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. The conference was not a typical “academic” gathering.

By design, academics, practitioners, and people with disabilities were invited to participate in dialogue to learn together, as papers were presented, questions were discussed, and meals shared together…willingness to embrace vulnerability and limitation with gentleness and courage characterized our time together, and called forth a way of being together that blurred traditional boundaries between academics, practitioners, and people with lived experience. ” (4).

There are so many different ways I could commend this book to you if you have any interest in disability theology. I think the best way would be an extended quote from the second to last essay by Amos Yong, “Disability and the Renewal of Theological Education.” It strikes close to home as we are launching a new major at Huntington University centered on training ministers to engage local churches related to the needs of families and individuals who live with disabilities. I heartily recommend the book – as well as the approach this book takes to disability theology – and will let this quote speak for itself:

The way forward must be mutual dialogue all across the spectrum of ability: ‘nothing about us [people with disabilities] without us’ is the constant refrain….

My point is that we need to move from a theology done only by the able-minded for people with disabilities, since such projects, while useful and important in various respects, will unavoidably promote ableist biases, and these will inevitably be internalized by people with disabilities. However, theologies dialogically constructed with those across the spectrum of abilities – including their advocates, friends, family, and caretakers, especially those with intellectual, severe, and profound disabilities – will be relevant for all people, including people with disabilities, albeit now more carefully guarded from perpetuating albeist stereotypes….

These developments indicate that while courses on disability in theological, divinity, and seminary curricula are a helpful and important beginning, the goal ought to be the integration of disability as a central theme across the theological curriculum. Disability is, again, not just a marginal and incidental aspect of the human condition. Rather, it is inherent in the Christian drama of redemption. Hence only a theology thoroughly informed by disability perspectives can do justice to its theological potential. This means, then, that a disability theological methodology ought to be intrinsic to theological education similarly to how feminist, postcolonial, and global South approaches are increasingly woven seamlessly into the curriculum (258, 59, 60).


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