Saturday, November 22, 2014

Book Review: Disability and Christian Theology

Book Review

In the last dozen years, theologians have seriously attempted to examine human disability and its implications on anthropology, culture, religion, and society.  Deborah Creamer (director, accreditation and institutional accreditation for ATS) tackles these issues head on in Disability and Christian Theology, first by rejecting traditional perspectives on disability, both medical and social, considering recent proposals of liberation theology, and then introducing a newly constructed theology of limits. Her target audience is the theological academy – she calls for a re-examination of long held assumptions informed by the normalcy of disability.  Only once humanity is seen within its finite scope, does the experience of disability become a normative lens through which to examine all other inquiries.

In the short monograph, the first chapter is devoted to warrants underlying claims that both the medical and social models are inadequate – neither takes fully into account the embodiment of humanity and the richness of multiple imputed identity.  In other terms – what does it mean to be a person?  She then proposes a model which recognizes the daily lived fluidity of experienced limits. As limits are an integral part of the human life, she no longer views them as challenges in attaining perfection nor punishment for sinful nature.  From this constructed perspective, sin becomes redefined as an inappropriate attitudinal response to limits of self and others.  While not completely jettisoning visionary gains made through medical or social constructions of disability, she suggests this model serves as the complement which ties the other two together.  From this vantage point, the remainder of the book critiques existing theories of disability and suggests further refinement.
Chapter 2 serves as brief historical review from Plato and Aristotle, through the Biblical writings, and into contemporary discussion. She finds hope contained in the lived experiences of both Old and New Testament caricatures of persons with disability – there was a place provided for them.
Embodiment theology as a subset of the medical model is the focus of chapter 3.  Humans do not just have bodies, they are bodies in a particular locus of time and space. While reviewing environmentalist McFague’s model of the world as the body of God, she critiques it for not reflecting on diversity of disabled embodiment. Creamer identifies the three categories of sin (Us vs Us, Us vs Them, Us versus It) as crucial in McFague’s anthropological model, yet contributes a fourth (Me vs. Myself).  It is here, Creamer suggests, that persons lie to themselves about their own limits, constructing binary adversarial categories (abled, disabled).  Those lies, Creamer suggest, eventually leads to further perpetuations of injustice against oneself, others, and the world.

In chapter 4, Creamer addresses liberation models of disability through theological critiques of the writings of Jennie Weiss Block, Kathy Black, and Nancy Eisland.  The Accessible God (Block) lacks depth beyond indignation, the Interdependent God (Black) does not address power and responsibility, and the Disabled God (Eisland) leaves little room for those not comfortable in their disability.  Noting that each of the authors are not trained theologians, she suggests that their arguments, while promising, need additional depth.

Having weighed both medical and liberative theologies as promising but insufficient, Creamer allows chapter 5 to explore limits as a characteristic of humanity – her emphasis lies on the "leaky" boundaries, not the bounded set.  The focus is not on a deficit model of lacking, but a positive model of gifting. She suggests this is similar to the Pauline model of spiritual gifts – how each are for different purposes, having boundaries, yet are necessarily fit together for the construction of a vibrant Christian community.  Disability is then seen as a vital part of the human experience and one that rejects ancient dualist approaches.
Comment & Critique
The limits model proposed in Disability and Christian Theology opens areas for new theological reflection.  Recognizing that limits are different for each individual reveals the complexity of the spectrum yet also allows for multiple, various, and competing interpretations of embodied disability among different people.  Limits will be shaped along the other identifying lines (religion, politics, race, culture, economics, and gender) as each contributes to self-identity.  Unlike the medical or social models, this model is particularly helpful within the intellectually disabled population – a people not easily seen as a community or with liberative agency.

The limits model contributes much in anthropology, yet raises unanswered questions in soteriology, ecclesiology, and eschatology. Future theologians will need to wrestle with these questions and see if this model is productive in furthering the canonical gospel or run the danger of constructing new religion.  

Overall, however, the model appears promising and serves as a refreshing reminder of everyone’s limited existence.  While primarily aimed at the theological academy, this book is also suggested for those with experience in pastoral settings who desire a refreshing approach to spiritual care and ministry.