Symposium Introduction

In Jessica Coblentz’s Dust in the Blood: A Theology of Life with Depression, depression is imagined as a place rather than a feeling. Depression is akin to a purgatory of waiting, or prison of isolation, or, more generally, the strange experience of “unhomelikeness,” the book offers, highlighting depression’s multivalence and elusiveness. A multitude of place-based metaphors of depression throughout the book culminates in Coblentz’s constructive reading of Hagar’s wilderness in the book of Genesis, asking how salvation and divine presence remains possible for Hagar in the wilderness as they do for people who experience depressive suffering today.

The first half of the book provides a critical analysis of the landscape of contemporary pastoral theologies of depression, noting that many of such theologies harmfully conceptualize depression as either a result of individual human sin, or an experience of suffering that leads people to greater holiness. Such misrepresentations of both the experience and the meaning of depression also misrepresents God and God’s relationship to human suffering. Despite these critiques of harmful theologies of depression, Coblentz leaves room for differing first-person interpretations of both depression and the divine in human suffering, affirming that theologians ought not to speak over individuals living with depression who seek the agency of interpreting God’s presence in their own experiences of suffering.

The second and more constructive half of the book turns to the metaphor of the wilderness, guided by Delores Williams’ Sisters in the Wilderness and Walter Brueggemann’s biblical hermeneutics, to consider how life with depression finds parallel with Hagar’s wilderness and beyond. Hagar’s wandering in the wilderness saw a form of isolating suffering that persists even in the wake of God’s presence, affirming both the seeming irrationality and irresolution of depressive suffering. Like Hagar, those who live with depression today may find salvation in survival rather than liberation, improved quality of life rather than medical cures, and the “emergence of small agency” rather than the rare and temporary moments of liberation from chronic depression.

Dust in the Blood is not a book that offers easy answers or triumphant hope, and the book’s transformative power—for both people living with depression and for theologians engaged with questions of suffering, and anyone in between— is found in precisely this refusal to promise clear resolutions to or immediate liberation from depressive suffering. The book’s deep attention to the complex experience of depression, along with its unwavering affirmation that depression is neither caused by God’s wrathful love nor by human sin, are a balm of comfort and strength to all those who live through the isolation and stigma of depressive suffering. At the same time, the book serves as a valuable resource to theologians and pastoral ministers as they continue to narrate God’s paradoxical presence and love.

In this symposium, four contributors consider the implications and extensions of Coblentz’s constructive theology. In the symposium’s first essay, Andrew Prevot’s response reads Dust in the Blood through the lens of connections and relationality—both phenomenological and interpersonal— between people living with depression and people who do not experience depression themselves. For Prevot himself, Coblentz’s book enables a reflection on the relationship between depression and oppression, without reducing depression to merely the results of oppression. Rather, bridges exist between these often-overlapping experiences. Prevot’s response looks for such bridges of connection between the phenomenological world of depression and other phenomenological worlds, drawing attention to how phenomenological categories of thrownness, affect, vulnerability, and oppression can serve to further bridge connect depressive experiences to other experiences of being human in the world.

For Karen Bray, depression is not only unhomelikeness, depression can also feel home-like and familiar, or home-like in the sense the depression keeps us at home, preventing us from seeing the “expansive commons” where God and our community may be present to us. At times, depression comes from the very harshness of homes in which we are raised. Writing poetically about the multiple visions of home and wilderness, Bray hopes to deconstruct this theological binary that may be present in the book. Drawing from the queer and brown utopic vision of José Esteban Muñoz, Bray considers depression as, at times, an “enclosure” that requires a utopian act of dis-enclosure and a “discipleship of revolutionary intimacy” with God and others. Sometimes, God’s presence itself, Bray reminds via Coblentz’ final chapters, can be a form of community that enables our survivance in a world where depression and oppression entangle.

Elizabeth Antus writes from the perspective of a suicide loss survivor and a scholar of theology and mental health. For Antus, Coblentz’s descriptions of the meaninglessness of depression echoes Antus’ own experience of the senselessness of suicidal death for those who grieve them. Antus focuses on Coblentz’s engagement with Karen Kilby’s theology in her chapter, “How (Not) to Talk about Depression” (Chapter 4), where Coblentz, via Kilby, encourages theologians to never reprimand others for theologizing their own depression in ways that do not conform to ours. Antus appreciates the call to radical epistemic humility, but calls to attention the fact that some depression-sufferers succumb to deceptive narratives about their depression, such as that God hates them or that people would be better off without them. Some first-person interpretations of depression do not foster survival, Antus reminds, and those who are in loving community with such depression-sufferers ought to have honest, loving, and intervening conversations with them and remind them that they belong.

The symposium’s final response, offered by virtue ethicist Kate Ward, lauds the various virtues found within the dispositions and practices of the writing of Dust in the Blood. The virtue of scholarly vulnerability and generosity, Ward writes, is found in Coblentz’s incorporation of her own story of depression in the book’s introduction and conclusion. In her chapters surrounding popular theologies of depression, Coblentz is quick to note the misrepresentations of both God and depressive experiences, but also acknowledges the affordances of each potentially harmful popular theology of depression and why those living with depression may conform to them. Such method of critique—along with Coblentz’s gentle correction— demonstrates the scholarly virtue of intellectual hospitality and attentiveness to popular religious beliefs as locus theologicus. Ward also highlights how the book’s development of the term “small agency” for people living with depression resonates with recent works in theological ethics that considers the possibility of moral action even when constrained by oppression or domination.





Andrew Prevot


Shared Worlds

Jessica Coblentz’s book sparked a question in my mind: How do the phenomenological worlds of persons living with depression relate to those of persons who do not live with this condition, at least not firsthand (by which I mean, they are not themselves depressed or prone to depression)? “World,” in the roughly Heideggerian or Merleau-Pontian sense I presuppose here, is not the name of a mind-independent objectivity but rather the name of the horizon of human existence as it appears to those who live it. Behind my question is a hope, or a hunch, that important connections are possible between the different phenomenological worlds that shape people’s lives. More specifically, I suspect that the difference between a depressive perception of reality and other modes of perception—though very real—may not be absolute or strictly binary. 

This line of reflection seems promising to me, insofar as it encourages practices of togetherness and mutual understanding, while mitigating feelings of isolation and incommunicability that contribute to suffering. Even though our phenomenological worlds may differ because of depression and many other factors, if we can share them with one another and find connections between them, this may be beneficial to everyone and reveal important features of our common humanity. 

Coblentz draws on phenomenological studies by thinkers such as Matthew Ratcliffe, Jennifer Raden, Fredrik Svenaeus, and James Alfred Aho and Kevin Aho to argue that the experiential horizon of depression is highly distinctive. Synthesizing these perspectives, she contends that depression involves an overwhelming sense of “unhomelikeness” (Unheimlichkeit) that presents the world as a place lacking in belonging, possibility, and meaning. Depression is not a momentary feeling of sadness but an abiding sense of life as such that makes it feel unlivable. It is not a finite emotional state that one may experience in the world but the world itself given as dark, heavy, confining, and desolate (35–48).

Although I do not suffer from depression, I can to some degree relate to such a depressive outlook on the world. In my research and teaching, I draw on Black, liberationist, feminist, and womanist theological traditions to reflect on interlocking structures of colonial, racial, and gender-based violence. I ask how prayer and even a mystical sense of God’s nearness can be possible and life-giving even in worldly contexts that seem like hell—places such as the hold of the slave ship. I consider what value spiritual practices may have for persons who do not only experience the world as prison-like but who are literally incarcerated, persons whose outward bodily darkness has been read as a sign of inner evil, persons whose ancestors were displaced from West African homelands and who today find themselves displaced again by predatory lending and socioeconomic exclusion. Like Coblentz, I agree with Delores Williams that persons living at the intersection of multiple oppressions may experience God, not only as a liberator bringing final deliverance from injustice, but as a loving presence in the midst of daily struggles to survive and flourish (183–189).

These considerations lead me to reflect on the relationship between depression and oppression. On the one hand, depression is a way of perceiving the world as unhomelike that is not only experienced by (at least some of) those who are oppressed but also by other persons whose outward circumstances are relatively comfortable. Therefore, it would be a mistake to posit a simplistic causal relationship, wherein the experience of depression would be perfectly explained by and correlated with the bitter realities of oppression. 

On the other hand, there appears to be some relationship between these two deadly weights (or “pressions”) that burden many human beings. It is not difficult to understand why oppression could make one depressed. Indeed, it is somewhat remarkable whenever this is not the case—that is, every time a powerful sense of joy, agency, and connection breaks through the crushing realities of social injustice. Furthermore, persons who are not themselves oppressed but are sensitive to the horrifying injustices that structure so much of history and society may similarly be moved to a depressive state of mind by this awareness. In such a case, their perception of the world as lacking in belonging, possibility, or meaning could be closer to the truth of social reality than the supposedly more ordinary or “normal” way of perceiving things as basically fine. Depression could be an affective symptom of a political order that is badly disordered—an unmasking of ideology.   

Beyond ties to oppression, the unhomelike world of the depressed may relate to a larger shared world of human experience in other ways. Existentialist and psychoanalytic traditions of philosophy argue that, regardless of social location, one is “thrown” into a world as a vulnerable, bodily, mortal being that did not choose this life and that depends on the affirmation of others simply to survive. If this relational affirmation is in short supply, this may fundamentally alter one’s perception of the world. But even if one receives plenty of love, the very contingency and precarity of life may generate feelings of existential disconnection or dread. 

In addition to psychic wounds caused by naked finitude and early childhood development, there are particular mental illnesses that affect certain bodies. Some central nervous systems process experiences in ways that make the inner wilderness of depression unavoidable, regardless of other factors. Although not everyone has this sort of illness, everyone’s mind depends on the functioning of the body in ways that are complex and susceptible to disruption and breakdown. Not only the oppressed but seemingly all human beings have vulnerabilities that could enable them to understand some measure of the unhomelike world that is disclosed through depression, even if this is not their prevailing viewpoint. 

Coblentz’s phenomenological account of depression brackets questions about whether it is caused by social forces, psychodynamics, or biochemical differences. This bracketing of causality (which resembles a Husserlian suspension of the “natural attitude”) is a helpful, methodological tool. It allows one to focus on describing the way the world is given to persons living with depression without trying to resolve longstanding etiological disputes. Yet the line between description and explanation is somewhat blurry. Oppression, thrownness, and illness are phenomena within the everyday world that I inhabit without feeling depressed, and they are features of this world that help me understand why one would, could, or perhaps even should feel depressed. How depression feels and why it feels this way are at least somewhat phenomenologically intertwined. 

There may be cases when understanding this “why,” or having an educated guess about it, helps one respond in practical ways, whether as a person living with depression or as someone accompanying such persons with tenderness and love. For example, if a particular form of oppression such as anti-Black racism is a major factor in a Black person’s experience of depression, then collective acts of resistance against such racism could be a way to help restore connections, build shared perceptions of a meaningful world, and provide some therapeutic relief. To be sure, it is necessary to resist all forms of oppression regardless of their emotional impacts, but it would be beneficial to make the psychological and phenomenological stakes of such political struggle explicit. Coblentz emphasizes that we need social action to increase access to mental health care and to overcome the stigmas associated with mental illness (208–17). What I am suggesting here, in addition, is that activism against racial and other kinds of injustice may also contribute to the mental wellbeing of the oppressed, even if it does not provide a “cure” or address the causes of depression for everyone.  

Theological speculations about a “why”—such as theodicies that suggest God causes depression and uses it for this or that purpose—are generally unpersuasive to me, as they are to Coblentz. One of the great contributions of her book is to carve out a space for affirming the presence of God in the inner wilderness of depression without giving it a redemptive function. Coblentz’s interpretation of the Hagar story is particularly helpful in this regard (141–71). However, some of the other, more humanistic etiological options, such as oppression, thrownness, and illness (as I am calling them here), may have value for understanding the relationship between depressed and non-depressed perceptions of the world. My suggestion is that we frame them, not as sufficient explanations for depression, but as bridges or conduits connecting depression with other experiential horizons of human life.

I hesitate on this point, however, because I am aware that my sense that such connections are possible is characteristic of a worldview that is precisely not depressed. I want to make a few points in light of this apparent hermeneutical impasse. Echoing Coblentz, I first want to emphasize that even if the inner wilderness of depression is completely unlike any other human perception of the world, this is no barrier to the God of love who is not constrained by any phenomenological limits (200–203). In other words, God does not need persons to feel happy or to experience life as rich in meaning and possibilities in order to love them, be with them, and in some cases help them see a way forward in their lives. However, it is also true that depression is sometimes so severe that persons suffering from it simply cannot conceive a viable path ahead. Such tragedy does not imply the absence of God’s love. Indeed, God is there with tender mercy even in cases where major depression leads one to end one’s life. Although they are not physically part of this earthly existence any longer, suicide decedents are not beyond the reach of eternal divine compassion. In sum, my point is that no difference of phenomenological world, however total or devastating, separates one from the love of God. 

My second point is that Coblentz’s decision to affirm God’s presence in depressive wilderness experiences creates a bond with other human experiences. Although it may not merge the worlds of the depressed and non-depressed, this theological argument posits a link between them. It describes both as places where the loving God can be found. In some of the less tragic cases, such divine presence is manifest through concrete experiences of belonging, possibility, and meaning that to some degree break the grip of depression. Although these experiences may not free depressed persons completely or permanently from an overarching sense of unhomelikeness, when they do occur they create openings in such a confining perception of the world that make living within it more feasible. When such openings happen, they prove that there is no absolute phenomenological differentiation between the worlds of depressed and non-depressed persons but at least some overlap between them.

Finally, I want to emphasize that Coblentz’s book has helped me appreciate that finding shareable worlds, and the presence of God within them, is not about asking depressed persons to leave their worlds behind and conform to a supposedly “normal” way of seeing things. Rather, it is about discovering and making connections between worlds, without a priori judgments upon them. In some cases, these shared liminal spaces can be entered from both directions—that is, through acts of self-care on the part of the depressed and acts of solidarity on the part of those who love and accompany them. In these interstitial zones of connection, human life is revealed through precarious tensions between isolation and belonging, stasis and possibility, absurdity and meaning. 

I am thinking of contexts of encounter in which persons suffering from depression, oppression, thrownness, illness, or any combination of the above may find comfort through supportive relationships with one another and, thereby, reflect something of the relational goodness of God. This is not only—or primarily—an eschatological vision of a glorious world in which all wrongs have been righted and all tears wiped away. For the most part, it is a quotidian vision of a shared life together even in the midst of ongoing struggle, suffering, and mystery. 

  • Jessica Coblentz

    Jessica Coblentz


    Reply to Andrew Prevot

    Inspired by his hopeful hunch, Prevot’s reflections on the relationship of “a depressive perception of reality and other modes of perception” help me to pinpoint why phenomenologies of depression have been an appealing resource for this project and to recognize some of the hazards of emphasizing the distinctiveness of depressive experience. 

    As I reflect on the place of phenomenology in this project, I find myself thinking about ethicist James Keenan’s oft-cited description of mercy as “the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.”1 The phenomenologies of depression that I engage in Dust in the Blood have helped me enter, intellectually, into the chaos of depression, this stubbornly elusive condition. And in the process, these phenomenologies undercut harmful tropes that are often born of collapsing depression into other, more ordinary experience (24–28). Too frequently, portraits of depression as long and severe sadness inform dismissive assertions, like “everyone is sad sometimes” so depression sufferers should “cheer up!” and “just get over it.” 

    While phenomenologies help build a case against this collapse of depression into these other ordinary experiences, Prevot’s comments point to the missed opportunities, and even dangers, that accompany this corrective emphasis on depression’s distinctiveness. Overlooking our shared worlds would be a mistake that compromises our ability to extend love to one another in a least two ways that he gestures toward.

    First, Prevot notes opportunities for “practices of togetherness and mutual understanding” grounded in what we share across our respective worlds, including similar experiences of suffering and of God’s loving presence amid that suffering. With Prevot, I am convinced that recognizing shared worlds can expand our available resources for thinking about God and about the commonalities of our human experiences. I am struck that many methods of theological reflection, including my own approach in Dust in the Blood, depend on the recognition of some similarity across worlds. Without some degree of similarity, I would be without grounds to say that God’s relationship to the suffering of the ancient Israelites reveals anything reliably true about how God might relate to the depression of a person like me. Some of Prevot’s own theological work on resourcing medieval thinkers for Black theology has already helped me think through how we can talk about shared worlds without eliding their differences, and when we do, these can be fecund theological sites—ones we ignore or withhold to the determent of our communities.2  

    Mutual understanding across our shared worlds can also be an invaluable pastoral tool. Since publishing the book, I am occasionally asked about what churches can do to begin to support people with depression. Though I encourage communities to educate themselves about the particularities of depression, I also find myself saying that depressed people are also just people who are suffering and people who need love. Christians should already be equipped for this—for just loving those who are suffering. This message, I think, could be framed with appeal to shared worlds—worlds that, for all their differences, often include related experiences of struggle and of love—worlds that can afford wisdom about what others might be going through and for how to love them in turn.

    A second impetus for attending to these shared worlds concerns the relationship between depression and social oppression. It would be a mistake to overemphasize the distinctiveness of depression to the point that we are left thinking it exists wholly apart from other worlds, including those shaped by social oppression. As Prevot notes, the bracketing of causal questions, upon which phenomenology is predicated, lends itself to this.

    Prevot helps me see that I am not a methodological purist in this regard: While I use phenomenologies of depression to enter into depression in order to witness to it as best as I can and to in turn correct thin descriptions of the condition that do harm, this approach has never been an end in itself for me. Mercy, this essential feature of Christian love, requires not just that we intellectually enter into the experience of others but also that we do what we can to better their situation. This requires that we ask nuanced, causal questions that attend to the social, behavioral, and biological realities that contribute to and magnify depression. And this is important because, as Prevot notes, anti-Black racism does factor into many experiences of depression, and this undoubtedly shapes lives wherein, for example, depressive experience and Black experience are not parallel worlds but overlapping ones. Willful inattention to social oppression—whether in the name of phenomenological purity or something else—constitutes a failure to love—it’s sinful—and while I mention some forms of systemic oppression in the book, this is only a glimpse of the many overlapping pressions that we need to engage. 

    To bring us full circle, contending with overlaps in depression and oppression might also necessitate engagement with additional phenomenological sketches of depression. On this, I am reminded of Meri Nana-Ama Danquah’s depression memoir, where she—a Black woman—recounts her aversion to using the language of “blackness” to describe the despair of depression; this language is ubiquitous in Western depression literature (which, as Danquah notes, is often penned by whites). “I despise the way blackness, in the English language, symbolizes death and negativity,” she writes. “Because I believe that the absorption of these connotations contributes to self-hate, I avoid them at all cost.”3 Insofar as the language and imagery that sufferers draw upon not only represents something of their experience of depression but also conditions that experience to some extent, we can anticipate how the racialized discourses sustained by anti-Black racism might engender differences in depressive experience along racialized lines. Some in feminist psychology track how gendered discourses condition many women’s experiences of depression as well. While these findings support some common features of depression across social difference, they indicate that social oppressions do frequently result in different depressions.4 This is but another reason why it would be wrong to think of the world of depression as absolutely singular and separate from other worlds. I am grateful to Prevot for illuminating the book’s vulnerability to this misrepresentation and for elevating the worlds we share and all that we gain—as theologians and as persons—when we recognize this togetherness. Thank you, Andrew.  

    1. James Keenan, SJ, The Works of Mercy: The Heart of Catholicism, Third Edition (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017), xi.

    2. Andrew L. Prevot, “Love for the Annihilated: A Black Theological Reading of Angela of Foligno’s Memorial,” in The Human in a Dehumanizing World: Reexamining Theological Anthropologies and Its Implications, eds. Jessica Coblentz and Daniel P. Horan, OFM (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2022): 145–50.

    3. Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, Willow Weep for Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression (New York: One World, 1998), 182.

    4. Janet M. Stoppard and Linda M. McMullen, eds., Situating Sadness: Women and Depression in Social Context (New York: New York University, 2003); Michelle N. Lafrance, Women and Depression: Recovery and Resistance (New York: Routledge, 2009); and Dana C. Jack and Alisha Ali, eds., Silencing the Self Across Cultures: Depression and Gender in the Social World, Reprint Edition (New York: Oxford University, 2012).

Karen Bray


Itchy Sweaters and Brushing our Teeth

The Homeyness of Depression and the Revolutionary Intimacy of the Wild Commons

“Guilt filled every cavity of my body,” (3) writes Jessica Coblentz in her crucial book, Dust in the Blood: a Theology of Life with Depression. Here, she refers to how depression had emptied her of the ability to be present to life beyond her inner turmoil. Just as the phrase “dust in the blood” had stopped Coblentz in her tracks in its resonance with her depression (6), the image of guilt seeping into crevices, holes, and wounds of my body stopped me. It is the intangible space between who I was supposed to be, what I had envisioned I could be like, and my sense of self during times of depression that has weighed me down, pinning me to my bed. Coblentz serves us all by offering words that fill this intimate space.

In writing of the Azusa movement in her wonderful new book, Azusa Reimagined: a Radical Vision of Religious and Democratic Belonging, Keri Day describes the worship at Azusa as encompassing revolutionary intimacy.1 Such tactile intimacy as a form of glorifying God, she argues, is a counter to the capitalist and supremacist theologies of white Christianity, which found or find such intimacy a perversion. Coblentz refuses to let theology go without the intimacy of her feelings and bodily experiences. Her book implicitly helps more of us to come out of our mental health closets and to be intimate in print and at podiums. Our work is better for it, as this book so beautifully proves. 

There is much to praise in Dust in the Blood: its authenticity, its careful attention to the multivocality of depression sufferers, its refusal to decide for each of us which theology is good or bad or repressive or liberative, and its ability to offer a bounty of theological options. It does all of this while also leaning us into theologies that dissipate the guilt or guiltiness of the depressed.

Indeed, Coblentz will not and wills to not let theology go. Instead, she mines theology for what it has to offer to those too often left out of the conversation. To do so she engages various approaches to the wilderness within the Christian and Hebrew scriptures. Most crucially, she turns to Delores Williams’s readings of Hagar. I am grateful for how Coblentz honors Williams and the Womanist way of making a way out of no way. However, her discussion of the wilderness and homeyness need expansion, nuance, and thickening. I hope to suggest ways to do so without offering a problematic theodical justification for depression. There is nothing redeemable about depression, and yet to talk theology and depression is to talk about meaning within such irredeemable suffering.

In Dust in the Blood, Coblentz marks the state of depression as one of unhomelikeness (10). I am convinced by Coblentz that for many, depression is a kind of wilderness experience, where one is exposed to harsh conditions for life and disconnection from those people and experiences “that ground their identity” (128). To be sure, the guilt associated with one’s depression is entangled with a loss of some crucial personas. And yet, my depression is also like a big old familiar and warm, if itchy, sweater. I find myself wrapped in it in painful, but comforting ways. If anything my depression has come to feel more homey than the times in my life where I am out in the world being something more than it has taught or forced me to be. There is something comforting in the collapse into bed and the refusal of a striving that is impossible to achieve. 

For some, perhaps, the wilderness is harsh precisely because it is not the space of our depression. To move with and beyond one’s depression can mean entering a wild world in which one is not quite sure how to survive. Wildness might be the feeling of getting through the energy, the movement, the unmooredness it takes to believe your identity could be more than that of your depression. 

In chapter eight, this complication comes in well when Coblentz discusses people with depression who have come to understand that it will never be cured. The voice of Daphne Merkin resonates: “If I can’t quite declare victory over my depression, I am giving it a run for its money, navigating around it, reminding myself that the opposite of depression is not a state of unimaginable happiness but a state of approximate contentment, of relative all-right-ness” (188). I call this kind of feeling “supreme okayness,” an emotion characterized by some peace with the messy flux of time and space that those of us with depression are riding. Such a sentiment is resonant with Ann Cvetkovich’s work on depression when she describes Eileen Myle’s commitment to brushing her teeth as a testament to, “the ordinary power of living,” and so a utopian demand that depression is not all there is.2 The question I offer is where could theologies of depression go if brushing one’s teeth was the wilderness experience as much as depression’s inability to shower? What do we do theologically, when depression is what feels like home to us, or what comes from the very harshness of the homes in which we were raised? And if one affirms this complication, how might theologians deconstruct the binary of home and wilderness that is set up in this book?

This might also be key to the important Womanist reading Williams does of Hagar, connecting her to the ways in which Black women have always made a way out of no way. This represents some of the most fruitful theological constructions Coblentz makes around the wilderness not as a lack of God’s presence, but as a space in which God is with those who unjustifiably have to find that way, and yet do so anyway. Yet, such a racial and gendered reading of the wilderness should also call theologians to critically engage “homelikeness.” I think of the kind of resentment I have felt from white men I know who never got a tenure track job. It is profoundly different from the sadness I feel from women, gender minorities, and Black, indigenous, and friends of color who are still looking for that stability. It is not that disappointment is absent or undeserved, but rather that some of us were taught to expect that kind of success and others were not. Would the wilderness have been different or less complicated if it was Sarah or Abraham or Isaac, rather than Hagar and Ishmael who were sent out? Would depression feel so unhomelike if one’s home had not been one of comfort and love? Simply put, how can we theologically challenge home or even landedness as an uncomplicated good in terms of depression?

In his posthumously constructed and published collection The Sense of Brown, José Muñoz writes, “This move to practice our commons otherwise, to know the brownness of the world despite the impediments that manifest themselves as enclosure, is a necessary project of dis-enclosure…an attunement to the brownness of the world promises an unboundedness that is not knowable in advance. Instead, it functions, stridently and beautifully, as the queer dis-enclosure of a brown commons.”3 Muñoz prompts the question of whether it is a lack of homelikeness that characterizes depression as much as an enclosure away from the possibilities of a connected commons? 

This is certainly something Coblentz acknowledges in her insistence that the wilderness is multivocal and filled with complex and unbounded theological meaning. But she could push even further into the ways in which the problems of depression might not be so much that they leave us ungrounded or without land, but rather that they keep us at home, doors locked, covers over our head, unable to see the expansive commons of which we are a part. 

Throughout Coblentz’s engagement with sufferers of depression she highlights a thread of disconnection, loneliness, and the untranslatability of the experiences of the depressed. In the introduction she writes, “communication is predicated on connection—on something shared, a common referent—and I could not relate to anyone” (4). And in her concluding call to a Christian discipleship that would attend to depression, Coblentz quotes another person with depression who recalled, “It never occurred to me to talk to anyone about it. . . . I had this idea that it just wouldn’t be acceptable. . .I think there’s something of a taboo against talking about bad things or bad feelings. . . . I had to maintain a façade so that people would treat me with respect” (147). What if this was not so much a feeling of unhomelikeness, but of enclosure, maybe perhaps the enclosure of what has come to feel like home? What theological sense could we make of the problem of enclosure or, to borrow from Muñoz again, the concrete utopian act of dis-enclosure?4 

Coblentz begins to call such a need to mind in chapter eight when she discusses Christian discipleship in the face of depression. Here the call for disciples to participate in the disclosure part of such dis-enclosure—to attend to and see as God is a God who sees Hagar—is a call to see beyond our enclosures and into the suffering of the depressed. In attending, such disciples would also take action in re-connection through word, deed, and liturgy with those suffering. They would advocate for mental health care and changes in policy and destigmatization. Yes! Yes to this description of discipleship. But might also those who are suffering be the disciples? If God is a God who feels, as Coblentz points to by drawing on the work of Monica Coleman and Jürgen Moltmann, then could God also be suffering with depression? Could God not merely be a God of the depressed, but also a depressed God? Could those who were depressed not be following God in being depressed but still following God’s lead by refusing to ignore what they feel, and in not letting those who have not seen and have not heard, remain in their own enclosures?  

Here’s where the theodicy problem comes in. I do not want to say that depression is necessary, or that we are prophets who therefore need to be depressed so that others might learn to feel a revolutionary intimacy that our depression forces upon the world. Depression is not redeemable even within my hope that we could imagine the wilderness as an unbounded space like that of the brown commons.

No matter what revolutions might come from such a dis-enclosure it is unjust that some and not all must be cast out, as Coblentz so rightly argues. Indeed, Coblentz lingers with both the unreasonableness of the wilderness and its importance as a space of meaning-making when she embraces a God of presence. She suggests that salvation in the wilderness can be rewritten as survival in community, even if that community is only the mother and child as with Hagar and Ishmael, or a nomadic community, or the sufferer and God (chapter seven). 

This book reminds us that God’s presence can be a form of community. Coblentz calls to mind how what we can call survivance (a survival that is also a resistance to that which is trying to kill us) is weighty with theological meaning. Perhaps then, what I want us to think more about is how survivance is discipleship as much if not more so than witness to the other’s struggle to survive. The imitation of God can be found in the embodied survivance of sufferers of depression. This is not to argue that depression itself is holy, but rather that to brush one’s teeth is an act of glorification, it is an act of faith that one might be more than the isolation. 

God’s presence with us might be God’s act of survivance. Wilderness and home, flight and retreat, could mingle such that we build a commons, one landed enough for us to find one another, but unbounded enough that we might also let one another go, and in the going to lead us to the next commons and the next. Would this be a discipleship of revolutionary intimacy? Could we find a homeyness without possession or isolation? Might we write theologies of wild commons that move in and out of our houses?

These are questions to play with, to stay in bed with, to brush our teeth with. But they need not be engaged by all who suffer from depression, for as Coblentz so rightfully points out, we cannot and should not speak for all sufferers, we can only offer an ever more expanding collection of theologies, of sweaters itchy and not, for each of us to try out and try on. 

  1. Keri Day, Azusa Reimagined: A Radical Vision of Religious and Democratic Belonging (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022), 148.

  2. Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: a Public Feeling (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012) 210.

  3. José Muñoz, The Sense of Brown (Durham: Duke University Press, 2020) chapter 12, Kindle.

  4. José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: New York University Press, 2009).

  • Jessica Coblentz

    Jessica Coblentz


    Reply to Karen Bray

    Bray’s reflection on depression—that “big old familiar and warm, if itchy, sweater”––surfaces another potential hazard of my phenomenological characterization of this condition. It illuminates how the binary terminology of “homelikeness” and “unhomelikeness” can be misleading, and the analysis puts into focus several accompanying soteriological issues that are at stake.  

    First, this oppositional terminology can tempt us to see depression as an unhomelike condition cleanly set apart from any experience of home, such as the homeyness that Bray’s own depression entails. Though I think technical phenomenological descriptions of unhomelikeness can account for these concurrent experiences of home—as unhomelikeness does not always entail the absolute absence of those features of living that characterize at-homeness—Bray nevertheless convinces me that the oppositional language of “homelikeness” and “unhomelikeness” can mask this and distort our theological vision of depression. 

    This potential elision undercuts what I have tried to affirm in my association of salvation and “small agency”—those mundane, seemingly insignificant actions that, for the depression sufferer, can constitute improved quality of life and a path for survival and survivance (189–92). Many sufferers can glory in the possibility of brushing their teeth while still lamenting their persistent inability to shower. These are, as Bray suggests, both very real dimensions of their wilderness living. Indeed, especially those who live with depression in its persistent forms, some feel as if they must learn to make a sort of home in depression—they must learn to become disciples there, too—if they are going to keep living at all (186–89).

    When the binary language of “home” and “unhomelikeness” obfuscates our recognition of sufferers’ life-affirming and life-giving small agency, we risk missing a crucial soteriological insight from Delores Williams’s reading of Hagar.1 Critiquing the dialectic that has structured many Black liberation soteriologies and identified salvation with decisive liberation from suffering, Williams argues that salvation not only resides in rescue from the harsh landscapes of suffering; as in Hagar’s experience, salvation can also be found in the realities of survival and improved quality of life that emerge within persistent suffering—a truth that does not negate or redeem the evil of that suffering. Bray’s observations expose how the language of “home” and “unhomelikeness” risks setting up the kind of soteriological vision that Williams critiques—one where the goodness of home and the graces of God’s work are cleanly set apart from the horrors of life’s difficult terrains. This is not the experience of salvation that emerges from the testimonies of many depression sufferers, so Bray’s efforts to thicken and nuance this imagery is most welcome. 

    This also has me wondering whether it would be better to move away from the language of home-ness and unhomelikeness, with its seductive duality, and instead lean more into that biblical metaphor of “wilderness experience” to represent depression. The language of the wilderness does not itself suggest a world absolutely set apart. Within the Scriptures, it is often deployed in contrast to, say, “the Promised Land”; however, Hagar’s survival in the wilderness cuts across this binary, and other wilderness stories may also help us represent and explore instances of comfort and familiarity amid this harsh landscape, and perhaps depression too. 

    Because the ancient wilderness was, by definition, inhospitable to human living, this wilderness imagery may also help to discipline those of us who want to talk about the familiar, even comforting dimensions of depression without losing site of its harshness. For all the variance in the Bible’s theological associations with the wilderness, the wilderness is clearly and consistently depicted as a difficult place for people to inhabit (119–20). Even when the wilderness is a place where people learn to live—even when it is the site of transformative, divine encounter—it does not negate the intrinsic inhospitality of this landscape in the ancient world. This image therefore cuts across any simplistic dichotomy between an easy, life-sustaining home and a harsh, lethal wilderness. 

    Second, whereas Bray’s attention to the homeyness of depression helps to complicate our portraits of depression as an “unhomelike” place, her reflections on the many discomforts, constraints, and enclosures of the world we inhabit beyond the depression bed serve to complicate our visions of the “home” against which the unhomelikeness of depressive experience is positioned. 

    With several incisive observations, Bray illustrates the real hostilities and inhospitalities that are all-too-familiar in the everyday lives of those who suffer most from the various social violences and marginalizations of our worlds. The unhomelikeness of depression might feel familiar to those whose lives are shaped by these other realities of not-at-homeness, as Prevot’s response helps to elucidate as well, and these enclosures may also make a difference in one’s experience of depression itself, as Bray’s queries suggest. 

    Recognizing that the world beyond the depressive bed is itself a place where lives are constrained and enclosed alerts us to an important soteriological insight: Salvation in the context of depression must be more than the restoration of an individual sufferer to a state in which she can return to the world beyond her bedroom and go back to work, resume life as a productive citizen, or recommence life as a busy and accommodating friend and family member. Calling to mind the Letter to the Hebrews, whose author instructs that the world we know is not our home (Heb 13:14), Bray beckons an expansion of our soteriological vision to encompass the kind of dis-enclosure that Muñoz witnesses to—one that entails not just the transformative of the worst of an individual’s depression but the transformation of the world we call “home” so that it becomes more livable place—an expansive commons—for people when they are depressed and when they are not. 

    Bray leaves me thinking about how the homeyness some experience amid depression might be a resource for expanding our imagination of this salvific dis-enclosure. Drawing on theologian William Lynch, I have characterized the hopelessness of depression as a “‘constriction of the imagination,’ of one’s perception and experience of the world” that, in turn, requires the aid of others to expand one’s sense of the possible (109). This look at the work of hope amid depression captures Lynch’s insight that hope is always a communal act. Pressing this insight forward, Bray spurs us to consider not just how the non-depressed can help the depressed to imagine a home for themselves in the world; her reflection on homeyness elicits consideration of how the experiences of the depressed might expand everyone else’s imagination of the possible. Too, the depressed person may help us hope for and strive for more. 

    Bray recounts times, for example, when depression occasioned her retreat from the oppressive personas and demands of the outside world—when it kept her in from a world that forces her to be something she is not. While Bray is clear that depression is not good, she affirms the relief and freedom from the outside world that it has occasioned. Witnessing to these goods need not result in the redemption or romanticization of depression but can instead lead to the insight that a world from which one needs relief and freedom is not the world that God desires for us; it is a world not yet our home. Furthermore, insofar as the depression bed feels like refuge from this inhospitable world, we might learn from the goods some find there—such as rest and safety from the everyday harms of oppression—in service of imagining a world where these goods abound for everyone, everywhere. These insights can position sufferers as prophets, as weary ones who witness to the glimpses of home that they perceive within the wilderness of depression, but which can and should exist apart from that depression. If we listen, perhaps these glimpses of home can guide us, depressed or not, as we continue to imagine, search for, and build homes for ourselves in this world. 

    Thank you, Karen. 

    1. Delores Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books), 1993.

Elizabeth Antus


Depressive Suicide

An Inconvenient Blurring of the Rules for “Proper” Suffering-Talk

For over a decade, Coblentz and I have collaborated on multiple projects, all of which have involved bringing questions of mental health to bear on theological issues, in theological settings. Because of this friendship, forged in the fires of professional endeavors, the image that struck me from Coblentz’s introduction to her debut text Dust in the Blood was one that had haunted her during a particularly terrifying bout of depression in her twenties: her recurrent dream of dozing in the backseat of a car surrounded by the wooded terrain of the Pacific Northwest, a dream that suggested at the time to her that she would die there (4).

As she narrates that part of her life, she explains that she was inexplicably overcome with an extended, severe episode of depression that debilitated her for a long time (3–6). This is a languid and isolated self-portrait that cuts against my perception of Coblentz as a preternaturally motivated, productive, and connected theologian. That is part of her point: that is what depression did to her. I am grateful that she has the courage to allow these more “private” experiences—experiences that we in the academy are “supposed” to hide—into her public image as a theologian. Fittingly, she declares at the outset, “A body that has known depression is the only body from which I can theologize” (10).

I am also a theologian, and I will try to match Coblentz’s transparency in identifying her body as that from which she theologizes: I have spent most of my life as a suicide loss survivor. When I was a child on the brink of adolescence, my teenage sister—diagnosed as depressed—died by suicide. So, I read Coblentz’s book from the perspective of somebody who experiences her own body and life as incomplete, who is missing a part of herself—a part of her “flesh”—because of the depression of her kin.

I believe that my sister often experienced her depression as meaningless, and I know that after she was gone, our family was dumbfounded and riven by the senselessness of her death. In the decades since, we have learned to live in that disquieting space of senselessness. There is deep joy, community, passion, and good humor, but our lives will always be worse without my sister. I have always felt since she died that part of my life was also over before it really began. There is no going back to meaning, normalcy, or shallow propriety.

I could write about the sensitivity and empathy that I gained through grieving this loss, but the truth is that I would return it all if I could just have my sister back. Perhaps some other suicide loss survivors might feel differently, but, either way, I do not need to be told to gain more perspective on these matters. I have been given the tragic misfortune of almost thirty years of perspective, accumulated through the harrowing idiosyncrasies of the grief process itself as well as the grace notes of therapy, excellent theological education, and loving relationships. I would even say I have healed in pieces. I have an unwanted authority that I despise.

However, in our society, with catchphrases such as “no regrets” and “live in the moment,” it feels like you are not supposed to offer this kind of outlook. You are supposed to take all the bad as a learning experience. After all, the silver lining justifies the black clouds, or, even more strongly, without any black clouds we would have no silver linings. Supposedly, every experience of suffering, if you let it teach you, is leading to your grand apotheosis as a radically becoming individual. Therefore, in light of this cultural pressure, what I like about Coblentz’s book is that she argues that this view of suffering, particularly when imposed in hegemonic fashion, is pablum.

As a suicide loss survivor who is grieving a death where depression certainly played a role, I offer here some reflections about Coblentz’s chapter on how (not) to talk about depression (Chapter 4). While I can speak only for myself as one suicide loss survivor, I imagine that my words might resonate with some others who have also weathered this tragic devastation. Briefly, the preceding chapters clarify that there are common views of depression that depict it as a self-imposed moral evil or as a divine instruction (55–71). These two depictions encode depression with a “higher” divine purpose that is supposed to reconcile us to belief in an all-powerful God who has suffering under control, who “makes it make sense.” These are theodicies. But Coblentz points out that these approaches are not really up to snuff when it comes to fulfilling three significant tasks: understanding the experiences of many depression-sufferers, promulgating a compelling view of God, and encouraging proper social action for depression-sufferers. These theodicies overlook that depression-sufferers are no more sinful or holy than the general population (74–79), they raise questions about what kind of God they presume and whether that God is worthy of worship (79–82), and they risk normalizing depressive suffering in a way that breeds apathy and stymies social justice for depression-sufferers (82–85).

In Chapter 4, there is a twist. Here, Coblentz deploys Karen Kilby’s work on suffering and the limits of theology to argue that if individual depression-sufferers find some meaning in viewing their depression as a self-imposed moral evil or divine instruction, then that is their absolute right. Coblentz approvingly uses Kilby’s grammatical distinction between first- and second-person language about suffering to suggest that it matters less what the content about suffering is and more what the position of the speaker is. So, if I am tempted to impose meaning on somebody else’s suffering, I should be quiet. We have had too much theological talk about other people’s suffering in a manner that grossly minimizes that suffering for the sake of preserving the pristine image of an all-powerful God (and the all-powerful theologian). I should not even think I know better than the sufferer. On this point, Coblentz includes Kilby’s statement at length:

It is important not to see this difference between a first person and second person relation to suffering as a mere matter of tact, of knowing when to speak and when to stay silent. The idea, in other words, is not that while I might see meaning in your suffering, I must be patient, keep my mouth closed and let you work it out for yourself, as I might for a student of mathematics who is a little slower than I am at doing a calculation. To ascribe meaning to your suffering, even silently, is something I have no right to do. (103)

But, as Kilby clarifies, if I am suffering, I deserve the space to make sense of that suffering however it strikes me. I think that what draws Coblentz to this distinction is its grounding in compassion for her fellow depression-sufferers. She would never position herself as reprimanding somebody who viewed their own depression as a divine test and was therefore able to relate more hopefully to their depression.

I pondered this part of Coblentz’s argument for a long time, but I ultimately came around. I felt compelled by this statement from Coblentz:

To presume that I, as a theologian, know better than another depression sufferer when it comes to her suffering is to disregard the real, persistent mystery of evil in the Christian worldview. Instead of “correcting” this sufferer with my “right” ideas about God and suffering, which would at least indirectly impose parameters of meaning (and nonmeaning) onto the suffering of another, it would be better for me as an outsider to witness the complexities and even impossibilities of my own God-talk in the face of suffering’s mystery. (100)

Here, Coblentz indicts my own fixation on being theologically right, a fixation that exists because my very career depends, in some fundamental way, on it. But not only should I avoid being obnoxious by remaining silent instead of “correcting” people’s theological utterances about the sharpest edges of their own lives. I should also check myself and acknowledge that I do not possess unmediated access to God and that I, like mostly everybody else, am doing my best while knowing nothing for sure about God or the existential implications of suffering. It is a call for radical epistemic humility, and if that means that we end up with a plurality of Christian viewpoints on suffering that may even conflict with each other, so be it. God is wild, and suffering is absurd and chaotic. I find in Coblentz’s reflections a gentle nudge to remember that it is not a virtue to want to control other people’s stories about their own sorrow. I am not God.

But I also have a lingering question. Coblentz explains that we must allow people to interpret their own suffering in whatever theological ways make sense to them because such self-interpretation, regardless of the content, can be salutary for depression-sufferers as they attempt to reclaim their voice. She refers to the ability to interpret one’s depression-suffering as “life-sustaining” (99), good for “survival” (97), enkindling of “hope against hope” (97), and deeply “vital” (98). It made me wonder about Coblentz’s general standard of judgment here that enables her to accept these diverse viewpoints on people’s experiences of their own depressive suffering. Ultimately, it seems to me that, for Coblentz, it comes down to whatever works for people to be in their lives: if they think God is giving them depression to test them, and that makes them feel closer to God and more motivated to keep going, that is real and valid. Conversely, if they are like Coblentz in experiencing their depression as a meaningless void while knowing that this is not un-Christian, and this knowledge enables them to keep going, that is also real and valid.

But what about the depression-sufferers who are succumbing to the deceptive narratives of their depression, who come to believe that they are a burden on everybody, that everybody is just putting up with them but would be better off without them, that God hates them? My sister wrote frequently in her journal about being a useless human whose life was devoid of anything real, and she felt sure that God was angry with her for all her “failures.” These sentiments were part of her first-hand interpretation of her suffering, and given the nature of depression, I know she was not unique in this way. But they are not “vital,” and they do not facilitate “survival.” Therefore, although I am largely compelled by Kilby’s exhortations, I cannot help but feel, as a second-person bystander, that completely accepting these sentiments expressed by my sister and many like her is unacceptable. I object not because I judge my sister for her feelings; I never did. Rather, deeply suicidal people often go through periods of time where they are testing their connections and genuinely seeing if others care about them, specifically in a way that might subvert their own self-annihilating internal monologues.1 Crucially, this testing of the waters often does not take the form of the explicit questions “Would you care if I died? What do you think about my suicidal suffering?” People are typically less direct and interrogative than this. Further, if they do attempt suicide, many who survive are grateful that they did survive.2 The stakes are high here, so prioritizing the individualization of each person’s first-hand interpretation of their suffering above all else seems dangerously misguided to me.

Perhaps Kilby’s argument allows us to respond if suicidal depression-sufferers ask us what we think, but this language still loses the sense that sometimes these encounters can be honest “back-and-forths” or even confrontations rooted in love. This does not have to foreclose real listening. Kindly and with sensitivity to context, I need to be able to tell such a person that they are loved, by God, and by others. I may have to be forceful. It is complicated. Nevertheless, I would find any way within my power to help that person feel more loved in their life and to get them the support to feel like “staying” was a real option. For a variety of reasons, not everybody who struggles with depressive suicidality can come to feel this way. Nevertheless, it is imperative that the community signal to people that they matter and belong. It is also necessary to reject any kind of romanticizing logic about suicide as mysterious or interesting. This is especially key when we communicate with younger people, a demographic in which suicide clusters occur every year.3

Ultimately, I think these considerations show the limitations of Kilby’s grammatical rules about suffering, which I find to be too heuristically controlling in terms of who can and cannot talk when, and about what, and to whom. I know more about this topic than I wish to, and I will connect with people suffering with their depressive suicidality however I see fit. While I fully support the idea that we need to listen to those who are suffering, we may also, under certain circumstances, need to say things back, because the content does matter. The content itself can be vital. We should remember that so many people who have died by suicide were once depression-sufferers looking for a lifeline.

I offer this reflection with love for people like my sister and like Coblentz. Ultimately, even with the critique I have offered, I have come to believe that if my sister were alive today and somehow living with her depression, she could have experienced some healing reading Dust in the Blood, and maybe she would have felt less alone. For that image, Coblentz, I thank you.

  1. Thomas Joiner, Myths about Suicide (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 170.

  2. Joiner, Myths about Suicide, 162–63.

  3. Camilla Haw, et al, “Suicide Clusters: A Review of Risk Factors and Mechanisms,” Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 43, no. 1 (2013): 97–108.

  • Jessica Coblentz

    Jessica Coblentz


    Reply to Elizabeth Antus

    Antus recounts that my fourth chapter on “How (Not) to Talk about Depression” had her pondering for a long time, and it was the chapter I pondered most as well. Not only am I grateful for her good company in wrestling with it some more but also for her clarifying critique. Improving upon my offering, her response distills some of the competing goods (and evils) that make proper talk about suffering so complicated—and made my thinking so difficult. Thank you, Elizabeth. 

    In truth, it was not only Kilby’s incisive thinking that got me wondering about whether theologians should be so confident and absolutist in our dismissals of theodicy. During the first undergraduate course I taught on suffering, which commenced with an introduction to some classical theodicies followed by a series of takedowns from antitheodicists, I received an office-hours visit from an engaged but quiet student named Allison. Allison was bright and understood why rational justifications for suffering fall short of good theological thinking. But she was still a bit unconvinced. “You see,” she told me, “A few years ago, I was very depressed. And the only thing that got me through it—the only thing—was my belief that, somehow, it was part of God’s plan for me—that it was happening for some bigger reason.” She correctly perceived that many of the critics we read wanted to take this away from her, and she did not see how she could let go of the ideas that saved her life. 

    I thought about Allison a lot as I read Kilby, who helped me see that my response to this student was not just a matter of pastoral tact—which is important, of course—but also of intellectual honesty. Could I tell Allison with absolute certainty that her depression was not serving some higher purpose? That divine providence does not work like that? That what saved her life is actually, well, bullshit? To say such things, even gently, would be unloving—but also untrue. Though I sure hope that God does not work like this, I don’t honestly know. We don’t know. 

    Antus has placed a different young person in front of us today—the suicidal depression sufferer who is “succumbing to the deceptive narratives of their depression, who comes to believe that they are a burden on everybody, that everybody is just putting up with them but would be better off without them, that God hates them.” And Antus is right that this encounter might demand not honest restraint but forceful, corrective speech—a “confrontation rooted in love.”

    Sitting across from this sufferer, I wonder, first, whether Kilby’s parameters might leave us with more to say than we might think. Perhaps clarity about what I do not know concerning God can bring into perspective what I do know and can say to this person with absolute certainty and conviction: That I love you, and that you matter to me and to a lot of people. That you are not a burden to me, that I want you here, and that I am going to stay with you and try to help you.

    This response follows from an insight I glean from Roman Williams’s treatment of the tragic imagination. He suggests that when we recognize all that we cannot understand and control about God and the suffering of the world, we are not necessarily left without anything to say or do (206–7). This humility can clarify what we do know and must do to respond to the inexplicable and untamable suffering before us precisely because we cannot reliably put it off on God.  

    Admittedly, though, this response sort of sidesteps God, and God, as we know, is a potent symbol—one that, if left unaddressed, could consecrate the self-loathing of someone in this depressive state, just as we see in the journal entries from Antus’s sister. So I can imagine situations when this theological restraint is irresponsible, and I am grateful to Antus for naming this so pointedly—so pointedly, that she may have changed my mind or at least clarified my thinking about how we should and should not relate to the theologies of others. 

    Reflecting on this suicidal depression sufferer leaves me convinced that I might very well lie and assert with the utmost certainty and force and love that God does not will this suffering upon you. I would do this because I want her to live. 

    Initially, I was thinking of this as a sort of Bonhoeffer option: Sometimes, when the stakes are so high, you need to go against your own principles to save a life and then just hope for God’s mercy. Yet, some of Antus’s reflections have helped me think a bit more systematically about this.

    Antus’s questions have made plain for me that there is a difference between a first-person theology that is saving someone’s life, as with Allison, and a first-person theology that is killing them. Thanks to her very careful reading, Antus already sees traces of this conviction in the book and names it in her suggestion that what it comes down to for me is that a theology helps “people to be in their lives.” 

    I think this is right, so, for me, perhaps the first and most important rule for how we should relate to others’ theologies of depression is this: One’s theology should be life-sustaining, and if it is not, then we should lovingly—even forcefully—intervene. As I see it, this does not warrant an abandonment of Kilby’s argument altogether because we will not be able to adhere to this first and most important rule if we do not attend to Kilby’s grammatical distinctions and mind her accompanying rules about theological restraint most of the time. We cannot know how a theology of depression functions in a person’s life if we do not first refrain from second- and third-person theologies and hold first-person claims with special reverence. For when we assume in advance that your theology of depression, or theirs, is or is not life-sustaining, then we are bound for misjudgment because these theologies play out in sufferers’s lives in divergent and complicated ways. This is the lesson that Allison taught me. We will not know if it is right to make a theological intervention out of love for another if we do not first sit with them, exercise radical theological humility, and listen as they tell us about what is helping them or killing them as they struggle to live with depression. 

    I think it is also true that most of the time, people do not cling to theologies that are killing them if more relevant, convincing, and life-sustaining alternatives are available. For this reason, loving depression sufferers requires that we offer people more ways of thinking about God and suffering, more viable ways to inhabit the Christian faith, before they are desperately depressed. The messages we give them—in our churches, in our classes, in our families—these will be what they have to work with when they are at their most vulnerable. Because of this, we theologians should be applying our unique knowledge and training to offer many theologies of suffering and life with depression, with hopes that they will better equip depression sufferers and those who love them for this harsh wilderness whenever it comes. Antus’s critique convinces me that we especially need more theologies that position the suicidal depression sufferer right at the center of our attention. 

Kate Ward


Dispositions, Practices and Small Agency

The Many Gifts of Dust in the Blood

With Dust in the Blood, Jessica Coblentz has given a precious gift to Christians who ask where God is amid their own or another’s depression, and to Christian communities desiring to be places of homelikeness both for those suffering from the loss of possibility depression affords, and those who accompany them through depression’s wilderness. Space will not permit me to reflect on all the good in this book that should be uplifted, shared, and taken to heart. I will focus my response, then, through my lens as a virtue ethicist, reflecting on the dispositions and practices Dust in the Blood suggests for theologizing depression and accompanying those who suffer it. 

With feminist rigor, Coblentz incorporates her own story with depression into the book’s introduction and conclusion, gently reminding the reader that the theologian is always a human being, a beloved and broken child of God, before, while, and after she becomes a scholar and begins to put words on a page. Her many virtues as a scholar are revealed through this act of vulnerability, as with generosity she offers the gift of her own journey through depression and her seeking for a meaning in its suffering. Compassion is evident in her attention to the accounts of other sufferers and the way their experiences resist univocity; what appeared as a source of light to one sufferer may forever remain forestalled to another. 

Another virtue readers will encounter in these pages is intellectual hospitality. Coblentz examines popular theologies of depression at length, and one important task is to show the ways in which these can harm sufferers, by portraying depression as “a self-imposed moral evil” (55) or God as a “theological sadist” (Dorothee Solle; 81) who sends depression in order to test sufferers. These careful indictments of popular theologies of depression achieve their intended purpose, urging Christians who wish to accompany depression sufferers to humility around imposing meaning on depressive experience. However, Coblentz does not engage popular theologies of depression to belittle them and their adherents. She is careful, throughout, to show the affordances of each popular theology. For example, “for some, attributing depression to sin affords a sense of empowerment by providing a clear path of escape from the condition” (62), an appeal this theological approach shares with medical models which focus on etiology rather than meaning. “Though depression displaces its sufferers into an unfamiliar, unhomelike world, these popular theologies suggest that it is not a world beyond the bounds of the Christian faith and its God,” Coblentz concludes (71). Equally, critics of these popular theologies come in for their share of gentle correction when they assume that getting the theology right is the solution: “Positionality, not right content, should be the primary factor for evaluating the legitimacy of Christian talk about suffering” (drawing on Karen Kilby, 87).  The overall effect of intellectual hospitality toward popular theologies of depression—and thus, inclusion of those sufferers for whom they have provided meaning and those loved ones of sufferers for whom they represented all there was to offer—shares powerful affinities with the insistence on popular religion as locus theologicus advanced by Orlando Espín and others. As Espín teaches, theological truth is not necessarily found in the particular practices or expressions of belief through which the sensus fidelium makes itself known, but in the actual intuition of community belief, guided by the Holy Spirit (The Faith of the People, chapter 3). Just so, the popular theological conviction to which Coblentz shows hospitality, that depression sufferers are not “beyond the bounds of Christian faith and its God,” is invigorated with scholarly engagement later in the book. Coblentz uses the biblical Hagar’s suffering in the wilderness to envision God as present to sufferers of depression, enabling possibilities for survival (184).  

White U.S. theologians have been slow to take up the call to theologize popular religion issued by Espín and others, including Delores Williams, M. Shawn Copeland and other womanists Coblentz draws on throughout Dust in the Blood. Coblentz does a great service to those white theologians who wish to begin this work by demonstrating the presence of popular theologies where other academics would not think to look for them, including in texts some might be tempted to derisively call self-help books. Quite in line with her liberationist predecessors, Coblentz’s intellectual hospitality toward popular theologies preserves the dignity of their framers and adherents. Popular theologies are not immune from critique, but they reveal the yearnings of people responding to “that which culture allows” them to believe about God (Espín 93) and provide an invitatory point for the theologian to respond to that hope. 

My own work as an ethicist has benefited greatly from Coblentz’s introduction of “small agency.” Many sufferers of depression experience it as a lack of possibilities for daily living, where even leaving the house or taking a shower feels out of reach for the sufferer. Sometimes, in a mysterious way, this sense of possibility for small actions eventually returns. Some sufferers forthrightly describe this return of possibility, which Coblentz names “small agency,” as demonstrating the presence of God’s action in their lives. So Coblentz concludes, here and elsewhere, that small agency can be theologized as a sign of God’s grace. Medication, certainly, can be a help to restoring that sense of emergent possibility and thus a gift from God as well, despite the sad reality that some sufferers’ depression will not respond to medication (210). 

Small agency as a sign of God’s grace resonates in generative ways with diverse contemporary efforts of theological ethicists to articulate the reality of moral action constrained by the vicissitudes of life. Tools including burdened virtue (developed by philosopher Lisa Tessman and appropriated by many theological ethicists); social structures (a tool from critical realist social theory, developed for theology by Daniel Finn and Dan Daly, among others); the womanist ethics of Katie G. Cannon, Rosita DeAnn Matthews, and Melanie Harris, among others; Kate Jackson-Meyer’s account of tragic dilemmas; and the Christian account of moral luck I develop in my own work are all attempts to describe for Christian audiences how moral agency really persists even though it is genuinely limited, challenged, and constrained by oppression or, in different ways, by privilege and domination. Coblentz’s small agency reminds us that behind the challenged, limited, constrained and vicious realities of human agency remains the loving Source of all human being and doing. At times, what had once seemed impossible now seems doable, and we don’t quite know why. Thanks be to God! 

Coblentz carefully cautions that the association of small agency with God’s grace should not be misused to force depression into a narrative of meaning not claimed by the sufferer (192). Still, Coblentz’s association of small agency with grace will certainly suggest its own theodical questions not explicitly answered in the book’s earlier sections on depression and theodicy. Why do some sufferers regain small agency while others never might? Coblentz is willing to conclude, with Parker Palmer, “I do not know why” (197). Her prescribed dispositions and practices for accompanying sufferers of depression do not answer the theodical question, but they do offer a pathway for accompanying those whose depression places them in a situation to ask it. 

Coblentz warns that theologians approaching the reality of depression must avoid two opposing pitfalls. They must refrain from imposing meaning from without on the suffering of those with depression, thereby overriding sufferers’ agency by imposing narratives that may not reflect their experience. Equally, they must resist the temptation to withdraw from theological thinking about the suffering of depression through a misguided fear of saying the wrong thing, thereby leaving sufferers to fend for themselves. What is crucial is for sufferers to speak about their own experiences of meaning or lack thereof within depressive experience. However: 

Theologians…should try to expand possible resources for first-person meaning making without requiring and imposing meaning…Theologians…could offer sufferers the resources of our own imaginations of what might be possible for them…This could include possibilities for meaning making yet unforeseen for sufferers themselves; it could also include possibilities for affirming the meaninglessnes of one’s own suffering within a Christian worldview. (108-9)

The theologian’s task is to “offer sufferers access to theological resources that expand possibilities for meaning making in the context of depression … while articulating a clear stance against the imposition of meaning.” (110) 

I find myself convinced by the necessity of the two tasks Coblentz sets out for theologians and yet still unclear about the distinction between them. What does it look like to offer resources that propose possibilities of meaning, without imposing that meaning on sufferers? Does the distinction simply describe a disposition of humility or a particularly gentle address on the part of the theologian who makes such offers? 

One possibility for offering without imposing is not explicit, but certainly implied in Coblentz’s concluding tasks for Christian communities accompanying sufferers of depression. Namely, the possibility of a world where any meaning of our suffering is not known to us must become part of the Christian imagination. Coblentz explores the possibility of Christian communities practicing immersion in tragic narratives, ones where suffering remains unresolved, through the work of Rowan Williams, Pope Francis and Karen Bray (203–6). While Coblentz envisions such practice as preparing communities to accompany sufferers with depression, becoming a people capable of acknowledging that suffering’s meaning may lay beyond our view will surely help community members who, one day, suffer depression themselves. 

When I read Coblentz’s prescription of accompanying depression sufferers without imposing meaning on their struggles, as God does for Hagar in the wilderness, I experienced my own expansion of possibility. In her wilderness, Hagar encountered and named God “present to this suffering amid its enduring incoherence and inexplicability … God Who Sees and Hears but does not explain” (202). In imitating this God who kenotically draws near without imposing meaning where the sufferer experiences none, here at last was a roadmap for loving those in depression or in other circumstances that render this world unhomelike. For Coblentz, Christians can love those suffering depression by drawing near to their suffering, offering the possibility of understanding this depressive wilderness as a “difficult place where God is” (135), without imposing the medical model’s expectation for immediate improvement, or popular theology’s pressure to affirm meaning that may not be present to the sufferer. 

At the risk of proceeding from the gracious, thoughtful, and rigorous to the goofy and oversimplified, I will close with a reflection on a popular Internet meme. I offer this in the spirit of Coblentz’s own hospitality to popular theologies of depression and their potential to offer sources of meaning despite their theological limitations. 

The meme circulates as a picture of Eeyore, the habitually depressive donkey character from A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh books and the Disney media based on them. A common version of the meme text reads: “One awesome thing about Eeyore is even though he’s basically clinically depressed, he still gets invited to participate in adventures and shenanigans with all his friends. And they never expect him to pretend to feel happy; they just love him anyway, and they never leave him behind or ask him to change.” 

This meme, which circulated as early as 2016, reveals many of the cultural concerns and lacunae that make Dust in the Blood so timely and necessary. Its creation and ongoing virality illustrate growing awareness of mental health challenges along with the understanding that stigma and social isolation can compound their suffering. Memes tend to be created by and for young people, and we might also notice that the text refers only to “friends” as agents of assistance. This suggests to me that it reflects the experience of young adults trying to accompany each other through severe mental health challenges without feeling able to rely on the support of adult family or the professional health system (whose failure to meet the needs of many suffering with depression Coblentz details in her book).

Not until I returned to the meme in preparing this essay did I realize how much each of Eeyore’s friends are dispositionally unsuited to the quiet work of accompanying suffering in the way Coblentz, and the meme’s creators, urge. Cheerful Winnie the Pooh, anxiety-ridden Rabbit and Piglet, assertively maternal Kanga and exuberant, over-the-top Tigger are, each in different ways, about the last people one would look to for quiet presence which does not impose meaning or offer a “fix” (202). That they manage to accompany Eeyore well, as the meme suggests, presents a popular expression of eschatological hope for the possibility of becoming a community capable of mediating divine presences for those with depression.

We who currently feel at home in the world can only encounter the unhomelikeness of depression as clueless spectators—even those of us who have lost our homes before.

Surely our awareness of our own unfitness for accompaniment is behind the ham-fisted imposition of meaning to suffering that Coblentz so carefully and thoroughly cautions against. As well, mainstream U.S. culture forcefully imposes dispositions that are antithetical to “drawing near” without imposing meaning: a desire for clear cause and effect narratives, for solutions findable through consumption or hard work, and, most perniciously, a conflating and overvaluing of happiness, innate worth, and moral goodness. (Though I don’t have time to explore it here, virtue ethicists share some complicity in the latter.) How desperately we need generous maps like Dust in the Blood to guide us out into the wilderness with those who suffer depression, trusting that where God’s beloved are suffering, God is there. 

  • Jessica Coblentz

    Jessica Coblentz


    Reply to Kate Ward

    “Do you believe in the Holy Spirit?” First reading Ward’s response during Eastertide when I had been hearing this creedal question during the renewal of baptismal vows at the start of the Catholic liturgy, it echoed in my mind as I read. Her reflection illuminated several pneumatological connections I had not seen in Dust in the Blood, and for that, I am grateful to Kate. 

    Ward links the book’s hospitality toward popular theologies of depression to the doctrine of the sense of the faithful (sensus fidelium) by way of Espín’s acclaimed work on Latino/a popular religion, a connection I find both convincing and illuminating. Espín argues that popular religion can be a collective expression and response to the intuition of the Holy Spirit that is gifted to every individual at baptism. This supernatural intuition (sensus fidei) makes Christian laypersons “witnesses and bearers of the gospel—as indispensable as the magisterium of the Church,” and, I would add, as indispensable as the Church’s expert theologians.1 

    While my hospitality to popular theologies of depression in the book is most directly informed by my reading of Kilby, Espín’s work on the sensus fidelium provides yet another reason for theologians to check themselves before popular theologies of depression: If we do, in fact, “believe in the Holy Spirit” and in the capacity to receive and respond to the Spirit that is endowed to all the faithful in baptism, then we should approach these popular theologies with curiosity about what the Spirit might be up to as others search for and respond to God amid the difficulties of depression. The popular theologies that many Christians cling to and espouse could be collective expressions of the revelation and reception of the Spirit from within their specific cultures and contexts. It follows that inhospitablity to popular theologies could signal an operative, if implicit, assumption about the absence of the Spirit among the faithful—a view that seems especially cruel when addressing depression sufferers who often yearn for divine accompaniment, as Ward notes.  

    However, articulations of the sense of the faithful resist a simplistic embrace of all facets of popular religion wherein every belief or practice is uncritically affirmed as true. This more conservative dimension of the doctrine may be instructive for our reflection on popular theologies of depression, too. Espín is careful to distinguish between the intuition of the Spirit among the faithful––which is itself infallible––and the specific expressions that communities utilize to communicate and respond to this infallible intuition—for, like all human expressions, these are fallible. Because “this sense is never discovered in some kind of pure state,” intellectual hospitality toward popular religion is an initial step in a larger, complex process of discerning the ongoing revelation of the Spirit among the faithful.2 Authentic expressions of the sensus fidelium—even when they launch official revisions in Church doctrine—will align with the orthodoxy and orthopraxy of the Church, whose teachings and practices share common origin in the Spirit. 

    With Ward, I recognize similarities between the discernment that Espín exhorts and the analysis of popular theologies of depression in Chapters 3 and 4, where I identify several reasons why various popular theologies of depression appeal to some sufferers. In the process, I affirm dimensions of popular theologies that standout as perfectly orthodox—for example, the image of a concerned and involved God that is conveyed through interpretations of depression as a site of divine instruction (80–81). This analysis is akin to Espín’s reading of devotions to Mary of Guadalupe, who served as a cultural analogy of “some dimension or attributes that Christians have discovered—as a gift of the Spirit—in the one they call God”—namely, God’s tenderness, compassion, acceptance, support, forgiveness, and protection of the weak, oppressed, and those most in need.3 

    Like Espín, other theologians—with our expertise in Scripture, tradition, and the historical and social realities of the beloved communities with whom we live and work—should be well positioned to guide the Church in discerning authentic manifestations of the sensus fidelium. I say that we “should be well positioned” because we theologians are too often driven by our own anxieties, biases, limitations, and agendas. We witness this in the superficial and antagonistic readings of Latino/a popular religion that miss the true and good stirrings of the Spirit that Espín names, and we often encounter it when theologians approach distressing realities like the suffering of depression (101–2). Too often, we are Piglets and Poohs, Kangas and Tiggers; we are “dispositionally unsuited to the quiet work of accompanying” depression sufferers, yes, and also for the patient and humble discernment of the sensus fidelium demands. (I’m not sure the pastoral and intellectual dispositions necessary for these tasks are so different!). When we remain caught up in our preconceived judgements and closed off from the sufferers before us, we surely miss opportunities to join sufferers in appreciating the subtle work of the Spirit—including instances of that “small agency” that Ward highlights. 

    At the same time, Ward’s invitation to think about popular theologies of depression with the sensus fidelium bids openness to situations when a popular belief about depression appears clearly antithetical to the work of the Spirit in someone’s life. This returns us to Antus’s concern about situations when we might need to lovingly but forcefully reject a first-person view of depression that is ultimately death-dealing. The sensus fidelium holds that just because popular religion is often a response to and expression of the revelation of the Spirit does not mean all manifestations of popular religion have their origins in God. Kilby’s exhortation to withhold critique of first-person interpretations of suffering would seem to come into conflict with this feature of the doctrine and complicate our application of it to popular theologies of depression. One difference between Kilby’s grammatical distinctions and the doctrine, however, is that Kilby’s rules apply to individual meaning making while the sense of the faithful is a collective phenomenon; Ward’s response thus leaves me wondering whether one can exercise theological restraint (with special exception, per Antus) on the interpersonal level (à la Kilby) while still discerning whether or not the Spirit is at work in popular theologies on a collective level (as we witness in Espín). 

    Nevertheless, thinking with the sense of the faithful leaves me convinced that theologians will remain ill-equipped to discern when the Spirit is (or is not) at work until we exercise the radical intellectual hospitality that Kilby and Espín both model and exhort in their own ways. Whereas Kilby confronts theologians with the hubris and predilection to impose meaning that too often lead us to intellectually overreach with others’ suffering, Espín’s analysis is especially helpful for illustrating that discerning the Spirit among the faithful can only be done with the keenest attention to contextual particularity—something that Antus’s reflection on popular theologies and the suicidal sufferer puts into focus as well. Only when we approach depression with intellectual hospitality as well as curiosity and commit to patient, humble, and loving accompaniment of others within their specific cultural and personal contexts will we begin to approximate the discernment that the sensus fidelium requires and which depression sufferers so deserve. 

    The good news is, if we believe in the Holy Spirit, then we do not aspire to this alone.

    1. Orlando Espín, The Faith of the People: Theological Reflections on Popular Catholicism (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1997), 66.

    2. Espín, The Faith of the People, 66.

    3. Espín, The Faith of the People, 76 and 77.

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