Religious, but not Spiritual

The link between Autism and progressive Christianity

Religious, but not Spiritual

If I had to encapsulate my religious outlook in one sentence, I would invert the oft-cited phrase ‘spiritual, but not religious’ and instead say I am ‘religious, but not spiritual’. I have always had a deep-seated interest in religion, and I love the traditions, community and way of life which Christianity provides. Yet I have always struggled with the supernatural aspects of the faith; I could never grasp the concept of communicating with a God ‘up there’ while humans were ‘down here’. I bounced from church to church, all over the theological spectrum, hoping to finally achieve the ‘personal relationship with Jesus’ everyone else seemed to enjoy.

My search eventually led me to attend theological college, where faith tends to either strengthen or die. For my final year dissertation, I chose to research the experience of autistic adults within the Christian church; I received my autism diagnosis at the age of 18, yet I had never considered how that could influence my theology. Too often, theology regarding marginalised groups focuses on how to pull these groups into the ecclesiastical fold, enforcing conformity to theological norms. The liberation theologians of the twentieth century had a different understanding: theology should come from the margins, by listening to diverse perspectives and receiving new theological understandings beyond the established norm.

My research revealed that I am not a hopeless heretic in a state of wilful rebellion. Instead, there are neurobiological reasons which explain why autistic people struggle to give intellectual assent to supernatural doctrines. Multiple research papers have demonstrated a connection between autism and a rejection of classical theism (Heywood and Bering, 2010; Caldwell-Harris, 2011; Hutson, 2012); in order to properly relate to a personal deity, one must be able to empathise with God’s personality traits, thoughts, moods, and ways of communicating. Autistic people have a hard enough time doing this with someone who is standing in front of them, let alone with an entity we cannot see. To quote John Shelby Spong, “What the mind cannot accept, the heart can finally never adore”.
Society is ordered around ideas of normativity, whereby those who do not meet the norm are viewed as defective. Churches can subconsciously buy into these ideas if the goal is to make autistic people more neurotypical in behaviour and belief. How, then, can an autistic person remain part of a faith community without having to force themselves into a way of thinking that is fundamentally incompatible with the way they experience the world?

As an autistic Christian, I have a deep desire to be part of something beyond myself, to follow the teachings of Jesus and establish the Kingdom of God on earth. I may not be able to communicate with an anthropomorphised God, but this I know: God is love, and autistic people are just as capable of giving and receiving love as anyone else. Many autistic adults face a life of isolation and misunderstanding; progressive churches can offer a community of inclusive love for such individuals.

Personally, I have found the progressive Christian tradition to be most accepting of mavericks like me. One could draw an interesting comparison between the treatment of autistic people and LGBT+ people in the church. Many progressive denominations have amended their attitudes to LGBT+ people, no longer viewing them as a problem to be solved, but instead extending a Gospel of welcome and accepting them without caveat or condition. Likewise, churches should be prepared to challenge their preconceived ideas regarding autism and learn to accept adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder into the church community as they are. It must be noted that I do not speak on behalf of all autistic Christians. Autism is a heterogeneous disorder, meaning every autistic adult presents differently, and therefore the extent to which they struggle to conceptualise a personal deity will vary. I finish with a quote from a local priest: “I’d rather be an ‘unbelieving Christian’ living by faith than an ‘unbeloving Christian’ living by beliefs”.

Erin Burnett is a Ship Welfare Visitor with the Mission to Seafarers, and a graduate of Union Theological College, Northern Ireland.

Progressive Voices - Issue 33 - Jun 2020 - page 7 (1)

Comments

1 On 25/06/2020 Mavis Despond wrote:

I have stumbled across this site in my never-ending search for something to believe in.
I was diagnosed with Asperger’s late in life. I struggle with the idea of any loving God who could put me and my children through years of hell with no respite. The concept of that God and love does not match reality. I cannot find a single vicar who can grasp this - stuck as they are in theology, not psychology. The mind set of the average middle class church goer in a village (ten years in one) is judgemental and of a social signalling clique which has no time for anything bar tokenism towards Mental Health Awareness week - a few platitudes and an email and off we go again. To be real and vulnerable with these people is to be cast out and ignored. At a time when a little compassion would have worked wonders we were socially ostracised by the very people who sat through a sermon on God’s love.
Being outside the norm (?) I watch it and wonder. Perhaps God’s cunning plan for me was to destroy my well-being and mental health just to see what would happen.
The Church cannot handle the alienation it creates, it merely deflects and denies and then defends the indefensible so I do not bother with IT. Whether I would bother with God - if there is proof of one to my mind that requires more than stories and assumptions - depends on how that theoretical love manifests. If it ever does.
This frustration and fury may be Autism or experience. I have lost the will to care.

Comment on this entry

Name:

Email:

Your comment:

Please note all comment will be moderated by the site administrator.

Back to Blogs