Mindfulness of separation: an autistic a-theological hermeneutic

Dunster, Ruth M. (2017) Mindfulness of separation: an autistic a-theological hermeneutic. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Printed Thesis Information: https://eleanor.lib.gla.ac.uk/record=b3269723


This thesis argues that a literary hermeneutic based on a mythology of autism offers a significantly validating reading of apophatic and a-theological texts. Instead of a disability, this mythologised autism is read as a valid and valuable poetic theological thinking.
The thesis argues that a mythological autism could be envisioned as a trinity, analogous to the three-in-one Godhead of Christianity. This means that each facet of the mythological autistic trinity is indissoluble from the others, are all are equally autism.
The first element is termed Mindfulness of Separation, and this entails absence and unknowing as has been conceptualised in Baron Cohen’s theory of Mindblindness. Thought theologically, Mindfulness of Separation is a privileged entry into the (non)spaces indicated by apophatic and a-theological discourse.
The second element is termed autistic fascination, and is drawn from the clinical conceptualisation of Restricted and Repetitive Behaviours and Interests (RRBI’s) as described in the American DSM-5. The thesis argues that Uta Frith’s explanation of repetitive, stereotyped behaviours as those of a ‘sensory connoisseur’ can be thought theologically as a capacity for reverence and wonder. Coupled with Frith’s thinking of the sensory, the thesis argues that autistic special interests are equally part of autistic fascination in their sense of revelling in praise of their special objects. Theologically, this autistic fascination can be seen as a haecceic and poetic presence-in-absence made possible only within autism’s particular separation, and this is a paradoxical coincidentia oppositorum which sheds a new light on the similar absent/present paradox of apophatic theology.
The third element is termed literal metaphor, and it can ultimately only exist when it is thought theologically, as what is termed incarnational metaphor. This draws on the autistic phenomenon of taking figurative language ‘literally.’ Theologically, this is a strength inasmuch as its stance towards language is not to decode it pragmatically, but to stay within the paradoxes of a poetic language expressing theological thinking. The thesis develops the term ‘apophatic fiction’ to express the way in which incarnational metaphor reads poetic, mystical texts by honouring them as simultaneously both poetic and theological thinking. The ‘literal’ meaning is the incarnational meaning of poetic sacrament, both absent (from pragmatic appropriation) and present (in the power of the word).
At the heart of this trinity, making it possible, is kenotic autistic affective empathy. This is drawn from Baron Cohen’s thinking of autism as a ‘zero degree positive’ of unimpaired affective empathy within impaired cognitive empathy. It is kenotic because it pours itself out in affection which has no cognitive safeguards or conditions. It is the wisdom of the holy fool.
These are theological, not clinical concepts, although they are a mythologization of clinical constructs. They can be thought theologically in terms of what the thesis terms universal, conscious and absolute autism. Universal autism draws on Baron Cohen’s model of the autistic spectrum as a continuum across human variations, and it is an autistic streak permeating existence. Conscious autism is the knowing adoption of autism as a theological strategy. Absolute autism is the theological thinking which imagines what a total autism would be, in absolute Mindfulness of Separation, absolute autistic fascination, absolute incarnational metaphor and absolute affective empathy. As such, the autistic trinity is the autism of God, offering a powerful way to understand apophatic and a-theological texts. In conclusion, readings of Hopkins’ poetry and Pirandello’s novels are ‘case studies’ for an autistic a-theological hermeneutic.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: A-theology, apophatic theology, hermeneutics, literature and theology, autism.
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BL Religion
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > Theology and Religious Studies
Supervisor's Name: Jasper, Professor David
Date of Award: 2017
Depositing User: Ms Ruth M Dunster
Unique ID: glathesis:2017-8205
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 07 Jun 2017 10:40
Last Modified: 04 Jul 2017 16:09
URI: http://theses.gla.ac.uk/id/eprint/8205

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