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Disability and Incarnation

Rethinking disability & Christianity. Is Jesus the "Disabled God"? Theology for a more inclusive Church
Disability and Incarnation

A marker indicating disabled parking is seen on an asphalt pavement. (Photo supplied)

Published: April 01, 2024 12:20 PM GMT
Updated: April 02, 2024 12:27 PM GMT

The understanding of incarnation – the core concept of Christian faith – is one which is central to a healthy theology of disability. What does it mean to say Christ is human and to say that that humanity is in the image of God.

If our answers to these questions are grounded in physical and mental capacity, we will automatically exclude disabled people as aberrations awaiting a cure. But what is the alternative?

Nancy Eiesland famously wrote of The Disabled God and, in so doing, first articulated the (then shocking) idea that disability was an integral part of Christ’s identity – the wounded hands and side which, in their very impairment, declared Divinity. 

Others, drawing heavily on the Parable of the Banquet in Luke 13, have since spoken of an obligation of hospitality upon the Church with regard to disabled people. While the Church has, in recent years, moved away from a conception of disabled people as objects of charity and spoken more and more of disabled people moving from “internal exile” to active participation in the Church, there has been little theological discussion of the nature of disability itself. 

The unspoken assumption has still been that a non-inclusive Church (“us”), merely needs to relax its guard on the gates somewhat so as to allow disabled Others (“them”) to enter.

But what if this is not so? If – as many disabled people would argue – disability is purely a social construct, then the various impairments which affect all humans at some stages in their lives are merely aspects (and integral ones at that) of what it means to be human. To offer to “include” disabled people in the Body of Christ would be as strange as to offer to “include” redheads or left-handed people or 42 year olds.

Created in the image of God

Part of the reason that such an understanding has been slow in making its way into our theology has been our understanding of the image of God (in which, according to Gen 1:27, we are made).

One side of the incarnational coin is this – if God in Christ makes us able to live this image, what are we actually talking about? This is the first part of the story of exclusion of disability from incarnational theology.

Our story of the image of God has been told in terms of capacity to do – to reason, especially. Accordingly, there is a line of thought which flows from Augustine through Thomas Aquinas to modern authors like Amos Yong which says that incapacity – and cognitive impairment in particular – is a diminution of the Divine image.

On this view, because we are not “Children of a Lesser God” (as the old film title has it), any mental and physical lack or difference must be an evil, a manifestation of original sin, which will be removed in the eschaton when all will attain the perfection intended by God.

There is, however, an equally longstanding but healthier image of God on offer – one which does not exclude the fifteen per cent or so of humanity which experiences an impairment and the resultant social disability.

This concept of the Divine image sees it as residing, not in our capacity to do but to be. John Zizioulas has pointed out that the Cappadocian fathers saw the personhood of the Trinity as lying in the capacity to love and be in communion. 

This image of God is consistent with the Jewish tradition that sees holiness in terms of acting as God acts. Such an understanding of the Divine image, of course, is much more inclusive and does not require particular physical or mental attributes.

Modern authors such as Peter A. Comensoli and Marius Dorobantu have applied this realization to impairment and noted that you do not have to be able to do anything specifically physical or mental in order to love and live in a relationship. The possibility for holiness is open to everyone according to their own capacities.

Read the complete article here.

This article is brought to you by UCA News in association with "La Civiltà Cattolica." 

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