Toward a Theology of Psychological Disorder

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Marcia Webb
  • Eugene, OR: 
    Cascade Books
    , August
     2017.
     208 pages.
     $26.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781498202114.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Marcia Webb has taught in the Department of Psychology at Seattle Pacific University for over two decades, arriving there shortly after completing her PhD in clinical psychology. This is her first book (after publishing primarily in scholarly and scientific journals), but it represents a milestone at the intersection where theology meets with the field perhaps most well-known by those outside its purview as “mental illness.” While also going by other names—for example, psychiatric disabilities or psychiatric impairments—Webb opts for the nomenclature of psychological disorders in part because her extensive counseling experience as a therapist suggests that this is the least stigmatizing label for those who find themselves diagnosed variously with depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and related ailments. The two parts of her book explicate on two distinct but important theological dimensions of psychological disorders.

Part 1 focuses on what we might say are the theological problems related to psychological disorders, chiefly how theological notions exacerbate the suffering of those with such disorders both within churches and for those persons who no longer belong to ecclesial communities but yet have that as part of their background. Since Webb’s audience is first and foremost those who self-identify as Christians, what she lays out are how theological ideas have developed that perpetuate negative misunderstandings of psychological disorders in ways often internalized both by those who are psychologically disordered and their caregivers. For instance, the idea that such disorders derive from a lack of faith, or from selfishness and self-centeredness, or from personal sin and sinfulness, or from demonic influences and activities—each of these may have some rootedness, no matter how convoluted, in the thoroughfares of the Christian tradition and even in the Bible, but they have achieved normative (e.g., dogmatic) status in especially conservative Christian circles and spheres. Throughout, the discussion interfaces with extant literature in the psychological sciences, so that Webb correlates what we know from research with how the Christian tradition has been (mis)received.

In part 2, then, Webb invites consideration of an alternative theological understanding of psychological disorder, one that she believes will facilitate better Christian life with such ailments for believing individuals and the church more generally. Webb’s theological vision includes scriptural themes such as experiencing divine power amid weakness, being adept in the exercise of agency amid creaturely finitude, embracing the complexity of the human brain and its unique capacities (that persist even when or while diagnostically disordered), and welcoming the proverbial—and now christologically understood—“stranger in our midst” in ways that recognize the stigmatized Jesus as present with us incognito. Each of these strategic themes are woven together to present a passible deity who accompanies people and their caregivers and families on the journey so that flourishing, even thriving, might be possible amid, not because of the elimination of, psychological disorders.

I suspect that at least the first part of this book will benefit non-Christian but otherwise religious therapists, and perhaps even some secular counselors, in terms of giving them resources to comprehend why some of their Christian clients might think or feel the way that they do religiously. Christian counselors working with Christian clientele will, additionally, gain from the latter part of the book in reconstructing a theological foundation that sees and perceives deity within rather than outside of the experience of psychological disorder. I would particularly recommend this text for counseling courses in Christian college, university, and seminary programs—the level of writing is accessible enough—particularly at those moments in the curriculum when faith-based resources are brought to bear on engaging clinical and related data. It may be that use of such resources for the next generation or two will result in clergy, ministers, and ecclesial lay workers being more informed about psychological disorders and provided with more appropriate biblical and theological tools for enabling navigation of and with these challenges.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Amos Yong is Professor of Theology & Mission at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
June 1, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marcia Webb has a Master of Divinity degree and a PhD in clinical psychology. She is associate professor of psychology at Seattle Pacific University.

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