Jay McNeill: “When Theologians Get it So Wrong” part 2

I’m a little bit nervous writing this post (which follows from yesterday). Looking at some of the comments on Jay’s blog (see here), I’ve somehow managed to really upset people. And then my wife comes in last night, having read my response to Jay, and she has her angry face on.

Me (deciding to go where angels fear to tread): “okay, darling, what’s up.”

Elly: “I can’t believe you think there will still be disability in heaven! That’s a horrible and mean thought. When Sunny gets to heaven, she’ll be running around and talking non-stop, just like her sister.”

Me: “I agree completely, and I didn’t say otherwise.”

Elly: “you just always think you’re right – and you have to do make sure everyone knows it.”

Well, I am always right, but I can’t very well defend myself now, can I! (This is meant as a joke – but to all those people convinced I’m an arrogant sod, here’s your proof). With my silence an acceptance of defeat, we cuddled up and watched a movie that utterly depressed us (Never Let You Go – about the life story of children raised to be body part donors).

So, to proceed, I need to state the first that my intention is not to debate Jay (or Elly – especially not Elly). As far as I’m concerned, this is an exploratory conversation between two friends. We have a different perspective, and maybe it seems like we are utterly opposed, but I think we are looking at the same endpoint from a slightly different angles. And even if we end up disagreeing, I think that’s okay too. If friends can’t disagree then friendship is meaningless.

With that being said, I encourage you now to read Jay’s response to my blog yesterday – see here

Second, I also want to reiterate that any talk about heaven will be utterly speculative. The focus of the scriptures is not on heaven or hell – and generally when these topics are mentioned, the focus is for our life here and now, rather than any guess about what it might be like to be in heaven. The main point of the gospel is not for us to “get to heaven” but, rather, that we might work with God to confront evil here and now – “your kingdom come, you will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” So, let’s move away from talk of heaven for a moment and focus just on disability.

Third, we need to reiterate that disability is not one thing – that I can’t universalise my experience with SCI. J makes the observation that “disability is a bloody bugger” and I wholeheartedly agree. In this light, I have been surprised to discover in reading through the broad literature on disability, that much of the writing in disability studies (by disabled people) resists any suggestion that disability should be viewed (at least in any a priori sense) as a “less than,” as “a bugger”, as something that should be eliminated. One of the areas in which this topic is explored is among the deaf community, where there are many different opinions. Of course, any parent who gives birth to a child wants whatever technologies that are available to enable their child to hear. But (and I know this is going to seem strange to those of us that can here), many (not all) within the deaf community are resistant to such technologies and some (not all) deaf parents hope that their children might also be deaf. This is because they hope that the children might be able to share their culture, language, and unique experiences. Indeed, some deaf people argue that “deafness” is not a disability. For more on this see the article, “do deaf people have a disability.” The real issue is, what is a disability anyway? Is there a point when a certain IQ is deemed “normal” or a “disability” and if we could should we genetically adjust every person to have an IQ of 180? What about autism, which sometimes (but not always) brings unique abilities? Is being too short a disability (dwarfism), if that means you can’t access storage or sit comfortably on chairs – or is the problem in the way we set up our social space, as well as the stereotypical way we think about people who are short? Conversely, might being too tall be a disability, since you can’t fit through doors or sit comfortably in an aeroplane?

The point in making these observations is not to be an nitpicking pedant. The point is for society to realise how much of disability is not “natural” but created by our social structures – by the way we set up society to include or exclude the so-called “abnormal.” I do think, though, that this discussion needs to be balanced. Much of what we call “disability” is a result of the impairment itself – and this is more or less true depending upon the particular person – and it is a bugger. disability both is social and embodied (physical/intellectual).

So, the issue of disability is inordinately complex – and now we are going to add to that complexity by speculating about heaven! Perhaps the point is we shouldn’t speculate, and yet if we pray such things as “on earth as it is in heaven” then there is at least a value in reflecting upon what this might mean for people with a disability. At this point, it would be helpful if I quote directly from J:

likening the holes in Jesus’ hands and feet to the possibility of people carrying their disability into heaven is a big stretch. It seems, at least on the surface, an attempt to see a purpose in disability. I just don’t buy that. If you have a disability it is a bloody bugger. As I have written about extensively, beauty comes from disability but I would give Jesus the credit for that as he tries to turn the war around (bring the kingdom). I don’t think Jesus tries to make the war worse by giving someone a disability and then celebrates it by introducing it into heaven. I find it hard to believe that God strategically uses disability to do his work, rather, he responds to the evil of disability by turning it to good.

I think that Amos Yong would wholeheartedly agree with most of what you say. I’m sure he imagines a heaven where people with disabilities are “healed” so there is no more crying and pain and hardship. But (and again I’m feeling nervous), he would also speculate that there is both continuity and discontinuity – that some of what we label disability will continue in heaven – although it will not prove to be a disability. We could allow our imagination to run over all sorts of questions; will a person with a low IQ have perfect knowledge in heaven – so that there is no varieties of IQ? Will we all be the same height? Will a person with down syndrome look totally different because they won’t have the same facial features caused by their genetic difference?

in terms of the nail scarred heads as a symbol, I personally think Amos has some insight – even though I can see Js point that it might be reading too much into the text. these scars represent something so essential to the past experience of Jesus that they have become a part of his identity and thus carry through to the future. if we carry this logic further, it might be true of some elements of a persons (so-called) disability – such as the beautiful face of a person with down syndrome.

Now, I can see why the theologian might be accused of absurd speculation at this point. The reason, though, that Amos Yong takes this step (and he admits it’s controversial) is because he wants to recognise that his Down’s syndrome brother is a child of God. Amos would say that his brother’s down syndrome is not the result of evil. In fact, he would say that such a position justifies abortion of down syndrome children. In contrast, Amos would say that the Down’s syndrome child is made fully in the image of God – and is a gift of God to families and society as a whole. Since this is so, he speculates that something of that disability (but this is the wrong word) continues in heaven. Let me rephrase that. His brother won’t be disabled in heaven, and all of the things that a horrible about down syndrome will be eliminated and healed. But there will still be a continuity – and it may well be the case that some things we label as “disabled” will turn out not to be so in heaven.

n.b. – this is my interpretation of Yong’s work, but I could well be wrong. If you are interested in this topic, I would encourage you to investigate his work.

Blah, if this is too abstract and confusing, then tell me to get stuffed and let’s all go back to what we really can say. If heaven means anything, then we shall be made whole. Precisely what that looks like, will be up to God. My Canadian friend, Clare, commenting on yesterday’s post by talking about her husband Don, noted the that he was most looking forward to experiencing sexual fulfilment. If everything said in these blog posts turns out to be nonsense – that is at least one thing that I wholeheartedly endorse.

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.

the non-disabled depending upon the disabled

I spend much of my day asking for help. Coming home from the train station yesterday I was cold and so stopped to ask a young lady to get my beanie and mittens out from my bag. She looked at me strangely and said, “can’t you get someone else?” when I noted that she was nearest she again refused to help. it is a response that I get surprisingly often. initially it embarrasses me (I must look like a creepy pervert) and then it infuriates me. I suggested that she think of her failure to help me every time she watched the news of the Paralympics, and then made my way to ask someone else.

With this in mind it was interesting to come across the following quote in a book by Amos Yong, Theology and down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity:

  • Sharon betcher notes (2000: 93), when she says as a person with a disability “excuse me, i need your help”—“in that moment the frozen wall between us topples; in your converted countenance, i discern that, as if in the twinkling of an eye, you have been changed. For the 45 seconds i needed you, you did not feel extraneous to the world. Sometimes i will ask for help just to save you, the nondisabled, from superficiality and irrelevance—just to save us from your own worst fear.” in that moment, god’s saving grace is made available through “the stranger” or those on the margins, and we can receive this grace or not depending on how we respond. This is the criterion dividing the sheep and the goats at the judgment: “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (matt 25:40). Hence, the question concerns not the dependence of the disabled on the nondisabled but the other way around: the nondisabled are dependent on the disabled, whom god has chosen to be a means of saving grace. (page 188)

This is such a profound paragraph. And it has me wondering, what does that mean for the people who so often say “no” to the ‘creepy’ me when I ask for help? or much more importantly, what does it mean for all those brilliant people who help me time and again.

Diary of a day: 1 PM

This task I set myself of writing a diary of only one day is proving harder than I thought – and I’m sorry if I am overloading your inbox. Should have picked a slower day, so you ought to feel free to hit the delete button. Fortunately for me today has been a little easier and I have had a couple of chances to catch some zzz’s. I did have to travel in the afternoon to the physio at Prince of Wales. Had coffee with a former inmate of the hospital, Paul, and we shared things that only make sense to fellow SCIs. Nothing much else to report, except a very perceptive young man on a bus who noticed me overheating and offered to take off my jumper. Sometimes it’s nice not to have to ask. But I am supposed to be talking about yesterday.

1 PM, I arrive at Hillsong church and try to find some shade to eat my lunch. Rachelle, my carer – have I described her? 22-year-old trainee nurse. Superefficient and supercool. She is capable, clever and pretty but doesn’t believe it. And if any of you are worried that my personal care is being done by a beautiful young woman she is also a proud lesbian, and I am already married to a beautiful woman. Rachelle has this bizarre habit of saying sorry all the time. It’s become something of a running joke and it gives us a good laugh – where was I? Rachelle has packed me a peanut butter sandwich but it is stale and scaly and while I may be trying to economise I am not poor enough to persevere. I head off to the shopping centre and buy a sushi roll. I am super careful about what I eat. I get absolutely no exercise sitting in this chair all day, aside from forced gym time that is not as regular as my physio would like (don’t tell her). My life expectancy is already potentially compromised without giving myself cardiac problems and it’s probably not a good idea to force my carers to lug any more weight. So I eat like a pigeon. No mean feat when your wife is as good a cook as mine.

By the time I get back to Hillsong it is about 1:20 PM. That gives me 40 min before class and time for another brief kip. I am expecting someone to come and help me set up my computer at about 1:45 and students to arrive not much later. The class is to be held in what is known as “the basement”. Hillsong Auditorium is a multipurpose facility and most of the teaching rooms are made up of soundproof screens that enclose the tiered section of the auditorium. For obvious reasons that does not work for me so the basement it is. At 2 PM no one has arrived and I suspect something is amiss. I make a call and it turns out the students had not been informed I was teaching. I trundle over to the lift ,head up to the top floor, poke my nose into the alternate classroom and discover my students. We all shuffle on back downstairs and the class gets started only a few minutes late.

In case you are not aware I teach theology and this is a three hour class. Before you groan too loudly, don’t worry I won’t bore you with a blow by blow account. This is a first year theology class and this week has some elements of interest. The lecture was creation, providence and the problem of pain and if this topic is not familiar to you, it is one of the central challenges of faith. While the wonder of creation and the graciousness of God is one of the reasons motivating belief, the corollary – the bloody horror that sometimes frames human life – is sometimes the basis for atheism or agnosticism. For obvious reasons this is a topic about which I have something to say. Aside from the fact that I was writing on the issue prior to the accident, I have also spent seven months in hospital wrestling various Christian responses. I also had the pleasure of weekly visits from my friend Prof Neil Ormerod (Australian Catholic University) and we spent considerable time mulling over the topic. So what is the answer to the problem of pain? You have to be kidding don’t you. This is a blog and not a systematic theology. But for those of you familiar with the issues I will say this. John Calvin is way off base! Hah, I had to get that in there for my reformed friends.

Whether, after three hours, I made any sense at all you’ll have to ask my students. I am bloody exhausted. It’s a little after five and to get home I attach a bus from Baulkham Hills to Parramatta, a train to Granville and another train Ingleburn. I sleep most of the way but one interesting titbit. I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that I face the back of the bus. On the back seat, presumably assuming that everyone was looking the other way, a couple were going at it. I swear they had their tongues down each other’s throats and their hands all over each other. This went on for about 10 min until they got off the bus. So here is yet another compensation of life in the chair! I arrive at Ingleburn at about 715 and Jeremy picks me up with new licence in hand. Home sweet home.