When Nothing is Transcendent, All is Pathology

How a Materialistic Anthropology Impairs Us

Research Professor of Sociology, Joseph Davis in a powerful piece in The New Atlantis has decried what has become the “medicalization” of everything. He laments:

We live in a medicalized society, [having] grown accustomed to hearing that yet another behavior, emotional state, temperament, or bodily experience – some feature of life not previously regarded as a syndrome or disorder or risk factor – will henceforth be defined and treated as a medical problem.

From here, Dr. Davis catalogs the societal evolution of assigning every life experience with a diagnostic code – fostering the means by which medical intervention or treatment can be dutifully administered. Responsibly, he acknowledges that some syndromes do represent severe dysfunction, but at the same time recognizes that much of what we “feel” or experience as humans is largely part of the “normal” (even if painful) struggles of life. Understanding this, he wonders, “What ails a culture that sees illness everywhere?”

We are All Materialists

Who could blame the powers-that-be (perhaps the medical-industrial complex?) for medicalizing every human experience? Such widespread medicalization is tolerated – no, advanced by our cultural elite’s growing materialistic view of what it is to be human. If we are merely material beings, having come into existence by the whim of purely mechanistic forces, then the remedies for what ails us are analogous to those for repairing our own automobiles. Pop the hood, run an engine check and diagnostics, generate a repair-ticket and then dispatch the mechanic to fix the problem.

Holding to such an anthropological model, since there is nothing transcending the material individual, the means for amelioration remains in the scope of a material remedy – which is too often prescribing the right molecule to interact with the other molecules in one’s material brain, or to act on one’s material tissues. If molecules are not prescribed, then all too often, other remedies still address the merely material – or identifiably “medical” – in the person.

While the automobile analogy may seem puerile or even absurd, we should recognize our own culpability in forwarding an anthropology that oftentimes is mechanistic. In the era of lockdowns and epidemic loneliness, how many times, when texting or speaking with an acquaintance or friend, does this very anthropology belie us? Do we meet our friend’s admission of feeling lonely, anxious, or depressed with advice for the latest and greatest pharmaceutical? Would our friend have been better served if we just offered our time rather than our advice?  In an age of busy-ness, it is much more expedient to text friends the contact information of a good shrink, than to spend the afternoon with them over a cup of coffee sharing a word of encouragement and a good cry. One has to wonder if our own belief in the medicalization of everything leaves us feeling we are unqualified to console and comfort - perhaps even just the act of consolation is best left to the domain of the medical experts?

Limits of a Materialistic View

A largely materialistic anthropology significantly limits the tools one can use to treat the many emotional conditions that arise from everyday experience. In the words of Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition, behavioral science “reduce[s] man as a whole, in all his activities, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal.” In this very limited view of humanity, transcendental notions, such as meaning, purpose of life, God, one’s place in the world, and relationships, remain largely unaddressed. We might not be too surprised at this, since these very transcendent notions more often than not are difficult to quantify. And if you can’t measure the cause of something, how can you possibly ascertain its impact on outcomes? Yet interestingly, we know that a lack of meaning and purpose in life is a risk factor for suicide. It is doubtful there is any pharmaceutical that can impart something as transcendental as a sense of meaning.

Perhaps what is needed is a return to the rich, ancient anthropology that we find in Scripture. The early Genesis account of the emergence of humanity (Gen 2:18) presents a prelapsarian, perfect Adam, of whom his Creator remarked, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper corresponding to him.” God created Adam in perfection to need another, and to find fulfillment in things that transcended him, things that were not purely material (even the satisfaction of labor). Could the remedy for countering many of life’s more difficult experiences that find their expression in depression, anxiety, and loneliness be something as “simple” as relationships with others? Meaningful friendships? Community?

The Power of a Transcendent Community

Journalist Johann Hari in a 2019 TED talk discusses his own battle with depression, and the inability of a purely medical model to resolve it. While conducting international research for a book uncovering the causes of depression, he learned of a Cambodian rice farmer who lost his leg after stepping on a land mine. Unfortunately for this man, in spite of being fitted with an artificial limb, he found work in the rice fields painful – so painful, he took to crying all day, refused to get out of bed, and eventually succumbed to all the symptoms of classic depression. In response, his community administered to this man what a local doctor called an “antidepressant.” This involved the people sitting with him, talking, and listening, in order to ascertain the cause of his depression. One member of the community reasoned that if they purchased this farmer a cow, he could become a dairy farmer, and not have to return to the painful rice fields.

Within a couple of weeks the farmer’s crying stopped, and within a month his depression was gone. For this farmer, the cow was the antidepressant. More abstractly, we might reckon that the community, and his restoration to productivity and purpose were the antidepressant. Hari is careful to point out that people did not approach this man barking orders or directives for him to pull himself together, but rather worked with him as a community to bring resolution. For this Cambodian farmer, the solution to his depression lay not in the medicalization of his problem, but rather the fruitful efforts of a caring community around him.

Finally, Dr. Davis points out that “medicalization strips problems of their social context and makes their solution a matter of individual treatment alone.” The Cambodian farmer can be thankful that Western medicine was not informing his treatment. Otherwise, he may have just been given an antidepressant and six sessions in cognitive behavioral therapy, when in fact what he needed was the community around him.

The materialistic worldview that informs the medicalization of everything leaves many of us “nonexperts” on the sidelines, waiting for the “professionals” to step in and care for family, friends, and members of our community. By contrast, the fuller, more wonderfully mysterious, and nuanced model of anthropology forwarded by Scripture allows all of us a part to play in extending care and restoring the souls of those around us – in the same way the Cambodian farmer’s community did. Our Creator built us for community, and a desire for community is not an admission of weakness, but rather one that the perfect Adam would (and did) long for. Let this be our prayer for the new year, “Lord, let us adopt your view of what it is to be human and enable us to be active participants in tendering friendship and love to those you’ve placed in our paths. As members of a vibrant community, may we be the hands and feet of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.”

graduated summa cum laude from California State University, Fresno, with a BS in molecular biology and a minor in cognitive psychology. As an undergraduate, she conducted research in immunology, microbiology, behavioral and cognitive psychology, scanning tunneling microscopy and genetics - having published research in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, and projects in scanning tunneling microscopy. Having recently completed an M.Ed. from University of Cincinnati and a Certificate in Apologetics with the Talbot School of Theology at Biola University, Emily is currently an instructional designer/content developer for Moody Bible Institute and teaches organic chemistry and physics. As a former Darwinian evolutionist, Emily now regards the intelligent design arguments more credible than those proffered by Darwinists for explaining the origin of life.

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