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?