Book Review: The Call to Personhood (A. I. McFadyen)

Book Review for my MA(Min) subject, Theological Anthropology.

McFadyen, A.I. The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social Relationships. Cambridge University Press, 1990.

The Call to Personhood is an exploration into how the ‘personhood’ of persons is formed and transformed through personal relationships with one another. A personal relationship is when at least two, autonomous and independent partners engage with each other, freely and without coercion. McFayden proposes that we cannot understand what it truly means to be a person based only on our internal independence as our “personal identities are moulded through our relationships”[1]. Therefore, we can only understand our personhood in the context of our inter-personal relationships.

We find McFayden’s thesis in between individualism and collectivism. He does this by proposing a ‘third option’ that accounts for an individual’s the autonomy and personal freedom while acknowledging the influence of relationships and institutions have on a human being. McFayden builds his argument through exploring the theological and anthropological concepts of the image of God, human ontology, free will, gender, and how they contribution to a relational understanding of personhood.

Image of God

McFayden explains that humankind being ‘made in God’s image,’ (Gen. 1:26-27) refers to the relational nature humanity shares with the triune creator. He proposes that the Trinity is a unique community, characterised by unity-in-diversity and mutuality. Each person in the Godhead shares in their divinity, while unique in their distinct in their role, Father, Son and Spirit. He argues that Humans then mirror this unique community when we openly communicate and interact with one another in various relationships.

However, God’s priority in creation was not the horizontal relationship between persons, but the vertical one between humanity and himself. According to McFayden, God created humans to be his ‘dialogue-partners,’ and addresses us so. As language is the universal form of communication, dialogue is McFayden’s preferred method of relationship. Therefore, it is through being a dialogue-partner with God and other humans that one can be a person, made in the image of God, in the truest sense. And the only way to have an undistorted relationship with God and other is through a restored dialectical conversation with Christ.

Ironically, for a Christian thesis based on communication and relationship with God, there is little said of prayer. The Call To Personhood would have contributed more to the discussion by addressing individual and corporate prayer.

While McFayden adequately explains the relational side of both God and humanity, he neglects the ‘dominion’ aspect of God’s image. That is, that God created humanity, under His authority, to rule over and look after the rest of God’s creation. Addressing this would have strengthened McFayden’s contribution to the field of theological anthropology.

Human Ontology and Free Will

McFayden firmly states that being ‘made in God’s image’ is the primary ontological structure of a person. Therefore, in light of God’s ‘address’ to humanity, the primary ontological construct of humanity is relationship and responsibility. That is, persons have a responsibility in how they respond to God’s address.

‘Free will’ is understood as autonomy and the freedom to reject or accept the invitation to be God’s dialogue-partner. At Creation humanity was created with an autonomous and ‘primal letting-be,’ which became independent in the fall. McFayden’s definition of sin is then a person’s refusal to reciprocate God’s call into a relationship with Him and by extension, the closure of communication with other individuals. As being made in God’s image is humanity’s primary ontological structure, we did not completely lose that image due to sin. Humanity’s misuse of freedom that has merely distorted our response and responsibility and as a result, restoration is possible.

McFayden offers a Semipelagian understanding of Grace and salvation. God’s extended the offer of a redeemed relationship with humanity through Jesus, who was not just the messenger of God’s Word but also the Word himself. Human beings then have the ‘choice’ to accept God’s offer or not.

Gender

McFayden develops his idea of a man reflecting God’s image through gender. His most insightful thought on the topic is when he explains that Adam’s ‘helper’ (Gen. 2:18) Eve, being made from his rib, is not a sign that she is his ‘subordinate assistant.’ Rather, Eve enables Adam to understand their interdependence and that the completeness of personhood is in a community. Adam being asleep reveals that Eve’s creation was fully God’s work.

McFayden acknowledges the distinction between sexes and explores how the sexual and dialogical relationships between each mirror God. However, gender differences are not explored outside of biology.

McFayden never suggests that these communities are exclusive to man and woman. The primary focus is not on gender, rather a discussion on how all types of relationships influence identity and the need to mirror God’s invitation of Grace through the development of ideal relationships. These ideal relationships never grow through coercion but mutual, genuine and open communication.

Community

The Call To Personhood suggests that the more open and dialogical conversations an individual has, the closer bond they form to communities, and as a result increases their development as unique individuals. McFayden’s thesis encourages the contemporary church to consider the following implications

A church should find its identity in its patterns of communication; therefore, a church must be a community that reveals to the world a “genuine response [accepting a relationship with God] to a genuine call [God’s address to humanity through Jesus].”[2] Unfortunately, McFayden doesn’t offer practical suggestions, as to how a church community goes about considering and evaluating their ability to listen and respond to both divine and human words when they meet.

As sin manifests as the partial or full closure of communication with other persons, the church should be modelling the process of developing mutual, dialogical and open relationships. McFayden includes the importance of forgiveness for interpersonal relationships as well as responding to Jesus’ call to care for the vulnerable. He suggests we can do this by creating ways for those with diminished communicative capacities not to be objectified, but rather, engage with them as subjects of conversation to maintain their dignity.

Through the exploration of these ideas, McFayden challenges Christians to consider political and ethical issues regarding mutuality vs. coercion, the power and influence in asymmetrical relationships and promoting healthy relationships and community development.

Although The Call To Personhood is not an easy book to read and is very theoretical, it challenges people living in an individualistic society to rethink the way relationships affect the personhood of each individual. McFayden encourages us to understand our personhood truly by accepting God’s invitation to be His dialogue-partner and offering the same invitation to the others.

[1] A.I. McFadyen, The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social Relationships (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 18.

[2] Ibid., 62.

TMS: The Treatment For Depression You Haven’t Heard Of

One million people in Australia have depression, two million have anxiety, and many have both.

Most individuals who seek treatment for depression recover. Because our brain is continually being moulded and has an incredible capacity to change, psychotherapy (talk therapy) is a proven and effective treatment. As we change our thoughts and behaviours, over time our feelings start to change too. Some people need medication to give their brain a bit of help while they go through the process. The good news is, in Australia 3/4 of those who see a GP for mental illness make a full recovery.

But for some people, like me, medications and talk therapy just aren’t enough. I’ve had depression for sixteen years, seen more counsellors/psychologists that I can count since and have been on medication for over eight years. The medication helps and a lifetime of talk therapy has meant I am high-functioning – I’m not a particularly negative person – I regularly practice mindfulness and have a plethora of strategies that I use in my everyday life… But despite all this, I still struggle with a chronically depressed mood, called dysthymia and recurrent Major Depressive Episodes, which means I go through stages of Double Depression. In a way, I thought I was destined to be depressed

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…until about nine months ago, when I heard about a treatment for chronic/medication-resistant depression called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (or TMS). So I started researching about this treatment that was foreign to me – what is TMS? Was I eligible to try it? How could I access the treatment? What are the side effects? How effective is it?

What is TMS?

The way I understand it, is that it is similar to ECT in the sense it uses an external source – in this case, a coil that repeatedly emits a magnetic field – to stimulate brain activity. Unlike ECT, it does not require aesthetic, cause a seizure and doesn’t have the cognitive side effects.

The magnet at the centre of the coil taps very fast on a specific point on my head – for me, it’s 40 taps in about 7 seconds, repeated 125 times on the left side. It takes 41 minutes. There will be a blue/purple spot permanently on my head while I’m undergoing my first treatment.

As it taps, the magnet stimulates the nerves in the frontal cortex, which is the part of the pain in charge of our logical thinking. The hope is to minimise the effects of depression by stimulating these nerves and increasing blood flow in that area of the brain.

Who eligible for TMS?

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TMS is for people with medication-resistant depression (yup! That’s me!) or those who are unable to take anti-depressants.

However, it’s not recommended or suitable for those diagnosed with epilepsy, have had a stroke, are pregnant or have implants that would be affected by a magnetic field, such as surgical clips, cardiac pacemakers, implanted medication pumps.

How do you access TMS?

Unfortunately, in Australia TMS does not have Medicare number (yet) and it needs to be applied consecutively for a prescribed number of days – which means you have to undergo TMS as an inpatient.

The best way to access TMS in Australia is to find a hospital that offers it as a treatment, make an appointment with a psychiatrist who has admittance rights and does TMS and ensure you have private health insurance with psychiatric hospital cover.

Although it can be inconvenient to take time off from work and/or away from home, most hospitals also offer group therapy, education, access to allied health professionals, art therapy and lifestyle advice. This holistic approach has proven effective and is a vital part of recovery for the patients who participate and take advantages of all the treatment options available while undergoing TMS.

How effective is it and what are the side effects?

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When I was looking at all my options with my psychiatrist my conclusion is this: it may work, but it is just as likely not to work – it seems like a 50/50 gamble. Statistically, it’s not as effective as ECT and there is no way of telling how a person will respond to the treatment until they try it.

However, it has far fewer risks and side effects than ECT or going through another medication change. The only side effects are tiredness and in some cases, a headache. Yep – that’s it! And it has made me very sleepy!
For me then, the only risk is a financial one, but three weeks in a hospital, undergoing group therapy and focusing on my health would be good for me, even if the TMS didn’t work. So, I have approached the treatment optimistic, but without expectation.

Unfortunately, it isn’t a permanent treatment, but I’ve been speaking to many others who have said TMS changed their lives and have been more than willing to return for their ‘top ups.’

Sooooo…

…here I am. I’ve been prescribed 20 TMS treatments, one a day and in-between number 14 and 15. Three days ago I noticed a difference – for the first time in my life, I feel like I have a choice and safe in my head.

The best way I can describe the change in my mind is;

what had always felt like a dark, dense, damp forest with a narrow path and dangerous creatures waiting behind every tree to attack,

now it feels like a spacious, open, colourful meadow on a cloudless day with the freedom to go wherever I want, without fear.

And I am only 3/4 of the way through. I still have six treatments left – Praise God!

I confess, I’m a little upset I’ll have to keep my private health insurance (it’s not cheap). However, it’s a small price to pay for a treatment that has the potential to greatly increase my quality of life.

So, I’m going to embrace this new addition to my life and continue to Praise God for His goodness and perfect plan.

A Youth Ministers Guide to Anxiety and Depression

A Christian Perspective on Mental Illness: Introduction

It feels quite fitting that I start a new treatment for depression, called rTMS (Repetitive Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation – more about this treatment later) on Mental Health Awareness Week. I also ended up submitting an assignment on Friday which was the transcript of a Youth Group talk from last term. The topic? Yep, you guessed it – a look at mental illness in light of the Bible. I decided this was a talk I really wanted to edit for Breaking Stigma – I don’t think anyone would deny that there is still an incredible amount of stigma when it comes to mental illness in Australia and it can be even more misunderstood in churches.

This talk was delivered to a group of predominantly Christian high school students as part of a topical series. The bottom line for the series was that sin has broken and distorted our world, which has resulted in cultural, societal and interpersonal issues. We attempted to understand this distortion in light of the gospel. Mental illness is one of these issues. If you chose to follow this seven-part series, A Youth Minister’s Guide to Anxiety and Depression, please consider this context.

This first post will briefly address five common misconceptions about Mental Illness.

Mental illnesses aren’t just emotional, but physical.

Most mental illness occurs when chemicals, hormones and messages in the brain aren’t working how they’re supposed to and the brain is a part of the body. Many symptoms are also physical. Depression can make you feel sad, numb or overwhelmed, but it can also cause fatigue, sleeplessness, affect your appetite and cause muscle tension.

People with mental illness are not dangerous and psychotic, which means they’re losing touch with reality.

Mental illnesses are complex, and there are more types of illnesses than I can count. There are mental illnesses that cause psychosis, like schizophrenia and a type of Bipolar, but the most common types of mental illnesses are depression and anxiety – which I will be focusing on tonight. Neither of these have psychosis as a symptom and they rarely cause people to be dangerous.

Depression is not simply feeling sad all the time, and anxiety isn’t just worrying all the time.

These diagrams show the differences between feeling anxious and having anxiety and feeling depressed and having depression. Keep in mind that everyone is different, but these images visually represent what it’s like to live with depression and anxiety.

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8f244b3a3b9273e0e76ea7517106005eAnxiety is more than just worrying; it can include sweating, muscle tension, chest pain, increased heart rate, troubled sleep, second guessing yourself, over thinking and a battle between what you know is rational and the irrational anxiety.

Likewise, depression is far more than sadness, it also manifests in isolation, guilt, hopelessness, feeling anxious, self-hatred and a sense of nothing or numbness.

Mental illness is common.

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1 in 5

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45%

In Australia, one in five people are experiencing a mental illness right now. Look at the image on the left and imagine each dot is a person, one in five of the dots are blue and they represent individuals who have a mental illness. But it doesn’t stop there, have a look at the image on the right. 45% of Australians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime, so nearly half of us, by the time we die, will experience a mental illness.

Because it’s so common; it’s important for Christians to address mental illness and learn to understand it, so we can better communicate with and love others (as God commands us to do). Tonight, The Project on Channel 10 also briefly addressed how common and untreated mental illness is, especially among young people.  Make sure you check it out here!

Finally, ‘real’ Christians can suffer mental illness.

I believe this is false, as I love and follow Jesus and have had depression and anxiety since primary school. I have had the experience of Christians saying unhelpful things to me. I’ve been told my depression means I’m possessed by a demon and that I’m only depressed because I don’t have enough faith. Neither of these comments are helpful. They actually made me feel worse and encouraged me to isolate from God when I needed to draw closer to Him…

Mental illness is common, and I believe that the negative things depression and anxiety cause find their explanation in the Bible and answer in Jesus. Over the next few weeks, I’m going to use a few verses from the book of Romans to share five things that have encouraged me as a Christian living with chronic mental illness.

  1. The Bible offers us an explanation,
  2. Scripture helps us combat ‘stinking thinking,
  3. God has given us His Spirit and listens to us when we pray,
  4. Jesus has made promises that give us a true hope, and
  5. God has given Christians the beautiful gift of community.

If you continue to join me through this series, I hope you are
1) encouraged to show compassion, love and empathy to those you know and meet with Mental illness and
2) are encourage to draw nearer to the God who shows you unconditional compassion, love and empathy.