Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Spiritual Autism

Copyright © 2011 by Chris R. Glaser. All rights reserved.

I was invited to preach for a new church start. I was told that the Sunday before I was to preach, the congregation would be voting on whether to affiliate with the United Church of Christ or the Unitarian Universalist Association. Of course, both denominations are progressive, but Unitarian Universalists do not necessarily regard Jesus as central to their faith. Thus I urged them to call me as soon as possible after their vote! My sermon would depend on the outcome.

When the pastor called to tell me that the congregation had voted to join the UCC, I breathed a sigh of relief, as I was more accustomed to preaching to Christian congregations at the time. For this new UCC I preached on the challenging text from the Gospel of John that depicts Jesus telling his disciples to eat his flesh and drink his blood so that they may abide in him and he in them. I used these words to talk about how God welcomes embodiment. Spirituality in Jewish and in Christian traditions is not an “out of body” experience, but very much embodied, whether within an individual body or the body of a spiritual community. That was the gist of what I was trying to say, but boy, did the members of this congregation take offense! Taking me to task in the talk-back session that followed, they seemed to stumble on Jesus’ metaphor. It reminded me that progressive Christians at times can also be literalists.

Malcolm Gladwell writes about how we evaluate information in his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking. In one section on autism, Gladwell writes, “People with autism find it difficult, if not impossible…drawing understanding from anything other than the literal meaning of words. … In anything less than a perfectly literal environment, the autistic person is lost.” 

My judgmental side goes directly to thinking of biblical literalists as suffering from a kind of spiritual autism. But research indicates that any one of us can become functionally autistic, if even for a moment, when there are other factors involved. Gladwell writes, “Our mind, faced with a life-threatening situation [for example], drastically limits the range and amount of information that we have to deal with. Sound and memory and broader social understanding are sacrificed in favor of heightened awareness of the threat directly in front of us.” 

And it doesn’t even have to be a life-threatening situation. Anger, fear, passion, sexual arousal, hurry, drugs, alcohol, abuse, addiction, religious or patriotic fervor, or feeling threatened in any way can render any of us temporarily autistic, incredibly focused on the literal. We have seen this in the heated discussions of vital topics, such as abortion, sexuality, marriage, and war, as well as discussing lesser things when limited by time, ignorance, prejudice, or reason-altering substances or conditions.

Returning to my preaching experience, I didn’t realize that a sort of spiritual autism might have been kicking in. Perhaps the congregation could not hear Jesus’ words about eating his flesh and drinking his blood metaphorically because the literal application of this idea in their previous religious traditions had been used to threaten and intimidate and even exclude. It was good they took offense at what I said, because it surfaced issues within the congregation that had not been resolved by a simple vote to join a progressive denomination.

Many disciples of his own time also stumbled on Jesus’ words, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” They questioned, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” I believe this teaching may serve as a spiritual metaphor for the truth that, first, spirituality cannot be separated from our bodily experience and our physical actions. And second, how we experience or embody God in the world reveals our inner life, what we have first received in our own communion with God. “The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life,” Jesus concludes. The Gospel writer John, who begins his story with God’s Word of grace and truth made flesh, now suggests that Word may be incarnated in us.


  1. Profoundly thought-provoking. I keep going back in my own mind, though to the powerful imagery in Kitt Cherry's "Jesus in Love" novels. She, more than anyone else I've ever read, brings together mysticism and wonderful body imagery, while simultaneously recognizing some of the insights of science.

    I believe it is time to acknowledge an insight shared in the play "Hamlet": "There are things in heaven and earth not dreamt of in our philosophy." In other words, I believe we need to recognize that while earlier literalism may have impoverished the depth of meaning of many of the teachings of Jesus, much of the current insistence on the "purely symbolic" nature of those same teachings equally misses the mark.

  2. Wow, Chris, that is profound. I think I have that same reaction, and I wonder now at why I took it so literally. I've just never liked some of the images here.

    And yet, many people find this the heart. Through participating in the sacrament of communion, many believe we are being transformed into the body of Christ. To put it simply, we become what we eat.