A Theology of Personhood

Mental health emergency gets national churches’ attention.

“Just thinking of my troubles and my lonely wandering makes me miserable. That’s all I ever think about, and I am depressed” (Lam. 3:19).

We know that mental anguish is part of the human condition, as this verse from Lamentations 3 testifies (CEV translation). To be human is to be fragile. Calvin Seerveld wrote in On Being Human that we are “perishable goods” that “walk around in our underwear, so to speak, tenting, exposed to harm.” The naked human being is a soft, vulnerable creature, as humble as the humus from which we were derived. Physically and mentally.

The Canadian Council of Churches branch called the Commission on Faith and Witness is a forum for Canadian denominational representatives to pool their faith and knowledge and offer public statements to their congregations, the Canadian public, and sometimes the government on topics pressing on Canadian society. They have tackled topics like bio-ethics, religious diversity, and suffering and hope. Currently they are exploring the territory of human personhood and mental health.

Let me first say that I just finished a term as the Christian Reformed representative to this writing group, and presented a paper from a Reformed perspective – as part of a mix of at least 12 other papers from other denominations. Secondly, since it is a deliberative body that meets twice a year, what consensus and conclusions will surface with regards to the current topic have yet to be determined. So this is a report on a work in progress.

A spiritual dimension
The topic was chosen through a democratic process, and it rose above all other possibilities because of two things. First of all, we recognize in Canada that what it means to be a person is often reduced to mere biology, or even more narrowly, neuroscience; or alternately, “human being” is seen as a fiction, a variable social construction that we ourselves create. We believe, however, the ancient Scriptures have a more holistic and dignified perspective to offer – one that includes recognition of the spiritual dimension of human life and most significantly, that we are made in the image of God.

Secondly, we were alerted to the mental health crisis in Canada. Are people suffering more mental illness than in previous centuries on the planet? I’m not sure, but the statistics on depression, anxiety and suicide on university campuses (see “Campus Crisis” January 27, 2020), for example, have risen at alarming rates. One paper was presented to us that just focused on the epidemic of loneliness – a sad social reality that reports suggest is exacerbated by modern mobility and electronic communications. Furthermore, it appears Canada’s health care system does not have the capacity to adequately address the rising need, as wait times for psychiatric help, for example, can be months long.

What are some of the things that have been shared so far, after a year of presentations and deliberations? One question has been, what does “personhood” mean, not to mention the “image of God,” and even that archaic but nevertheless biblical term, “soul”? One of our Orthodox colleagues pointed out that “person” was originally used to talk about the Trinity, which suggests a divine image and our nature as relational creatures. “Soul” may carry notions of Greek dualism – as something elevated above the body and the material, which distorts our good but fragile creaturehood. Yet the word “soul” has a depth of meaning and history, and suggests something more than just a biological reductionism.

Much to learn; much to offer
One thing Dr. Harry Van Belle pressed home to me was that psychology and spirituality are not synonyms, and neither should be reduced to the other, even if “psyche” literally means “soul.” He said, “We must not psychologize spirituality nor spiritualize psychology. Non-Christians do the former, Christians do the latter.” This implies that not every emotional issue can be fully addressed by clergy, and not every spiritual struggle can be adequately treated by a psychologist. The line can be blurry, as the Heidelberg Catechism, for example, addresses deep emotional issues like guilt, gratitude and comfort, and there are times when spiritual teaching from a pastor results in significant emotional wounds. But to be clear: mental illness is not first of all a pastoral issue: it’s psychological distress that seeks cure, relief or coping strategies.

This suggested two further issues. The first has to do with stigmatization. Are all psychological conditions justly called “disorders” or “illness” and does that unnecessarily label people in negative ways, leading to their further isolation? Secondly, is everything named in the DSM 5 a result of what is called “the fall into sin” and “the brokenness of our world” or are some things, like some forms of autism, just about human limits or fragility, or possibly even “gifts” to be embraced? Some denominations’ representatives seemed shy of the world “sin” and very sensitive to labeling issues when it comes to the topic of mental illness. But we do know that some forms of mental illness are the result not of the paradigmatic “fall” of creation, but of sinful behaviour. If you are abused as a child, for example, or if you are exposed to the traumas of war – sin definitely plays a role in subsequent anguish.

There is lots to say about our mental health and our creaturely life. The church has much to learn from mental health institutions; it can also offer something valuable in return – both in terms of a theology of personhood and in terms of practical help and care. With the Spirit’s leading, the Commission on Faith and Witness hopes to present some collective wisdom on this urgent and delicate matter within the next year or two. Stay tuned to the Canadian Council of Churches


  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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