Thomas E. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Brazos Press, 2008), 256pp [Review Copy Courtesy of Brazos Press]
A Guest Review by Elizabeth Lynch
This book sets out to reflect theologically on the kind of place the church should be in the light of the kind of human vulnerability that is manifest in disability. Reynolds claims, in the introduction, “disability is an often overlooked and contested ‘site’”, and argues that it has the potential to raise
issues of difference, normalcy, embodiment, community, and redemption. For this reason, disability has theological power (p. 13).
Reynolds’ book makes the case that in a context of social injustice and exclusion, God’s (and, by extension, the church’s) response is one of solidarity, characterised as sympathy, compassion, vulnerability, relationality, hospitality and inclusion.
While not wanting to argue against this, my concern is that it only tells part of the story. Reynolds presents God and the church as absorbing the suffering caused by injustice, but at no point does he discuss God’s (or the church’s) condemning and resisting that injustice. Is there not very good reason to argue that God is, and the church should be, a protesting presence as well as a sympathetic presence? And would this not be a more genuine solidarity?
A brief survey of the first four chapters will position us for a closer reading of his theological arguments found later in the book at which time I will expand on my critique.
Methodogy (Survey of chapters 1-4)
Reynolds’ discussion in his first chapter of the methodological issues encountered when thinking theologically about disability raises interesting issues and questions about how disability might be, and often is, understood theologically. He also argues for the importance of a critical self-awareness on the part of the theologian working in this area, not just in order to safeguard against encouraging any of those views that denigrate disability, but also to avoid the instrumental use of disability as a means to lead the theologian to new understandings of Christian values and community, “Employing disability for mere theological gain is something to be vigilantly guarded against” (p. 40). In chapter two, he turns to discuss the experience and meaning of belonging, examining its psycho-social roots, and how the need to belong has been made manifest in the Western world in a way that has led to a marginalizing of people with disabilities, who challenge what Reynolds terms the “cult of normalcy” that shapes common understandings of belonging. Chapter three then explores how this “cult of normalcy” operates; the particular ideals it seeks to uphold in its functioning definition of personhood. In chapter four, he begins his challenge to this community rule that prizes individuality, self-fulfilment and personal gain, arguing that communities are “extended matrices of interdependent relationships by which we belong to each other” (p. 129). This marks the point of departure for the theological reflection that makes up chapters five and six.
Disability and a Theology of Creation
In chapter five Reynolds puts forward his case and method for reframing disability with reference to a theology of creation. Reynolds argues that central to the theology of creation are the themes of relationality and vulnerability. God’s creative power is seen in his sharing of that power, and in his loving creatures into being. The vulnerability of creation is understood in terms of its interconnectedness; each human creature seeking and requiring recognition of its value simply as one who exists, (p. 139). These events of mutual recognition are ways in which human creatures share in the creative power of God, but this power is understood in terms of fragility, as these events also reveal the connections between parts of creation, and testify to its interdependence and essential relationality, “Created things are fashioned not as sufficient and complete unto themselves, but as finite parts of a larger, interconnected whole, the fabric of which is relational through and through” (p. 161).
Reynolds contends that changing the framework in which disability is understood effects a transformation, leading away from disability being seen as a tragedy within a framework dictated by the cult of normalcy. Seen within the framework built on this theology of creation, in which relationality and fragility are the situations in which creative love and power are experienced, disability is seen as circumstances for this to be experienced in a particular way. Reynolds does not want to present a view that denies the very real difficulties often associated with the fact of disability, conceding, “If we are realistic, we must admit that, even as it is a gift, existence is also vulnerable and tragic” (p. 170). But in a different framework, tragedy is not the only, or the dominant, possibility (p. 169).
Disability and Christology
Chapter six examines these statements in the context of Christology. The stated aim of this chapter is to “unpack and extend such a vision by attending to the question of what it means to be human and saved by God through Christ” (p176). Reynolds presents the person of Jesus as “the icon of a vulnerable God” (p198), arguing that the themes of vulnerability and relationality take on particular meanings in the contexts of Jesus as “the examplar of the fully human life” (p. 199). Reynolds argues that Jesus “embodies God’s loving regard for – and gratuitous solidarity with – humanity precisely in its incapacity, vulnerability, and indeed its brokenness” (pp. 199-200). In the later part of the chapter, the emphasis is on the cross and resurrection as the place where the alternative framework that Reynolds was arguing for in earlier chapters is displayed, “The cross is the supreme example of a God who draws near, not to conquer or vanquish suffering and tragedy, but to engage it and open it up anew to the promise of love built into creation” (p. 203).
Reynolds asserts then (with reference to Moltmann), “the cross becomes a vehicle of hope”, presenting the cross as God’s solidarity and compassion with the oppressed, and the location at which “New possibilities are unleashed, not in achievement and power, but precisely in the depths of anguish” (pp. 204, 206). That the risen body of Jesus is “impaired” is taken as a further sign of God’s solidarity with humanity, and that Jesus’ embodying disability in his resurrected body suggests that “disability indicates not a flawed humanity but a full humanity” (p. 207).
In chapter 7, entitled “Being Together: Love, Church, and Hospitality”, Reynolds argues for the church’s practising hospitality and solidarity based on the principles he claims we see in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus: “The marginalized and oppressed…find liberation through Jesus’s presence…[T]hey find liberation not by sheer power and might, which Jesus intentionally avoids, but by love’s vulnerable solidarity” (p. 229). The church is called to be an inclusive home – the “strange household of God” (p. 233) – the place in which those marginalized by the cult of normalcy are welcomed into the presence of Christ.
As I said earlier, I have some concerns about Reynold’s proposal. Vulnerable Communion makes the case that in a context of social injustice and exclusion, God’s (and, by extension, the church’s) response is one of solidarity, characterised as sympathy, compassion, vulnerability, relationality, hospitality and inclusion. While not wanting to argue against this, my concern is that it only tells part of the story. Reynolds presents God and the church as absorbing the suffering caused by injustice, but at no point does he discuss God’s (or the church’s) condemning and resisting that injustice. Is there not very good reason to argue that God is, and the church should be, a protesting presence as well as a sympathetic presence? And would this not be a more genuine solidarity?
While Reynolds’ presentation of the vulnerable and suffering God who shares in his people’s suffering may be right, it is questionable whether solidarity means simply suffering with the “marginalised and oppressed”. Might solidarity not also require fighting and resisting the structures that created that suffering in the first place? In his keenness to present Jesus as the epitome of compassion and gentleness, Reynolds misses the possibility that the “The marginalized and oppressed…find liberation through Jesus’s presence” maybe partly because Jesus is not silent in the face of oppression. Reynolds states, “God calls the people to care for the stranger, the orphan, and the widow” (p. 199). And while his statement is not wrong (he references Lev. 19:34), it is illustrative of the narrow way that he characterises this call; there is no mention of the call to speak out against injustice, to defend those silenced by oppression (Prov. 31:8-9). In changing the framework in which we see disability, Reynolds wanted to resist the view that tragedy is the only possibility, but the result of his approach is that now sympathy is the only possibility. While sympathy in the face of oppression might have its place, it is an empty and rather patronising gesture if not accompanied by moral outrage at those structures and practices that give rise to oppression.
It is regrettable that the sociological critique that Reynolds conducts in chapters two through four is not developed theologically, and that the presence of God and of the church is characterised as a quiet, gentle, sympathetic presence, at the expense of moral outrage and protest, as if the two responses were mutually exclusive.
Vulnerable Communion is a useful book, in that it does conduct a detailed theological examination of issues around human vulnerability and the place of the church with relation to this. It is a helpful contribution to the theological discussion on disability. However, I would argue that his book ends up telling only part of a story that needs to be told alongside a theology of moral indignation, which is the less vulnerable side to God’s, and the church’s, reaction to injustice.