Jay McNeill: “When Theologians Get it So Wrong”

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:

Jay and Sunny (wonderful picture shamelessly stolen from his blog)
Jay and Sunny (wonderful picture shamelessly stolen 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.

7 thoughts on “Jay McNeill: “When Theologians Get it So Wrong”

  1. Heaven. We were just discussing this last night. You see I am no theologian, but every now and again something intrigues me as I read the bible. I read in Luke 16 about Lazarus the poor guy with sores who gets to go to Abraham’s bosom, and the rich guy who presumably didn’t concern himself with the poor man’s plight.
    Abraham says to the rich guy, (I suppose by phone or mental telepathy; I mean Abraham shouldn’t be in hell after all) ‘My son, do not forget that when you were living you had your good things. Lazarus had bad things. Now he is well cared for. You are in pain….’
    Anyway my husband has been trapped in his bedroom for more than three months with a sore.
    He is referred to a specialist. The specialist asks for him to come and show him the sore, and then he will arrange to help with the sore after his holidays. The specialist starts to feel a lot like that rich man. I mean how can a quadriplegic with a sore they can’t sit on; get to a doctor’s office to show him the sore which he must by just being there be sitting on? And once he’s sitting on it how can he show him the damn sore?
    Once again we are left to fend for ourselves while experts tell each other how caring they all are.
    So we are looking at the ceiling together and discussing eternity ….as you do…
    Still intrigued by the scripture I tell my husband about the guy with the sores who gets to go to heaven. From my perspective he qualifies by having an overdose of suffering. ’44 years since you broke your neck; I think you qualify’ I say to my lovely heathen.
    We have a delicious moment suggesting the specialist might just have qualified for the other place.
    We wonder a bit what heaven is like. I romantically suggest we will finally get to dance together.
    He brightens and asks if he’ll finally experience complete sexual fulfilment.
    I promptly discard any lingering theology and leave the ‘like the angels in heaven’ bit for someone else in the business. It’s hope we need after all

    1. thanks for sharing your experiences again, Clare. Don is both an encouragement and a challenge – I find looking into the future a little scary. I haven’t yet faced up to 3 months of pressure sore, and I’m not sure how I had handle it. I am certainly with him, though. Sex is the thing I miss the most, and if heaven is anything, I’ll get to do that again. Some pious Christian will tell me that in heaven there is no marriage and no male or female, but that doesn’t sound very heavenly to me!

  2. hmm, I think it might depend on the nature of the disability.

    Take bipolar ‘disorder’ for example. In an Eden-like world, perhaps the ‘manic’ state of bipolar wouldn’t be dangerous – a person could enjoy the euphoria, the surge of confidence, creativity, and energy without risking overspending, dangerous driving, losing one’s job. Perhaps the depressed state wouldn’t be so debilitating either – more like a relaxing hibernation period to balance out the heightened activity, without the draining of confidence and loss of all colour in life.

    Another example – autism. If an autistic child has a special interest in trains, their vision of heaven may be unlimited access to trains – NOT that their brain would work like a normal person’s so that they go around making eye contact with people all day and have a people-oriented job in the new order of all things!

    But perhaps what those two examples illustrate is that some disabilities are created or defined through social systems which mean anyone outside of a certain spectrum of normal has ‘special needs’. But we all have needs, don’t we? What makes some ‘special’? Maybe that those needs are costly or in the minority…

    Third example, spinal cord injury. Obviously a difficult thing to live with – but I can’t get around the fact that SCI often leads to immense personal growth, calling for extra depth of character to deal with the suffering and still find the good in life. Heaven can be a place where at last the injury is healed….and yet the personal growth and life insight remains.

    Maybe heaven is a place where we are made whole through a combination of:
    *our special needs being met and/or
    *our biological quirks being adjusted to something easier to live with
    *a society where people are more understanding and appreciative (not just ‘tolerant’) of difference

    Maybe it’s a place where we can live safely, fully, and ably as our true selves. So where a condition suppresses and frustrates us on earth, we will be free in heaven. And where a condition gives us growth, unique insights, shapes our personality in a constructive way, we will be able to continue that growth trajectory in heaven. A God who made us all unique the first time around on earth can handle restoring us all uniquely in heaven…

    Of course, I’m not in charge of heaven. But if I can imagine something like that, surely a good, loving, all-powerful God can imagine and prepare something even better?

    1. you really are making the point that I am trying – but not succeeding – to make. I might repeat some of this type of argument on my next Post- so please don’t take that is plagiarism!

  3. Just a couple of thoughts , and I’ve had a glass of red wine for each of them and will probably be sorry I wrote this later.
    One. I showed my daughter Faith the video clip of you speaking at college Shane, being sure she would delight in your insight.
    Instead she watched until you took a sip of water from your bottle and spent the next hour breakng her heart for Don because he can’t manage to get a drink himself.
    Don himself seems to view all that as an interesting sideline of SCI and is not touched by it at all.
    Anyway, that slight difference may be the very thing that saves you from a long term pressure sore.

    Two. I lived for many years with someone with mental illness and am sorry to say I could find no place of refuge. Neither it seems; could anyone else in the family. And we grew up with Petra singing a mantra in our ears

    ‘You are the anchor securing me
    I’ll never drift in the shifting sea:
    You are the eye of the storm…”

    As I said I’m no theologian, but every time I have encountered the spiritual it could be described with adjectives like this.
    Tender. Humour. Gentle. Wonderous. Generous.
    When we lived with mental illness we were pounded with ‘Troubled. Strife. Anger. Fear. Tears.’

    As a family we hope with all our hearts that there was a reason for so much strife and at the end of that life there will be a brain tumour or glitch or something to explain it all.
    Meanwhile the only comfort we have is that all that stuff belongs to darkness; and we sure don’t want to see it again in the afterlife.

    So what if we were the ones with the troubled spirits? What would heaven be like for us? What if we couldn’t abide peace joy and love?

    Well I can work with that. Surely there are an infinite number of uninhabited planets. Maybe there is a spiritual ‘Selusa Secundus’ where all the beings set for war can go fight it out with other warring beings.

    As for me though; I’d settle for a dance.

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