Living with and ministering among people with dementia is shifting my priorities and way of viewing the Christian faith. I am being confronted with my own idolatry. I think I may have made an idol of cognition, thinking straight, and being intellectually competent.
Knowledge has always been a priority for me! Education became important very early. I’m not sure why. My parents only went through the sixth and eighth grades. The only book we had in our home was the Bible. But somehow “knowing” became important to me. I suspect it was partly compensation for feelings of inferiority born of economic poverty.
I never considered myself to be smart and those intimidating standardized tests varied that I’m not “intellectually gifted.” But I worked hard, made good grades, and got lots of affirmation from teachers and others. Being intellectually proficient has been and continues to be highly valued. I genuinely want to love God with my mind.
I’ve spent a lifetime clarifying my beliefs and helping others make intellectual sense of Christian doctrines. I’ve written books and articles on the importance of right beliefs. I have taught and preached those doctrines as a pastor and seminary professor. Beliefs and intellect do matter!
But the margins of my thinking are shifting! When Linda was diagnosed with Frontotemperal Dementia (FTD) in 2009, I was deeply immersed in the hyper-intellectual environment of Duke Divinity School. I spent my days teaching and writing. I graded students on their intellectual comprehension and integration and their oral and written communication skills. I was in intellectual heaven!
What a contrast to my current context! Now I am immersed in a different world. While continuing to teach part time in seminary and the church, my daily life is among people whose intellectual comprehension and communication abilities are being stripped away by disease. Abstract thinking has ceased. Reading is nonexistent. Memories have vanished and only the present is real. Most words have been deleted from their lexicon and verbal expressions are garbled and disconnected at best.
Many of those with whom I relate no longer know their families and some have forgotten their own names. Several don’t recognize themselves in the mirror. None of my congregation at Bethany can claim to know or explain such orthodox theological affirmations as the Trinity, Incarnation, Justification, Salvation, Atonement, authority of Scripture, etc. Many have forgotten who God is!
Yet, I have never been among people who seem closer to God and more faithful in their discipleship than those who live at Bethany, the memory care facility where my beloved Linda now resides. I remind them regularly that they are in the home of Mary and Martha where Jesus felt most at home. I suspect Jesus feels more at home at this Bethany than in many churches.
Dementia shifts the margins of orthodoxy from the intellect to the heart, from knowing to being. Neuro-cognitive impairment provides a different lens through which to view such core doctrines as Creation, Incarnation, Imago Dei, Salvation, Discipleship, Vocation, etc.
What does it mean to know God? What does it mean to “accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior” when the person doesn’t know who Jesus is? Can people who are unable to comprehend and/or recite the orthodox creeds be disciples, full members of the church? Do people with dementia have a calling, a vocation?
Where do people with dementia fit into the mission statement of The United Methodist Church: “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”? What is “right” and “wrong” behavior when the ability to make decisions has been lost? What would the local church look like if people with dementia really belonged?
These are among the questions I am raising as my understanding is shifting outside the margins of the abstract thinking. The people at Bethany know God, Jesus, and Church in ways that transcend cognition.
We have made cognition an idol if we assume that salvation is the product of our thinking. Some theologians have identified reason as “the image of God”, buying into Rene Descartes’ dictum “I think therefore I am.” That’s idolatry! That’s just plain wrong! The notion contributes to the dehumanizing and marginalizing of people with cognitive diseases.
At Bethany, the issues that occupy the contemporary church have little, if any, relevance. Arguments over who is orthodox and who isn’t, the definition of marriage, and which religion is right aren’t on their experiential radar. Those are abstractions, outside the margins of their existence!
What’s real are Love, Belonging, Dignity, Safety, Peace, Connection, and Presence that transcend the margins of intellect and language. The cognitively impaired know God, though they may no longer know about God!
The cognitively impaired are now my primary teachers! They are teaching me things I’ve not learned in books or from the intellectually astute. If we will enter their world, they just might save the church from its idolatrous notion that we are saved by our intellectually constructed doctrines and abstractions! We really are saved by GRACE!