Michael Ramsey Prize - the 2016 Winner
On Sunday at the Greenbelt Festival, the next winner of the Michael Ramsey Prize for Theological Writing will be announced. The prize was last awarded in 2016, when SCM Press author John Swinton one for his book Dementia: Living in the Memories of God. Here's an extract from the introduction to John Swinton's prize-winning book:
As I was driving home, I began to think back on what we had been talking about. My words returned to me, and they troubled me. “Loved and cared for just for who I am . . .” The words were simple, but their practical meaning was profoundly complicated. My mind was drawn to one of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s prison poems titled “Who Am I?”:
Who am I? This or the other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others,
And before myself a contemptibly woebegone weakling? . . .
Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am Thine!
Bonhoeffer’s question “Who am I?” rings strangely true for many modern people. In an age where people constantly try (and fail) to discover who
they are and constantly strive to re-invent themselves (because they assume that autonomous self-construction is a real possibility), this question
carries the weight of much cultural desire. However, the apparent simplicity of the question is deceiving. Am I the same person I was twenty,
thirty, forty years ago? How can I be the same person when almost all of the cells in my body have been replaced? I bear some resemblance to my “previous self,” but I don’t look the same. I certainly don’t think in the same ways that I did when I was thirteen, and I don’t have the same priorities, values, desires, or physical capacities. Psychologically, I really don’t see the world in the same way that I did when I was a child. And yet, despite the fact that there is little physical or psychological continuity between the “then me” and the “now me,” that which was was “me!” “I” was thirteen, and “I” am no longer that age. “I” remain “me” in spite of all of the changes. And yet, when I lay my life out in such ways, I’m still not completely sure who “I” really am.
The question of who I am is complicated at the best of times. It would become even more complicated if I was to develop dementia. Who will I be
when I have forgotten who I think I am? Who will I become when that last tentative connection between who I thought I was then and who I think I am now has been severed? The more I thought about my statement on the radio, the less clear I became about exactly what I was asking people to do when I asked that they love and care for me just for who I am. To ask people to continue to love me “even if who I am is difficult for me and for others” is a pretty big request.What would that look like? If dementia leads me to become a radically new “me,” how could I expect people to love this stranger? Why would they? How could they? Who would they be loving? Who will “me” be? Yet, I want them to keep on loving me. I don’t want to be forgotten or abandoned. I’m just not sure what it would look like to remember me when I have forgotten who I am and who they are, and . . . who my God is. The psalmist puts it this way: “Can the darkness speak of your wonderful deeds? Can anyone in the land of forgetfulness talk about your righteousness?” (Ps. 88:12, NLT).
The Complexities of Love
Of course, remaining loved is not always a safe place to be. Some might seek to love the “me-with-dementia” by offering comfort, solace, and
friendship in my times of struggle. But others might see my dementia as a fate worse than death, and assume that death would be a blessed release for me. In the name of love and compassion, dementia might seem to be a good reason for justifying euthanasia. My loved ones might abandon me because they think that I am no longer there, that I’m already dead. My silent pleas that “It’s still ME, Lord .,.” may fall on deaf ears. I could find myself standing in the shoes of the psalmist when he cries out, “My loved ones and friends stay away, fearing my disease. Even my own family stands at a distance” (Ps. 38:11, NLT). Perhaps, even if I can no longer speak the words, I will agree with the psalmist’s fateful resignation: “You have taken away my companions and loved ones. Darkness is my closest friend” (Ps. 8:18, NLT). When those days come, who will be my voice? Who will be my protector? Who will be my God?
So, I might want to be careful about precisely what I mean when I say that I would like to be loved for who I am! But is it actually fair to ask anyone to love me even when the “me” that they used to love seems distant and perhaps even absent? If our life together now is really not what they signed up for, how could I expect them to love me and remain faithful to me in the midst of my plight? It might be understandable and appropriate for me to ask those who have loved me in the past to continue to love me. But what about those strangers who will seek to care for me when my family can’t? I may end my days in the company of strangers; caregivers who have never known me apart from what they see me as now: a “victim of dementia.” What does it mean for them to love me and for me to ask for their love? What kind of love could such strangers give to me ... and I to them?
Loved by God
Bonhoeffer’s answer to the question “Who am I?” is to find peace and rest in the assurance that, despite his own confusion, his identity, who he truly is, is known and held only by God. Here he resonates with the prophet Jeremiah’s affirmation that human identity is divinely shaped and held:
“But blessed are those who trust in the Lord
and have made the Lord their hope and confidence.
They are like trees planted along a riverbank,
with roots that reach deep into the water.
Such trees are not bothered by the heat
or worried by long months of drought.
Their leaves stay green,
and they never stop producing fruit.
The human heart is the most deceitful of all things,
and desperately wicked.
Who really knows how bad it is?
But I, the Lord, search all hearts
and examine secret motives.
I give all people their due rewards,
according to what their actions deserve.” (Jer. 17:7-10)
In the end only God knows who we are; only God can search our hearts and recognize who we really are. God creates us, sustains us, and knows us. Bonhoeffer may well be correct: “Whoever I am, Thou knowest, God, I am Thine!” Nothing can destroy such divine recognition (Rom. 3:39). Here Bonhoeffer finds peace. Perhaps here also those suffering with dementia and those who accompany them on their journeys can also find peace. But what would such peace look like? What does it mean to be known, loved, and held by God when you have forgotten who God is and you can no longer recognize yourself or those whom you once loved?