Becoming Friends of Time

Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship

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John Swinton
Studies In Religion, Theology, and Disability
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , October
     255 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


When Erik Erikson’s developed his psychosocial theory of the life cycle, even those outside his particular field found this framework helpful. As practical theologians have sought to care for and lead congregations well, many have integrated this framework along with other psychological and neurological insights. In his latest work, Becoming Friends of Time: Disability, Timefullness, and Gentle Discipleship, John Swinton challenges his colleagues’ reliance on the brain as a means for developing modes of pastoral care and discipleship, reorienting them to focus instead on the one who created and entered time as Immanuel: Jesus Christ (14).

After laying out this theological foundation, Swinton asks a question that drives the remainder of the work. As a people gifted with God’s time, how is the church, in our fast-paced, time-obsessive culture, caring for those who have no cognitive concept of time, or perhaps have lost their memories of past time due to dementia, Alzheimer’s, or an acquired brain injury?

Swinton begins by walking readers through a brief history of time. Though Benedictine monks created the means to quantify and read time through the first mechanical clocks with the intention of being “faithful to their beliefs and their spiritual walks of life,” Swinton suggests humanity has turned time into something that can be used as a sort of currency (23). Instead of continuing to utilize time to better serve God, it has become something that we use to serve mammon. In the current Western framework, productivity is key; certainly, time has become money.

If the Western church functions accordingly, does that mean those who live with profound intellectual disabilities, or other neurological diseases or traumas, are less valuable? Drawing from scientists such as Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins, and philosophers such as Mary Warnock, Swinton demonstrates how common this belief has become in our culture. If this paradigm is to be shifted, readers must start by reexamining their understanding of time, offering “Time occurs in God; God does not occur in time” (61). By reorienting a common understanding of time into one that includes the slowness of the “three mile an hour God” (67) and the Sabbath, Swinton wills for a community-based discipleship to be centered on patience, love, and relationship, rather than an individual focus on efficiency, belief, and right doctrine (93-95).

Thus, rather than prioritizing “normal” neurological and psychological development, Swinton emphasizes a theological understanding of the heart as “the place of communion” (156) and thus relationship with God, self, and others. Among his many conversation partners, Swinton relies heavily on Karl Barth’s theology. In particular, he borrows his idea of soteriological objectivism: we are truly and only who we are in Christ, and that is redeemed, claimed and loved (185). He follows Barth’s assertion that Christ is the sole agent in the action of salvation, rather than the rightness of ones belief (187). With this hermeneutic, Swinton is able to suggest and affirm the salvation of those who would never be able to verbally profess faith in Christ.

When the final page is turned, Becoming Friends in Time is as rich in theology as it is practical. Swinton grounds solid theological reflection in useful truths that can be utilized immediately by the reader. In fact, the appendix includes an entire reflection and service outline for a community of people who are learning to re-know someone who has suffered an acquired brain injury. Overall, Swinton’s latest work functions as a prophetic voice for a world that has let time dictate the entirety of their lives. His theological and experiential reflections offer real ways to reimagine discipleship alongside those within life’s range of varying differing abilities. Swinton acts as an important and necessary conversation partner for academics and pastors who rely heavily on “normal” cognitive and neurological development, freeing those with rigid conceptions of practical theology to active, contextual care.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Adam Tobey serves Trinity Presbyterian Church as a youth pastor in Ogden, Utah.

Date of Review: 
April 27, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

John Swinton is Professor in Practical Theology and Pastoral Care at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.



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