Book Review: Autism and the Church
by GRANT MACASKILL - Kirby Laing Chair of New Testament Exegesis and Director of the Centre for the Study of Autism and Christian Community at the University of Aberdeen, Scotland: Baylor University Press
In his new book, Autism and the Church, Bible scholar Grant Macaskill describes in meticulous detail how autistic people come to find themselves on the periphery of the community, even and especially in places designed to be welcoming, such as our churches. In part, autism itself makes large spaces and big gatherings overwhelming to the senses. A bigger problem, according to Professor Macaskill, is the continued reliance of our social institutions (including churches) on the economy of social capital. Like its financial counterpart, social capital is the net value of what an individual brings to any given group. Unlike money, social capital’s value is skewed by perception (what others think we can offer) instead of actual value (who we are as children of God).
Whether it is the need for different space with reduced sensory overload, the systematic manner of autistic thinking or the awkwardness with which autistics conduct conversations, Professor Macaskill acknowledges the unfortunate fact that autism does not fit cleanly into what we have come to expect from church experiences as a community. Yet each child, teen and adult with autism brings a multitude of gifts, ideas and needs to the table of worship which do, in fact, fit perfectly into the Gospel message of God’s love and design for what a Christian community is meant to be. Professor Macaskill does a splendid job of outlining and explaining this in practical terms backed by solid Scriptural references. He also includes caveats for how to avoid misuse of Scripture in approaching the question of welcoming those who present with a poverty – even bankruptcy – of social capital.
Grant Macaskill’s approach speaks to autistic Christians with clarity and perspective that we have yet to see overtly discussed in either autistic or Christian circles. The institutional response to autism has been typically geared toward the deficit. Keeping with his social capital framework, “acceptance” has happened when others have created special and exceptional programs and categories for autistics, highlighting our social poverty; or, by outright exclusion, presented as an incentive for us to increase those traits the group finds valuable until we finally qualify as insiders. Neither way acknowledges the reality that our autism physically and emotionally compromises our ability to play into group dynamics and then drains us of the energy we need to maintain our participation. As a result, autistics often remain on the periphery as a matter of survival, doubting our worth to the community.
For this reason, the wide-sweeping methodologies and cookie-cutter recommendations which have proliferated in educational settings and trickled into other areas such as sports, churches, clubs and service organizations have not helped autistics feel more included. Why? What we really need is relationship: to be known for who we are and the gifts which we have as individuals. In applying institutional norms to autistic people, we’re still being grouped and reduced to numbers… and not thriving. What we really need is relationship. Grant Macaskill does a masterful job of describing how autistics can thrive in the community through application of St. Paul’s theology of weakness and relationship. His conclusions are both challenging and encouraging to Christians and church leaders, in that he reaffirms what we already hold as our core belief: that each one of us is, first and foremost, a beloved child of God. Seeing one another for our God-given gifts, instead of appraising our value in terms of how well we fulfill institutional norms, will not only keep our focus on the truth of the Gospel message we proclaim, but is vital to celebrating autistic persons and families as important and essential members of the Body of Christ.
A Continuing Look at the Nicene Creed
with Fr. Mark P. Nolette
Special thanks to our spiritual director, Fr. Mark Nolette, for his ongoing work in his home diocese of Portland, Maine. As a regular contributor for HARVEST magazine, Fr. Mark continues his closer look at the Nicene Creed and has graciously allowed us to link to that here. Fr. Mark’s article appears on page 9.
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Our discussion on sin continues this week in step with the Baltimore Catechism, Lesson Six. As we study various examples of sin, we can equally call this a study of our human faculties and how we respond to the opportunities which come our way.
God desires a firm and freely chosen place in the heart and mind of each soul He creates. Our hearts and minds are distracted, however, by the knowledge of evil which we now inherit as part of the human condition. The degree to which we dwell upon these distractions is one indicator of how fully we trust and accept God in relationship to ourselves.
The Catechism explains that sin is a willful – that is, freely chosen – departure from God. This can be done by thought, by word or by deed. As we consider this in terms of relationship, we can call to mind similar dynamics in any of our existing relationships, be these friends or family, neighbors or coworkers. Imagine those elements which cause friction and erosion in our relationships. Thoughts by themselves are not harmful, nor necessarily sinful, until we nurture and entertain thoughts which breed unrest. Feelings are valid. Thoughts come and go. Many times, people act in irritating ways. We can think and feel a hundred different ways toward the same person throughout any given day, but these thoughts will not erode our relationship with this person unless they take a practiced, divisive turn. Likewise, if we are tempted by ideas that would lead to harm or use the other person as an object for our own thrill, we can choose to dismiss these thoughts or retain them. If we retain them, we can well imagine how the other person would feel if these ideas were suddenly made transparent. Thoughts which erode relationships and cultivate resentment tend to be sinful. And, since thoughts lay the foundation for attitudes and behavior, then words and deeds logically follow suit. Any thought, word or action which knowingly erodes and divides reflects a departure from God’s intended design for humanity.
The question of “Yes, but is it sinful?” boils down to three factors, as the Catechism goes on to explain: seriousness of the matter at hand, degree of prior reflection, and our consent to the departure from God. These are truths which can only fully be acknowledged deep within ourselves, and even then it can be difficult to reach absolute certainty. The Catholic Church is very clear: sin exists, and all sin destroys our ability to trust and experience God. A departure which meets all criteria – a serious matter which we have pondered and consent to carrying out – is considered a mortal sin, in that it is a full break from God that requires our repentance and renunciation to repair if we truly do not want to forfeit our relationship with God completely. “Mortal,” in this sense, literally refers to the life of our soul. Not every sin is this dire. The majority of departures from God are venial, which comes from roots meaning “pardonable,” and refers to sin that stems more from weakness in the face of temptation than from calculated disavowal of God. This is not to diminish the erosive power of venial sin. Anyone can attest that a relationship can be just as easily destroyed by small erosion over time as by a single catastrophic break.
Readers will likely note that our study has not included any specific list of dos or don’ts. God’s law is not a list of rules, so it would not be practical to list what is sinful and what is not. God does not dole out permission or watch over humanity with a running count of our infractions. God exists, and God loves. We either trust His love or we skirt around it, sometimes outright deny it. There are as many ways to depart from God as there are individuals who depart from Him. Sin is about our soul’s relationship with God, bottom line.
The good news is that God’s relationship with us is constant and alive. If we depart from Him, He waits for our return without abandoning or condemning us. And, He has given us a clear and definitive way back for each and every instance of departure. No soul is ever without the opportunity to be restored to the relationship God intended with us from the beginning.
Next week, we continue looking at what we proclaim when we say the Nicene Creed. Our next Catechism post in two weeks will look at the most common temptations toward departure – that is, toward sin.
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Original Sin – Actual Sin – Mortal Sin – Venial Sin
Many people have heard by rote the types of sin “taught” by the Catholic Church. This line of thinking characterizes the Church as a group of elders who gather to define what constitutes naughty behavior, and who further go on to assign spiritual penalties to such transgressions. Such ideas go all the way back to the Middle Ages and beyond, and are about as accurate as thinking the public education system invented the alphabet for the purposes of issuing report cards.
No church or religion invented sin. And, no church or religion “teaches” sin. The Catholic Church ascribes to the idea that there are metaphysical laws which define the universe in which we live, meaning that God created all things and all creatures with its own purpose and design. Humans, as you may recall from previous posts, were created and designed to know God, to love God, to receive God’s love and to live harmoniously with the way in which God imagined all people to express and fulfill their talents. Just as we plan and design our crafts with particular form and function, so too does God create people with intentional design. The intended form and function of something can be said to be the laws under which that “something” operates. An automobile has form and function which can vary from car to car but must have certain basic principles met before it is a “good” automobile. In other words, if a piece of machinery follows the “laws” which makes something an “automobile,” it functions well. If not, it falters, or fails, or functions as something that does not qualify as an automobile.
The same phrasing can describe humanity. The “laws” which make something “human” are how well we know God, love God, receive God’s love and respond to God’s intended design.
Sin is the consequence of not following the law… that is, not following God’s intended design.
Thus: Nobody can “invent” sin. Sin is a state of misalignment.
With that in mind, let us see now the two ways that misalignment occurs:
The phrase “original sin” is meant to signify that we begin our earthly lives in misalignment, since God’s intended design for humanity was not to know evil. Yet, once our ancestors chose to do so, it could not be un-seen. Our lenses no longer pointed solely at God. Think of it as someone altering the process before it even begins, such that everything coming out has this design flaw, and our minds now have a sharp focus on, and skew toward, things that divide and destroy relationships (since that is, in essence, what evil is – the destruction of our relationship with God).
“Original sin” does NOT mean that God created damaged goods, or that people are set up to fail from birth. In fact, God provided a correction – a “patch,” if you will – for original sin, and that is baptism. (We will discuss baptism in greater detail in future posts.)
Humans have free will, free choice, and are never coerced or manipulated by God or His Church into doing anything. If one finds an example of coercion, it is not authentically of God. Period.
“Actual Sin,” then, is the term used to describe those times when we choose something that is not part of God’s intended design. As one can imagine, there are degrees of sin which range from accidental to carefully calculated. The bottom line is, all sin is a deviation from God’s intended design (or, in metaphysical terms, a violation of natural law).
With such a range of degree of sin, can we expect that sin’s consequences are equally variable?
Earthly, material consequences are variable. Spiritual consequences are not. The consequence of every sin is a break in our relationship with God. Sin disrupts our act of loving God and our ability to receive God’s love. Each and every time.
Next week, we will explore different types of actual sin, and consider both material and spiritual consequences – along with the remedies available to us, as beloved children of God.
The Annotated Catechism for Autistic Thinking
Adam and Eve.
There cannot be many who have not heard some version of the Creation Story. Adam and Eve are humanity’s notorious duo, the first of our kind and the first to bungle things up. So numerous are the commentaries on these two that it borders on cliche to find their names in the Catholic Catechism. Yet, there they are, occupying the entire Lesson Five of the Baltimore Catechism, and likewise, our discussion for this week.
The Church believes Adam and Eve truly existed. They were created as man and woman were intended to exist, innocent of any corruption, fully expressing the rich gifts of their endowments of body, mind and soul by God, who loved the idea of them into flesh and bone and breath. Whether or not there was a botanical tree with literal fruit, or a spiritual construct embodied by metaphorical assignment, it is certain that God warned Adam and Eve of “partaking of the knowledge of good and evil.” God wished to preserve the innocence of the first man and woman by keeping their intellect focused on that which is good, beautiful and true. Could God have created anything that was evil, ugly or false? No... but He did create angels with free will, some of whom rebelled and set out to destroy and undermine God’s work. God likewise gave free will to Adam and Eve. While allowing them this freedom, he still intended them to live in purity and perfect balance. There would be no useful reason to follow any of the doings of the renegade angels.
As we know from the story, Eve was tempted by Satan to partake of that knowledge of good and evil, despite God’s warning. Satan asserted that God’s motive was to keep the man and woman from becoming a threat to God’s omnipotence. “You will not die if you eat the fruit,” Satan said. “Rather, you will become like God.” It was a clever exploitation of human nature: arouse curiosity, plant doubt and watch the rumor spread. Once Eve ate the fruit, Adam became curious and, using the disobedience of the other person as his rationale, followed suit. Part impulse, part calculated risk, part willingness to listen to a voice sowing seeds of distrust... our ancestors’ eyes were opened. Innocence was spoiled. Now, instead of seeing the good and the beautiful and the true, they saw it in terms of every way it could be perverted, distorted, exploited and ruined.
Horrified, Adam and Eve no longer felt safe. If goodness and beauty and truth could be corrupted, what guarantee did anyone have of anything? What once was seen in abundance suddenly became scarce. The present was no longer enough. Security became risk. In the presence of evil, God no longer seemed sufficient. In short: FEAR was introduced into humanity.
Our previous posts have emphasized a consistent theme: 1 John 4:18. Perfect love casts out all fear. And, in Adam and Eve, we see the inverse at work: fear deprives us of perfect love.
In the story, Adam and Eve cower in fear as they comprehend what they have done, and they can’t un-see the evil they now know. They understand why God instructed them to leave that fruit alone. What will God think? How could he love them now? Fear and doubt paralyze their once clear intellect. To make things worse, Adam and Eve now realize their very bodies can be used in perverse and corrupt ways, compared to the innocence and majesty of purpose they knew before seeing the ugliness of gluttony, lust and gratification. They covered themselves in shame.
Of course God knew what happened. With great sorrow, God watched His beloved man and woman fall away. Their responses betrayed them. Even God’s all-encompassing love fell into doubt in their minds. Fear gripped Adam and Eve... and they could not bear the perfect love of God. Perfect love casts out all fear... and so, Adam and Eve, enslaved by fear, were cast out on their own.
God did not abandon Adam and Eve. He continued loving them and all of their descendants no less than perfectly. With the institution of fear, however, humanity remains separated from God by the degree to which that fear holds sway over our minds.
Is there any hope for redeeming humanity’s relationship with God? Yes. In fact, God began laying the foundation for that redemption almost immediately. Through promises and covenants with the ones who trusted Him in spite of this primal fall, God led the way for the eventual birth of Jesus, the act through which God would become human himself and go before us in a story that would reverse every misstep of Adam and Eve, eventually taking on every conceivable fear and facing it himself in an incomprehensible demonstration of solidarity and desire to restore faith in Divine Love.
Remember, our task here is to annotate the Baltimore Catechism in ways that speak to the contemporary autistic mind. The Baltimore Catechism does a thorough job of explaining the “what” of the fall of humanity from grace. We aim, with the help of St. Thorlak’s theology of merciful love, to explain “why” - because, without a sense of why, the Catechism reads increasingly like a book of arbitrary rules... which speaks little to autistics and non-autistics alike.
Reference: Lesson Five, Questions 39-49.
Please continue praying with us, that the cause of St. Thorlak may be discerned as worthy of conferring on him the title PATRON SAINT OF AUTISTIC PEOPLE!
May the power of Divine Love shine in and through my weakness, so that He might be glorified in and through me, and that in my weakness, His power may reach perfection. Through Christ Our Lord, AMEN.
Fr. Mark P. Nolette - Spiritual Director for the Mission of Saint Thorlak