Finding Health in the
Enduring Love of God
John Swinton Interview
We talk with theologian John Swinton, about his new book,
Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of
Christians with Mental Health Challenges
(Paperback: Eerdmans, 2020).
John Swinton is professor of practical theology and pastoral care at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and founding director of the Centre for Spirituality, Health, and Disability at Aberdeen. His other books include Spirituality and Mental Health Care, Resurrecting the Person, and Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship.
ERB: You intentionally avoid the terminology of “mental illness,” preferring instead to describe these experiences as “mental health challenges”? Why did you make this shift and encourage readers to do likewise?
John Swinton: I use the term “mental health challenges” for two reasons. First, it focuses our attention on what enables us to remain healthy in the midst of psychological distress. While mental health challenges can cause great suffering and distress, it is possible to find hope and faith. Second, the shift from illness to challenge offers a positive and forward-facing orientation. Whereas illness reminds us of what is wrong with us and narrows our range of options, challenge sees the situation as potentially constructive and leaves the door open for a variety of perspectives, interpretations, and descriptions. How to enable people to take up those challenges and learn to live life fully is a primary task of the book. However, I would emphasise that I don’t try to insist on people naming things in the same way as I do. I think its important that people can name their experience in whatever way they want to. A number of the people who took part in the study that underpins the book were comfortable with the idea of mental illness. Others were not, sometimes because they simply didn’t feel ill all of the time, or because they felt that calling their experiences “illness” was too limiting and located the main source of healing in professional help. I chose the term mental health challenges because I think it is positive, humanizing and a good way to begin thinking about the issues theologically.
ERB: How did you become interested in reflecting theologically on the experiences of those with mental health challenges? This book isn’t the first one that you’ve written on this topic. Can you talk briefly about your journey over the last few decades of reflecting on mental health?
JS: My background was originally in mental health nursing where I worked for many years before I entered into academia. Along the way I also worked as a community mental health chaplain alongside of people who were living in long term mental health care and who were moving into the community. My job was to help them to find a spiritual home; a place where they were accepted, loved and assumed to be a valuable part of the community. It didn’t take me long to discover that churches can be as stigmatising and alienating as any other community. It was then that I began to realise that this was a vital area for the theology and practice of the church and that it formed a central dimension of my vocation. At the same time as I was working as a mental health chaplain, I was doing my PhD. By that time, I’d begun to realise that the academy was the place I wanted to end up in. I did my degree on schizophrenia and Christian friendship, exploring the nature of Christ-like friendships and how they worked themselves out in the lives of a highly stigmatised group of people. So, the combination was perfect for me! I think it was there in the midst of chaplaincy and active theological reflection that I began to realise the vital connection between theology and practice that forms the heart of practical theology. I ended up publishing my PhD thesis in two parts. The first was more theoretical: From Bedlam to Shalom: Towards a Practical Theology of Human Nature, Interpersonal Relationships and Mental Health Care (Peter Lang Press, 2000), and the second looked at the practice of Christian friendship alongside of people living with schizophrenia: Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and the Care of People with Mental Health Problems (Abingdon Press 2000) These are old books now I guess, but they were very formative for me.