Yesterday the Archbishop of Canterbury announced that John Swinton’s book Dementia: Living in the Memories of God had been awarded the Michael Ramsey Prize for theological writing. Chosen from a shortlist of 6 books, themselves selected from a total of over 100 nominated volumes, the award is a real tribute to the way in which John has ploughed a furrow of engaged and earthed practical theology in such a way as to gain academic credibility while remaining true to life.
I read the book recently and found it to be an admirable, thorough, courageous and unflinching addressing of questions that are at the heart of the many social, ethical and personal dilemmas that face us when we are confronted by the reality of memory loss, and the decline of many cognitive and intellectual faculties, as a result of incremental brain demise. Alzheimer’s Disease is perhaps the most famous and most feared cause of dementia, but there are several others and, as is well known due to the success of the film Still Alice, it is not something that only afflicts the elderly.
Reading John’s book has helped me to think more deeply about the implications of dementia, and encouraged me never to settle for the thought that life is meaningless without normal cognitive activity. At one level it is a long, slow roar of protest against the lazy (and ironically unthinking) acceptance of the Cartesian quip: ‘I think therefore I am’.
At another, it is a very carefully and calmly constructed theological argument about what is really valuable and important about human beings. ‘I am loved therefore I am’ is closer to the heart of Swinton’s vision. And this includes being loved by God or, as he poignantly puts it, being remembered by God.
On Our Minds
One reason why Swinton’s Dementia won the prize was because of the subject matter. Dementia, excuse the pun, is on our minds big time, whether it is because what we see what is happening to others, or because of what we fear will happen to us, or because of what we, consider this, know is happening to us. But Dementia wouldn’t have won if it wasn’t good theology. And it was good theology for a number of reasons.
First, and I made this point to John when we were talking just after the announcement, one of the great things he does in the early chapters is clarify that as a theologian he is not going to allow the medical or scientific model to frame the discussion and then bring theology in to mop up the awkward bits. (What I actually said was, ‘you do the Radical Orthodoxy thing without the jargon’.) No, this is a theological approach from the outset and as a result we have a confident as well as a searching book.
Second, the book draws on, and is true to, both personal experience and relevant and related intellectual constructions from a range of disciplines. It is not just a matter of theology engaging with theology, which is the last thing theology should be.
And third because although it begins with a particular reality, dementia, the conclusions are not limited to dementia sufferers but have much more widely ranging implications. Not least arguing that our identity is properly understood, as I read Swinton, not as a matter of the way we present ourselves, nor a matter of what we remember about ourselves, but in terms of how others think of us and relate or us, and how God remembers us.
Such theology might unsettle our ego, but surely that too is a theological task.
Swinton’s work has radical and transformative potential for us all, and for that reason I not only congratulate John for winning the prize, but also for the quality and power of his theological work.