When I was in my early twenties, I developed an anxiety disorder coupled with moderate depression. I often felt betrayed by my own mind, as intrusive and oppressive thoughts and feelings would take hold and steal all hope of inner peace and safety. Of course, as I learned over time, the reasons for my mental illness were complex, consisting of emotional childhood trauma, spiritual warfare, chemical imbalance in my brain, and possibly a bit of immorality—probably more than a bit.
I’ve come a long way since those times, much to the credit of Christ, time, and the people God provided to help me learn techniques to deal with intrusive thought patterns like catastrophizing and obsessing over the things in life that we can’t control.
And while the immorality is (mostly) gone and the spiritual warfare has subsided, my brain still does weird things (sometimes) and I can’t escape how my upbringing helped shaped the way I perceive and feel as an adult today. Talk to any accredited psychologist and they will agree that our formative years as children largely influence who we become as adults.
Yes, Christ has brought me victory over time, but it wasn’t instantaneous, nor did it occur through some form of triumphalistic spiritual elation that purged me of every bit of suffering and emotional struggle. And to be quite honest, I’ve always been confused about how some Christian therapists and traditions approach mental and emotional struggle.
(When I say “mental and emotional struggle,” I’m not talking about serious neurological disorders like schizophrenia or dementia, for instance. I’m thinking more in terms of the common mood disorders, anxious feelings and fearful emotions we experience as part of our human experience.)
There are those who subscribe to the fundamentalist or triumphalist approach to emotional and mental struggle that basically says, “negative feelings are bad, often demonic, and should be purged through the cognitive truth of God’s Word.” Once we replace these “bad, evil, false thoughts” with “good, true and godly thoughts,” only then can we truly “feel” the peace and victory of who we are in Christ. The approach is a basic Christian application of what is called Cognitive Behavourial Therapy, or CBT.
While I believe there is a time and place for CBT and its Christian application—for instance in times when spiritual warfare is heavy or when life circumstances are difficult and despairing—I’m not sure if it fully addresses or appreciates the complex reality of what it means to be human. Nor does it embrace the contradictory feelings that come with being human in a fallen world.
For one, the idea that change and healing take place primarily through “the mind” (cognition) is a western philosophy-inspired understanding of how human beings are formed and healed of emotional pain. The western world has adopted this approach largely across many disciplines, and thus western Christianity, especially Protestantism, has appropriated this over-intellectualized model of anthropology in its approach to therapeutic intervention. But people consist of more than “mind.” Rather, humans are fully embodied creatures I’d like to think.
Also, when we use the Christian version of CBT as a panacea for every negative thought, uncomfortable feeling or dark mood we experience, we automatically assume that all of our mental or emotional problems are spiritual in nature—i.e. God’s truth needs to replace the devil’s lies— when in fact much of what we experience is due to a complex range of factors like personality, genetics, childhood upbringing, immediate circumstances, chronic health problems, loneliness, general worries of life, and so on. Basically, common experiences and factors that make us the complex and amazing humans that we are.
And that’s the point. When we over-spiritualize the complexities of the human experience and deem our mental and emotional afflictions as “demonic,” or “false” or “bad,” we create an awful dualism, not affirming of the human experience in a way that we find in the Bible, especially when we look at Christ’s own experiences on earth. This leads to an inability to embrace—and struggle through—the contradictory realities we often face in life. But we all know that “it’s okay to feel,” despite that we were raised to believe the opposite.
Dialectics is a philosophical term based upon the concept that everything is composed of opposites, or contradictions, and that change occurs when one opposing force is stronger than the other. In the counselling world, one form of intervention is called Dialectical Behavourial Therapy, or DBT. I’ve found this approach makes much more sense than CBT, in that it allows one to embrace the full range of feelings and life experiences we have (good and bad) as humans and to be able work through them, rather than to dismiss unpleasant or negative feelings outright. Simply put, DBT allows you to feel. It allows us to validate our own feelings, embrace the contradictions within and without, and to move forward towards peace and healing as we trust in a God who is unfathomably faithful and loving—a God who has experienced His own contradictions in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ and conquers through the resurrection hope.
Dialectical Christology and the human experience
Theologian Jürgen Moltmann gives us what I think is brilliant insight into the cross and resurrection of Christ—what he calls the “Christ event”. In the Christ event, God experiences the cross and resurrection as an ontological contradiction. For Moltmann, this is not only an experience of Christ, but an integral part of His identity. In Theology of Hope, He writes, the “contradictions between the cross and the resurrection are an inherent part of his identity.” Moltmann connects God’s essence—which for him is faithfulness— to the Christ event. Here, in the contradiction of cross and resurrection, God’s identity is revealed to the world for its renewal. “This event of identification in contradiction is, for the believer, an eschatological demonstration of the faithfulness of God,” writes J.A. Irish in his article, “Moltmann’s Theology of Contradiction.” In the dialectical event (and identity) of Christ, God’s loving faithfulness is made concrete in the real time and space of human reality—a reality that God voluntarily lives and suffers within.
Moltmann’s dialectical Christology neither denies the suffering of the cross, nor elevates it as the defining event (and identity) of Christ. Instead, he acknowledges the cross and its despair, and how God’s presence can be—but is not solely—paradoxically hidden in that pain.
Unlike the Reformers, Moltmann argues that God’s “paradoxical hiddenness ‘under the contrary’ is not His eternal form.” Whereas Luther and Bonhoeffer’s theologia crucis saw God’s kingdom hidden beneath its opposite, Moltmann’s theology of hope sees God’s kingdom in the whole—yet contradictory— experience of the risen Christ. The risen Christ who has the final world; the resurrection is “the protest of the divine promise against suffering,” says Moltmann.
In the Christ event, the Faithful One of Israel—the God of the cosmos—absorbs and triumphs over “judgement and damnation so that we may live,” remarks Irish. Moltmann leans heavily on Luther in his understanding of how—in the Christ event— humanity communicates sin and death to Christ, who in return, communicates blessing and resurrection life to humanity. Luther called this ontological communication of properties the iucundissimum duellum (the delightful duel). In his book, The Suffering of God according to Martin Luther’s Theologia Crucis, Dennis Ngien explains:
The ‘blessing’ is locked in mortal combat with the ‘curse’ in ‘this one person’ (Christ)—this is the secret of the iucundissimum duellum. When two such extremely contrary things come together in Christ, for Luther, it must be the divine powers—divine righteousness, life and blessings—which triumph over the lesser contraries—sin, death and curse.
Ultimately, in the Christ event, Moltmann says that God stands for “righteousness as opposed to sin, life as opposed to death, glory as opposed to suffering, peace as opposed to dissension.” God embraces the contradictions of human life in Christ, but universal renewal (cosmological and ecological change) occurs when God’s life (hope) conquers God’s death (suffering). This is dialectics in its truest form.
Moltmann does not overlook the tensions between the present reality of sin, death and suffering, and the future promise of resurrection, blessing, and eternal life. Thus, “To Moltmann’s dialectical Christology—in which the resurrection contradicts the cross—corresponds a dialectical eschatology, in which the promise contradicts the present reality,” says renowned theologian and bible scholar, Richard Bauckham.
Amidst this tension of promise and experience, God sends Christ—and the Church—into the world on a mission of hope. Carl E. Braaten writes in his article, “Toward a Theology of Hope,” that this “mission of hope is to radicalize the existing discrepancy between righteousness and sin, joy and suffering, peace and war, good and evil, life and death, and to look to the absolute future of Christ for a universal and transcendent resolution of this discrepancy.”
Moltmann’s theology of hope is rooted in the risen God of the cross who promises eschatological renewal for a world experiencing suffering and death. This gives Moltmann’s theology of hope a “Christological centre and a universal eschatological horizon,” remarks Bauckham in his book The Theology of Jürgen Moltmann. Moltmann declares: “No corner of this world should remain without God’s promise of new creation through the power of the resurrection.”
Hope can only come by leaning into the contradictory experiences of life, and coming out the other side conquered by the resurrection and life giving power of God.