God and Vulnerability

I’m writing a lecture for a presentation that I’m giving in Cleveland later this month on disability. Here is the primary question with which I’m wrestling: What does it mean that God chose human vulnerability as the medium through which all creation would be saved? 

Consider, for example, the hymn of Philippians 2:5-11. Christ had the form of God, but did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped onto for his own gain. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. This is clearest biblical statement of “kenotic” theology, a term that comes from the Greek word kenosis, “emptying.” It is in this act of self-emptying, of humbling himself, and becoming “obedient to the point of death–even death on a cross” (Phil 2:8), that God and creation are reconciled.
In the Incarnation, God takes on human vulnerability, and through that vulnerability brings reconciliation. What does this mean, then, for our understanding of human beings, for our theological anthropology? Among other things, we can say that the most vulnerable people in this world can inform our understanding of God in a way that no one else can. For example, we can learn about God and come to know God by being in community with people with profound cognitive disabilities (as Jean Vanier has taught us). It means, moreover, that without the presence of such people, our understanding of God is impoverished.
From this Christological perspective, vulnerability is the most important aspect of being human. It is the quintessentially human attribute. The more we deny this, the more we deny our God-given humanity. The more we de-value the most vulnerable people in this world, the more we set our values over against God’s.

As you can probably tell, I’m still working through these ideas. Any thoughts? Help? Where am I going wrong? What am I missing? I’d appreciate your feedback. 

8 thoughts on “God and Vulnerability

  1. Maybe cognitive disability is a relative term. Maybe cognitive disability in one world opens the door for heightened cognitive ability in another world. Perhaps weakness and vulnerability strengthen our ability to understand both human nature and divine nature in a way that autonomy, security, and hubris cannot. Perhaps the latter function as a spiritual disability from which we need healing and restoration. Just thinking out loud with you, David. Still working through these ideas as well.

  2. definitely agree that we miss out on God when we refuse to listen to the stories of the most vulnerable. Which is interesting, since most mainstream churches that I've been in mainly listen to the theologies of people from privileged groups. I couldn't really find God until I started reading theology by marginalized groups–feminist, queer, liberation theology,etc. This idea of vulnerability as being human is really interesting to me. I know many churches that try to force people to be vulnerable in unsafe and even abusive ways. So, this definition of vulnerability doesn't line up with what pops into my head when I hear that word. Churches I've been in used vulnerability to dehumanize, rather than to affirm others' humanity. I wonder what vulnerability that affirms humanity would look like. I'll have to think more about that!

  3. I like the direction you're taking with vulnerability as the humanizing character we need in order to be agents of reconciliation. Perhaps this is a rabbit hole, but my mind immediately thought of Christ's teachings about the value of children, both intrinsically and spiritually. Vulnerability like that of children (and people with disabilities) clearly seems to be a requisite for entering the Kingdom of God (Matt 18:3-4).

  4. Well, I think you are exactly right, Pete. Just as we talk about multiple types of intelligence, maybe we should talk about multiple types of cognition. And perhaps we disable our spiritual cognition through acts of hubris. Great points.

  5. Thank you for these comments, Sara. The angle you've taken on this has really made me think…. While I need to work through this more, my initial reaction is to say that the exploitation of the vulnerable demonstrates the kind of failure of spiritual cognition that Pete (previous comment) is talking about. Another way that we could talk about this is as an epistemic component of sin: we fail to see people as God sees them because of our brokenness and sinfulness. The more we can respect and love the most vulnerable among us, and the more we acknowledge our own vulnerability, the more we live into God's vision of humanity.

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