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 understanding 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
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…” Continue reading
The topic of senior seminar in the Bible and Religion department this spring has been disability theology. Together we engage relevant biblical material and consider important contemporary figures. The seminar is entirely student-led which is a real treat, and not just because I don’t carry the same preparation load. It is a unique opportunity for me to explicitly take the position of learner alongside my students and colleagues in the department. What I find shouldn’t surprise me: they consistently have something to teach me.
Our biblical texts this week were from Luke (Jesus’ sending of the 72) and the reading was Nouwen’s Adam: God’s Beloved. The book is an extended reflection on a man Nouwen knew from his time at the L’Arche Daybreak Community. As the book jacket describes, “In the eyes of the world [Adam] was a complete nobody. And yet, for Henri Nouwen he became ‘my friend, my teacher, and my guide.’ It was Adam who led Nouwen to a new understanding of his Christian faith and what it means to be Beloved of God.”
The student who led us through the material works in group homes for the mentally disabled, so his engagement with the reading was intensely personal. I found my reading of the text no less personal but for different reasons. The acceptance of God and his unconditional love which Nouwen learned from Adam resonates deeply with my own struggles as a scholar. Vocational expectations and career comparison so quickly threaten to overwhelm my sense of self. As Nouwen says, “While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” A timely reminder.
Could Adam pray? Did he know who God is and what the Name of Jesus means? Did he understand the mystery of God among us? For a long time I thought about these questions. For a long time I was curious about how much of what I knew, Adam could know, and how much of what I understood, Adam could understand. But now I see these were for me questions from “below,” questions that reflected more about my anxiety and uncertainty than God’s love. God’s questions, the questions from “above” were, “Can you let Adam lead you in prayer? Can you believe that I am in deep communion with Adam and that his life is a prayer? Can you let Adam be a living prayer at your table? Can you see my face in the face of Adam?”
And while I, a so-called “normal” person, kept wondering how much Adam was life me, he had no ability or need to make any comparisons. He simply lived and by his life invited me to receive his unique gift, wrapped in weakness but given for my transformation. While I tended to worry about what I did and how much I could produce, Adam was announcing to me that “being is more important than doing.” While I was preoccupied with the way I was talked about or written about, Adam was quietly telling me that “God’s love is more important than the praise of people.” While I was concerned about my individual accomplishments, Adam was reminding me that “doing things together is more important than doing things alone.” Adam couldn’t produce anything, had no fame to be proud of, couldn’t brag of any award or trophy. But by his very life, he was the most radical witness to the truth of our lives that I have ever encountered” (Adam: God’s Beloved, p. 55-56).
My family and I recently served at a camp for people with mental and physical disabilities and their families. Although I have been reflecting on ministry among the disabled for some time, this experience pushed me to bring some thoughts together in the following 10 theses:
- The church’s ministry to the disabled must disavow itself of liberal society’s measure of human worth – autonomy, individualism, reason, rationality, independence and the capacity for self-advocacy (Stanley Hauerwas has shaped my thinking on this)
- and allow its understanding and practice of human personhood to be disciplined by a doctrine of humanity according to which the creation of human persons in the image of God entails both endowment (human dignity) and summons (eschatological horizon).
- Emphasis on creation and eschatology reminds its participants that as those given life and shaped in the “image and likeness” of their creator (creation), they stand in the world “worth-full” and called forward to the completion and consummation of the image found in Christ (eschatology).
- The church’s ministry to the disabled therefore includes more than evangelism;
- rather, as one facet of the Kingdom’s restorative work in broken creation it participates in the eschatological restoration and repair of human dignity in all its facets (most properly God’s activity into which he invites participants). This framework invests those “ordinary” gestures such as wheel chair etiquette with Kingdom significance, makes plain the importance of play, laughter, and the arts, and orders evangelism within an encompassing vision of the divine economy. Continue reading
Thomas E. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Brazos Press, 2008), 256pp [Review Copy Courtesy of Brazos Press]
A Guest Review by Elizabeth Lynch
This book sets out to reflect theologically on the kind of place the church should be in the light of the kind of human vulnerability that is manifest in disability. Reynolds claims, in the introduction, “disability is an often overlooked and contested ‘site'”, and argues that it has the potential to raise
issues of difference, normalcy, embodiment, community, and redemption. For this reason, disability has theological power (p. 13).
Reynolds’ book makes the case that in a context of social injustice and exclusion, God’s (and, by extension, the church’s) response is one of solidarity, characterised as sympathy, compassion, vulnerability, relationality, hospitality and inclusion.
While not wanting to argue against this, my concern is that it only tells part of the story. Reynolds presents God and the church as absorbing the suffering caused by injustice, but at no point does he discuss God’s (or the church’s) condemning and resisting that injustice. Is there not very good reason to argue that God is, and the church should be, a protesting presence as well as a sympathetic presence? And would this not be a more genuine solidarity?
A brief survey of the first four chapters will position us for a closer reading of his theological arguments found later in the book at which time I will expand on my critique. Continue reading
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). Continue reading