John Swinton

What a Pandemic Can Teach Us About the Value of People

Leslie RobertsAnxiety, Blog, Depression, John Swinton, Video Resources

In this short interview, Sanctuary Ambassador John Swinton explains how those of us who are struggling to find our value apart from our work can reframe our perspective of where value comes from and understand our value by knowing God.


Dan Whitehead: Hi everyone, I’m joined by our good friend Professor John Swinton. John is a world-renowned practical theologian. He’s someone that has really influenced Sanctuary’s work, and he’s also an Ambassador for Sanctuary. John is based in Aberdeen, he’s the Chair of Divinity at the University of Aberdeen and he joins us today. Hi John.

John Swinton: Hi Dan. Good to see you.

Dan Whitehead: Yeah you too. So John I have a question for you today, and it’s really one question that I’d love to get your thoughts on. And, and the question is born out of this idea that at this time where many people are struggling with their identity, I guess we’d say, because in the West—I live in Canada, you live in Scotland—but in our cultures, much of our value is tied to what we do and what we can produce, and so many of my friends at the moment are, who are unable to work or at home or struggling to work at home, are having a really hard time, their mental health is suffering, and they’re kind of being confronted with this idea of, I think—I think I’m too defined by what I do. I wonder are there other ways of—how do we, how do we frame this, are there other world views, are there other ways of looking at personhood, and the value of persons beyond this sort of Western mindset?

John Swinton: I think there are, and I think the first thing to think about in relation to, certainly in relation to value, is that value is always a gift. So you don’t become valuable on your own, you always have to be given value by somebody else, and that’s the case not just for human beings but for things as well. So take something like a wedding ring, so a wedding ring itself, unless you’re a very wealthy person, probably doesn’t cost a lot of money. But the value that a couple put on it, makes it invaluable right? So the value emerges from the importance of the object or the individual, and it’s the same with human beings, our value doesn’t come from ourselves and what we do, although culturally we think that it does, or feel that it does. Actually our value comes from the gifts that other people are giving to us, of looking at us and valuing us, ultimately valuing us in relation to God and I’ll come back to that in a second. But even if you’re successful in your job, you only really get value if other people think you’re successful. So you can have all the money in the world that you want, but if everybody else hates you, if everybody else devalues what you do, then the chances are you’re not going to feel very valuable. But for most of us, even your work, and the value you get from your work, involves other people giving you that value. I think that one way in which we can rethink the issue of value is to go back to the contemplative tradition within Christianity, and within other religions as well, where you know the Mystics will go out into the desert, and they wear hair shirts or whip themselves and do whatever they do to get away from—to get as close to the love of God as possible, so that they can come to a stage where they love God simply for God’s sake, and recognize that God loves them simply for their sake. And it seems to me that the heart of the Gospel is, merges into that contemplative tradition what we discover in the life of Jesus and the gifts of friendship that Jesus gives to the vulnerable and the marginalized, is that love means being loved for who you are, and learning how to love God just for who God is—not for what you want God to do for you, or for what you hope God will do in the future, but to learn how to love God just for who you are, because that’s exactly the way the God loves you. So if we have that kind of perspective and value and identity, then even when we’re failures in our work, or failures in the things that we seem to—that we seek to achieve, we actually still have our value. We still have our identity, and we still have fresh possibilities for the future, for the present and the future.

Dan Whitehead: That’s great. Thank you John. That’s—that’s just put so well, and it strikes me as ironic that just as those desert fathers who would remove themselves from the culture and go out on their own to seek a deeper understanding of who they are and who God is, each of us in a small kind of way are being forced to a place of isolation at the moment. So there is an invitation in a weird way.There is an invitation for us to take that difficult path of introspection with God. We don’t have to go and sit on top of a pillar for thirty years, but we can actually in those moments, maybe redemptively use them to seek God directly and say God you know, who are you?, because who I understand you to be tells me who I am.

John Swinton: Yeah we can creatively use the space, and even the confinement we have to encounter God in new ways, if we reframe things a little bit. I mean there’s so many negatives in this situation but one positive for many of us is we’ve got time to do things, that we never have time or tend to think in ways we never had time to, or time to be with people in a way that we never normally have time to. And we should take advantage of that in the midst of the genuine horribleness that is around it.

Dan Whitehead: Thank you John. I really appreciate your thoughts, that’s going to help a lot of people.

About Rev. John Swinton:

John Swinton is the Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at the School of Divinity, History, and Philosophy, University of Aberdeen, Scotland. Previously he worked for sixteen years as a registered mental health nurse, and spent several years as a hospital chaplain and community mental health chaplain. He is particularly interested in mental health issues both as they relate to the spiritual dimensions of care offered by religious communities as well as the spiritual care offered by established “secular” mental health services. He has published widely in the fields of disability theology, spirituality and health, and qualitative research and mental health. His book Dementia: Living in the memories of God won the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Ramsey Prize for excellence in theological writing in 2016. He is founder of the Centre for Spirituality, Health and Disability, where academics, researchers, practitioners, and educators collaborate in the development of innovative projects researching the theology of disability and the relationship between spirituality, health and healing, and contemporary healthcare practices. John is an ordained minister of Church of Scotland.