So that was 2022

Well now, that was quite a year – some exuberantly joyful moments, some soul-crushingly dark moments, overall simply one of the most intense years of my life.

All the usual things apply – didn’t achieve all I wanted, didn’t lose weight, didn’t get fit, didn’t read as much as I wanted blah blah blah. That’s not really what I want to talk about though.

Over the last ten years I have greatly enjoyed watching and re-watching the TV series Breaking Bad, which documents the fall from grace of Walter White, a chemistry teacher who in response to a cancer diagnosis turns to the industrial production of methamphetamines to pay for his hospital bills (only in the United States of America is such a concept plausible). A pivotal moment in the story comes when Walter rejects financial support from friends. As with great literature, this choice is presented in an understandable way, and is not a wholly wrong choice, but it is at heart an assertion of Walter’s pride – and it is that pride, and the outworkings of that pride, which is the essence of the story and what I have been reflecting on in my own life.

‘Until that moment I never knew myself’ says Austen’s Emma, at the moment of crisis and anagnorisis. My last few years have been increasingly stressful – changing home and work, divorce and years of legal strife, redundancy, and the consequent correlated ill-health that one can expect from such things – and like Emma I find that these strains have increased my self-knowledge. Most especially, I have come to a greater awareness (I dare not say a full awareness) of the way in which my actions over many years have been an outworking of injured pride. I know much more about narcissism than I ever expected to.

Yet I am not Walter White, despite having identified so strongly with him in previous years. Most especially, in my darkest and most desperate moments, I have found that I have family and friends who love and support me, no matter how much of a plonker I’ve been, and from whom I have received, especially this year, remarkable blessings, practical, moral and spiritual. I am grateful to and for them.

In contrast to Walter I believe, I hope, that my experiences of breaking over the last several years – what I sometimes think of as my ‘decade of disaster’ – is ultimately becoming an experience of breaking good. The Lord is teaching me a proper humility – not an abasement, not humiliation and self-abnegation, but a sense of the truth of who I am, and a sense of who I am in the midst of a web of relationships. I find myself frightened to experience a sense of obligation towards others that have been generous towards me, and then I ponder what someone lovely said to me, “That’s what friendship is mate,” and I relax.

So I find that my journey this year has been one where the injury to my pride is being healed by a sense of gratitude, to my family and friends, and to God for never letting me go despite how far I wander from the path. There is much further for that process of healing to go, but my children are healthy, I enjoy my work, I’m actually doing my PhD (!), I have a roof over my head and food and wine on the table, I have a sabbatical next summer to look forward to, and so I am minded to say… I have found Felicity in my life

“Forgiveness is letting go of the hope for a better past”

Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020, 2021.

Book Review: Christianity and Depression (Tasia Scrutton)

Christianity and Depression, Tasia Scrutton
London : SCM Press, 2020

Tasia Scrutton’s ‘Christianity and Depression’ is an attempt to engage with the challenge of mental illness, specifically depression, from a broadly Christian point of view. She considers several different frameworks for understanding depression, such as depression being caused by individual sin, demonic possession, biological causation and so on. She also spends time on more metaphysical questions such as divine impassibility. The book is very good but somewhat uneven; in particular there is one significant omission in her treatment, which is very surprising given her explicit theological and political commitments.

In this review I will briefly outline her key points chapter by chapter before engaging in discussion.

Outline of chapters
In her introduction, Scrutton begins her work by articulating four caveats: that she is concerned with Christian understandings of depression; that concentrating on the interpretation and experience of depression is philosophically legitimate; that she will evaluate and assess the different Christian understandings giving a verdict on their worth; and finally that she will treat the various understandings as embodied in communal practices not just as individual belief-systems.

With respect to the definition of depression itself Scrutton chooses – very sensibly in my view – to consider as depression “anything that might reasonably be diagnosed as a depressive disorder by a doctor, whether or not the person has been to a doctor and been diagnosed”. She then clears further philosophical space by briefly addressing the hazards of a naïve dualism (mental vs physical) and the nature of what an illness is.

Scrutton’s first chapter is devoted to the idea that a person experiences depression as a result of sin in their life, that is, that the person has sinned and they experience depression as a consequence of their own sin. Scrutton rejects this understanding, on the grounds that it presupposes an incomplete understanding of human freedom; that it is in conflict with significant parts of the Christian tradition; and that it places unsustainable burdens upon those who are already vulnerable. In particular this approach deflects attention away from the social causes of depression in an individualistic manner.

The idea that depression is a result of demonic activity is the subject of Scrutton’s second chapter. Here she engages with the biblical record and integrates the exorcisms of Jesus into the wider inauguration of the Kingdom of God which was the principal characteristic of Jesus’ ministry. Again Scrutton largely rejects this framework for understanding depression, in particular on the grounds that “spiritual warfare should not be seen as an individual battle against the devil or some demons vying for our souls. These ideas have much more in common with element of contemporary US pop culture than they do with the gospel.”

For her third chapter Scrutton considers the idea that depression is an essentially biological problem like a broken leg or diabetes. In this chapter Scrutton argues straightforwardly for a ‘bio-psycho-social’ account of depression, which is a mainstream perspective within psychiatry that argues a) depression cannot be reduced to the biological but b) the biological is a necessary feature of clinical depression. Scrutton emphasises here that there is a rich Christian tradition that affirms our bodiliness, especially the fundamental doctrine of the resurrection of the body.

What is called ‘the dark night of the soul’ is the subject of Scrutton’s fourth chapter. Here the idea considered is that depression is something that is sent from God in order that the soul might grow closer to God through the experience of suffering, looking in particular at St John of the Cross. Scrutton argues that there is no direct correlation between depression and the dark night experience, and that it is important to keep the two concepts distinct.

Building from this, and starting to move away from interpretive frameworks, in chapter five Scrutton interrogates the idea that depression is something that can have a transformative effect upon the person experiencing it. Whilst the expectation of transformation can be oppressive, especially when that glides into the idea that the depression is not an evil as such, Scrutton supports the view that depression can be a redemptive process within which an evil can be transformed into a good, drawing in particular on the writings of Henri Nouwen to explain how.

I will take chapters six and seven together as they both deal with the issue of divine suffering (passibility). Chapter six is presented differently to the work as a whole, as an imagined dialogue between two guests on a radio show, one of whom believes in divine impassibility – the classical Christian position – and one of whom believes that ‘God suffers in Godself’, which is a view that has become more popular from the mid-twentieth century onwards. This chapter explores each view without taking a position. In the next chapter Scrutton considers whether the idea of a suffering God is actually helpful or consoling to those who suffer in this life, arguing that there is no advantage to the passibilist perspective in this respect and that, in particular, the way in which devotion to different saints happens in, eg, the Catholic tradition, enables an effective religious form of consolation for those who suffer.

Finally in her summary chapter Scrutton outlines her overall approach. Depression is not to be understood as the result of individual sin, nor as the consequence of spiritual attack by demons, nor as a gift from God given for spiritual growth but rather as a fruit of a disordered society: “If we wish to combat the root causes of depression, we need to think socially and politically about how our culture can enable people to live as communities and with sensitivity to the needs we have as human animals, rather than foster anxiety, loneliness and alienation”iv.

Discussion
I found Scrutton’s work to be philosophically rigorous and properly humble, in that she is explicit about her philosophical presuppositions and deductions. In writing clearly it becomes straightforward for a critic to engage and highlight differences. My principal objection is that Scrutton essentially reduces the phenomenon of human depression to being a product of an unjust social environment, effectively a social construction of depression. In contrast to this I would argue that depression is a phenomenon whereby multiple causes lead to similar outcomes and that the cardinal mistake to avoid is to conflate all the different experiences into a single form with a single cause.

So, for example, in the first chapter Scrutton argues against the view of depression as a result of sin committed by an individual, and that this presupposes an extreme voluntarism or exaltation of human freedom that is effectively Pelagian. I agree with much of this but would wish to insist that there are occasions when sinful choices lead to the experience of depression. Feelings of guilt and regret do in fact give rise to feelings of sadness, and if unaddressed that sadness can become malignant and meet the definition of depression that Scrutton depends upon. This does not invalidate the criticisms that Scrutton makes more generally, it is simply to insist that both the blanket allocation of depression to individual choice and the contrary blanket allocation of depression to social forces are equally in error. Much, perhaps most of depression in the West can be attributed to social contexts, but not all, and it seems that a fully Christian account of depression has to leave room for a form of depression that is the result of human sinfulness and rebellion against God.

Similarly, when considering demonic attack as a cause of depression Scrutton rightly draws together Jesus’ casting out of demons through exorcism with his wider proclamation of the Kingdom. Yet there are some significant gaps in her treatment of this issue, especially with regard to New Testament criticism. To begin with, Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom is bound up with a call to repentance, which can be both individual and corporate. Secondly, although Scrutton is correct to refer to the small number of exorcisms within Jesus’ ministry she does not address their programmatic nature and the way in which the evangelist treats them. So in Mark’s gospel the first action which Jesus takes is an exorcism and this is not an accident; rather this is the prototypical way in which Mark portrays Jesus as acting in power against the hostile spiritual forces of his time. This logic is taken to its conclusion with John’s gospel which does not contain an account of a personal exorcism but where the crucifixion itself is portrayed as having the character of an exorcism – “now is the Prince of this world cast out” (John 12.31). Thirdly, whilst correctly grounding this process of exorcism and spiritual warfare in the social context, Scrutton under-emphasises the importance of this to the wider New Testament writers such as Paul (see Walter Wink’s work). The language of principalities and powers, and the integration of the spiritual and the political that such language describes, is central to the Christian scheme of salvation. This is a surprising omission given how neatly it would fit with Scrutton’s overall approach.

Which leads to my most fundamental criticism of Scrutton’s work which is the absence of any critique of the practice of contemporary psychiatric care, specifically the way in which the pharmaceutical companies act unethically. There is plentiful evidence (see Ben Goldacre’s Bad Pharma as a starting point) of the way in which, following the logic of industrial capitalism, pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer support the expansion of diagnostic criteria to include more and more human behaviours as ‘illnesses’ – which the companies can then develop treatments for in the form of patented drug therapies, through which they can generate continued profits. In addition to this the companies will systematically distort the scientific process in order to protect and increase their market shares. The social context that Scrutton rightly criticises as a principal factor causing depression cannot be understood without properly assessing the power that these actors bring to bear. These are in fact precisely the ‘principalities and powers’ that Christians need to be engaging with – and I see the absence of engagement with this as a missed opportunity on the part of Scrutton. I would wish to insist upon a properly Christian hermeneutic of suspicion in this context.

There remains much work to be done to develop a fully prophetic understanding of depression within the Christian tradition, but Scrutton has definitely moved the conversation forward and I would happily recommend the book to Christians interested in a deeper understanding of mental illness.

Gospel frameworks for understanding exorcism

I have started my doctoral research, and had my first supervision last week. I am so conscious of my brain having atrophied for the last decade or so (since writing my book), but it has been a joy to start to engage with intellectually stretching material. It is like an infusion of oxygen into my soul; now I just have to work out how to breathe again. I thought I’d share a discovery with you, which has come from looking at Graham Twelftree’s work, and which is about how to understand exorcism in the gospels.

Before the extract from my paper let me spell out the conceptual issue which is going to be one of the main themes that I shall be pursuing over the coming years. Exorcism necessarily talks about the demonic, for exorcism is about the expulsion of the demonic from someone suffering (“ἐκβάλλω” is the word used in the gospels, meaning to cast out or expel). What is it that is being cast out? To give a framework for seeking an answer to that question, when the Christian tradition uses the language of the demonic is it a) describing the effect of an intelligent, malevolent entity, or b) describing a disorder that is taking place within the suffering person? My working assumption is that most often the answer is b) but that it is essential to retain the possibility of a), as that is what the tradition has stated down the ages: sometimes there really is a malevolent entity that needs to be dealt with. (Also, as an aside, the scientistic/materialistic insistence on the unreality of the intangible needs to be opposed! Oops, my prejudices are showing.)

What I have discovered is that within the gospels themselves, that is, from the earliest practice of Christian exorcism, both a) and b) have been understood to be part of Christian ministry. Which I didn’t know, and which I find quite exciting.

~~~

That Jesus himself was a practicing exorcist is not a controversial claim1. According to Twelftree, “Exorcism was a form of healing used when demons or evil spirits were thought to have entered a person and to be responsible for sickness and was the attempt to control and cast out or expel evil spiritual beings or demons from people.”2 With regard to Jesus in particular, “From the sayings and narrative material in the Synoptic Gospels I have surveyed it would seem that we could only conclude that exorcism was a part of the ministry of the historical Jesus.”3 In his subsequent work, ‘In the Name of Jesus’4, Twelftree writes in more detail that exorcisms “loom large as one of the most obvious and important aspects of his ministry”, adding “We know of no other healer in antiquity for whom this was true.”5

However this still leaves much that needs to be explored if we are to understand the nature and variety of exorcism as practiced by Jesus and the early church:
1. Styles of Exorcism: “there was probably a range of kinds of exorcisms and exorcists that would have been known to the early Christians”6. A key distinction was between a magical exorcist, wherein the exorcism is conducted through the use of particular words and phrases, and a charismatic exorcist, wherein the exorcism is accomplished through the personal force and ‘power-authority’ of a particular individual. Twelftree concludes that, although there are some moments when it would seem that Jesus is using the set phrases of a magical exorcist7 he is best characterised as a charismatic exorcist: “Jesus used the emphatic “I”, for which I can find no parallel in any other incantation or exorcism story in the ancient world. It seems reasonable to conclude, therefore, that, in light of his statement that he was operating by the power-authority of the Spirit or finger of God, Jesus was particularly confident in his ability to use or even be identified with that power source… Jesus deliberately draws attention to himself and his own resources in his ability to expel the demon.”
2. Different gospel emphases: there is a marked difference between the presentation of Jesus’ struggle with the Enemy (the devil, satan, demons8) between the Synoptic gospels on the one hand, and the Johannine literature on the other. Mark’s gospel treats this aspect of Jesus’ ministry as central and paradigmatic, including by making it the first reported act of ministry in Jesus’ life9; in contrast, in the Gospel of John, there are no exorcisms at all. Part of the explanation for this lies in the different motivations for each Gospel writer. Following Bauckham10 I accept that the accounts given in the gospels are rooted in eyewitness testimony, and that Mark in particular is rooted in the stories told by St Peter in prison in Rome in the mid-60s AD. “Mark views exorcism as a battle in which people illegitimately held by Satan are taken, so that Satan is seen to be overthrown.”11 John’s gospel is composed at a later date and is conditioned by a much more developed theological perspective. For our purposes the most important Johannine distinctive is that the defeat of the Enemy is focussed upon the moment of crucifixion (“now is the ruler of this world cast down” – Jn 12.31), and this is presented as the climax of a stupendous cosmic drama. “In a single act involving the heavenly realm, Satan is to be dealt with directly, without recourse to his malevolent minions on earth. In this way the Fourth Evangelist is able to affirm that the lies of Satan’s control of this world is far more pervasive than the possession of individual people, and that the defeat of Satan requires more than isolated activity by Jesus.”12 In sum, for both Mark and John the struggle with the Enemy is central, but in Mark this is accomplished through the healing through exorcism of individual people whereas in John it is accomplished through defeating the Enemy by the one climactic act of crucifixion and resurrection.
3. Exorcisms in the early church: it seems clear that Jesus commissioned his disciples and gave them authority to carry out exorcisms (Mark 3.15, 6.7) but that the different communities gave contrasting emphases to this ministry. In particular the tradition associated with Mark’s gospel and centred on Rome gave most importance to exorcism as a continuing practice.13 This was a form of charismatic exorcism in which the power-authority invoked to compel the demon was that of Jesus himself.
4. Conversion as defeating the Enemy: In the Johannine tradition, in contrast to the Markan, “Satan is not confronted in the form of sickness caused by demons but in the form of unbelief inspired by the father of lies. So exorcism is not the response to the demon possession; truth is its antidote.”14 Thus the crucial way in which the Christian community continued its struggle against the Enemy was by apologetics and through conversion of new believers, “the demonic is confronted not by exorcism but by truth.”15 In other words, “perhaps because of an increasing intellectual sophistication, … an understanding that the demonic could be doctrinal and dealt with and defeated other than through exorcism.”16

Bringing those four elements together it is fair to say that within the emphasis upon Jesus as an exorcist and one who defeats the Enemy there lie different patterns of behaviour rooted in different spiritual frameworks. These do not need to be understood as contradictions, and have not been within the mainstream Christian tradition17 What they have in common is that the struggle with the Enemy is seen as a characteristic of Christian ministry and that there is a duty placed upon the church to continue this struggle ‘in the name of Jesus’. In doing so the church is continuing the ministry of ‘Inaugurating the Kingdom’.

Footnotes:

1See Twelftree, G. H. (1993) Jesus the Exorcist : a contribution to the study of the historical Jesus. Tübingen: Mohr (Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament. 2. Reihe, 54); hereinafter JtE.

2JtE, p13.

3JtE, p137.

4Twelftree, G. H. (2014) In the name of Jesus: exorcism among early Christians. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic; hereinafter NoJ.

5NoJ, p46

6NoJ, p35 and following.

7“Be silent!”, Mark 1.25 and parallels.

8The metaphysical status of all these and associated terms will be considered in detail in a later chapter.

9Mark 1.21-28

10Bauckham, R. (2006) Jesus and the Eyewitnesses : the gospels as eyewitness testimony. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub.

11NoJ, p114

12NoJ, p196.

13NoJ, p289 inter alia.

14NoJ, p282

15NoJ, p283.

16NoJ, p290.

17See subsequent chapters…

When the bubble becomes a boulder

I’m pretty sure the image wasn’t original to me but it was nearly 12 years ago that I started to think in terms of there being a ‘bubble’ of mainstream opinion, and that I was outside of the bubble. The dimensions of the bubble became obvious to most observers in the UK when the bubble lost the Brexit referendum, and then spent several years trying to overturn the result.

The disconnect between those within the bubble and those outside has only increased over time; that is, the polarisation of views, the increase in the extremity of opinions voiced, the active embrace of previously unthinkable political positions, all of these developments have damaged our body politic, and I see them as unsustainable.

Most especially, the bubble has coalesced around the righteousness of the vaccines and – more in other countries than in England – an embrace of mandates. Before the developments around Covid-19 lockdowns were considered a very poor response to an epidemic virus, now they seem to be a default. A default that the bubble has embraced.

The image that comes to my mind now is that the bubble has become a boulder; those within the bubble are determined to impose their will upon society, and resistance will be crushed – more or less gently according to taste.

The boulder will itself end up smashed to smithereens as it is detached from reality – from the human and political realities most of all, but also – imho – the scientific reality around the vaccines. Time will tell on the latter front.

My concern is about how much damage will be done through that process, and how to mitigate that damage, how to increase the permeability of the bubble and enable communication between those who disagree, most especially with those who cannot see that they are within the bubble. (Yes, we are all within bubbles of some sort or another, that doesn’t negate this point. As has repeatedly been shown, conservatives understand the progressive point of view much more clearly than progressives understand the conservative point of view.) This is something that Psybertron has been writing about for a long time – how to have intelligent dialogue across the divides. A work in progress.

We need to be Reformed from our new works-righteousness

I enjoyed Paul Hackwood’s two articles critiquing the centralising tendencies of the Church of England, but amidst much agreement there was one element that I vigorously disagreed with. Hackwood writes:

“This idea of general welfare is gaining traction as our culture changes; “well-being” is increasingly spoken of in the workplace and in civil society. Not coincidentally, this is what most clergy in the Church of England see as their purpose, and the horizon of their mission, and it gives meaning to what they deal with every day. Well-being and welfare are a strong foundation for evangelism and growth.”

I do not see well-being or the idea of general welfare as my purpose, or the horizon of my mission, and I suspect – I hope – that I am not alone in this. To me, this comment encapsulates all that has gone wrong with the Church of England, and it is why Hackwood’s recommendations, commendable though they are, will not ultimately bear the necessary good fruit of evangelism and growth.

For me, the principal purpose of ordained ministry is to feed the faithful through word and sacrament. There are other purposes too, of course, but that is the beating heart of the ministry. Mission, in so far as it falls specifically to the ordained in distinction to the purpose of the whole body of Christ, is fulfilled when new believers are enabled to share in the worship of the Body of Christ. This is what it means to love God with all that we have and all that we are, which is the most important commandment that we are given to obey.

The second commandment comes second – to love our neighbours as ourselves. All that can be considered as general welfare is an expression of that second commandment. Important, yes, but less important than the first commandment. We must insist upon the priority of worship in our self-understanding of who we are; we are most truly ourselves when we can come together in the presence of Christ.

To set aside the priority of the first commandment is a product of the unacknowledged materialism that so conditions the public language of our church. There is a story to be told of how and why the Church of England has come to be seen as lacking in faith, but a component of that must be the reluctance to talk about matters of faith. What we must surely do at this moment is talk about the priority of worship, and that means not trying to justify our worship in terms that the wider culture finds acceptable. We need to declare the priority of worship for its own sake.

Which is why the contentious decision to close churches during the first lockdown was so disastrous. It was the perfect embodiment of the priority given to the second commandment over the first. Love of neighbour was given priority over love of God; physically gathering for worship was optional, reducing the risk of infection was essential. As an act of prophetic drama this decision could not have more clearly communicated the theological wrong-headedness that governs our church. This is why we are dying.

What gives me hope is that there are enough church members who instinctively recognised the wrongness of that decision, both the substance of it and the way in which it was enacted. The capitulation of our leadership to the imperatives of the state, marked by an absence of theological perspective, is only to be expected from a church that has so systematically, over many decades, sought to make itself acceptable to society through accommodating itself to what it thinks the society wants. Please like us – see what good works we are doing! We no longer need to be Reformed from a works-righteousness in relation to God, we need to be reformed from a works-righteousness in relation to our wider society.

I believe that the only path towards evangelism and growth starts from unapologetic apologetics. The gospel is the truth, our primary need is to proclaim that truth – everything else will then fall into its proper place.

So that was 2021

For the first time, writing this on New Year’s Day, not New Year’s Eve!

2021 was dominated on the outside by structural things: getting divorced and being made redundant (which took effect in January). Divorce is something that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, but I believe it can be a lesser evil. Some things still to be worked out, and it is by far the major remaining stress in my life, but I expect 2022 to see the end of the process.

Redundancy has been a gift from God; most especially the gifts of time and simplicity. I am so much calmer than I have been in years. Parish work is a blessing – and I hope that I have been a blessing – and it is so very different to my Mersea experience. I think it’s actually going to be possible, maybe… mostly possible(!) for me to be a priest here. Lots of work to be done, including some structural issues and the impact of Covid etc, but I am looking forward to 2022 in work terms.

I stood for General Synod! Came fourth out of eight, and just missed a place, which I thought was quite good (and I think our elected candidates are good which also helps).

I am also very much hoping – will learn in the next week or so – whether I have been accepted to do a PhD at Bristol. I have twice before tried to do a PhD (and one other time came very close to starting one) so I am very conscious of this being an arena of previous failure for me. Yet this is an itch that has persisted for thirty years, and it seems to be an auspicious time. I am most especially delighted that my hoped-for supervisor seems genuinely interested in the topic, and isn’t seeing me as a way to get the academic statistics and bureaucracies turning over! So I hope this will come to fruition, and if it does, the blog will see a lot of related output.

As will my substack account – go here.

Other things – I’m still chipping away at my WSET Level 3, having postponed the exam twice – will now take it in March 2022 which is a year later than planned! Need to do the work…

I am more and more conscious of my deafness, and I have a nice new wireless hearing aid that I am using more and more often. Doesn’t solve every issue, but there are contexts where it really helps.

Had some excellent time with friends and family at different points in the year; I remain conscious of how much I need them and rely on them.

I have become quite unfit in the last few months, but I expect that to change quite severely over the coming year. One of the best things that has happened is that, as of now, two of my children have returned to live with me, which was unexpected and delightful in equal measure. Eldest son is something of a physical fitness enthusiast, and so I now not only have a basic gym in my garage but I have someone to push me into using it regularly! I am greatly blessed.

So I don’t know what 2022 will look like, but I’m hopeful. I’m a disabled, weight-challenged single parent in precarious employment but I’m also, for the most part, immensely peaceful and happy to be who I am.

Thanks be to God.

Previous years: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020.

Diagnosing the demonic (research plan)

I am hoping to start a PhD at the University of Bristol from January. This is the research plan that I have submitted.

Bristol PhD application (part-time/half-time)
Research plan

Diagnosing the demonic

A conceptual comparison of the metaphysical frameworks employed in the Ministry of Deliverance and in Psychiatric Diagnosis

The overall aim of the research is to understand and clarify the nature of the difference between the psychiatric diagnosis carried out by medical professionals and the spiritual discernment carried out by ordained clergy in the ministry of deliverance. There is an existing conversation within the field of psychiatry that is metaphysical in character and I would like to bring insights from the Christian tradition into that conversation: when there are strange, troubling or unexplained phenomena that affect individuals or groups what are the criteria that are presently used to distinguish the greater applicability of one field of expertise rather than another to a particular situation? Are they the correct criteria to use? I would like to more precisely delineate the boundary between the professional competences involved, with a view to enabling a greater facility between deliverance ministers and consultant psychiatrists in multi-disciplinary teams.

The research is essentially an exploration in metaphysics, ie what are the philosophical presuppositions within which the different experiences are interpreted and understood? What is actually going on when certain words are used in particular contexts? The principal philosopher with whom my research will engage is PMS Hacker, and this in two ways. Firstly, the methodological framework within which the work will be undertaken is conceptual analysis, as understood within the analytical tradition following Wittgenstein and elucidated by Hacker, most especially in his commentary on the Philosophical Investigations. I shall rely upon the Wittgensteinian conception of philosophical practice as a tool for dissolving conceptual confusions. Secondly, the research will include a sustained engagement with Hacker’s recently concluded Study of Human Nature, especially volume 4 on the language of good and evil.

The research plan involves four phases of work. The first two phases are essentially a task of exploring and explaining the different frameworks used in a) deliverance ministry and b) psychiatric diagnosis. The research will therefore look at how particular words and phrases are used in each area before engaging in the more fundamental work of elucidation and the dissolution of conceptual confusions – within each of the two fields. The third phase of work will engage principally with Hacker’s Study of Human Nature, situating that work within the present debates in the philosophy of psychiatry, and drawing on Hacker’s critiques to comment upon both deliverance ministry and contemporary psychiatric practice. The final phase of work will then seek to synthesise the insights generated into a systematic account of the languages of psychiatric diagnosis and deliverance ministry, with a view to comparing these different frameworks and assessing their variable viability and potential for creative engagement with each other. I would hope, at the end of the research, to be able to articulate the areas within which one field of expertise is more suitable for dealing with unusual phenomena rather than another, and why.

Phase 1: The metaphysics of deliverance ministry
(what is meant by the demonic in the Christian tradition?)

In this first substantial part of the research I will set out the practice of deliverance ministry as presently undertaken within the Church of England, setting out the philosophical tradition within which this work takes place.

I will start by sketching out the metaphysics of contemporary practice in deliverance ministry, in the light of the review above (distinguishing poltergeists, ghosts, place memories, unquiet dead, possession experiences), using the work Deliverance edited by Michael Perry as the key text, supplemented by more recent work by Gabriel Amorth, Tom Clammer and Francis Young amongst others. These texts are the materials used for the training of deliverance ministers, and which therefore provide the best guides to the use of language in this ministry. I will highlight a) the variety of metaphysical presuppositions involved in the different areas of the work, and b) the interface with medical expertise in present practice;
I will then look at some contrasting areas from church history where language similar to that used in deliverance ministry is deployed, especially the language of the demonic. This will begin with a review of Jesus’ actions as recorded in the New Testament, which are taken as normative and paradigmatic for deliverance ministry: Jesus’ own ministry of exorcism, the use of exorcism by the disciples, and the language of ‘principalities and powers’ especially by St Paul. Here I would want to use in particular the work of Graham Twelftree and Walter Wink;
I will then seek to elucidate the understanding of demons in the early church looking especially at the desert fathers and the way in which this language was used in the development of the seven deadly sins (eg ‘the noonday demon’ as a way of talking about the sin of accidie). I would here engage specifically with the work of Christopher C H Cook and Olivier Clement;
I will then look at the way in which Augustine adapted the classical understanding of the cure of souls (using rhetoric as a form of therapy, to regulate the emotions) looking at the work of Paul Kolbet and Martha Nussbaum;
I will lastly look at the way Aquinas understood the language of deliverance ministry, looking most especially at his understanding of angels and demons in the Summa Theologica part 1a, and his overall understanding of the nature of good and evil. Aquinas has a status and authority within the Catholic tradition (including the Church of England) which makes his understandings definitive for the practice of deliverance ministry, although I will seek to engage with the critical literature also on these points, especially Herbert McCabe and Fergus Kerr.

Phase 2: The practice and metaphysics of psychiatric diagnosis
(how does psychiatry understand the demonic?)
For this area of work I would seek to understand contemporary psychiatric practice, taking the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) as representative of the mainstream of that practice, with a particular focus on those areas which have the strongest overlap with exemplary deliverance issues such as demonic possession (depression and schizophrenia, and possibly manic/bi-polar disorders).

As with deliverance ministry I would begin with a review of the present practice of psychiatric diagnosis, using the DSM as an authoritative text, with a view to elucidating the philosophical presuppositions within that tradition, in other words, how is the language of psychiatry used in the specific, relevant contexts? If permitted I would very much like to audit some of the lectures (medical training) offered within the University of Bristol in this area as this will enable my understanding to be informed by contemporary practitioners;
I would then seek to explore contemporary critiques and developments of the DSM framework from various perspectives, firstly by looking especially at the appropriateness of the use of the ‘medical model’ as a metaphysical framework within which to consider mental disorders, engaging with the work of Szasz and the secondary literature around his critique, and also drawing on M O’Connor Drury’s work ‘The Danger of Words’ as he was a student of Wittgenstein who became a professional psychiatrist;
I will then look specifically at the understanding of depression and schizophrenia within the DSM and engaging with criticisms of the DSM in this area, both by medical practitioners (Mary Boyle) and by philosophers (Louis Sass)
I will lastly consider the work of the Critical Psychiatry Network (especially the writings of Joanna Moncrieff, but also Lucy Johnstone, David Healy and others) and in particular the recent development of the Power-Threat-Meaning Framework which is conceptually very different to the DSM framework. The work of Bill Fulford in relation to Values-Based Medicine is likely to be relevant.

Phase 3: PMS Hacker’s Study of Human Nature
Once the groundwork of the first two phases has been set out, this will lead into a detailed engagement with the work of PMS Hacker. This will take the form of a detailed commentary on five volumes:
firstly his critique of cognitive neuroscience in his work with Maxwell Bennett, the Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience. This will clarify the inter-relationship of mind and body and especially how this can be applied to the practice of the DSM, for example, what does it mean to say that a feeling of sadness (depression) is the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain? Is such a comment meaningful?;
secondly I would take each of the four volumes of his recently concluded Study of Human Nature, beginning with the Categorial Framework which considers rationality and explanation with respect to human behaviour, which is relevant to considerations of human will – and therefore what it means for a human will to be ‘possessed’ or impaired;
Hacker’s Volume 2, The Intellectual Powers, looking especially at the nature of belief and the way in which imagination interacts with reason, and therefore the importance of the metaphysical (narrative) framework within which phenomena are intepreted;
in Volume 3, The Passions, Hacker engages with human emotions that are considered sins within the Christian tradition (eg envy) and I shall here compare his treatment with that outlined in my earlier research;
finally, and most importantly, in volume 4, The Moral Powers, Hacker considers the nature of good and evil, and human meaning in the face of death. Considering his arguments here will feed directly into the considerations of the language of the demonic considered in the first two phases of my research.

Phase 4: Synthesis
Once these three phases are complete I would then seek to do the more synthetic work and attempt a detailed conversation, looking at human behaviour from different aspects, exploring how the different metaphysical frameworks might interact and critique each other, and therefore how the language and practices within psychiatry and within deliverance ministry might better understand each other. I would hope to be able to clarify the nature of each discipline in such a way that collaborative working across the disciplines might be facilitated.

Timetable
I would expect each stage of the work set out above in phases one and two (each bullet point) to require some 4-6 weeks of work, resulting in around 5,000 words of suitable material. Assuming a January 2022 start I would expect phase one to last until the summer of 2022; phase two to take through to Easter 2023. Phase 3, the engagement with the work of Hacker, will take longer for each section, at least four months for each volume. This is therefore likely to take until the Christmas of 2024 – at least two and a half years after the start of the research.

The sound of an idol toppling

Like most of the world around it, the Church of England is so caught up in busyness and anxious make-work that it has ceased to attend to what is truly happening in the world around it; and as attention is simply another word for prayer this is a grievous fault.

If the Church were to pay attention, I believe that it would perceive one immensely important fact in particular: the great idol of our time is toppling. The idol is science, or, more particularly, the idol is a particular form of scientific and technical expertise that has been shepherded by a priestly class of laboratory-coat wearing men (well – in the story that is told, mostly men) who have journeyed into the greater mysteries and emerged bearing gifts and blessings for the people.

This idolatry, this white coated religion, has its foundation myths (Galileo!) and rituals (the scientific method!), its seminaries and its churches just like any other faith. Walter Brueggemann, in writing about the prophetic imagination, notes that when Moses, the archetypal prophet, seeks to inspire the people of Israel with a belief that things do not have to be the way that they are, that it is not an eternal truth that the Israelites must be enslaved by the Egyptians, a crucial step comes when the technocrats of the Pharaoh contend with the technocrat of YHWH – and they come up short (see Exodus chapters 7-9). Each time Moses and Aaron take a step to demonstrate the power of YHWH the magicians of Egypt are able to match the demonstrations using their own powers – until they cannot. There comes a point when the powers of the establishment are no longer sufficient to provide for the people, when they are shown as no longer omnipotent and omniscient, all wise, all benevolent.

There comes a point when the god bleeds.

Which is where we are now in the West. We have experienced an immense crisis, whose ramifications are still rippling through our lives. Rippling? Maybe a rip-tide. Covid 19 – from whence did it come? Almost certainly from gain of function research in a scientific laboratory in Wuhan. From the place of expected blessing has come a curse. The cure for the curse? A white coated woman in a laboratory achieved something amazing (Sarah Gilbert) yet the issues with the mRNA style vaccines (Pfizer, Moderna) seem to only grow with time. We have embarked upon an immense social experiment, whereby fear of a contagious virus has been deliberately stoked in order to justify unprecedented levels of social control. People in England, from where I write, have for the most part gone along with this. It’s what we tend to do, this is the land of the obedient queue. Yet there comes a point when that obedience comes to an end and the Anglo-Saxon plants their feet in the ground and says ‘No’. Then the authorities have to navigate around a new reality.

(It’s what happened with Brexit.)

So the apparatus of science and the religion of technological expertise is wobbling, it is uncertain – but why am I so sure that this wobbling is in fact an incipient toppling? Because of climate change. Not so much climate change itself but the scientific and technical apparatus that surrounds it, that has been so on display in Glasgow in the COP negotiations when we do not simply see the expected hypocrisies from the great and good who jet in from overseas in order to lecture the peons on the virtue of doing without, but also in those one might reasonably expect to know better – such as the Green politician from Brighton who flew to Glasgow rather than taking the train. The gap between the ritual intonations of ‘climate change’ and the people who are being lined up to change their patterns of life is becoming increasingly large. The people are noticing more and more, and are paying more and more attention, and some time soon the tipping point will be reached and the underlying science behind the rhetoric will be brought out blinking into the light.

At which point there will be much anger. The poor are being asked to pay for the choices of the rich; I am thinking parochially – the poor in post-industrial England are being asked to change their patterns of life (gas boilers, cars), all the things on which they rely, in order to… what exactly? The claims will be of seas rising, and nations vanishing, and mass migrations and so on and so forth – yet because the cost of the changes being demanded of the poor will be so great upon the poor, the poor will rightly say ‘prove it’, and the naked panjandrums will stand blinking and mumbling and Greta will denounce the blah blah blah and the Anglo-Saxon will say ‘No’.

For the IPCC itself no longer foresees disaster under the heading of climate change. The ‘consensus’ of 97% of scientists – which is itself a falling away from the true faith, for true science has no place for ‘consensus’ – will be shown as not very interesting. The climate is warming – yes – but how dangerous is the warming, what is the best way to respond to the warming, adaptation or mitigation and most of all, with Brueggemann in mind but as Rowan Williams once phrased the single most important question in Christian political thought: “Who pays the price?”

The rich will ask the poor to change their ways but the poor will once again vote for their own betterment, and the climate will shift, in earth as in politics, and as above so below the idols will topple. The rich will use the inherited rhetoric of the scientific and technological hegemonies and they will be rejected, and the idol of science will topple with them. No longer will science be seen as the repository of blessings and wisdom; instead the intertwining of science and technology and capitalism will be rejected as a whole, from pharmaceutical exploitations to farming interventions the fundamental wrongness of the apathistic stance will be perceived and rejected – for it will be asking people to be cold in the winter, and it will have lost its power of persuasion.

I hope that we don’t face a Butlerian Jihad, for those in white coats have indeed given many blessings to the people, but for so many reasons the thought patterns of scientific and technological rationality need to be, have to be, incorporated into a larger, wiser, deeper understanding. Theology must become the Queen of the Sciences once again. In one of those little ironies of history, if in the long run we are to ensure a safe place for the Richard Dawkins of this world, it will likely only be if a recognisably Christian culture is re-established.

Else there shall be war and famine and pestilence and death – and Hell shall follow.

The idol hasn’t toppled yet, but it is moving, and wobbling, and in another year or ten or twenty it will fall, and great will be the falling of it. Then, once again, the communities of the faithful will start to pick up the pieces and seek to preserve as much as possible of the good, whilst seeking to ensure the practice of virtues that might inhibit a return to the bad. The world will continue to turn, the tides will rise and fall, and human follies shall remain inescapable.

Kyrie Eleison.

The apathistic stance devastates the world

At the heart of our modern predicament lies a way of seeing the world that is characterised by carelessness – a carelessness that is systematically taught and encouraged through the educational and industrial establishments that dominate the activities of the western world. I call this way of seeing ‘the apathistic stance’, and I wrote about it in my book:

“There is a Greek word apatheia which has come down to us as the word apathy. It means being uncommitted or uninvolved emotionally – an emotional distancing, a ‘not caring’. This happens in science because the scientist is pursuing the truth about the world. What they are trying to attend to is what the world is actually like – not what they want the world to be like. So a true scientist will put their own desires to one side and submit to the process of scientific method in order to pursue the truth. This requires a discipline – you have to be trained in how to investigate, in the attitudes of science, you have to learn what I call the apathistic stance. This is what you do in order to ensure that your own biases, your own emotional desires, are put to one side. This process is a way of learning more about the world, of learning in particular more about the physical and natural world, because the physical and natural world does not depend upon our emotional reaction to it. As with all tools, however, we need to learn how to use them properly – and this has not happened with regard to science. This process of emotionally disengaging from what we are trying to discover in order to discern more truth, putting our own desires to one side, is a tool, and we need to learn how to use the tool, how to put it into a broader framework. In other words, after gaining true information from employing the apathistic stance, we need to adopt a different stance in order to process that true information properly. We need to integrate it with our wider knowledge and understanding.”

(I am minded to do a ‘ten year update’ on the book – I finished the text in January 2012, and I think it still holds up)

As a culture we have neglected this second part of the process. In the religious traditions, the apathistic stance is a moment in our growth of learning – it is a distancing from our own emotions in order to grow closer to the truth. The point of the religious discipline is to integrate those new insights with the wider understandings and frameworks which give sense to those new insights (for no new insights can have meaning independently of such wider frameworks).

Instead of this integration we have been dazzled by the jewels that the apathistic stance has unearthed, all the fruits of technological and scientific development. We have not cared about the consequences – for if we started to care about the consequences we would no longer be apathistic, and we would no longer have our golden goose.

So we have built a society that slaughters the creation around us. We have excised our compassion, we have abandoned wisdom, we crucify creation for a mess of pottage.

The apathistic stance devastates the world.

To overcome this devastation, to heal the world, is first and foremost a spiritual task – and the most essential element of that task in our present time is to dethrone science; or, to put that in slightly different terms, the only way in which we can work out our salvation is if we restore theology to her proper position as queen of the sciences.

Synod: We shall not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation

The third of my three emails unpacking the soundbites in my election address

Our Church of England doesn’t have a functioning theology of what a nation is, which means that it doesn’t know how to call a nation back to a faithful religious life. This is something of a problem when the name of the nation is in our self-description. Captured by modern, secular individualism, the church seeks to market the gospel to modern, secular individuals – which means that those for whom issues of loyalty, authority and sanctity matter are alienated from their natural spiritual home, and then we gather in attempts to ‘Save the Parish’. Why do I say this?

In Scripture there is consistent reference to the nation and the nations, Israel being the paradigmatic example. Nations are a part of the created order, fallen and redeemable. They are real things, spiritually real, part of what St Paul calls the principalities and powers. Our culture is very familiar with what it means when such a principality is raised up into the shape of an idol, when it is given a greater value than it deserves to have, and it becomes demonic. For such reasons our dominant culture sees the expression of national identity as immoral, inherently risky and liable to cause disaster. It is clearly a great sin to overemphasise nationhood: in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, the claims of Christ are higher than any national claim.

This does not obliterate nationhood however; it does not mean that we are to abandon any sense of what it means to live within and be part of a nation. What is missed in our church and our culture is that there is an equal and opposite error, of obliterating any sense of national identity and seeking to do away with any expression of it. It is part of being fully human that we are formed within a community of people, and the most fully human person who has ever lived was not an exception to this. The whole tradition and theological standpoint of our Church is ‘somewhere’ not ‘anywhere’ – rooted in each local parish, and bound up with an emphasis upon the incarnation as a leading theological doctrine in our self-understanding.

Which is why this phrase isn’t leaving my mind: we shall not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation. One of the texts used to justify the disdain for national identity within our church conversation is that wonderful passage from Galatians referenced above – in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek. I believe that this passage can be misused. I do not for one second doubt that our identity in Christ trumps our various national identities. We are called to a Christian identity that is more foundational than any national identity. Yet what I wish to insist upon is that this Christian identity does not evacuate the national identity of meaning or continued application. On the contrary, it is only through being set within that larger Christian identity that the national identity can be redeemed, so it truly finds itself and is able to flourish, becoming something that enables life rather than destroying it.

Jesus, after all, was a particular man born in a particular time and place within a particular culture. His universality is not something imposed ‘top-down’ from Heaven, as if he came down from the sky fully-formed, rather it is built up out of that identity – they are the building blocks. Jesus never stops being a Jewish man from first century Palestine. This is what I mean by ’emaciated incarnation’ – the anywhere ideology that seeks to downplay all the particularities and distinctives that make us different from each other, as they are perceived as problematic. In contrast I want to insist that these distinctives cannot be taken away from us, for they make us who we are. We are not called to be national eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven.

This is a point of conflict with the prevailing liberal mindset (which I see as also culturally dominant in the church – theology by MBA) which does not give a nation any existence that is separate to the viewpoints and habits of those individuals which aggregate together into a ‘nation’ (or a ‘family’ or a ‘corporation’ or a ‘government’). The great beast of global capitalism generates an immense social and cultural pressure pushing a smoothing of such distinctive particularities. Capitalism wants us to become efficient ball-bearings that do not hinder the accumulation of profit.

In contrast I see such entities as part of the principalities and powers – and I see the Biblical treatment of such things as an essential aspect in our understandings. We cannot understand the cross, or the teachings of St Paul, without understanding them. The Biblical understanding of nation does not map neatly onto modern understandings of the nation, let alone the nation-state, and let alone the rich complexity of a ‘United Kingdom’ but there is something here which is essential for our Church to grasp if it is to fulfil its vocation. My concern about the institutional mind of our Church is that this anywhere ideology has surreptitiously crept in and taken over: “Of course it is wrong to value a distinctive national identity! Don’t you know that it inevitably leads to bigotry and racism and fascism and all the other terrible things that the twentieth century taught us?”

I see this, not simply as an acquiescence to worldly thinking but as an abandonment of our own, distinctive, Anglican charism. The Church of England needs to be a Church that believes in England; we shall not evangelise England with an emaciated incarnation. To do so simply aligns the church with those economic forces that depersonalise and dispossess the people in this land. We are then seen as hostile and alien, court chaplains whose ultimate service is to Mammon not to our living and incarnate Lord. If we are to call England back to Christ, we won’t do it if we deny that England exists.

Jesus did not appear to us coming down from on high, full of heavenly glory: no, he lived at a very particular time in a very particular place, he took part in the very particular customs of a very particular nation and from that solid foundation he transcended those particularities to become a source of universal salvation. It is as members of one nation or another that we are redeemed, none of us are redeemed as abstract human beings, devoid of context or roots in a particular land and nation. So we need to take the Good Shepherd as our pattern, and do His work in the same way – loving this fallen nation of ours, and working out our redemption together.