Science in Christian Perspective



M. J. Beukema, M. D.
Pine Rest Sanitatium,
Grand Rapids, Michigan

From: JASA, 2, 1(1950): 24-27.

Presented at Third Annual Convention of A. S. A., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 9-3-48

It is indeed a privilege to address a group such as this; especially so when the topic deals with mental illness. I say this because I believe that the subject of mental sickness is far out on the periphery of the sphere of your interests as they are expressed in the purpose of your organization.

I hesitate somewhat in presenting a paper on the "Christian Treatment of the Mentally IIV to a group of scientifically minded people for I am not at all qualified to give you a well organized system of thought on this topic nor do I know of the existence of any. However, your committee assured me that you would not criticize this paper for its failure to meet scientific standards.

There can be no doubt that today more than ever we are in need of a well formulated, authoritative Christian system of thought dealing with the entire field of psychiatry. I say this because the Psychoanalytic Theory has almost completely captivated both the public and also the professional mind with its intiguing terminology, its exploitation of the realm of sex and its development of the concept of a vast unexplored subconscious region in each individual mind. There is also need because of the increasing demand for a greater degree of Christian influence upon the world which also includes a greater demand for hospitalization of the mentally ill in Christian hospitals.

Now I believe, that for my purpose, I can divide the subject, "Christian Treatment of the Mentally Ill" into two parts. The one part has to do with the actual physical and social handling of the patient and the other deals more particularly with the use of psychiatric techniques. I certainly shall not attempt to give a detailed discussion of either part.

Under the first division, I refer to practical care that is given to the patient as objectified in providing comfortable living conditions, a congenial social environment, and adequate provision for bodily needs. When this care is guided by Christian motives it is of great value, especially for Christian patients because it provides for them an environment to which they are accustomed and in which they readily feel at home. This minimizes the degree of adjustment necessary for these sick people who so often go into a panic of uncertainty when faced with changes in their environment. It also encourages them to speak more freely of the religious doubts and fears that they may entertain for they realize that they are speaking to workers and fellow patients who understand the things about which they speak.

Another important element included under this part of Christian treatment is the spiritual atmosphere as it relates to prayer and Scripture reading at mealtime and also attendance at divine worship on Sunday. There are many patients who possess positive active Christian faith which needs exercise to remain alive just as much as the faith of the healthy person requires it.

One of you might at this time raise the question, what is the value of this treatment for the non-Christian patient--how does he respond to a Christian environment. Limited observation leads me to believe that such patients do have considerable difficulty to fit themselves comfortably into such an environment. On the other hand, they are sufficiently impressed by the gracious care they receive that the majority are eager to avail themselves of Christian care because of the patience and kindliness that motivate the Christian worker in this field.

In order to obtain these conditions it is important to have a staff of nurses which is well informed religiously and which can recognize opportune moments to speak of these things.

Some of you may ask, is this treatment? Are not these conditions which we try to maintain in all the ordinary circumstances of our lives? That is indeed true but with this difference that to the mentally ill these ordinary values become extremely important because of the misery and agony they suffer. This may be compared somewhat to the state of mind of a soldier in front-line combat to whom a mess kit of warm food and a pair of clean, dry socks mean almost as much as life itself. So too, the mentally ill cling to the ordinary small human kindnesses and search for words of comfort.

And now to bring out a few points relating to the other part of Christian treatment which I referred to before as the psychiatric approach which attempts to explain, to catalogue, and to treat mental disease. Allow me to repeat that it would be a great boon to the Christian world if some competent group of individuals would devote itself to formulating such a system contained in a volume or two which could be written in a style that all could understand. I am not able to give you a complete psychiatric treatise on the subject of Christian treatment nor would a paper of this size contain so large a subject.

I have chosen to center this part of the discussion around the questions, "Can we use the Christian religion as a cure for mental sickness?" And "What is the relationship, if any, between the Christian religion and psychiatric treatment of mental disease?" Many people of Christian faith give expressions to the feeling that those who become sick in mind, become so because they are lacking in faith. It is especially when speaking about those who are depressed that they raise the question, "Don't you think, Doctor, that if only they had a little more faith and assurance that they would snap out of it?" Or they will state, "I don't think that he's so very sick but just that he doesn't seem to have enough faith to believe that he is saved." Again others will ask, "Don't you think, Doctor, that if you can just straighten him out about his religious ideas that he will be all right?" These questions all suggest the thought that if only someone could make them believe enough in God and could give them assurance of salvation that then they would be cured. However, when one works with this type of patient one is soon impressed with their marked inability to rely on the promises and comforts of Scripture and one soon realizes that this condition represents something other than a lack of faith or insufficient knowledge of God's Word and is rather a diseased state of mind which produces a marked change in the patient's outlook on life affecting his spiritual as well as his mental vision. As a result, they apply to themselves only those portions of Scripture which condemn man for his sins and disobedience. The texts dealing with hope and promise for God's children they believe are true for others but not for themselves. In their own minds these sufferers have become irredeemable sinners and they magnify their former sins an hundred-fold. To them all of life is fraught with evil and in their anguish they try to escape it by suicide even though they live in dreadful fear of death. The depressed patient apparently suffers from a marked disturbance of his emotional balance so that the emotional scale is tipped entirely to the side of depression. As a result these people are unable to experience sensations of pleasure and no matter what direction they turn they see only gloominess which deepens their fearfulness and hopelessness. Or to present this thought somewhat differently, think of these people as first of all becoming sick with a depressed state of mind. Then because of this illness they develop a multitude of fears, feelings of worthlessness and a sense of aloneness with the conviction that they are wholly responsible for their condition and that they are absolutely without hope. Because of this diseased condition--this marked emotional disturbance which impairs intellect and judgment, one is unable to use Scripture or religious doctrines purely as psychiatric instruments to cure mental illness even though their gracious promises would seem capable of lifting the most despondent hearts.

In contrast, to this mistaken conception that Scripture may be used to cure the mentally ill stands the equally erroneous idea of the majority of non-Christian psychiatrists today who insist that religion is the outgrowth or remnant of the prehistoric fears of man's ancestors. They teach that religion with its manifold taboos on man's inner animalistic drives builds up tension in man which leads him to fear. Therefore they try to do away with religion by discrediting it to their patients. They will tolerate the beautiful ideals contained in religion but they oppose those portions that threaten punishment for man's failure to meet certain laws. The mistake in this premise is this, that it fails to recognize that the religious element of man's personality is something innate and not something acquired by contact with others nor from fear of his surroundings before the dawn of history. They ask the patient to forget, ignore and destroy an integral part of his personality. As a result of this, patients come to our hospital who have been greatly upset in mind due to the attempt of such a psychiatrist to pull even the last support away from them by advising them that they should set aside their religion which is nothing more than a terrifying myth. For many patients who have never experienced the power of the Christian religion this advice may not be traumatic, but certainly for those who have had that experience such advice would only increase their confusion and despair. This I believe will help you to see another reason why it is essential to have a Christian approach to psychiatry which does recognize man's religious nature as an elemental part of his personality.

Is there any relationship between the Christian religion and the psychiatric treatment of mental diseases? I have tried to bring out that we cannot use religion purely as a form of treatment nor can we discard it as some harmful acquired impedimenta. In general I may state that it should fulfill the same function in the life of a patient as it does in the life of a healthy minded Christian. However, there is a difference that for those who are sick, great care must be exercised in the degree to which they are advised and allowed to participate in religions activities. As I have intimated in this discussion the emotional disturbance of patients extends also into their religious life so that frequently it is necessary to advise them to do less reading of the Bible during these periods in which they are full of self-condemnation that they ordinarily would. On the other hand there are forms of mental disease in which the religious problems have not become so acute and in these cases directing the patient's thoughts to a more deeply religious outlook on life may be helpful toward his recovery.

This now brings to mind a question which is often asked, "Are there many people who become insane over religion?" This question as it is usually asked implies that there are people who become mentally ill because they have become too extensively or too deeply religious. I do not believe that it is correct to speak of mental illness developing out of excessive religiosity. It is to be looked upon, again, as a result or symptom of illness and not as a cause for mental illness. The reason that so many Christian people show the most marked disturbance in their religious feeling and thinking is no doubt chiefly due to the fact that the religious aspect of their life has been the most outstanding. I do not mean by this that it was outstanding in the sense that it was apparent to everyone, but that their religious training during early life made a lasting and deep impression on them so that they are conscious of the significance of religion for their temporal and external welfare. In this same way others are found in whom there is practically no religious distress but rather a distress of the moral sense which manifests itself particularly in the role which had the greatest meaning for them such as the family and marital relationships, business and social dealings or civic and humanitarian accomplishments. Therefore, it is not correct to speak of people developing mental disease because of religious, business or social activities.,

I have tried in this paper to bring out that there is a definite need for a Christian approach in the treatment of patients with a Christian back-ground. Also I presented a few of the erroneous ideas prevalent with regard to religion and treatment and pointed out the need for judicious handling of both the patient and the Scriptures by workers trained to recognize the state of mind of patients, to handle the Scriptures and to advise the patients carefully according to their capacity to take in a well balanced diet of spiritual thoughts. In concluding I wish to have clearly before your minds that this discussion dealt primarily with mental illness as it appears in a depressed state. These statements would require modification for other forms of disease though in general they would be applicable to all types of diseases.