What I am about to share may be news to some of my friends, but will be no new revelation to a great many others. I now know at the age of 30 what I have suspected for a number of years. It is time for me to emerge from the feigned comfort of a figurative closet, despite my deep longing to seek refuge, and to share with my family, both my biological family and my sociological family, that I live with autism spectrum disorder.
I’ve been reluctant to share this because I believe it will be perceived as me making a mountain out of a molehill. For some, the first thought might be, ‘No you don’t.’ Despite my desire for the opposite, these folk are wrong. Others might think, ‘Well, we’re all on the spectrum somewhere, aren’t we?’ And whilst the latter may be true to some extent, I have been diagnosed as ‘severely impaired’. This is not a ‘weekend’ autism. This is a full-blown disorder. I know that it might not appear that way at first glance. Unbeknownst to me, I have been struggling with this disorder throughout my life. I have learned a lot about what is and is not acceptable in society. Some might think, ‘Well, don’t we all have to learn that?’ Once again, I would agree to some extent. But part of what makes an autistic person different is that we lack the social intuition that makes this happen naturally. A bicycle with a flat tyre might roll, but it won’t soon be carrying the winner of the Tour de France. I am grateful for the resources I have discovered to help me get by whilst seeming relatively ‘normal’. But because this is learned—something ‘put on’ like a jumper—I make mistakes. Sometimes my head ends up in a sleeve or I’ve put it on back-to-front.
My sisters and brothers (and those in between and outwith that dichotomy) who inhabit this strange world whilst living with ASD – though we represent a broad spectrum of ability, we are united in the extraordinary challenges we face and the extraordinary beauty that we embody. For myself, I’m not sure how much of that statement I believe with all of my heart, but I can say that we see the world in a very different way. Sometimes this world is frightening. Sometimes it is a world full of wonder. But it is always an alien world, perceived through a degree of social ineptitude and oversensitivity to external stimuli that sets us apart from our neurotypical sisters and brothers.
In both the past and the present we have been social outcasts, but this strange world is our world too. We have a voice, whether that is one spoken aloud, through a speech device, or even uttered within our own minds. We are an invaluable part of the fabric of society – without us something essential would be missing.
I’m no way making myself out to be the spokesperson for all people living with ASD. I can only speak from my experience. But who am I? That’s a difficult question for me to answer. It’s made especially difficult because of what I ‘do’ as I am a parish minister in the Church of Scotland. People often ask me about my calling and I grant that it’s rather unusual as there are fewer than a thousand of us in post at the moment. I often describe it, in brutally honest terms, as miserable, but the best thing in the world. I have the great and humbling honour of serving a wonderful and accepting congregation, full of energy, compassion and diversity. In addition to my ‘church family’, I have an extended family of one of the largest parishes in Scotland. The parish of Queen’s Park and Govanhill doesn’t cover an especially large geographic area, but it is home to, in my estimate, more than 20,000 individuals, nearly half of which, like me, were not born in this country.
As part of my calling, I have the opportunity to work with what seems like countless community organisations and faith groups in our area. I have the opportunity to build relationships with so many different kinds of people, networking between organisations, playing my very modest part in the incredible work that goes on in this wee patch of Glasgow. In addition to community work I also have the opportunity to serve on different bodies within Glasgow Presbytery and the Church of Scotland. And last, but not least, I have the opportunity and privilege of building relationships with my aforementioned church family. This includes visiting folk at home and in hospital, leading several services on Sundays and attending prayer groups. Additionally, I also have the opportunity to take part in special events, such as fundraisers and social meals. I’ve probably left out a fair bit of what being a parish minister entails, but I hope you get the gist.
As someone living with ASD, none of this is natural for me. In fact, it’s highly unnatural. That is part of why the question ‘Who am I?’ is so difficult to answer. I’ve got the person who needs to fulfil the responsibilities of being a parish minister with the added layer of the need to fulfil the responsibilities of a ‘normal person’. I’ve spent my entire life learning to put on ‘normal’. I feel that I must do this because of the negative responses I have received for not behaving a certain way. So very much of what many people take for granted as natural practice within social interactions are things that I have had to learn. It takes a massive amount of cognitive energy to maintain even just one of these two layers of ‘normality’. And I’m still learning. When a behaviour is not natural, I make some embarrassing—or even worse—hurtful mistakes. All too often I misinterpret what I am told. When I see someone has a new haircut—stop everything—I must tell them that I’ve noticed, even if they are midsentence. The same goes for other aspects of physical appearance – it’s not okay to point out every feature, especially when someone has a lazy eye or a new plook. When is it my turn to speak? When should I stop talking? Phone calls are a waking nightmare. These things are just the very tip of my autistic iceberg.
Maybe you’re reading this and thinking, ‘There’s nothing unusual there.’ Thank you. Please spend a few hours with me and tell me that I’ve not made any social errors – it’s a rarity. And when we meet, please don’t touch me unless I tell you that it’s okay.
So who am I? To be honest, I don’t really know. Maybe none of us can answer that question. For me, I don’t know how to disentangle fully the learned behaviour from the kernel of ‘Elijah’. When presented with of all of the opportunities set before me, it’s very easy to overwork, a vice if ever there was one. There’s a great temptation to overfill my schedule, to take on any opportunity presented to me. For even the most hardy neurotypical person, this is a sure recipe for burnout. In the face of this errant busyness, there is a great need to refocus, to remember who I am as Elijah; not the parish minister, but the person, the disciple of Jesus. ‘Know thyself’, ‘γνῶθι σεαυτόν’, a pre-Socratic maxim featured in Western thought for several thousand years. It is not an unusual challenge. I’m working on it.
I’m not sure if sharing all of this is yet another faux pas, but I’m grasping at straws. I’m trying to make sense of it all. I need to figure out what resources there are to help me on this journey. And if you’d like to help, thank you. I need it. We need it. We need patience and understanding. We need respect and equality. We need love, even if we’re not the best at expressing it.
Below is, as it is with all opinion posts, an outline of my opinion on a particular topic. Please feel free to disagree or to challenge my views, but please also take the care to read all of what I have written. It is my sincere intention to be a loving, gracious, humble and devout follower of Jesus. Please forgive me when I fail at this.
Today a couple of minister friends of mine shared the same link on Facebook with the heading, ‘Dentist Says God Doesn’t Exist – Watch What His Patient Says…’ Normally I tend away from these sort of links (my criticisms in this post will probably reveal why that is the case), but for some reason today I decided to click. Here’s the clip:
I’m not sure how long this ‘God & the Dentist’ idea has been circulating (after a limited amount of research I’ve discovered several videos presenting the same argument), but this one was produced by a group called ‘cvcnow’ who on their YouTube account give this description:
cvcnow produce creative short films, designed to entertain and challenge your thinking about real life.
In amongst all the negativity we face online, we want to be that much needed positive presence online and bring a fresh new perspective on real life struggles – from forgiveness to suicide; we don’t shy away from the big issues.
They’ve got this written in their ‘about’ section on the cvcnow.com website:
All we want is to help you explore those unavoidable questions about life, the universe and everything in it.
After a wee bit of research I’ve discovered that cvcnow is a ‘brand’ under the umbrella of Christian Vision, ‘a UK-based international charity founded by Lord Edmiston in 1988.’ I have yet to watch all of the videos that they’ve produced (and I don’t see myself doing that any time soon), but from viewing this dentist video alone, something tells me that none of their videos will sit right with me. But why?
Before I explain why I see this sort of thinking as more of a foe than a friend, I want to say that this is no attack on any individuals who find this video inspirational. Please know that I am in no way doubting the faith, goodness or sincerity of anyone involved in cvcnow or Christian Vision, or even anyone who has enjoyed the video above or has passed it on to friends. I believe that the folk who produced this video are using their skills, passions and energies to do what they think is the most effective way to follow what they believe God wants for them. But with that being said, I think that most people (even people who commit acts of great evil) do the same. For example, I’m convinced that the Tories believe that society will best flourish under their policies whilst Labour politicians believe the same of their own policies (though, some might argue that New Labour’s policies are more Tory than Labour, but I digress…). I also want to express that I believe that God can use any means to reveal theological truth and convey religious experience (my PhD thesis approaches a small facet of that very belief), as in the old story in the Torah of the diviner Balaam who was intent on cursing the God of the Jews, but this very God corrected him via the mouth of a donkey. So yes, according to our mythology and tradition, God can speak through various means, but I’d rather be the prophet than the ass.
So what about this video do I find particularly offensive? Aside from the poor writing, poor acting, poor music, poor production and implausibility of the conversation? Let’s walk through the ‘script’:
Dentist [after working on a patient’s teeth]: OK, we’re done.
Patient: Yes, thank God for that.
P: What do you mean?
D: Who in this day and age still believes in God?
At this point it’s important to point out that I don’t know of any dentist, even a staunchly atheistic dentist, who would take issue with someone saying ‘Thank God’ in a situation like that. Many of my atheist friends say ‘Thank God’ as often as they say ‘Thank fuck’. The ‘God’ bit of ‘Thank God’ doesn’t necessarily carry much meaning. ‘Thank God’ is simply a colloquialism. But the writers of this piece needed to find a way to put God into a ‘real life’ situation, so we end up with a very rude dentist who decides to challenge his patient on a passing comment. And to answer this elitist dentist’s silly question, Who in this day and age still believes in God? — apparently some 5.8 billion of the 6.9 billion people in the world, or 84% of people. That in no way proves the legitimacy or truthfulness of belief in God, but at least demonstrates that, even ‘in this day and age’, belief in God isn’t exactly uncommon. So the patient decides to respond:
P: Well, I do. Why’s that?
D: Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.
P: Well, I don’t believe in dentists. If there are so many dentists in the world, then why do so many people have broken, infected and missing teeth?
Oh dear. Now, despite his unpleasant personality, I’m starting to side with the dentist. Whether or not a Christian will admit it, there is no simple answer to the problem of evil (expressed so eloquently by the dentist in his condescension: ‘Well, you obviously missed all the wars, uh, the devastation, the poverty…everything that goes wrong in this world.’). I have some views on how I might approach the problem of evil, but I don’t want to go there with this post. It’s also important to note that God has been used to justify a great many wars throughout history (even Bush and Blair claim to have prayed to God before the [misleading] war in Iraq). But that at which I want to get is what the patient has used to argue against non-belief – she has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists. There are two major problems I have with her decision.
1) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists. That’s a very difficult position to maintain when you’re sitting in the chair of a dentist‘s office after your dentist appointment and a dentist is standing right in front of you, speaking with you. If the Christian God was always so readily tangible the argument might stand up a wee bit better. But dentists do exist and her assertion that the lack of dental care in the world proves that dentist’s don’t exist is somehow akin to this dentist’s argument against the existence of God by way of the problem of evil is complete and utter nonsense. In the spirit of this unlikely exchange, this patient’s thanking of God after her dental procedure reveals that she believes that God was somehow present and responsible for the ending of the procedure. This can be seen as implying that God is capable of being present in many places at one time (omnipresence) and that is powerful enough to bring her through this dental challenge (omnipotence). The dentist argues that an ever present and all powerful God (who is also a good God [omnibenevolence]) cannot exist in light of the brokenness in the world. And whilst there are many different conceptions of God, these three things—presence, power and goodness—form part of the general understanding of the concept of ‘God’ in Western society. ‘Dentist’, on the other hand, does not carry the same weight. No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipresent. No one in their right mind believes dentists are omnipotent. Some people believe that dentists are actually evil. So to argue that dentists, because of their lack of omnipresence and omnipotence (and to some people, their lack of omnibenevolence), do not exist, is quite silly.
2) She has decided that she doesn’t believe in dentists. I have argued against the concept that we ‘choose’ what we believe in other posts (particularly here in ‘Agnosticism in the Kingdom of God’, from 23 September 2011 and here in ‘Some thoughts on religion and its place in my life’, 9 May 2012), but I’ll attempt to reiterate and expand some of that argument here. In short, I don’t believe any of us choose what we believe and instead—based upon the information we store in our heads from our experiences—we ‘reason’ to what makes the most sense to us. It’s not Logic with a capital ‘L’, but it’s some type of existential logic.
For a friend of mine, Christianity made sense until something else—whether that is new information he learned or a new experience or series of experiences—led him to see his Christian belief system as illogical. I do think that we can cultivate a particular belief via manipulation (like any gay men who cultivate the unfortunate belief that their sexuality is a choice), but ultimately, I think belief is something that happens to us. This makes most sense in Christianity (as opposed to this idea that we choose our beliefs) because, alongside the broader Christian tradition, the Bible seems to express that faith/belief is a gift:
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.’ Matthew 16:13-17, NRSV
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:8-9, NRSV
Even the account of St Paul’s conversion implies that faith is something that happened to Saul, not something he chose (see Acts 9). If the element of choice is ever involved in the Scripture, I believe it’s a matter of choosing between that which is in line with the values of the kingdom of God and that which is out of line with the values of the kingdom of God. As a result of acting upon belief, some people are commended by Christ:
As he approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard a crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, ‘Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.’ Then he shouted, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Those who were in front sternly ordered him to be quiet; but he shouted even more loudly, ‘Son of David, have mercy on me!’ Jesus stood still and ordered the man to be brought to him; and when he came near, he asked him, ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ He said, ‘Lord, let me see again.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Receive your sight; your faith has saved you.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him, glorifying God; and all the people, when they saw it, praised God. Luke 18:35-43, NRSV
There are many other similar passages in the Gospels (such as Matthew 9:22, Mark 5:34, Luke 7:50), but as is expressed in the Epistle of St James, faith/belief is a gift from God:
Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? James 2:5, NRSV
I didn’t choose to become a Christian. Perhaps every day I have the choice to follow either that which I conceive of as following Christ or that which I conceive of as not, but the conception of following Christ, being a Christian, believing in God — those things are part of my faith, and my faith is a free gift from God.
This is a good place to look at the concluding lines of the dialogue, which reveal what is perhaps the most important reason why I cannot stand by this video:
D: I can’t help people that don’t come to me to have their teeth fixed.
P: Exactly. It’s the same way with God. It’s a bit rich of us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him and instead insist on doing things their own way.
D: And how am I meant to come to God?
P: Just talk to him – he’s listening.
Here the patient tells the dentist that it’s unreasonable for us to expect God to help people who don’t come to him. Why would I have any problem with that? Being that we’ve just celebrated the Epiphany a few days ago, the doctrine of the incarnation weighs very heavily upon me. At the very heart of the Christian faith is the belief that God became human in Jesus. This divine mystery plants God in the midst of human existence, as a human. As quoted in the Gospel of St Matthew,
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us.’ Matthew 1:23 (cf. Isaiah 7:14), NRSV
Christianity rests on the belief that God is the one who comes to us: ‘But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.’ (Romans 5:8), ‘We love because he first loved us.’ (1 John 4:19). It is God’s initiative, God’s move that makes this happen. God is not sitting, twiddling her divine thumbs, waiting for us to turn up. God is here, in our midst. And yet, whilst I believe that this is true, the patient’s response to the dentist’s final question, ‘And how am I meant to come to God?’ poses some other difficulties.
I do believe that God listens. I do believe that God cares. But as I have written in a previous post,
I don’t know why some people believe they’ve had a religious experience when they didn’t want one, whilst some people really want a religious experience and have yet to receive it. I don’t know why the universe is chaotic. I don’t know why such lovely people die of cancer. I don’t know why millions of people die of starvation and disease each year. I don’t know why, if a God exists, that God doesn’t just sort all this out this instant. These are difficult questions; questions that make the writing of some blog post seem absolutely meaningless. But even though I cannot give someone a life-changing religious experience, even though I cannot stop a tsunami, even though I cannot feed all who hunger and even though I cannot answer these questions in a neatly-packaged way, I know that this world and the people therein are beautiful and God has called me to give of myself for others in love, despite my lack of love and my lack of ability.
I know that this is not a resolution to the logical challenges facing Christians who maintain that God is omnipresent, omnipotent and omnibenevolent, but in light of the reality of suffering in our world, I believe that those who have faith should tread very lightly when arguing for God’s existence to those who—without us even being aware—have tried very hard to call out and listen for God. The video above seems to imply that God is just a phone call away, but it does not balance that belief out with the reality that billions of suffering people who have cried out for the aid of a higher power have not received the answer that we of faith so take for granted. For this reason, someone might see this video and be unnecessarily hurt. This is why this video rubs me the wrong way.
A life of belief in God is not always cushy. It’s never easy. The only concrete thing I believe with this regard is that, through Jesus, God empathises with human suffering and wants people who call themselves followers of Christ to help ease it. One way we can do that is to train up more dentists in order that they might ‘show the love of Christ by offering dental relief to those in need around the world.’