Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Liturgy and Human Disability

by Andrew Tatum

In many ways, I think, our understanding of what it means to be human (and by us I mean Westerners) is inherently related to an understanding of the imago dei - even if some people won't claim that relation. When we think of what it means to be human, we often turn to the idea of human capacities.

Hans Reinders, in Receiving the Gift of Friendship, reminds us that this view of humanity as related to human capacity is - unfortunately - directly connected to historical Christian conceptions of the imago dei. In other words, any Christian effort to insist that "people with profound intellectual disabilities are people just like other people" on the basis of the imago dei is bound to disappointed with what it finds.

Reinders notes that in his research on the imago dei, he found that the theological support for a capacity-oriented imago dei was broad and deep within the Christian tradition - and not only the Christian tradition:

"Personally, I have great respect for people who live profoundly disabled lives. But can one even say that? Are the people living such lives the proper object of respect? Any contemporary textbook on ethics will explain to its readers that they owe respect to all human beings, because of their capacity for reason and will. These textbooks do not say this because they are contemporary; readers will find the same view in all major Western thinkers, from Kant back to Aquinas to Augustine to Aristotle, to name a few. One only need substitute "rational soul" for "human being," and one will find the proof of this claim."

Reinders, of course, wants to counter this claim that our humanity or our lives as the imago dei are necessarily related to human capacity. In working through these claims, I am more than willing to go along with Reinders - but in a different direction that he is going. I want to say that our humanity is constituted by our relation to other people and to God and, thus, that none of us are fully human unless we participate in life with others and with God. Of course, this could be a dangerous move because it could lead to the oppression of those who do not understand "right relation to God and others" in the way in which I do. This is something that I'll have to deal with. But the further claim that I am inclined to make is that "right relation with God and others" is forged primarily in the fire of gathered liturgical celebration. Therefore, I have some questions. Implied in each of these is the question of how "historic Christianity" has asked and answered these questions.

Three interrelated questions on Liturgy and Human Disability:
1. In what ways can liturgy shape our understanding of what it means to be human?
2. In what ways can liturgy serve as a means of faith formation?
3. In what ways can the inclusion of disabled persons in the liturgical celebration of Christian communities become mutually edifying and spiritually formative?

Andrew Tatum is the youth minister at Centenary United Methodist Church in Smithfield, North Carolina and a student at Campbell University Divinity School. This post is taken from his blog, Methobaptist Musings, where he reflects on being a Baptist in a Methodist setting, and writes on matters of theology, culture and church.

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