Sunday, August 11, 2013

Book Review: A Constructive Theology of Intellectual Disability

What does it mean to be human? Disability theology has long sought to access the biases of anthropology in the understanding of the formation of the imago Dei in those with profound intellectual disability. Molly C. Haslam (PhD.-Vanderbilt) advocates for a new perspective in A Constructive Theology of Intellectual Disability: Human Being as Mutuality and Response. Haslam reflects upon her more than twenty years’ experience as a physical therapist in this first theological work.

This 134 page treatise integrates a phenomenological example which gives voice to the critique of common anthropological models in Christianity. Haslam is concerned that disability theology continues to utilize outmoded anthropology, which requires a conceptualized distinct agential self and its corresponding intellectual aptitude. The author suggests that anthropology be constructed in terms of mutual relation instead of capacity. Utilizing the dialogical model of Martin Buber’s [I-It] and [I-Thou] relationships, the author posits that the image of God is discerned in the mutual relationships between created beings and their mutual responsiveness, even in non-symbolic ways.

Haslam begins her critique by engaging Gordon Kaufman’s theological anthropology which privileges the imago Dei in the agential capacity of co-creators with God. She rejects this option as not broad enough to embrace those with profound intellectual disability who lack the ability for purposeful action and self-reflection. The author continues by assessing George Lindbeck’s anthropology; humans are defined as those with the capacity to decipher linguistics and symbolic expressions in order to understand the covenantal story of God and his people. Haslam goes further when questioning the motive of Stanley Hauerwas’ disability theology; does it serve individuals with disability or are persons with disability subservient to the story? She chooses to embrace Kaufman’s concept of biohistoricity – appreciating all religious claims as locally valid in time and space over against an unchanging narrative.

Utilizing her vast experience of working with profoundly intellectually disabled persons, Haslam draws out illustrations of non-communicable and pre-linguistic individuals unable to differentiate self. Those same individuals, however, show responsiveness in the presence of others, eliciting a dynamic of mutual response, and resulting in the cultivation of ongoing relationship. These scenarios give force to her development of anthropology based on Buber’s idea; the existence of human being can only be defined in mutual relations and the pursuit of knowing God through [I-Thou] relational presence. For Haslam, this model is most relevant as it relies on relationships through the interplay of will and grace outside the control of self. As this model does not see the other as an object, it eliminates all self- serving acts and allows the focus to be on mutual helping and healing.

Haslam concludes with a re-examination of the historical construction of Imago Dei. She rejects the substantialist conception found in both Aquinas and Calvin, whom both elevated intellectual reason as the discrete marker of God reflected in humanity. Informed by Martin Luther and Buber, she embraces a mutually participatory relational concept which includes God as a participant. Her un-anthropomorphized concept of God as yearning itself, however, is informed by the mystical writings of the 5th century Pseudo Dionysius. Only in this context, does she believe that individuals with profound disability can participate fully as image bearers of God.

Haslam’s analysis of traditional anthropology reveal some shortcomings. Christian theologians have been reluctant to address items related to the anthropology and the necessarily related soteriology in terms of individuals with profound disabilities. The development of a framework of mutuality and response through selfless relationship bears promise as it relies on the inner working of the Trinity.

Some evangelical readers will rightly wonder if the rejection of the narrative drama of redemption in favor of one informed by mysticism is preferable while developing such an anthropology. Haslam premises the work with an acceptance of a modern notion of the universe which understands God as a concept within the realm of knowledge and not as an actor on history. Her suggestion that this anthropology can extend to all animals and inanimate objects in the universe potentially under-privileges the very population she desires to serve. The heart of this work, however, is valid. The author, by illustrating the failures of current thought and practice points us towards a direction in which mutual responsiveness and authentic relationships are required for being human.