Thomas E. Reynolds is father to a son who has been diagnosed with Tourette’s syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome, bipolar disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Because of his disability churches they have attended requested that he not be in their Sunday School program. Over the years they have been through behavioral programs, family counseling and psychiatric care. What to do? As the grandfather myself of a lovely grandson who suffers from an autistic disorder I am deeply sympathetic. Reynolds, an associate professor of theology at Emmanuel College in the Toronto School of Theology, University of Toronto, has authored an extremely important book entitled, Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability and Hospitality.
In it he quotes Stanley Hauerwas who says that we suffer from the ‘tyranny of normality.’ Theologian Jurgen Moltmann states, “There is no differentiation between the healthy and those with disabilities. For every human life has its limitations, vulnerabilities, and weaknesses. We are born needy, and we die helpless. It is only the ideals of health of a society of the strong which condemn a part of humanity to being ‘disabled.’”
The basic argument of Reynold’s book is that “wholeness is not the product of self-sufficiency or independence… To exist as a finite creature is to be contingent and vulnerable. This means we are beings that face limitations and are capable of suffering from a range of impairments. ..It is precisely such vulnerability that God embraces in Christ, entering fully into the frailty of the human condition, even unto a tragic death…God is in solidarity with humanity at its most fundamental level, in weakness and brokenness.” (18,19)
He explores the cult of normalcy which dominates our definition of what it means to be whole, and healthy, and acceptable to society. Independence is prized above all else. Any kind of dependency is seen to be unacceptable. Yet most of us spend a great part of our lives physically dependent on others. We spend the first two decades of our lives being trained to become independent members of society, and we increasingly spend the last decades of our lives tethered to life-supporting medical care of one sort of another. We are all dependent emotionally upon others for well-being.
The ability to reason and be rational is not the only yardstick of health and value. Nor is the ability to be economically productive, and materially successful. The way we treat our children and our elderly is a measure of our understanding of what it means to be human and Christian.
“The basic question of human existence is whether there is welcome at the heart of things, whether we can find a home with others who recognize us, value us, and empower us to be ourselves.” (119) “Vulnerability and dependence is normal. Accordingly, the moral measure of a society lies in the way it treats its most vulnerable.” (129)
This is an important book and topic. I commend it to you. Let us do unto others what we want them to do unto us if we were disabled – which we all are in one way or another.