Disability and Evangelical Theology

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The other day, I responded to some comments on twitter about what Evangelicals believe about the New Creation/our resurrection bodies and implications for people with disabilities.  Fascinatingly, a lot of the comments seemed to be coming from people who wanted to speak for those who had disabilities, physical impairments and chronic conditions but did not seem too interested in hearing from those who themselves have experienced such things.

One comment came from a person who suggested that:

Lots of folks see disability as one of the many ways God expresses Godself through the diversity, goodness, and interdependence of creation. Some disability theologians would argue that the Exclusionary ableist world we currently live in is a result of sin, but their bodies not being whatever is currently considered non-disabled is not. Ie a renewed creation is one in which there is accessibility, not one without disabilities.

Liz Sup on Twitter: “@faithrootsDW @diannaeanderson Exclusionary ableist world we currently live in is a result of sin, but their bodies not being whatever is currently considered non-disabled is not. Ie a renewed creation is one in which there is accessibility, not one without disabilities.” / Twitter

Now, my initial response to that yes, as someone who has experienced the challenges of a visual impairment that through it I’ve learnt to have greater dependence on God and on others, it is humbling and I can see why Paul would have learnt that God’s grace is made perfect in weakness through his thorn in the flesh.  In terms of this world now, I believe that providing greater accessibility and working against discrimination is important.

For example, this might involve considering things like, the location of events and organisations so that they are not inaccessible to those dependent on public transport.  It means double checking that your presentations are not unreadable to those with visual impairments, that sign language interpretation is provided for those who need it and that you’ve considered even the most basic things like whether or not it will be easy for people to work out where the toilets are.

However, clearly signposted toilets, large print Bibles and an efficient pubic transport system fall a long way short of what I’m hoping for in the New Creation and what the Bible offers.

But, I want to encourage us to push our thinking a bit further.  To consider a bit more the implications that our theology has for disability and the implications that our understanding of disability have for our theology.

Notice that the issue asks us to look both backwards and forwards.  We’ve talked primarily about eschatology here, looking towards the future but we are also being asked to look back to creation, to our doctrine of humanity and our doctrine of the Fall.

First, in terms of creation, the suggestion is that God might have intentionally created us with disabilities, or at least that the genetic mutations from our forefathers were part of God’s purpose for his creation in order to enable that diversity and interdependence.

It is certainly true that God intended a diverse creation and indeed, we might see that diversity as developing and increasing through time.  However, I would suggest that God’s revelation in Scriputre sets out the nature, extend and limits of that diversity.  Diversity is provided between creatures who reproduce “after their kind.”  There is also a level of diversity within a species and particularly within human nature intended to encourage interdependence but that is specifically the distinction between male and female.  Finally, yes, we are all blessed with different abilities and gifts, some will be more creative than others, some quicker, some of keener sight, some more logical, some more empathetic but it is very clear that when we observe such diversity that it is not dependent upon impairments. 

This pushes us to think a little about what we believe concerning human nature.  I find the suggestion made by a few people that the removal of disabilities would in some way take away from the nature of the person so that they would no longer be that person. I fear that this risks doing exactly what people with disabilities ask others not to do and defines people by their disability.  You know, it may be hard for you to imagine me without glasses or the need for them but that doers not mean that my visual impairment is essential to my nature. 

There are aspects of our physical nature that can and do change over time (including our cognitive capacity). If you only met my mum in the last few years, then you might be tempted to picture her now, in glory with Christ as you new her, small of stature, with grey hair.  However, that’s not a full picture of her, I remember her standing a little taller, I remember her before her hair went grey.  Her brothers and sisters will no doubt remember the young girl and may be able to recall her before she started to wear glasses.  It’s fascinating to consider how a resurrection body might capture all of those stages of life. I will come back to that shortly.

It is worth considering further how some of the things we categorise as disabilities are things that we were born with.  Even still, it is not so simple as to say that because something is genetic that this has been present with us all our lives.  The eyesight condition I have is genetic, others in the wider family have it too but it was only when I was about 9 or 10 that it began to develop and affect me. There are other genetic conditions that many of us are probably predisposed to but this doesn’t mean that we will suffer from them, or if we do, it will be much later in life. 

Then there are impairments and conditions that are a direct result of life events.  It is possible to be born without the use of limbs or specific organs, to be born blind or deaf.  It is also possible to suffer loss and impairment through illness, exposure to chemicals, accidents and sadly through cruelty, abuse and violent attack. 

This leads us to the next point.  Often, a lot of attempts to theologically understand the world around us today lack a sufficient doctrine of The Fall.  The assumption is that if we see something that is a certain way now, then it must always have been so and God must have always intended it thus.  This is to make the classic philosophical error of confusing “is” with “ought”.  Now, the suggestion that our world now is ableist does give some allowance for The Fall and the consequences of original sin but only at a limited level.  It fails to recognise what the Bible has to say about the extent of The Fall not only spiritually, not only on human thinking and behaviour but on the physical world, on our bodies.  It’s important to remember that all of us are in some way affected by the physical aspects of living in a fallen creation.  We all look forward to a renewed creation and to new bodies.

It is the deficient understanding looking backwards that obscures our ability to look forwards.  There is one further factor at work and that is our understanding of the present.  We often describe Prosperity teaching as having an over-realised eschatology. Prosperity teaching offers restored and perfected bodies instantaneously, right now.  However, if we assume that new creation means no more than less discrimination and more accessibility, then we are making pretty much the same mistake as the prosperity Gospel.  Our eschatology is over-realised still because we are assuming that all that will be available in the future, in the new creation is what is available now and nothing more.  We forget that we live in the “now and the not yet”.    We live as though there is nothing more to live for than what we know now.

I note that a lot of the objections are specifically to “evangelical theology”, though in fact I think the initial reactions are not to the theology but to clumsy, stupid and offensive things people have said with the assumption that this accurately reflects the theology which I suspect is often not the case.  However, I think there is a reaction to the certainty of evangelical theology, the idea that we can be sure of things.

Yet, this is of course the very point of evangelical theology, that there are things we can be certain of because the Bible tells us.  It’s important though to remember that the certainty is limited to what Scripture reveals and there is a lot that it doesn’t tell me.  We need to be cautious in those areas.

I do know though that in some way, my resurrection body will be like Christs.  That does indicate that there will be a wholeness and completeness to it which will transform it beyond now and that suggests a removal of some limitations.  Incidentally, it does point to continuity and for example, when we see Christ, we will be able to see the scars from the wounds in his hands and his side.  This suggests I think that we will carry scars through into new creation. However, if we do, then it will be in a way that does not limit, harm or cause distress and suffering.  This may have something to say to us about disabilities and impairments. Perhaps there will be some evidence in my resurrection body that I suffered from keratoconus, even if it’s only scarring on my right eye lens and the trace of the stitches where I had the cornea grafts.  However, I think it is evident from Scripture that I won’t be subjected to the limitations and the suffering that my eye condition caused.

This still means that there’s a lot we don’t know about heaven, the new creation and our new bodies.  However, what I do know is that it will be good, beyond our wildest dreams and certainly more than the meagre offering of this world and its ideology. 

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