Author: Michael Pfundner, 1 November 2022
These are the words of a Christian whose own memory is failing her – one of several Jesus followers who suffer from dementia and who were willing to talk about it. Their testimonies are recorded in PhD research, turned into a brand new book. Author 'Tricia Williams says: ‘Such voices have the potential to shift our perspectives on what faith and discipleship is all about.’ We had a chance to ask 'Tricia about her findings.
Did writing this book change your view of what it means to be human?
TW: Biblical understanding begins with being ‘made in the image of God’. Dementia made me think again about what this might mean. Historical emphasis on reason as a distinguishing characteristic of being human sometimes makes us miss the wholeness of the human person. We are body, soul and spirit. We are to love God with all of our being. This may not include ability in using words.
Faith implies trusting, obeying and proclaiming God, each of which involves will and reason. What if all of this goes out of the window?
TW: Such fears find relief in the biblical certainty that we are safe in Christ. My interviewees demonstrated their trust in God, their acceptance of his will, and their lives proclaim his transforming presence. Reason may be a failing capacity in dementia. But biblical reasoning is founded in relationship with God.
Some people claim that brain and mind are identical – that the soul is an illusion.
TW: But a biblical understanding and our faith experience tell us that we are more than our brains: body-soul-spirit, God-breathed, dependent on his creative initiative in our lives, on the life-giving presence of the Spirit. One of my interviewees says, intriguingly, ‘I’ll never lose that joy, but I have lost my memory.’ The vibrant soul-faith of these Christians spoke emphatically despite failing brains.
One of your research participants quipped, ‘I’m closer to God because there’s less of me.’
TW: Acceptance was a striking factor in all the conversations. Paul (Romans 5.1–5) speaks of growth and hope in Christ happening as the result of suffering. Interviewees spoke movingly about their struggles with God. These did not negate their faith.
You mention one interviewee sticking Bible verses around her house so she wouldn’t forget them.
TW: This question triggered my research: how can we help those who live with dementia to continue to be nurtured in their faith through the Bible? Failing concentration and memory make conventional Bible reading practices difficult. These Christians were discovering other ways: Bible verses stuck on walls; singing; listening to Scripture via online resources; hearing it read by friends. Dementia challenges us to find new ways to encounter God’s word.
What insights did you gain on dementia in the context of inclusive church?
TW: Dementia asks what it means to be the body of Christ, in which the gifts of all bring completeness. Biblically, it is not a matter of our including; it is the reality of belonging and discovering new ways of expressing that in the context of dementia.
Your book illustrates how people with dementia find solace in their faith. Did you find anything specific to the faith of dementia sufferers?
TW: These voices teach us afresh that faith is not primarily about thinking or doing, but about being with God now. Future hope invades this present moment. I am loved by God whatever my condition. He is active and present in my life. ‘God has not forgotten me.’
God’s Not Forgotten Me – experiencing faith in dementia by ’Tricia Williams has been published by Cascade Books.
Interview by Michael Pfundner