Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability

A guest review by Elizabeth Lynch

Amos Yong, Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007), xiii + 450pp, $23.00.

theology-and-ds-2.jpgAmos Yong’s book begins on the premise that placing disability scholarship in conversation with theology will, at the intersections between the two, give rise to new insights that will inform a better understanding of disability and of God (p. 4). He states in the closing pages of the book that his goal throughout was “to articulate a more inclusive view of what it means to be human, a more hospitable image of the church, a more holistic understanding of divine salvation, and a more expansive image of God’s eschatological hospitality” (p. 292).

Parts I & II – Pneumatological Imagination

Yong firstly introduces the theme of “the pneumatological imagination”, arguing that the event of Pentecost – the speaking of the Holy Spirit through “strange tongues” – signifies the universality of the gospel message and the capacity of all to witness to it (p. 11). The “pneumatological imagination” is to shape the methodology of the book, as it is this belief in the “many tongues” of Pentecost that constitutes the theological basis for putting together “the narratives of people with disabilities and the many professional, scholarly, and scientific discourses that illuminate the experience of disability” (p. 14).

The remainder of Parts I and II give a historical overview of how Down Syndrome (and disability in general) has been understood. His second chapter addresses ways in which disability has been understood theologically – how and which theological ideas have shaped interpretations of biblical accounts of disability. He then turns to a discussion on how the medical model of disability has impacted understanding and practices, before turning to consider the development and influence of social models of disability. Part II concludes with a chapter in which medical and social models of disability are examined in specific contexts – the experiences of women with disabilities, and disability in world cultures and religions.

Part III – Systematic theological reflections on Disability

In Part III, Yong takes up the central task of his project – “to reflect theologically on disability in general and intellectual disability in particular” (p. 151). His approach is systematic, addressing in turn seven doctrines: creation, providence, the Fall, theological anthropology, ecclesiology, soteriology, and eschatology. Throughout these chapters, Yong’s theme of “the pneumatological imagination” remains at the core of his theology.

He is concerned at each stage with critiquing and overcoming the “us/them or nondisabled/disabled dichotomies” (p. 187), and to dispel with the hierarchies that are the practical manifestations of these dichotomies. That “the Spirit has been poured out on all flesh” means that “[p]eople with and without disabilities can be caught up in the Spirit’s blowing across the world” (p. 186). Yong maintains then that there is no place for distinctions between nondisabled/disabled in doctrines of creation, providence and the Fall.

Ecclesiology

In addressing ecclesiology and theological anthropology, the practical implications of Yong’s theological argument solidify. Understanding the church rightly as empowered by the Spirit – an empowerment that “comes on all equally”, it is argued that leadership, service and membership should be seen as “pneumatic and charismatic rather than hierarchical” (p. 197). His “anthropology of interrelationality” (pp. 184-88 ) emphasises mutuality, reciprocity and intersubjectivity; our selves understood in terms of our interconnectedness and relationship with others and with the triune God (p. 286).

Soteriology & Eschatology

In reflecting on soteriology, this interrelationality and interconnectedness is identified as a space in which transformation takes place in conversion to the other. The chapters on soteriology and eschatology both resist the individualization of disability, as the Spirit is understood as “healing the entire body politic, the people of God” (p. 291). Healing and redemption are not to be understood as the cure of certain individuals, but as a “corporate transformation”, in which ‘difference’ takes on a radically different role. In the context of Down Syndrome, Yong writes, “the redemption of those with Down Syndrome…would consist not in some magical fix of the twenty-first chromosome but in the recognition of their central roles both in the communion of saints and in the divine scheme of things” (p. 282).

Evaluation

There is a sense in which Yong’s book splits into two parts, which could well be read separately by those wanting either an historical overview or a theological exploration of disability. However, to retain this division would be to miss what Yong aims to achieve. In his view, “the theology of disability will remain impoverished and even impotent as long as disability scholarship is ignored” (p81). His theological approach then is to place the insights brought by disability scholars into conversation with the theological thought of, for example, Augustine, Calvin, Aquinas, Gregory of Nyssa. Each chapter opens with a number of quotations in which a person with a disability speaks about his or her experience, and this is followed by a short vignette on Yong’s own family’s experience of disability. This approach means firstly that his theology remains grounded in the real experiences of disability. Secondly, placing these reflections in conversation with both disability scholarship and with systematic and historical theological thought, means that his methodology as well as his theological argument communicates his commitment to the importance of inclusiveness, and of overcoming the “us/them” dichotomy.

While this book will be particularly valuable to those involved in the field of disability studies, it deserves to be read more widely by those working in both systematic and practical theology. Yong presents a dense and comprehensive analysis of disability, and the achievements of his book justify his methodology, demonstrating how new insights may be found and developed when systematic theology enters into careful conversation with other disciplines.

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16 thoughts on “Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability

  1. Excellent post. This looks like an absolutely fascinating book. Having read the book, I had a question though.

    What do you think it would look like to bring an individual with down syndrome into the community as an equal participant?

    I completely believe that as believers, folks with down syndrome receive the same Spirit and empowering as those who do not have down syndrome, so how do you think we can go about empowering them to bring about the Kingdom of God with the rest of us?

    Thanks.
    Earl

    • Hey, I realize I am a couple of years late in response but I am a pastor of a fully inclusive church in Toronto Canada. Our church is only a few months old but already we have chapter in 5 other locations. Our idea is that people with disabilities need to be inlcuded within every aspect of church life and ministry. We are working on developing a ministry program that would allow people down syndrom to take on ministry opportunities with the aid of the larger community. Inclusion can happen, and I invite you to visit our website.

      PASTOR JOSEPH

  2. Earl –

    You asked, “What do you think it would look like to bring an individual with down syndrome into the community as an equal participant” and empower them to “bring about the Kingdom of God with the rest of us?”

    Great questions. Let me put on my practical hat for a moment and loft some suggestions (I was in ministry for 10 years before starting PhD studies so I still think along the lines of “how would this flesh out in faith communities”).

    1. There needs to be an ethos change in the church that can only come from senior leadership (pastors and/or elders). A vision needs to be cast and teaching needs to take place regarding the status of people with cognitive disabilities before God and within the community of the reconciled.

    2. If a church really wants to be a place in which people with disabilities are embraced and empowered (and not just put the finger in the dam by starting a program) they would advertise themselves within their community as a place in which people with disabilities are welcomed, loved, and empowered. I have not seen this level of intentionality in a church although I have seen some churches with great programs for people already in their church with disabilities.

    3. A church with a developing ethos such as this would also connect itself with ministries specifically directed toward people with cognitive disabilities. A great example of one such ministry is Joni Erickson Tada’s ministry, Joni and Friends (www.joniandfriends.org).

    If I were brainstorming with a group of people within a faith community these are some of the moves I would consider making first.

    Thoughts?

    Kent

  3. If a church really wants to be a place in which people with disabilities are embraced and empowered (and not just put the finger in the dam by starting a program) they would advertise themselves within their community as a place in which people with disabilities are welcomed, loved, and empowered.

    Wow, it looks so simple on paper but it doubt it will be that easy in a church setting. As a whole society we tend to think in a euthanasia directed manner. Not that we want to ‘eliminate’ those who are different from us, we simply don’t want to see them. How in the world do we convince pastors to welcome disabled people into the church with full knowledge that it will make the church ‘uncomfortable’ for much of the people already there?

    That’s intended more rhetorical, but I’d love for someone to pick that question up and interact with it.

    Thanks, Kent.
    Earl

  4. Welcoming people with disabilities into the church certainly looks simpler on paper than it does in life, but it is possible. I recently attended a conference on congregational inclusion at Holy Spirit Catholic Community in Naperville, IL. Their church is fully accessible to all types of disability and it is a large part of their mission to include not only people with physical disabilities, but people with intellectual disabilities in their ministry. One of the speakers at the conference was a young woman with Down Syndrome who is actively involved as a Eucharistic minister at the church.

    Another speaker at the conference was Erik Carter. I would encourage you to read his book _Including People with Disabilities in Faith Communities: A guide for Service Providers, Families, and Congregations_. It is a practical guide for helping people within the church become more accepting and inclusive of those with disabilities.

  5. Abby –

    Yes, challenges such as the one we engage here do look easier and simplier on paper – I could not agree more. Please hear me though when I say that abstraction and distance are not the ends we hope to foster through our interactions at Theology Forum. Inquiring honestly and deliberating wisely should lead to faithful action – action we hope would be theologically rich.

    Thanks for reading and thanks for the helpful book recommendation.

    In fact, could you share the big ideas and “ah-ha” moments from the conference you attended for our benefit?

    Kent

  6. thank you for the review of this book. i am going to check it out

    to answer earl, in brief, (his question: “how do you think we can go about empowering them to bring about the Kingdom of God with the rest of us”),

    i think the answer lies not in what you can do to empower people with DS, but opening up your heart/mind to see/know/feel how people with DS can empower YOU
    so switch that around there! : )

    THIS will bring about the “kingdom of god” in both parties simultaneously

    i don’t think much is going to happen in regards to inclusion until people realize what gifts people with DS have to offer them, not the other way around : )

    fyi, i have a daughter with DS. she is 7 months old. her name is lili. she is joy!

    cheers,

    ana

  7. Ana,

    Thank you for appropriately reminding us of our real involvement with people who are physically, emotionally, or mentally disabled – that the emotional and relational traffic runs both directions, not just one. Having spent a great deal of time with such special people, I know that first hand. Perhaps with your reminder always in mind, those commissioned to shepherd the people of God will more effectively fulfill the responsibilities Earl is indicating.

    Thank you for your comments.

  8. I appreciate this discussion. Having a child with Down syndrome and realizing the church’s limitations in allowing participation has been one of the sadder experiences of my life.

  9. This book looks fascinating…and would be a valuable resource for some of our congregational leaders to take a look at. I’ll certainly check it out. The book Abby mentioned was just mentioned as part of a new dialogue on religion and disability on the “Barriers, Bridges and Books” blog (http://bbandbohmy.blogspot.com/). Apparently, this is part of something called a “blog carnival” focused on faith and disability.

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  12. Kent, it has been very inspiring to read everyone’s comments on theology and the church and its potential influence in the lives of individuals with Down syndrome. I am currently completing my honours project in Australia on Spirituality and Down syndrome, more specifically, the role of spirituality and organised religion as a support system for parents of children with Down syndrome. I was hoping that with your background and knowledge would you be able to refer me to literature relevant to my study as there is a huge paucity of research in this area and I am really struggling.
    Thanks
    Divia

  13. For those of you wanting to see a church that has a 50/50 attendance of disabled people and non-disabled people visit the Abilities Church. 2 of the 4 pastors have disabilities and one appears to have an intellectual disability too. However, we do not focus on disability but on GODS call as being more important than what a person can do. After all only GOD can make a ministry succeed and is not dependant on what you or I can or can not do. Anyways visit it and be amazed at how GOD is moving in the midst of people within a church that was planted to do what you are all just talking about. I hope its not the only one but it may very well be.

    http://www.abiltieschurch.org

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