Resourcing Christian Communities

The Centre for Autism and Theology (formerly the Centre for the Study of Autism and Christian Community) aims to be an international hub for autism and theology research, with an interdisciplinary component and in connection with the third sector and more widely, any interested individuals or parties.

To this end, the Centre hosts interdisciplinary research into autism in Christian faith communities. The Centre aims to encourage research of the highest standards and to engage in dialogue with various faith communities. The Centre aspires to actively work together with autistic people and faith communities.

The Centre envisions a theological and interdisciplinary discourse around autism that has the potential to contribute to the wider discourse around autism, linked to the religious experience of autism, emphasising the God-given value of those on the autism spectrum. 

Description

Autism is now recognized to be common, and most Christian communities or families will include autistic people. It is easy to assume that autism can be considered in isolation from our faith commitments, and that those who have a diagnosis of autism can process it without reference to faith. Communities and persons of faith, however, always process and understand their experiences in ways that are shaped by that faith, which is itself formed by their traditions and sacred texts. Where those texts and traditions shape their lives in healthy ways, their response to the opportunities and challenges constituted by conditions such as autism will be enriched, and may facilitate a kind of care from which our society more widely may learn and may derive blessing. Where the texts and traditions are used in less healthy ways, however, the effects can be destructive and distressing. The nature and reality of autism will always be interpreted and understood through the prism of shared and embodied faith, and this must be recognized.

The Centre intends to host research that will help to foster positive Christian understandings of autism, drawing on Scripture and theological traditions, and sometimes challenging the misuse of these. In the first instance, this is intended to help churches to respond well to the lived reality of autism. Beyond this, however, the Centre intends to facilitate the sharing of research into the experience of autistic Christians with other communities of faith, associated with other religions and traditions, and with the medical world itself, as its own engagement with persons of faith develops. Thus the Centre has a triple focus: 1) it engages in rigorous theological research, informed and often led by autistic researchers; 2) it seeks to serve and work with autistic people and Christian communities; and 3) it interacts with other faith communities and academic disciplines.

The Centre for Autism and Theology is embedded in the School of Divinity, History, Philosophy and Art History and is closely linked to three other works in the University of Aberdeen: The Centre for Spirituality, Health and DisabilityThe Centre for Ministry Studies, and the Friendship House Initiative.

The Centre's characteristic features

The Centre has three core characteristics that, we believe, enable it to make a leading contribution to the contemporary study of autism, including other theological research.

First, we recognize that Christian faith is always shaped and informed by the biblical writings that are regarded as Scripture by the church, even if this relationship is conceived in different ways by different traditions. This means that theological and pastoral reflection on autism must always engage with the Bible, as it functions in the life of Christian community. Because autism is not named, as such, within the Bible, all such engagement requires careful reflection on how to read the Scriptural material properly and a willingness to challenge the misuse of Scripture, which can be destructive and alienating. These considerations also apply to the acknowledgement that the Christian faith is shaped and form by the Christian tradition(s). We recognise the need to ground our work firmly and critically in the traditions, whilst applying the same careful reflection on the proper reading of traditions and the potential misuse of them as we do when engaging Scripture.

Second, we affirm that autistic people in the church are to be considered a gift and blessing to Christian communities, contributing to the diversity of the “body of Christ.” Much theological discussion of autism treats those with the condition simply as a point of comparison with “normality,” using their perceived “deficiencies” as a means to cast light on what properly functioning humanity should look like. We consider such approaches to be theologically problematic, and to entail a lack of proper affirmation of the value of autistic people. Working with autistic people and ensuring their leadership/representation in the development of research is therefore a priority for us.

Third, we are keen to support communities to overcome barriers of misunderstanding and unawareness of the needs and gifts of each member. It is not uncommon for autistic people to feel that they are not seen and heard, and to feel they need to adjust to social expectations in order to belong fully to the community. On the other hand, non-autistic people may feel they do not know how or feel unable to accommodate the gifts and needs of autistic members. We realise that churches and other communities need reconciliation, so they will reflect the multifaceted beauty that Christ intended the community to be, with all its strengths and weaknesses. The Centre is keen to collaborate with other individuals and organisations that may share this goal, while recognizing the sensitivity around the values that some may currently or historically represent.

Personnel

Co-Directors
Professor Grant Macaskill, Kirby Laing Chair of New Testament Exegesis, University of Aberdeen

Dr Léon van Ommen, Lecturer in Practical Theology, University of Aberdeen

We are keen to build links with non-academic organisations and partners who may be interested in co-hosting events, both in Scotland and around the world. Please feel free to contact Professor Macaskill or Dr van Ommen if you have ideas for such events.

Associated Staff
Professor John Swinton, Chair of Practical Theology, University of Aberdeen
Professor Brian Brock, Reader in Theological Ethics, University of Aberdeen
Professor Pete Stollery, Professor of Electroacoustic Music and Composition, University of Aberdeen

Illustrator
We are grateful to Holly Russell for designing the images on these webpages. You can find more of her work here.

About our logo

The logo of the Centre for Autism and Theology is based on two features of King’s College at the University of Aberdeen. Firstly, the shape of the logo and the light colours around the central feature, the lamp, are reminiscent of the rose window that can be found in the Divinity Library. This library is where most Divinity and Religious Studies research seminars take place. The Centre is part of the vibrant research culture of the Divinity and Religious Studies Department. Rose windows are also often found in church buildings, which is a subtle hint to the Centre’s focus on Christian communities. Moreover, rose windows are typically made up of many different parts, often colourful. The richness in display of colour, shapes, and images within many rose windows reflects the ambition of the Centre to display that richness in the work we do and the people who are and will be involved. Furthermore, the colours reflect the rich variety in which autism is expressed and the beauty of all people.

The second feature is the lamp itself, reminiscent of the quire lamps in the King’s College Chapel, next to the Divinity Library. This is where daily morning prayer takes place. In reference to ‘Christian’ in the Centre’s title, the designer wanted to represent the light that the lamp spreads, as the light of Christ. The light is refracted through the rose window, which again points to the manifold shapes and colours of autism.

The logo was designed by Holly Russell. You can find more of her art and design work here.