I mentioned in my last post that senior seminar has been studying disability theology this spring. We read contemporary voices like John Swinton, Stanley Hauerwas, Jean Vanier, Brian Brock, Thomas Reynolds, Henri Nouwen, and Hans Reinders, as well as deliberating over relevant biblical texts. We are capping off the semester by closely reading Amos Yong’s recent theology of disability, The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God.
Our first discussion centered almost entirely on Yong’s method. He worries that traditional interpretation of Scripture has been oppressive of disabled individuals because it operates from what he calls a “normate” (i.e. non-disabled) perspective.
According to Yong, “normate bias” is the “unexamined prejudices that non-disabled people have toward disability and toward people who have them. These assumptions function normatively so that the inferior status of people with disabilities is inscribed into our consciousness” (11). This normate bias, or “ableist worldview,” influences our interpretation of Scripture and leads to theologies of disability which confirm, support, and extend our assumptions about normalcy, abledness, and capability. Thus, to challenge our normate bias and question our presuppositions about disability, Yong offers an interpretation of Scripture and theological perspective on disability that is specifically “derived from the experience of disability.”
I posed the following question to my students: why is perspective so important to Yong? Wouldn’t someone suppose that the biblical text is the biblical text regardless of your context as an interpreter? “Well”, Yong might say, “Yes, but…” The biblical text may remain the “same” for every reader in one sense – the words run in the same order – , but in another sense the experiential context of the interpreter varies considerably. For Yong, the interpretation of Scripture is determinately influenced by the reader’s perspective and experiences. And the problem with “traditional” interpretations of Scripture, he argues, is that they reflect “normate” biases arising from non-disabled experience rather than the unique experience of the disabled.
Yong’s approach is entirely consistent with many late twentieth-century theologies that take self-consciously contextual approaches. “All theology is partial and particular,” David Ford reminds us, “arising and speaking to historical, social, and political contexts in which the theologians are interested parties” (Modern Theologians, p. 429). This has always been the case. However, in the twentieth-century self-consciously contextual theologies arose which deliberately adopted standpoints that had previously existed only at the margins. Contextual theologies explicitly arise from and speak to a specific social and political context. Late modern contextual theologies are distinctive because they embrace their particular perspective (context) in order to explore the Christian faith through it and for it (e.g. liberation, black, feminist, etc.).
In this sense Yong’s theology of disability is a kind of liberation theology: it self-consciously reads the Christian faith through the experience of the disabled and does so for the disabled community. As Yong writes,
I am seeking to challenge the normate presupposition that people with disabilities are charity cases who lack the presence of God until able-bodied people bring such to them. My goal, therefore, is to overturn such ableism precisely so that God’s presence and activity can be recognized and received through all people (p. 140)
Here is an example. In chapter five Yong addresses Christ’s return and the resurrection of the body. He asks the question, what does “there will be no more tears” (Rev. 21) mean for the disabled? Part of Yong’s answer includes exegesis of Hebrews 2 and 5. He argues that traditional interpretations of these texts reveal normate expectations and biases and that such readings are not as “amenable to a disability inclusive” understanding of Christ’s incarnated life. Normate readings of these texts merely emphasize Jesus’ fully humanity and his participation in the pain of human experience even to death (p. 126). A disability perspective, however, emphasizes “Jesus’ very real vulnerability and helplessness” (p. 127) and stresses that Jesus “entered into the experience of disability” not because he was physically disabled himself; instead, he is able to identify with the disabled because he entered their situation “through his suffering, persecution, and execution at the hands of others” (126). From Yong’s standpoint, we see such insights only when these texts are read from and for the context of the disabled.