- Meeting Christian Voluntarism on its Own Terms
Anastasia Philippa Scrutton renders helpful service to philosophers and mental health clinicians by highlighting strongly voluntarist approaches to depression within some present-day Christian writers and communities, particularly Pentecostal and Evangelical Christian communities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Drawing on a number of evangelical Christian books and online resources, she argues that these resources are "voluntaristic because they emphasize the role of libertarian free will and choice in the attitudes and behaviors of people with depression, such that depression is seen to be a sin, or the result of sin, because depression sufferers are able to do (and be) otherwise." She counters these approaches in two ways. Philosophically, she argues that the experience of diminished free will correlates with (and may even be) loss of free will itself, and that to assert that people have free will when they do not experience this to be the case is therefore false. Pragmatically, she observes that although some people with depression find Christian voluntarist language to be empowering and helpful in recovery, many others find that it perpetuates stigma and shame insofar as it places the burden of recovery on the person who is suffering. Her concluding recommendation is that pastors and clinicians might gently and nonjudgmentally "emphasize to depressed people courses of action which have often helped people with depression in the past . . . without accompanying this advice with judgments that such actions are possible and all times for every person, or that the person is responsible or sinful if they do not put the advice into practice." Most clinicians and caregivers, religious or not, would agree with this sensible recommendation. As a clinician, I appreciate its wisdom. But I would like to gently suggest that much of Scrutton's philosophical critique evades the heart of the Christian voluntarists' project, and that attending more closely to the political concerns and theological nuances of this project can lead the way to more robust responses.
Scrutton titles her essay, "Is Depression a Sin?," but she never directly engages or answers this question. Doing so would require not only clear definitions of "depression" and of "sin," but also an account of how "depression" might participate in the category of "sin." This would be difficult, because "depression" in the DSM era is generally understood to consist primarily of phenomenological experience and "sin," in Scrutton's sense, consists primarily in dispositions of will. Equating the two would seem to constitute a category mistake. Indeed, Scrutton does not engage this question directly. Instead, she describes a certain group of Christians who describe depression as "a personal sin, as a punishment for personal sin, or as the natural outworking of personal sin, whether behavioral or attitudinal." (It should be noted [End Page 275] that this approach, although undeniably present within certain subcultures, does not reflect the views of most established Christian churches and organizations.) Naming this approach "Christian voluntarism," she asks whether it can be philosophically defended—and concludes that because phenomenological free will corresponds to free will per se, it cannot be.
Unfortunately, this discussion of the relation of the phenomenology of free will to the ontology of free will does not put the Christian voluntarist project to rest. First, there is no necessary connection between the affirmation that depression is the result of sin or punishment for sin, on the one hand, and the affirmation that depression can be overcome by force of will, on the other; this requires a Pelagian view of sin that Scrutton assumes throughout the paper, even if she does not share it personally (more on this below). But even if we assume that all of Scrutton's voluntarist subjects do believe that depression can be overcome by sufficient force of will, her association of the phenomenology and the ontology of free will does not sufficiently account for the genre of the texts that she engages. None of these writings are philosophical texts. They are all hortatory texts written specifically for people with depression or for their close counselors, and their voluntarist rhetoric bears a moral purpose: to awaken in depressed individuals a phenomenological experience of strengthened will, beginning...