Theology of disability often overlooked

Professor John Swinton

The theology of disability is a way of looking at God and human beings from a perspective that is overlooked, says visiting theologian, Professor John Swinton.

According to Professor Swinton, a Church of Scotland minister, it is a perspective that must take into account a new way of thinking about time, hospitality and belonging.

Prof 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. He has a background in mental health nursing and healthcare chaplaincy and has researched and written extensively in the areas of practical theology, mental health, spirituality and human well-being, and the theology of disability.

Speaking to a capacity crowd at a free public lecture at the Broken Bay Institute in Pennant Hills, 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 that is 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 mis-name things,' he said.'And when we mis-name things, we end up with stigma, alienation and false names.'

He said an example in the context of mental health is where people take a medical or psychiatric diagnosis and label people according to that diagnosis, so that somebody diagnosed with schizophrenia becomes known as 'a schizophrenic'.

'The problem is that once you have a diagnosis, that becomes your name. And as soon as you're schizophrenic, you're on a really strange social tangent, not because of your illness, but because of the way that people see and understand that particular name. So if we begin our journey as lay people with diagnosis, and all of the social stigma that surrounds that, then we're beginning in the wrong place.'

Prof Swinton 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?'

- Debra Vermeer

Read more:

The Theology of Disability - a new way of listening, seeing and belonging (Sydney Catholic)

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