled out, as not being homogeneous with the dimensions of the universe known to our experience. (Emphasis in the original.)

He went on to expand on the importance of homogeneity for the relationship of science and the Christian faith.

This notion of homogeneity is without doubt of central importance in intellectual, moral and mystical life. Even though the various stages of our interior life cannot be expressed strictly in terms of one another, on the other hand they must agree in scale, in nature and tonality. Otherwise it would be impossible to develop a true spiritual unity in ourselves — and that is perhaps the most legitimate, the most imperative and most definitive of the demands made by man of today and man of tomorrow. 8

Yet the Christian churches, and specifically Presbyterians, virtually never publicly acknowledge the significance of even the most basic discoveries that humanity has made through science about the history, structure and processes of creation for Christian faith and life, and often speak theologically as though they lived in a pre-Copernican cosmos.

Over the past 500 years humankind has gained more depth and breadth of understanding of creation than in all the preceding millennia of human history. Even within those five centuries there have been several revolutions in our understanding of creation. Though the findings of the sciences do not determine the Gospel message, as Augustine noted they do influence how that message can be credibly declared and persuasively received. The first task of an effective contemporary evangelism must begin with an assent to the Creation that God has indeed been calling and is calling into existence. It is for this purpose that the affirmation above has been developed.

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