I have, for some time, been using Guidelines daily reading notes from BRF. It is a mixture of thematic and systematic readings from a variety of contributors and, although generally fine, can sometimes be a bit hit or miss. I was intrigued by one of the topics in this latest edition – Deaf theology. It didn’t seem to start off very promisingly but quickly became quite a challenging set of readings and I wanted to set out a couple of thoughts from it.
The first one is to to with healing. In Mark 7:31-37 we read of Jesus healing the deaf man. It’s a story that many, I guess, will be familiar with and look at it on the surface level. In it we see Jesus performing a miracle and so we glorify God and praise Him for His ability to heal, even from serious afflictions. But in so saying, I have fallen into the trap that the reflection for that day wanted to highlight. We see deafness as an ‘affliction’ and something that needs to be ‘healed’.
The reflection raised the issue that many deaf people cannot identify with the man in this story. They simply do not see themselves as ‘ill’ or ‘afflicted’. Their deafness is as much about who they are as how they look, how they think and so on. It is an integral part of their self-identity. Is a deaf person simply someone who needs to be healed? Is deafness seen as an imperfection, a blot on their humanity? When we see only the ‘sickness’ (as perceived from a so-called ‘normal’ perspective) we don’t see the person and that does indeed devalue them.
But what of this healing story from Mark? The reading notes offered a number of ways to interpret the story. Perhaps, in this instance, restoration of hearing was the man’s greatest need. Another interpretation might be that the ‘healing’ was not not strictly a restoration of hearing, but of the self-esteem and confidence needed to be part of a society which did look askance at such a thing. After all the man went away ‘speaking clearly’ – something he was previously unable to do. Regardless of how you interpret the story, what is plain is that we need to be aware of the preconceptions we bring and that our ‘desirable outcome’ isn’t necessarily what others would want or see as important.
The reflection also raises a bigger issue (at least I think it is a bigger issue) – that of self-identity. This starts to impinge on my hobby-horse. I am sometimes asked what the difference is between realised and inaugurated eschatology and this blog entry, for me, highlights one of the crucial distinctions.
Realised eschatology would take the view that a deaf person is God’s creation and so their deafness is very much part of who they are. The expression of the kingdom now (realised) would be a full acceptance of that state and for a work to be done to ensure inclusiveness and acceptance of all people, as they are, breaking down the cultural ‘norms’ that act as barriers to participation. ‘Full acceptance of that state’ does not mean that we accept how people are treated, nor does it imply that we do not continue to find ways and means to enable greater participation.
However, there is, I think, a danger in such a position. It risks too great a focus on identity being wrapped up in who we are. Our identity becomes self-created and risks becoming self-obsessed. “You must accept me as I am, and if you don’t you have devalued God’s creation.” It overlooks the scriptural assertion that we are made in God’s image and that our identity is not found in our own self but in Jesus Christ. And this is not an issue of physical or mental attributes. Our identity in Christ is the valued (but imperfect in so many ways) creation we are now; loved by God to the extent that His Son died on a cross so that all of humanity might be reconciled to Him. And our identity is as those who are also called to share in the new creation, both now in the life of the Spirit, but also in the hopeful future, in resurrected life as it was affirmed through the resurrection of Christ and promised to all who believe.
A word here about the opposite of realised eschatology – that of futurist eschatology. Such a perspective sees this world as imperfect but also transitory. Suffering is something to be tolerated because of the greater ‘reward’ still to come. At its worst, it is a view that is complicit with oppression and injustice. At its best it becomes nothing more than a ‘good moral life’ with little Christian distinctiveness. It is dualist and Gnostic, encouraging a view of the ‘badness’ of the physical and the ‘goodness’ of the spiritual.
Inaugurated eschatology seeks to hold that tension of ‘now and not yet’. It acknowledges that we have the kingdom ‘now’, albeit not in its full glory. It acknowledges that in so claiming, we cannot be complicit in systems and structures which deny participation or devalue creation. It questions injustice and encourages ethical living. But it also acknowledges that there is a future hope, when creation will be restored and healed in fullness; where participation and acceptance are no longer issues that need to be ‘worked on’. It is a theological perspective that I believe the majority of Christians already hold; they just don’t put the label on it. But it’s why I think it’s an important theological area. It can be too easy to slip into either of the other positions.
And back to our original thought. The issue of ‘disability’ challenges our theological position and it particularly challenges our perceptions of identity. If we see a disabled person as ‘sick’ or a ‘victim’ we risk not seeing the person and valuing the person. If we fully accept who they are and ‘what’ they are, we also risk losing sight of the Christian distinctiveness that looks beyond what we all are now to the future fulfilment of our true identity. A more balanced view, seeing us all in our true identity in Christ, would also avoid much of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ language of this last paragraph and perhaps have avoided the need to blog on it at all.