God and Disability

On July 24th, our church is going to have a bible study on “God and Disability.” I’m really looking forward to this study, but I felt the need to explain it a little bit.

I remember the first time I realized the ways that human experience of disability can actually affect our understanding of God and ministry. I was thinking through the concept of developmental psychology (like you do). As I was thinking through the “normal” stages of development—from infancy, to early childhood, on up through adolescence and adulthood—one of my good friends had a child with a progressive and terminal genetic disease of the brain. She was not developing along the traditional itinerary of human development outlined by the likes of Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson.

As I got to know my friend’s new child, I saw how beautiful her humanity was, even without the “normal” standards of developmental valuation. I began to wonder about people who were not “developing normally.” I began to wonder what “normal” even meant. If youth ministry, for example, is made to be about “adolescents” developing into “adults,” what then does it mean for my friend’s daughter, or the child with Down syndrome, or the autistic child,? If being human means developing into a “mature” and “rational” adult, is the one who does not bear the capacity of traditional rationality then somewhat less human? Has the person with dementia lost their humanity? Why does God think about disability? Is it a curse? Does God lament the fact that my son is autistic?

As you follow the rabbit trail of disability, you begin to see all the different ways that disability challenges our basic assumptions about God and humankind. Careful reflection, with disability as a lens, exposes the inherent ableism of our theology—the ways that we, even in the church, tend to devalue and marginalize individuals who have physical, intellectual, or psychiatric disabilities.

Disability theology is a field within Christian theology that explores the spiritual and theological implications of disability. It challenges traditional views that see disability primarily as a result of sin or as a condition to be cured. Instead, it emphasizes the inherent worth and dignity of all individuals, created in God’s image, regardless of their abilities. This theology promotes an inclusive church community that values diversity and works to dismantle barriers that prevent full participation and belonging of people with disabilities. It also seeks to scripture and church teachings through the prism of the experiences and contributions of disabled people.

Through a theological understanding of disability, traditional notions of wholeness and perfection are re-examined. Rather than seeing disability as a lack or imperfection, disability theology suggests that true wholeness encompasses the entirety of human experiences, including disability. Human diversity, including the variety of disabilities, reflects the richness of God's creation. Differences in ability are seen as part of the natural variation among people rather than deviations to be fixed. Disability theology calls for a reinterpretation of scripture and tradition, moving away from interpretations that link disability with sin or divine punishment and towards an understanding that affirms the full humanity and spiritual potential of people with disabilities. It highlights that all people rely on one another in various ways, challenging the idolization of independence and self-sufficiency. Every person, regardless of ability, possesses inherent worth and dignity as a creation of God. Disability does not diminish one's humanity or spiritual value. In essence, disability theology advocates for a broader, more inclusive understanding of humanity that celebrates diversity and affirms the value and dignity of every person.

During our bible study on July 24th, we will do a bit of disability theology. We will think through some of the ableist assumptions that have been made, and we will explore a biblical and faithful theology of God and humankind through the lens of disability.