JOHN SWINTON GRAND RAPIDS, MI: WILLIAM. B. EERDMANS, 2020. 233 PP. ISBN 978-0-8028-7372-9, US$23.88.
Practical theology is the point where lived realities intersect with scripture, tradition and faith. Here, theology begins at the place of human experience. In John Swinton’s latest book, he invites the reader to look with clear eyes at the lived experience of those struggling with mental distress within the church; to look within these unconventional experiences to where hope and faith can be found in them. This seeing of God within the storm of mental unwellness can help the sufferer know that they are not alone; they are still following Christ, and are part of the Body of Christ. Thus, one of Swinton’s hopes in this book is for the church itself to grow in compassion and understanding toward Christians struggling with mental distress.
As a practical theologian, Swinton has wrestled previously with lived experience and theology. He has written on dementia and faith (Dementia: Living in the Memories of God), evil and pastoral care (Raging with Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil), and depression, schizophrenia and human flourishing (From Bedlam to Shalom: Towards a Practical Theology of Human Nature, Interpersonal Relationships, and Mental Health Care). This is his latest book, and it’s a powerful one. It’s powerful not only in its message of the church, but also in the clarity of the stories of mental distress.
Through his journey of sixteen years’ experience as a mental health nurse to his move into theological study, and now in his role as Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen, Swinton invites us to look at the hard places and find God there. In Part Three, “Redescribing Depression” he looks at “depression and the absence of God”, holding both a focus on the absence of God and a hope for sufferers that God can become known; where a person can “find God in God’s absence” (110).
In other sections of the book, Swinton focuses on how a compassionate theology can join with specific mental health distress, such as Alice’s story in Part Four. Here, Swinton writes about schizophrenia, and a theological way of viewing hearing voices that does not stigmatize sufferers or limit their ability to live their lives faithfully as followers of Christ. It is this dual holding of raw life experience with a God of compassion that I find most encouraging in this book.
As a counsellor and Anglican priest, I’m used to reflecting on where God is present in human suffering, particularly in mental distress. What I found helpful was the focus on specific mental health issues such as depression and bipolar disorder, and his nuanced theological responses. I also noticed Swinton’s focus on how to talk about mental distress. Swinton writes about mental health “challenges” (not illness), with “challenges” being a broader focus than a limiting “illness.” A person can make strides in meeting a challenge. It's a timely reminder that how we talk does make a difference.
One of Swinton’s goals with the book is to “change our language and modify our descriptions of mental health challenges” in ways that reduce stigma and othering of people (3). Indeed, Swinton says when writing about people suffering mental distress, “there is no ‘we’ and there is no ‘them’” (212). We all experience unconventional experiences to a greater or lesser extent, and “the call to love those with mental health challenges turns out to be a call to love everyone” (212).
I was impacted by the section on medication. Having been raised in a faith tradition where the sacred and secular were strongly demarcated, I was challenged by his questioning of the idea that taking medication is an act of faithlessness. He writes about “taking our meds faithfully” (55), and that “there remains something powerful about recognising that medication and faith do not belong to two different realms and that God can work through the medication” (66). Here again, life and theology are in dialogue together in a key of compassion.
As well as articulating a theology of understanding, Swinton also offers challenges to the church to be “an epicentre of compassion for those experiencing depression, schizophrenia, [and] bipolar disorder” (Back cover). His vision is for the church to be the Body of Christ. Swinton concludes his book by talking about a number of different kinds of healing - cultural, liturgical, biblical, theological, relational. I was struck by the way church could be a place for an experience of healing through the liturgy (worship, scripture, prayer, communion) and/or through relationships. Swinton exhorts the church to “be a specialist in human kindness” because “small acts of kindness, tenderness, and thoughtfulness bring healing” (215).
Swinton’s book is rich in detail about three main mental health issues (depression, schizophrenia, bipolar). It was published in 2020, during the pandemic. A book written now on Christians and mental health challenges would usefully include a whole section on anxiety – in particular, health anxiety during and after a pandemic, and social anxiety, as people take steps to live their lives boldly again.
That aside, I wholeheartedly recommend this book. I recommend it for pastoral carers, to know where to look for God at work in the complex lives of people they walk alongside. I also recommend it for theologians, to focus on the jaggedness of human experience and to see how God might be found at the epicentre of that, as a calm place amidst a storm.
Sarah Penwarden is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Counselling at Laidlaw College. She is also a therapist and supervisor in private practice in west Auckland. She is also an ordained Anglican priest in the local Shared Ministry context of an Auckland diocese.