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.
Amos 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.
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).
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.