a thing about theology and disability

I frequently tell my students that sometimes writing clearly requires stating what seems blindingly obvious. Don’t worry, this is not a post about good writing. (If you want to read some, my current example is Bill McKibben’s Falter. I wish my prose was in the same league as his.) This is a post about something that is blindingly obvious to me, and how it came to be that way. That is, most of the things that seem to us to go without saying don’t just appear that way. They’re things we’ve learned. In my case, I have learned them the hard way (which often sucks, but the lessons stick).

This is a story about how I came to think about disability and God in the way that I do now. Once upon a time, I was teenage girl who intended to have kids and be done with it by the time I was 30. Why? (Wait for it…) Because I was so certain that I could never, ever cope with having a child with Down Syndrome. (File under ‘Please God, don’t send me to China’.) Well, I was sort of right: I am not good at coping, and sometimes I fail spectacularly. I was wrong, though, to think that my life would be better without a child with Down Syndrome in it.

About 18 years ago, I was a PhD student writing about Christian identity. As I thought about what it meant for someone to be a Christian, I found myself thinking about things like ‘imagination’ and ‘belief’. If Christians are shaped by doctrine and Scripture, then how can a person who doesn’t understand either be called a Christian? I’ve written a good bit about that elsewhere—not only in my dissertation, which became a book, but in articles I’ve written since then. Christian discipleship is fostered by study of Scripture and doctrine, but not because knowing stuff gets us closer to Jesus. The object of the discipleship game is to follow, and being smarter doesn’t make us better followers. ‘Taking every thought captive to Christ’ is the imagination’s job with respect to Christian discipleship; the more, and the more elaborate and fancy the thoughts, the more help (from doctrine and Scripture) we need to capture them.

There is an implication of my proposal that I don’t spell out, though. I don’t say it in anything I have published, and yet I keep saying it—to students, to friends at conferences, in emails—as if it ought to be obvious. It is that disability names a feature of most human lives at one point or another, but it does not name something that impairs a person’s discipleship. That is, ‘disability’, as we human beings think about it, doesn’t block a person’s relationship with God. As my friend John Swinton has pointed out, we are known by God. So we should not make the mistake of believing that human being’s relationship with God depends on the person’s ability to know God. Scripture and doctrine agree that we can’t. But we are known by God, and can come to know God in that being known. Disability doesn’t get in the way of God knowing us. (Now there is a lot more to be said about that, in a lot more technical detail. But I hope that we can agree that, for example, I don’t need to be able to speak to be able to pray. I’ll leave it there, and be glad to answer questions.)

The point is that, from God’s point of view, we are all ‘disabled’—we don’t know how to pray as we ought to; we cannot see God; we don’t have the capacity to know God. If we want to pray well, we ask for help; if we want to see God, we ask for God to reveal God to us. And we wait. The only thing that really counts as disability here, the only thing that impairs our relationship with God is sin: we turn away; we refuse to ask; we refuse to wait. That, and not any impairment of mind or body, corrupts our relationship with God. No hearing loss, no paralysis, no cognitive impairment, no mental illness, nothing that disrupts our earth-bound and social existence can separate us from the love of God.

A long time ago, I was the mother of a tiny child, a little girl with Down Syndrome, whose potential for Christian discipleship I came to see as fully equal to my own. And she cannot explain the Trinity to me, but she can draw me into prayer. She remembers in her prayers those for whom I have forgotten to pray. She knows how to say sorry (though she doesn’t like to say it any more than anyone else does) to others and to God.

I am grateful for having been ‘sent to China’: from within this landscape I see things differently. I see what really impairs us human creatures—it’s not the limits of our intelligence or our skill set; it’s the limits to our humility, patience, and love. And I am unspeakably glad that I have daily before me a model of humility and an encouragement to my patience, and that in this crazy life we have together, there is Love—more than I ever knew there was in the whole world.

Deo gratias.

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