Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Bible and people with disabilities: five suggestions

For the last few years I have been working on issues related to the Bible, the Church, and people with disabilities. In the last decade or so, thanks to the efforts of scholars like Jeremy Schipper, Candida Moss, Amos Young, Sarah Melcher, and several others, scholarship in this area has taken incredible steps forward.

One of my professors from grad school, Victor Furnish, often used to say, “We must never underestimate the historical distance between ourselves and the people who wrote the Bible.” In my work as a biblical scholar, I’ve seen the wisdom in this statement again and again. This is particularly the case in the work I’ve done regarding the Bible and disabilities. It is only in the modern period that the concept of “disability” has come into being. In the biblical eras, people worked with concepts of inability, purity and pollution, strength and weakness, honor and shame, and a number of other issues that we would not consider appropriate for thinking about people with disabilities today. Therefore, some ways of reading the Bible have the potential to do harm to, rather than help, the disabled population.

This is in no way to suggest that we should reject the Bible as a resource for thinking about issues related to disability. In fact, the Bible does provide incredible resources for thinking through issues of disability, but in appropriating the Bible we have to do so with great thoughtfulness and care. We have to use the best theological and exegetical resources available to us so that the Bible is the life-giving resource that God intends for it to be.

Here are a few suggestions I have for thinking through biblical passages and theological concepts that may come to bear on our understanding of people with disabilities. This is not a comprehensive list, but one that may help to generate conversation about relevant issues.

  1. We must reject notions of divine causality related to sinfulness and disability. In other words, God does not cause disability because of sin. While much of the Deuteronomistic history affirms divine causality in this way, and certain Christian groups today affirm it as well, it is a poisonous concept that can keep people, though no fault of their own, trapped in feelings of guilt or diminished self-worth. Of course, sin can cause disability. If a mother uses drugs during pregnancy, the child may end up disabled. This is not, however, the effect of God’s intervention, but the consequence of the physical effects of drugs upon the developing fetus. Most disabilities, moreover, are not the consequence of such behavior.
  2. We must reject the idea that, when people are not healed of disabilities, it is because of a lack of faith. We cannot know the mind of God, but we do know that there are very faithful people who remain disabled despite prayers for healing. I am not suggesting that God does not heal people, but it is clear that God does not always heal people, and when God does not, we should not place blame on the person with a disability. For example, in 2 Corinthians 12, we read that Paul asks three times to be healed of a “thorn in the flesh,” possibly a visual impairment, a speech impediment, or epilepsy. Yet God does not answer this prayer in the way that Paul wished. Paul was as faithful as any Christian could be, but his disability remained.
  3. We must realize, that, as James Sanders has put it, the Bible’s witness is often variegated. There is no single biblical perspective on disability but rather a variety of perspectives that can come to bear on this issue. The biblical canon, says Sanders, has a “self-correcting” function that requires thoughtfulness, carefulness, and prayer as we engage the biblical texts.
  4. We must affirm the full giftedness of people with disabilities in our congregations.  Scripture teaches us that human beings are created in the divine image. This applies not simply to able-bodied and able-minded people, but to all people. It is a matter of having a proper theological anthropology. Once we understand this, we can begin to see that God works through people with disabilities in myriad ways. Boards of Ordained Ministry must be open to the possibility that ministers with disabilities can bring great gifts to our churches, and congregations must allow for adjustments to the normal ways things have “always been done” in order to allow for the gifts of ministers with disabilities to be fully manifest in their contexts.
  5. We must do these things not in spite of our beliefs as Christians, but because of them. Whether we admit it or not, we Christians always read the Bible through theological frameworks that shape our interpretations. Let’s simply admit this fact, dispense with the notion that we have some pure, objective reading of the text, and focus on reading in dialogue with healthy, life-giving theological constructs, constructs that we in fact derive in part from scripture.

Our regard for people with disabilities is perhaps the most pressing issue in the life of the church today. One in five people worldwide is disabled, and many such people feel unwelcome in our churches, must less participating in the ministries of the church. This has to change. It is a matter of faithfulness for us as we seek the renewal of the Church for the transformation of the world.

Friday, June 21, 2013

John Meunier: A EUB Laments

I have spoken with many EUB's during my eight years at United Theological Seminary, and almost to a person they feel that since the 1968 merger their distinct heritage has been increasingly devalued and ignored. John Meunier recently posted a very fine piece on this issue. I strongly encourage you to check it out. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Agreeing to disagree is not enough

I often hear it said that United Methodists must agree to disagree. Okay…fine. In some matters of considerable complexity, this may be the best course of action. In most circumstances, however, wouldn’t it be better if we worked to develop a broad consensus on important issues? Are we resigned to remaining at loggerheads on any matters that are somewhat controversial?

The problem here is not simply that we cannot agree. It is that we don’t know how to generate agreement. Or, perhaps, the hard work of resolving complex problems is simply too hard. In dealing with controversial matters, in many cases we have given up on real, meaningful dialogue, the kind that can cut through seemingly intractable problems in order that participants in the dialogue can develop more informed, well reasoned, and intellectually responsible opinions.

Particularly at the levels of the annual conferences and the General Conference, important issues are decided by voting blocs and caucus groups. In other words, they are decided by processes that are primarily political, rather than intellectual. Speeches for and against are often simply pro forma, or, worse yet, opportunities for grandstanding. It became apparent during the last General Conference that there were a number of important issues on which we were not going to make any real headway. Yes, there would be a majority vote, but would there be greater understanding? Would we leave with any greater appreciation of the depth of the issues we were facing?  On many issues people would leave feeling that they had simply been out-maneuvered.

I have no idea how to fix the political processes. I do know, however, that within the UMC we need an awakening of the intellectual virtues. Within our deeply divided and wounded denomination, we must begin intentionally to cultivate intellectual virtue and avoid intellectual vice.

What is intellectual virtue? It is a way of thinking characterized by certain well-formed habits. Philip E. Dow offers a clear and accessible discussion of intellectual virtue in his book, Virtuous Minds: Intellectual Character Development (IVP Academic, 2013). Dow, an evangelical Christian and philosopher, discusses seven distinct intellectual virtues:

Courage – We must have the courage to pursue questions wherever they may lead, even in the face of intense opposition.

Carefulness – We should pursue intellectual problems rigorously, with attention to the details. Overlooking even small matters may have serious consequences.

Tenacity – Hard questions require hard work. We must stick with our quest for knowledge even when it becomes tiresome, difficult, or tedious.

Fair-mindedness – We need to become expert listeners. The quest for knowledge means that we cannot caricature or minimize arguments with which we disagree. Rather, we must give them deep and careful consideration.

Intellectual honesty – We should never distort the truth, take statements out of context, or mislead others in the interest of winning an argument.

Intellectual humility – It is crucial that we acknowledge that there is much that we don’t know, that we may be wrong, and that it may be necessary for us to change our positions from time to time.

These traits, says Dow, will make us not only better thinkers, but better people. They are means by which we may love God with our minds, and they will lead us to a greater love for our neighbors, as well.

Broadly speaking, our culture does not value intellectual virtue. Debates are won and lost on zingers, charisma, and sound bites. Academics, moreover, are in no way excepted from this criticism, and this includes academics in explicitly Christian settings, such as seminaries. There are entrenched positions in the academy, just as in secular politics, just as in the church.

Agreeing to disagree is sometimes necessary, but for many people it has become the defining characteristic of our denomination. This is a serious mistake. Methodists were once people of deep conviction. We can be again, but it won’t be easy. 

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Issues-based Christianity

Recently Theo Hobson wrote an article in the Guardian, “My quest for an authentic liberal Christianity.” He asks the question, “ Is [liberal Christianity] the attempt to do Christianity in an honest, modern way; or is it an attempt to dodge the hard bits of this faith?” His answer: “The conclusion I have come to is that liberal Christianity has two meanings: there are two traditions here. They are deeply intertwined, but they must be pulled apart – for one tradition infects and corrodes the other. Only once this separation is made can an authentic liberal Christianity be affirmed.”
He defines these two traditions as follows:

One sort of liberal Christianity edges away from supernatural belief, and church ritual: it presents Jesus as a great moral teacher, the first humanist, through whose example we can learn to mend our world. It assumes a basic harmony between Christianity and the rational Enlightenment.

The other sort of liberal Christianity affirms political liberalism – the ideal of a state that rejects theocracy and protects people's liberties. But it does not seek to reform Christianity in a rational-humanist direction: it understands that such "reform" undermines this religion, falsifies it.
Very simply, the latter sort of liberal Christianity is the only authentic version; it must be rescued from the deathly embrace of the former sort. Only thus can liberal Christianity be renewed.
The first type of liberal Christianity that he talks about sounds like process and existentialist theology. In its earlier inceptions we can find this kind of thinking in figures such as David Friedrich Strauss and Albert Schweitzer. We see it in the staggeringly influential Rudolf Bultmann through his “demythologizing” project. Later, during the heyday of process theology, we see it in figures such as John Cobb, Schubert Ogden, and Marjorie Suchocki (though the last of these fits Hobson’s definition least neatly). In its more recent popular forms, one finds it in writers like Marcus Borg.
Hobson’s conclusion is that this first type of liberal Christianity is a dead end. Christianity that is so completely beholden to modernist presuppositions will die on the vine. On this point, I think he is entirely correct. The set of claims that Christians have made about God and God’s work in the world through the ages leads us into the life of God and is key to our salvation.
As for the second type of liberal Christianity that he discusses, the definition he offers probably works better in the UK than the US. Many Christians whose understandings of God and God’s work in the world are thoroughly grounded in modernist assumptions are drawn to high-church ritual. Further, we find figures such as Jim Wallis and other like-minded Christians advocating for a progressive social agenda while affirming evangelical beliefs about basic Christian doctrines (e.g., the Trinity, the Incarnation, etc.). What’s more, these Christians are thoroughly committed to the use of government policy for the widespread implementation of their ideas (see, for example, Wallis’s book, God’s Politics). The outright rejection of partnerships between the government and the Church is more often found in post-liberal thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas.
There is, however, another type of Christianity that has attached itself to progressivism. I will call it “issues-based” Christianity. This type of Christianity leads with issues and couches the issues in God-talk. The goal of our faith is to transform society in such a way as to meet particular ideas of social justice. Salvation is primarily, then, a this-worldly social category. Issues of conversion, personal transformation, the inner witness of the Holy Spirit, the fruits of the Spirit, and eternal life are simply left out of the discussion.
Some would say that I am talking about liberation theology here, but, if so, issues-based Christianity is a rather anemic form of it. Here God is essentially an afterthought, an idea that can provide some religious underpinnings for ethical principles. The basic doctrines of the faith are not rejected as in modernist forms of liberalism, but rather regarded with deep ambivalence.

To be clear, as a Wesleyan I am thoroughly committed to the Church’s role in transforming society. My own passions in this area are mainly around people with disabilities. Our work in society, however, must be grounded in a full-bodied conception of the nature and work of the Holy Trinity. Our claims about God lead to our understanding of how we should live and what the world should look like, not the other way around. Theology must first and foremost be about God.