David Bunce scribblings on pastoral and academic theology

A theology of naming in Genesis 2 and 3 - thinking with John Swinton

It was with much anticipation that I this week began to read John Swinton’s Finding Jesus in the Storm: The Spiritual Lives of Christians with Mental Health Challenges. I have long appreciated Swinton’s work and have been looking forward to him turning his creative and pastoral mind to the issue of mental health challenges.

Swinton’s book considers three instances of mental health challenges: depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. He addresses the subject with his normal aplomb: sensitively interrogated qualitative research which is bought into conversation with scriptural traditions. As in his other works (I’m thinking especially of his book on dementia) he is alert to the ways in which the dominant medical models of approaching the issue of mental health can be reductionist and unhelpful when it comes to accounts of (self-)identity.

One passage I found particularly evocative was his section on a theology of naming (pp. 159-161). This comes at the end of a chapter on hearing voices in which Swinton explores the way the definitions of other people (medical professionals, other Christians) can generate a sense of loneliness for the person who is hearing voices: their experiences get reduced to a function of their condition and thus marginalized.

In response, Swinton proposes two different terms which could be used instead. Firstly, the designation ‘voice hearer’ removes some of the epistemological stigmatization which can contribute to loneliness. Secondly, he proposes the designation ‘friend’. It is in working up to this second definition that he outlines a theology of naming, rooting it in the Genesis 2 account of the creation of human beings.

On Swinton’s account, the vocation to ‘work … and take care’ (Genesis 2:15) is ‘a powerful metaphor for being alongside of people living with psychotic disorder’ (160). He goes on to expand this creation vocation by looking to the responsibility to name things (Genesis 2:19-20). It is the human’s (faithful) act of naming that brought creatures into epistemological being: lions and giraffes and works are known as such because they are named as such. Faithful human vocation is thus to ‘name things properly’ (160). Stigma is the result of improper naming, replacing true naming with a ‘caricature or a stereotype’.

I think this is a really helpful point. It’s not just in the area of mental health that proper and improper naming can bind and loose. Think of the child who at the age of seven is labelled by a teacher either as being ‘academic’ or ‘not academically gifted’. Or the naming of a pattern of abuse in marriage as such, which can open up the possibility of escape and freedom.

It occurred to me, though, that the reading of the early chapters of Genesis could be pushed further. It seems to be that there is a difference between the human’s naming of the animals in Genesis 2:20 and the naming of the Woman in Genesis 2:23. The former seems to function as a straightforward act of stewardship of creation, where the human is acting as a proxy for God’s lordship in the world. The latter, however, seems to me to be less straightforward.

Genesis 2:23 begins with the first account of direct discourse, in the form of jubilant covenant recognition (c.f. Brueggemann). If Brueggemann is correct on this point, then what we have here is not the act of Lordship as we have vis-a-vis the animals, but a recognition of the otherness of the human being, demanding mutual loyalty. It is, in Buber’s terms, an I-Thou relationship as opposed to the I-It relationships with the animals.

Read on these terms, then, I wonder if the vocation of naming regarding other human beings could better be described as a vocation of recognition: our act of naming is secondary to our act of recognising the deep Otherness of our fellow human beings. It is this equality of recognition, of knowing and being known, that is then shattered as part of the Fall as reported in Genesis 3. There we read much more simply (etymological questions aside): ‘Adam named his wife Eve’ (Genesis 3:20). The rupture in relationships at the Fall then begins the dynamic of naming as a power-act rather than naming as a solidarity-act. If this is so, does it allow for us to talk of the act of stigmatisation - false naming - as a consequence of the Fall, where the fundamental solidarity of human beings to each other is replaced by relationships-as-power, with all the possibilities that this brings?

I think this expansion of Swinton’s reading of the early Genesis material, if it stands up to scrutiny, has the potential to deepen his theological account of naming and stigmatization: the church’s call to right naming is a recovery of a vocational task that was lost as a result of sin. Right naming isn’t just a outworking of an original vocation, but it is the eschatological sign/promise of the recovery of a state of covenantal solidarity that had been ruptured by the Fall.

About David Bunce

I am a British pastor living and working in Austria. I I am on the pastoral team of a church in the centre of Vienna and lead Austria Baptist Aid's Youth and Children work (KJW). I am also an MRes student at the University of Wales Trinity St David researching Karl Barth's early theology. More about me