Note: This is the first of a two-part series.
A Case for Disability Spirituality
By Brenda Brown-Grooms
Professor John M. Hull is an honorary professor of
practical theology in the Queen's Foundation for Ecumenical Theological
Education in Birmingham, England.
Hull, who became blind in the middle of his career, wrote
the seminal article A Spirituality of Disability: The Christian Heritage
as both Problem and Potential in Studies in Christian Ethics
(vol.16 no. 2, 2003, pp. 21-35) . In the article, he discusses how
disability contributes to spirituality in that the various disabilities
extend the range of humanity and thus provide for greater inclusivity.
He reckons that how individuals experience reality
represents different worlds within the world. The able-bodied world represents
the majority of people -- and the most powerful group. In fact, every other
experience of existence is thought to be inferior to that, even by
"other-abled" (nondisabled) peoples.
Recognizing that there is a plurality of human
worlds presents a way to challenge the hegemony of the powerful and
thus becomes politically significant, Hull wrote. Said another way,
recognizing that reality is experienced differently by other-abled people, who
are thought to be made inferior by their "other-abledness," brings into
question the view that able-bodiedness is or should be preferable, and that
those who are able-bodied should and must have the power to determine what
disability means and how it is handled in society.
The fact that the Catholic Church's views on what it means
to be crippled and the possibility for healing is both problematic
and full of potential for those who seek to balance the worlds of
able-bodiedness and other-abledness. Hull examines this subject on the basis of
epistemology, a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature,
methods and limits of human knowledge,
According to Hull, the transfiguration and resurrection of
Jesus Christ both sanction and illustrate the view that there is spiritual
development within the Christian tradition. He further believes
that there are different bodies, although there is only one human
species (that is, a blind person lives in a blind world; a deaf person
lives in a deaf world). Each human world has its own distinctive
characteristics and its own limited autonomy.
The criteria of transcendence and transfiguration
also apply to the spiritual development of disabled people, wrote Hull,
who believes that Christian heritage helps people conceive of a
multiplicity of known and lived human worlds.
Hull cites two advantages to being able to conceive of
many known and lived human worlds (or realities):
- The fact that there is more than one way to experience
being alive means that humans can conceive of and live out of a
spirituality of disability which is not based upon a theology of deficiency
(a)s long as the disabilities are mainly understood as lacking
something, their intrinsic character as worlds (ways to experience reality)
will be overlooked, and they will be understood as mere exclusions from the big
world. This view of disability challenges the unconscious hegemony of the
average, the majority, and thus opposes all ideologies of domination, whether
they are aware or not of their power.
- Understanding disability as a kind of spirituality
extends our understanding of humanity itself by denying exclusive
humanity to the majority and insisting upon the genuinely human character of
the disabled worlds. In this way, humanity is enriched through variety.
Plurality is richer than uniformity, and the different human worlds need each
other to achieve full humanness.
One of the reasons those who consider themselves normal,
able-bodied and thus superior to those they consider to be abnormal and
disabled is that, in part, the Church seems to sanction such belief. When Jesus
heals, it is said to be because a person is not whole. It is often lost both on
the onlookers, and on future believers as well, that the disease Jesus is
curing may be both spiritual and physical or caused by a spiritual imbalance.
To the extent that brokenness in the physical body or mind
is seen as inferior, cursed or even alien to the human condition and, to the
extent that healing as depicted in the Bible is interpreted as signs of sin and
otherness outside God's ability and willingness to bless, Christian heritage is
a problem for other-abled people. To the extent that such healings are
understood to be special gifts that do not mean that the one being healed is
unworthy of God without them and, to the extent that such gifts are not
understood to be necessary in order for the one being healed to be counted
worthy of entering the larger world, Christian heritage has a vast potential to
bring theological and, thus, political significance to those who are
other-abled. In fact, conceding that other-abled human beings are just as human
as any other human being is the beginning of a spirituality of disability.
Imagine a world where all people are counted as
worthy of their space on the planet.
Brenda Brown-Grooms, a pastor who lives in
Charlottesville, Va., is a stroke survivor.