Tuesday 5 December 2006

The vocation of people with severe disabilities

Last night Kim Fabricius went to hear a lecture by the excellent scholar Frances Young. Professor Young has a severely disabled son, and her lecture was on “The Vocation of People with Severe Learning Disabilities.” Kim gave a response afterwards, which he has posted here – he says:

Against conventional theodicies, and above all against a culture that has lost its way – where its answer to the question, “What are people for?” is, “For autonomy and control, for health and beauty, for performance and productivity” – Professor Young has lodged a considerable critique. Human beings, she says, are made for friendship, and human communities are made for hospitality. And it would seem to be the vocation of so-called disabled people to take this gospel to so-called independent, fit, and achieving folk.

It is not, observe, a question of the abled bringing help to the disabled – just the reverse: the disabled are the ones who bring help to the abled by showing that we are all, one way or another, limited, broken, and needy flesh, who are who we are only in interdependent relationships where asking for help is a sign not of our weakness but of our created and redeemed humanity.


Nathan said...

That is a truly profound take on the question. It has been easy for me, in medical school, to slip into the mold of my professors, which at times, in bioethical considerations, skirts dangerously close to eugenics. It is refreshing, but more importantly, moving, to read a philosophical defense of a concept antithetical to the pure reasoning Darwinism, and to be reminded that no matter what a scientific mindset may teach us, it does not subsume our responsibilities to others as Christians in the world.

Joanna said...

Thanks for posting this, Ben - and thanks Kim for profound words. What you (and Prof Young) have said here about disabled people could be said about all who are visibly broken - how we respond to those in that state (how we are responded to when in that state) is a clear sign of whether or not we have understood the gospel. If our response to brokenness is simply embarrassment or incomprehension, then it seems to me that the kingdom of God must be embarrassing and incomprehensible to us.

Anonymous said...

Hi Nathan. Professor Young actually mentioned the ideological disaster of Darwinism in her lecture (which reminded me of Marilynne Robinson's take on the subject in "Darwin", in her sharp collection of essays The Death of Adam [1998]). She referred to the patristic understanding of humans being between the angels and the beasts, and suggested that in reducing us to mere beasts, in distancing us from our proximity to the angels, Darwinism has actually driven us to the hubris of thinking that we are God, without limitation or need.

And Jobloggs, yes, an extension of the the "disabled" to all who (as you say) are "broken" - and even more profoundly, that we are all broken - but each in their own way. Which leads to Professors Young's fundamental point about the recognition and celebration of our irreducible otherness in the body of Christ (reference was made to I Corinthians 12:12ff., as well as to John's Christology of Good Friday glory).

There is another lecture here on the relevance of Professor Young's anthropological observations for a doctrine of God.

Joanna said...

Thanks, Kim - that's exactly what I was getting at and more. Some kinds of 'brokenness' are particularly visible - but if we find this strange or shameful, it is a clear sign to me that we are unfamiliar with our own profound brokenness, less apparent though it may be. But the distinctiveness of our brokenness is also an important point - and there are aspects of brokenness where shame may sometimes be appropriate, and others where shame has been wrongly inculcated in us.
This is a topic dear to my heart...

Anonymous said...

Just this week I was having this discussion within a small group setting about how we (read: the Church) have assimilated the notion of American individualism (I agree this is an ethnocentric perspective) into an ecclesiastical setting. Thus, one is only concerned with personal sin and salvation, while systemic sin and the redemption of all that is ailing this world is left unchecked.

This plays directly into the discussion regarding those individuals who have been deemed of less value simply because they do not exhibit the typical human motivation to succeed.

I appreciated the notion of continually reminding ourselves of how we are all broken in some sense, and the realization of such is paramount to truly living as God intends.

Thanks for the post.

crystal said...

I understand, I think, what Professor Young is getting at, but as someone with a disability, I wouldn't want "brokenness" to be romanticized ... I might be wrong, but I think most people with a disability would rather be whole than an inspiring example to others.

Anonymous said...

Hi Crystal.

Thank you for that important, literally crucial point (with which Professor Young would agree). The Christological analogue would be turning the crucified Jesus into a "hero".

Do people know John Hull (whom I mentioned in the Connexions post), Touching the Rock (1990)? It's an extraordinary book, both profound and terrifying (and without a sniff of BS) about the experience of blindness - both going blind and being blind.

"Blindness," Hull says, "is like a huge vacuum cleaner which comes down upon your life, sucking almost everything away." He has no time at all for facile and patronising notions of disability. He speaks candidly about despair, using the image of sinking into the murky and black depths of the ocean, and only after a long and arduous journey learning "how to touch the rock on the far side of despair." And, needless to say, Hull would have his sight back (as it were) at the blink of an eye - though he also has no illusions about the crisis of identity that reversal itself would present.

Towards the end of the book he writes this: "What I seek is a strong identity based on inclusion, not exclusion. Christianity must become an ecumenical faith, not a tribalistic sect.
This means that, while I cannot simply accept my blindness, I must not reject it either. I must integrate it. I must try to relate blindness to sight, consciousness to unconsciousness, God to the devil, the life of humanity to the cosmos, the powers of creation to the powers of destruction. The stoic courageously tolerates these antitheses, but the one whose Christian faith is in search of understanding must seek to go beyond these differences and to unite them."

Of course, we are in a different ball park again when we talk about the severely mentally impaired. Professor Young's point about otherness covers not just the difference between the disabled abled and the disabled disabled, but also differences among the disabled disabled themselves.

Anonymous said...

I don't think it's about disabled people "being an inspiring example to others". To me, the central point here is "community".

One of the fundamental tenets of the worldly Western culture is "rugged individualism". None of us can actually live our lives in complete solitude, but there is something in our "worldly culture" that suggests that this is the ideal.

Anonymous said...

Hi everyone, interestingly this stuff relates to my Mphil thesis area (well, its 'What consequences does the prevelance of faith healing in Christianity have for a theology of disability'). Its the area of theology I am most interested in - specifically concerneing people with learning difficulties. I hope to do a PHD about L'arche in a couple of years, which is where I work at the mo (and on which Young has written too). Thanks for all the thinking your comments have given me. I would post my own thoughts, but I have an essay due tomorrow which needs serious work..., but, if anyone would like to talk further about the issue, which would no doubt help me with my thinking, please drop me an email to MDE30@cambridge.ac.uk - thanks very much.

Nathan said...

Thanks Kim, for the response. That hubris is precisely what I see worked out nearly every day. What troubles me is the fact that, in medicine, a certain degree of hubris is probably necessary. We are, after all, working against the curse of Genesis 3 on a daily basis. What is probably the theologically consistent solution, as far as I see it, is the fact that working against that curse is the call of each one of us, in our own fields. Ministers call their flocks to work against our fallen nature, farmers continue to work fields despite the difficulties, physicians extend lives threatened by entities properly understood to be a result of that curse.

So with that perspective, I think it is probably more with humility than hubris that this calling can be approched, after all, (as you said Dr. Young pointed out) we are lower than the angels, and obviously lower than God, despite our calllings.

Thanks again.

crystal said...


thanks for mentioning Hull - I'll look for his book. It sounds like it will be very helpful as I have a degenrative eye disease.

Joanna said...

I've spent some time studying the history of how Christians have constructed the experience of suffering - what meanings they have given suffering, what responses to suffering they have promoted and embraced. On the one hand, for Christians, suffering is connected to sin and fallenness - it is seen as a bad thing. If you take that idea by itself you can easily end up with a prosperity gospel. On the other hand, though, Christians recognise suffering as a context for spiritual growth or sanctification - potentially a good thing. If you take that idea by itself you can easily end up with masochism, or - as Crystal points out - a kind of patronising trivialisation of the reality of people's pain. History shows how cultures influenced by Christianity tend to lurch between the two points. I'd suggest that they are kept together by a narrative theology, that recognises the reality of pain and brokenness in the present, but also hopes that those realities will be made meaningful in the story of our lives that God constructs.

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