I read a wonderfully interesting paper called “Religious Belief Systems of Persons with High Functioning Autism.” I believe the authors of this paper have scratched at the surface of a new field, as they state in their abstract, and I am open to more work in this field of cognitive science of religion. People have often jumped to one negative conclusion that would fit in that field, with the statement “religion is the opium of the masses.” This statement has me welcome the study of psychology of religion, for I am confident the researchers will not discover opium. This is because I work in church and live as one who confesses faith.
The paper specifically interested me because my three-year-old son has been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder, and we hope it will be high functioning. “We” are his parents, and are two ordained ministers, thus we are invested in the faith. I encourage everyone to read the paper and understand, especially those that are active in a faith and love a person with special needs, that these authors are not attacking nor are they praising people with high functioning autism (HFA). This is simply a paper based on two studies by researchers truly interested in this growing field. Within these writings there are certainly important information for psychologists and neurologists, but I want to explore and reflect on what this may say to theologians and the church.
Church is sadly not always different from the secular world. Church is somewhere people feel different just as they would feel different in the secular world. That is to say, our hospitality at church is not as developed as we would hope. If a child and family do not feel welcome at church, or if it is a struggle to worship and learn with special needs, it will affect the relationship with the Divine. I would be interested in the second study that asks about history and if it was asked about how church was experienced. Was Sunday School welcoming? Were people tolerated when they were a toddler with HFA, or did they start later? How were their questions handled by pastor, teachers, and family? These are examples of important questions about how church was, and therefore, how God was experienced, introduced, and sustained for these children of God with HFA. Therefore, these are the questions the body of Christ, the church, need to ask constantly, and not wait for a study.
Upon reflection, perhaps apologetics has a greater place in theological discussion. I enjoy C. S. Lewis, and not just because he goes by his initials. However, I am someone who does not worry about faith being logical and reasonable. I find many contemporary apologetics forget the great mystery and thus I do not share their conclusions when sharing my faith. They seem to want to describe the lighthouse, where I am comfortable seeing the guiding light. Perhaps as a pastor I need to be encouraging to those who explain God’s existence without the word “mystery,” as well as what works for me. We must be aware of the many paths to confession of faith.
The most important message to theologians and the church is that people who do have HFA have thinking styles that are different. Part of the difference may incline more people with HFA to embrace no confession of faith. This is an important insight for us who do want to share the peace that surpasses all understanding we know as Love, that we call “God.” The night before I started writing this I was at an event for Christian Piatt’s new books, “Banned Questions about the Bible” and “Banned Questions about Jesus.” I bought both books and had them signed; I had one signed to my wife, and was going to have the second made out to me. I then realized that I bet my three-year-old who (not unlike me) will want to ask the questions contained in these books, for many are very blunt and reasonable questions. I know that some of the essays will answer with the word “mystery.” This realization made me ask that the other book to be signed to A.J. So even though I read the paper on the two studies, I already worked on an assumption that the paper concludes, that people with HFA are going to look at religion differently and with preference to reason and logic.
I am reminded that Paul had an issue with a certain group of preachers who taught there was only one way to believe in Jesus, the way they had experienced Jesus. For Paul, Jesus was the fulfillment of the History of Israel; and Paul knows who Jesus is because of his understanding of the Jewish faith, and thus he writes:
“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14)
Emphasizing the relationship with Jesus is essential; it is not essential how he got there and so we should not force others into the same mold.
So the real lesson of this study is that people are going to come to faith differently, and we should be aware of the various paths. We have been aware that there are people who are much more comfortable with theology than others. I just hope the church continues to be a welcoming place for all, from logic to mystery, and everything in between.