Anyone reading that has read this blog knows that I, Nate Crawford (the Executive Director of Here/Hear, struggles with bipolar 2 disorder. And this struggle has contributed greatly to a personal struggle with the idea of God and the place of being in a church/house of worship. And, as I started last week to talk about what it would take construct a spirituality that was fitting for the mentally ill, it seemed imperative to tackle my own issues.

First, I am an intellectual. I have a PhD in Constructive Theology. When asked why I went on to get a PhD, I often tell people that I had questions and went to get the answers, but only came up with more questions. The questions do not bother me so much as the trite answers we sometimes find in theologies from the majority world, even if they are “prettied up” and given big words; they still fall flat. Most notably, for me, is not the existence of God but the fact that there is tremendous pain and suffering in the world. The idea that people would allow suffering that they can actually stop is reprehensible to me; the idea that a god does the same gives me no hope in any sort of deity. It doesn’t help when often that god is invoked and intellectual hoops are constructed to, simply, contribute to the suffering in the world. And, here, I am not talking about emotional suffering, but the great poverty, the war, the refugees, the lack of food, the selfishness of humans, etc. These all make me want to give up. There is no intellectual way around the problems, although I do think the God-forsakenness of Jesus in Gethsemane and on the cross offers a way forward. 

But, even if all physical suffering in the world was alleviated I would still have to live with my own personal suffering through bipolar disorder. It is, at times, nothing short of hell on earth. And there is no rhyme or reason for it. I feel incredibly sad, empty, nothing, void, pain, torture, and on and on a few times a year. And in these moments, there is no god…there is only absence (To be fair, there is nothing, in that there is no love, no connection, no nothing. Just pain and emptiness). This absence makes my loneliness and aloneness only more magnified. When people talk of the closeness with which they feel God, this is is the opposite and foreign to me. God is not there, at least not that I could possibly grab onto at all. God is gone.

And this absence actually extends to my hypo-manic episodes as well. When I feel that good, I do not need God/gods/deities/Allah/Vishnu/anything at all. In fact, in these moments I tend to suffer from my own Messiah Complex and, so, I take the place of God. But, it’s because God is not there. God leaves me to my own chaos, the running of the thoughts in my head, the speed at which I move. It’s like God doesn’t want to keep up, or can’t. And, so, God’s not there either. And this is disappointing because God should be able to have some fun with me in these states since no one else wants to.

Going further, it’s also hard to believe in God because the two entities that should be able to give me answers and formation and life that feeds into the divine have not. Here I talk about both theology and the church (For those that want to say that you can’t divorce theology and church, I disagree. I know lots of people doing theology that have no interest in church. It’s still theology). 

First, theology has not developed any way of dealing with mental illness. It is all very superficial. Even the titles of the books most often sought to deal with mental illness and church and theology speak to the fact that mental illness is not really accepted or dealt with in church: it must be overcome (some titles include Blessed are the Crazy, Grace for the Afflictedand Troubled Minds: I always love (sarcasm) it when I’m called “crazy,” “afflicted,” and “troubled.”) Theology just has no idea what to do with those have something like a mental illness. It always is treated as something to be overcome when, in reality, it’s not going to be. Theology also seems to be tied to the notion that mental illness is tied to sin, whether original or personal. I’m not convinced and it really does a disservice to us.

​More problematic than theology, though, is the church. If anyone has read this blog, again, they probably know that I have had some issues with church and I won’t rehash those now. This has been a major problem to me in my journey. Even as I was being considered for ordination in two different denominations (long story), the bias against the mentally ill was quite apparent. In fact, I was told more than once, before I disclosed my condition, that it would automatically disqualify me. And this mindset bled into churches, where mental illness was treated not as a disease but as something like adultery, something to hide and to stop talking about and to stop doing (how can I stop my brain from doing what it does?). Churches did not and, often, do not support the mentally ill, even though pews are filled with those who suffer and they must suffer in silence. And this makes me sad and, really, notice the absence of God to help those who need someone to bear burdens and carry yoke. 

However, there is hope. I think. I hope. I hope I hope. 

Like I talked about in the post “Spirituality and Mental Illness – Black Theology,” I believe that the God-forsakenness of Jesus helps us understand what the mentally ill go through and a theological place for reflection. Similarly, the pain and sorrow of places like Jeremiah and Lamentations and the Psalms give the mentally ill a source of understanding in the Christian Scriptures. There is never anything that will fully take away the pain that comes with experiencing the absence of God, but at least the Scriptural witness gives us numerous accounts of people who were in a similar place. They may not have been living with a mental illness, but they were there and felt what it is like to live with the void that is the absence of God. And that gives me hope.