Encountering God without memory

‘Sometimes dementia can be a place of revelation,’ says Scottish professor

Dementia is not inevitably a statement of needing to be fixed, says Professor John Swinton.

During Dementia Action Week (16-22 September), Swinton says that while it’s true that dementia is a form of brain damage – a neurological deterioration – he’s “not too keen” on the idea of referring to it as brokenness. Particularly if we’re using ‘broken’ in the same way that we might say our car is broken.

“It gives you a whole different way of thinking about what it means to be ’embodied'” – John Swinton

“As in, like it has to be fixed to work,” says Swinton. “Sometimes [dementia] can be a place of revelation, as well as devastation.”

Swinton has seen such ‘revelation’ in his many years working as a registered mental health nurse, chaplain and, then, particularly through his research into a theology of disability and caring for people with dementia.

Swinton is a Professor in Practical Theology and Pastoral Care and Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen, as well as being an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland. He is working in Australia for six months with aged and dementia care provider HammondCare, having also edited their Faith for Life series of resources for those living with dementia.

“Take something like the impact that music can have on people with dementia,” says Swinton. “There can be people who have advanced dementia who don’t seem to be focusing at all on where they are. But then play them some worship music, and very definitely you feel that they are in the room.”

“You realise that your memory is not simply something to do with recall. It’s got something to do with your body. Your body remembers things, and the ways in which you move and shape your body over time shapes and forms who you are.

“And, so, at a time when you can no longer remember things cognitively, actually your body is still doing things.

“It gives you a whole different way of thinking about what it means to be ’embodied’ when you are without language and without memory.”

Swinton has a particular interest in a theology of disability, which he sees as addressing an imbalance in the voices we most usually hear communicating truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

“A theology of disability brings up questions that people with a variety of disabilities encounter. Like, ‘What does it mean to be loved just as you are?’ Or for those with a profound disability, ‘What does it mean to have an understanding that you are fully made in God’s image?'” asks Swinton.

How do we help those with dementia and other disabilities still be part of the church body?

For those with dementia, Swinton says much of his thinking is about how you can experience Christianity without memory.

“Most religious traditions, and I think the Christian tradition in particular, is all about memory. Remembering things, looking back. But what does it mean to be with God when you can’t remember anything? It may be absolutely beautiful!”

“I think we’re afraid of it because we can’t imagine life without memory. But it might be a wonderful thing to not be distracted and be able to sit with God in that way.

“A theology of disability helps us put these questions on the table and helps the church think through how to help those with dementia and other disabilities still be part of the church body.”

Christianity is not only very heavy on memory. It also places a lot of emphasis on what we know with our heads, which can be problematic for those with dementia.

“We place a lot of emphasis on knowing who Jesus is, for example,” says Swinton. “And rightly so, I think. I’m not advocating for an anti-intellectual position.

“But what I would say is that even the disciples – who knew Jesus personally – didn’t really know who Jesus was. Even after the resurrection, they’re still struggling to come to terms with who he was.

“If God is love, that doesn’t mean that you have to know in your mind what love is.” – John Swinton

“Or in the book of James, James says ‘the devil knows more about God than you do…’ and goes on to talk about caring for the orphans and the widows. In other words, love is a social action.

“If you think about it, if God is love, that doesn’t mean that you have to know in your mind what love is. Because love is a practice. It’s not something you do. Love is something that God does.

In the same way, Swinton says, being with Jesus isn’t just about knowing things about Jesus.

“Those who claimed to know things about Jesus often didn’t know very much. I think it’s possible to experience Jesus in community. The body of Christ is, I think, a reality.”

“It’s in that space – the body of Christ – that people can feel God’s love. They may not be able to articulate it, they may not have the cognitive knowledge that many of us assume are really important for religion, but they can be part of the body of Christ.”

That experience is true for those living with dementia as well as with profound intellectual disabilities, says Swinton. But belonging to the body of Christ is different to simply being inclusive. Too often, says Swinton, churches consider themselves ‘inclusive’ if they have the right building features.

“Belonging is always when you are in a context that, if you were no longer in that situation, people would miss you. With dementia in particular – but other forms of disability too – very often that’s exactly the opposite. People feel glad when you’re not there, rather than glad when you are there.'”

Swinton is talking about some of these issues at a series of events hosted by HammondCare and Bible Society Australia in October.

The series of talks, called ‘Faith For Life: Memory, worship and dementia’ will consider the unique role that music plays, as well as how to utilise space to assist in facilitating faith activities for people with dementia.

For more details on these events, click here.