I’m reviewing a challenging book Disability and The Gospel in a four-part series.
This section of the book nearly made my brain fizzle as it tied in different philosophies and ideas of existence. I am keeping it to two points because there was so much to cover. I was completely unprepared for the terrible conclusions many wise men came to concerning the disabled. If you’re reading this book and have a disabled child, I’m warning you, this will be frustrating because the “idea” these men toss around is your reality and in many cases they come to demeaning conclusions. BUT I do think it’s important to understand historical thought regarding disability, many of these thoughts are still alive and well today albeit in different presentations.
9. Throughout history many key thinkers grossly misunderstood how disability and the gospel connected.
The early Jewish rabbis always held tightly to the sanctity of life because each person was made in the image of God regardless of physical or mental condition (go Rabbis!). But on the flip side too often the disabled were seen as such because of direct punishment from God (enter self-righteousness here and distancing self from brokenness!). The Greeks were even harsher–they didn’t see man as made in the image of God, consequently, if you were disabled you were considered no only worthless but a liability to society. Plato said in the Republic, “leave the unhealthy to die and those whose psychological constitution is incurably corrupt…put to death.” (Greeks: FAIL).
Then Aquinas (medieval thinker) and pointed out that simply existing was better than not existing (a muted perfection is better than nothing) and having the ability to reason is a central reflection of being made in God’s image. Aquinas is stepping in the right direction but still insinuating that people who have a lesser ability to reason are therefore “less” in goodness and reflection of God’s image. I would argue that although their physical and cognitive abilities are affected other beings are just as broken spiritually and both remain in God’s debt. I’d also argue that reason is a manifestation of being made in God’s image, but it is NOT the only test of person-hood. There are times when reason can be completely gone but there is obviously still a body and a soul, very much existing (contrary to “I think, therefore I am”). Usually reason is a good evidence of humanity but when that is not present (cognitive impairments) it does not erase person-hood.
Listen to Luther’s (yikes!) comments regarding a 12-year-old disabled boy: “[he is] merely a lump of flesh without a soul”. Apparently he then proceeded to recommend killing the boy. This really mystifies me and makes me want to study the context of that a bit more. Luther isn’t known for always saying the politically correct things but these just seems brutish and careless. He obviously never spent significant time with the disabled.
More modern theologians (Charles Hodge and J. Gresham Machen) contributed to the conversation. They saw the image of God in non-physical elements (reason, conscience, will) and alluded to the reflection of being made in the image of God being represented by man’s soul rather than body. This is significant shift of thought.
Karl Barth, Emil Brunner, and G.C. Berkhouwer (prominent theologians in the 20th century) built on this idea and rejected the prevailing idea that reason was the main stamp of God’s image on humanity and offered different ways of man bearing the image of God. They suggested that the image of God is reflected in us by our relational functions, with one another and with man’s relationship with God. Berhouwer believed, “While man remains human and worthy of dignity and value, the image was lost completely in the fall and is regained only in relationship with God.”
10. How we perceive the image of God in our person is at the root of our perception of the disabled.
How do we bear the image of God? Is it only in our reason or intellectual capabilities? Do we bear it only with our body or only with soul? Is it evidenced by our relationship with creation and with each-other? Where is the stamp of God’s image on us?
Three different views have dominated this discussion in history. The substantive view argues that thought and self-realization set us apart from the rest of the created world and that God is the one who places His image on us. The relational view think’s God’s image is seen primarily in our unique relationships (between man and woman, man and creation, man and God). And finally, the functional view sees our function (what we do) as evidence of God’s image. This would include ruling over creations and exercising dominion.
The author makes the point that there is some truth in each view but the substantive view is the focus, “If we image God ontologically (in our being), then of course we will relate and function as images.”
Many have misunderstood disability and devalued the handicapped because they view them as “less than” created in the image of God. Some viewed it as a sign of punishment or curse. Others pitied but did not value or accept the disabled. In a large part this continues on today and I think as long as we do not understand our own brokenness we will always view the disabled as “outcasts” instead of one of us: a broken, fallen, marred lot of humanity. Most of us attribute our lack of physical brokenness to some sort of wholeness or goodness in our spiritual being, something we almost deserve. Don’t believe that? Critique (honestly) your first thoughts when you see a severely disabled person.
“People, all people, are made in God’s image and thus are valuable, no matter what they can or cannot contribute to the community. Who we are as humans is far more important and primary than what we can or will do.”