Crooked Healing: Disability, Vocation and the Theology of the Cross

I am very excited to be able to host this guest post from Kelby Carlson on a theology of disability. This is such an important topic, but one which is seldom given the attention that it merits. Far from being an issue of limited relevance, I believe that Kelby’s article should alert us all to the deeper connection that questions surrounding disability have with some of the core themes of our Christian faith and practice, a connection that serves to bring greater light to truths that apply to each one of us. As such, it is not just an articulation of the character of the ministry of people with disabilities within the Church, but also a practice of that ministry. Please pass this on to others and leave your thoughts and interactions in the comments! – Alastair


“I want to pray for you.”

I raise my head, instantly alert. It could be anywhere. Perhaps I am in the library, studying for an exam. I may be walking briskly to the small, brick building where I take most of my classes. I might be in one of the school cafeterias, or in a restaurant near campus to snatch dinner. And always, this innocuous statement puts me on alert. My dog’s head is as likely to quizzically rise along with my own; he, hoping for a wandering pat—while I struggle to formulate my response to this enigmatic statement.

It might seem strange to some that, as a lifelong person of faith, I would find the other’s desire for prayer to be so hard to respond to. Prayer is supposed to be an instrument of gratitude, intercession and doxology. But as a person with a disability, there is a shadow to the element of prayer cast over any interaction that directly involves my disability. As someone with a chronic (and, barring incredible medical advances, permanent) disability, this is a perennial problem I must navigate as a member of the church and aspiring theologian. On the face of it, this request for prayer seems harmless, even beneficent. But it is nearly always accompanied by an explanation: “I want you to be healed.”

But what is wrong with this? Doesn’t the Christian religion hold out hope of ultimate healing? Doesn’t God promise physical restoration to those who have faith in his righteousness? Don’t we, as people of God, long for the day “when there will be no mourning, nor death, nor crying, nor pain?” Insofar as this vision seeks to give a glimpse of a new creation, reconciled to God, where we are in full communion with each other and with Triune Being, than I can only heartily affirm such an idea. But lurking beneath such a portrait is something that is far more troubling. It is the erasure of the past, and the elimination of disability as a means of living well before God.

What I am saying may sound revolutionary, even heretical. I want to affirm at the outset of this essay that I fully endorse, as a confessional Protestant, the great historic Creeds and councils of the church. I have labored the best I can not to steer away from an Orthodox confession of the faith “once for all delivered to the saints.” But if the church is to be guided into all truth, then it stands to reason that there are areas of theology that are constantly in need of investigation. What I want to do in this short paper is bring disability into the theological dialogue. Whole books could be written on this topic (and some have!). In an attempt to keep my thoughts on this topic cohesive, I will bring my disabled experience into dialogue with two important concepts: the evangelical doctrines of vocation and the theology of the cross. Excluded from this discussion are extended considerations of the Imago Dei, disability in biblical studies and disability as it relates to eschatology.

I. Background and Concerns

Before discussing disability as it relates to theology specifically, we will need to define some important terms. I must make it clear both what I mean by disability and the context in which I intend to employ theology to broaden understanding of the possibilities for dialogue. When defining words, it is always helpful to consult the dictionary. Oxford gives the following as its preliminary definition: “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities. A disadvantage or handicap, especially one imposed or recognized by the law.”

This definition is fine as far as it goes. But different sectors have different ways of approaching the subject. The two dominant theoretical models for speaking about disability are the medical and the minority model. The medical model sees disability primarily in clinical terms, as a pathology (or set of pathologies) that must be treated by an existing medical establishment. This model was dominant up to about the mid twentieth century. It does not take much digging to see the problems with this theory. If disability is seen primarily as something to be overcome or erased, then untreatable disabilities are likely to be consigned to the edges of medical practice, where integration and rehabilitation are difficult. The medical model still appears on occasion. (An easy example is the separation between medical ophthalmology and vocational rehabilitation for those with visual impairments.)

A second model of disability arose in the latter half of the century. This model was known as the social or the minority model. It conceived of disability in relationship to broader society. Finding its centrality in the continuing discrimination against people with physical and mental disabilities, the minority model theorizes disability as a societal construct that must be overcome. Consequently, the social model focuses both on public advocacy for disability legislation and attempts to alter the portrayal of disabilities in media, news and the arts. It seeks to upend both the unhealthy idealization of the disabled and comic, ridiculous or pitiful picture of the disabled person unable to care for herself.

It may seem self-evident that I, as a disabled person, would be more comfortable adopting a social model to talk about my disability. This is in large part true. The problem, however, is that like a great deal of our discourse, it relies on metaphysically atheistic assumptions. What I want to work toward is what I would label a “theological” model of disability. This model would not only preserve the concept of disability as a social reality, but would extend the idea to encompass the way disability interacts with and in religious assumptions. How can we think of disability as a kind of relationship to God, and what might that mean for the idea of “being human” and living in the church?

In proposing such a model, there are a number of things that need to be recognized and avoided. The reality of social marginalization should be acknowledged: while the position of the disabled in America has largely changed for the better, social, technological and political constraints still force many disabled people to lead subsocial lives. What is less widely understood, however, is that there is also a theological marginalization of the disabled in Christianity. Disability is, I have already pointed out, not a category that has received much theological examination until recently. Beyond that, though, the theologies of disability put forward thus far have (with a couple of exceptions) been drawn up by the non-disabled. While this certainly does not invalidate their observations or their models, I remain unconvinced that a theological model of disability that does not take in the voices of the disabled at its core is of limited use. This is why it is necessary for those who are disabled who have the willingness and the ability to construct their own theological models, in line with Scripture and the confessions of the church.

There is one last area of concern to address before addressing the two primary theological topics. The project of constructing a theology of disability needs to steer between two unhelpful shoals. The first shoal is a kind of non-redemptive liberation theology. Liberation theology is generally conceived of as a project to free marginalized people from oppressive theological systems. Unfortunately it tends to ontologize whatever its marginalized category is—for example, conceiving of God as ontologically “black”, “female”, or “disabled”—and thus reconstituting the relationship between God and the world in such a way that God is eternally hostile to categories outside of that ontology. This way of conceiving of theology is unhelpful because it both goes beyond Scripture in adding to God’s attributes and refusing to stand under Scripture and acknowledge God’s desire for universal reconciliation. In this way much liberation theology is fundamentally “non-redemptive” because it collapses finite reality into infinitude. This is especially unhelpful for disability because it cannot acknowledge a progressive or redemptive goal into which disability might fall.

The opposite danger is to collapse disability into a grand narrative of sin in such a way that redemption of disability becomes redemption from disability. For those suffering with chronic disabilities, this means that their continuity of identity is effectively destroyed by an anomalous resurrection. Resurrection as conceived this way is not a renewal and transfiguration of an old creation, but an erasing of the old to make way for something completely new. This leaves those with lifelong disabilities left with no theological anchor by which they can live out their experience in relationship to God and the world.

II. Disability as Vocation

Moving away from background concerns, I would now like to address the first way in which to conceive of disability theologically. This draws on a classical and well-formed Protestant distinctive. Known by the Lutherans as vocation and broadly as calling, it has given birth to the Protestant work ethic and the expansion of sacred duties to those outside religious cloisters. Given an opportunity, it can do the same for those living with disabilities.

What does vocation mean for the ordinary Christian? Put simply, vocation is one way in which God exercises his providence: through the ordinary stations of Christians. Martin Luther grounded this in the doctrine of the three estates, the family, the church, and the state, which he saw as creational institutions. Even after the fall of humanity, however, God still exercised his power through the labor of ordinary Christians. According to this view, a milkmaid and a soldier did work that was no less holy or spiritual than a priest or a monk. Vocation was a way to serve God through one’s calling (which was not, strictly speaking, limited to one’s career) and to be served by God through others. Luther went so far as to call the vocation a “mask of God”, by which he is seen in the ordinary aspects of life.

There are few things more potentially useful to the disabled experience than the idea of vocation. Vocation places disability in a wider spectrum of the sacred calling. It implies that disabled people and their able-bodied counterparts are on equal spiritual footing. More than that, it suggests that disabled people can be seen as conduits for God’s grace and service rather than it only images of a broken creation in need of “fixing.”

This doctrine of vocation restores the image of God to the disabled. In response to the worry that disability is evidence of sin, one can reply precisely to the contrary. While brokenness itself is evidenced of a creation longing for release from bondage, an individual’s disability is, subversively, a venue for Christ to display his glory.

III. Disability as Theology of the Cross

Disability as a theater for the service of God in work is not the only way by which it can be conceived. While there are a number of helpful implications to be gleaned from this picture, I would contend that another foundational idea of the Reformation has even more to offer. That idea is the theology of the cross, contrasted with the “theology of glory.” The theology of glory is any attempt conceived to reach God by upward action. Traditionally, this has been divided into three spheres: right action (moralism), right knowledge (speculation), and right experience (mysticism). In response to new explorations of embodiment in academia as well as increasing cultural obsession with body perfection, one might perhaps add right body as a fourth way of being seen before God. All of those avenues to God rely on the assumption that the individual is an autonomous unit with completely free, noncontingent choices. This can even be seen in models of disability that prize “independence” as a lone category as something to be strived for. (A treatment of the nuances of this idea would require more space than I have here.)

Disability responds in graphic physical form to the idea of approaching God based on merit. Each disabled person with their twisted legs, nonfunctional eyes, or what visible or invisible disability they have, directly attacks the presumption of human glory. Disability is a symbol or metonymy of the larger experience before God: one of weakness, alienation and dependence. Thus, when someone speaks of the “victorious” Christian life, I would be tempted to respond this way: “Do you think the paralyzed, the blind, the mentally, handicapped are living a victorious life? Or do you think they are the very people Jesus came for?”

Such a blunt assessment of disability’s pictorial significance might seem harsh, especially coming from a disabled person. If I left it there, it would be entirely inadequate. But disability is not merely a counter to theologies of merit constructed by man. It represents the opposite of that: a theology that finds its centerpiece in God’s death on the cross.

The theology of the cross is a particular way of doing theology that disabled people can uniquely understand. It is the theology that acknowledges the “visible” things of God: namely the cross of Christ and visible suffering as the premier way of “seeing” God. God’s grace is manifested, paradoxically, in that which appears weak and nonsensical. In this view, one cannot blithely skip over the cross as a simple means to God’s vindication and resurrection. This results in an anemic view of suffering: something that is meant only to be patiently endured in the hope that perhaps someday things will get better. In contrast, St. Paul offers a paradigm for understanding weakness and suffering that is directly consonant with the theology of the cross:

So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Cor. 12:7-10)

This reveals a redemptive way of looking at suffering, and consequently at disability (which, for a great majority of disabled people, involves suffering to one degree or another). Grace is seen as a means of living in and through suffering. Chronic weakness is seen as real strength. In fact, it is the only way to truly approach God in faith. Can we view this in an ecclesial way that might take account of the suffering of disabilities in the body of Christ? While formulating such an ecclesiology would not be an easy task, I would like to offer a couple of passages that illumine what such a thing might look like.

There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (Eph. 4:4-7)

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:5-11)

These passages can be read both incarnationally (concerning Christ himself) and ecclesiologically (the way the church is united to Christ.) Both of these passages speak of the unity and diversity of gifts through grace. They ground this in the atoning sacrifice of Christ, by which he identified with the alienated and marginalized and took up physical and spiritual suffering into himself. The New Testament consistently presents the idea of sharing in Christ’s suffering as a progressive aspect of the church’s sanctification.

Conclusions: Practical Implications

I fear that a good deal of the above will seem abstract and irrelevant to everyday concerns of Christians with disabilities and the churches they make their homes. As a consequence, I would like to offer some simple theses that take the (very incomplete) theological reflections as their starting point. Hopefully these will provide grist for thought and applications.

1. Those with disabilities must be allowed to have their place in a theological dialogue. Theology is concerned with embodiment, including the embodiment of disabled people.

2. There is a place for talking of redeeming disability. But this should not consist of seeing redemption as the erasure of all trace of disability, particularly for those for whom disability is a constitutive part of their identity.

3. Disability is one manifestation of a Christian’s vocation. It is, as stated above, a theatre for God’s glory, in which Christ is manifested in both service of and to the disabled.

4. The cross brings all ideas of human weakness into itself. Individually, the disabled can recognize the cross as the nexus of their relationship with Christ in his weakness, and realize that possessing a “thorn” is a means of grace in weakness rather than shame. Ecclesiologically, the disabled can be recognized as, in an important way, ikons of Christ’s redemptive suffering.

These four theses can serve as the theoretical basis for a programmatic effort to more systematically include people with disabilities. Such inclusion must be active rather than passive: a demonstration of Christian hospitality rather than mere “equal treatment.” Conversely, disabled Christians can and should seek to serve the body of Christ in the unique ways God has given them in their vocation as specifically disabled. These reflections are nothing more than a starting point. Living with a disability, offering my body as a living sacrifice (Rom. 12:1) is my ultimate goal. It is a constant journey, guided by the Holy Spirit into continuous reliance upon the strength of God in my weakness. I pray that this essay would be one more step in articulating a path in which those with disabilities and those who know them can seek the narrow path walked by our master, Jesus.

Kelby Carlson is a music student in the southern region of the United States. By day, he sings Bach, Rossini and Vaughan Williams; by night, he reads Martin Luther, Jacques Derrida and Peter Leithart. He enjoys good home cooking (but can’t produce any himself), romping with his guide dog, and (no, really) long walks on the beach during summer. His theological interests include the theology of disability, evolutionary creationism and American evangelical renewal.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Christian Experience, Guest Post, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

55 Responses to Crooked Healing: Disability, Vocation and the Theology of the Cross

  1. A tangential idea that didn’t make it into the essay is something I’ll bring up in the comments. In thinking about disability and Paul’s thorn in the flesh (a constant, paradigmatic idea for me) it occurred to me to wonder about Jesus’ crown of thorns.

    Since thorns are often representative of people, this crown may ironically indicate Jesus’ putting on of all human evil and sin that it might be overcome.

    And yet I wonder if there is any kind of link between those two “thorns.” If Christ bore a thorned crown that was both the symbol of his kingship and of his cursed status and Paul bore a thorn in the flesh that he might paradoxically gain strength through weakness, I can’t help but think it appropriate to believe that Christ identifies with the physically and spiritually broken in a more visceral way than I thought but also “gives” each one of us a crown of thorns that we might be further conformed to his image.  Thoughts?

    • The identification between Christ and Paul in his thorn in the flesh is a very close one (and, incidentally, suggests that Paul and the Corinthian church had a deep familiarity with the details of the passion narrative). Notice that he asks for it to be removed three times (2 Corinthians 12:8; cf. Matthew 26:44). The reference to ‘Abba, Father’ in Romans 8’s discussion of God’s witness in the sufferings of the present time is probably another allusion to Gethsemane (cf. Mark 14:36).

      • Great points! What is so striking about this entire idea is that, as I tried to make clear in my essay, the “thorn” is not merely something to be taken away.  It is, in itself, an instrument of grace and redemption.  This certainly doesn’t mesh with the secular account of disability as purely socially constructed.  But the idea that my disability itself is something by which Christ sanctifies me through the Spirit and thereby empowers me to bless others is a far more beautiful one.  It is something I was fortunate enough to have a family that implicitly understood, and as I study the Scriptures more I can articulate it more clearly.

      • A few other points for possible reflection:

        1. The parallel between the judgment on the woman and the judgment on Adam in Genesis 3. The toilsome bringing forth from the ground with thorns is connected with the sorrowful birthpangs of the woman in bringing forth her children (some of whom will be thorns). While the thorns and pains are associated with the judgment what must be recognized is that both are essential to the form that the redemptive vocation will take. Dominion over the earth is a vocation of thorns, and bringing forth the promised seed one of pangs. Conversely, the pronounced experience of pangs and thorns can be a sign that the redemptive vocation is being fulfilled. In this context, notice the extensive use of the imagery of birth pangs and painful childbirth in contexts of redemptive (e.g. John 16:21; Romans 8:18-23). The visibility of the curse is nowhere more pronounced than in the context of its overcoming.

        2. Could the thorn (or quite possibly ‘stake’) in the side be connected with the piercing of Christ’s side with the spear? This would raise a number of further connections. The opening of the side has been rightly connected with the opening of Adam’s side in the formation of Eve, as the Church is formed from the blood and water flowing from Christ’s side, an event given great significance in John’s theology. This is a sort of male ‘pregnancy’, for want of another word, connecting the two Genesis 3 themes. This would also connect the thorn in the flesh with the displayed wounds of Christ (‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus…’), wounds to be gloried in and displayed as tokens of victory. How might this inform a theology of disability?

        3. What do you make of the suggestion that some have made, that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was a physical disability, more particularly blindness? Suggestive evidence might be the blindness associated with his conversion, the otherwise bizarre suggestion that the Galatians would have taken out their own eyes and given them to him (Galatians 4:15), and the odd statement in Galatians 6:11 about writing large letters.

  2. Matt J. says:

    Alastair and Kelby,

    I showed this post to my wife to read as she thinks about this sort of thing a lot and has had similar troubling experiences around other Christians. She is visually impaired and we have a young daughter who is completely blind, so developing a more robust theology of disability is of some immediate value to us. We discussed it a bit and I decided to post some follow-up.

    My wife likes to bring up the passage in Exodus 4 where Moses bemoans to God his speech disability. The reply in verse 11 reads, “Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?” It seems that this is a good angle to incorporate.

    So why is person X blind or have bad legs? Because they are afflicted by the devil? Because of their parent’s sin (ala the Tower of Siloam)? No, it is the Lord. Some Christian traditions have made people with disabilities out to be cases in need of special healing and normalization. Others push them to the margin and keep them as charity cases, where they server a certain carved-out function. They can be ministered to, but they themselves are not fit to minister. In contrast though, if a person’s situation and gifts and weaknesses (be they pronounced or something relatively hidden) are indeed from the Lord, we must treat them with dignity and aim to integrate them into the normal life of the church and community.

    I like where you start with your post, but the “thorn in the flesh” analogy and identifying with the sufferings of Christ are both essentially negative things. Could we in fact take this a step further and actually make disability, from some perspective at least, into a positive thing? My wife says that not seeing the world sharply eliminates some of the ugliness thrown up in our faces every day. This is not always a bad thing. Someone deaf may feel frustrated when trying to communicate at times, but may also enjoy – even thrive, working in a place that may be noisy and distracting for everyone else. Many of the famous artists and inventors in our history are perhaps people that today may be labeled as mildly autistic and given various drugs and therapy sessions. Just like temperament (fiery or contemplative, brave or peacemaking, etc) can be seen as a grace, I think we could develop a theology that also sees disability as a grace as well. I know to some folks it’s going to be a hard sell, but a lot of disabled Christians will insist (in various ways) that it is. I wonder if you have considered taking this a step further into positive territory and where you might go.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Interesting and helpful points, Matt. Thanks for commenting. I look forward to hearing Kelby’s thoughts.

      One thing that I find worth reflecting upon is the idea that God ‘disables’ us in one area so that we learn not to depend upon a particular faculty, the sort of faculty that might lead to a misleading confidence. For instance, couldn’t circumcision be seen as a symbolic ‘disabling’ of man’s virility (it was seen otherwise in different cultures, but I am speaking about the specific meaning in Israel), encouraging men to trust in the covenant promise of a seed rather than their own masculine strength? God’s crippling of Jacob when wrestling with him is another example here. By rendering Jacob unfit for the sort of physical work that he was doing before, Jacob has to become a man who acts and rules with his voice rather than by physical strength, a sign of greater maturity.

      The faculty of sight is a good example here. Reliance upon the faculty of sight is warned against on several occasions in Scripture (worth remembering that the eyes of Adam and Eve were ‘opened’ prematurely – they needed to live with closed eyes for longer). Having the faculty this danger is far more pronounced. One of the interesting things here is the training of sight in two key ‘conversion narratives’ in Scripture – the Emmaus Road and the Damascus Road (the Ethiopian eunuch has Philip taken out of his sight directly after his baptism too). The point being that God must blind us before we can truly see him. Had the disciples on the road to Emmaus ‘seen’ Christ immediately, they wouldn’t truly have seen him at all. It was only through blinded eyes that Jesus could truly be apprehended. When the eyes were finally opened they opened on an absence – ‘Then their eyes were opened and they knew Him; and He vanished from their sight’. However, it was only through the blindness that the genuine sight emerged.

      Lots more could be said about this and the other things that you mention (for instance, I have extremely briefly remarked on the theme of the prophet’s speech impediment here), but I had better get going now. I would be interested to hear any more thoughts that you might have!

      • Matt,

        You bring up some good points. As I tried to make clear in my essay, I wanted to bring the perspective of a disabled person into dialogue with two very specific theological ideas. I tried to make clear that disability as a vocation is a sacred calling and a place in which God’s glory is manifested. I think that section could use work, though, because it may not have fully articulated what I intended to say. I could get into a number of things that I think about the Bible specifically as a blind person (if you want a good perspective on this, you might check out In The Beginning, There Was Darkness by John Hull.) Romans 10 says that faith comes bye hearing–specifically, hearing the Word of God. Many of the prophets when seeing a theophany for the first time fell to their faces or otherwise hid themselves for God’s sight. This indicates something powerful to me–that God is fundamentally “beyond” the kind of visual metaphors we often use to describe ordinary experience. This intersects very powerfully with apophatic theology and the Catholic mystical tradition, which pressage an experience of God beyond the light of his glory *and* beyond the darkness of his wrath. God’s “blinding” of us, as Alastair cogently demonstrated cogently above, is a necessary way in which he brings us into union with himself.

        I need to push back against your characterization of Paul’s thorn in the flesh as entirely negative. Certainly it is not wrong to think that Paul would have seen it that way. But, if you noticed where I placed that passage in my essay I was juxtaposing it with God’s voluntarily “disabling” of himself through the incarnation and his taking on of human manifestations of brokenness at the cross. (I have more thoughts on this, particularly as it relates to the resurrection, but they veer off into speculative territory so I am hesitant to post them here.) True, the theology of the cross is “negative” insofar as it indicates that traditional ideas of human normalcy and merit are utterly bunk in the presence of the cross. But I see this as a positive way to affrim what the world calls “foolish” and “weak”. It says to the disabled that they are as much a part of GOd’s kingdom of priests as anyone, and through Jesus the Great High Priest they can not only approach the throne but do so on behalf of others in ministry.

        I hope this clarifies some of what I was attempting to get at in my essay.

  3. Erin J says:

    Hi, this is Erin, Matt’s wife. I really appreciate this post and the discussion thread after it. A serious, respectful discussion of disability and theology, as Alastair wrote in his introduction, is not often tackled. I have a few remarks to add to the conversation, if I may.

    Regarding Alastair’s comment on positive metaphors of blindness in the Bible, I agree that there are many times as a Christian when we must “walk by faith and not by sight” and that having a trustworthy guide can be very comforting. In general, however, there are a couple of problems inherent in the ideas you proposed.

    The first is that for consistency’s sake, any application of metaphor in a positive sense must also be accompanied by all of the well-known negative metaphors that we know and love: blindness as it represents darkness, death, ignorance and fear. Metaphor too often becomes entangled with the lived experience of a person with reduced vision and the ideas bleed over into the treatment of a Christian with a disability in that she needs to be “rescued” from the state of misery and fear to which her lifelong state of blindness obviously subjects her.

    This leads me to the other problem with the positive metaphors of reduced spiritual vision being preferred by God, and that lies in definition. Using society’s unconscious meme of blindness being synonymous with ignorance, the metaphor becomes less an encouraging example of walking in God’s will and instead presents a tired old rehash of the old trope of the helpless, childlike ignorant blind person. How much better to keep ignorance as such and to divorce it entirely from the lived experience of blindness as a disability.

    To respond to Kelby’s idea of disability as a vocation, I would certainly love to have some more clarification on the topic as I’m not sure I’m following exactly what you mean to say. If the word vocation is used in the sense of a gift, I would certainly agree with you; however, the word, including the idea of a calling as you wrote in your original essay, bears a context of action and activity. Equating this with disability, which I view more as a state of being, such as being Asian or tall or brown-haired, would not carry an action per se, although it could be used by God in fulfilling the calling and vocations to which he has specifically led us. For example, being Asian could be used to fulfill a calling to Bible translation, but the state of being Asian itself does not necessarily denote a vocation in the sense that it has no action attached to it. I’m very interested to hear some clarity of your thoughts on the matter.

    • Thanks for the helpful comment, Erin.

      Yes, we have to recognize the full range of meanings that particular metaphors are given in Scripture. Blindness often carries very negative connotations as do other physical disabilities and I think that we can be completely forthright about this, while maintaining the point being made. These metaphors and their associated valuations don’t all function or exist on the same level, so I don’t believe that this need be approached as a matter of arbitrarily picking one set of connotations, while ignoring others.

      An example that might help to illustrate this is singleness and physical childlessness. These are seen as very negative states in the Old Testament. However, without denying any of this, these states are ‘recovered’ as sites where the truth of the kingdom is revealed in the New: the Ethiopian Eunuch becomes the ‘father’ of the Ethiopian church, fulfilling Isaiah 56:4-5. This doesn’t mean that suffering, disability, or such states as childlessness per se are now seen as naturally positive. Rather, the means of recovery is through participation in the vocation of Christ. It is what Christ does both for and through people who are disabled, suffering, or experiencing something like singleness or childlessness that transforms conditions of suffering and lack into unique vocations. Like singleness, blindness as a spiritual vocation finds meaning in the kingdom of God as it both points us away from something (reliance upon physical sight) and towards something else (the revelation of Christ). It is the coming of Christ that makes this ‘pointing away from’ far more than a negative movement, but a necessary means of apprehending the kingdom.

      This role of blindness in apprehending the kingdom is quite different from ‘ignorance’, but is a matter of discernment. I believe that it should be related to apophatic theology. Apophatic theology describes God by negation, by coming to a deeper apprehension of God through a deeper realization of what God is not. This is a particular mode of the deepening of spiritual wisdom. Relating this to the story of the Emmaus Road, the ‘blindness’ of the two travellers was not mere ignorance, but the closing off of a deceptive faculty so that true perception might occur. Unless there were a greater spiritual vision to arrive at, the closing of physical sight wouldn’t have a positive meaning.

      • Erin J says:

        Alastair, I hear what you’re saying. States such as disability or childlessness, that my otherwise be seen as negative states, will be “recovered” or redeemed by God in that he uses them to draw us to himself and create from our experience of suffering such a beauty of character as to finally fulfill the calling to which he has appointed us. This is certainly consistent with your example of the Eunuch fathering the Ethiopian church. This also is quite consistent with Apophatic theology, as you mentioned, that a lack of physical sight might point to a greater ability to perceive in the spiritual realm, for the physical sight might obscure “true seeing,” as in your road to Emmaus example.

        However warm and fuzzy this might sound, however, it still equates physical disability with lack. To a non-disabled person, and using conventional wisdom, this seems blatantly obvious! Doesn’t a blind person lack eyesight? Doesn’t a deaf person lack the ability to hear? Yet, the lived experience within that disability, especially if the disability has been present since childhood, surprisingly paints a different picture. It becomes more a physical attribute and a part of self-identity rather than a lack that needs recovery or redemption. Other physical attributes that are common to the non-disabled population might better illustrate this concept. Having brown hair indicates a lack of having blonde hair. Only if society places a greater emphasis on having blonde hair does the brown-haired person perceive himself as lacking. Childlessness in the Bible indicates a lack of continuance, a lack of prestige, a lack of care for old age.

        The thing that I have been pondering is: what if a lifelong disability, given by God for a specific purpose is not a lack at all? To the person and God, there is no comparison with those who might have full sight and therefore consider themselves as superior. To use an analogy from fiction, consider “Aunt Beast” from Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinke in Time, creatures who have no eyes, nor do they have need for eyes. As the Beast gently explains to Meg, “We do not know what things look like, as you say. We know what things are like.”

        Is it possible that a person with a disability such as blindness can offer, without need of recovery or redemption, a perspective on life that is wholly different to a non-disabled Christian, but is not foreign at all to God? Is it possible that a disability, being as far removed from a lack or a sin in need of redemption as a physical attribute such as tallness or left-handedness, could be merely another manifestion of God’s creative diversity?

        The answer may be “no” to this musing. It may be that disability is truly a perversion of the perfection that God intended at Creation. It may be that only a secondary “recovery” can move disability into the realm of the beautiful and positive out of suffering and negativity. If so, then the Apophasis that you propose makes good sense, and we can happily roll with it. Still, as a person on the “other side” of this question, it’s difficult to liken an attribute I cannot change with attributes of character, personality and sin that God truly is redeeming within my life and on which my choices have an effect. It feels similar to being told that left-handedness is in need of recovery and that God can use my misfortune in being born left-handed to his glory anyway. Sweet, but misguided, and it’s oh-so-insidiously prevalent in the church today.

      • I think that I can understand your concerns at this point, Erin. I would be interested to hear Kelby’s thoughts.

        For my part, I definitely don’t regard disability as it functions in terms of divine vocation as straightforward ‘lack’ (and I believe that there are analogous ways in which people can realize their ‘disabilities’ as positive things more generally, even without an explicit relation to Christian vocation). In some ways it is more like a ‘clearing’, its significance not to be found primarily in the state itself, but in what it is made possible and realized there. A clearing is created, being at the same time an absence or removal but also a presence, a new place where things can happen that couldn’t happen before. For some that clearing will be experienced as lack of what has been removed, but for others it could become a realm of certain heightened possibilities, a space where they can live out a fuller sort of existence.

        The ‘goodness’ of this ‘clearing’ is contingent upon the possibilities that can be realized there. The point that I am trying to make is that the true goodness of these sites of clearing (disability, suffering, singleness, childlessness, etc.) is only realized in Christ, who provides them with a fullness of possibility that they would not otherwise have experience, and a fullness of possibility that is peculiar to them, not experienced in the same way as those without such a clearing.

        The other side of this, something that might help to clarify things, is the need for the seeing, the hearing, the walking, the married, and the healthy to come to terms with their ‘disabilities’, much as the ‘rich’ are taught to regard themselves as having a sort of disability in the spiritual realm that needs to be overcome. In this respect, then, biblical teaching on disability does not operate with a clear and fixed binary of ability/disability, nor with a mere removal of these categories, but with a reversible application of them.

        Again, I would be interested to hear Kelby’s thoughts on these things. I am thinking out loud here, and would want to reflect a lot more before saying anything definitive.

  4. Erin J says:

    It is noteworthy that the Bible places much more immediate concern on spiritual disability (ie. your “rich man” example) than on the physical, which is mostly Jesus showing compassion and removing suffering. The verse about plucking out the eye that causes you to sin graphically illustrates this; however, obviously I don’t think that reversing that (the man with no eyes has less sin) proves the case.

    If a disability is a “clearing” and is made good by what we allow God to do with it (i.e. a grace), then the same is true, as you said, for allowing God to use the gift of sight as well, and to acknowledge that a sighted person will probably have other areas that need God’s grace, or their own “disabilities.” To take this one step further, a blind person’s true disability may not in fact be blindness. It may be greed, or alcoholism or riches. How interesting would it be if we Christians walked up to one another on the street and said, “I see you are suffering from an excess of wealth. May I pray for your healing?”

  5. Sorry for the extended wait, everybody. Classes are keeping me fairly busy, so I’ll need to respond to this more succinctly than I’d otherwise wish.

    Let me clarify a bit about vocation that wasn’t made explicit in the essay. Vocation is not, strictly, something we choose. I did not choose the parents I have, nor the country I was born in, nor the disability I have. Even in cases where vocation is chosen, it can and should still be looked on as a gift. So, certainly I don’t mean that disability is a vocation insofar as it requires a kind of choice for it to become so. No, disability is a vocation by virtue of its existence, and because we are called of God more generally Christians are called to exercise there disabilities in and through their own sacred callings.

    Alastair did an excellent job addressing the ways in which we can look at metaphors in the Bible. I don’t have anything to add to his comments on that front; but I do think its important to come to grips with negative metaphors for blidness or other disabilities, not to thinly paper over them in an attempt to validate our own conceptual experiences. (This is another characteristic flaw of liberation theology.) I also think it’s a little intellectually dishonest to try and deny that disability is a lack, but it depends on what we mean. Since my disability is from birth, I don’t experieence it as a direct “lack” the way I might in other circumstances. But I know that there are things I am lacking–even the English language is oriented around sight, thus in an important way barring me from truly participating in it. But a lack can also be a gift; the point of much NT anthropology is that we are all “disabled” in some sense. A failure to recognize human brokennness is at the root of the failure to come up with a workable theology of disability. My point in bringing the theology of the cross into the discussion is this: it is precisely in lack, brokenness, weakness, pain, and lowliness that God manifests himself in a special way. To try and cover over that reality by suggesting disabled people really lack nothing only hinders coming to grips with what the NT says about how we are actually to live.

  6. Arlan says:

    I would emphasize what Alistair brought up, that a full and mature Christian theology sees all of us as disabled, broken, and in need of fixing. Jesus essentially mocked the pharisees for being “healthy” and having no need of a physician. The social minority problems stem at least as much from a wrong perception of “ability” as they do from “disability.”

    Picking up from Erin’s comment about hair color, I would suggest that neither brown hair nor blond hair is perfection, but some other thing yet. As a proxy, let me say that naturally purple hair is “right” before God. The argument between the blonds and brunettes about who is disabled is then, from God’s perspective, silly.

    Let us not forget that we all have bodies with a peculiar tendency to die. This by itself indicates, is meant to indicate, that the body has a systemic issue. Quibbles about limbs and organs miss the point, from God’s perspective.

    I would not argue with the suggestion that a person’s disability might function as a means of grace (to the self or to others) not available to the typically-abled. I would avoid stressing this, however, as I think the fundamental truth is that God works through all of our individual and collective disability. God’s grace is always coming to us despite our disability.

    Again, I do not think we have a healthy, complete theology until we are all disabled.

    • I agree with you that this is something that needs to be emphasized. Disability is a mere reflection of something that is far more fundamental to the human condition. But since disability offers unique physical and social challenges and has historically been chordened off from the theological enterprise, I think we need to talk about disability in theological terms specifically. What you appera to be saying is that we really don’t need a theology of disability. This is, whether intended or not, merely another way of not acknowledging that disability really does exist and it must be acknowledged and addressed. I do not advocate it being the primary lens through which a disabled person views Scripture–that would be bringing an external ideology into the text. But I want to allow Scripture to speak to me as a disabled person in (and through) my disability.

      • And, adding to this point, surely it is persons with disabilities who are uniquely ‘prophetically’ situated to be able to present the whole Church with this more fundamental and universal ‘theology of disability’.

  7. Arlan says:

    “What you appear to be saying is that we really don’t need a theology of disability.”

    One of the few friends I’ve kept from my college days has a clinical condition affecting the mind. I do not have any clinical condition but I always find his experience and perspective on life instructive. What he demonstrates in the extreme I see in myself. We do not share a common theology at all so the theological lessons are one-sided in this case, but it is a mutually elucidating friendship.

    That does not mean we are “the same.” He requires medication, I do not. He has been hospitalized in connection with his disability, I have not. But even if we are not identically the same, the similarity compels me to recognize that the heart desires which society can so easily recognize as “wrong” in him are present also in me.

    I do think it’s complementary with finding unique ability in disability to also find common disability in the able. That “glorification of man” which exalts man’s ability needs to be humbled by the recognition of inability, however and in whomever that recognition might be found.

    I have a slight visual impairment. It is nothing to call a disability, it’s correctable with lenses. But this affords me the ability to move between “disabled” and “abled,” and it is only when I began practicing that transition that I understood my “disability.” Likewise, it was only by watching my grandfather descent into Alzheimer’s that I understood that my mind, which seems to me to be “perfectly” capable, is a finite organ susceptible to decay. I am unconscious of the ability of my mind but one day I will lose that faculty. Ability and disability are metaphors for immortality and mortality. I do not think that statement minimizes disability. I think it speaks to the power of the obvious to lead us toward an understanding of the subtle. A great and shocking difference can teach us to search for smaller differences.

    I do shy away from theologies of the particular just by personal inclination. I don’t like American Theology and I am uncomfortable with Women’s Theology, to give but two examples. There is a need for particular theology, right down to the individual theology that understand’s an individual’s own unique experiences in relation to God; but on particulars outside my experience I can only hope to keep a respectful silence.

  8. Arlan says:

    Pardon me, I think I see where I erred. “Quibbles about limbs and organs miss the point, from God’s perspective.”

    This sounds as though I think all disabilities are quibbles. That is not true. When I really consider disabilities they quickly seem so large I am terrified and must seek solace in the “size” of God. I did not adequately couch that remark.

    That the mere sight of a disabled person can be frightening is my point. Should people be terrified at the sight of a disabled person? No. Are they? Some, or to some extent – not excluding myself. Why? Because there confidence of man is shattered. If you cannot trust the hand or the eye, who can you trust?

    • I can’t disagree with much of what you say, but I still think that you’re missing the fundamental orientation of my post. This project is not so much about how disability can “speak” to the non-disabled. Your characterization of your experience of disability is similar to ones I’ve heard before about how the primary purpose of the disabled is to teach other people a lesson. Now this is correct to my mind insofar as someone with a disability embodies unique aspects of Christ via sharing in a weakness that is–in a very limited respect–like his. BUt a person’s disability does not merely exist for the sake of others. This project is an attempt to understand disability as a disabled person. I share your concern about theologies of the particular, which is why I am doing my best not to impose ideological modesl of disability onto Scripture. Instead, I want the Bible and theological tradition to orient my experience of disability. In my own life, theological reflection has been a powerful motivator for me to understand both the negative and extremely positive aspects of my disabled existence. What you seem to still be doing is trying to “speak” for what the disabled are and do as a non-disabled person, and this is the kind of theological marginalization I am precisely concerned with.

  9. Brad Littlejohn from over at The Sword and the Ploughshare has just mentioned Brian Brock and John Swinton’s Disability in the Christian Tradition: A Reader to me. Has anyone read it?

  10. May leave a comment of thoughtful reaction later, but for the moment wanted to point out what I think is a typo. A sentence in the article reads “I have labored the best I can not to steer away from an Orthodox confession of the faith ‘once for all delivered to the saints.’

    I think that was supposed to be “can to not” ….little reversal of the words there!

    • …Or perhaps you meant it the way it was written. The grammar of “I have labored the best I can not” just struck me very oddly, and I had to re-read it several times. Not a big issue.

      • Kelby Carlson says:

        I could defend myself on grammatical grounds, but I can see why that statement could be unclear.

  11. Pingback: The Theology of Disability » First Thoughts | A First Things Blog

  12. Pingback: Theology of Disability | eChurch Blog

  13. Pingback: Heretical « Midlife And Treachery

  14. Jonathan says:

    I suppose one of my primary questions would be exactly how you define a disabled individual? You disclaim reliance on the medical and social models, but also explicitly reject one comment that a theology of disability, especially as reliant on a theology of the Cross, applies to all humanity. You never seem to define disability once you have rejected the social and medical definitions.

    Thank you!

    • You’re right that I never layed out a nuanced definition of disability. There are a couple of reasons for this. While neither the medical or social model is entirely able to define what disability “is”, they both hint at important aspects of it. I am, therefore, reluctant to dispense entirely with them, even as I criticize some of their central assumptions. The second and more important reason, though, is that “disability” is a very slippery concept to define. I agree with nancy Eiesland in that most human beings end up with a disability at some point; her designation of the “temporarily able bodied” is fairly appropriate. i would feel quite uncomfortable using an overly restrictive definition of disability thereby barring someone from calling themselves disabled. (And then there are people, like much of the deaf community, who would strenuously object to that term being applied to them at all.) So I guess what it comes down to is this: I want to let those who claim a disability of their own in on the theological conversation. This piece was intended to start a conversation, not to stake out exactly what disability is and who has it.

      I’m not sure where I made the claim that a theology of the cross only applies to disabled people. My attempt was to ground the wider theology of the cross in a disabled experience. A theology of the cross certainly isn’t going to apply to a TAB person the way it would to someone with a disability (and how it will apply to each person is probably going to vary a lot depending on circumstance.)

      • Erin J says:

        Thank you for not taking upon yourself the role of gatekeeper in defining who does and does not have a disability. There are far too many of those already!

        In pondering the theology of the cross, and the incarnation in light of a “disabled experience,” it strikes me that the main difference in our ability to view a disability as a connection with Christ is the extent to which he chose his humanity and his “disablement” and also the extent to which we view ourselves as victims without a choice as to our condition. While the ultimate result can be seen as somewhat similar, the attitude and acceptance changes when we embrace Christ’s “becoming” in form something that in the world’s eyes would be seen as “less” but in God’s plan is perfect.

  15. Joseph says:

    I completely agree that the theology of the cross—its many variations—can provide a meaningful framework to think through questions of disability and redemption. However, I find the piece’s discussion of the importance of self-identity in connection to the resurrection troubling (the second point of the conclusion is a good example). Two points on this issue:

    1). There is no justification for the claim that a resurrection that heals disability effaces individuality (i.e., that redemption from disability at the resurrection somehow effaces identity). If such a claim were true, it would mean that a person previously suffering from disability finally cured by medicine would be effaced. Surely if a resurrection that completely heals us from disability is effacing, then a purely earthly curing or healing of disability is similarly effacing, unless a criterion for whether a healing from disability is effacing or not is that healing must stem from the will of the disabled person, not from something external to that person’s will.

    2). “Continuity of identity” as construed in this piece seems alien to Christian soteriology. We are called to be imitators of Christ; Scripture is full of the language of self-effacement; and Revelation 21 describes the resurrection not only as a “making new,” but also as a “passing away of former things.” Resurrection implies the possibility of losing some aspect of our earthly identities in order to have our original identities renewed; in fact, it suggests that only when certain aspects of our earthly state are effaced can we become glorified selves. Christ’s healing ministry (which involved very real redemptions from specific disabilities) seems to corroborate this point.

    The soteriology suggested in parts of this piece, raises complex and puzzling questions: if a disabled person does not embrace their disability as constitutive of identity, are they resurrected healed, while those who do so embrace it are not—thus making us the arbiters of our glorified persons, not God? And what about psychological disability? Does a person suffering from sociopathy who embraces such a disability as part of their identity retain their sociopathy after the resurrection? Or are only certain disabilities constitutive of identities, while others are not?

    • You raise some important points. Let me see if I can respond shortly to each. I need to leave the interpretive questions surroudning healings in the Gospel accounts for another time. It would take another post to answer some of those questions.

      1. I did not address the question of psychological disability in this piece deliberately. it is an area well outside my knowledge or experience, but from what little I know of it it raises different concerns in a number of ways from physical disability. (Amos Yong’s THeology and Downs Syndrom is on my reading list, but I haven’t gotten to it yet.)

      2. The question of what precisely the nature of our identities post-resurrection are to our earthly identities is a complex one. Suffice it to say that I think that disability as a constitutive odentity marker will be transformed at the resurrection. But–since the Bible makes explicitly clear the ‘mysterious’ nature of the resurrection, I am very hesitant to apply a sweeping account of simple erasure of disability when considering it. (A good example of why is the case of dwarfism; we simply do not know what a resurrected person with such a disability would have as his/her bodily constitution.) WHile I agree that we are being conformed to the image of Christ, this does not entail some kind of mystical dissolution of our individual nature but precisely a “re-molding” of it as we become more like CHrist. It is my argument that disability can be seen as an integral part of this process for certain people. Keep in mind also that disability is not “the” constitutive aspect of an identity–it is one among a multiplicity of internal and external circumstances.

  16. Joseph says:

    I appreciate the responses, and I’m going to press the point a little bit—mainly because thesis (2) in your conclusion is quite questionable, as I said in my initial response (“There is a place for talking of redeeming disability. But this should not consist of seeing redemption as the erasure of all trace of disability, particularly for those for whom disability is a constitutive part of their identity.”).

    Let me voice a clear position here, and then follow it up with a few points that respond to your piece and your last response.

    I would argue that disability is not an integral part of the universe as God ordained it in the beginning. It is clear from even the most cursory readings of Genesis and Revelation that illness, pain, suffering, and death are all consequences of the fall, and as such, they will in fact be healed and redeemed at the resurrection (that does not seem to be a “mysterious” dimension of the biblical text). That does not mean that such disabilities are somehow the consequence of actual sin; they are the consequence of original sin (in other words, disability is not co-identical with sin or the direct result of actual sin: a disabled child is not guilty of actual sin, and an adult’s disability has nothing whatsoever to do with that adult’s actual sins). Nor does it mean that such healing is an “effacement” of identity (that was the point of my first response). But it does mean that the resurrection frees and redeems the human person from all the consequences of sin (including disabilities of all kinds) that have pervaded the world since the fall—that, again, seems a clear enough account of the Gospel.

    So much for my position. Based on the above, then, here are a few responses to your recent post:

    1). It would make sense that you want to distance physical disabilities from mental disabilities: the latter would suggest the potential for sinful dispositions or habits lasting into eternity (e.g., the sociopath incapable of moral decision-making due to a physiological pathology), which doesn’t seem in keeping with thesis (2) in your conclusion. However, you have provided no grounds to conclude that “disability” does not include all disability that afflicts the human person, whether physical or cognitive/mental—even when such disabilities have physiological pathologies.

    2). Christ’s healings in the Gospels seem vitally important to the question of disability and salvation (they are inextricably bound up with his salvific role) so I think you will indeed have to deal with these Gospel accounts at length at some point.

    3). My claim was not that disability is exhaustively constitutive of identity. It was only that (a) healing or redemption from disability does not necessarily mean effacement, as your thesis (2) says; and (b) if some disabilities endure after the resurrection without healing—complete healing—then you seem to be suggesting that (c) something that is inherent to the fallen world can persist into beatitude, which seems contrary to scripture; and/or (d) human will—which is fallen—is a determining factor in one’s beatitude, in the sense that one gets to choose to retain some aspect of their fallen nature when one determines such an aspect is vital to their identity (whether or not such an identity is aligned with God’s providence).

  17. Joseph,

    I am a little bit perplexed; you seem to want to take a concluding sentence of my piece divorced from all context and assume things that aren’t warranted
    from that one sentence.  To be honest, my thoughts on soteriology are incidental to the main thrust of the piece, which is to put disabled experience into
    dialogue with specific evangelical doctrines.  I have done a good deal of responding to concerns like yours in the comments above.  I am not willing to
    write another essay in the comments to address your concerns.  But let me provide a quote from Amos Yong on healing with which I am in large agreement.
     This will, I hope, further clarify my perspective on soteriology.  I will also add that I think the perspective that disability is a simple result of
    the fall is highly problematic and less clear from the text of Genesis than you think.  The specific part of bodily reality God curses is childbirth; the
    curse primarily has to do with the RELATIONSHIP between man and woman and man and the creation.  This is extended to spiritual death, but even death is
    used by God precisely to overcome the adverse effects (the breaking of human relationships and relationships with the divine.) (Incidentally, I am wondering
    if you yourself are disabled, as you also seem to be unaware why precisely I am writing this piece–that is, to give disabled people a positive model of
    disability in relationship to their faith.)

    “To begin with, I assert that the physiognomic perspective on the pericopes involving the bent-over woman and the lame man need to be extended for disability
    purposes — since these stories involve healings that may be taken, from a normate perspective, to suggest that full Christian discipleship is predicated
    on receiving bodily cures and wholeness, and on eliminating features that impair and disable.  Of course, this is not to say that we should reject cures
    if they are available, or that we wish to under mine the healing ministry of Jesus or the church.  Yet from a disability perspective, it is crucial to
    underscore that these healings are representative of a more fundamental reality: the saving work of God in Christ.  In this framework, the Gospel accounts
    are less about the curing of bodies than they are about the saving power and authority of Christ and his name.  The saving work of God can occur even if
    the curing of bodies doesn’t happen, and we would do well to assure people with disabilities that cures are not the norm by which to measure the reality
    of divine salvation.
     Having said this, I also want to emphasize that [author] rightly shows how Luke’s narrative reflects the subversive power of physiognomic characterizations.
     The case of the bent-over woman, particularly with regard to her being central in the exchange between Jesus and the leader of the synagogue over the
    issue of his healing on the Sabbath (Luke 13:14-17), reflects the subversion of established conventions of power on at least three levels: (i) that of
    the physiognomic level: a bent-over figure triumphs over one who is standing straight; (2) that of gender: in this case, a woman’s rights trump male authority,
    even when the latter is backed by the entire synagogal and Sabbatical tradition; and (3) that of social acceptability: the woman praises God and goes home,
    while the synagogue leader and his colleagues “were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he [Jesus] was doing”
    (13:17).  Here Parsons is clear: in Lukan hands, the gospel subverts the physiognomic stereotypes and expectations of the first-century Mediterranean world
    so that even “crippled” and spiritually oppressed people like this woman are included among the new people of God.  The disability perspective would rejoice
    not just because what was bent is now straight, but because God intervened to save and liberate this woman from the oppressive social forces in her world.”
    (Yong, The Bible, Disability and the Church.)

    Thanks for the interaction.  I’ll probably need to conclude this discussion at this point, but I welcome any concluding thoughts you might have.

  18. Phil James says:

    Let me apologize upfront for the simplistic nature of this question. I’m sure it’s been addressed and I’m just not getting it.
    One of the most significant epiphanies in my life occurred when I read a post that Alastair wrote on the loss of lament. I’m wondering how we embrace disabilities and defects as positive vocation (does the cross extend this to victimization?), without falling back into the error that my brother saved me from?
    Thank you for this. It seems significant to just about everything; and thank you again for your patience with me.

    • I am not rpecisely sure of the nature of your question. I think the lament Psalms are a very good place to go when thinking about this topic, and I regret not incorporating them into my piece the more I think about it. I’m sorry I can’t answer your question beyond affirming that lament for suffering (in the context of ultimate faith in God) certainly can and does have a place in a disabled existence.

  19. Joseph says:

    Thanks again for responding. Let me be clear that my questions and counterpoints are not intended to undermine anyone’s sense of hope or ability to cope with disabilities of any kind. In fact, I find some of your conclusions troubling regarding the nature of disability and the role of God actively choosing it or inflicting it for vocational purposes. I don’t think that such implications are ultimately “hopeful,” since they at least implicitly implicate God in evil (actively disabling human beings). Thus, my queries and “pushing” of some of these points.

    First, I completely agree that Christians need a theology of disability, and that God’s grace enables the disabled (and everyone else) to use their disabilities for good, and also to transcend them (as we are all called to transcend our merely earthly existence through faith, hope, and love). Such a theology should be intimately bound up with the theology of the cross. Clearly God’s grace turns all things toward the good, even the most heinous of evils (the passion of Christ, for the example of the ages). Your comments to interlocutors are helpful, and I agree with much of what you say there regarding both the theological and highly personal aspects of your project.

    However, I must still and lastingly take issue with the claims that disability is a “vocation” in a sense of something that God actively wills upon us for his own purposes. To say that because God can will good out of all evil and suffering and disability (something with which I completely agree) is NOT to say that God therefore actively wills such suffering or that he needs it to accomplish his providence. As my last post implies, to claim that God “needs” or “wills” disability in the active sense is ultimately to implicate God in evil—it is to say that God actively maims, wounds, destroys, and injures his children for their “good.” While certainly the OT paints such an image of God, such an image does not accord with the NT in its fullness or with our most basic understandings of God’s nature as love and goodness itself. I think the OT has to be read in light of the NT, and also read in a way that recognizes the Hebraic understanding of God’s actions in their lives as not purely identical with God’s literal actions (unless God really does and always has actively willed, say, the slaughter of women and children and the innocent for purely political gain or territorial ambition). A God who actively wills disability and/or other kinds of suffering and privation as a vocation in and of itself is not a good God, even if such a will is directed toward some ultimate redemption or “greater good.” Such a God is the God of nominalism, a God of pure will divorced from any meaningful definition of goodness or love.

    This vision of God does not seem incidental to your piece or something lifted out of context from your piece; it is an underlying assumption of it, I think. And similarly, your responses in the comments seem, at least at moments, to imply this vision of God—and that’s precisely what I find problematic.

    While Genesis does not explicitly say “disability shall be your punishment, along with death,” it would seem a bit hasty to conclude that therefore illness, disease, disability, pain, suffering, and any other specific condition not stated in Genesis 3 is not part of the fallen world and thus the natural consequence of original sin (not, again, of actual sin). And if it is part and parcel of the fallen natural order, as I believe all suffering and disability is in essence, then it is something that, along with famine, war, and pestilence, will be healed at the resurrection.

    I can think of no greater hope than this, really: that disability, though capable of powerful witness through God’s grace, though uniquely conformed to Christ’s suffering and sacrifice at Calvary in ways that non-disability is not, is not ultimately a vocation in and of itself; that God in no way actively wills it upon his children, and that the final resurrection of the dead will in fact wipe away all the tears, suffering, and privation of the fall and make all things new in Christ (which, as I said, is NOT to say that human identities are effaced, but rather, that they are finally glorified as they were originally intended to be).

    • Like I said, I need to conclude this discussion. We are obviously coming from radically different places in our understanding of God, as I would hesitate only slightly in saying God does, in fact, will disability. (I could get into the philosophy behind that, but I don’t think anyone wants a debate about Reformed theology at the moment.) Your last paragraph is precisely the kind of marginalization of disability my piece is meant to push against; I do not feel I can respond with anything I haven’t already said, except to be saddened that this is the way you look at disabled people in the church.

    • One more thing before I go: my use of the term “vocation” is contextually Lutheran. I would encourage you, if you aren’t familiar with the doctrine and the definition of it in my piece was not clear enough, to read a book like Gene Veith’s God At Work–it might bring us into further agreement.

  20. Joseph says:

    Mr. Carlson, please know that I in no way wish to marginalize anyone at all–that is surely not the purpose of my comments, nor is it the purpose of people who argue for a vision of God such as I do. To propose an argument is not to impugn those who disagree with that argument or to suspect their motives for disagreement. In claiming that God does not will suffering in any active sense, I am not claiming that disability is not a site of grace, or that one’s vocation cannot include disability (these would be absolutely preposterous claims), or that I “marginalize” the disabled somehow. All I am claiming is that God in no way wills suffering, illness, or disability actively, and that, as the product of a fallen–tragically fallen-cosmos, they are things that will be healed and ultimately transcended at the resurrection–not to efface or destroy, but to restore and glorify to original brightness. These theses seem perfectly in keeping with a scriptural portrait of God, a God who is pure love, life, and light, and in whom there is no darkness at all. I should think that such a proposition is a source of profound hope and comfort to all of us who struggle with disability and suffering in such an intimate way.

    Ultimately, then, yes–we differ radically in our visions of God, and I am truly sorry that you assume that a purely good God who does not actively will disability necessitates the marginalization of disability.

    • A purely good God who does not will disability, but merely “allows” it–when such a God would be fully capable of healing physical infirmity instantly if he chose–is a far more monstrous God than one who in fact ordains disability for a redemptive purpose. Nowhere in my piece did I claim that God wills suffering and disability as vocations “in and of themselves.” He wills them precisely for redemptive purposes, as ways of ministering (and being ministered to.) If you don’t already understand this, I think I would have a very difficult time explaining why certain congenital disabilities are so bound up with the person that to erase them would mean not just to “redeem” the person but to actively make hir into an entirely different entity. There is no more ontologically ultimate way to marginalize disability, and a God who merely allows it (with the ultimate goal of its complete annihilation) is no more a loving and just GOd than my supposedly “nominalist” God is.

      • Perhaps this point can be made more concrete by comparing it to the way in which God willed the crucifixion (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28). God doesn’t will the crucifixion as a good in and of itself, but he does powerfully and positively will it for his redemptive purposes.

      • Kelby Carlson says:

        Exactly. The crucifixion as an event divorced from its redemptive context is a horrible thing. This is also true of disability “in and of itself”; it is not something to be desired. But viewed in light of God’s redeeming work in individuals (and, I must add, in the church that shares in CHrist’s suffering) disability is a positive good insofar as it conforms with a broader Christian outlook.

  21. Joseph says:

    I think we are finally getting somewhere here—the issue at heart. Behind this entire discussion lies a theodicy, a discussion about the problem of evil and a justification of God’s goodness.

    1). You said: “A purely good God who does not will disability, but merely “allows” it–when such a God would be fully capable of healing physical infirmity instantly if he chose–is a far more monstrous God than one who in fact ordains disability for a redemptive purpose.”

    First, it seems you are acknowledging that a God who actively wills suffering for redemption (rather than passively permitting the secondary causes of his creation to play out) is monstrous, just “less monstrous” than one who allows his creatures the free scope of their will. So we agree on something: A God who actively wills evil for ANY purpose IS monstrous, and shares in evil—and thus is no God. A God who permits the suffering to happen that is the ultimately just and natural consequence for primal disobedience seems to me a God who is perfectly just (allowing the natural consequences of the fall), and also perfectly loving (he endows us with free will, and does not violate the dignity of that free will). Because He also became incarnate to redeem us, he is also perfectly saving—preserving justice, free will, and salvation.

    2). Your vision of God suggests that God is insufficient to redeem us without actively inflicting suffering; he thus, at some level, “needs” suffering in order to accomplish his purposes. I disagree with this point, too, and would clarify even further by saying that God did not actively “will” the crucifixion, nor did he “need” it (any more than he “needs” any human suffering to accomplish his will). He could have simply redeemed us in some other way. The crucifixion is not “necessary” in the strictest sense of the word; it is gratuitous, the freely willed act of God himself (as the second person of the Trinity), the act in which he pours himself out as a creature of perfect free will completely for the good and love of others—not because God “needed” suffering to be reconciled to us (as some substitutionary theories of atonement maintain), but because he wanted to undergo the utter depths of human misery to destroy death itself–to ransack, as it were, Satan’s stronghold and destroy his weapons.

    3). Re: the cited scriptural passages in the last post by Alastair (thanks for input!). Here’s the first:
    “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs which God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know– 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 But God raised him up, having loosed the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” (Acts 2, RSV).

    Alastair is referring to verse 23 and the idea of foreknowledge and the “definite plan.” But a couple points here:

    a). The passage as a whole is not concerned with explaining the exact understanding of God’s will; it is principally concerned, as the bigger context suggests, with Christ’s resurrection and the larger “plan” of salvation that the gentiles knew nothing about, and which Peter is teaching them.

    b). Note that the verse you are referring to goes on immediately to blame the human beings responsible for Christ’s death, who freely chose to torture and murder him. This is a rhetorical point Peter is making, too: he assigns blame to “you,” to his auditors, for the crucifixion. An incidental reference to God’s “plan” here seems fairly irrelevant to Peter’s message, and non-literal, given the wider rhetorical moment of the text—just as many incidental claims St. Paul makes in the NT turn out to be not literally true, and sometimes not factually true.

    Here’s the second:
    “The kings of the earth set themselves in array, and the rulers were gathered together, against the Lord and against his Anointed’ — 27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against thy holy servant Jesus, whom thou didst anoint, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4, RSV).

    Similar points can be made here about scriptural context and rhetorical position of the prayer, but in addition:

    a). the clause you are referring to in 28 seems pretty ambiguous: “whatever thy hand and thy plan had predestined” doesn’t necessarily refer to the tortures and sufferings, but could likely refer to the redemption and resurrection (and that would make better sense, given the nature of Acts). To claim that this passage clearly means God actively willed Christ’s suffering as the “predestined plan” is a hasty conclusion—and something not supported by this text.

    b). As in the above, one cannot simply take one clause from a passage here and there and, devoid of its immediate context, its rhetorical purposes, and its place within the whole gospel, argue based on it that it supports a sweeping claim about God’s nature or particular will—if one attributes a clear purpose of describing God’s actual will to this passages (which I don’t and argue one cannot).

    It would be far more in keeping with the gospel to interpret such passages in light of the larger gospel of Christ’s redeeming love and light—with his divine mission to heal and redeem our wounded natures.

    • Thanks for the comments, Joseph. I think that we are beginning to identify some of our root differences here. That said, I suspect we would be going rather far off track were we to try to settle larger debates about substitutionary atonement and divine providence in this particular thread!

      These are really big and important debates and, as you say, we need more than isolated texts to resolve them. One doesn’t have to look far in Scripture to have a sense that there is a certain degree of the devoir-être to the crucifixion and its associated sufferings that derives from the prior word of Scripture, which seems to play a stronger role than merely foretelling what will take place, being more purposive and determinative in character (‘For these things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled…’). I would also be interested to see how you would handle many other such cases of God’s ‘willing’ of evil actions for his own purposes (Joseph’s brothers sending him into Egypt, the story of Job, the census of David, etc.). These are obviously tricky questions and I am far from satisfied with many of the answers that are given to them in my own Reformed tradition. However, I believe that the Reformed tradition has been much better than most at recognizing and taking up this particular biblical challenge.

      Given the time demands on each of us, the diminishing returns of a long discussion in a blog post the longer that it has been online, not to mention the frequently rising temperature of such discussions, I hope that you will understand my reason for closing this comment thread.

      Thank you once again for your participation, and also to Kelby for the post and the time that he has devoted to interaction in the comments!

  22. Kelby Carlson says:


    I’m sorry, but I don’t feel that I can continue this discussion. I believe I made myself relatively clear in the post where I used the word “monstrous”–the context does not demand anything akin to the interpretation you gave that post. I am not unwelcome to disagreement, but I am unwelcome to (what seems to me) deliberate mischaracterizations of what I wrote to server a prupose. I doubt we are going to hammer out the Calvinist-Arminian controversy in this space, and it’s not a debate I want to have.

    – Over and out

  23. Pingback: Miscellanées (Weeks 4 & 5, 2013) | Jake Belder

  24. Pingback: Ten Years of Blogging: 2012-2013 | Alastair's Adversaria

  25. Pingback: Disability and the Church: an interview | Covenant

  26. Pingback: Podcast: Intersex | Alastair's Adversaria

  27. Pingback: Mere Fidelity: On Disability - Mere Orthodoxy | Christianity, Politics, and Culture

  28. Pingback: Podcast: Disability | Alastair's Adversaria

Comments are closed.