Bonhoeffer and the theology of disability

Theology and Disability

“To love another person is to see the face of God.” -Victor Hugo

I can picture it now: I was sitting near the stir-fry bar in Newcomb dining hall cramming for my Hebrew Bible exam in early December when I was presented with a welcome distraction. No, I’m not talking about the fish tacos. I received an email that morning from the manager of the Project on Lived Theology, asking me to advertise something about some random summer internship to a Christian apologetics club of which I am a part. I had never before heard of this organization, and suddenly I forgot entirely about my previous task of learning to spell “Tanakh” correctly (come on, Hebrew!) and became entrenched in finding all information I could about this initiative and its summer internship.

Having wiffle-waffled in my own personal view of theology in recent years, I knew I had always struggled to see it as valuable in its own right. Although I was drawn to the idea of worshipping God with one’s mind, I usually left even charitable discussions of theology with a nagging emptiness indicative of wasted time. “God’s relation to time is really, really cool- but what does this say about how I am to relate to God and other people? How does this teach me to love other people better?” Theology was for me, at best, interesting intellectual gymnastics, and I regarded my own interest in it as selfish. At the same time, I really thought there was something to the idea of “worshipping God with your mind,” but usually confined this to what I believed to be necessarily a relational and evangelistic use of apologetics.

Flash back to Newcomb. Pieces started to fit together like a puzzle. I am double-majoring in speech therapy and religious studies, and I was looking for an opportunity to delve deeper into something related to either of those over the summer. Usually when I explain my major to people, I am met with a confused look and/or awkward silence to which I reply “Yeah… I know they don’t really go together… I don’t really know what I’m doing with my life.” It only goes downhill from there. I have gotten all sorts of career counseling, from “You could teach communications at a Christian school!” to “You could help preachers with speech impediments!”

So naturally, when considering a program whose goal is to integrate theology into the banality of everyday life rather than segregate it, it did not take me long to decide to apply. And here I am! One of the things I love about the Project on Lived Theology is how individualized each internship can be. I was encouraged to pick an issue that mattered to me, spend some time serving that cause, and then spend time thinking about the theological implications of the issue. I decided to do my project on the topic of disability, exploring what it looks like to construct a theological framework which honors and empowers people with disabilities.

The organization that I will be working with this summer is the Virginia Institute of Autism (VIA) here in Charlottesville, Virginia. As an intern, I will be learning how to implement a relatively new form of behavioral therapy called applied behavioral analysis therapy (ABA) in VIA’s youngest classroom. VIA’s mission is to “help people overcome the challenges of autism through innovative, evidence-based programs in education, outreach and adult services.” There are several different classrooms according to age group, and instruction occurs either 1:1, 2:1, or in a small group setting according to the needs of each student. Because of the extremely low instructor: student ratio, students receive very individualized instruction and data is taken on every activity and analyzed for progress on various prescribed goals. I will be spending most of my time in the youngest classroom, consisting of eight students between the ages of 5 and 9.

In an attempt to learn how to think theologically about this project, I have been reading about several church fathers’ and modern theologians’ views on disability and its theology. Honestly, I have been surprised at the breadth of work that has been done on “theology of disability” and have come to see that the question of disability is necessarily connected to deeper philosophical and metaphysical commitments. For example, one’s answer to the question of disability largely depends on one’s prior answer to the question “What does it mean to be human?”

Greats of the Christian tradition such as Augustine, Calvin, and Luther all contain some degree of internal tension in the way they discuss disability. Many share the often counter-cultural concern of providing for people with disabilities, both ecclesially and governmentally, as well as a rich understanding of the Imago Dei as present in all humans. However, their stubborn insistence that rationality is what separates man from beast seems de facto to exclude people with certain cognitive disabilities, which would include many of the children I am working with at VIA. Personally, I found Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s response to be the most effective in assessing “the real problem” in discussions of disability. Growing up in a context in which the Imago Dei was effectively smashed to pieces in Nazi Germany, his reflections on what it means to be human are particularly emotionally charged. His response to the question of how a Christian ought to think about disability is particularly paradigm-shifting. Scholar Brand Wannenwetsch offers a synthesis of Bonhoeffer’s opinion as it applies to current debates about the language used to describe disability: “Should we ‘include’ the disabled in the protective zone of the language of ‘personhood,’ a moral attitude which would still be based on a condescending ‘us-them’ rationale, or should we instead summon those who consider themselves not disabled to find themselves included in the same frail and dependent human existence as God’s creatures that the disabled exemplify?” (Wannenwetsch 364).

Maybe it is not simply more inclusive language that is needed in a theological framework of disability, but a shift from the ground up in how we talk about the human condition. Maybe able-bodied humans are not born in a state that is “already closer to the ideal.” As my professor Dr. Paul Jones has said in conversation, “maybe there are ways of entering into the suffering of Christ, and even doing theology, that only people with disabilities can do.” This strikes me as incredibly apt. In a time where experience is being seen as more and more informative for theology, maybe “able-bodied” needs to be understood as a category of privilege right alongside “white,” “male,” and “straight”.

Thinking about theology as more and more experiential has led me to begin to see what this “lived theology” thing is all about. What is theology if it is not lived? Can a theology with no inherent attempt to wrestle with its implications for “real life” truthfully be called “theology” at all? What if God is not primarily defined by his abstract attributes (omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience), but by his entering into the human condition? What if it is God’s actions that define him more fully than anything else? And what if the moment in which we most clearly perceive God is not when we finally “get” the best analogy to explain the Trinity (good luck with that), but when we look into the eyes of another human being made in his image?

Wannenwetsch,Brand. “’My Strength Is Made Perfect In Weakness’: Bonhoeffer and the War over Disabled Life.” Disability in the Christian Tradition. Ed. Brian Brock and John Swinton. Grand Rapids/Cambridge: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2012. 353-390. Print.