Theology and the Experience of Disability (a review)

As a field of Christian thought, disability theology has never been more fertile and exciting. Disability theology, as John Swinton defines it in the Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology, is the “attempt by disabled and non-disabled Christians to understand and interpret the Gospel of Jesus Christ, God, and humanity against the backdrop of the historical and contemporary experience of people with disabilities” (140). It’s worth noting that disability theology is different than a theology of disability. The latter attempts to apply the resources of Christian thought and practice to the experience of disability, whereas disability theology works from the experience of disability toward Christian thought and practice.

Even now, four new books sit next to me as I type (and the stack would be a least two feet high if I was keeping up with the literature). At the moment I’m reading the one on top of that stack, Jill Harshaw’s God Beyond Words (2016). It’s a theological exploration of divine revelation related to those with profound mental disabilities. I often interact with the parents of young adults with developmental disabilities. More than once I’ve been asked, “Can I hope that my child can perceive God? Can they be saved?” It is a phenomenally important pastoral question, and Harshaw addresses it with grace and impressive theological wisdom.

I mention Harshaw’s book and Swinton’s definition, because both are helpful for Theology and the Experience of Disabilityunderstanding the significance of the book I’m reviewing here: Theology and the Experience of Disability: Interdisciplinary Perspectives from Voices Down Under (many thanks to Routledge for the review copy). Disability theology is (as far as I can tell) nearly exclusively written by those without profound developmental disabilities. Harshaw, for instance, acknowledges that she writes as a theologian whose daughter has profound intellectual disabilities, but Dr. Harshaw herself does not (Amos Yong, Thomas Reynolds, and Frances Young are similar examples). Harshaw’s study is not unusual: scholarship is most often given from those who are many times in fellowship with people having disabilities, but much less often from those living with disabilities themselves and thus through their perspective.

In this volume, however, contributions are gathered from those with and without disabilities, and that makes it a wonderfully timely addition to the field. The collection originated as a conference in 2013, Theology, Disability, and the People of God, co-sponsored by Carey Baptist College and Laidlaw College in Auckland, New Zealand. Continue reading

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New Edition of the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology

When you’re asked to write an entry in a theological dictionary, you pause. Not least because your words will be read many times over by scores of people, in this case around the world. So I paused, then prayed, and then prayed many times more while composing the entry on “marriage” in the 3rd edition of the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Evangelical Dictionary of Theology

The editor of this edition, Daniel Treier, describes the intention of the EDT this way in the preface:

attempting to represent both the range of evangelical diversity accurately and the center of evangelical consensus winsomely, while maintaining evangelical engagement with wider scholarship accessible.

The third edition is expanded by 30% to “strengthen its focus on theology”, particularly on systematic theology. It also includes a more diversified group of contributors: “almost half of the new authors contribute female, ethnic minority, and/or Majority World perspectives.” Bibliographies were also updated to represent current research since the last edition. From my perspective, if you have one theological dictionary on your shelf, it should be this one.

Here are the opening moves from my entry on marriage:

The Bible presents marriage as an exclusive, enduring, intimate relationship of covenanted commitment between―Christians have consistently believed―one man and one woman. Within marriage children are conceived and raised, families are nurtured, and marriage partners enjoy intimate emotional, physical, and spiritual companionship. These are the gifts of marriage according to God’s creation-order.

However, related to the Kingdom of God, procreation, nurture of family and intimate companionship are not the ultimate and highest ends of marriage. These remain gifts of marriage―part and parcel of God’s good creation―but according to the New Testament, membership in the Kingdom of God changes their status and role.

Christian thinking about marriage has therefore consistently sought, though not always succeeded, to balance two fundamental scriptural claims: (1) marriage, and procreation within marriage, are vital parts of God’s creation-order and means of his ongoing governance; (2) for those united to Christ by faith the Kingdom of God re-orients human loyalties including marriage.

A theological account holds these claims together by seeking to understand marriage according to the entire sweep of Christian faith and within the practices of Christian discipleship. As a practice of Christian life, marriage is a matter of discipleship learned in the community of Christ’s body, the Church.

 

“The beginning of the journey”: Barth’s Ephesians Lectures

A collection of lectures from 1921-1922, including two essays by prominent contemporary theologians, Karl Barth’s The Epistle to the Ephesians (kindly sent for review by Baker Academic) is an excellent addition to any pastor’s library for three reasons. I will get to those three reasons in just a moment. First, I want to offer a quote from the final paragraph of the book in order to frame the three reasons.

The conclusion of the letter, 6:10-24, makes us acutely aware that, humanly speaking, Christians are called to prepare, to contend, and to struggle each new moment as earnestly as if it were the first, the beginning of the journey. True theology is and will always be theology viatorum. But if all we can be is pilgrims, then pilgrims we should be (p. 146).

This selection is not unlike one of the methodological considerations with which Barth opens the Church Dogmatics. In the first volume, published ten years after the Ephesians lectures, Barth writes that dogmatics is in need of “criticism, correction, of critical amendment, and repetition…a laborious movement from one human insight to another” (I.1 / §1.2). Such is the nature of dogmatic theology, Barth says, because dogmatics is always “human appropriation” of “divine ascription.” As Barth resolves, “the theologian is what he is by the grace of God” (I.1 / §1.3).

I offer these parallel statements as a frame for this review because I am learning that one of the key tasks of pastoral ministry is to help Christians learn, against all odds in our Google-happy culture, that Christianity’s simple truth — Christ is Lord — leads to a lifetime of lived interpretation and reinterpretation. This collection of essays and lectures provides examples of how we might do just that. Here are three examples. Continue reading

Christ is killed every day by the injuries we cannot bear

These are the opening words of Rowan Williams’ new book, Holy Living, and they are meant to unveil our regular, entirely reasonable (so it seems) un-involvement in the pains around us. We say, rightly, “Christ alone can carry our sufferings.” Yes indeed, surely this is right. Christ alone, Rowan_Williams_2007according to his grace, can carry our sufferings. We are thus realists about our limited capacities. Indeed we’re theologically astute realists, as least as it concerns the sufficiency of grace. But though we grasp the sufficiency of Christ’s grace for us we fail to follow the trajectory of grace into the pain around us.

As realists we easily and painlessly stand at a distance from pain. However, Williams reminds, the pain of another person “does not stop being ours when it becomes his.” In fact, the nature of God’s peculiar way of redeeming me compels me to be a particular kind of un-realist: “The complete involvement of Jesus in human torment draws us after, draws us to imitation, stirs us to be Christ for our neighbor, to expose ourselves as he did” (9, 11).

There is more I want to say about this in a later post. There is perspective here on my vocation as a Christian professor in a Christian institution of higher education, though I’m still mulling over quite how I want to put it. For now I want to post a slightly longer section of this chapter around which my attention keeps coming back. You might ask yourself, “In whatever kind of community I find myself, how does this challenge me?”

Well, we are all realists to a greater or lesser degree, and there is therefore no avoiding the fact of our complicity in the death of Jesus. Like the apostles we evade and refuse and deny and escape when the cross becomes a serious possibility.

Ouch! And he doesn’t let up:

Terror of involvement, fear of failure—of hurting as well as being hurt—the dread of having of powerlessness nakedly spelled out for us: all of this is the common coin of most of our lives. For beneath the humility of the person who believes he or she knows their limitations is the fear of those who have never found or felt their limitations. Only when we have traveled to those stony places of the spirit where we are forced to confront our helplessness and our failure can we be said to know our limitations, and then the knowledge is too late to be useful. We do not know what we can or cannot bear until we have risked the impossible and intolerable in our own lives. Christ bears what is unbearable, but we must first find it and know it to be unbearable. And it does not stop being ours when it becomes his. Only thus can we translate our complicity in the death of Christ into a communion in the death of Christ, a baptism in the death of Christ: by not refusing, by not escaping, by forgetting our realism and our reasonableness, by letting the heart speak freely, by exposing ourselves, by making ourselves vulnerable (9).

The Story of Job and the Divine Image

Every so often in my theology courses I use an Orthodox catechism called The Living God. It is beautiful and rich and a very refreshing alternative to what often passes for theology (which is too often colorless, didactic, and utterly bland).

In class yesterday we read and discussed its treatment of the creation of humankind in the image of God. The catechism divides teaching on the divine image into two chapters. The first chapter makes the standard moves, addressing the creation and fall of God’s covenant partners. The second chapter, however, takes an altogether unexpected turn. It presents the book of Job as a way to Christologically imagine the restoration of the divine Book of Jobimage through the Incarnation. The reading of Job offered in the catechism serves as a theological and exegetical bridge between the topics of Creation and Fall with  Restoration (which occupies the next chapter).

The move to Job is unexpected and brilliant and fascinating all at once! The reading of Job it offers doesn’t maintain that Messianic themes were in the mind of Job’s author or its audience. That is one sort of Christological reading. Here find another sort: “the Christian understanding of the story of Job, of the just servant unjustly persecuted, offers us a glimpse of the coming of the suffering and victorious Servant who will return humanity to its former beauty” (Vol. 1:15). It’s a lively instance of Christological reading, and it generates wonderful conversations with my students about biblical interpretation as well as theological themes related to the divine image, sin, and the Incarnation.

Here is an excerpt from the end of chapter 2, “From Despair to Hope: Job.”

The story of job serves to renew hope within us. Even though God’s image in man has been spoiled by the sin of Adam and Eve, by the sin of Cain, and by the sins of each one of us, Job allows us to hope for the coming of One—just and suffering, patient and triumphant—who will resist with courage and perseverance the assaults of the Evil One and will triumph over him, thereby restoring in mankind the divine presence which had been lost through sin and reestablishing in us the divine image in the fullness of its beauty. To do this, God sends among us the very Model according to which He had originally created us. Just as a faded print can be restored by reapplying the original stamp [the “faded print” analogy unmistakably echoes Athanasius’ On the Incarnation] so the Son of God, who reflects the glory of God the Father (Heb. 1:3), can enter human nature by clothing Himself with it as with a garment, and thereby can create a new Adam, a perfect Man, a radiant Image of God. This occurs by what theologians call the Incarnation (Vol. 1:19).

 

Pedagogical Fatigue & Empathy

By this time in the semester I’m always tired. It’s partly physical fatigue, and emotional (so many new relationships to establish). There is, however, another kind of weariness. It always sneaks up on me. I am fatigued from traveling up and down, what I’ve come to call, the teaching and learning ladder.

I don’t know what else to call it. Let me know if you have a better term. For the longest time I didn’t realize the ladder existed; but it was there, always, and in every class I was traveling up and down without knowing it. Now that I recognize it, and know that my ladder2students and I are on it together, I have an entirely new sense for the importance, centrality even, of this: pedagogical empathy. Let me explain.

I stumbled upon it in the weirdest place. In the Preface to C.S. Lewis’ little commentary on the Psalms, he describes the perplexing difficulty that students have with getting answers from teachers. Sure, teachers are constantly offering responses to student questions, but do our responses — Socratic, didactic, or otherwise — actually address the questions our students are asking?

C.S. Lewis describes it like this:

It often happens that two schoolboys can solve difficulties in their work for one another better than a master can. When you took the problem to a master, as we all remember, he was very likely to explain what you understood already, to add a great deal of information which you didn’t want, and say nothing at all about the thing that was puzzling you. I have watched this from both sides of the net; for when, as a teacher myself, I have tried to answer questions brought to me by my pupils, I have sometimes, after a minute, seen that expression settle down on their faces which assured me that they were suffering exactly the same frustration which I had suffered from my own teachers. The fellow-pupil can help more than the master because he knows less. The difficulty we want to explain is one he has recently met. The expert met it so long ago that he has forgotten. He sees the whole subject, by now, in such a different light that he cannot conceive what is really troubling the pupil; he sees a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t (C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms [Harcourt, Brace & World: New York, 1958], 1-2)

I know that struggle! Compared to my students, I stand on the ladder several rungs higher and thus hear their questions from my rung. Not their rung. Questions make perfect sense from their rung, because the student and her questions live and breathe the same air. And that’s the rub: I live and breath on a different rung and share the air with different questions and insights. From my rung, I can sometimes see their questions aren’t quite the right ones. I see, as Lewis puts it, “a dozen other difficulties which ought to be troubling him but aren’t.”

Pedagogical empathy is meeting a student on her rung, and its hard. “I’m not used to the air,” I gasp. “The vista looks strange from here,” I complain. “These aren’t the right questions!” I gripe. Its hard, but I’m learning at least two benefits from all my trips down the ladder. Continue reading

So What? Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World [Review]

As October sneaks in the back door, I’m finding myself already in the third month of pastoral ministry. I’m preparing my eighth consecutive sermon; I’ve done several visits to homes and hospitals. The sum of people I’ve prayed with, laughed with, hugged or shaken hands with is well into the hundreds. What’s more, being in a small town means Jessie and I have even had dinner with the mayor!

One thing I’ve learned, quickly and sharply, is that things that impressed me in seminary don’t have the same dramatic effect on my congregants. People aren’t impressed when I offer some variation of a Stanley Hauerwas quip, such as: “the first work of the church is not to make the world more just but to make the world more the world.” It’s not gone over any more impressively when I attempt to do some Childs-ean canonical hermeneutical maneuver. No one has complimented my sermon’s works cited page.

But, my oh my, do they get riled up by a good answer to the question “So what?” It’s not at all the case that my beloved congregation doesn’t care about reading Scripture faithfully or theological interpreting culture. If I’ve made sense of the comments I’ve received, the reason they love a good answer to “so what?” is because, oftentimes, the line from sermon to discipleship is not always clear. Preaching on God’s “absolute difference” (to borrow a phrase from Rev. Warren Smith) does not directly translate into any meaningful action, whether an action of heart or soul or mind or body. They want to draw nearer to Jesus somehow and delight when the way is made known to them. Continue reading