Slow theology: John Swinton and Matthias Scheeben

Everything else seems to have a ‘slow’ version–why not theology? I feel as though ‘slow’ is just the way I do theology, more by necessity than by choice. Reading and writing happen slowly, and my ideas unfold over time. Sometimes I think I’ve got a giant percolator for a mind, one in which life experience accumulates (like coffee grounds) and then everything I read goes through it. Then, of course, experience filters through the whole mess of reading and previous experience, and so on. No wonder I read so slowly and write more slowly still. Mind you, I am not saying that this is a better way. It certainly isn’t, if what you want is to ascend. I’m not ascending; I’m barely treading water.

becoming friends of timeSince this is my mode of theological and intellectual operation, I found myself delighting in John Swinton’s recent book, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship. He calls out modern culture of efficiency into question, and suggests that God has given us the gift of time for love, not for achievement. In God’s time, humility and gentleness trump speed and efficiency. (Check out the symposium on Syndicate! ) It was in reading John’s book that I began to think seriously about the possibility of slow theology. There is a methodological slowness in doing theology as an intellectual practice that fits with my own (often frustrating) experience of academic-theological work, and gentleness is at the heart of it.

In a way, it is gentleness that appeals to me in the work of a no-longer-widely-read dogmatic theologian, Matthias Scheeben. My attempts to read my way into Scheeben’s work were revitalised by Bruce Marshall, who wrote a perceptive and hortatory essay suggesting that ‘Scheeben teaches us the virtues theologians need.’ These virtues, together, shape a practice of theology that takes time. ‘Dogmatic theology,’ Scheeben shows us, ‘must discipline itself to be about God in a specific way, one that draws us into the mysteries revealed only in Christ.’ Scheeben’s deep attentiveness to these mysteries shows through clearly in his (aptly titled) The Mysteries of Christianity. It’s a book that an mysteriesacademic theologian would have difficulty publishing today, I expect. His erudition (which Marshall describes as staggering) is balanced with an equally profound piety. Scheeben’s study of the mysteries of God, revealed in Christ, is a discipline at once ‘intellectual’ and ‘spiritual.’

Another aspect of Scheeben’s study reveals the second of the virtues Marshall identifies:

Scheeben does not lord over the past and judge it, as if the modern mind were in a superior position to know divine truths. Nor does he equate genuinely dogmatic theology with rigorous adherence to a past master, no matter how much we may learn from him. His use of the thirteenth-century scholastics, for example, is remarkably catholic. He does not play them off against one another, or adhere to a particular school, but makes constructive use of all of them, usually in mutually reinforcing ways. 

Although Marshall doesn’t name it ‘gentleness,’ the respect Scheeben shows to his interlocutors is just that: gentle. Much scholarship advances in less constructive and more critical ways, as if the only way to make an argument is to show where others have gone wrong. (I suspect that Scheeben would not have had much time for snarky comments on Facebook, but that might just be a little bit of hero-worship.)

The virtue that perfects the others, on my reading, is humility. Indeed, Marshall finds this to be ‘the most striking feature of Scheeben’s theological writing.’ In particular, Scheeben sustains this attitude ‘before the divine mysteries he seeks to understand.’ Scheeben’s attention to these mysteries shapes his engagement with his interlocutors and his understanding of the character of the theological task. His piety (which is an aspect of the first virtue) and gentleness (which is the essence of the second) are bound up inextricably with his profound humility before the mystery of God.

Scheeben wasn’t a slow theologian in the sense that his writing took a long time. (Neither is John Swinton, by that measure.) As Marshall points out, the foundations of his theological work were already mostly laid ‘by the time Scheeben published the Mysteries…at the age of thirty.’ But his attention to thescheeben divine mysteries had been formed by a theological culture marked, as Marshall puts it, by ‘breadth and sympathy.’ Scheeben might have been a fast learner, building a knowledge base in his twenties that I can’t hope to match if I keep at it until I am eighty. He was, however, measured in his judgements and not dismissive, never rash.

If there is any advantage in the glacial speed of my own theological work, it may be that I have no fast-track through my intellectual process: the knowledge I acquire drips slowly through the ‘grounds.’ This means that I have to say things like ‘I don’t know’ and ‘Let me think about that.’ And so, I lose arguments frequently, and do not seek them out. There’s no virtue in losing, of course. But there is some healing that comes with the realisation that winning–which tends to come by being the strongest and the fastest–isn’t everything. There is more to be said, much more, about the possibility of slow theology. But I’ll just have to let it brew.

 

 

 

 

What Anna taught me this week

Earlier in the week, I attended a celebration at Anna’s school, a school for children with special educational needs. There were music performances and awards given, smiling children and proud parents. Anna sat in the front row and watched it all go on.

I was a bit disappointed, myself. Why doesn’t my child get any awards? Before I could get myself too worked up, though, I realised that Anna doesn’t mind. She can enjoy the success of another without envy. Some people might say this is to do with having an intellectual disability. Maybe so. But I think also that it is a gift. Would that I had it, too.

Being human, part 3: the spiritual life

I’ve been thinking a lot about the spiritual life lately. Not, of course, that it’s ever too far from my mind. As a teacher of those preparing for ordained ministry, I always considered the pastoral and spiritual implications of the theology and ethics I taught. And as a person of faith, I have found the spiritual life an integrative force in my life, which often seems like a patchwork of roles and responsibilities and hopes and disappointments. Woven through the various scraps of fabric, there is this sense of purpose that draws in everything–yes, everything–and orients it toward a bigger-than-I reality.

Although my recent thinking about spirituality has been inspired by the situation of women in colleges and universities and the challenges facing them, I’ve been struck deeply by the universality of our need for spiritual well-being. An article by David Morstad, over at The Larger Table, points out that people with significant intellectual disabilities have as great a desire and need for spiritual nourishment and community–if not greater–than those with greater cognitive abilities.

A sense of spirituality–which might be as simple as the notion that there is a reality bigger than we are, that holds us and draws us forward–seems fairly standard and unobjectionable. The category of folks who consider themselves ‘spiritual, but not religious’ attests, I think, to this foundational place of spirituality in our lives. But that isn’t to say that ‘spirituality’ is somehow what religion is really about, or that the practice of any sort of religion or spirituality is the same.

What our various approaches to religion and the spiritual life should teach us, I believe, is not that religions are all the same, or even that ‘religion’ is a thing that means the same thing to people who practice different religions. Rather, our continuing openness to faith and spirituality, and the persistence of faith-based values within our society, ought to remind us that, however much divides us, there is much that we nonetheless share. Being human involves forming a view (insofar as our capacities allow us to do so) about what it is to be human, and this is a task that involves a great many of us in spiritual reflection in addition to philosophical and scientific study.

As Lent begins, Christians around the world pay renewed attention to the life of the spirit.  I hope that this Lent will be a time when the universality of our need for grace also awakens in me a deeper awareness of the unity of the human family. After all, Jesus’s prayer for us as he entered into his suffering was that we might all be one. May it be so.

Deo gratias.

 

you’re having a baby

Mark Schrad’s op-ed piece for the New York Times is balanced and thoughtful. I am very glad he and his wife chose to have their daughter despite the diagnosis of trisomy-21. But I worry about the way this conversation is going. I worry, because there is a significant difference between the choice to end a pregnancy and the choice not to have a particular baby.

A few years ago, I reviewed Judith Butler’s Frames of War for Modern Theology (27 (3):540-542). As usual, Butler’s writing is challenging and thought-provoking, and covers a wide range of terrain. But one claim in particular stood out to me (and I refer to it in the review): the shift from seeing others as occupying the same moral and political space (i.e. being ‘modern’) to seeing them as outside that space allows us to disregard their common humanity. Now, that is a gross oversimplification, I am sure, of Butler’s nuanced proposal. Yet the basic idea, that the liberal subject is only able to be a party to the waging of war if a sort of shift takes place psychologically, is one of the conclusions of the book. Butler urges us to resist this shift.

What on earth, you might ask, does that have to do with abortion? Butler would surely argue for the woman’s right to choose in every case–or would she? In the event of an unwanted pregnancy, certainly. But once the pregnancy has been accepted and a baby is on the way, the moral ground that we are on changes. Pre-natal testing happens in order for us to find out what sort of baby we’re having and gives us the basis on which to choose whether or not this baby is one we want. The diagnosis, in the case of a baby with Trisomy-21, provides the pivot-point on which we are invited to shift our perspective: the baby would be ‘baby’ if s/he were healthy; the baby with Trisomy-21 loses the claim on our care because s/he is not ‘healthy’ or ‘normal’. That is exactly the shift that we ought to resist.

Having said that, I would add that all those who agree on this question ought to be working very hard to make life with a child (or adult son or daughter) conceivable as good. There is no getting around the fact that raising a child with Trisomy-21 (not to speak of a whole range of more serious diagnoses) will be challenging, and often (but not always–lots happens in the raising of typical kids) more challenging than raising a child with a standard set of chromosomes. We who claim that the child with Down Syndrome ought to be welcomed as warmly as the ‘typical’ child have then to share in the responsibility for loving and supporting that child and his or her family.

imagesJerome Lejune–in the centre of the photo here–did not intend for his work on the chromosomal abnormality that causes Down syndrome to be used to eliminate Down syndrome. He surely would have admitted that it’s not an easy road, and no one can walk it alone. But he would have urged us to see that which many of us who are raising (or have raised) children with Down syndrome have learned: it is not an impossible road, and it is one that can be very beautiful, if we have the eyes to see it.

‘Happiness is the truth’: brief reflections on the common good

Pharrell Williams may be onto something. Happiness plays a central role in our lives, of course. My hunch is that happiness also reflects the life of God in us–that business about humans being created in the image of God isn’t just about rationality and the freedom of the will. Or, rather, the freedom and rationality that we exercise (on our good days, when we’re using them well) best show forth the divine image when exercised joyfully and compassionately.

We all know that happiness is important. We strive for it but so often fail to achieve it. We find it in the most unlikely (we think) places. And we don’t think of happiness as contributing to the common good. The US Declaration of Independence suggests that ‘the pursuit of happiness’ is one of our God-given rights, yet we miss its profound importance for our life together. We tend to think that people who achieve great things make the greatest contributions to the world. And I would certainly not want to argue against key advances in science, in medicine, even in technology (without which I wouldn’t be writing this blog). But I don’t see that those things make us happier.

I think we need to value far more highly the people whose contribution to our world is happiness–joy, peace and contentment. If those are the really important people, then our priorities have to shift a bit. People with intellectual disabilities often make this kind of contribution, as John Franklin Stephens suggests in a recent blog post. And, of course, children very often make this kind of contribution. Children like these:

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We have got it all wrong, I’m afraid. We, in the comfortable houses in the safe places of the world have come to value our security and prosperity, our comfort. But we’re not happy. We need children and those whose joy has been tested; we need to extend ourselves on behalf of those in need and in danger. Isaiah calls the people of Israel to ‘care your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house’ (58.7).

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily;           your righteousness shall go before you, the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard…

If you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,                   then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

If that’s not a recipe for happiness, and for the common good, I don’t know what is.

random acts of unkindness

Let me apologize in advance: this is not a carefully crafted post. I am deeply disturbed by something I saw (over my son’s shoulder) on youtube this morning. The boys were watching a series of clips of people who were the victims of pranks. Mostly, these were the usual sorts of thing–someone opens a cupboard door only to find another person inside, who yells ‘Boo’, or something like that.

But there was one set that showed people playing a computer game, where the object was to solve a maze. At the end, a hideous and frightening face appeared on the screen and made horror-film terrifying sounds. If my kids tricked me with something like that, it might be funny. Not in the case of the last clip we saw. In that clip, a young man was playing the game. As he looked up over his left shoulder inquiringly, I saw that he had an intellectual disability. He hesitated, then continued, reassured by the person holding the camera. I thought: this is not going to end well.

It did not end well. On seeing the horrible face and hearing the associated sounds, the man shrieked, put his fist through the screen, and leapt back howling. As he stood facing the person holding the camera, the camera panned downwards to show that he had wet himself, then back up to his shocked and sad face. Crying, he said, ‘it’s not funny!’

Most certainly not. Not remotely funny. Now, you might say that this is just one of those things. Maybe the jokester didn’t think (I hope not) that it would be such an awful shock for the man. But if that were so, he or she would have put the camera down at once and apologised, and offered some comfort. To keep filming, to make a spectacle of the man so upset by the experience, and then to post it to youtube as if it is just another clip, like the others in the set… well. I don’t even have words for that.

It has haunted me all day long, and will continue to haunt me for a good while, I think. The person behind that camera has a lot to learn from the man in front of it. We are all vulnerable, and to use someone’s vulnerability against him or her is a violation of our basic humanity. My thoughts about this are still in a jumble–but I think there is something to be said here, or somewhere, about how we are in the image of God, all of us, and to disregard that feature of another’s humanity obscures it in us.

Please pray.

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.