Kelby Carlson, writing at Alastair’s Adversaria, proposes a richer theological model of disability as he brings his experience as a disabled person “into dialogue with two important concepts: the evangelical doctrines of vocation and the theology of the cross.”
In doing so he aims to avoid two flawed religious interpretations of disability: first “a kind of non-redemptive liberation theology” that defines God as some marginalized category and believes him hostile to the non-marginalized, and the opposite tendency to “collapse disability into a grand narrative of sin in such a way that redemption of disability becomes redemption from disability” (emphasis mine).
“There are few things more potentially useful to the disabled experience than the idea of vocation,” Carlson argues:
Vocation places disability in a wider spectrum of the sacred calling. It implies that disabled people and their able-bodied counterparts are on equal spiritual footing. More than that, it suggests that disabled people can be seen as conduits for God’s grace and service rather than it only images of a broken creation in need of “fixing.”
This doctrine of vocation restores the image of God to the disabled. In response to the worry that disability is evidence of sin, one can reply precisely to the contrary. While brokenness itself is evidenced of a creation longing for release from bondage, an individual’s disability is, subversively, a venue for Christ to display his glory.
Turning to the theology of the cross, he writes:
Disability responds in graphic physical form to the idea of approaching God based on merit. Each disabled person with their twisted legs, nonfunctional eyes, or [whatever] visible or invisible disability they have, directly attacks the presumption of human glory. Disability is a symbol or metonymy of the larger experience before God: one of weakness, alienation and dependence . . . .
Such a blunt assessment of disability’s pictorial significance might seem harsh, especially coming from a disabled person. If I left it there, it would be entirely inadequate. But disability is not merely a counter to theologies of merit constructed by man. It represents the opposite of that: a theology that finds its centerpiece in God’s death on the cross.
The theology of the cross is a particular way of doing theology that disabled people can uniquely understand. It is the theology that acknowledges the “visible” things of God: namely the cross of Christ and visible suffering as the premier way of “seeing” God. God’s grace is manifested, paradoxically, in that which appears weak and nonsensical. In this view, one cannot blithely skip over the cross as a simple means to God’s vindication and resurrection. This results in an anemic view of suffering: something that is meant only to be patiently endured in the hope that perhaps someday things will get better . . . .
[Scripture] reveals a redemptive way of looking at suffering, and consequently at disability (which, for a great majority of disabled people, involves suffering to one degree or another). Grace is seen as a means of living in and through suffering. Chronic weakness is seen as real strength. In fact, it is the only way to truly approach God in faith. Can we view this in an ecclesial way that might take account of the suffering of disabilities in the body of Christ?
He closes with a “theoretical basis for a programmatic effort to more systematically include people with disabilities” in churches. Do read the whole post, and don’t miss the substantial discussion in the comment section.