Dementia and Orthodoxy

I get into trouble more, in my opinion, than I really deserve to. It is true that I do like to have words mean something. I know that is troublesome. I like it even better when the words mean what they are supposed to mean. [1]

But there are, apparently, some questions you are just not supposed to ask.

Just don’t ask

I horrified quite a few people I did not want to horrify by asking whether Marilyn’s children were still my stepchildren after she had died.  The question my friends heard, apparently, was “Do you think I should continue to have friendships with Marilyn’s children?” They embraced me in a truly wonderful way when their mother died.  Each one of them did.  Why I should want to simply drop them was hardly a thinkable thought for me.

So I changed the question so that it sounded more technical. “I was their stepfather,” I would say, “because I was married to their mother. Now that I am no longer married to their mother, how is it that I am still their stepfather?” It didn’t help a bit. The same people who translated my “what is the mechanism by which” question in the first form of the question, did just the same in the second form. There were two prominent results: a) I never did get my question answered and b) I got scolded by at least two sets of friends. I suspect that their estimate of my character was adjusted downward permanently, but you can’t find that kind of thing out by asking.

Dementia and Orthodoxy

I think I may have begun to run into that same trouble again. It’s a religious question this time, but the kind of trouble feels really familiar. Here’s the question. Can a Christian with Alzheimer’s disease be “orthodox?” [2] I think I want to say No.

orthodox 1Here’s how I get there. If you treat “orthodoxy” as “believing the right things,” then you have to be able to believe something in order to be orthodox. Not to get rigorously etymological or anything, but the -doxy part of orthodox comes from the Greek verb (dokein) meaning “to think” and the ortho- part from the Greek adjective (orthos) meaning “straight.” So “thinking the right things” is a pretty good indicator of orthodoxy, especially if we allow “straight” to be defined by the local community.

But what if you can’t think? What if you can’t remember whether some statement that you hear is your head is your own or something you heard at lunch? What if the alternatives you pose don’t fit on the same axis? [3] What if you assert the truth of proposition X at 3:00 and the contradictory proposition Y at 4:00? This is where I start to lose people because they think I am being nasty, but really, if you can’t think, you can’t think the right things.

OK, let’s say that topic is concluded. (I know better, I just need to move on.) Is this person, who is no longer orthodox, still Christian?  Of course he is. Did we think that being accepted as a part of God’s family was a matter of believing the right things? Really?

For many years I have treasured the scorn that James (2:19) lays on people who take pride in their orthodoxy. “You believe in One God? Terrific! That makes you as orthodox as the demons, who know it for a fact what you struggle to believe and they shudder.”  It’s my own paraphrase: I just like to work in a little more of the scorn I think the verse carries.

orthodox 6I think a much better measure of being Christian, of being, as Christians understand it, a part of God’s family, is saying Yes to God with every available resource. Here’s a handy checklist. (See Deuteronomy 6 and Mark 12) To know what the authors of Deuteronomy meant, you would have to have a better grasp than I do of the crucial terms. What did they mean by “heart” or by “soul,” for instance?  When I run a checklist of that kind for myself, I use these four categories: what I think, what I intend, how I feel, and what I do.  That is a series that is meaningful to me. [4]

We have already taken thinking off the list, so far as “believing the right things” is concerned, but there may be other ways you can use your mind to say Yes to whatever God is asking from you. Your ability to intend some outcome and to pursue it successfully may have shriveled along with your ability to remember what you intended, but I’d be open to the idea that intending to be truthful or generous or grateful in whatever lucid moments you have meets the “with all your strength” criterion in Deuteronomy.

I don’t know how rich the emotional life of an Alzheimer’s patient is, but my guess is that if you can feel  both the tug of resentment and the invitation to joy, you can still lean in the one direction or the other.

I remember vividly a story my mother used to tell about what happened one day when my brother Mark and his wife Carol visited my father. There wasn’t much left of Dad’s mind by that time. Mark did what I would have done. He treated what was left of Dad as a person deserving of respect. Carol greeted him warmly and went over to the bedside and kissed him on the cheek. Those are both really good things to do.

When they had left, Mother reviewed the event with Dad. She wanted to be sure he understood that his son had come to visit. The way I heard the story, Mom said, “You know who that was, don’t you?” And Dad said, “His wife kissed me.” I have no idea what Dad was thinking or feeling about himself by then, but I’d guess that he understood that he had the choice of opening himself to this gift or of closing himself off from it and that he said Yes.

When the last fragment of you says Yes, you are doing the right thing.

Open the Door

Finally, I think sometimes about the invitation Jesus gives in Revelation 3:20. Here it is in the New Jerusalem Bible:

Look, I am standing at the door, knocking. If one of you hears me calling and opens the door, I will come in to share a meal at that person’s side.

orthodox 5The only question that verse asks of the person living in that house is, “Are you going to open the door?” It doesn’t ask if you know who is knocking. It doesn’t ask if you had intended to have a visitor. It doesn’t ask if you are anxious about who is knocking. It asks whether you are going to open the door.

I’ve always liked that particular scripture because it is so clearly an invitation. It isn’t an invitation matched with a threat. It doesn’t say that Jesus is going to go on banging on the door until your neighbors are up in arms. I like it because it is gentle and because it puts the ball in my court. “What are you going to do?” it asks.

Imagine now that I have had a stroke and can no longer get to the door. Or that I have been gagged and tied to a chair. Or that I have gone next door to help care for a neighbor. Is there any circumstance you can imagine in which the Jesus of this invitation would say, “Well…if you can’t get to the door, the whole deal is off.” Any circumstance at all?

And that is why I imagine that people who have said Yes with all their heart and mind and soul and strength will be welcomed home when only the merest fragments of their “selves” are still at their command.

[1] I’m not talking about dictionary meanings here, but only that among these people, this word is ordinarily accepted as meaning this. That’s what I mean by “supposed to:” I mean that the word is commonly supposed to mean that one thing.
[2] I am not, obviously, using a common abbreviation for the Greek Orthodox church. I just mean “believing what you are supposed to believe in your religious setting or group.” A very very loose definition, you will agree.
[3] A joke I remember from grade school is: “Would you rather walk to work…or carry your lunch.” It was supposed to be funny because things are presented as alternatives that really don’t belong on the same axis.
[4] If you ever have to run that series yourself, you can call them what I called them in grad school: cognition, conation, affect, and behavior.  Or “behavior tendency” if there is a behaviorist in the crowd.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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