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Disability, Providence, and Ethics: Bridging Gaps, Transforming Lives

by hans s. reinders

baylor, 248 pages, $49.95

What sort of world do we live in? Is it a world of chance and fortune without meaning? When bad things happen, an accident or an illness, is it only bad luck? Or is there a transcendent order and a governing purpose? Christians talk about divine providence, God sustaining and leading a meaningful cosmos, but there is no unanimity in the tradition on how to understand this concept. Some see everything that happens, including evil and suffering, as part of God’s overall plan. Others refuse to understand providence as a sort of universal teleology. God is not directly causing evil for the good of the whole.

The Dutch theologian Hans Reinders, one of the most ­interesting thinkers working at the intersections of theology, philosophy, and disability studies, discusses in this well-written and engaging book the theology of providence in relation to the experience of disability. He focuses on two kinds of experiences with disability: children born with disability, and people who have suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Receiving a child with a disability is, for most people, initially ­experienced as tragedy. “Why my child?” “Why us?” Life as they knew it is shattered. They lived, it seemed, in an ordered world; now that order has collapsed. Something similar happens in the case of TBI, but with one big difference: the abiding knowledge of the person before TBI. In both situations, people cannot avoid the “Why” questions. This is true for secular naturalists, who theoretically see life only as a sequence of events, as much as it is for religious believers. However, Reinders says, people asking such questions are most often not really asking for a theoretical explanation, a third-person perspective. They are asking, “Why me?” “Why us?” It is a first-person question. It is lament, a cry of despair. Reinders thinks that in this situation to offer a theodicy is pointless, and anyhow impossible. He is, in particular, critical of what he calls cheap theodicies, explanations of God’s purposes that risk instrumentalizing suffering, making it into a means to a higher good.

Reinders has written a book of theological analysis, but he wants theology to make sense of our lives as we experience them. Therefore much of the book consists of skillfully told stories, both contemporary first-person real-life stories and the biblical stories of Job and Joseph. Most of the contemporary stories he has chosen are not told from an explicitly religious perspective and do not use the language of God’s providence, but Reinders thinks that a theology of providence helps us see these stories in a new light.

The first story is about a promising couple, at home in the success-oriented culture of an elite American university, giving birth to a boy with Down syndrome named Adam. He is a complete negation of the “Harvardized” life they had planned. But there is also transformation. On the one hand, the mother experiences a helping presence that slowly breaks down her naturalism, which had suited her at Harvard. On the other hand, living with Adam gradually and often painfully changes her, her husband, and the story through which they understand their lives—and, therefore, also their past. Frequently it is their friends who help them see differently. With time, they cannot anymore understand how they once could think about life as they did. It is a story of transformation and redemption.

Another story is about the wife of a man who suffered a severe brain injury in a boating accident. He partly recovers but is a changed person. He behaves strangely, though he is often happier than he was before the accident. The wife cannot rejoice in his recovery or in his newfound happiness. She mostly sees the lost husband, the lost relationship, the loss of the life they once had.

In the middle of the book is a chapter on the Book of Job. This chapter functions as a bridge from the life stories to the extensive theological analysis in the latter part of the book. Reinders reads the book from the perspective of Job, who, along with his friends, does not know the meta-story of Satan’s litigation in the divine courts at the beginning of the book. Job’s discussion with his friends begins with the idea of proportionate retribution. Then it turns more and more toward God’s incomprehensibility, his being beyond all human understanding. Job cannot for himself accept any of the usual explanations. However, what he finds especially painful, it seems, is God’s silence. When God finally answers, Job is not told the “real” story. He is told that God cannot be held accountable by the humans he has ­created. For Job, the important thing is not that he receives no answer, but that God is there. Reinders says that if the Book of Job says anything about divine providence, it is that we may never find answers to our “Why” questions about the contingencies of life. The attempts at explanations provided by Job’s friends fall short. Humans can live through the tragedies of life, Reinders says, only when they make themselves dependent on God’s faithfulness. It is a sort of wager.

The latter part of the book provides sustained theological reflection on what Christians mean when they talk about God’s providence. Throughout these chapters he returns to the stories he has told, showing the fruitfulness of his theological ­analysis. His ability to combine ­analysis with stories is one of the great strengths of this book. Situated in the Reformed tradition, Reinders engages especially with Calvin’s ­theology of providence. This may seem strange in light of Reinders’s perspective. The conventional picture of Calvin is that of a strong theological determinist. On the metaphysical level, God’s will is the primary cause of everything that happens; both good and evil are part of God’s eternal plan for achieving his ends. Calvin argues that to speak of God permitting but not willing evil and suffering leads to an inadmissible metaphysical dualism. In this, Calvin is not completely wrong, but Reinders paints a more complex picture of Calvin’s theology of providence. Moreover, he thinks that Calvin is more helpful as a pastoral than as a systematic thinker. Calvin stresses both God’s incomprehensibility and the limits and sinfulness of human understanding. Humans don’t understand God’s plans. They have two perspectives: what they can see (the contingencies of life) and what they cannot doubt (that God is in control). The latter is the perspective of faith. It is only in a trusting and patient faith that the believer knows that God is in control. As Calvin writes, and Reinders stresses, “Knowledge of providence can only be obtained as ‘knowledge of the heart.’”

Although Calvin stresses the incomprehensibility of God, he is critical of the idea of a hidden will of God separate from God’s revealed will. This stress on the revealed will of God is critical for Reinders’s own thinking. God’s special providence operates through Christ working with the Father. The universe is created by God’s Word, and God’s will is not a blind fortune but his love and justice at work. However, against Calvin, Reinders questions whether the very idea of God’s justice is undermined if everything that happens, including evil and suffering, is described as part of God’s direct plan.

To avoid this, Reinders develops the trinitarian side of Calvin’s thought on special providence but, following Karl Barth, takes it much further. Instead of thinking about God’s providential will in terms of a general causality, he says that in the New Testament God’s active presence is mediated by the Son and the Spirit. The key to the cosmos is that everything is created through and for Christ. This does not answer the theoretical “Why” question. For the believer, Reinders claims, the central question is not whether God is governing the world but how he is doing so. People’s “Why” questions are not about causes but about purpose and meaning. They are about lament. Instead of asking whether God willed or even permitted this or that to happen, one asks whether he is present in the agony and pain.

Here Calvin’s language of God illuminating our minds “with the spirit of discernment” becomes important. It is a question of seeing. Providence is, according to Reinders, about God fulfilling his promise of being present, through the Spirit uniting Father and Son, with those who suffer. The result is changed hearts. But it is a gift that one is free to receive or not. Thus understood, providence is about God helping us to discover a new self. It is about transformation. The circumstances are the same, but we can see these circumstances and ourselves differently. What has changed for the Harvard couple is not Adam’s disability. Everything the parents feared, and more, has happened. But where once they could see only the suffering, now in hindsight they can see also something else. For Job it is the experience of the presence of God that transforms him.

Reinders emphasizes that this transformation of the self is a gift that one cannot control. It is not a deliberate act. We do not choose to die to our own self, not knowing what will come. A mother who says that her daughter will not be able to share her interest in books is told that “not all people thrive on books.” It takes time for the mother to see this, but eventually she does. Through the stories we tell we see the meaning in what happens to us. “The experience of redemption is to see differently in looking back,” Reinders observes. “It is hindsight.”

It is easy to stress the stories with “happy endings,” as, for example, that of the parents of the child with Down syndrome. Not all the stories he tells are like that. Some, like the wife of the injured boater, are unable to see in new ways. Other cases seem even more difficult. Even when transformation comes, Reinders does not claim that it will take away the suffering, pain, and lament.

The topic of divine providence belongs to the cluster of interminable philosophical and theological conundrums that exceed the powers of the human mind. Every path taken raises new puzzles. Reinders does not try to solve the philosophical issues. He is interested in understanding how God, through the Spirit, may be present with the suffering and how this presence, often mediated through other people, helps transform us and the way we see our lives. He focuses not on explanations but on the stories through which we live our lives, and at the center of this reading is Jesus Christ and a trinitarian account of providence. The more philosophically minded may say that we cannot avoid the philosophical problems of theodicy, even if we recognize that discussing them is not pastorally helpful. What about the intelligibility of Christian theology? What sort of implicit metaphysics is entailed in Reinders’s account? These are important questions, no doubt. But Disability, Providence, and Ethics helps us see that the more immediate question that we ask in the face of suffering and evil is “Where is God in all this?” And the answer is clear: with us.  

Arne Rasmusson is professor in systematic theology at the University of Gothenburg.