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Sympathy is not enough

22 November 2013

John M. Hull concludes his series on blindness and faith

THE contrast between blindness and sight in our language continually reassures sighted people that to be sighted means to be sensible, knowledgeable, judicious, and rational; while to be blind is to be the opposite of such qualities.

It is regrettable that the language of faith and worship collaborates with this prejudice; indeed, the Bible itself is a principal source of such negativity. Even Jesus is reported to have used the word "blind" as a term of abuse (Matthew 23.16-19 "Blind guides!"; 24-26 "You blind Pharisee!"); and in the hymn-books, it is the sinful, the heathen, the idolaters, and the unconverted who are blind. It is precisely because such language is metaphorical that it is so persuasive.

But is not the metaphor based upon accurate observation? Is it not true that blind people are ignorant and insensitive, clumsy and undiscriminating? Whether blind people are like this depends on the situation, the point of view, and the detail. A blind person would certainly be a rather undiscriminating motorist, but would not be blind at all on the telephone. A blind person is ignorant of facial expression, but by the same token, cannot be deceived by appearances.

Blind people do become rather indifferent to reported details that necessarily lie outside their experience. I listen with patient interest to my friend describing a stained-glass window or a painting. My interest is just as much in the reactions of my friend as it is in the object of description.

Of course, blind people differ from each other as much as sighted people do. While it is true that blind people cannot do anything that sighted people cannot do, it may be the case that blindness enables tactile and acoustic experiences to be absorbed with greater concentration and intensity.

At any rate, we certainly cannot compare the experiences of sighted and blind people point by point in this way, especially if we are coming from a philosophy of normality that assumes a deficiency model of disability. The Bible speaks of blindness as a curse from God (Acts 13.6-11), or as a metaphor of unbelief (John 9.39-41). It speaks of those who, being blind, lead other blind people into trouble (Matthew 15.14); but it never refers to the skilful hands of the blind weaver or the blind potter.

On the other hand, the Bible also takes blindness as a metaphor of faith, for "we walk by faith not by sight" (2 Corinthians 5.7); and faith itself is "the evidence of things unseen" (Hebrews, 11.1).

Not until the ambiguity of the religious and linguistic traditions is more vividly realised will the unconscious reinforcement of the exclusive world of normality be qualified.

The presuppositions, experiences and attitudes that I have described must represent significant educational barriers between sighted teachers and blind, or visually impaired, children. It is an educational barrier because there can be no genuine dialogue between a totalised world and that which is deemed to lie beyond it.

Mere human sympathy is insufficient. The sympathy that does not challenge the absolute charac- ter of the totalised world must turn into a condescending or patronising attitude, into the desire to help, into a benevolence that simply fails to understand, or into pity.

This is the last of four edited extracts from The Tactile Heart: Blindness and faith by John M. Hull (SCM Press, £25; CT Bookshop £22.50; 978-0-334-04933-3.

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