Disability and Creation: Notes from Presentation by Hans Reinders

I'm attending the Summer Institute on Theology and Disability this week. Below are my notes from a presentation by Hans Reinders, Ph.D. The paper that his presentation was based on available for download: Disability and Creation.

Hans started his presentation emphasizing the importance of the emergence of the field of theology and disability. He mentioned developments such as the European Society for the Study of Theology and Disability, Nancy Eiesland's book The Disabled God and the the Summer Institute as evidence of that emergence.

While there is a growing body of literature addressing the field of theology and disability, he mentioned that the doctrine of creation is noticeably missing from that literature.

Why? It is a complicated issue.

Disability, like disease and disaster raise questions about the goodness of creation. In Genesis, after each act of creation states "it was good". Chapter 1 of Genesis concludes "And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good."

The question follows then of how disability squares with the goodness of the creation.

Hans related two stories of people with disabilities- Steven who continually invaded the personal space of others and Larry who yelled very loudly. These characteristics made it difficult to find friendship. An effort to reframe those characteristics let to Steven finding his calling as a magician and Larry being welcomed as a cheering fan for a local volleyball team. They each found meaning in the goodness and gifts of their disability.

Returning to the implications on the theology of disability, Hans framed two different ways to consider disability:

  1. Focus on traditional 'quality of life' indicators that support for a person in a given environment. This perspective is based on a rehabilitation model and assumes the need for redemption or being fixed as the result of the fall from grace.
  2. Focus on the good life, the abundand life that encourages curiosity and exploration to help each person become a flourishing human being. This perspective honors the goodness of of an imperfect creation.

As we consider the ecology of being a child of God, there are no weeds, just different plants that flourish in different environments.

In his afternoon session, Hans echoed a feeling among conference attendees that those outside our community don't really understand what it is that we are about. It is our challenge to change that.

As we consider the goodness of the creation, there are implications on how we think about disability. In context of their creation, there is no 'we' and 'they', there is simply an 'us'. Listening to Hans I started to really understand the idea that there is an ideal to work towards that is beyond inclusion.

Hans referred to the list of statements from faith communities that Erik Carter had shared earlier that day and wondered about their value. He repeatedly used the statement, "In the beginning was the deed". I am not familiar with from Goethe's Faust, but can love the emphasis on doing- beyond statements and declarations are deeds and in those deeds is the gospel mainfest.

In the beginning was the deed.

Below are a few questions, thoughts, and ideas from the session I'm capturing here for future reference:

  • "When I was born with a disability, God was not surprised" (from an audience member)
  • Profound disability is where the rubber hits the road in the search for the abundant life.
  • In our Church experience we sometimes privatize pain and suffering, keeping it too much to ourselves.
  • For many of us, our gifts are closely related to pain in our lives (Bill Gaventa referring to Bruce Anderson)
  • Rights are often necessary to open doors, but what happens once you get through the door and in to the room (rights do not guarantee friendship).
  • The question was asked by a person with a disability, "Are you someone who might love me?"
  • What symbolism exists in the healings in the New Testament?
  • If someone hopes for a future without a disability, does that lead to deploring the disability today?
  • God created the creation to be good, not perfect.
  • When Jesus approached the man at the Pool of Bethesda, he first asked the question, "Wilt thou be made whole?" (Joanne Meyer of Pathways to Worship reminds me that in the New American Bible, that phrase is interpreted as "Do you want to be well again?"
  • The story of the 10 lepers does a good job of drawing the distinction between a physical healing and being made whole.
  • Consider Augustinian theology and the need for redemption and Irenaean theology and the goodness of creation.

Add your comments below or head over to the Institute on Theology and Disability Community site to join the discussion.