The Theology of Disability - a new way of listening, seeing and belonging

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
27 Jun 2014

By Debra Vermeer

Zachariah Duke, professor John Swinton and
Bishop Peter A Comensoli

The theology of disability is a way of looking at God and human beings from a perspective that is overtimes overlooked; a perspective that must take into account a new way of thinking about time, hospitality and belonging, says visiting theologian, Professor John Swinton.

Prof Swinton is a professor in Practical Theology and Pastoral Care at the School of Divinity, Religious Studies and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. He has a background in mental health nursing and healthcare chaplaincy and has researched and written extensively in the areas of practical theology, mental health, spirituality and human well-being, and the theology of disability.

Speaking to a capacity crowd at a free public lecture at the Broken Bay Institute in Pennant Hills, he said the theology of disability is essentially about a new way of listening, which leads to a new way of seeing.

"The task of disability theology is not to transform the world through politics, economics and worldly power, but to be faithful to the task that is given to it," he said.

"And the task that is given to the disability theologian is to help us to see properly what it means to be a human being; to help us to understand that many of the things that we are taught by culture are false; that to be human is much more interesting and much more complicated than the simplistic way that culture tells us it should be."

Prof Swinton said the beginning point for a good theology of disability is to name things properly.

"One of the problems in the conversation around disability is that we mis-name things," he said. "And when we mis-name things, we end up with stigma, alienation and false names."

He said an example in the context of mental health is where people take a medical or psychiatric diagnosis and label people according to that diagnosis, so that somebody diagnosed with schizophrenia becomes known as 'a schizophrenic'.

"The problem is that once you have a diagnosis, that becomes your name. And as soon as you're schizophrenic, you're on a really strange social tangent, not because of your illness, but because of the way that people see and understand that particular name. So if we begin our journey as lay people with diagnosis, and all of the social stigma that surrounds that, then we're beginning in the wrong place."

Prof Swinton said disability is simply a way of naming difference, and that one way of thinking about it is to ask the question: 'What does it mean to be a human being who lives within a human body?'

"Genesis shows us that human beings are created by matter but inspired and brought into existence by the very breath of God," he said. "So we are our bodies and we are our souls. And there's something important and beautiful about that.

"If that's right, then every moment that we have together is in a real sense, a holy moment. Every encounter we have with one another is an encounter that is inspired by the spirit of God. So, animated by the breath of God, human beings are seen to be holy creatures, living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy. That means that your body is holy. Your very bodyliness is sustained by God. Every-body is holy.

"And, when we attend to one another properly, when we recognise one another as holy creatures, and these bodies that we inhabit as holy places, then beautiful things begin to emerge. Because we begin to realise that the diversity of bodies within creation isn't a stigmatic mark of something negative. It's actually a beautiful thing that draws us together."

Prof Swinton said one of the things that prevents us from recognising each other as holy is the fast pace of our busy lives.

"Most of our lives are ruled by time," he said. "So it's not surprising that time becomes highly problematic and indeed, it oppresses us."

Professor Swinton on the Theology of Disability

St Augustine, in his Confessions, suggested that as Christians, we need to redeem time and put it to its proper purposes.

"One of the things that you notice very quickly when you're working alongside people with dementia is that you need to slow down," Prof Swinton said. "And you take time for those things that the world considers trivial - small gestures, small looks. But when you do that, sometimes wonderful things happen. And in that kind of context I can see exactly what St Augustine meant when he talked of redeeming time."

In the same way, taking time to be really present to people, introduces a whole new understanding of hospitality.

"One of the things that we don't' always notice in the life of Jesus is the way that sometimes he's a guest and sometimes he's a host," Prof Swinton said. "So it's that constant hospitable movement from guest to host that marks the life of Jesus.

"To be a guest in somebody's house means that you're there because you're invited to be there. You don't take along a pot of paint so that you can paint the living room the same colour as your own. You're there because you want to learn, because you've been invited, because you're a guest in the midst of that.

"And that's what the essence of hospitality is. We need to be guests in each other's houses before we can have any idea what it means to encounter the world in a body that is different from yours or different from one another. So hospitality, I think, is the fundamental principle in terms of faithful community building. Unless we can become hospitable to one another and be able to be guest in one another's houses and guest in one another's lives then we can't possibly be faithful to the things we strive to do."

Professor Swinton said that true hospitality always leads to true inclusion.

"We talk a lot about inclusion and there's a very strong political movement towards including people with disabilities within our community, which is now enshrined in law," he said.

"So from a legal point of view, people with disabilities have to be in the room. But once you get in the room, nothing changes, nobody talks to you. To be included within the community but to not feel accepted, well, you may as well not be included.

"To be included, you simply have to be there, but to belong, you need to be missed.

"You need to have a space within your community that is for you, so that when you're not there, people miss you, people long for you in the same way as the father longs for the prodigal son.

"And in order to do that you have to have a particular kind of community, which is not simply an inclusive community … but a community within which people know the different shapes and forms and beautiful bodily shapes and accept them, exactly as they are."

Prof Swinton said the task of the church in creating these communities of hospitality and belonging can begin with small gestures.

"I would suggest that the task of the church is not necessarily world transformation. That's God's task," he said.

"The task of the church is signalling the Kingdom through small gestures, and these small gestures involve naming things properly, understanding the nature of hospitality, accepting the beauty of all bodies, all different shapes and forms, and indeed the holiness of all bodies in their different shapes and forms, and working together to create communities of belonging within which you can be proud to be both a guest and a host."