Sunday, June 09, 2013

Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality


Over the years repeated studies of the social habits of persons with disabilities and their related families have been done. The one constant, despite changing attitudes in education and employment, indicates that families remain isolated outside of community and the church due to perceived differences. Thomas E. Reynolds (PhD.-Vanderbilt), the Associate Professor of Theology at Emmanuel College in Toronto, Canada seeks to chart a path towards inclusion that does not begin with self-sufficiency but human vulnerability. Reynolds writes VulnerableCommunion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality not only as a theologian but also as a father of a child with significant disabilities. His ideal audience is neither the typical lay disability minister nor family of persons with disability, but pastor theologians responsible for creating local church community.

This 256 page book delves deeply into theological and social constructs yet remains rooted in the real experiences of theologian as father. While the focus is certainly not on his family’s story, the occasional vignettes shared lend credence to critical thought within the work. It is in part this passion that provides an impetus to reconstructing a theology of disability that begins with vulnerability – thereby offering inclusion to all humanity by privileging disability and culminating with hospitable community. This prophetic beam into the cult of normalcy illustrates redemption through the paradox of Christ’s power in weakness.

Reynolds begins his discussion by summarizing the current progress of disability theology, quickly discarding the medical model and clearly articulating that while impairments may be physical, disability is a social construct. He pushes beyond the sticky answers of theodicy questions by arguing that theological understandings are held sway by that same construct and must be re-examined through the lens of privileged disability. He grounds his hermeneutic of disability within the larger redemptive narrative, arguing that all persons in their vulnerability co-exist in God’s presence.

Rethinking disability must begin by challenging the cult of normalcy, Reynolds asserts. He defines true community as the place where personhood of all is welcomed and allowed to flourish with purpose within a structured framework. He argues that all social cultures create a sense of normal which imposes control on those that are abnormal while acknowledging that dominant Christian understandings of holiness (wholeness) has contributed to the overarching pejorative social norms. Reynolds rebels against this construct due to his rejection of its fundamental premises. Normalization does not equate to independence, free choice, and utility; those are subsets of yet deeper holistic goals. He argues against society’s reasoned perception by which personhood is determined through the participation of the free, equal, and independent. He continues by illustrating the faults inherent within the productive imperative – the societal pressure which promotes consumerism by creating efficient capital – which further marginalizes those with disabilities.
Reynolds posits an alternative ideal, drawing upon redemptive hope that lies within the relational embodiment of welcome and the moral embrace of love. He sketches out a new anthropology, illustrating an economy of exchange, not based on body capital but upon gracious gifts of God distributed throughout Christ’s body. All beings are therefore incomplete and vulnerable – wholeness and personhood is only found through coexistence within Christ. Vulnerability necessitates all persons are at times needy and endure suffering, facilitating genuine bidirectional, enabling, welcoming, and available love.

Reynolds reexamines God’s continuing redemptive loving relationship towards his creation. His analysis of the creation story yields that all created beings are welcomed as good, despite what human economies might attribute. Furthermore, he asserts that the creation story illustrates the interdependence and vulnerability of creation upon itself. It is this vulnerability which attracts the ensuing shadow of tragedy in which God too suffers. Yet it is through this suffering that the culmination of the redemptive story is enabled.
Reynolds presents the providential grace that upholds the created order as the antidote for the cult of normalcy. He argues that the image of God signifies that humans have the capacity to share in relation, creation, and the agency of God’s work. Sinfulness disrupts this capacity, but the redemptive suffering of Christ, sharing in our vulnerability, allows for reconciliation. It is this redemption that transforms vulnerability into communion with God – foreshadowing the future eschatological glory. This Reynolds states, validates his thesis – disability bearing the image of God, perceived as part of creations vulnerability and not as a deficiency, is an affirmation of God’s redemptive love.

Reynolds concludes his work by seeking to empower the church (ecclesia) as a hospitable place – a vulnerable community. The task of the local church is to work out this new anthropological economy living out as the body of Christ by means of embodied relationships. It is in this space that genuine healing takes place through the welcoming of the weak and vulnerable hiding within the margins of society. Church growth occurs as welcome leads to welcome. In essence, the church can only become a redemptive space by empowering those with disabilities to find a welcomed place at the table.

Reynolds successfully articulates his position that the paradox of the cross and vulnerability are the nexus of community. Some may justifiably find his identification of market capital enterprise and the rise of eighteenth century reason as the locus of continued marginalization untenable, as persons with disability were not privileged prior to that time either. Yet his point resonates within the lower echelons of society and is vital in his juxtaposition of the powers of this world with the frailty of humanity.

While Reynolds navigates deep theological and philosophical threads through the majority of the book, the transition towards a hospitable communion of love seemed ragged. It was here that he turned away from a reasoned arguments towards a narrative approach derived from his personal experience, classic Dostoevsky literature and both Lukan and Pauline biblical theology to explain how love transforms perceived deficits into welcoming hospitality. His return to the idea of a new economy within the body of Christ that had been introduced earlier could have been explored further. He briefly touches on the impact that vulnerability could have on the Christian response to the alien, stranger, and others in the margins but never completely develops those thoughts in this work. His conclusions, though valid, appeared to be underdeveloped as compared to the rest of the book. Perhaps that is where the role moves from the theologian to the pastor.

Vulnerable Communion is an important foundation for local church leaders. Rather than explaining why disability ministry should occur, it successfully remembers the fact that all are disabled and all have gifts. Only in the mutuality of shared vulnerability can the household of God affect the world. If the concepts illustrated in this book are implemented in the local church, all modes of ministry will look radically different.