The Disabled God

Well, posting number two in what may be a weekly (or at least occasional) series of expanded reflection papers for my Systematic Theology II course. This week, Nancy Eiesland’s The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability.

* * *

Nancy Eiesland is concerned with bodies – her own, the bodies of other disabled people, the “corporate” body of human society, and the church as the body of Christ. She is concerned that disabled people be full and participating members of societies and human communities, that disability be understood as both a physical reality and a social construct. She is concerned – very concerned – about a pervasive social norm that hides disabled bodies, considers them as objects of pity and shame, examples of sin and places where healing and cure can take place.

Instead – and rightly so – Eiesland wants disabled bodies to be seen as whole bodies. Her body is whole, whole as her body. She wants the disabled to be subjects, rather than object, deciders and participators rather than recipients. She wants the disabled to have the same relationship to and with God that the “enabled” have, and is critical of an implied relationship in scripture to an ideal wholeness with the ability to exercise religious authority. Or between the link between disability and “moral imperfection or divine retribution for sin.” Or even a traditional theme in folk religion and folk spirituality, that of the disabled person as the suffering servant of God, someone who in their disability received an extra large helping of God grace. “The persistent thread within Christian tradition has been that disability denotes an unusual relationship with God and that the person with disabilities is either divinely blessed or damned: the defiled evildoer or the spiritual superhero.” (p.70)

This notion, the human beings are and should be subjects of their own actions and stories rather than the objects of the actions/stories of others, doesn’t need “liberation theology” to work. These are good, solid libertarian-individualist principles, as I understand it. No one should ever be bound by the meaning someone else imposes or tries to impose on them. Indeed, the greatest power the state holds is the power to unilaterally, and forcibly, impose meaning on both individuals and communities.

So Eiasland creates a “Disabled God” who is not a “suffering servant, [a] model of virtuous suffering, or [a] conquering lord.” Eiesland’s “Disabled God” is both whole and broken, complete in that God’s incompleteness, and allows disabled people to find their bodies in and part of that God. It also allows worshipers to understand that God’s grace comes embodied, in the various complete human forms that people take. This God accepts all of us, comes to all of us and works through all of us. We are, each of us, whole bodies and wholly in Christ.

There is, however, nothing stopping Eiesland, and anyone else who opted to worship with her or who felt that such worship was valuable, from doing just this. But as a liberation theologian, Eiesland has more goals than simply that. She wants a “thoroughgoing transformation of institutional, bureaucratic, and theological foundation of the Christian church.” In fact, this transformation – of the entire church? in all its permutations? — is “essential.” It isn’t enough, apparently, that Eiesland and theologians like her are thinking these thoughts, publishing these books and working for change. The entire world must be bent to her will because “justice” allegedly demands it.

Eiesland is a good critical theorist, and she believes in the power of words to change things. Like most critical theorists and liberation theologians, Eiesland is enchanted with the “new” — new models, new discourses, new symbols. Always new. Human beings are socially and historically incompetent without the work of the critical theorists — they are doctors diagnosing social disease and administering cure. There is nothing of any old world that will work in their future. Human beings, in this understanding, have the power (morally, materially and intellectually) to will new world into being ex nihilo, without regard for what came before. All that stands in the way is entrenched power. And thus, if that new and better world is not brought about, it is because people have tried hard enough, or have not been rightly guided enough, or power has not been challenged enough. It never occurs to critical theorists that it simply may not be possible for human beings to will a new and better world into being. It never occurs to critical theorists and liberationists, obsessed with a social idea of sin as entrenched racial, economic, social and political power (that the powerful are more sinful than the powerless), that human sinfulness pervades the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, the marginalized and central (central?) alike.

But as I noted earlier about the problems of multiculturalism as an imperial ideology, Eiesland appears to want to create a “God” that deliberately excludes the non-disabled while forcibly including them, or at least has that possibility (because any incarnation of God has that power). She has no patience with those who wish to secede, or work out their faith in God on their own, or who want to create their own ways of worshiping. All must belong, all must be compelled to belong, and all must belong to the same thing. (My basic complaint with the liberation theologians is my complaint with all revolutionaries — all they want is power, the power to get their way and force everyone else to comply.) I’m not sure what her disabled God says to me. Granted, I am new to incarnational God thing, having been a Muslim (and a believer in a distant, abstract God), but my greatest single encounter with God’s grace has been in and with my very dyslexic wife, in whom I have been forced to confront my conscience regarding weakness and understand what true strength is. Why, aside from the logic of liberation theology (that the poor and marginalized have more to say about God than anyone else, and thus ideologies allegedly putting the poor and marginalized at the center of things should be privileged), should her idea of God take precedence over any other idea of God? Do suffering servant and conquering lord have no value for anyone? Ever? An incarnate God means that human beings can conceive of that God in any number of circumstances and situations. That means that human beings can see God in any number of ways, including as themselves. But it also means we may tend to see God only as and in themselves. (If this is the problem with European-American Jesus of Denmark, it can also be anyone’s problem.) This begs a question – when do we stop worshiping God are start worshiping our idea of God, in effect worshiping ourselves and engaging in the worst form of idolatry?