Does Love Have a Speed?
Love has a speed—and it isn’t fast.
That’s what John Swinton argues in his thought-provoking book, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship.
In western, capitalist culture, time is something to be overcome; conquered by techniques of efficiency, strategy, hard work and ingenuity. The quest for production is a race against time. Where we place in that race largely determines our stature in society. Our legacy is measured by how we stack up against the flow of time—relentless and menacing.
If only we had enough time to make another widget, to write another book, to meet the quota. The passage of time drives so many of us; society measures us by what we do with the time we have. The consequences of that can be destructive. We relegate relationships to secondary or tertiary status. And we often marginalize persons who do not effectively “use” time. We deem as lacking in value those who haven’t mastered the techniques for keeping up with time. They are “slow,” and in a society that measure us by the pace of production, “slow” doesn’t work.
In short: Western society’s marginalization of persons with disabilities can be explained in large part by the way we construe time.
These flawed economies of speed lead to the consequences that some persons are deemed unworthy of life, simply because they cannot keep up. Time is not on their side.
Swinton offers a profound diagnosis of this problem—this pathological idolatrizing of productivity and efficiency. He interweaves insights from theologians, philosophers, Scripture, and the sciences, and draws upon his own extensive experience in the medical profession, to argue that Christian discipleship is incompatible with how society often approaches time—and consequently, persons living with disabilities.
For Swinton, the anti-dote to the disease of our misguided understanding of time is theological: We should understand time through the lens of God’s time—and God shows us that love has a speed: slow. Swinton cites Kosuke Koyama, who suggests that God is a “three mile an hour God,” taking a leisurely pace. Jesus’ activity and teachings in the Gospels reflects the importance of “timefullness” and “gentle discipleship,” rather than a frenetic race against the clock.
This theological correction is best served with a component of praxis: Rethinking time and our relation to time through the witness of persons with disabilities. Swinton argues that many persons, particularly those with neurological disabilities (i.e. dementia) experience time differently than the dominant normative cultural view of time (as either obstacle to or driver of productivity). Their experience of time can fundamentally change our orientation to time, perhaps aligning us closer to God’s pace.
Christian discipleship calls for a reconfiguration of the way we think about time. It calls for us to slow down, to prioritize relationships over productivity, servanthood over speed, love over instrumentality. It calls for us to become “friends of time,” by becoming friends of others.
Christians ought to prophetically counter the structures and economies of society that privilege the “fast” over the “slow,” the proficient over the inefficient, the “powerful” over the “weak.”
I saw first-hand the way time can and is reconfigured through disability when my mom suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s disease. Growing up, one of my more prominent memories of my mom was her uncanny work ethic—she was constantly on the move. Whether working inside the house or in her career outside of it, she hardly sat down for long just to rest (or so it seemed to me). She loved to be productive, and could always find something that needed to be done.
As the dementia set in over the years, her ability to be productive waned dramatically. Yet the many years of muscle memory kept her yearning for activity. At one point, she would simply wander the house, sensing or believing she should be doing something, but unsure of what—or how to do it.
Despite a lifetime of habit, life slowed down dramatically for her—as it does for so many who experience the ravages of dementia or other debilitating disabilities. And this can be frustrating for those who care for them, because it slows them down, too.
Swinton makes this point beautifully: that in relationship with persons with disabilities, we are invited to experience time differently. To experience time slowly: as God does—because love isn’t frenetic, instrumental, or gauged by productivity.
The beauty of his proposal is recognized by all the panelists we have gathered in this symposium. Each of them brings their own expertise and personal experience to bear on their reading of Swinton’s text.
All the responses show a deep appreciation for Swinton’s work, and they each offer thoughtful questions for discussion. Several of the responses raise weighty challenges to his thesis, as well.
In his contribution, Jean Vanier reflects powerfully on his own experience living with people with disabilities in L’Arche. He affirms Swinton’s appeal that discipleship involves slowing down and setting aside our preoccupations with power or prestige, truly listening and “being with” the other. The result of gentle discipleship is genuine community.
In her essay, Debbie Creamer challenges Swinton for romanticizing former ages and cultures where there was presumably no race against the clock (the clock’s “second-hand”). The problem of marginalization and violence against bodies may not be a function of the changing technology of clocks, but deeper factors related to human nature. She pushes Swinton to clarify the normativity of his proposal that “fast” is negative, whereas “slow” is (always) best.
Adam McInturf challenges Swinton to consider whether, in his well-meaning critique of societal marginalization of persons with disabilities (and his important critique of theologies which blame persons for disability) he might have overlooked the tragic dimension of disabilities and the implications of the genuine sufferings that often accompany them. He suggests that “Holy Saturday” might be a way to reckon more realistically with the “liminality” that disabilities like dementia create.
Similarly, Sarah Jean Barton brings apocalyptic images into conversation with Swinton’s thesis. She argues that God’s dynamic interruptions in history, or “God’s breaking into time,” offers a complementary perspective to Swinton’s proposal that “slow” describes God’s approach to time—and therefore is normative for discipleship. She suggests that the Christian liturgy of baptism brings apocalyptic in-breaking together with the “slow work of discipleship.”
Medi Ann Volpe engages Swinton critically on his reading of Augustine’s famous discussion of time in The Confessions, and then interacts creatively with Swinton’s interpretation of the story of the paralytic in Luke 5, naming the problem of trust as the heart of discipleship. She contemplates how persons living with disability may show others of us how to trust, and therefore how to be disciples of Jesus.
Tom Reynolds offers an appreciative response, helpfully summarizing four key turns in Swinton’s book, and then naming the theme of “rhythm” as tying together Swinton’s insights on time and discipleship. He takes Swinton’s book as an opportunity to explore the dynamics of practical theology: one in which theology informs praxis but conversely, praxis informs our theology also. The experience of relationship with persons living with disabilities shapes our view of God and of time.
What results here is a lively interchange on a practical theology of disability around the theme of time and “gentle discipleship.”