A Spirituality of Disability: The Christian Heritage as both Problem and Potential





John M Hull



Studies in Christian Ethics, vol.16 no. 2, 2003, pp. 21-35





Disability may be thought of as contributing to spirituality partly in the sense that the disabled body may be transfigured as the biological basis of the disabled state is transcended, and partly because the various disabilities extend the range of humanity and thus provide for greater inclusivity.  These two expressions of disabled spirituality are outlined by means of the phenomenology of disabled human worlds.  This plurality of human worlds enables us to challenge the hegemony of the powerful and thus becomes politically significant.  In supporting these approaches, Christian faith is not without ambiguity.  The nature of this ambiguity is considered as positive and negative elements in Christian tradition are contrasted.  The significance of the approach for education is discussed, and some of the limits of the argument are noted.



Preview and Summary


             On the basis of a phenomenological epistemology, according to which human knowledge is projected from the human body, spiritual development is here regarded as the transcendence and transfiguration of the body as a biological organism. The transfiguration and resurrection of Jesus Christ authorises and illustrates this view of spiritual development within the Christian tradition. This view of knowledge as embodied enables us to interpret disability as epistemologically creative. The blind body knows and lives in a blind world; the deaf body a deaf world. Each human world has its own distinctive characteristics and its own limited autonomy. The human worlds relate to each other along a continuum because although different bodies generate different worlds, there is only one human species.

             The criteria of transcendence and transfiguration also apply to the spiritual development of disabled people, although in each case relative to the characteristics of the body which is disabled, transcended, and transfigured. This enables us to conceive of a multiplicity of known and lived human worlds.

             This has two advantages. First, the plurality of the human worlds enables us to construct a spirituality of disability which is not based upon a theory of deficiency. As long as the disabilities are mainly understood as lacking something, their intrinsic character as worlds will be overlooked, and they will be understood as mere exclusions from the big world. This view of disability challenges the unconscious hegemony of the average, the majority, and thus opposes all ideologies of domination, whether they are aware or not of their power.

             Second, this view of the spirituality of disability extends our understanding of humanity itself by denying exclusive humanity to the majority and insisting upon the genuinely human character of the disabled worlds. In this way, humanity is enriched through variety. Plurality is richer than uniformity, and the different human worlds need each other to achieve full humanness.

             Although the Christian tradition may be thought of as supporting this view of spirituality, the Bible does not endorse a plurality of human worlds but depicts a single ideal humanity which fell away into various kinds of alleged imperfection and abnormality. The Bible story tells us that  these will be overcome when the perfectly human is restored. Jesus, who according to this world history is perfect humanity, is hailed as  the messianic agent for the restoration of perfect and uniform humanity.

             Thus the question arises as to whether we should look upon the Christian tradition as a problem rather than a potential. The truth is that elements of both problem and potential may be found in the Bible and in the various theological doctrines. A first attempt to explore this ambiguity may be to list the elements on one side and on the other.



The Nature of Spirituality


             Human spirituality is that which transfigures and transcends the biology of the human. When we speak of transcending the biological, we refer to those potentials of the human being which enable him or her to make the biological organism instrumental to non-biological purposes. These potentials include abstract thought, imagination, empathy, the ability to represent biological experiences symbolically, and the capacity to integrate experience and knowledge around a significance or a meaning which goes beyond the pleasure and pain of the individual. Language and money are the two finest achievements of the human tendency towards the spiritual, because being relational in their character, they articulate and facilitate the experience of solidarity with other people.  The capacity of the human will to become integrated with others, or to dominate others, as the case may be, is incarnate in money and in language.

             When we speak of spirituality as transfiguring the biological, we refer to the fact that the biological is never left behind by transcendence. The body is not the antithesis of the spiritual but its organ. We should not contrast the spiritual with the material, nor should we regard the spiritual and the biological as being on altogether different levels. Rather, we should speak of transfiguration: the material infused with the spiritual, the body becoming the form of inter-subjectivity.

             In Christian faith, the typical representation of spirituality is to be found in the story of the transfiguration of Jesus (Mk 9:2-8). The body was not left behind but shone with radiance. This could not occur to an isolated body, but only in the context of others, and of the speech which links person to person. This is why Jesus is seen on the Mount of Transfiguration with Moses and Elijah, and they are speaking with each other (v.4). Even the resurrection does not leave his body behind (Lk 24:39, Jn 20:6f), and with the ascension, the transfigured body is raised to universality (Acts 1:9). The ascension into heaven of the prophet Elijah (2 Kgs 2:11), the figure of the resurrected Christ (Jn 20:27) and the bodily assumption of Mary all indicate that Christian faith confesses a biological spirituality, and believes in the resurrection of the body as the fulfilment of human potential (Ro 8:23, 1 Cor 15:42, Phil 3:21) .

             Nevertheless, the body is transcended as well as transfigured. This takes place when the body of the other person is valued like my own body, felt like my own body, and even loved as my own body (Eph 5:28). The body which is not transcended remains encircled within the membrane of the skin. Egocentricity is the enclosed body. The senses, although they appear to open the body out upon the world, do not do so unless they are met by the answering sense of the other. In the reciprocity of eye contact, or skin contact, or conversational contact, we transcend the biological nature which is transfigured in the process.


The Disabled Body and its World


If we agree that spirituality should be regarded as that which transfigures and transcends the body, the way is open for a consideration of the epistemological implications of such an embodied spirituality. Recent work in the philosophy of phenomenology and in the philosophical implications of brain research  have illuminated the body as the origin and main determinate of our knowledge. The world we know is the world as projected by our bodies.

If someone is born into a disabled condition, the world generated by that state is formed from the earliest days. One is, so to speak, born a citizen of that world. On the other hand, if one becomes disabled at a later stage, whether during childhood or in adult life, one experiences the shock of losing one’s world. The tendency is for resistance, and then for a terrible sense of loss, and then the disabled body shrinks back into itself. One becomes extremely conscious of having an impaired body, whether it is merely a broken arm or leg, or losing the power of speech following a stroke, or loss of mobility after an accident. It is then true that whereas most people live in the world, disabled people live in their bodies. Not only is this the result of the shock of losing the native world, but it may be particularly acute following sensory deprivation, because the normal knowledge which one had of the world has now shrunk into the body itself. The person recently blinded becomes very aware of internal body sensations.

It is at this point that the recently disabled person either renounces the old world and accepts the new, now disabled body, or on the other hand refuses to let the old world go, insists on continuing to try to live within it, and perhaps longs and prays for the miracle which will restore not just the former body but the former world. The painful choice is made more poignant by the fact that since the everyday world of the average person is not conscious of its distinctive character as a world but  imagines itself to be the only  reality, the newly disabled person cannot imagine any other world than the one he or she has now left. The normal world regards the disabled person as banished, excluded, deprived, as it were, of citizenship rights, and as therefore to be pitied and helped.

As the recently disabled person recovers from the shock of the fractured and now lost world, a new world gradually begins to dawn. In the case of a blind person, this is the world of touch, smell and hearing, which although at first disintegrated by the loss of the unifying power of sight, gradually link up with each other again. The body regroups, consciousness reforms itself, and a new world appears. In the case of the  person who has lost hearing, a new experience of living within vision appears, and communication becomes focused on the hands. The body builds up its new world, relating to it with new powers and functions for different parts of the body. In the case of the blind person, the hands are no longer mainly used to do things, but now to know things and finally to appreciate beauty.

As the new world is gradually built up, put into place with innumerable fits and starts, the disabled person is no longer confined to the broken body, but begins again to inhabit a world. No longer merely an exile, he or she applies for and is granted citizenship of a new place. The body is again integrated within its world and the former world remains as a dream, an occasional flash of regret, a pang, perhaps, only to be overtaken by the intrinsic meaning of the new world within which one must not only exist but must live.

The process of world formation may be thought of as transfiguring the body, since the person now extends from the body into which life had at first shrunk, and feels its way out again. Under certain circumstances, and for certain persons, the disabled body may be not only transfigured but transcended. One sometimes finds oneself forgetting that one is, in the opinion of the old world, disabled. Needless to say, access to the new information technology is an enormous boon to many disabled people, opening up for them again a world of knowledge and communication which transcends the limits of their disabled bodies, just as it transcends the limits of any body.

In this way, we may begin to speak of a spirituality of disability, the spirituality which transfigures and then transcends the body, whilst springing  from it and remaining  united with it, a spirituality made all the more powerful, in some cases, by the fact that it is created as an achievement whereas the world into which one was originally born was always taken for granted. The spiritualised disabled person has been born again, with fresh awareness of the world, and of the plurality of worlds. No longer confined through the deception of everyday experience within an absolute world, the spiritualised disabled person finds, often to his or her surprise, that life is enjoyed at a deeper level.


Many Bodies, Many Worlds


 The transfiguration of disability reveals itself as global. This means that the disabled body projects a world which is as distinctive and as autonomous as other worlds, although perhaps not as independent, in view of the fact that the world of the normal or average is by far the most powerful.

One of the most important aspects of the spirituality of disability lies in the challenge which it offers to hegemony. The world of the able-bodied usually conceives of itself as the only world. Those whose bodies are not able are excluded. As an example, let us take the situation of sighted people. Although sighted people know, with varying degrees, that they are sighted, it is unusual to find a sighted person who knows that he or she lives within a world which is a projection of the sighted body. In other words, although sighted people know that they know through sight, they seldom realise the epistemic implications of vision.  Sight projects a world and sighted people are embodied within that world. They know that there are others but they seldom know that there are other worlds. Therefore they think of others as being excluded from their own world. Thus they unconsciously create a discourse of dominance.

             When this ideology of domination is internalised by disabled people, as is almost inevitable in the first instance, the result is a loss of self-esteem, a loss of soul which is the accompaniment of identification with the marginalised and the excluded. In this way,  the  power of the present absolute world is acknowledged.

There can be no dialogue between the disabled and the non-disabled until the plurality of human worlds is recognised. As long as the non-disabled world retains its hegemony, the relations which it has with the world of disability will be those of care for the helpless, and of patronisation. The relationship will be that of charity, of condescension, and not that of mutual respect based upon acknowledgement of otherness.

However, once it is recognised that the apparently single world must be pluralised, then the relative breaks down the absolute. The absolute is incapable of dialogue. In the relations between able and disabled people, that is significant but perhaps not central for the future of our species. However, once the hegemony of the single world in the relation between able and disabled people is broken, a challenge is mounted against all other human worlds which claim to be absolute. The world of the globalised market which claims to be the only way forward for the world is challenged by other possible human futures. The world of absolute religious truth is likewise challenged to give way to multiplicity. Disability offers us a way  of dialogue, and so the spirituality of disability becomes politically significant.  Inside the money-curtain, the communities of disability have the potential to become subversive elements, while outside the money-curtain disabled communities bear witness to the sufferings of a dehumanised humanity, colonies within colonies, the marginalised within the marginalised, the frontier of the human, where Christ dwells.



Disability and the Widening of the Human


We have seen that a spirituality of disability makes a contribution to the wider spirituality of the human by breaking down the absolute world of the powerful. There is a second aspect to this: a spirituality of disability helps us to gain a wider concept of the human itself.

 If the body were to be thought of as having an immediate capacity to represent and symbolise the mind, the spirit, or the character, then the disabled body would indicate a disabled mind, a tortured face would indicate a tortured spirit, a blind body would indicate spiritual blindness.  Any spirituality which the disabled body might have would be but a remnant, a fractured representation of a higher and more perfect spirituality, but now the transfigured body is no longer only the body of the athlete transfigured through motion and skill, or only the body of the dancer, transfigured through the beauty of rhythm and form, but includes the broken body transfigured towards otherness and self-transcendence. This is because the pain of the body and the social marginalisation of the body which is different from that of others, can lead the transfigured disabled body into an identification with a more comprehensive bodily range, whereas the body of the athlete or the dancer is caught up into the transfiguring beauty of skill and motion but does not in itself imply or demand sympathetic identification with a range of bodily experiences. If the variety of human bodies is thought of as being arranged in the form of a pyramid, social values would place the beautiful, skilful body at the apex but it is at the base that most area is covered, where the most comprehensive variety of bodies is understood. The transfigured disabled person knows the variety of human conditions and thus has an opening into other worlds. Emptiness understands fullness in a way that fullness cannot understand emptiness. It is true that the empty desires the full, and the full fears the empty but in its transfigured state, the broken body may learn to be beyond desire and fear.

Because disabled people are socially defined as those who are not average, not normal, but are disabled, no longer abled, they are necessarily side-lined, marginalised, pigeon-holed, stereotyped. They themselves, however, have the capacity to transfigure the broken body, the marginalised body, into a symbol of inclusion through sacralising the extremities of humanity. It is the very provinciality of disability which enables it to grasp the territory of the human, while the city, looking out upon the provinces, thinks that it itself is everything.

So a spirituality of disability not only pluralises the human world, it extends it.


The Christian Tradition


             Although the Christian tradition faces both ways in the struggle between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, it certainly does not face both ways in the struggle between the hegemony of the single world and the plurality of the human worlds. On the contrary, the Bible is almost unequivocal in expressing the point of view of the able world. God is portrayed as an able-bodied God. God has powers of sight beyond the normal, powers of knowledge beyond the average. God is super-abled. It is inconceivable that God should be a disabled God.  ‘Surely the arm of the Lord is not too short to save, nor God’s ear too dull to hear’ (Is 59:1). The result is a humanity of convergence, where the signs of redemption are to be found in the recall of the peripheries to the centre. ‘Then will the lame leap like the deer, and the mute tongue shout for joy’ (Is 35:6). This convergent humanisation is modelled upon the perfection of the creation, in which everything reproduces according to its kind (Gen 1:24f) so assuring the stability and the continuation of the characteristics of normality. The convergence is rooted in the domination of the majority and returns in eschatological visions toward the singularity of the average.

Jesus is the archetype of this normality, without spot or blemish (1 Pe 1:19) and without deviation from the image of God which is the normal (Heb1:3). He takes little children in his arms (Mk10:16), accepts the caresses of working women (Lk 7:38), and touches the outcast (Mk 1:41). He recognises the spiritual authenticity of those who lie outside the orthodoxies of Judaism (Lk 7:9) and recognises that those who do the will of God in all nations are his brothers and sisters (Mk 3:35). Only the disabled seem incapable of inclusion within this universal realm of accepting love. We see the force of this if we ask the naïve question why there were not disabled people among the group of close disciples of Jesus. There were none, and it would have been impossible that there should have been any, for the simple reason that Jesus would have restored such people to full health. Indeed, such restoration becomes in itself symbolic of the experience of becoming a disciple. The blind Bartimaeus sits beside the road begging but the sighted Bartimaeus follows Jesus in the way (Mk 10:52). The struggle of Jesus against disability is his contest with the powers of Satan (Lk 13:16). As eschatological Son of Man he actualises the convergence of which the prophets spoke (Matt 8:17), and as magical healer he brings the disabled out of the power of darkness (Lk 11:20).

  Yet he himself becomes blinded (Mk 14:65, Lk 22:64), immobilised (Mk 15:24), and marginalised (Gal 3:13, Heb 13:12). At first he accepts the infirmities of humanity by healing them, but finally he accepts the infirmities of humanity by participating in them, by becoming one of them. ‘He was despised, shunned by all, pain-racked and afflicted by disease’ (Is 53:3).


The Christian Tradition and Disabled People


             Jesus the miracle worker, the one who did not have disabled people among his disciples, is the Jesus who has lived on most powerfully in the church. Since blindness was a symbol of sin and unbelief, it has continued to represent stubbornness, ignorance and insensitivity. The charismatic healers down the centuries have had the satisfaction of knowing that whenever they tried to heal blind people they were involved in the mission against Satan, and Jesus who exorcised the powers of evil was seen as blessing the work of every evangelist who tried to drive out the blind demons.

             This has had consequences for both good and evil as far as disabled people are concerned. In the first place, it has meant that blind people have been cared for by those who believed that they were imitating Christ in doing so. The literal nature of this imitation of Christ can be seen in the fact that Christian missions tended to be more active towards the various diseases and infirmities which were the object of the healing of Jesus. To heal the blind, the deaf, and those who had leprosy was obviously to imitate Christ; Christian missions towards those who have diseases not mentioned in the gospels have not been quite so prolific. On the other hand, granted the social conditions, it was better that blind people should receive compassion and care than that they should starve. However, there was an alternative policy which depended upon making a distinction between disease and disability, between those who were sick within a certain world and those who lived in other human worlds. This would have meant  accepting plural forms of humanity, and   this would have meant qualifying or abandoning the biblical discourse of exclusion, in which the myth of  a  perfect creation leading to a perfect restoration would have been abandoned. It would have meant accepting disabled people into ordinary congregational life, and this would not have found an ideal model in the gospels unless Jesus had had disabled people among his disciples, and given the conditions of that day and the symbolic meaning of disability to which the gospel writers were committed, that would have been impossible. I must refer to my experience with a church for disabled people to which I was invited. They told me that they found it necessary to meet together because the people in the ordinary churches felt uncomfortable in their presence.

             There were two alternatives confronting the Christian movement. One option was represented by the healing of blind Bartimaeus, and the other by the blindfolded Christ. In one tradition the removal of blindness becomes an allegory of entering into the Christian life; in the other tradition blindness itself is made sacred by the presence of Christ within it. In the first tradition a rhetoric which disparages blind people becomes essential to the discourse of salvation; in the other possibility the treasure of redemption is carried around in ‘jars of clay’ (2 Cor 4:7). In one tradition the glory of God is seen when a blind person becomes a sighted person (Jn 9:3); in the other possibility, the grace of God is experienced in weakness (2 Cor 12:9).

             Paul saw it all very clearly. The way of love is preferable to the way of miracles (1 Cor 12:31). The plurality of bodily parts is preferable to the domination of the uniform (1 Cor 12:12). The thorn in the flesh is a greater witness to the grace of God than the heavenly religious experience (2 Cor 12:1-9). In the four gospels, blindness is symbolic of lack of faith but in the letters of Paul and in Hebrews, it is faith that is blind (Ro 8:24, 2 Cor 5:7, Heb 11:1).

             The ambiguity of the rhetoric in which blindness may sometimes stand for sin and sometimes for the achievement of faith, is not of mere literary or even theological interest. It is a question of the identity of blind people and of how the church is to regard them. This itself is indicative of the wider issue of disability: how disabled people are to achieve identity and how society is to grant them an accepted and honoured place. At an earlier point in our discussion, the rhetoric of wholeness which drew its strength from the disparagement of disability seemed to be so overwhelming in the pages of the Bible that it was unclear how the Bible could even be thought of as being on both sides of this conundrum. All the power seemed to lie on the able side. Now that we have considered the matter more deeply, it is clear that there is ambiguity, but it has been suppressed beneath the power of uniformity. Why did it take two thousand years for the Bible to be identified as a book written by sighted people? Why did it take so long to recognise that the sighted people’s Bible has excluded blind people? It is because uniformity goes with centrality, with authority, and with power. The anti-disabilist rhetoric of the powerful church grew side by side with, and for the same reasons as, the anti-semitic discourse. Disabled people and Gypsies participated with Jews in the Holocaust. In the dichotomised world-view of the seventeenth century, of which the twentieth century was the inheritor, the world was divided between white people and the others, Christians and others, the male and the female, the body and the deviant body.


Christian Faith as Problem and Possibility


             One of the problems for a theology of disability, which would speak in a Christian way about the spirituality of disability, lies in the fact that almost all theological authors, being themselves sighted people, write unconsciously from a sighted perspective which has the effect of emotionally and symbolically excluding blind people. I think that the same is true of other disabilities, particularly those who do not have normal hearing, but blindness is the only example of which I have intimate knowledge. An example would be the continued use of the symbol of the face to represent human relationships, and to represent the presence of God. Theologians and philosophers who do this, whether Jewish or Christian, are guided by the Biblical imagery of the face of God, which represents the presence of God. However, in writing like this it is all too easy to overlook the fact that the human experience of the face differs widely. Not only are there faces which are conventionally beautiful or ugly, but there are many diseases of the face, people unable to move the facial muscles, people who have suffered terrible deformations of the face due to injuries and accidents, and there are mental conditions which make it impossible for people to recognise the human face, and there are blind people, who can touch the face but cannot see it and for whom the experience of the face is profoundly different. To touch a pair of smiling lips is not the same as being smiled at. This unconscious hegemony of the sighted is an instance of an ideology of dominance, and it must be questioned, if Christian faith is to be genuinely open to all sorts and conditions of people.         

             The Christian tradition also includes positive elements which could be developed into a theology of disability. These include

1        The blindfolded Christ.

2        The general picture of Christ as suffering and as being immobilised and identified with the abnormal, the cursed.

3        The theology of incarnation in which God accepts a body, leading us to believe that it is through the body that our faith should be matured.

4        The incarnation as an indication of emptying, of God’s acceptance of vulnerability, of the abandonment of the divine perfection (Phil 2:5-8).

5        The theology of the Heavenly Session in which Christ shows his wounds to the Father in intercession for humanity. This indicates that the body of the ascended Christ is not a perfect body, but a body of scars (Heb 7:25).

6        The theology of St Paul and the letter to the Hebrews in which sightlessness becomes a symbol of faith.

7        The experience of Paul in discovering that the strength of God was perfect in his own experience of disability.

8        The varieties of gifts which are given to the church which suggest a rejection of the monolithic body in favour of the variegated body.

9        The plural theology in which many worlds are recognised, God being the Lord of all worlds.



Educational Implications


             The concept of spirituality as being an inter-subjective elevation of the biological leading a person beyond self-centredness into solidarity with others when applied to disabled people suggests a spirituality of various human worlds. The advantage of this is that it enables us to take each other seriously in whatsoever state or condition we may be, and prevents us from looking upon any member of the human family as worthless or as a human deviant. The educational significance of this is that to understand disability does not require compassion, let alone pity, but it does demand that one should be able to enter into a world very different from one’s own. One must learn to see the way the other worlds look from within the world which one has entered. This might be done through studying the poetry written by quadriplegics, attending the Para-Olympics, reading the literature of pathography. Another educational approach would be by means of denunciation. One could gather examples of the use of expressions like blind and dumb to indicate a state of sin in, for example, a typical hymn book. Examples of the use of disparaging metaphors based upon various disabilities could be gathered from the newspapers. Yet another approach might be to heighten awareness of the senses through the temporary elimination of one sense. The easiest sense to suspend is sight, but the experience of being forbidden to speak for a day or spending a day in a wheelchair can be just as enlightening.

What are the implications of this approach for the education of disabled children and adults? One of the controversies within special education is the question of whether disabled children should be educated for successful life in the larger society or whether they should be educated for successful life within the world they already live in. This controversy was particularly sharp in the case of those with profound hearing loss, and has only gradually been partially resolved in a deeper respect for the integrity of the deaf condition and the recognition that the culture of the visual has its own characteristics. In the history of the education of people with a visual loss, there has  been a similar conflict. The predominance of embossed, punctilinear script over embossed shapes of the letters of the Latin alphabet is a case in point. Punctilinear script, the most widespread example of which is the type devised by Louis Braille, is recognisable by touch more easily than the embossed forms of printed letters, but is less convenient for sighted people. Braille only won the struggle when blind people got control of the agencies.  The approach of this present study is a contribution to the growing tendency to recognise the integrity and distinctive nature of each form of disability, and lays emphasis upon the need to help each disabled child to achieve wholeness within the characteristics of that particular disabled state. The approach of this present study is a contribution to the growing tendency to recognise the integrity and distinctive nature of each form of disability, and lays emphasis upon the need to help each disabled child to achieve wholeness within the characteristics of that particular disabled state. For social and economic reasons, disabled people must also live in the greater world, but this can be achieved most successfully if the adaption to the larger society springs not from a sense of deficiency and loss but from a position that has come to realise the intrinsic character of the world in which one lives in the body.

I realised this in the course of preparing my project ‘Cathedrals through Touch and Hearing’, that set out to equip the English cathedrals with facilities for blind and partially sighted visitors. I found that most of the cathedral guides wanted to show the sighted person’s cathedral to the blind person, and did not understand that such  knowledge  must necessarily remain in words only. How can a blind person be interested in stained glass? Only by way of general information about the cathedral. Sighted guides would place the tip of my finger on a tiny rose bud, cleverly carved amongst the intricate shapes of the leaves and branches of a chair leg, something that would take the blind hand a long time to appreciate, while the loveliness to the hand of the cold brass of the smooth communion rail would not be mentioned. Gradually my project team realised that blind people must be taught to acquire first hand knowledge of the cathedral, and this meant teaching them to use their bodies in contact with the fabric in order to construct a distinctive blind cathedral. We realised that there are at least two cathedrals - one for sighted and the other for blind people. Each has its beauties and its needs.

This approach is also significant for Christian education within the churches. Not only is it a step towards a more inclusive congregation, but the challenge to the able-bodied hegemony requires a new way of interpreting the Bible and the hymn books, and this in turn suggests new directions for Christian spirituality. The restrictions placed on personal development when people remain in a literal, one dimensional stage is removed when the unacceptable consequences of biblical literalism are exposed. The problem of the relation between the first chapter of Genesis and contemporary science can perhaps be resolved without abandoning literalism, but how can the biblical negativity towards disabled people be maintained? The challenge to the moral authority of the Bible suggested by a theology of disability is more difficult to resolve, and new understandings of the spirituality of the Bible are demanded.

Is there any hope of the success of this enterprise? Is not the prejudice against disabled people so ingrained in our religious tradition and so unconsciously  reinforced week by week by readings from scripture and in the singing of many traditional hymns that there can be little chance of new attitudes emerging? Perhaps this is so, but attitudes do change, and the unconscious prejudice of today may  become the deliberate bias of tomorrow, and with this greater awareness, there is hope of reform. Change is taking place more rapidly in the world than in the church, so once again let the world write  the agenda, and life inside the churches may also change.




             We have seen that there is a natural spirituality of disability which points to the variety of human bodies and of human experiences as making up the whole human world, and that this poses a challenge to the structures of unequivocal power which rule our world. We have also seen that to some extent the Christian faith produces and collaborates with this hegemony of power. We have also seen from the rich variety of its ambiguity that the disabilist theologian may be able to recover elements which may form the basis for a theology of disability. Such a theology will link with a spirituality of disability in the sense that it will give specific religious articulation to the natural, experienced spirituality of the various conditions of disabled people, as each learns how to transfigure and transcend the limits of his or her biology. The position outlined in this article is not without its own ambiguity. One would not expect doctors to give up the fight against disease on the grounds that it is good to encourage a variety of human worlds, nor would we expect an ophthalmologist not to do his or her best to save someone’s sight because of his respect for the blind world. The concept of an epistemological world is not intended to avoid the varieties of human suffering, but to honour the distinctiveness of the experience of those who permanently reside in various states. Let us hope that the Christian faith which has always motivated its adherents towards the alleviation of suffering will prove equally effective in motivating Christians to recognise variety and to challenge the concentrations of exclusive power.






© John M Hull 2002