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God Beyond Words, by Jill Harshaw

26 July 2019

The movements of the Spirit are not confined by intellectual ability, says John Saxbee

THIS book is dedicated to the author’s daughter, Rebecca, who has profound intellectual disabilities. If it had been published more recently it might also have been dedicated to Jean Vanier, founder of the L’Arche community, who died earlier this year, and whose life she describes as “inspirational on both an academic and personal level”.

These profoundly personal influences combine with extensive research and academic rigour to produce a ground-breaking exploration of a topic that sits uneasily with conventional theological methodology, and so has been largely and shamefully neglected.

After a helpful chapter defining terms and dealing with challenges posed by labelling, intellectualism, and who, if anyone, can legitimately speak for or about people with profound intellectual disabilities, Jill Harshaw offers a brief survey of disability in Christian theology and society — largely a negative legacy, but with positive indicators, especially in recent decades.

Next, she provides a forensic critique of methodologies that, although they generally prove of value to the effective pursuit of evidence-based practical theology, rely on intellectual and verbal capacities that the subjects of concern to Harshaw simply do not possess.

This being so, a new approach is called for, and it is to theology that she turns in search of God as beyond words and the constraints of intellectual assent. This she pursues “on a journey through rich theological sources of the Christian tradition”.

Her entry point is God’s desire for self-disclosure to human beings, and how God enacts such disclosure, not least to people with profound intellectual disabilities. Christian theology has generally embraced a theory of accommodation whereby God’s self-revelation must accommodate the capacity of people to receive and experience it for themselves. So God, as God, must self-disclose to people with profound intellectual disabilities — but how?

Perhaps some theological themes associated with the baptism of those who cannot answer for themselves may help, but of greater significance is the work of the Holy Spirit, blowing where he wills and, presumably, how he wills. Acts 10 to 11 is treated to an extensive exposition to show how the Spirit was experienced before intellectual assent had been made. An experience of God can precede and always supersedes a belief about God.

What it might mean for people with profound intellectual disabilities to have spiritual experiences is illuminated by the Christian mystical tradition, and especially apophaticism, which asserts the unknowableness of God. If it is, indeed, the case that the highest form of knowledge is unknowing, then the subjects of Harshaw’s study may well be better placed than most to experience God beyond words.

Three challenges are thrown down here to the Church, the academic world, and wider society. First, the place of people with disabilities must continue to be promoted and celebrated. Second, the intellectual and verbal bias inherent in Christian theology and practice must be critiqued and corrected. Third, revelation is first and foremost by God’s initiative, and God has unlimited, unconditional, and infinite capacity for self-disclosure to all people, whatever their circumstances.

In summary, people with profound intellectual disabilities are capable of spiritual experiences, not only because of who they are as human beings made in the image of God, but because of who God is as a benign Creator, committed to fostering such spiritual relationships with all his human creation.

Of course, if God can and does enable such experiences in spite of, or even because of, such disabilities, how might this insight extend to non-human but, none the less, sentient creatures? Because she is rightly determined not to give any ground to notions of people with profound intellectual disabilities as in any sense sub- or non-human, this is not a question that she is minded to examine, but it nevertheless remains as a tantalising project for others to pursue.

As Professor Amos Yong has observed in relation to Harshaw’s work: “what was intended as an intervention in the arena of intellectual disability has ripple effects in Christian theology as a whole.”

This challenging and potentially life-changing book is both a tribute to what Harshaw’s daughter has taught her, and testimony to the power of theology to illumine the lives and lighten the load for those whose duty of care can also be, by God’s grace, a positive joy.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.

God Beyond Words: Christian theology and the spiritual experiences of people with profound intellectual difficulties
Jill Harshaw
Jessica Kingsley Publishers £50
Church Times Bookshop £45

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