The Future of Disability and the Church

future of disability

I will be presenting a TED-style talk on December 15th as part of my final project for our Church and Culture class. It is a free event and there will be other speakers. You can sign up here. The guidelines for choosing a topic are generous, so long as I utilize the texts and topics we’ve been discussing in some way. And while I have a general idea of what I want to talk about, the future of disability and the church, I’d like to use this space to publicly work through the details of my talk. After all, my degree will be in public theology.

Naturally, I want to focus my talk around issues facing persons with disabilities in relation to the church and the broader culture. I am inspired by Charles Taylor’s narrative approach in A Secular Age: his methodology is primarily narrative interspersed with analysis and theory. The point of this is to underscore the ways in which our pre-modern society was imagined shifted over time, so that it is now possible to have an exclusively secular view of the world, and further, that this is a viable option today. How you describe this shift is important: it either reveals and exposes commitments and allegiances that are often lurking beneath the surface, or it perpetuates them.

One aspect I want to focus on is what Taylor calls the social imaginary, “that is, the way that we collectively imagine, even pre-theoretically, our social life in the contemporary Western world.” Specifically, I want to focus on how the social imaginary concerning people with disabilities and disability in general has shifted over time.

What I’m trying to get at with this term [social imaginary] is something much broader and deeper than the intellectual schemes people may entertain when they think about social reality in a disengaged mode. I am thinking rather of the ways in which they imagine their social existence, how they fit together with others, how things go on between them and their fellows, the expectations which are normally met, and the deeper normative notions and images which underlie these expectations.
– Charles Taylor

So on the one hand, part of what I want to accomplish in my talk is to give an account of the history of disability as it relates to our changing social imaginary concerning disability. This is for two reasons. The most immediate of which is to inform people about the ways in which past understandings of disability have shaped and shifted our understanding of it today. The second reason is to somehow, hopefully, locate people with disabilities within our larger historical narrative. I often feel, as a brother of someone with multiple severe impairments and disabilities, that history has forgotten him. But worse than that, because his story isn’t told I fear he has no place in it now, and won’t in the future. Hopefully, my attempt at telling the history of disability and the treatment of people with disabilities will allow people like my brother to have space in the narrative. He is a part of our story, though he, and countless others before him, has been forgotten and left out. How can I work to create communities that are welcoming to people with disabilities if they don’t occupy space within the cultural, religious, political, etc., narratives we tell?

These two goals are necessary when describing our current social imaginary concerning disability because by definition, our social imaginary isn’t necessarily something we are aware of.

It is in fact that largely unstructured and inarticulate understanding of our whole situation, within which particular features of our world show up for us in the sense they have. It can never be adequately expressed in the form of explicit doctrines, because of its very unlimited and indefinite nature. That is another reason for speaking here of an “imaginary,” and not a theory.
– Charles Taylor

Most people (myself included) are very uniformed when it comes to the history of how people with disabilities have been treated or understood. Even that word, disability, is relatively new. While it is anachronistic to speak of “disability” in, say, ancient Greece, or in the bible, certain disabilities are depicted in ways we would call disability today. Though, it is interesting to note, as Amos Yong points out, that certain disabilities, like Down Syndrome, are thoroughly modern. That is, the prolonged life span of people with certain disabilities wasn’t possible until the advent of modern medicine. And in the case of Down Syndrome in particular, this is a double-edged sword considering, “how modern medicine has preserved and even extended the lives of people with Down Syndrome on the one hand, but also, paradoxically, how modern technology has more recently come to threaten even the very existence of such people on the other.”

But just to be clear, my goal is not to bring up these past issues in order to generate guilt. Make no mistake – this is not a happy story. It is an extremely difficult story to tell and to hear. The pain and suffering of people with disabilities throughout history is immeasurable. And while a sense of guilt and shame is probably a good and healthy reaction, ultimately, eliciting those responses is not my goal.

If on the one hand I want to describe the shift in social imaginary concerning disability, on the other hand I want to offer some way forward. Given what we now know about disability, in light of its past, how should we understand disability in general, and how should we respond to people with disabilities in particular: specifically, how should the church respond?

“The church will have no future if it simply extrapolates into the future the path it took in the past. It will have a future only if it anticipates the kingdom of God in Jesus’ name and is prepared to be converted to his future, freeing itself from imprisonment in its past.”
– Jürgen Moltmann

This is a much more difficult task than simply retelling a history or uncovering how the ways we imagine disability have been shaped over time. Not only must the church, the whole church, anticipate God’s future, it must participate in its arrival. As I’ve written about elsewhere, only when the church is the church of the poor and the oppressed will this task be underway.

“[The church] will comprehend the meaning of its commission in the light of its hope and it will interpret the sufferings of the time in the light of the coming kingdom. It will comprehend the meaning of its divine commission in world history and at the same time will understand the world in the context of God’s history.”
– Jürgen Moltmann

In my next post, I want to briefly mention some important points in history and how what we today call disability was understood, as well as how people with disabilities were treated. Just as with Taylor’s narrative in A Secular Age, it is not so easy to separate the religious and the secular responses. For one, those distinctions mean something very different today than they did 2,000 years ago. And further, as Amos Yong points out, “…biblical and theological emphasis on healing has shaped modern traditions of medicine in general and of mental health and well-being in particular such that our contemporary medical understandings of Down Syndrome and related forms of intellectual disabilities are fundamentally based on theological presuppositions.” This is very similar to Taylor’s description of how a purely secular humanist option became a widely available and viable option. It it not that these seemingly antithetical positions developed separately – they developed and informed each other, and ultimately developed out of religious and theological interpretations of the world. Similarly, our modern understanding of disability is informed by theological presuppositions, just as our medical treatment (and the fact that that is the default lens through which we see with people with disabilities) of people with disabilities grew out of that theological understanding.

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