What does it mean to be normal?
On Friday, Professor John Swinton will deliver the 2020 May Mcleod lecture, on the subject of “What does it mean to be normal?”
Professor Swinton is a Scottish theologian and a global leader in the area of disability theology. He is Professor of Practical Theology at the University of Aberdeen and founder of the university’s Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability.
Professor Swinton told Insights that his history in nursing had helped inform his focus on disability theology.
“I nursed for 16 years with people who live with mental health challenges and people with intellectual disabilities,” Professor Swinton said.
“When I moved into the academy in 1989 I was given the opportunity to reflect theologically on my previous practical experience. That is the place of my formation and I really still work around similar issues. The central question in all of my work is, ‘What does it mean to be human?’”
“In the lecture, I intend to look at the issue of what we consider to be normal or abnormal and why we think the ways that we do. My focus will be on the lives of people with profound intellectual disabilities and other forms of brain damage and the challenges that their lives bring to cultural ideas about normality.”
According to Professor Swinton, “In a hypercognitive society such as our own, there is a temptation to think that normality is, in effect, an intellectual concept.
“When that is transferred into the theological arena, it becomes highly problematic for people living with any form of brain damage,” he said.
“How can you proclaim the name of the Lord when you cannot use the kind of language and symbolism that the church often assumes is necessary for participation and perhaps. Ultimately for salvation. I will be exploring the way in which certain people’s lives challenge our cultural perceptions of normality and offer some fresh insights into how we might reframe our understandings of normality and in so doing, create communities of belonging that are truly welcoming both theologically and practically.”
Professor Swinton said that the May Macleod lecture would be an ideal forum to explore the concepts of disability and the church.
“The May Macleod lecture is a great way of bridging the gap between the church and the academy around issues in ministry and in particular, ministry with people who are marginalised,” he said.
“The challenge of the lecture is to enable a broad range of people to get to grips with complex theological issues that have deep practical relevance for contemporary ministry.”
The May Macleod lecture is an annual event. Its namesake, May Macleod (1913-1984), was a committed Uniting Church layperson. The lecture’s previous speakers include Tim Costello, Peter Rollins, and Lowitja O’Donoghue.
The 2020 May Macleod lecture takes place at United Theological College on Friday, 6 March. Canapés will be served from 6:30pm, and the lecture will begin at 7:00pm.