I’m being more autobiographical than I usually am when writing a piece like this. My interest in Aspergers and Autism developed in seminary when a young boy in the congregation, I was an intern with, was facing the challenges of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). In learning about ASD it became evident that I shared a number of similar characteristics. While I have never been officially diagnosed, I recognize myself in those accounts of those who have been.
To highlight a few characteristics: “Those with Asperger’s syndrome have problems with the pragmatic use of language, which is the social aspect. They see language as a way to share facts and information (especially about special interests), not as a way to share thoughts, feelings, and emotions. They may have a narrow range of interests which predominate their life. Many individuals have difficulty with gross and fine motor skills. The difficulty is not just the task itself, but the motor planning involved in completing the task. Mind-blindness, or the inability to make inferences about what another person is thinking, is central. Because of this, they have difficulty empathizing with others, and will often assume that everyone is thinking the same thing he is.”
While there are other characteristics, awkwardness in social relationships and heightened sensory sensitivities, I wanted to highlight the above characteristics because they relate to what an issue a number of researchers have run into. That is the predominance of atheism and agnosticism among those with ASD. And for those who are theists, the unique ways in which God is conceived. For most believers a number of studies have suggested, God is a personal agent with intentions and feelings and your interaction with God is best understood as an interaction with another mind, whereby you imagine their intentions towards you. And these interactions, whether in prayer or worship, excite the same areas of the brain as if I was to have a personal conversation with my neighbor or a good friend on the phone.
One can see how a weakened theory of mind will already weaken one’s personal sense of God as a personal agent. But it isn’t just God. For many believers, events, even ordinary ones, are occasions for purpose and intention. Why did you win the lottery, get into the car accident, or even why did someone call you at the exact same moment you were attempting to call them? There was a broader intention afoot, which led to this. Thus good events are not just bare events, they generate a sense of something bigger. And bad events raise existential questions. How could a good God allow x to happen? In either case, those without ASD are primed to look for intentions while those with ASD are not likely to think in this manner. It was interesting that while religious believers saw events having a purpose,a teleology, atheists had to reach for anti-teleogical reasoning to argue why there was no larger purpose to an event. For those on the spectrum, it never occurred to them to think there was anything behind an event happening in the first place. You can imagine how seeing God’s activity in the world would be impacted by how you think about events.
Now I want to backtrack to my own experience of religion. I grew up in the Presbyterian Church USA. It was a heady church, that is, we sang from written texts, read responsive readings, including our prayers, most features of church life responded to our cognitive skills. The one area that was lacking was lots of emotion and feeling, which fit well with my own personality. It wasn’t until I was in college, when my faith was continually questioned by evangelicals, that I had to think why it was that I was a Christian in the first place. They certainly questioned my left leaning politics and the fact that I believed God was at work in other religions. But I also think there was a question about my lack of “feeling”. I would attend pentecostal gatherings with friends as well as the local Campus Crusade meetings and you would see students, practically in tears, sweating, crying out to God and Jesus. That always baffled me and I suspect made me suspect in their eyes.
On top of that, the way people talked about God, as their personal friend who they would share any number of conversations with and in which God would always respond back verbally had no connection point in my experience. If I said I was a Christian because I was baptized, confirmed, spent my life in the church it would be met with derision. Actions were of no consequence, having a personal emotional experience of God was. At the time I thought my response was inadequate, but looking back, it was a perfectly fine response. That is, I’m more convinced that actions and what we do in community says who we are in our religious life.
And it was that sense of community that has always been part of who I am. Much of the literature on Aspergers speaks of folks who, being socially awkward withdraw from others. That is a characteristic I don’t share. I thrived and continue to thrive in my social relationships with others, especially since highschool. It may be that I’m not aspie or it could be that as an aspie I’m extremely extroverted, or not aware when I socially mess up and will charge ahead into another social situation, regardless. In any case, some of the most potent and meaningful experiences I had involved the church. Youth group, vacation bible school, church camps, Easter pancake dinners, my baptism at the age of 11. When my adoptive father died (he was a single parent) the first person I called was my pastor, who I finished my sophomore year in high school with.
I don’t want to speak ill, though, of those evangelical friends in my life while in college. They started me on a bit of a journey. I started to read theology, as much as I could get my hands on. I started to try to piece together a vision of God and religious faith that was not just inherited but made sense to me. In that I had a number of campus ministers that encouraged my questions, my journey, even my doubts. That was key for remaining in the church and finding myself in campus ministry at this time.
I ran into two schools of thought. One was Catholic philosophy the other was Transcendentalism. Both envisioned God as the moral orderer of the universe, the principle of being, the first cause. While I admired the confidence of those who held such views, I couldn’t see what one could do with such a God. And I wondered if it was possible to really construct an idea of God simply based on strength of an argument. In other words, like Anselm’s proof for God, they appeared to rest on verbal coherence, not experience. And they didn’t describe a God that I was in a position to relate to, as much as simply give my assent to the proposition of its otherworldly existence.
There’s lots of turning points but I’ll just focus on a one or two. I came across the writings of Mordechai Kaplan, who was the founder of Reconstruction Judaism. And soon after that I came across what was known as the empirical school of theology. It starts with the premise that we can know and experience God by looking at what it is that God does in the world. For instance, if we say God is the source of salvation, then we would ask, what works in experience to produce salvation and transformation? That would be divine! Or if we say God is the creator, then we could ask what grounds creativity, what are the processes involved that leads to the creation of the new? There you will find God. Or if God is the source of individuality and community both, then finding what leads to creating free individuals who are able to share their gifts in community will be of central religious importance.
In that, I was experiencing God all along. Not as a being but rather as a name which encompasses all sorts of saving activities in the world. Not as an otherworldly cosmic person, but in the concrete stuff of life that is experienced, in my life in the church, family, friends, my loves and passions, the larger environing world. This is not because I became teleological in my thinking, suspending contingency. Rather I could see God as the interplay of events out of a contingent situation where the good could happen as a result. A divine factor in the mixture of life, neither omnipotent nor the sole factor but nonetheless a quite real result when something good, true, and beautiful happens. Not a thing but a relation between what is and what can be, not a noun but a verb, not a determiner but rather that which lures us to cooperate in the creation of the better.
I suppose it could be said that I’ve developed a non personal concept of God that is not in sync with the norm, which itself could fit an asperger profile. Though I think it’s important to raise a distinction between persons and the personal. Persons are distinct individuals, organisms with brains, bodies, etc. But to be personal is share in some of the characteristics of personality. For instance, consistency of action, a character that one can depend on over time, that which is affected by its interactions, etc. For me God is not a person but God is very much personal.
It may not be a God who is a pal to have chats with, but it is a God in which I engage in prayer. Such prayer has a way of naming and reminding who I am and who God is and what follows from that as a result. Sacraments have the same power for me, visible signs of what God is up to when we share a meal together, when we make promises to one another, when we seek reconciliation. Much of the church calendar does this as well for me, it marks time and its meaning. And life in the church has a way of connecting me to both the past and the future in a visible way. You can see a kind of intentionality, in hearing the stories of those who built the building, refurbished the Sunday school rooms, as much as in anticipation of what future generations will do.
So yes I seem to buck the trend in embracing the idea of God, at for those on the spectrum. And despite not recognizing faces and still missing social cues I find myself in the position of being a pastor and seeking to open up a tradition to those who have seen it closed to them, because somehow they have been told that they don’t fit in. Could be a calling of sorts.