Cognition can be an Idol

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!



10 thoughts on “Cognition can be an Idol

  1. What you are struggling with, I echo. It is the reason I did not stay in academia – I didnt think it would have been healthy for my soul. Speaking for myself, I could tell that my faith would have remained cerebral. I needed the challenge of parish ministry.

    What do we, as pastors, do with this? More accurately, what do I, as a preacher, one who teaches, studies, who writes newsletters, who organizes… how do we respond to this? How do we think about our inability to think our way out of this idolatry?


    • You ask the basic questions, Andrew, and I continue to grapple with the implications for pastors. I’m not sure we can think our way of the idolatry apart from entering into deep relationships with people who live from the heart more than the head, including people with dementia. Thinking is important and I do not mean to belittle theological reflection. But one of the blind spots of education is that it tends to blind us to the wisdom of those without education. I may not be answering your questions but i will be continuing to reflect on the issues you raise in subsequent blogs.


      • I fear that you are right. I say fear, for I am afraid for what it means that I cannot think, analyze, and articulate my way through this. It is the very essence of incarnational ministry.

        I look forward to pondering this with you.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ken, thanks for these powerful words! My mother lived with dementia (and with my sister) for the last 15 years of her life. Unfortunately for me, I was living in Chattanooga during most of those years but was able to be back in Knoxville for her last 10 months, when she had no idea who I was. There is only one thing you said that I MIGHT question. Discarding Descartes’ “I think therefore I am” may suggest the possibility that your new friends don’t think. Maybe they think but not the way they have usually thought and with the same thought skills we may have. Just a “thought” and only tangential to your larger message. I was glad to see you recently at Junaluska and to have the opportunity to hug you! Thanks for your continued leadership.


    • Thanks, Jim, for your caution. I don’t mean to imply that people with dementia don’t think. However, some in the final stages of the disease live in a “vegetative” state with no evidence of what we normally measure as “thinking”! Still, they remain persons with identity, worth, and dignity. I will be writing more about that in subsequent blogs. It is always good to see you and to be in touch! Thanks for your continuing friendship!


  3. Thanks, Ken, for your reply. And I absolutely agree. My mother was all about clean. The last thing she said to me was “You sure look clean in that white shirt.” The last thing she ate was a Krispy Kreme doughnut. Pretty good thinking on her part, huh? May you be comforted and strengthened inasmuch as you have done it for others.


  4. Beautifully written – thank you for your thoughts.

    Here is a parallel metaphor. Let us imagine that on a scale of 1 – 100 that God is at 100 (I know God is infinite but please bear with me for a moment). On this scale, a human genius (Albert Einstein, William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy) would register at 1. The gap between us and God is enormous.

    Thus follows that the gap between the world’s brightest and those with mental disabilities is only a tiny fraction of the gap between God and us. It is all in perspective and context. While I might feel intellectually superior to others at times (my pride), when I contemplate the gap between myself and God I am humbled and, through grace, repent and strive to be among all persons – those of greater and lesser intellectual capacity than mine. I too have learned far more being among the marginalized than the mainstream powers and principalities of our day.

    Liked by 1 person

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