Who Is the God We Worship? Some Reflections on the Theology of Disability

John Swinton

Our theology does not come out of nowhere (see Thomas Nagel, The View from Nowhere [Oxford University Press, 1989]). As we reflect on how we come to know the various things that we know about God, it is clear that theology is emergent and dialectic, a complex process of negotiation and argument that takes place over time. Getting to know God is complicated and timeful. One of the problems with the way theology tends to develop is that a good deal of the conversation goes on within academic institutions wherein theologians, trained according to whatever denomination or perspective they have chosen/been called to, read, contemplate, and reflect on the Christian tradition in order that concepts, theories, and ways of living can be discerned, understood, and implemented (although implementation is not always considered to be the primary task of theology done within universities). Although this way of constructing theology has clearly been and remains fruitful, the negative side of this process is that only certain people are invited to the theological table. For the most part theology is constructed by intelligent people, very often middle class, white, and male, most of whom have spent their entire lives in the academy thinking about theology. The problem is that there are only a limited set of questions that can be asked of the tradition from such a position. These questions are important, but they are not exhaustive. Women and people of color inter alia have raised the issue of the importance of opening up the conversation to a broader range of perspectives. Disability theology seeks to bring the voice of human disability into the ongoing theological conversation in order to explore the types of questions that emerge when we allow the experience of disability to address Scripture and tradition. “Disability 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 experiences of people with disabilities” (John Swinton, “Disability Theology,” in Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology, ed. Ian McFarland et al. [Cambridge University Press, 2010]). It has come to refer to a variety of perspectives and methods designed to give voice to the rich and diverse theological meanings of the human experience of disability.

Who Is the God We Worship?

At heart the theology of disability pushes on the question: Who is the God we worship? (John Swinton, “Who Is the God We Worship? Theologies of Disability: Challenges and New Possibilities,” International Journal of Practical Theology 14, no. 2. [2011]). At one level such a question seems quite straightforward. We worship the God revealed to us in Scripture through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the life of Jesus and through his death we find both meaning and salvation. As the apostle Paul puts it: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom 10:9, NIV). Nothing complicated there you might think, until you ask the question: What of those who cannot speak? The sad history of Christian missionaries refusing to teach deaf children sign language and forcing them to approximate speech is just one example of the way the simplicity of proclamation is not quite as simple as it sometime seems to be (see Douglas Baynton, Forbidden Signs: American Culture and the Campaign against Sign Language [Gallaudet University Press, 1993]). What if you have a profound intellectual disability and can never understand, never mind proclaim, the name of Jesus? What if you have advanced dementia and have forgotten the name of Jesus? Such questions sum up something of the essence of the theology of disability, which is to complexify our normal theological assumptions and sensibilities and to draw our attention to the deep and vital questions that emerge if we take seriously the suggestion that each member of the Body of Christ is valuable and has a vocation (1 Cor 12:12-30)

God Chooses Disabled Bodies to Carry out the Key Tasks of the Kingdom

At key points in God’s plan of salvation he uses disabled people as key players. Moses with his stutter asks God to send someone else to do his work (Exod 4:10-17). God responds by sending him and more mysteriously indicating that it was God who brought his stutter upon him (Exod 4:11). In 2 Cor 12:7-10 the apostle Paul prays three times for the thorn in his flesh to be removed and God does not heal his affliction. (Presumably the problem for Paul was not a lack of faith.) Instead, God says to him, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul responds by indicating that God’s grace is revealed in his weakness; in his weakness he finds strength. And of course, our redemption is wrought through the broken body of Jesus. The surprise of the resurrection (apart from the obvious) is that Jesus’s wounds remain a part of his resurrected body. Such an image offers a deep challenge to our culturally contrived dreams about the nature of perfection. If the risen body of Jesus has scars on it, maybe our current ideas about perfection and beauty need to be rethought. Perhaps it is possible to be whole and beautiful and to live with a profound disability?

Loving God with Our Bodies

As a good Presbyterian, I am used to all of my theology and practice being based around words. As someone once put it, in the Reformed tradition the Word became flesh and then became words again! There is an element of truth in that. There is a sense in which we have overlooked the fact that our different bodies actually have theological significance. The philosopher Maurice Merleau Ponty draws our attention to the fact that we come to know the world not just through our minds but also through our bodies (Phenomenology of Perception [Routledge, 2005]). Our bodies in all of their diversity encounter the world in different ways and these different ways give us different forms of knowledge about the world. Think about it in this way. If you are significantly visually impaired, you will never see the Scriptures; if you have total hearing loss, you will never hear the word; if you have no arms you will never feel what it is like to embrace someone in a “holy cuddle” (even though you will understand what it means to be embraced). When someone talks or preaches about being embraced by the love of God, such words will have a totally different meaning for you. This is not a better or worse meaning, but simply different. But, if you can see, you will never know what it is like to encounter God without sight; if you can hear, you will never know what it is like to sign the word and to use your body in ways a hearing person simply cannot grasp. If you can remember everything well, you will never know what it is like to encounter God without remembering God. It is only as we take seriously the experiences and beauty of our different bodies that we can begin to understand what it means to be human and what it means to know God as Christ’s Body rather than as disparate individuals. Within the Body of Christ we are bound together by one Spirit, but each body within the Body informs us as to the shape of Jesus. If we forget about the knowledge that comes from other parts of the Body we risk misrepresenting the fullness of what it means to know God and how we come to such knowledge.

Hospitality: Guesting and Hosting

The theology of disability is about creating new dimensions of theological hospitality. One of the startling but often unnoticed aspects of Jesus’s ministry is the way he constantly shifted his mode of hospitality. Sometimes he was a guest and sometimes he was a host. When he was guesting he didn’t try to impose on his hosts. He sat with tax collectors and sinners, not reformed tax collectors and sinners! So the movement of divine hospitality holds a deep rhythm of guesting and hosting, welcoming and being open to learning from the host. Remembering and reflecting this divine hospitable movement is fundamental for theology in general, but particularly for the theology of disability. Its task is not to usurp other theologies or to try to trump them because they may not appear to be politically correct. The task of disability theology is to offer a context for hospitable conversations around key issues with a view to enhancing understanding and enabling more faithful discipleship. Such an enterprise is deeply theological, transformative, and profoundly practical. As such it opens up vistas containing fascinating possibilities.

What might it be like if we accepted the invitation to be guests in the lives of people with advanced dementia? What if we took seriously that call to human beings encapsulated in the creation narrative in Gen 3 to care for the world. If as this narrative suggests, the call to care is a fundamental vocation of humans and if by implication, receiving care is an inevitable corollary, then what exactly might it mean to receive care from someone with advanced dementia, i.e., those whom many of us assume only to be the recipients of care. What might it mean to be a guest in the lives of people with schizophrenia, people with intellectual disabilities, people with severe mobility problems? Rather than assuming that disabilities simply require care, healing, or any other assumed pastoral/spiritual intervention that the church might choose to offer “them,” what might it be like to accept the gift of hospitality from such lives? What might it be like to enter in, sit down, and look around in order that the whole Body of Christ can see what the gospel looks like when it is lived out in their lives? Things would look very different. That is precisely the invitation that the theology of disability offers to the church: to learn to see properly and to allow the Spirit to renew our minds in ways that can enable all of us to see ourselves and each one of our brothers and sisters properly, and in seeing properly to learn to live together more faithfully.

Let’s Talk!

Now, I can hear biblical scholars and the systematic theologians racing to the front pews with objections about my bad exegesis, lack of understanding of the original texts, and failure to reflect effectively on the historical tradition. Pastors may complain that they can’t preach this, and those with a healing ministry may simply throw up their hands in despair. And that is exactly the point! Disability theology seeks to be faithfully subversive. It is intended to open up new and often dissonant conversations, debates, challenges, and arguments, and to throw fresh light on established ideas and practices. By raising questions and issues of the type that I have touched on in this short article, the theology of disability enables us to move closer to God and to discover the possibility of engaging with the tradition in ways that are faithful and take seriously the experiences of the whole of Jesus’s Body. Disability theology is not particularly novel. The rich, diverse, and often contradictory understandings of God and humanity available within the Christian tradition forces us to ask: Whose God is the God we worship and whose Jesus do we follow? The human tendency to create God according to our own image is not difficult to track down. Disability theology simply attempts to develop, clarify, and rethink our theology and our God-images in the same way that theology has always done. New questions lead to fresh understandings; fresh understandings leads to more faithful ways of being church.

Further Reading

Kathy Black, A Healing Homiletic: Preaching and Disability (Abingdon, 1996).

Brian Brock and John Swinton, eds., Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader (Eerdmans, 2011).

Deborah Beth Creamer, Disability and Christian Theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities (Oxford University Press, 2009).

Nancy L Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Abingdon, 1994).

Hans Reinders, Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological, Anthropology, and Ethics (Eerdmans, 2008).

Thomas E. Reynolds, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality (Brazos, 2008).

John Swinton, Dementia: Living in the Memories of God (Eerdmans, 2012).

Amos Yong, Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity (Baylor University Press, 2007).

Posted Mar 04, 2015