Intellectual Disability and Theological Anthropology

Having finally finished comps, I’ve been meaning to write a little about what turned out to be my favorite exam question, namely, my question on disability studies and Christian theological anthropology (though I didn’t get asked about it…le sigh). My bibliography included Nancy’s Eiesland’s The Disabled God, Thomas Reynolds’ Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality, Hans Reinders’ Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics, Amos Yong’s Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity, and excerpts from Stanley Hauerwas’ reflections on people with Down Syndrome (in Critical Reflections on Stanley Hauerwas’ Theology of Disability: Disabling Society, Enabling Theology). Perhaps I will return to all of these books in future posts, but for now I would like to focus on Reinders’ Receiving the Gift of Friendship because I found his argument to be, in some ways, the most stark and the most challenging, especially to my own project which relies upon a sense of one’s own agency and cultivation of love of self as an ascetic and contemplative practice. I don’t even agree with everything he says, but we need to take him seriously. I do.

I say that Reinders’ argument is “stark” because his anthropological starting point for thinking about disability, and what persons with disabilities say about being human, are humans who are profoundly intellectually disabled, who may not exhibit much of anything resembling any kind of agency we construe as intelligibly and distinctively human (and it is a longstanding mantra in the Christian tradition that what constitutes the imago dei, what makes us distinctively human, are our reasoning capacities and our free will — consult, oh, say, ANYBODY). For example, he spends a lot of time reflecting upon a woman named Kelly, who is micro-encephalic. This means that a significant part of her brain is missing such that she does not even conceptualize her own identity or speak. All she does is breath and exist. She was born this way. And Reinders wants to know: what does Kelly’s existence as a human teach us about being human, such that she is not relegated to the margins of the “defective” humans? Why do we assume that her life is a tragedy? — I was initially quick to dismiss these questions (what about all the unfulfilled possibilities!), but don’t be like me. Think about it.

I take this kind of questioning to be throwing down the gaunlet in the face of traditional Christian anthropologies that rely on a capacities-oriented approach to elucidating the distinctiveness of humanity. Need we have always thought that thinking, reasoning, and choosing are the locus of distinctively human existence? And in light of this way of setting up the problem, I hope it is clear why I am not in this essay focusing specifically on physical disabilities. I in no way mean to imply that physical disabilities are less important than intellectual disabilities for how we construe anthropology. To the contrary, I have much to say about those as well, and I intend to do so in further posts. But for now, suffice it to say that Reinders notes how much the advocates of the disability rights movement rely on the (extremely important) idea that the voices of persons with physical disabilities have not been heard, and that they need to be. Reinders agrees and then asks, “But what about people who do not voice anything? Do we forget about them? Do we forget about Kelly?”

So. Reinders is tired of humans like Kelly being left behind in anthropology, and he takes particular (but not exclusive) issue with Thomas Aquinas (Gasp…just kidding. Aquinas is a-okay with me on many things…). He concedes that, from a Thomistic (and more broadly, a Roman Catholic) perspective, Kelly is included in the genus of humanity because she is of human descent, but that, aside from this genetic understanding of humanity, there is a teleological understanding of humanity, in the sense of human destiny for fulfilment in God, and it is this latter sense in which Kelly comes up short. She has no capacities to be fulfilled and perfected ultimately in God. She never had that part of her brain. And, relatedly, we therefore have no way of speaking about her life as a distinctively human life — the genetic assignation of humanity to Kelly can only secure her fundamental humanity but otherwise leads one to an embarrassed silence about the meaning of her life. So if we continue to think about distinctively human possibilities in terms of choosing and reasoning, and the hoped-for perfection of those things, then we’re left saying that Kelly is simply defective in this richly human sense. Are we okay with this?

Reinders is not satisfied, and he suggests that we develop a fundamental anthropology based on God’s universally-given, creative and redemptive love for all of us, because “there are no marginal cases of being human in the loving eyes of the Father.” Reinders’ starting point for thinking about our humanity is then in terms of the loving gift of friendship offered to us by God. I don’t think such a move excludes some discussion of agency as constitutive of existence for some humans, but it takes the anthropological weight off the agentive acts of reasoning and choosing for explaining who we are at our deepest core. With this grounding in mind, Reinders suggests that, in addition to working on full access to various institutions in society for persons with disabilities and on full recognition of the rights and dignity of persons with disabilities, that we think about how to be friends with persons with profound intellectual disabilities.

This is an extremely important part of the argument to push forward, as Reinders argues, rightly, that persons with disabilities will never be able to enter fully into the realm of society if persons without disabilities never view them as worthwhile companions in their lives. I think this is a much overlooked point, and to drive it home, Reinders construes friendship primarily in terms of presence to and with the other, receiving the other as she is, and viewing the other as a gift given by God, as we all are. Reinders admits that, given the reality of sin, persons without intellectual disabilities, including many Christians, shy away from such association: “Most of us do not want to be affiliated with suffering, nor with poverty, nor with abnormality. That explains why people in marginalized positions suffer from our self-images. Having had their self-images shaped by a culture that reproduces a hierarchy of human being, most Christians do not usually distinguish themselves in seeking friendships with those who suffer from poverty, or abnormality.” Reinders’ proposal about friendship thus strongly resists a sense of friendship that is primarily based on some kind of common tie or alliance in the eyes of society — to him, we are all to be friends with each other.

His notion of friendship does entail that humans without intellectual disabilities actively work to accept such friendship, but the friendship as such is not constituted by such activity, if that makes sense — all may be friends to each other. And such friendship may ultimately reveal something startling and true about God’s friendship with all us, namely, that God’s relationship with us does not depend on our goodness, our intelligence, our unique attributes, or our striving. It’s already given. And the most fundamental thing we can do is allow ourselves to receive this gift. And in our common existence through the gracious will of God, persons with and without intellectual disabilities are not so different.

I have some critiques and concerns about Reinders, but I think I’ll stop there for now. Thoughts on Reinders’ challenge?

25 thoughts on “Intellectual Disability and Theological Anthropology

  1. Thanks, Elizabeth! I am so very Rahnerian at times that I tend to overlook the aporia of subjectivity and personhood as they are popularly conceived, thereby marginalizing the members of the human family you discuss here. Thanks for bringing that to my attention — I look forward to future posts on this matter! (and congrats on being done with comps!)

  2. I think it was John Wesley who talked about an “age of innocence,” where children who died before being able to tell the difference between right and wrong were given grace.
    I might be completely wrong about this. Reading theology makes my head hurt, so I don’t do it often.
    As God is just, though, I feel that He would not condemn an individual who is unable to tell the difference between right and wrong.

  3. Really interesting topic. Have you read “Flowers for Algernon”? It’s a novel written in epistolary form (I think there was a movie based on it, or it was based on a movie, or something) that reflects on something really similar to what you’re talking about. It more focuses, though, on the question of what it means to be a “good” human being than on what it means to be human, on the nature of intelligence, and on how much our society considers “goodness” to be simply identical to intellectual capacity.

    I am interested in hearing more about Reinders’ conception of friendship. On the one hand, I absolutely agree that opening ourselves up to friendship with all the world, without exception, is a vital way toward creating the Kingdom of God on earth (or whatever other term works). And I actually find the idea of Christian mission very difficult to accept, except through this lens. (That is, we are not called on to enlighten others, but rather to form friendships; mission is a two-way street, and we always receive more than we give.)

    On the other hand (and I am unsure the degree to which this bears on Reinders’ point) I have found that it’s a wide gulf between being friendly toward someone and being friends with her. The first, I think, lies within our power; but the fact remains that I just can’t make myself like someone that I don’t like. I can be on good terms with all the world; I can try to act with love toward those I meet in concrete ways; but for me, acting with love necessitates not being false with them. It doesn’t do anyone any good for me to try to persuade myself into appropriate emotions. Again, this may or may not have relevance to the topic at hand.

  4. Hi Elizabeth,

    Wonderful post, and it definitely raises questions for how I’m thinking about anthropology in my own dissertation. Before I got to the section on friendship, I was going to ask about the relational aspect of anthropology and what it means for someone with an intellectual disability like Kelly to be in relationship with other people.

    It seems from what you’ve written that Reinders answers this through the idea of presence, but I get the impression that he focuses on the non-disabled being present to the disabled. Does he say anything regarding the experience of presence on the part of the disabled person? If Kelly does not conceptualize her own identity, does she experience presence beyond a sense of physical proximity?

    Thanks,
    Steve

  5. I wonder too how much our need/tendency to define “human-ness” and “image of God-ness” in terms of the capacities that make humans unique (rationality, etc) is related to the Western tendency to define human beings in opposition to rather than in continuity with non-human creation.

    If we instead define humanity in terms inclusive of the profoundly intellectually disabled (breathing and existing for example) this would seem to open up a way for us to better appreciate our profound interconnection with and equality to all living things.

    Our inability to be friends with the profoundly disabled seems to be in some way related to our inability to be friends with the rest of creation.

    Am I reading too much into this, or, do you also think that thinking of the intellectually disabled eschatologically casts profound doubt on the survival of the “soul” (however this is understood) in some interim state? Thinking of eschatology/afterlife from the vantage point of the intellectually disabled would seem to strongly vindicate the resurrection of the body.

    Also, and, I may be getting ahead of myself here (you were probably going to talk about this later) but do you follow Nancy Eisland in thinking that the intellectually disabled will be intellectually disabled following the resurrection? It would seem as though whether or not we think of the intellectually disabled as exceptions to or defective versions of humanity or whether we think of them as revelatory of true humanity would depend upon our answer to this question.

  6. I LOVED this book. I especially appreciate that Reinders account is theological when so much disability scholarship is located in the fields of pastoral care (Brian Brock) or sociology (Eisland). His critique of these movements, I thought, was very enlightening, although I do think there’s room to retain some aspects of liberation theology.

    Thanks for clearing up the argument about Roman Catholicism. I read that section five times and couldn’t wrap my mind around what he was saying. Lost in the minutia.

    What did you think of his review of Eisland?

  7. Elizabeth, thank you for this post. There is much to ponder hear and I look forward to future posts by you on this topic. I offer some citations. If they are helpful, wonderful. If not, ignore them.

    Virtuous Passions by G S Harak is an interesting book about Thomas Aquinas’ Treatise on the Passions that may offer an answer to Reinders critique of Aquinas. I read it years ago and own it but it has been awhile. If I recall, there is a short section about how the passions are a key component to understanding our journey to God and Harak who’s expertise is on nonviolence, social justice discusses alzheimer’s patients and their loss of “reason” and their relationship to God.

    I have never read it, but I wonder if there is anything helpful in the theological reflections in Henri Nouwen’s book “Adam: God’s Beloved”. He wrote it after his experience with extreme disabled people at L’Arche Daybreak Community in Canada.

    I also wonder if the fleshing out of the world “intellect” or “mind” or “understanding” that has occurred in many circles (transcendental Thomism, patristic studies, contemplative studies) — where those words are not read with the Enlightenment/modern spin and instead include more things [a uniting of reason, feeling and intuition like the word “heart” (not as emotional center but instead as deepest existential aspect of the human) could represent] — I wonder if that helps in developing a theological anthropology that responds to these types of challenges.

    A. N. Williams book on The Divine Sense uncovers how the word “intellect” or “mind” has multiple meanings and senses in Patristic theology. I skim read it awhile back but recall her expanding the category a bit there. It will ultimately not answer this question but maybe it gives possible avenues to pursue this concern?

    Thanks for a great post.

    Kevin

  8. The existence of mental deficiencies does not necessitate marginalization. I would say society marginalizes the retarded (to use Hauerwas’s language) more than the church. Why do we not have micro-encephalic firefighters or mayors or surgeons (maybe mayor is a bad example). And I am not defending the church, it is simply that talking about reason-based anthropologies with regard to the retarded is low hanging fruit. I’d rather see this “new” anthropology than hear about our need for it.

    It seems the church already has a stronger anthropology, though, in the form of the person of Jesus and Mary’s “Yes” and there are plenty of people who do work based on those figures (and not reason as such) as well as live out that anthropology in the lives of the severely disabled in a way that would be impossible if everyone actually thought in the manner of Reinders’s critique.

  9. Elizabeth,

    This is a really interesting challenge. My worry is that Reinders redefinition of humanity in terms of friendship and friendship in terms of presence (did I get that right?) is too broad: the result is a “humanity” that can include almost any aspect of creation. Does Reinders discuss why dogs or trees or even mountains don’t qualify under his definition? Does he talk about how Kelly might be seen as a priest and not merely a member of creation?

    I’m not really sure how to make that distinction without some appeal to capacity or potential capacity. I don’t know the literature here, but I suspect Reinders’ assault on teleological anthropology will prove unsuccessful: what he caricatures as a genetic understanding of humanity could be recast in terms of formal cause (more than just genetics) – the sort of cause that allows us to define Kelly as micro-encephalic in the first place – and this would then ground the final causes. But, again, I don’t know the debate well.

    • Ross, I many people are invested in the notion that human beings are at the top of the hierarchy of being because they think that, without this distinction/superiority, we would have no grounds for human dignity because we would then treat humans as horribly as we treat animals. (wait, we already treat humans like animals and maybe we should stop treating animals like crap?)

      if you look at certain indigenous cultures which had a much higher respect for and friendship with the rest of creation, they also had a much higher respect for human life. only in the west/industrial societies do we see these things as competing.

      also, this is why we need to put imago dei back in its context. i’ve read analyses of genesis and those stories were written to satirically subvert and offer an alternative to babylon. saying humans were “imago dei” was to reject babylon’s notion that most humans were worthless cogs of empire uncared for by the gods to whom they were meant to be slaves. it wasn’t a conclusion made deductively from the presence of certain capacities; instead it was a type of anthropology of political resistance enabled by a certain understanding of who God is. In other words, our dignity comes not from what we are but from who God is. and i’m getting this from Wes Howard-Brook’s “Come Out, My People: God’s Call Out of empire In the Bible and Beyond.”

  10. @Wilson, Elizabeth isn’t just critiquing anthropologies that are based on reason, but also those that are based on *agency*. If Christian anthropology begins with Mary’s or Jesus’s “yes,” then those who don’t understand the difference between yes and no aren’t human, or are only human in a qualified sense. We would have to find a way that Kelly can say “yes”–this may be possible, but not with standard accounts of reason and/or agency. If we start with God’s “yes” toward us, we are better situated to recognize the dignity of all humans, rather than those who live up to our expectations.

  11. Elizabeth, thank you so much for this post. I am so excited that you are doing this sort of research, and hopes to see it end up in your dissertation.

    It seems to me that a lot of Reinder’s argument hinges on renaming what is “defective” as merely unusual. I want to listen to his challenge and allow my own understanding of what it means to be human to be interrogated–especially if it it operating to exclude persons from the Kingdom of God or to perpetuate systems of marginalization.

    But my immediate worry concerns our ability to truly name things that suck. Is there a way of arguing for the humanity of all people (and not creating an ordering of human beings) that can also say “This sucks. So-and-so lives a painful existence, and that is bad.” That is, can one be friends with Kelly and also lament that she will never know what it’s like to read a good book?

    I don’t know if you share similar instincts and would appreciate your thoughts on this Elizabeth.

    • I like this point a great deal. Can we name situations like extreme intellectual disabilities as terrible, problematic, sucky situations and still affirm the full and revelatory humanity of those who live in that situation?

      And I wonder, since I don’t know much about disability theology, how it connects to questions of health/disease. I would say cancer sucks, and that it can be disabling, but it doesn’t seem to be an emphasis of disability theology.

      • Steve: I think this is situational. For the parents of a children with a profound intellectual disability this is probably an accurate statement. It is also the case for “higher functioning” folks with intellectual disabilities who can grasp their difference well enough to know that their lives are marginalized. And there’s the problem of physical pain. But I know lots of people with profound disabilities who seem content with their lives, at least as content as you and me. I think we can only say this is a “terrible, problematic, sucky situation” only as far as we would say this about a child with ADHD, rebelliousness or a learning disability. Of course it’s not all roses, but what Reinders is challenging us on is allowing for humanness without potentiality. Another question to pose for yourself is whether or not the resurrected bodies of people with Down Syndrome will have Down Syndrome. I tend to think yes.

    • Erin: But I wonder if this is like saying I’ll never know the joy of doing calculus or riding in the Tour de France. Of course I won’t. Those things are far beyond my capabilities but not having access to them doesn’t limit the satisfaction of my life. I think we tend to make assumptions about flourishing lives when we start down this road. I appreciate that Reinders wants to provide a different account by locating flourishing in friendship (specifically being chosen by another for friendship).

      • Thanks Sign, that is helpful. I am trying to wrestle with all my preconceived notions of what it means to be human! I don’t want to make assumptions that imposes unsatisfaction where there is none, so I retract my “enjoy a good book” example. I think you put it better in your response to Steven – that there are truly difficulties surrounding disability, but talking about capabilities isn’t as helpful. Anyhow, thanks!

        Peace,

        Erin

  12. Katie,

    I very much like your point about respect for human dignity and respect for the rest of creation being non-competitive and mutually supportive. Still, that is different from saying that they are the same thing. Are you arguing that they are the same thing, that the Kelly cases and the imago-dei-exegesis is such that we can’t ultimately ground a distinction between humans beings and other animals?

    And is Reinders arguing that? If so, why is his argument not more “stark”? If not, how does he prevent his argument from entailing some such conclusion?

    • No, I’m not at all arguing that a human and a bacterium are the same thing, only that we don’t really need to associate the imago dei with “human reason” and that we don’t need to fortify our distinctiveness from the rest of the world in order to maintain human dignity.

      And I’m arguing that it increasingly seems like the intent behind the imago dei in genesis was not to make a point about human capacities making us similar to God when no other creature is but to make a claim about how human beings are loved by God and should not therefore be subject to political and social oppression at the hands of other human beings.

      Given injunctions to humane treatment of animals throughout the Old Testament as well as proper stewardship of the land being an inextricable and inherent part of covenant faithfulness to God, I am also arguing that God loves ALL of creation.

      My view would actually prioritize biodiversity and difference to a much greater extent than is typical in the West, which uses industrial technology to “tame” and subdue nature and inevitably leads to a diminishing of diversity (extinctions and monocultures for example as well as the astonishing diminishment of human cultural and linguistic diversity something that has been happening ever since the advent of agriculture, but picked up steam with european imperial expansion that began in the 15th century, and has reached a frenzied pace in the last century) and is marked by a fear/intolerance of the Other, both human and non-human, because the Other is that which it cannot tame, control, subdue. Instead, when we see species difference as existing along a continuum with rather fuzzy borders, (think of the fact that our bodies are composed of millions and millions of bacteria, without which we not only could not live, but could not live as human beings) we will be much more likely to see ourselves as connected to, dependent on, and kin to all creation.

  13. Elizabeth, thank you for a wonderful post that brings forward a much-neglected aspect of our anthropology. I really respond to Reinders’s call for friendship with persons with intellectual disabilities, and I think it’s a way of articulating a part of the human condition for which our language is really quite inadequate. Jean Vanier has written a lot on that topic, as well (friendship and the struggle with language and communication).

    In one of my classes we were recently discussing how to catechize people with intellectual disabilities, and there was a real struggle among my classmates about how to engage volunteer catechists, many of whom will be scared or intimidated by such a task. I think this quote you offered from Reinders really cuts to the heart of the matter:

    “Most of us do not want to be affiliated with suffering, nor with poverty, nor with abnormality. That explains why people in marginalized positions suffer from our self-images. Having had their self-images shaped by a culture that reproduces a hierarchy of human being, most Christians do not usually distinguish themselves in seeking friendships with those who suffer from poverty, or abnormality.”

    I’m not very familiar with this book, so I’d be curious to know more about what Reinders says on suffering? Pastorally, it’s probably the hardest thing to talk about; we cannot ignore that suffering is present, but we also do not want to reduce people like Kelly to nothing but the suffering we perceive/project on her life.

  14. Hey everybody,

    By the time I got around to approving comments, there were already a lot of them, so I think what I might do is write a follow-up post clarifying aspects of Reinders’ position in response to the comments. I hope I can then share more fully my own sense of what his argument gives us. I wanted to be more specific the first time around anyway, but I was already too verbose. So…another post is forthcoming! Keep commenting if there is anything else you would like me to consider, please!

  15. As I read your post, I am reminded of Jean Vanier’s L’Arche and Henri Nouwen who worked there as well. A sort of ‘pure love’ flows out of profoundly disabled persons, a love that makes us realize that indeed we may well be the ones profoundly disabled when it comes to loving.

  16. Pingback: Friday Links | A Thinking Reed

  17. Thanks for the post! I am interested in this topic myself, and look forward to hearing more from you.

    My own concern about Reinders is that in my reading, it seems his focus is on caregivers, which I worry actually sidesteps the questions about disability and human identity, because he gets to focus on people that we do see as having agency.

    I’d actually love to see him in conversation with Ian McFarland (Difference and Identity) for how McFarland discusses personhood in relation to the Trinity. I’m curious whether there might be fruitful ways of thinking about friendship and Trinity together?

    Hope you do a post on Thomas Reynolds’ book – I enjoyed reading that one as well.

  18. Pingback: How Are We All Human? Intellectual Disability and Appeals to Aquinas | WIT

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