A Glitch in God’s Intentions?

It was three years ago that my sister delivered her first child. The birth produced many tears, dreams for the future, and much excitement as the family came together to provide this child an atmosphere through which he would be able to learn, grow, and develop into his own person. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, and months into years as we patiently watched him learn how to crawl, walk, and graduate to baby food. Books were read, games were played, and inaudible responses of love and thankfulness were received with joy. It wasn’t until recently that we realized that he wasn’t speaking real words. At three years he was still making noises and crying in order to communicate his needs.

The process of uncovering his disability was arduous and slow. Along the way my sister confided that she felt a special anointing from God through the gift of her disabled son. She believes that she was uniquely equipped to advocate for him and love him unconditionally. While my sister received her son as a gift, in spite of his differences, the family questioned what had caused the disability. Was it smoking, poor eating habits, or some unknown biological factor? Unbeknownst to her, my sister possesses the insight that if spoken can guide the church toward full inclusion of the disabled. She recognized the vulnerable nature of humanity, and the necessity of advocacy.

As children we are conditioned to believe that success or flourishing in life is solely dependent upon ourselves. If only we chose the highest paying professions, retain and consume as much education as possible, and climb up the ladder of success would we be considered successful and self-sufficient. This vision of success is the fruit of what Thomas Reynolds names the cult of normalcy—the set of rituals that condition our society to define what is and isn’t considered normal, and therefore good or bad. The cult of normalcy is birthed within a community or society structured through mutual exchanges of consumption and production.[1] Naturally then, what is considered normal, valuable and good are those conditions that support the system of consumption and production. Devalued, abnormal and adverse are those conditions that do not contribute to the sustenance of this system. Fueled by the cult of normalcy, conformity and conditioning produce a homogeneous effect within the community, and demarcated are those who either refuse to consent to or are incapable of conformity. Those with disabling conditions such as physical impairments, mental illnesses, or skin diseases are considered abnormal. Such abnormalities are deemed undesirable, creating an atmosphere of isolation, exile and degradation.

Responses to abnormalities, or disabilities vary yet contribute to much of the suffering of those with disabilities, persons forced into exile, to the margins of the community, because the inability to conform to what is deemed normal and good. To our shame, this lurks within the walls of the Church. Reynolds explores the responses of the Church to those with disabling conditions and discovers that a theology of disability must stem from the very nature of God’s character and action through redemption history, specifically that of Creation, Incarnation and Resurrection. Much of what has driven the Church to conclude that those with disabilities are incomplete, abandoned by God, is based upon the question of suffering and evil. Those with disabilities, because their ability to function in society is different than those of the majority, are considered to be suffering because God’s intention must be that functionality is normative when it is homogeneous. The Church and the rest of society has deemed that disabilities must be a glitch in God’s intention at Creation because those with disabilities are believed to be unable to contribute in the economies of exchange. The Church and society have been misguided by the fallacy of the cult of normalcy. 

In order to counter the cult of normalcy with a theology of personhood that is inclusive of those with disabling conditions, Reynolds discusses how personhood is defined. Our conception of the definition is rooted in the philosophy of the Enlightenment. True personhood is commonly understood as the deep rootedness of the qualities of equality, freedom, independence, and reason in our being. Reynolds describes why these qualities promote but also work against the flourishing of our true personhood, revealing the negative implications of our ideals. While he acknowledges the empowerment of those once oppressed and marginalized by the fruit of the ideal of equality, he also balances our comprehension of equality. In order for equality to exist, a common denominator between all involved must be sought. This common denominator in turn devalues differences and produces a homogeneity that is not conducive to embracing differences. Thus, equality can serve to further the cult of normalcy, namely creating another construct to further the marginalization of those who didn’t fit into the majority. Reynolds’ criticism of independency is based upon the communal nature of human beings. We are not self-sufficient individuals. We are dependent creatures. Development of self occurs within an interrelated web of relationships. Reason is used as a form of privilege that builds itself into a form of domination and oppression, thus enabling marginalization of those with different mental functions.

A new anthropology of personhood challenges the existing definition, welcoming disability into its very core. Reynolds’ declaration is that humanity shares vulnerability as a trait that produces human flourishing, as opposed to the belief that success is based upon individual ladder climbing. Therefore, because all of humanity shares a condition of mutual vulnerability as an essential aspect of true personhood, Reynolds paves the way for the inclusion of those with disabling conditions to move away from the margins. Reynolds counters the traditional notion of personhood by declaring that it is not independence that leads to flourishing, it is not domination that leads to security. True flourishing is sustained and birthed in relationships of mutual vulnerability, interdependence and compassion. True personhood is based on the imago Dei. Humanity at its core is vulnerable, creative, relational and available.

That human flourishing is dependent upon mutually vulnerable, interdependent, and compassion-filled relationships is counter to what our society has been conditioned to believe. Reynolds backs up his claim by discovering that it was and is God’s intention to create diverse, different, interdependent, and vulnerable beings, and that it is declared “very good” by Godself.  In fact, all of the Creation is vulnerable and dependent upon God for survival and flourishing. God exists in a relationship of mutually interdependent beings within the Trinity, who participate wholly in every act of Godself.

Human beings, created in the likeness of God are therefore themselves mutually interdependent beings who exist in relationships of mutuality and vulnerability. In fact, the push for inclusion of those with disabling conditions into the realm of what is considered normal is due to the fact that God’s first act was one of hospitality. God chose to bring Creation into God’s own presence and therefore, in Reynolds’ words, “God makes room for something other than God, actively disposing the divine self to relationship with difference.” Given God’s nature of hospitality all of humanity, in God’s likeness, should also possess a hospitable posture towards those who are different, whether it is due to disabilities, sex, or religion.

God’s definitive action toward the embracing of differences, diversity and disabilities within Creation is in the Incarnation. Jesus Christ embraces all of humanity by remaining in solidarity with those on the margins, the oppressed and poor. It is through Jesus’ radical actions that true hospitality is revealed; God welcoming and embracing the differences that make up the human experience. The life of Jesus Christ, inclusive of all his actions pertaining to redemptive history and ministry, reveals God’s concern for those on the margins, at whose exclusion disrupts the embracing and mutual interdependence of all of humanity.

Reynolds, along with Nancy Eiesland, relates that it is evidenced through the reappearance of Jesus to the disciples, before his ascension, that God’s very nature now includes disability. Jesus’ hands, feet and side were still pierced. If Reynolds and Eiesland are correct then the nature of humanity is at its core vulnerable and that disease and affliction aren’t necessarily a distortion of God’s creative intentions.[2] In fact, disease and affliction are the necessary byproducts of the fruit of vulnerability, for vulnerability creates an atmosphere where true flourishing can take place, while at the same time permit undesirable consequences. The Incarnation also affirms bodily existence as good, not something to escape. Not only was humanity created as embodied creatures, but through the life and ministry of Jesus Christ the line between humanity and divinity blur as Jesus takes humanity into the very nature of Godself.

The analysis of the different theological perspectives that direct our perceptions about disability reflect a more wholistic understanding of God’s intentions throughout redemption history. Moreover, it pushes us toward inclusion of the differently-abled in our definition of true personhood, thus broadening the scope of inclusion for all. For, as per God’s intention, humanity finds unity in its diversity.

This entry is the final post in a blog series that features the work of students from the Disability Awareness course offered at Northeastern Seminary during the 2015 fall semester. Instructed by Barbara Isaman-Bushart (MDiv/MSW, ‘08), this course focuses on the diverse needs of individuals living with disabilities, with an emphasis on how to improve awareness, accessibility, and inclusion within the local church. To learn more about taking this course and other Seminary course options click here.

Hope Schwartz is pursuing a Master of Arts in Theology and Social Justice at Northeastern Seminary. She attends Hess Road Wesleyan Church in Newfane, N.Y. 

[1] Reynolds, Thomas E.,  Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality . Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2008. ISBN # 978-1-58743-177-7

 [2] Eiesland, Nancy and Saliers, Don E., eds.  Human Disability and the Service of God:  Reassessing Religious Practice.  Nashville:  Abingdon Press, 1998. ISBN # 0-687-27316-1 

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