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.