Spiritual Imperialism


It’s always fun to bemoan Western imperialism.  In fact, it’s become something of a fashionable pastime for most socially conscious Catholic pundits and homilists.  In the end, however, most such criticisms end up being a bit superficial.  We instinctively employ our own favored militaristic and market-based criteria.  Consequently, we end up focusing on foreign wars and cruel sweatshops, and we promote multilateral diplomacy and fair trade coffee in response.  In other words, we end up with distinctly American criticisms of America.

To its credit, the recent New York Times article on the “Americanization of Mental Illness” begins to go a bit deeper.  It still remains somewhat imprisoned within American plausibility structures, since it draws its criteria and evidence almost entirely from the statistical method of public health.  Nonetheless, the somewhat lengthy article brings up some interesting points:

  • Mental illnesses vary from culture to culture.
  • By universalizing the mental health categories developed to treat modern Western afflictions, America is indirectly exporting its own mental illnesses.
  • At least some mental illnesses (e.g., schizophrenia) are better treated by folk methods.
  • Western anomie may be partly to blame for both the incidence of mental illness and impotence of contemporary therapies.

These points are of interest mainly because they point to a deeper imperialism of the spirit.

Our author speculates that the rise of mental illness around the world may stem, not only from better diagnosis, but from the breakdown of meaning that the encounter with Western psychology occasions.  Whereas most traditional cultures see personal identity as “inseparable from your role in your kinship group, intertwined with the story of your ancestry and permeable to the spirit world,” the modern mental health profession smuggles in a different anthropology.  It tends to reduce the human person to a Cartesian mind, considered in isolation from both body and society, and treats the mind in turn as a “batter of chemicals we carry around in the mixing bowl of our skulls.”  When these two anthropologies collide, a certain cognitive dissonance ensues.  Hence, the solace that mental health professionals offer may be more than offset by the cultural disorientation that they induce.

One might, of course, counter that things often get worse before they get better: once the mental health worldview has a secure hold on the indigenous mind, it will outstrip the local therapies.  However, Western treatments may be at a permanent disadvantage.  “Traditional” (read “religious”) cultures have ways of giving a cosmic and communal meaning to mental illness which contemporary frameworks lack.  Those with a traditional religious outlook can contextualize mental suffering, and can thus accept it more serenely.  This more resigned approach actually better alleviates certain afflictions (e.g., schizophrenia).

Our author concludes his reflections:

Looking at ourselves through the eyes of those living in places where madness and psychological trauma are still embedded in complex religious and cultural narratives, however, we get a glimpse of ourselves as an increasingly insecure and fearful people. Some philosophers and psychiatrists have suggested that we are investing our great wealth in researching and treating mental illness — medicalizing ever larger swaths of human experience — because we have rather suddenly lost older belief systems that once gave meaning and context to mental suffering.

If our rising need for mental-health services does indeed spring from a breakdown of meaning, our insistence that the rest of the world think like us may be all the more problematic. Offering the latest Western mental-health theories, treatments and categories in an attempt to ameliorate the psychological stress sparked by modernization and globalization is not a solution; it may be part of the problem. When we undermine local conceptions of the self and modes of healing, we may be speeding along the disorienting changes that are at the very heart of much of the world’s mental distress.

The moral: Physician, heal thyself.

The article is, of course, by no means perfect.  It still skirts the question of Truth, refusing to judge between “local” and “Western” anthropologies.  However, studies such as these may go a long way toward proving the following observations of Caritas in Veritate prophetic:

One aspect of the contemporary technological mindset is the tendency to consider the problems and emotions of the interior life from a purely psychological point of view, even to the point of neurological reductionism. … When he is far away from God, man is unsettled and ill at ease. Social and psychological alienation and the many neuroses that afflict affluent societies are attributable in part to spiritual factors. A prosperous society, highly developed in material terms but weighing heavily on the soul, is not of itself conducive to authentic development… The emptiness in which the soul feels abandoned, despite the availability of countless therapies for body and psyche, leads to suffering. There cannot be holistic development and universal common good unless people’s spiritual and moral welfare is taken into account, considered in their totality as body and soul.

The point is not just that we be more careful, more conscious of our Western presuppositions.  If Caritas is correct, then our spiritual malaise is of its very nature contagious.  In this case, actions such as entering the Church (a kinship group) and meditating on Scripture (an ancestral narrative) may prove to be even more profoundly anti-imperialistic than, say, buying fair trade coffee.

4 Responses to Spiritual Imperialism

  1. Henry A says:

    Wonderful post, especially the ending! When I read this sentence – Our author speculates that the rise of mental illness around the world may stem, not only from better diagnosis, but from the breakdown of meaning that the encounter with Western psychology occasions. – it reminded me of a beautiful book by Jean Vanier – Seeing Beyond Depression.



  2. Joe says:

    Always good!

  3. Makes me think of Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot,” who was the closest aproximation he could come to Christ.

  4. Semblances of Kierkegaard’s three stages of being
    therein: just as apropo to the theme, as just
    “mere” psychology of the day!

    Both the MBTI of Jungian Psychology, and Kierkegaard’s
    Christian Psychology have more to say per se, than
    does the whole of contemporary social science,
    which is still on a treadmill to nowhere, slowly,
    in first gear at this stage of its own maturity,
    full of pseudo exploratory myths, than truths….!

    On in the ’90’s did scholarship finally comprehend
    Kierkegaard on much of that, defining multiple
    stages of “despair” that psychology has yet
    to both unwrap and encounter! But, at least
    “truth-seeking” is the goal, and with time,
    and centuries, we’ll get somewhere better than
    we are today. I think at most today, we’re merely
    designing a rocket to somewhere out in space,
    the space of the human living subject: a mystery
    to be explored!

    (cf: Soren Kierkegaard’s Christian Psychology:
    Insights for Counselling and Pastoral Care)

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