by DEBRA VERMEER
SYDNEY — 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 theologian, Professor John Swinton.
Professor 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.
At a lecture at the Broken Bay Institute in Sydney to a capacity crowd, including members of the L’Arche communities from Sydney and Newcastle, 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 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 misname things,” he said. “And when we misname things, we end up with stigma, alienation and false names.”
He 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.”
One of the things that prevents us from recognising each other as holy is the fast pace of our busy lives.
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.”
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.
“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.”
Prof Swinton said true hospitality always leads to true inclusion, or belonging. “To be included, you simply have to be there, but to belong, you need to be missed,” he said.
“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.”
by DEBRA VERMEER