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.

 

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

“We must not, when we do speak, say too much.”

I don’t have time at the moment to comment on this section from the first volume of Sonderegger_Katherine_photo2014-256x300Kate Songeregger’s dogmatics, “The Doctrine of God.” I simply put it here with some reading notes to mull over. In the section I’m excerpting from she wrestles with the long-standing tension between God’s knowability – he does not remain hidden – and his utter incomprehensibility – he is not a being to be comprehended in the way we know beings of our own sort.

What strikes me every time I read this volume is her boldness to attempt two things at the same time, neither of which come easily. She works to solidly situate her restatement of Christian teaching squarely within the stream of Christian thought, while simultaneously reconsidering the sources of Christian theology afresh. As in the following bit, you can’t miss her sense that the question is still fresh for us, for her: how shall we speak of God?

We cannot stress too strongly the radical novelty that is human knowledge of this incomparable Subject. Again and again we must be broken on this novelty, this transcendent Uniqueness. We may speak, if we care to, of the ancient puzzle of the One and the many – but the Lord God of Israel, the One God, outstrips and explodes even that ancient mystery, this One without Form or Likeness. “No one has ever seen God,” John tells us in the close of the great epilogue; but “the Only Begotten has made Him known” (John 1:18). Its all there, in that one verse, isn’t it? Everything we have said about God’s Uniqueness and Formlessness, His majestic Life as dynamic Light, His deep Hiddenness and Humility—is it not captured in a few simple words? And our knowledge “at a distance,” our success in knowing the Lord—as Mystery, our earthen vessels that hold such Light—is that not also set forth here, a gift of our Lord Christ?…God is known! A positive relation, a beachhead has been established, between Creator and creature, and in that Radiance, God has been made known. But such a knowledge! (390-91)

In short, when speaking about the knowledge of God we have ground to stand on, a “beachhead”: the Incarnation of the Son. But still, perhaps the knowledge we gain in the appearing of the Son should drive us to silence. Or perhaps compel our use of Platonizing concepts that hold God at reserve—out of respect for his divinity of course. Perhaps its all too great for us to really do anything with besides stunned silence! Indeed, she asks, “Why should we speak rather than hold our peace when in the presence of this great Mystery?”

I found her response poignant. Continue reading

A Reforming Catholic Confession

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To mark the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, a fresh Christian confession has been written to accentuate and celebrate theological unity among Protestants of diverse traditions. “A Reforming Catholic Confession” (RCC) was posted online just days ago. When asked to join an initial group of signatories months ago, I eagerly read the confession and happily signed.  Now that it’s posted I invite you to read it and consider adding your signature here.

The RCC is clear about the Gospel, robustly trinitarian, and “catholic” in all the ways I seek to be catholic myself—without apologizing for my place within the Protestant tradition. The rationale for the RCC is explained in some detail on the website, including the following samplings about Protestant “catholicity”:

[1] The Protestant Reformers believed they were contending for “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and recovering the gospel that some were “so quickly deserting” (Gal. 1:6). They therefore believed their efforts to be both catholic and evangelical, that is, on behalf of the whole church and for the sake of the integrity of the gospel, particularly the singularity and sufficiency of Christ’s person and saving work (solus Christus). […]

[2] … While we regret the divisions that have followed in [the Reformation’s] wake, we acknowledge the need for the sixteenth-century Reformation, even as we recognize the hopeful possibilities of the present twenty-first century moment. Not every denominational or doctrinal difference is a division, certainly not an insurmountable one. We dare hope that the unity to which the Reformers aspired may be increasingly realized as today’s “mere” Protestants, like Richard Baxter’s and C. S. Lewis’s “mere Christians,” joyfully join together to bear united witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to its length, depth, breadth, and width – in a word, its catholicity. We therefore aim to celebrate the catholic impulse that lies at the heart of the earlier Reformation even as we hope and pray for ever greater displays of our substantial unity in years to come.

[12] “Is Christ divided?” (1 Cor. 1:13). Various sixteenth-century Protestant groups – including Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and some Anabaptists – produced confessions that not only demarcated their respective identities but also, and more crucially, established their catholic bona fides. In view of their catholic credentials, the common notion that Protestants are theological innovators who are hopelessly divided over doctrine because of a lack of centralized authority is an unwarranted caricature. On the contrary: as mere Protestants, we all acknowledge the Triune God of the gospel and the gospel of the triune God, including the supremacy of the Lord Jesus Christ and the biblical testimony about him. While we continue to disagree about the particular form and content of certain doctrines, we together affirm God’s Word as the singular and ultimate authority to which we must all submit our respective interpretations for judgment. Our interpretive disagreements must therefore be viewed in the context of our even greater agreements about Scripture. It is in this spirit, with hope and prayer, that we together confess our common faith.

What I appreciate about the RCC, and I would not have signed it otherwise, is that it makes no attempt to bash, caricature, or slight brothers and sisters from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions of faith. I don’t believe it will harm ecumenical dialogue or partnerships in mission with non-Protestants. In fact, perhaps it will galvanize both, tamping down fears about compromise by articulating a generous, catholic center. Drawing confessing Protestants around a shared theological center is the goal, and I believe the RCC does that admirably.

For instance, here’s the article on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Anyone who knows anything about the Reformation, or the subsequent splintering of Protestant factions, knows how controversy and disagreement swirl around these.

That these two ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, which some among us call “sacraments,” are bound to the Word by the Spirit as visible words proclaiming the promise of the gospel, and thus become places where recipients encounter the Word again. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper communicate life in Christ to the faithful, confirming them in their assurance that Christ, the gift of God for the people of God, is indeed “for us and our salvation” and nurturing them in their faith. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are physical focal points for key Reformation insights: the gifts of God (sola gratia) and the faith that grasps their promise (sola fide). They are tangible expressions of the gospel insofar as they vividly depict our dying, rising, and incorporation into Jesus’ body (“one bread … one body” – 1 Cor. 10:16-17), truly presenting Christ and the reconciliation he achieved on the cross. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper strengthen the faithful by visibly recalling, proclaiming, and sealing the gracious promise of forgiveness of sins and communion with God and one another through the peace-making blood of Christ (1 Cor. 11:26; Col. 1:20).

That’s a confession I can make. Even as I’m aware that Protestants of different traditions would nuance this statement, or emphasize certain parts in keeping with their liturgical traditions, I hope it’s a center around which we can celebrate the feast.