Disability Theology: Taking the Body of Jesus Seriously

This is part of our blog series on Disability and Youth Ministry. To read other posts from this series, visit this page.


God is a God of surprises. The surprise that the disciples encountered when they discovered the empty tomb of Jesus is paradigmatic of the surprising ways in which God interacts with God’s creation. The developing area of disability theology is a creaturely response to the God who surprises us. Disability theology has emerged as Christians with disabilities and Christians who do not share that experience have come together to ask fresh and challenging questions of Scripture, doctrine, and tradition, with a view to enabling the whole people of God, in all of their diversity, to see God, humans, and creation differently. Most theologies of disability are based on the premise that if we listen to the voices of people living with disabilities—voices that have often been excluded from the ways in which understandings of Scripture, doctrine, and tradition have been developed and lived out—we will be profoundly surprised and transformed by what we discover.

God is full of surprises. Disability theology renews the church’s openness to that surprise.

Disability theologians have noticed the way in which certain human experiences, and questions emerging from those experiences, have tended not to have been at the forefront of the development of biblical interpretation and theological reflection. This has meant that key questions about the nature of God, church, and humanness have been asked from a very narrow perspective, often working with implicit and explicit assumptions that prioritize narrow constructions of “normality” and ill-conceived perceptions of “abnormality.” This group of theologians push us to think beyond this narrow perspective on humanness and take seriously the surprising proclamation that the only gauge for normality within the Body of Christ is Jesus.

The Body of Jesus

More surprisingly perhaps, is the observation that within Jesus’ Body, it is human difference that is the mark of our humanness, not our ability or inability to conform to anthropocentric ideas about what is or is not normal. In Jesus difference is the new norm! In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul informs us that:

Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.

All of us together in our difference and diversity constitute the Body of Jesus. In the Body of Christ, each member of the Body has its own shape, form, purpose and vocation. As Paul puts it, only a fool would say: “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” or: “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body:”

If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.

It is this kind of diversified anthropology that underpins most if not all theologies of disability. To be human is not a single thing, but a variety of possibilities, all of which are held together within Jesus’ Body. If one member claims to be representative of the nature of humanness, they have misunderstood God’s surprise and risk allowing their pride to distort the Body of Jesus. Disability theologians begin with such ways of thinking and move on to develop theological understandings and practical responses that recognise and respect the diversity of bodies that quite literally makes up the shape and form of Jesus’s Body.

The Question of Knowledge

Whereas traditional theologies tend to focus on intellectual and propositional knowledge—a type of knowledge that struggles to include people with advanced dementia, profound intellectual disabilities or forms of brain damage that make such knowledge inaccessible—disability theologians tend to take seriously the embodiedness of human beings. Knowledge emerges not only from our minds, but, as Merleau Ponty has ably pointed out, also from the ways in which our bodies encounter the world. Our bodies are conduits through which we come to know both God, ourselves, others and God’s creation. The shape, texture, and difference of our bodies mean that we encounter God and the world in quite different ways, each of which provides a different perspective on the nature of humanness as it is lived out within creation. If we attempt to understand the ways of God by focusing on a single type of body or a single way of thinking, then we end up with a picture of God and humanity that is quite different from the picture of the Body of Christ we explored earlier. If we are to experience something of the fullness of God and understand the surprising diversity of humanness, we need to take seriously the revelatory nature of human embodied existence.

In essence, disability theology seeks to remind the church that it truly is the Body of Jesus, and that a failure to remember this and to act in ways which fail to ensure that all of the bodies within the Body truly belong, is a re-wounding of the body of Jesus. Disability theology is thus not for “those who are interested in such a thing”; it opens up the very heart of the gospel.

Think of it in this way. If you have no sight, you will never see the scriptures; if you have no hearing, you will never hear the word; if you have no arms you will never feel what it is like to embrace someone even though you are embraced. To be embraced by the love of God will have a totally different meaning for you. If you have neurological challenges that mean you cannot or can no longer name Jesus, you will never know what it means to proclaim him with your lips. Such embodied ways of being in the world do not provide better or worse experiences. They are just different. On the other hand, if you can see, you will never know what it is like to encounter God without sight; if you can hear, you will never know what it is like to sign the Word and to use your body in ways that a hearing person simply cannot grasp. If you can remember everything well, you will never know what it is like to encounter God without remembering God. Likewise, if you can grasp the concept of Jesus with your mind (can any of us truly grasp the fullness of Jesus?), you will never know what it means to encounter him without words and concepts and to be dependent on the love of others to reveal what it feels like to be with Jesus. Such embodied ways of being in the world do not provide better or worse experiences. They are just different. It is only as we listen to our differences and learn to be hospitable to the fullness of the bodies within Jesus’ body that we come to know who God is and what it might mean to be human beigns before God.

The Heart of the Gospel

In essence, disability theology seeks to remind the church that it truly is the Body of Jesus, and that a failure to remember this and to act in ways which fail to ensure that all of the bodies within the Body truly belong, is a re-wounding of the body of Jesus. Disability theology is thus not for “those who are interested in such a thing”; it opens up the very heart of the gospel.

As we allow new perspectives that emerge from reflection on human disability to enter into theology and practice, we—all of us together—are opened up to new possibilities and new perspectives as we find ourselves called to form a very different kind of community. Reflection on human disability expands our imagination and helps us to break free from false anthropologies that may fool us into thinking that human difference is inevitably problematic rather than revelatory of the fullness of humanity. God is full of surprises. Disability theology renews the church’s openness to that surprise.

 


SwintonProfessor John Swinton is the Chair in Divinity and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen. Previously he worked as a nurse for 16 years, specializing in the areas of psychiatry and learning disability. He also spent a number of years working in the field of hospital chaplaincy. He is an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland with a strong commitment to supporting the work of the church. He is the author of several publications on theology, ministry, and disability, including From Bedlam to Shalom, Resurrecting the Person: Friendship and Care of People with Mental Heath Problems, and Dementia: Living in the Memories of God.

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