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.