I’m glad that my disability article has been so well-received, but reader after reader has pointed to one unanswered question — actually, two unanswered questions that mean the same thing. (Don’t worry — these questions make sense even if you haven’t read the article.) They are: What is the real difference between self-improvement (good) and becoming a completely different person (bad)? Will my sister Martha be retarded in the Kingdom of Heaven, and, if not, is she still Martha?
The inimitable Joe Carter — one of the most able debaters since, well, you know — has raised just this point:
Jesus had no compunctions about curing disabilities, no matter how “fundamental to a person’s character” they may have been. The reason is that lameness, deafness, blindness, and other maladies are corruptions of God’s good creation. Nowhere in Scripture does it suggest that such afflictions are anything less than the lamentable result of man’s fallen condition.
. . . The reason we privilege physical wholeness is because it is closer to God’s ideal for creation.
Disability might be fundamental to Martha’s idea of herself, but it isn’t any part of God’s idea of her. Given that our bodies belong to Him, we ought to strive for fidelity to His plans and not ours, right?
But if we take “fidelity” [to God's plan] as an ideal, what do we do with monasticism/asceticism and debauchery? Both of these seem to require seeing the body as an obstacle to purpose–not just disciplining it, but breaking it and breaking through.
Obviously this is a little dualistic, but it’s a perception of dualism that makes fasting or “in vino veritas” work. Can this be integrated into the fidelity ideal? Should it be?
Sometimes we get closer to God by striving for perfection; sometimes we do it by turning our imperfections up to eleven: fasting, asceticism, bodily mortifications, drunkenness, etc. That’s what Dara means by “breaking it and breaking through.” I can agree with Joe or I can get drunk, but I can’t do both.
If the desert saints got closer to God by inflicting physical imperfection upon themselves (i.e. the delirium and physical weakness that come from extended fasting), then surely it makes sense to say that preserving someone’s physical imperfections can be fidelity to God, too. (Especially if those imperfections come with the compensating “fuzzy, intangible benefits” I talked about.)
But that’s just a preliminary point. If I can convince Joe of just one thing, it would be this: Drunkenness is a helpful metaphor for the kingdom of heaven; so helpful, in fact, that it answers the question of whether Martha will be disabled there.
When I read this passage in St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s On Loving God, I nearly dropped the book:
Hear how the Bridegroom in Canticles bids us to this threefold progress: “Eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved” (Cant. 5:1). He offers food to those who are laboring with bodily toil; then He calls the resting souls whose bodies are laid aside, to drink; and finally He urges those who have resumed their bodies to drink abundantly.
. . . When the flesh is laid aside, [the soul] eats no more the bread of carefulness, but is allowed to drink deeply of the wine of love, as if after a repast. But the wine is not yet unmingled; even as the Bridegroom saith in another place, “I have drunk My wine with My milk” (Cant. 5:1). For the soul mixes with the wine of God’s love the milk of natural affection, that is, the desire for her body and its glorification. She glows with the wine of holy love which she has drunk; but she is not yet all on fire, for she has tempered the potency of that wine with milk. The unmingled wine would enrapture the soul and make her wholly unconscious of self; but here is no such transport for she is still desirous of her body. When that desire is appeased, when the one lack is supplied, what should hinder her then from yielding herself utterly to God, losing her own likeness and being made like unto Him? At last she attains to that chalice of the heavenly wisdom, of which it is written, “My cup shall be full.” Now indeed she is refreshed with the abundance of the house of God, where all selfish, carking care is done away, and where, for ever safe, she drinks the fruit of the vine, new and pure, with Christ in the Kingdom of His Father (Matt. 26:29).
It is Wisdom who spreads this threefold supper where all the repast is love; Wisdom who feeds the toilers, who gives drink to those who rest, who floods with rapture those that reign with Christ. Even as at an earthly banquet custom and nature serve meat first and then wine, so here. Before death, while we are still in mortal flesh, we eat the labors of our hands, we swallow with an effort the food so gained; but after death, we shall begin eagerly to drink in the spiritual life and finally, reunited to our bodies, and rejoicing in fullness of delight, we shall be refreshed with immortality. This is what the Bridegroom means when He saith: “Eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved.” Eat before death; begin to drink after death; drink abundantly after the resurrection.
I have quoted at length because I don’t want Joe to think I’m cherrypicking passages to make Bernard sound like the lush of Christendom. No, he really is using drunkenness as an extended metaphor for bodily resurrection.
So let’s pick up the ball where Bernard left it. We can say that drink makes a man act like a different person — “X just isn’t himself when he drinks” — but this transformation is regular and predictable; that is, alcohol affects everyone in approximately the same way, so we could extrapolate from a drunken man what his sober self is like. Which means that his sober self isn’t quite there, but it isn’t quite lost either.
In the same way, the kingdom of heaven transforms people completely but predictably. I don’t know exactly what this will look like and neither do you (i.e. I don’t know exactly how “cured” Martha will be there), but thinking about heaven this way helps us understand how I might be cleansed of those faults that are fundamental to my character and yet still be me.