For the last three days I’ve been at the Summer Institute for Theology and Disability in Toronto. The dialogue has been rich, provocative, and deeply edifying. If you have any interest in the intersection of theology and disability, I strongly encourage you to attend this event next year (time and place TBA).
Part of the dialogue here has been with Roman Catholic and Byzantine Rite Catholic Christians, some of whom have been involved in the L’Arch community. Their contributions to this dialogue have been absolutely indispensable, in part because their tradition has done so much thinking about the idea of theological anthropology—a concept of the human being rooted in the Christian understanding of God and God’s relationship to creation.
Many Protestant groups are sadly lacking in sophisticated and rigorous engagement with the notion of theological anthropology. This is certainly the case in the United Methodist tradition. We are perfectly happy to make very bold claims about issues such as abortion, end-of-life care, people with disabilities, human sexuality, and other issues, without really having a clear idea of what a human being actually is. This is not to say that UM theologians and ethicists have not ventured into this territory, but their insights have yet to make a notable imprint on the discussions within the structures of the church.
One aspect of this issue on which we have to be absolutely clear is this: human beings are not to be valued because of what they do, but because of what they are. A pithy way of putting this is to say we are human beings, not human doings. From a Christian perspective, a human being has value because he or she is God’s human creation, regardless of what he or she may be able to “contribute” by worldly standards. (In fact, many monumental doings of human beings can hardly be considered contributions.) The life of a person with severe intellectual disabilities, then, is every bit as valuable as the life of any other person, no matter how “accomplished” that person may be.
Once we have established this claim, we can move one step further: the inherent value of a person is located in his or her created-ness as a person, and humanity reaches its full potential in loving relationship with others. The Church, therefore, should be intentional about welcoming people of all abilities into its community. Our relationships are not to be predicated upon how much a person can give, how well he or she can teach Sunday school or lead a meeting, or his or her volunteer service within the community. Rather, our relationships are predicated on ontology—the basic understanding of what a human being is in relation to God, and our realization that humanity reaches its fullest potential in loving relationships based upon the communion of Persons in the Holy Trinity.
Secularization is dangerous. Regardless of whatever harm people may do in the name of God, Christianity bears within it the potential to redeem our understanding of human beings. First, however, we must engage the relevant issues with fervent prayer and intellectual virtue. We have to get clear about what human beings are and why we have inherent value, or the way ahead will be treacherous indeed.