Irony, theology, and autism

People with disabilities have taught me so much over these past forty-two years as we have lived and shared together in L’Arche as friends and companions, as brothers and sisters, as people brought together by God. In fact, they have not only taught me; they have transformed me and brought me into a new and deeper vision of humanity.

They are helping me discover who I am, what my deepest needs are, and what it means to be human. They have lead me into a new and meaningful way of life quite different from what society advocates. They have revealed to me the need for community in our societies and that those who are weak and vulnerable have something important to bring to our world today.

These are the words of Jean Vanier, who will be well known to anyone who has read much of Henri Nouwen‘s work. (If Vanier is unfamiliar to you, this Wikipedia article gives a good background on L’Arche, the community he founded.) The quote comes from the book The Paradox of Disability.

I must admit that I struggle with Vanier’s language and point-of-view. The people with disabilities are described almost as if they exist to teach Vanier. I do not believe Vanier means to come across this way, but it is hard not to hear that, especially as I read with the eyes and ears of a father of a child with autism. If I drop Luc’s name into the above paragraphs where Vanier describes people with disabilities, I find my parental protectiveness triggered by the utility Vanier finds in being near people like my son. In the essay, Vanier is aware of that impression and admits that his founding of L’Arche was in part a search for himself.

I, in turn, admit that my reactions to Vanier are in part a result of my own conflicted experiences as a father and Christian. And in Vanier’s defense, Christianity has tended to treat people with disabilities precisely in the ways that make me uncomfortable.

Amos Yong in his book Theology and Down Syndrome, which I am only beginning to read, notes the way biblical accounts of the “deaf, blind, and lame” lead to Judeo-Christian views of disability that see people with disabilities as at best passive recipients of healing and at worst as punished sinners or demon-possessed victims. They exist, as Jesus seems to say in John 9, so the grace of God might be made manifest.

I am eager to see how Yong responds to this tradition. I am compelled as well to consider what these questions and insights mean from a Wesleyan perspective. Like many Protestants, John Wesley is heavily influenced by Reformed emphasis on literacy and cognitive aspects of faith. Is there room in Wesleyan theology for people with cognitive challenges as anything other than recipients of mercy?

I am far from working this all out, but I am aware of these questions in ways I would have never been had Luc not been born. So, at the end of this post, I find myself in a position very similar to Vanier’s at the beginning. I am grateful that my son has opened my eyes and forced questions upon me. He is my teacher in that way.


2 thoughts on “Irony, theology, and autism

  1. John, Thanks so much for your scholarly presentation, by contrasting Vanier and Yong. As a father, too, of an autistic son, honestly I must say that initially my response was very close to Wesley and Yong, driving me to compensate for his disabilities by heaping loads of mercy and compassion upon him. Truthfully, it has only been in the last few years that I have finally accepted and fully internalized the fact that Brent is just a unique child of God who has much to share in his lifetime and more importantly has much to teach an “outsider.”

    My life and the lives of his mother and brothers are truly different because all of us have begun to embrace who Brent really is and examine our all to easy presumptions that to be different is a terrible negative that can only elicit pity at its core. I, as his father, must testify that my own life has been enriched, enhanced, and enlarged by living and interacting with my son.

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