People who do not fit

David Watson raises a point that gets right to the heart of one of my big questions. The paragraph below comes from his response to a panel on disability and theology including Stanley Hauerwas and Hans Reinders.

Hauerwas and Reinders in particular have raised important questions about the ways in which we view human beings in a liberal society. By “liberal,” I’m not referring to a political position. I mean a society that presupposes autonomy, individuality, and agency on the part of its members. In this sense, both Democrats and Republicans are liberal, as are most forms of Protestantism. If our society places a high premium on autonomy, individuality, and agency, then people who are impaired with regard to their decision-making capacity occupy a very strange space, They are ostensibly people, though without full command of the capacities that define personhood and serve as ports of entry into the social world. They are outliers, and that is a dangerous way to live.

Watson nails a sticking point for me. Traditional Protestant soteriology — including Wesleyan — is mute in the face of persons who do not have the kind autonomy, agency, and cognitive competencies that Humanism and the Enlightenment take as their starting point. Our story about salvation is nonsense in the context of less mild forms of autism, Down syndrome, and other disabilities.

11 thoughts on “People who do not fit

  1. We give as much of ourselves to God in Christ as we are able at any given point on our journey. Paul, in his disability, heard God say, “My grace is sufficient. My power is made perfect in your weakness.” Does grace not remain sufficient for those we think aren’t capable of comprehending it? Maybe such persons have much to teach us about fully relying on God for the gift of salvation.

  2. What about people “disabled” by abuse at home (like the sex offenders I work with at prison) or at church (God help us)? What about those who’ve been incapacitated by spiritual abuse? What does it mean that someone gives “as much of [themselves] to God in Christ as [they] are able at any given point on [their] journey,” and how elastic can your definition of our ability to give ourselves to God be?

    I happen to agree with you; I think God has immense mercy and “room” for the disabled/handicapped. I just see the effects of sin as so profound in all of us that I often find myself hoping the scope of His mercy will stagger me at the end.

    1. Good questions. I think they need to be asked. In a doctrine of total depravity, of course, we are all spiritually disabled, but are some of us so harmed in other ways that make it impossible for us to receive grace? (This is, of course, a Wesleyan question.)

  3. The use of labels we are so use to using to define is not applicable to those with some forms of disabilities.
    Those with disabilities are truly unique, individual and require individual attention.
    To make blanket statement about the physiologic needs of those with limited mental capacity is hard to do.
    What they require is determined by their capacity to know and understand.
    I have been studying Anne Sullivan, her life and work with Helen Keller. It is clear from reading Anne’s account of her early childhood experience she would become equipped to see in Helen Keller what others may not have seen and do what others could not do.
    Anne Sullivan is the true hero and Christianity is full of heroes that reach out to those incapable of helping them selves.

    ” Our story about salvation is nonsense in the context of less mild forms of autism, Down syndrome, and other disabilities.”

    Really? Maybe we need a little refresher on the history of works that where stirred by that “story or salvation”. Things may not have always worked out as planned but the desire to do good to those with the above disabilities was there.

    1. D:
      Correct me if I’m misreading you … But I hear you talking about mercy/good works extended “to” people with disabilities.
      I hear john questioning how typical Protestant ways people think salvation works AND how that couldn’t possibly fit when directed toward how people with disabilities would appropriate it for themselves If they don’t have the faculties to repent, choose the good/holiness, etc how can they be saved? Which begs the question…do we need to re-conceive how we think of salvation to include such people because people have strong convictions that God would not abandon people like this simply because they don’t have the same abilities that we consider standard/normal

      1. Yes, Josh. Interestingly, strong Calvinists don’t have these problems. The elect are the elect no matter what they can do or comprehend. But for all sorts of other Protestants, the awareness of sin, the decision to repent, and so on assume certain kinds of cognitive and emotional capacities.

        I’ve not read them in a long time, but I’m not sure how the Four Spiritual Laws would apply to a teen-ager with autism of a more debilitating form.

  4. I understand what John is trying to say and I hear a critical tone. Who hear thinks God’s justice and mercy is not extendedto the hanicapped and allowances are not extended to them?

    1. I have to believe so, but then why are not the same allowances extended to you? How severe does a person’s cognitive and mental impairment have to be before they are not required to repent and believe? This is the question that I cannot answer. What sources of impairment grant allowances and which do not?

      Are there two ways of salvation? Or more?

      Here is one argument that has occurred to me, but I’m not sure if I am prepared to embrace it. Scripture and the verbal/textual revelation contained in it is obviously intended for those who are capable of hearing, reading, and understanding it. It is a way of salvation for those who can receive it, but for those who cannot, God acts in other ways.

      It is a variation on “to whom much has been given, much will be required.”

      This is one possible answer to my questions, but I’m not satisfied by it. It feels too cute or easy.

      1. That is where I believe faith comes in.
        Do we really have faith in our God?
        Do we really believe what is written?
        When God says he shows mercy, justice and has compassion do we believe it or do we distrust God and think our compassion is greater than God’s?

        In the Christian Community it is not suggested we offer compassion, assistance, mercy and justice to those in need .it is a command found in the New and Old Testament.
        Why would God command such things here and not show mercy at a later time to those who do not have the mental capacity to make decisions and choices?
        I see Christ correcting myths believed about the handicapped in John 5:1-16 & John 9:2.

        You know some of the biggest critics of the CC are Christians themselves. The world does not have to look far to find fault with the CC. It seems to me that should be counter balanced once in a while by the good work of the Christian Community.

        You might find the following informative.

  5. I’m enjoying the volleying back and forth across the net on this one. I pray that my own inadequate response to the faithfulness of Jesus Christ (which saves me) will not be cause for God’s rejection after all. “It is right and a joyful thing and the beginning of salvation to give God thanks and praise.”

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