THE theology of disability begins with a question: what does it mean to be disabled — sometimes profoundly disabled — to be made in God’s image, to be fully human, and to be beautiful, just the way you are, without having to change anything? Striving to answer such a question takes one into places and ways of thinking that are not available by other means.
One of the things that disability theologians have noticed is that the questions that are asked of theology tend to come from a certain group of people: theologians. That in itself is not the problem. The issue is whether theologians have taken the fullness of human experiences into consideration as they have reflected on the things of God over time.
If we think about the way in which academic theology is constructed, it tends to be developed by well-educated people, usually within a university context. The questions that academic theologians ask are important. But the questions that they don’t ask are equally as important. Certain questions that come from other perspectives and other places within creation are often not asked of the tradition. One of these other places is the human experience of disability.
Disability theology desires to explore what happens when the different perspectives and questions that emerge from human disability are placed alongside scripture and tradition and the practices of the Church. What does the gospel look like if we ask such different questions?
AT THE heart of disability theology is the idea of illumination. John Calvin talks about it, St Augustine talks about it, Aquinas talks about it. Illumination occurs when something from scripture suddenly changes the way that you see everything. Illumination is a mode of revelation; it is a movement of the Spirit wherein we suddenly come to see a different angle on the way that things are. When we see things differently, we are illuminated. When we are illuminated, everything changes; nothing can ever be the same.
Illumination is action-oriented. It leads to revised understanding and revised practices. Disability theologians use scripture and tradition to illuminate the human condition in ways that are sometimes dissonant and surprising.
Think, for example, about the calling and vocation of Moses. He has a significant speech impediment. God says, “Listen, I’ve got a big job for you.” What does Moses respond? “I can’t do it because I’ve got this speech impediment. Could you not send somebody else?” God basically says to him “Do what you’re told!”
What God does not do is say, “Oh, hold on a second, I’m going to heal your speech impediment and then you can go off and fulfil your vocation.” He says: “I’ll send people to help you, but nothing of you is going to change.” And Moses, that powerful disabled leader of God’s people, discovers his vocation through that encounter.
And, more than that, what does God say? He says: “Well, who, do you think, makes blind people blind? Who, do you think, makes speechless people speechless?” There is something mysterious about this statement. What on earth does it mean, that God is somehow implicated in what we choose to call human disability? Some of us might say that disability is a product of the Fall, or the product of sin and evil, but God says “No, I did it.”
There is no indication here that God does this in judgement. God simply says that he does it. I don’t know what that means, but, at a minimum, it indicates that the God who creates the universe and loves it into existence, the God who is love, is deeply implicated in human difference, not in terms of judgement, but as a loving, creating presence.
So, when we begin to read a passage like that in the light of human disability, and allow it to illuminate us, things begin to change.
BESIDES reflecting on scripture, disability theologians take broader theological ideas and place them alongside the experience of human disability. Take, for example, the nature of God’s love.
In the 1960s, a Japanese theologian, Kosuke Koyama, wrote a book, Three Mile an Hour God (SCM Press). He noticed that the average speed that human beings walk at is three miles per hour. Jesus, who is God, walked at three miles per hour. God, who is love, walks at three miles per hour. Love has a speed, Koyama says, and that speed is slow. That speed is gentle. That speed is tender.
When you begin to think about that, it challenges those who think that God is only interested in speed, productivity, and efficiency. Jesus, who created the universe, the God who throws the stars into the heavens, is a slow God — a God who takes time to love. When you begin to recognise God in this rather counter-cultural way, things begin to change.
I spoke to one of my colleagues, who works in a busy hospital, about the three-mile-an-hour God. He said: “This place means that I have to move at nine miles an hour!” I said to him, “Well, who are you following?” If Jesus is walking at three miles an hour, and you’re walking at nine miles an hour, who is following whom?
In a culture of speed, we forget that love takes time, and that love is slow.
If you place that way of thinking about God-as-slow and time-as-for-love, and place it beside the experience of people living with advanced dementia, we can begin to see how important it is to be Christlike in the ways in which we care.
To be with people living with dementia, you need to slow down and take time for those things that the world considers to be trivial. When you do this, you will be surprised — and probably amazed — at what you discover, as you encounter people in the slowness of God’s love. There is a deep beauty in such illumination.
Jesus talks about gentleness. In the Beatitudes, he says “I am gentle.” Think about that: “I am gentle.” The God who creates the universe, the one who is all-powerful, who knows everything, is not only slow, but is also gentle. A fundamental aspect of being made in the image of that God is gentleness.
Think what it would be like if we did our politics gently — even, if we did our church politics gently. Think what it would be like if we did our relationships gently. You may say, well it’s impossible; but then you turn to someone such as Jean Vanier, and the L’Arche communities where people with and without intellectual disabilities live together, and you begin to see that a gentle way of life may actually be possible.
Stanley Hauerwas says: “Because Jean Vanier exists, because the L’Arche communities live slow lives, living gently is possible.” Perhaps the gospel of gentleness is not so ridiculous after all.
WHEN we begin to think differently about scripture in the light of human difference, it opens up a whole new way of understanding humanness. John Hull, a practical theologian who, sadly, died a few years ago, lost his sight in his early fifties. In his book Touching the Rock, he lays out what it is like to lose your sight.
One of the things that he concluded, eventually, after much grief and lament, was that being blind was not so bad: it was just another way of being in the world — not a lesser way, just different. Sighted people assume that looking out on the world is the only way of being human, and they try as hard as they can to rehabilitate people so that they can receive as close an approximation of sight as possible. In doing this, they risk colonising the diversity of humanness.
Hull concludes, however, that there is no single way of being human. To be human is a wide range of possibilities, all of which teach us something about how to love. It is only when we learn to value and appreciate the diversity of the human condition that we begin to understand the beauty of the diversity of being human — and the beauty of the diversity of participating in that community that is Jesus’s body.
The Revd Dr John Swinton is a former nurse, a minister in the Church of Scotland, and Professor of Practical Theology and Pastoral Care at the University of Aberdeen. His books include Dementia: Living in the memories of God, which won the 2016 Michael Ramsey Prize, and Becoming Friends of Time (Reading Groups, 8 September 2017), both published by SCM Press.
This article is based on a talk delivered at last month’s Theology Slam. It is available to view at www.churchtimes.co.uk/theology-slam and on the Church Times Facebook page. It can be heard on the latest Church Times Podcast