The Challenge of Disability to Christianity (by Brittain Bullock)
Christianity, as it most often is understood today, boils down to a couple of core concepts: orthodoxy (right belief) and orthopraxis (right action). Orthodoxy, in all of its forms, values the ability to formulate Christian concepts into the proper words and then to stick to them, take a stand with them. It goes something like this: “Hi my name is Bob, and I believe in the virgin birth.”
For millions of professing believers getting this formula correct is paramount. After all, doesn’t it say—“Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and thou shalt be saved”? And of course this kind of believing isn’t a simple thing. As someone once responded to a man who affirmed his faith in Jesus, “Which Jesus, exactly?” Because there are some differences. There’s the American Jesus who is pro-economic expansion, highly capitalistic, a dyed in the wool individualist, pro capital punishment, anti-tree hugging (after all he did kill a fig tree didn’t he—this puts him in camp with loggers everywhere), etc… There’s historic Jesus—who, as one recent Jesus Seminar liberal scholar described him, was most probably short, balding, and pudgy; a skilled mental wrangler, and rabbi in the Jewish tradition with nothing exceptional except that he caught the attention of exceptional followers. There’s hippie Jesus—anti-American to the core. There’s Che Guevara Jesus, who simply lacks a machine gun to be relevant to the class struggles of South America. Well, you get the idea. There’s just a lot of versions of this Jesus fellow. It’s tricky, even agreeing that one needs to believe in Jesus, just knowing which one gets our belief.
Thankfully, two thousand years of intellectual wrangling has given us uncanny clarity as to what this really means. For one thing it means agreeing that Jesus is Co-equivalent with God the Father. He wasn’t just a nice young man who got killed for being a professional do-gooder…He was God in the flesh. It also means believing that God got into the flesh through a rather immaculate and improbable conception—The virgin birth. Of course all of belief is predicated on the assumption that every word in the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible is mostly literal—especially the creation account and the miracles of Jesus while on earth. It also means that Jesus literally died on a cross (as opposed to only appearing dead, but actually being in some kind of coma or trance), descended into Hell where he re-captured the keys of death from Satan, then was resurrected—supernaturally and bodily (meaning it really happened, he didn’t just come back as a ghost or something). And lastly after ascending to heaven (where he now sits at the right hand ), he waits for the appropriate moment when he will return to finish the work started in his first three years of ministry—though this time he will not leave any one confused if he was a hippie or not…he will be all business, so to speak (blood up to his horses bridle, sword drawn, etc…)
Clearly I’m being a little tongue and cheek. I don’t mean to be disrespectful—except to say that so much emphasis has been placed on these words, that they be literal and concrete and rigidly bought into or asserted as true and right. Each of these facts is seen as absolutely essential to the other—pluck one out, and as Rob Bell noted, the whole brick wall of fundamentalist faith, falls down. This is what it means to be orthodox—to have a right belief. It translates as having the proper mental structures that you hold onto, the correct categories to put your doctrines in.
Here’s where I’d like to take a right hand turn.
The Challenge of Terry
My friend Terry is medically labeled as profoundly retarded. His IQ is somewhere squarely located around 40. His memory is progressively degenerating. He, at times, fails to remember the names of people he’s known his entire life, let alone facts that you or I might take for granted. Now here’s the interesting thing. Terry is also a believing Christian. This is something he feels very strongly about. His faith, his belief, is very important to him. But if you ask him what this means he will be absolutely incapable of formulating anything close to the set of dogma’s I’ve described above. Even if I were to describe in great detail, or walk him through all of these core, foundational affirmations he would still not grasp them. It makes him frustrated to even begin talking about these kind of things. But, his answer to what faith means to him is revealing. His response is to touch his heart, soften his eyes and make a kind of swooning motion with his shoulders. For Terry Christianity means that at the center of his experience he connects to a sense of love. For him, this is God. This is, to him, what it means to be a Christian. These days I find myself asking if there is really anything orthodox, or more “correct” than this.
Because if there is–if all the formulations and right words and nuanced concepts that demand absolute belief, are necessary—then Terry doesn’t stand a chance. And if I’m really being honest, I’m right there along with him. Most times I fail to get the formula. Right beliefs, appearing from the stable base of historic Christianity, have never come easy for me. I don’t get them, don’t agree with many of them. Often I just don’t see it. Even when I do, my thoughts are finite at best.
Persons with profound cognitive disabilities tend to teach us that the truly significant thing, the main thing, is located at the ineffable core of our being—where we are left stammering for words, any words, just to express our experience of being loved by an indescribably Love that seems to pass all understanding.
For Terry, for others who share his challenges, and maybe for the rest of us too, what makes a Christian isn’t so much what we believe, rather it is that we are beloved.
Every so often the system of “sloppy grace” gets challenged. Some young, brilliant, reformer will stand up and say, “Yes, of course we are the recipients of God’s conditional love—but, doesn’t this change us? Shouldn’t we be effected by this?” In fact this camp often poses a real challenge to the folks entrenched in “orthodoxy” circles. It can’t all boil down to right belief, they push back. Didn’t Jesus say that “Those who hear my words and practice them are my disciples?” So it’s less about what you think about Jesus and his accompanying doctrines and more about your active response to the life and teachings of Jesus. It’s about what you do! How have you been living out the message of Jesus?
There’s a delightful story which articulates this position well:
A town was situated near a mighty river which every seventy years or so overflowed its boundaries, putting the buildings and people in danger. During such a season the town elders went to the local holy man and begged him to beseech God on their behalf in order to save the village. The old man immediately went to the secret place and spoke the sacred work to God, and the town was saved.
A generation passed and once again the river flooded. The elders came to the new holy man who had been an apprentice of the last. They begged him to speak to God on their behalf. And so he went out into the forest but he could not find the secret place where his mentor had always met with God. Finally he stopped searching and simply knelt where he was, praying: “Oh God you are not caged by a secret place, or chained to a special bit of dirt—the whole earth is filled with your glory!” Then he uttered the sacred words and God spared the village.
Once more a new generation came and as the great flood came the elders went to meet yet another holy man. He went out, as his predecessors had, but could find neither the secret place nor recall the sacred words. He came before God and said, “Oh Lord you are neither contained to a place, nor are you held in a certain set of words—for all belong to you—and we must use every word we know to adequately begin to express your greatness. Now I beg you, take pity on this town and save it from the flood.” And so God moved, the village was saved.
Time passed and yet another generation of elders came before a holy man in order to plead for the town. The holy man was quite unlike his spiritual ancestors. He did not know the secret place, nor did he recall the sacred words—but truth be told he did not even believe in God’s presence, at least not in such simple words.
When the elders begged him, he became exasperated, knowing very well the history of the village and flooding. He whipped about and grabbed his walking stick, then leaped out of the door and towards the town. The elders were perplexed, “What are you doing?”
He looked back and said, “Saving the village! Now go home, grab your shovels, we are going to move the town to higher ground.”
After every one had left the holy man’s hut a shadowy figure stepped out from the corner. It was God. He whispered to a nearby angel, “Now, of all the holy men who served me, this one is the holiest and the closest to my own heart.”
“I don’t understand” said the angel.
“Because he and I are the only ones willing to physically stop the waters. All the others only trusted in words and rituals.”
Of course this exaggerates the point. We need not be atheists in order to join God’s work. But the conclusion is valuable. Orthopraxy argues that we join with God in working his will on the earth. Don’t simply worship Jesus—do as He did.
Angela and actions
But what of my friend Angela? She has cerebral palsy—physically incapable of even the most basic range of motion, she is confined to her chair and the services of others transporting her. She is also profoundly impaired at a cognitive level. She can neither understand the depths of orthodoxy nor can she inact the breadth of orthopraxy. How is she to carry out the mission of God? How does she join in his great work? What is her role in fulfilling God’s eternal purpose?
In other words, if the essence of Christianity is action—then what of those Angela’s who will simply never “perform.”
I repeat what I said earlier: there is so little we can know of God, there is little we may actually do. But we can be loved. Both right belief and right action place their value is a strength based proposition, rightness. But neither of those come close to touching the wounded center of Christianity—a crucified God, foolishness to those who are wise, and a stumbling block to the religious.
Christianity conceals a rather startling concept—that neither our behaving nor our believing is the essential value of humanity—rather, it is our belovedness. This is the gift that those with severe disabilities bring to us. They remind us of the point.
Brittian Bullock is an author, speaker/storyteller, and artist who lives in the Portland, OR area with his two sons Ransom and Judah. He has spent the last decade founding, consulting, or living within multiple intentional communities. He writes for various publications, and has penned two books (and counting) exploring urban mysticism–a fancy way of talking about the intersections of faith and culture. Follow him on Twitter or his blog.