I’ve been involved today in an online conversation with my friend, Jay McNeill, over at Growing Sideways. I thought it might be fun to bring my readers into the conversation. Let me start with a quote from his blog:
All of us get things wrong. Most of us will reflect on life and recognise that enthusiasm, pride or an agenda got in the way of a balanced view. I am as guilty as hell when it comes to speaking my mind and gingerly repairing the damage in the aftermath, I guess that is a litmus to my maturity – or lack of. Because my special party trick is causing conflict, I have a little more grace these days when I witness others suffering from verbal diarrhoea.
But…occasionally I get miffed enough to make a public comment for the 6 people who read my blog! Recently I read a blog from a Dr of Theology who chose to offer some commentary about people with special needs (physical or mental) suggesting they may carry these burdens with them in heaven if they are content within themselves here on earth. Honestly, I don’t have a view on heaven other than I don’t think anyone knows much about it. At the end of the day it is a benign conversation that is speculative and it shouldn’t have bothered me, it was just theoretical gymnastics stroking the ego of the author – but it did bother me. I wondered if he forgot the conversation was about real people with real families carrying unimaginable pain, the manner and tone of the conversation was disturbingly disconnected. I think what bothered me most was the pious and elevated position that was awarded with credibility from his readers because his thoughts were from a ‘theological’ perspective.
Jay’s blog post continues – and to finish his post I’ll refer you directly to him: when theologians get it so wrong.
Here is my response on his blog:
I think the term “theologian” gets a lot of bad press for the work of a very few of its membership. In fact, the type a theologian you are talking about – narrowminded, mean-spirited, certain they are right – probably comes from a particular constituency. Most theological work – as with most study – opens a person up to the realisation that God transcends their categories. Indeed, most theological teaching involves opening rather than closing people’s minds. Given that there are so many criticisms of theology from so many angles – e.g. theology kills the spirit, theologians deal in the abstract and not the real world – I think some defence of the discipline is in order.
Now, in terms of the issue that sparked the blog, I think you should name the person and identify the issue. while I would certainly agree that speculation as to the nature of heaven (and hell) should be held loosely, you might be interested to hear about Amos Yong’s reflection about image of God to in people with a disability – and what that might mean for the future. The difficulty, of course, is that disability is not one thing, but a label that refers to many things. In Amos’ case, he is working with the down syndrome of his brother, and he makes the point that the disability is so much a part of his identity/person that to envisage him without it makes no sense. He also wants to recognise that his brother is fully in the image of God as the person with down syndrome, and then speculates (and he admits as much) that something of the down syndrome will carry through to the future. He bounces out of the image of Jesus who retains his nail scarred hands and feet, and imagines a future for his brother where his identity as a person with down syndrome continues, even as he is freed from the physical and intellectual negatives that went with the condition.
The point is not really to presume to know the future, but to make a very important point about the present – about the value and worth of his brother. As another (evil) theologian has noted (Jurgen Moltmann), eschatology (theology about the future) is never really about the future – it’s not about the details of the return of Christ or speculation about the Antichrist. Rather, it’s about hope, which is something we experience in the present. We look to the future, where there is no more crying, and mourning, and pain, and that inspires hope – which transforms our present. Amos Yong looks to the future of his brother, and still sees all the wonderful things about his brother that are connected to his disability, and he also sees the hardship as being wiped away, and this paradoxical continuity/discontinuity gives him and his family hope and joy in the ups and downs of life.
It’s not my place to transpose that thought into your situation with sunny, or even to guess as to whether it is relevant. I also recognise that there is some conditions that need more reversal than others. I certainly could do without any remnant of SCI in heaven (presuming it exists and that I get there). But perhaps I might retain some of the lessons learned (as you once said in an email to me).
I understand that Jay is framing a further reply, and will link you up when that occurs and our conversation continues. Feel free to add your reflections in the comments section below.