Grateful for the comments and engagement I received on my recent post about intellectual disability and Hans Reinders, I’ve decided to enact a follow-up post for the sake of clarification and further conversation. I will loosely base this post on the comments from the first post and organize accordingly. And then I’m going to share some personal stuff. This is a long post.

Reinders on friendship with the intellectually disabled

For Reinders, persons without intellectual disabilities should understand friendship as constituted by the kind of appreciation which is not coerced or pre-determined, as it is in professional or familial situations. Persons without intellectual disabilities can appreciate those with as the central witnesses to what it means to be God’s creatures, as receptive, as gifted, as gift. In this sense, what we meant to become is friends with each other. This is his understanding of vocation. And I would add by way of explanation that, for those who cannot actively cultivate friendship, their sheer existence is already their realized vocation. He states, “Even though the intellectual and moral faculties of most people with intellectual disabilities are underdeveloped, this does not preclude them from the possibility of being chosen as friends. Friendship is a possibility that may be realized for any human being, regardless of her or his condition.” There is obviously an asymmetry here; agentive humans must choose persons with disabilities as friends in a way that is obviously not mirrored by non-agentive persons.

However, the substance of this friendship is mutual in the sense that it enacts a truth about who God is as the one who gives us our existence with each other so that our vocation is receiving this gift and receiving each other. And Reinders argues that persons with intellectual disabilities are particularly good at receiving others because they are always already dependent upon others in a way that non-disabled persons presume foolishly not to be. In sum, to argue for how persons with intellectual disabilities fit into his conception of friendship, Reinders states, “First, [persons with intellectual disabilities] participate in the freedom of being who they are and what they are without any need for further justification. Second, they participate in God’s friendship in that they reap the fruits of the friendship we learn to extend to them insofar as we know how to have ourselves transformed by their presence in our lives.” And overall, Reinders insists that true Christian friendship is about commitment to those whom the world sinfully deems despicable and marginal.

Reinders on suffering

Reinders is self-consciously dealing with a subset of disability, namely, Down syndrome, as well as things like micro-encephaly. So it is important to note that the profound intellectual disabilities he has in mind do not necessarily entail pain and suffering. This is pivotal for being open to his argument, which is responding primarily to the assumption that a person with an intellectual disability must necessarily be suffering. He acknowledges that caregivers must in various ways sacrifice and endure much, and that many persons with intellectual disabilities may indeed deal with various issues of pain, but his main point is to emphasize that such an existence can and should be seen as gifted and as gift. Furthermore, like Hauerwas, he wants to emphasize the way that society (and the Church, I would add) projects suffering onto such persons and thereby reinforces social stigma and isolation.

Reinders on capacities-oriented anthropologies in Roman Catholicism

Let’s get Reinders’ starting point on the table. He writes about Kelly, “Since the perspective of individual [agentive, rational] selfhood was casting her humanity [as it existentially manifested itself] into doubt, it occurred to me that an appropriate move for me to make would be to question that perspective — rather than questioning her humanity.” If you’re not sympathetic to this move, you’re not going to understand the rest of what he’s doing.

I want to clarify that I think, for Reinders, the issue is not about classifying humans philosophically, but rather, about limning our theological significance in terms that are as inclusive as possible.

I think that Reinders accepts a fundamental distinction between humanity and the rest of creation, but this distinction does not hinge on the capacities of reasoning and choosing. Instead, I’ll conjure Barth and suggest that for Reinders, this distinction rests on God choosing to be covenantally in relationship with humanity in a distinctive way that isn’t based on anything we think we can say with certainty about what humans are already like independently of God’s special relationship with each of us.

Even if proponents of the Roman Catholic (Aristotelian-Thomistic hylomorphic) position secure Kelly’s humanity by positing that she is of human origin and therefore has a rational soul that is the formal cause of her distinctive being, descriptions of her final end in God as a perfection of the capacities of her rational soul do not in any way reflect or address her life, and its significance, as it actually manifests itself in the here and now. Specifically, she is missing the part of her brain that allows her to be rational; she doesn’t even have the physical capacity for rationality (and this is a problem in light of Roman Catholic philosophical reasoning which suggests that there is, as a rule, a correlative relation between the rational capacities of the soul as our formal cause and our embodied, physical existence and its biological capacities). Thus, to hinge her eschatological consummation upon the perfection of capacities she does not physically have in the here and now at least raises questions –are we really giving the best account of Kelly’s life and place in God?

Maybe we do want to posit, in hope, that her eschatological consummation indeed is about the perfection of her “rational capacities” according to the mystery of the spiritual, resurrected body, but before settling in with that kind of hope which offers a rather impoverished reading of Kelly’s life, Reinders is asking us to think about the theological meaning of Kelly’s existence as it is actually given to us. And, in a moment of positive approval for the theological insight of Evangelium Vitae, Reinders follows John Paul II in suggesting that we think about our final life with God as God’s life with us, each of us, as pure gift, in a way that we don’t have to pre-determine ahead of time as dependent upon or correlative with a perfection of our rational and volitional capacities.

Reinders writes, “A profoundly disabled person such as Kelly has no relationship with God in the sense of a human act on her part, I have argued, but this does not exclude the possibility that God has a relationship with her. But I don’t know exactly what this means with respect to Kelly.” So there’s eschatological hope for all of us, including Kelly, but the way this hope is articulated is very different than in the hylomorphic scheme. After all, at what point does Scripture, and what we think about humans in light of what God is doing for us, enter into our anthropology and our eschatological hope? Shouldn’t we at least wonder about the prevalence of Aristotelian metaphysics in our anthropologies, so that it doesn’t become a hegemony which we ideologically accept without really understanding or chastening? Anyway, if you don’t think legitimate questions on this front are at least raised about Kelly’s life, I’m not interested in arguing with you.

My own thoughts about Reinders

First, some criticisms:

I think that Reinders is too monolithic and apodictic in his discussion of the suffering that may be entailed in living as an intellectually disabled person and living with an intellectually disabled person. As I said, he’s dealing with Down syndrome and such, but even though he acknowledges the suffering that may be inherent in certain situations, I think he quickly brushes over that reality (which is, I grant, different in each case) in order to move to the positive and life-giving aspects of his anthropology centered around intellectual disability. This move is a bit too quick for my taste. And it leaves him with so many questions unanswered; at the end of the book he suggests that there may be something “sad” about Kelly’s life and her inability to actively receive God’s love and the friendship of others, but he does nothing with this brief observation embedded in the denouement of the text. Furthermore, I wonder what kinds of theodicy/radical suffering questions legitimately pop up as soon as we start thinking in a related vein about various mental illnesses and disorders. Perhaps some of his claims can be applied to some of those cases, but in general I think we need much more specificity in our phenomenology of various mental impediments. There is quite a bit of real psychological and psychiatric anguish in the world, and we shouldn’t be too quick to move past that fact.

Likewise, I think Reinders’ account of friendship needs to be filled out and nuanced. Different friendships are based on different things, and I don’t think that’s wrong. I’m willing to employ his sense of friendship as the most important definition of friendship from a Christian perspective, but I just want further reflection on how that cashes out given the complexity of human relationships as they actually manifest themselves. Certainly Reinders’ relationship/friendship with his wife has some important qualitative distinctions from his various friendships with persons with intellectual disabilities. What does that difference mean?

Furthermore, even if we accept Reinders’ de-centering of agency as fundamentally constitutive of what it means to live a human life, I think he needs to address more fully the role of agency in the lives of some humans. Doing so would not be an evil. After all, he wrote this rather verbose text, and he wants to enact a transformation of people’s attitudes toward persons with intellectual disabilities. I think we can still say that God is in relationship to each of us without exception while also developing some notion of a more personalized account of something like vocation — who are we each individually called to be by God? This question does not need to have the same answer for everybody — our respective talents and gifts should be used in various ways for God’s glory. This reflection on vocation need not erode the more fundamental truth about God’s creative and redemptive love for each of us. Obviously agency plays a crucial role in Reinders’ positive vision of social relations, and he needs to be more upfront about that. In general, I don’t like it when we denounce agency and then slide it in through the back door by performatively demonstrating our agency through, say, writing a book denouncing agency.

Also, for somebody so concerned about a specifically theological and Scripturally-based anthropology, Reinders sure doesn’t deal with the healings in the gospels. In fact, he only discusses the man born blind in John 9, but I think he still fails to discuss the fact that Jesus heals this man. This oversight annoys me.

Second, a note of appreciation:

I do want to emphasize how much I’ve appreciated this book. Honestly, I think about being human differently because of this book. I think it helps me recommit to an important theological truth. In sum, there is nothing that any of us can do to make God not love us, and, perhaps even more difficult to swallow for the fastidious and theologically minded, there is nothing any of us can do to make God love us. Each of us. Even if we perceive ourselves to be separated from God for whatever reason, God is in relationship to us, and even in our thirst for holiness, righteousness, and rectitude, God already loves us. I think Reinders is right to claim that in various ways, persons with intellectual disabilities can especially witness to this truth that applies to all of us.

Furthermore, I myself have a brother who deals with mental illness and can arguably be deemed intellectually disabled thereby in certain respects (he’s schizoaffective and will need special care for his entire life), and I think Reinders has helped me think more clearly about the theological significance of my brother’s life. When he first experienced the onset of schizoaffective disorder around the age of eighteen, we were all quite angry and traumatized (who the hell wouldn’t be?), and I think it stayed that way for years. But with the help of proper medication and care from my parents, my brother has been relatively stable for years now, and he’s been living as schizoaffective for almost two decades. (He can’t work or watch movies, but he can drive short distances, go to the gym, and carry on somewhat disjointed conversations.)

But even after he stabilized years ago, I think I struggled not to feel embarrassed and regretful for and about him. This attitude obviously made it impossible for me to relate to him in an entirely respectful way; all I could perceive when I encountered him was the pain of a life that went “unfulfilled.” (He was supposed to become a marine biologist, and he went to college to do so, but he couldn’t finish his degree because he lost his ability to concentrate.) With such regret often on my mind, I was at best typically guarded, uptight, and nominally polite around him; I loved (tolerated?) him because he was my older brother, but I thought that the possibility of a deeper relationship with him, and a deeper appreciation for who he was as a person with schizoaffective disorder, was off-limits.

But, due to my exam question on disability, I’ve been thinking lately that this attitude on my part is bullshit — I’ve started to think about my brother as my friend, and this shift in perspective has made me see the extent to which his life is filled with gentleness, joy, and peace. To be sure, he can be moody and irritable like most of us (probably none of us here is a saint, and I’m not going to romanticize my brother in that way), but there’s a much greater degree of self-acceptance on his part than I was willing to see because I’ve spent so long wishing he was the person he used to be years ago. I’ve noticed that when we go out together now and I actually take the time to listen to him, he makes incisive and often comical observations about our family dynamics, and he also likes some people and dislikes other people (like I do), and he follows football, and he gets annoyed about traffic, and he thinks I work too hard in grad school. Sometimes he tells me about his rather wild auditory hallucinations that sound like some kind of cosmic video game with sundry characters (and some amorphous entity called ‘The Unexplained’ which he says, fittingly, that he can’t explain). I always tell him, “You know that’s not real, right?” and he sighs and smiles, “Yeah, I know.” And he seems okay, really, and I am learning to appreciate him as he is. Being with him is a gift. And I don’t offer that claim as a dollop of starry-eyed treacle. Trust me.

I do not presume to speak for anybody else’s experience of disability and/or mental illness, but this has been my experience, and I’m grateful to have had my attitude chastened through engagement with Reinders’ text. I know my brother’s story is very different from Kelly’s, but I hope my experience with my brother would help me become friends with somebody like Kelly. Anyway, I need to grow a lot still, but this is a start.

I hope that final bit wasn’t inappropriately personal, but if it was, I don’t care. I share because I want to keep this discussion real, and I want us to be honest about the ways that we may marginalize and/or feel embarrassed about those who are intellectually disabled or who suffer from mental disorders. Especially we Christians. Perhaps everybody else has been better than me on this front, but somehow I doubt that. In any case, I pray for the transformation of our sinful attitudes such that we may become true friends to persons with disabilities. We are impoverished if we do not.

8 thoughts

  1. Elizabeth, again thank you so much for sharing. I can relate to your criticisms of Reinders on suffering — I struggle with that same issue in much of what I’ve read on the topic of theology and disability. To some degree, I’m sympathetic to people who find dwelling on suffering unhelpful. I even think it’s fair to say that the lion’s share of suffering for people with intellectual disabilities is from isolation, social marginalization, and projection, all of which can be helped when we raise consciousness about it. But I am frustrated when aspects of physical suffering are brushed over; it seems to me like a critical element of embodied existence is being ignored (in fact, I think this could apply to a lot of experiences of physical suffering, like illness). I’d love to know if you encountered anything that dealt more fully with suffering in your research?

    1. Hey Lorraine. Sigh. I’ve been trying to come up with some good texts to look at on exactly the issues you’re concerned about, and the pickings are a bit sparse. I wonder if Thomas Reynolds’ _Vulnerable Communion_ does a slightly better job than Reinders on this front; Reynolds is writing directly out of his experience of having a son who has a host of mental and emotional disorders ranging from bipolar to ADHD to OCD, so he tries to keep it real. But he also ends up being quite positive overall, which may or may not be a strength of the book. Have you looked at it? I’m not sure what I think of it; maybe I will do a post on it soon. Another author to look at may be Nancy Mairs. She’s an excellent memoir writer who tracks her development of MS in her late twenties. She writes about her weakening body in really vivid detail, although I suppose that doesn’t really get at the intellectual disability issue. I am familiar with her work only through Nancy Eiesland, but she still might be helpful. So I guess the point is that I haven’t run across a ton of great literature that has the tone and balance you seek, but I freely admit that my knowledge of this burgeoning field is not extensive. Maybe you, or I, or both of us, need to write some articles on this issue! Anyway, let me know if *you* find anything!

  2. Thank you for this, Eizabeth!

    I think that it is still necessary and important to contest the prevalent sentimental attitudes that interpret disabled lives as unambiguously tragic and pitiful, and so I am largely sympathetic to people like Reinders and Hauerwas on this point. But I agree with you about your reservations, and I think that there is a tendency to combat these views that ultimately romanticizes disability and glosses over the grittier details of disability and the tougher cases of mental illness.

    I think my relationships with disabled individuals confirm that there is some truth in both sides of the issue. On the one hand, many people I know resent their disabilities insofar as they can reflect on them. So there should be room to talk about the difficulties and sufferings that come with disability. On the other hand, I am confident that my disabled friends would resist the notion that their lives are therefore bleak and joyless, more deserving of pity than celebration. Now, I am writing from an experience in a L’Arche Community, which probably gives me a more optimistic idea of the possibilities and promises for disabled lives. But this only shows how much of disabled suffering is a societal/cultural issue rather than something intrinsic to disability itself.

    1. Indeed, Kevin. I think your balance is the right way to go on this issue. And relatedly, I think we just need a more complex, pluralized account of DISABILITIES to really more adequately approximate the truth of what we’re dealing with. Reinders develops a sub-agentive anthropology because his starting point is Kelly; Reynolds develops a relational anthropology of difference and creativity because his starting point is his son Chris who has various mental and emotional disorders but can still function in society. I would like to see these two authors more in conversation with each other. You should do your dissertation on this!

  3. Thanks again, Elizabeth. I too struggle with how to provide a positive account of agency and intellect in light of what I read in theology of profound disability. The best thing I’ve come up with is the reconciliation of gifts in baptism. The thesis I’m working with is that the profoundly disabled are for the body of Christ those who cannot strive for God’s grace. Maybe something like “pure receivers” when the rest of us are inhibited by (disabled by?) our intellect, at least in this area. In this way the profoundly disabled are for us anti-Pelagianism, the realization of our non-competitive relationship to the Creator. But as a body of diverse gifts we need those with intellect to choose friendship with the disabled and to reveal who we are together in Christ with them to the world. What I find helpful about this is that it places the priority on the disabled. So often anthropology is constructed on the basis of the dominant (“I am human and X is not”) whereas I want to create theological space where the weak things of this world to truly shame the wise.

    I’ve been interested in shopping this around but no one around PTS has shown much interest or expertise in profound disability so if anyone wants to chime in I’d appreciate the feedback!

    1. Hey Melissa,

      I really like your idea, especially because, as you say, this idea privileges those with intellectual disabilities in its articulation of theological anthropology. I think we need new starting points such as these because, without them, I fail to see how we’re ever going to become truly welcoming as Christians to persons with intellectual disabilities, and even in such a way that we can richly conceive of their presence as an integral part of what it means to be a Christian community. My hesitation, as I think about these issues in general and in a way that extends beyond the idea that you’ve just expressed, centers around trying to retain some language to talk truthfully about the suffering and the should-not-be-ness of ASPECTS of CERTAIN cases in which people are suffering their own disabilities. This is an extremely complex issue, so I’m trying in my mind to shy away from saying that it’s all just about suffering OR that it’s all life-giving. I don’t know; I’m confused about this — how should I bring together the issues of theodicy and innocent suffering together with the issues of disability and teaching Christians how to appreciate (and be appreciated as) persons with intellectual disabilities?

      So is this an idea you’re thinking of pursuing in some kind of written form, like a thesis or dissertation? Whom else have you read apart from Reinders? It would be great if we could continue to dialogue about this!

      1. Thanks for this. Yes, this would ideally be my dissertation (should my math skills and energy level improve in the next year). I’ve actually got a hunch now that Bonhoeffer might be the guy to engage these issues. Did you hear about the paper Bern Wassenwetsch gave at the Fordham Bonhoeffer conference? It was on Bonhoeffer and intellectual disability and he let me read it in advance. Ethics is my priority for the summer so I’ll let you know what I come up with!

        I also think that, to a certain extent, Barth might be helpful. Early Barth I should say. He actually addresses the issue of profound disability in his response to Emil Brunner on natural theology. But I’m dissatisfied with where he ends up later in life (CD). Actually I’m dissatisfied with Barth’s ethics generally but that’s another story for another day. Still something in there that will be useful, I’m sure, just not where I want to hang my hat….

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