slowly and gently

I can account for the hiatus in posts: last week I was in London for a day exploring the theology and practice of accompanying people with intellectual disabilities through experiences of loss, especially the death of loved ones. Although this isn’t one of my areas of experience or study, I was interested in the journey of¬†accompaniment. What I found was that, like any other interpersonal adventure, the way forward requires less map-and-compass skills, and more listening and patience. Good navigational skills are necessary, but not sufficient, for walking with someone through the valley of the shadow of death–whether the death in question is their own or another’s.

In doing things with my young children, I frequently find myself repeating “slowly and gently”–it started with stirring cake batter. “Slowly and gently.” Then, as my youngest started trying to descend the stairs: “Slowly and gently.” This has never been my strong suit. Doing things slowly and gently and attending to the details requires time (of which I seem always to be in want) and patience (ditto). As I listened to the speakers throughout the day, this phrase came back to me. The journey of accompaniment, at any stage of life, is about going slowly and gently.

Slowly and gently becomes not only advice for toddlers learning to stir; it changes the way I approach theological questions. Attending to the person with me, the person with an intellectual disability, impresses on me the reality of each person’s creation in the image of God. What is it to be human? It is to be in relationship with God, and that relationship originates with God and not with us. Ours is the capacity to receive the relationship God offers us continuously. The question for theological anthropology then becomes,¬†‘What does the disabled body (including the disabled mind) reveal to us about God?’ If what obscures the image of God in the first place is sin, then intellectual disability is not necessarily something that obscures the image of God. In and through that disability, God is revealing himself, revealing transcendence, divinity.

Because this is so, there are two important features of spiritual friendship with a person with an intellectual disability. First, the relationship that person has with God is no more or less than ours, though it will be expressed differently and experienced differently by us. The obstacles we encounter in relationship with people with intellectual disabilities are not obstacles for God. Relationship with God is not impaired by cognitive impairment. (Sin does that.) The second feature of that friendship is that the revelation of the divine through the divine image is not a one-way street, from those of us who are aware of being made in the image of God to those who are not. We ought to be looking for God’s image in the faces of those with intellectual disabilities, and expecting to find God’s self-revelation there.

But we will only see it if we go slowly–slowly and gently.

Aristotle on the soul

This morning a strange thing happened: Lewis and I found ourselves in the car alone. No interruptions from the children, and Lewis about to teach on–you guessed it–Aristotle on the soul. I dug into the topic this morning in the car with an unusual sense of having a stake in the question. The question began as 'how is the soul the form of the body, for Aristotle?' That's quite a difficult question to answer, as it happens, and I expect more conversation will take place the next time Lewis and I have a l chance to take it up. If anyone happens to have an answer to hand, I would love to hear it.
 
Fear not: I am not going to rehearse here Aristotle's doctrine of the soul. My hunch is that it loses something in the process of being summarised. Besides, it is full of paradox and warrants a sort of attention I am not able to give it. But I should, and I will, because what I could recognise immediately in Aristotle's account of the soul is the way it shows up in the Questions on the Soul of St Thomas Aquinas. His account of the soul is, not surprisingly, full of paradox and has been the subject of at least one paper I have read recently, and two that I have given at conferences. Surely there was plenty of conversation about the topic last June at a conference on the soul in Oxford (which I was unable to attend, sadly).
 
The question of the soul interests me because I am very anxious to retain soul language in Christian discourse. No, I don't think it is much threatened in mainstream Christianity, but I do think it is widely taken for granted. That means we tend not to teach about the nature of the soul or its function in our Christian life. I think (not without some background, I promise) that 'soul' names an aspect of human life that is inseparable from body and mind, but not coterminous with either. It's important, because sickness in body and mind is not the same as sickness of the soul; weakness in mind or body is not the same as weakness of the soul.
 
It's important because the question 'In what sense do [people with profound cognitive impairment] have a soul?' (which Frances Young raises in Face to Face) needs an answer that is careful and deeply grounded theologically. I would argue strenuously that people with severe developmental and cognitive disabilities have souls, regardless of whether their engagement with the world around them has grown beyond the level of an infant. The soul is not the same as the mind, and not the same as the body. We are too used to thinking about our relationships with one another and with God as somehow dependent on our own agency. But it is not so, not necessarily so. An infant does not yet exercise the kind of agency that sustains the relationship into which he or she has been born; the relationship exists, to begin with, because a parent does the work of relating to and caring for the infant. Of course our relationships with one another can be mutually intellectually stimulating and emotionally satisfying, and such friendships are to be cherished. But if our relationships depended on others when we were tiny infants, so much more does our relationship with God depend on God.
 
I don't pretend to know exactly what the soul is. I cannot tell you in what sense it is the 'form of the body' for Aristotle. But I think that in saying that we have souls–that we are embodied souls, or ensouled bodies–we are affirming that there is a mysterious dimension to human existence. We are saying that God relates to each and every one of us as a parent to a tiny child, in the sense that there is a tremendous inequality between the parent's ability to understand, to care for, to bear with, and to meet the needs of the infant child, and the infant's ability to do anything for the parent. The idea of a 'soul' can remind us that we receive our very life from God, regardless of the capacities of our minds and bodies. The soul's capacity for God is not diminished by mental or physical incapacity, but by sin.
 
But sin is another topic entirely, best left for another day.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

More grace

I picked up Frances Young’s book, Face to Face, recently. For the past few years now I have been working in the area of theology and intellectual disability. Now I have come to see that in a very real sense, my way forward has been trodden already. She writes:

…the other trouble is that most of us do not have our eyes open to see he miracles of grace. They are to be found in such ordinary, unremarkable, simple things that we do not even notice. We think our worship is dull, and miss the movement of the Spirit in the secret places, the everyday saints, who are there among us by we dismiss them as ‘old so-and-so’. In my experience the church is capable of transcending the divisions in our society, it is capable of integrating the odd and unacceptable, it is more sensitive to basic human values than wider society. It can act as leaven, and we should not disparage this. Maybe we all need to go on a voyage of exploration into unlikely places to meet unlikely people — not the great ones of the world but the marginalised and afflicted who will teach us what true human values are. Certainly it is Jean Vanier, the founder of the l’Arche communities where Christians live with handicapped people, who writes with the greatest depth these days about community life. But the purpose of such a journey would be to open our eyes, so that we can return to the places where we belong and begin to discern those values where we are (1985, pp. 84-85).

My next book project focuses on the church, specifically the life of the church as Christ’s body. John Swinton asked me in April whether this ecclesiology I hoped to develop would touch on the issues in intellectual disability we’d been discussing. Then, I said yes, but was conscious in my explanation of stretching the project I had envisioned to include these concerns. Now–thanks to Frances Young’s book–I am beginning to see where to start: with the things I struggled to include, the people we as a church struggle to include. I wanted to think about Christ’s body active in the world, reaching out in love. But before I can do that, I have to reckon with Christ’s body broken and rejected, for that is the source of the church’s life.

I am going to need a lot (and I mean a lot) of grace.