Difference, Disability, and the Mystery of the Age to Come

A reflection by Sarah

Difference. It’s a word that’s being used more and more these days. It is a loaded term. I’m not sure I can count the number of times when I’ve witnessed someone using the word “difference” and someone else reacting with suspicion or outright hostility. Cut the politically correct bullshit. Ten years ago, no one felt shamed when dyslexia was called a “learning disability” rather than a “learning difference.” There is no difference between gay people and everyone else — gay people just want special rights. Celibacy is not a “different” calling — clearly, it shows that a person is uncomfortable with thinking about sex. As we’ve been blogging for the past year, I have noticed that a large number of people find the language of “difference” problematic. Some see it as a sign that the person using this word believes in coddling or extending unneeded additional privileges to someone who is “different.” Others see it as a denial of obvious realities — for example, glossing over hard topics like disability or sexual orientation in attempt to cater to a person or group’s oversensitivity. These folks often see themselves as acknowledging objective reality for what it is while the rest of the world is too concerned with sparing people’s feelings.

Important as I think it is to call a duck a duck, I’m skeptical of these claims more often than not. Decrying use of the word “difference” because of its supposed political correctness usually involves appealing to some objective reality that may or may not actually be objective. It seems to me that the problem becomes even more complicated when folks insist upon language that implies value judgment — gayness means that something is “wrong” regardless of the person’s level of sexual activity because it is contrary to God’s plan for marriage. Physical disability means that something is “wrong” with a person’s body part because body parts have obvious natural functions intended by God. Celibacy means that something is mentally or emotionally “wrong” with the celibate person because this way of life contradicts God’s commandment that we should be fruitful and multiply.

I remember a conversation I had with my paternal grandfather when I was about to enter the 10th grade — what Americans refer to as the “sophomore” year of high school. He asked me if I knew what that word — sophomore — meant. Based on its roots, I had a sense that its meaning was related to both wisdom and foolishness. Grandpa, a brilliant man who had spent his younger years in the U.S. Navy and then worked as a professor of electricity, informed me that the word does indeed mean “wise fool.” I remember the conversation as though it was yesterday. “Sarah,” he told me, “A foolish man will spend his life gathering knowledge and priding himself on how much he thinks he knows. A wise man will spend his life learning how very little he knows, and the world will see his wisdom as foolish.” I always loved and respected Grandpa, but as the average high school sophomore likely would, I dismissed his words as the ramblings of a very old man with severe dementia. Now, what I wouldn’t give to sit down with him and have this discussion all over again…

So much of my life as an adult has been influenced by that conversation. Not that I consider myself particularly wise, but it has helped me to keep in mind that the human ability to know things is extremely limited. No matter how strong my opinion may be on a particular issue, it’s unreasonable to insist that I can know certain things about myself, other people, the world, and God if I actually can’t. When it comes to what God did or did not intend regarding human diversity, I don’t buy the western theological notion that almost everything can be categorized into natural or unnatural, ordered or disorderedgood or bad, and right or wrong. To be totally clear, I’m not promoting a moral relativist position. I do believe that objective good and badright and wrong exist, and that from a Christian perspective actions and behaviors almost always fit one or more of these descriptors. However, it does not make sense to me that we can know without a doubt how (or if) every aspect of the incarnate human experience can be placed into one of these categories. Yes, I know, our readers who are fans of Aristotle and Aquinas are about to explode upon reading that. In case I haven’t already made it clear in other posts, I don’t always find detailed systematic explanations of theological or practical matters very convincing. Some experiences of life strike me as amoral. They cannot be rightly categorized because categorization drains these human experiences of their mysteriousness. It makes sense to me that discussing many aspects of life in terms of “difference” is a helpful way of appreciating that our minds are finite and we cannot put the mystery of God into a box.

Recently, the most common conversations I’ve engaged in regarding issues of difference have involved disability. These conversations have taken place over several weeks with many different people, and amongst all of them I’ve heard it stated that: 1) Disability is a result of the fall of humanity; 2) Disability means that something is wrong with a person on an ontological level; 3) Disability means that something is wrong, not on an ontological level, but on the level of “x body part isn’t working correctly”; 4) Because Jesus healed people of disabilities in the Gospels, it is obvious that people will be healed of all their disabilities in the Eschaton; 5) The claim that a certain disability is simply a “difference” carries with it the implication that disability is bad, difference is good, and people who don’t use difference language for describing their own disabilities ought to be shamed. Clearly, there is not enough space within one blog post to unpack all of these, but I think it’s important to address the general attitudes behind them. As I see it, many of these bear similarities to the continuous language policing that politically far-right straight Christians engage in with regard to LGBTQ issues.

The term “disability” is not scriptural. It is a human construction based upon what the able-bodied majority sees as normal or deviating from normal. People who have disabilities understand those disabilities in a wide variety of ways. Some view their disabilities primarily as distressing realities that interfere with their pursuits of fulfillment in life. Others view disabilities as nothing more than different ways of being — ways of life that need not be thought of as limited, but can be discussed in terms of advantages or even increase in other kids of ability (e.g. some hearing people who are blind have keener auditory abilities than hearing people who are sighted). There are also people with disabilities who see those disabilities as more of a mixed bag. Some prefer the language of disability while others prefer to use the phrase different ability.

I’m not suggesting that there is a right or wrong way for people to understand their own disabilities, but I do find it problematic when Christians suggest that due to theological, biological, or other truths, the most correct way of understanding disability (or difference in general) is through a lens of “Humanity is fallen and broken, and this brokenness will be redeemed.” For the record, I agree that humanity lives with the consequences of sin’s entry into the world, though I (in accordance with the teachings of my tradition) do not believe that we inherit original sin. I also agree that all of us are broken in one way or another, and that the Eschaton will bring about a restoration of all things to Christ. But the problem is, none of us know exactly what that means, and it isn’t possible for us to know. How do we know that disabilities will be “healed” in the Eschaton? Or that gay people will no longer be gay? How do we know that a disabled/differently-abled person who actually finds joy in that disability/different ability will not be permitted to maintain that aspect of incarnate identity for all eternity?

The purpose of the miracle stories in the Christian scriptures is to show us something about the kingdom of God, where the first shall be last and those who have been exiled will be welcomed to a place at the table. It seems to me that welcoming those who have been exiled and restoring a person’s place in community would require different interventions for different people. It makes sense to me that Christ healed blind Bartimaeus of his blindness because the society of the time made it nearly impossible for blind people to experience any form of human connection. However, it does not make sense to me that one must interpret this scriptural story as evidence that blindness is necessarily a form of brokenness that must be cured in the Eschaton. What if in the Eschaton, some blind people are given a physical sense of sight and others are not? What if at that time, there is no such thing as a “physical” sense of sight at all? Why must a restoration of all things necessarily mean that every glorified body will be “able-bodied” in the sense that we define this term in our earthly lives? There are blind people who would not want to be sighted and deaf people who would not want to be hearing even if there was a magic pill that could make it so. Are we seriously anticipating that on the resurrection day, God will sit down with these folks and say, “You did the best you could with the abilities you had in earthly life. But seeing and hearing are better than not seeing or not hearing, so here you go!”

I probably need to stop writing before I give myself nightmares. The image of God at the end of my previous paragraph strikes me as frightening and cruel. My own reasons for taking a disability-positive approach to my hearing loss are deeply connected to acceptance of myself as a lesbian and as a celibate. If given the opportunity, I wouldn’t want to be straight. I would not want to live a non-celibate way of life. And to my great surprise as I’ve come to accept the change in my hearing status, I’m discovering that I don’t want to be a hearing person again. Other people feel differently about their own experiences of the same circumstances, and I’m not about to deny them their feelings. But when we try to tell other people that something about their ability level, sexual orientation, cultural identity, etc. is necessarily broken or indicates wrongness, we are making value judgments about human experiences that are deeply mysterious. We are being wise fools, claiming to know the full extent of how God intends to redeem humanity at the resurrection. In a sense, we are acting as though we are God. That’s a tendency I struggle with myself in some conversations, so I’m not claiming innocence here. But it is also a tendency that I pray we will see less and less of in churches, and the only method I know for combatting it is reminding myself that no matter how knowledgeable I think I am, I worship an infinitely mysterious God who alone knows the complex needs of each individual creation.

Comment Policy: Please remember that we, and all others commenting on this blog, are people. Practice kindness. Practice generosity. Practice asking questions. Practice showing love. Practice being human. If your comment is rude, it will be deleted. If you are constantly negative, argumentative, or bullish, you will not be able to comment anymore. We are the sole moderators of the combox.

15 thoughts on “Difference, Disability, and the Mystery of the Age to Come

  1. “What if at that time, there is no such thing as a “physical” sense of sight at all?”

    I think that here you hit closest to the truth. People who assume that the Eschaton (using your preferred terminology) will be just like this life, except with all the annoying bits cleared up, are suffering from a severe lack of imagination.

    Jesus made it clear that our accustomed ways of thinking about sexuality will simply not be a part of that life (Matthew 22:30), and we should not doubt that whatever realities take the place of sexuality will be better. It then seems reasonable to expect that sexual orientation per se will not be a significant part of life in the Eschaton. But at the same time we should expect that, to the extent they helped shape our modes of being as children of God, aspects of our gayness or straightness (as the case may be) will be retained and purified in the service of God’s glory (Revelation 5:9, taking gay and straight as “tribes” of a kind).

    I don’t see why the preceding paragraph should not be just as true with [sexuality,gay,straight] ==> [ability,Deaf,hearing].

    • I agree. That line is a statement of my best guess about the Eschaton: that we’ll be transformed in ways we cannot even imagine, and aspects of our former identities will be retained and transformed. I think it’s unhelpful to form one’s imagination of the Eschaton around what fallible human beings conceive of as “normal.” -Sarah

  2. Agree with practically every word, Sarah. Whatever form the end takes, God will not be saying so much ‘let’s tidy you up’ as ‘Welcome – be yourself, and be it more abundantly’.

    • This comment made me smile. And I needed to see something like this today. Thanks for commenting, and for being a blessing. 🙂 -Sarah

  3. Your thoughts remind me that many of the healing stories in the Gospels begin with Jesus asking “what do you want me to do for you?” As you point out, not all people would answer that question the way other people might expect.

    • But then sometimes he didn’t ask, John 9 being my favorite example. I would suggest that God does not need to ask in order to know what is best for us, that he would never do anything other than what is best for us, and that we can trust him to do so.

      On the other hand, Sarah’s thought experiment is horrific because it imagines God acting, not based on his own understanding of what is best for us (which we in fact cannot know), but based on what ableist people assume God should think is best for us.

    • I think Matt makes a good point below, but your comment also raises an important issue. Able-bodied people tend to assume that they know what people with disabilities want and need. So many people in my life have assumed that I am eager to qualify for cochlear implants, and that this should be self-evident because, from their vantage points, it’s better to be hearing than it is to be deaf. I’ve really been enjoying learning how untrue that assumption is. Nonetheless, I get a lot of requests that I justify why I’m making the decisions that I am regarding my hearing loss. I don’t mind explaining why, but I know very few hearing people who would ask the same question of a person who did decide to get cochlear implants. Sometimes, we need to trust the person and God regarding that individual’s needs instead of insisting that the person accept our idea of normal. -Sarah

  4. This is so powerful, Sarah, once again, and something I resonate with both personally (since I and a beloved child share an invisible difference/disability that has profound spiritual and intellectual gifts when well managed but is highly stigmatized) and ministerially as I try to engage these issues differently than the ableist way so many churches, clergy,and layfolks do. As you mention it was far more difficult in Jesus’ day for disabled people to survive–yet even in that case the fact that he did not remove blindness, deafness, etc.from most people indicates that these conditions are not evil or outside of God’s vision of a diverse and glorious cosmos. I have the joy of a possible first step toward a house church in our new house and city tomorrow with a providentially met sister coming over for Eucharist and coffee and was shocked and infuriated as I worked on planning to see the very recently composed Episcopal propers for the brilliant and prolific eighteenth century hymnwriter Fanny Crosby. (“Blessed Assurance” being the best known to modern day Christians). She happened to be blind, which seemed to obsess them both in choice of scriptures and especially the sickeningly bigoted write up of her achievements which said that she wrote eight thousand hymns and was a beloved speaker and preacher “despite” her blindness. My twelve year old daughter pointed out that her musical gifts were probably magnified by the condition while my focus was the profound spiritual wisdom she likely gained from managing its gifts and challenges just as I aspire to with my own!. .

    • Great comment with some wonderful insights. I become very troubled when around people who discuss the gifts of people with disabilities using the word “despite.” It’s very condescending even though people don’t mean it to be. I’ve noticed that my hearing loss has had a hugely positive impact on the way I do art, and I’m so grateful for that. – Sarah

      • Good news followup on Fanny Crosby in the Episcopal liturgy: I wrote with my concerns to a lay liturgical theologian in that tradition I met through blogging some years ago. He is now in a leadership position in their liturgical development process and mentioned that he shared my concerns due in part to a T.A. position with Nancy Eiseland, author of The Disabled God, in grad school. (Well worth reading if you haven’t yet, btw). It turns out he had already revised that entry to present to their next convention for approval–quite a joyous and rapid response to my prayers and action on the issue this time!

  5. This was intriguing. How would you advise Christians to minister to people with disabilities or “different abilities”? This topic confuses me because I think I do something helpful and I don’t know if it’s really helpful. I don’t do very well with talking about Jesus’ miracles either without sounding like I’m telling people something is wrong with them.

    • Great question! I would say the biggest thing to remember is not to identify disabilities as only or primarily negative by watching your thoughts and language: “uses a wheelchair” not “confined to one”; no achievement “despite” one’s disability; no use of blind, deaf, etc. as metaphors for evil and sin; no defining of disabled fetuses as “deformed” or “defective”; no excusing parental or spousal (usually male) murder of born disabled people as “mercy” or “love”:; and especially from my perspective no stigmatizing of people with “crazy,” “nuts” with mental illness as prone to violence, needing special gun control, using mental illness as the explanation for male violent rampages etc. when we are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators….And to be open to their power, wisdom, and gifts in ministering to you as well as seeking to minister to them since we are all gifted, broken, and on the path to transformation in different ways.

      • I think Laura offers good suggestions here. I would also add that when talking about the miracles in the Gospels, it’s helpful to stick to the broader message of “they tell us something about transformation and the kingdom of God.” It can be tough to do that and not lead the person to infer that the “transformation” necessarily means being transformed into an able-bodied person. To avoid this problem, I would suggest emphasizing how little we know about how we will be transformed in the world to come. -Sarah

Leave a Reply