Symposium Introduction

Wondrously Wounded is a book that Brian Brock would not have written were he not a father—specifically, were he not the father of Adam Brock. It is no surprise, then, that the argument of Wondrously Wounded cannot be presented without some reference to Brock’s life, and without some attempt to account for Adam’s. Adam, Brock adverts in his preface, would be considered “profoundly intellectually disabled.” In many ways, the book provides a study in the violent theological and political implications of such labels, and yet labels provide a basic roadmap for the reader. Adam carries diagnoses of Down syndrome and autism. On more than one occasion, he has required severe medical intervention to save his life. Throughout his life, Brock argues, Adam has been a credible witness to God.

Here we come to the substance of the argument of the book. One way to read the book is as a beginning-to-end critique of privation. In its usual mode of operation, theology always opts for the path of least resistance, absorbing new problems into already present structures and forms of thought. When it comes to disability, theodicy proves to be the tool lying most readily to hand. Few medical words are as inherently theodical as “disability,” the semantic function of which relies on its privative lexical character.

Privative thought requires the quantification of the human good. The strictures of privation necessitate a calculating approach to human lives, weighing them to determine the extent of their diminution. The result is a division in the human race, which marries neatly with the power differential typical of public disability discourse in the modern ethos, “What should we do about them?” (36). Privative theodicy enables a certain academic precision, but at great cost. It cannot capture the expansive significance of a life such as Adam’s, Brock argues. “My hope is to give you a sense of the wondrous beauty of Adam’s form of life” (xii). The book exposes the fetid roots of medical, political, and theological thought and practice that might wish to question this beauty.

In its first part, the book deploys its titular terminology of “wonder” as form of reparative grammar designed, in part, to enable non-theodical engagement with disability. A longtime reader of Augustine, Brock retrieves the concept of “wonder” from the North African’s pastoral consideration of anomalous lives. Brock hones in on the personal fidelity and agency of disabled persons in Augustine’s reflections. The disabled carry a “strange vocation” (29), and all too regularly reveal the impiety latent in the uncomfortable gaze of the observer. As Brock establishes the grammar of wonder, a doxological imperative slowly emerges. It would be profane to see anomalous births as signs only of a fallen created order, as though non-normative life provoked reduced wonder and amazement. The parable of the Good Samaritan proves paradigmatic here, as the one who sees a person rather than a problem. These strands of perception, gaze, embodied life weave throughout the rest of the book’s argument.

Part 2 moves into a theological consideration of prenatal care. Whereas wonder engenders doxology, Brock highlights the anti-doxological character of the apparatus of modern prenatal screening, designed as it is to suppress certain forms of human life. Brock reflects, “Human beings are embodied creatures from conception, but they kill some bodies without grieving them, most obviously those of animals, human fetuses, and enemy combatants. To observe this reality is to raise the question of what it means to recognize a life, a body, as worthy of grief” (80). The annunciation provides the template for the recognition of a “new one.” To treat a new life as a biological accident muffles the joy of Mary’s song.

The third part develops these themes as it offers critiques of medical ethics, particularly the work of Tom L. Beauchamp and James F. Childress, whose book, Principles of Biomedical Ethics, continues to hold significant influence. In defining certain acts as “supererogatory”—going beyond their standard ethical principles—Beauchamp and Childress provide a “moral get-out clause” for situations entailing a degree of risk, giving alleged ethical validation to abortions in the circumstance of possible disability (104). For the Christian, Brock proposes, the risk that a child might be born with a disability cannot be the morally determining feature of a pregnancy. The industrialization of the medical practice adverts to the diminishment of suffering, and so advocates morality based on “quality of life.” Brock leans into disability theology’s character as an identity discourse to problematize such judgments.

With these critiques in hand, the fourth and fifth parts offer a reframing of health and disability. Brock makes use of Franz Rosenzweig to dismantle essentializing theologies, and instead draw one’s gaze to the particular forms of creaturely life. Brock holds that norms deny creatureliness, with all its wild and cascading variability. Brock’s experience of Adam is in part one of political agency, Adam reconfigures Brock’s vision and understanding of society. This new gaze anticipates the transformed perception of eschatological hope. Brock finds himself unable to read Adam’s autism as a tragic disability, but a community-defining wonder. Adam reveals something true about Christian hope and the nature of the church. “Theologically speaking, to experience someone as disabled is not to recognize them, but to misrecognize them” (196). Through a close reading of 1 Corinthians, Brock wants to identify the church as the community of fixed attentiveness to the distinct humanity of all, which enables gift-giving, communication, and listening. Brock construes the church as a place where the witness of Adam and those like him—with their strange vocations—can be heard and received.

The respondents in our symposium pick at some of the threads of this argument. Brock offers a singularly positive vision of disability theology, and its potential to remake theological endeavor and Christian self-understanding. Frances Young, who has published and spoken widely of her own experience of being a mother to Arthur, a man with intellectual disabilities, affirms the imperative to doxology, but questions the absence of an account of failure in Brock’s book. Can a theology of disability finally sidestep the question of theodicy? Has God failed, in that many of forms of disabled life are not only manifestations of creaturely difference, but instances of intense human suffering? Carolin Ahlvik-Harju suggests that the gendered complexities of bodies is understated in Wondrously Wounded. She presses Brock to consider the gendered power dynamics present in medical ethics. How does Brian’s experience of Adam’s birth differ from that of his wife, Stephanie, and what does this difference mean for the theological argument of the book? Pulling at the same thread as Young, Ian McFarland embraces the sublimation of natural evil to wonder, but challenges Brock to reconsider whether wonder necessarily means “good.” Would it not be better, he asks, to think wonder as unusual rather than inherently good? Miguel Romero probes the structure of Brock’s argument, wondering if it is possible to engage with it critically without simply dismissing Brock’s experience of life with Adam. Romero recounts what it was like to grow up with a disabled brother, and pushes the difference between seeing a life as strange and seeing a teaching as strange, because it does not account for the life of a loved one. Finally, Matthew Burdette offers the parable of the sower as an alternative lens for disability. He draws our attention to Emmanuel Carrère, who puzzled over his own passage from faith, and the manner in which perception alone did not prove sufficient for transformation. Burdette encourages a fuller thinking of agency and practicability, in particular, he remarks on the significance of being the political object of someone with a disability.

Across his responses to each of these essays, Brock develops his arguments in new directions, offering necessary clarifications, and positioning his work more explicitly in relation to feminism, Thomism, and tragedy. Brock’s book, with its uniquely hopeful vision of differentiated life and witness, will doubtless continue to provoke engagement within the world of disability theology. The carefully constructed essays in this symposium show the way that one’s posture toward disability quickly drives deeply into some of the most important questions for theology itself: the divine nature, human personhood, creatureliness, theodicy, gender, and politics. What would a theology animated by wonder and mutual recognition of each other’s humanity look like? Our panelists push this question in what follows.

Response

The Hour of Glory

Putting Wonder at the Heart of Theodicy

This is an impressive addition to the literature on disability theology, though perhaps the author would not be entirely happy with that characterisation. For he is particularly conscious of the hazards of language when it comes to reflection on these realities, not to mention the perils of binary “us-and-them” distinctions, on the one hand, and on the other, over easy identification. Human solidarity in diversity is central to the argument, and the basis of extended critique of the sociocultural world of Western liberal democracies in general and the medical establishment in particular, especially the values inherent, yet barely overt, in responses to the challenges posed by anomalous births and nonstandard social behaviour. Though personal experience is the context from which such engagement takes place, both critique and reflection are fundamentally informed by historical theology and biblical study. The wealth of further conversation in the footnotes refines much of the argument and engages with the available, pertinent scholarship—altogether, as I said, an impressive addition to a growing body of literature.

For a reader in a similar, but by no means the same, boat this is a deeply humbling book, with a theological maturity which in my experience took decades even to glimpse. Yet there are striking commonalities in the insights which have emerged from our somewhat parallel pilgrimages, and for both it has been a journey—indeed, Brock speaks of a conversion experience. The nub of it is about discovering the giftedness of the unexpectedly different member of the family, and the imperative of doxology.

The opening section of the book highlights this through historical study, and illuminates the title, Wondrously Wounded: this brilliantly captures what this reader would describe as the book’s fundamental aim, namely, to shift perspective from the tragic to the wondrous. An exploration of Augustine’s response to anomalous births enables a reclamation of the sense that an event out of the ordinary is a wonder to be marvelled at—these are not “signs of the brokenness of creation” but rather pointers to the “unbelievable diversity of the created realm” and occasions for “God to speak through surprising human differences” (29). Thus the notion that, rather than deficits, some have “strange vocations,” arises not just out of hard-won experience, but from a willingness to reexamine ideas that are distinctly premodern. Augustine is followed by study of Luther, again with emphasis on God’s Word generating wonders in everyday life, on “the tangibility” of “personal acts of divine mercy” in “the lived spaces of daily life” (49). To reclaim “the revelatory capacity of people labelled disabled” is to reappropriate such “traditions of mercy and gratuity” (53, 55), and to expose the modern perceptual frame situating anomalous births. Because in modern secularity wonders have ceased, it is almost inevitable that people who have been labelled disabled will feel condemned to having their whole lives framed by a narrative in which the biological or historical lottery has dealt them a losing hand” (53).

This sense of wonder, of gratitude and doxology, is the liberating stance which permeates subsequent discussion as a principle, challenging both the norms of modern medicine and the categories within which disability theology and politics have come to be analysed—not to mention the church’s traditional “charity model” and its more recent well-meaning search for “inclusivity.” The culminating study of 1 Corinthians 12 reinforces the point: each member has a distinctive contribution to make to the building up of the body of Christ. Here is one of our parallel journeys by different routes: the revised version of Face to Face produced some thirty years on is entitled, Arthur’s Call—I had moved from discovering my own vocation through Arthur to articulating his. Someone once said to me, “Arthur’s presence in church is gospel.” Overall, however, Brock would push us beyond even this to acknowledging the complementarity of diverse vocations in the solidarity of the body of Christ. The giftedness of the unexpected givers lies not only in our thanksgiving for them as wondrous gift to us, but in our receiving of their gifts as positive contributions to the building up of the community.

There are many other resonances: alongside reference to 1 Corinthians 12 we both pick up the upside-down world of the Beatitudes; in our writings we both recognise human creatureliness and vulnerability, as well as the essential solidarity of humankind and those fundamental values which Paul calls the fruits of the Spirit. So why was my initial reaction a sense of being humbled—even a feeling of defensiveness? To answer that question is, I admit, to make this an all-too-personal reflection, but it is also to raise certain topics for discussion—which I take to be the purpose of this exercise, as distinct from writing a review of the book. I identify three areas to consider, and I will address them as they emerged for me in reading the book.

I.

The initial challenge to me personally came with the preface: Brock’s nuanced discussion of how far the story of his son, Adam, should figure. He eschews telling Adam’s story as “a way of proving his credentials to speak on this topic” (xiii)—for him it is “a matter of the ethics of discourse to forego the deployment of stories” as a guarantee of his “credible authority on this topic.” Stories are only to be utilised to enhance the reader’s understanding of the theoretical issues at stake—his aim is the “theological hermeneutics of experience.” But there is more at stake—the fear of untruth, of following narrative conventions which do not fit Adam’s experience: “he may inhabit the world in something like a perpetual present tense not easily fit into conventional narrative forms” (xiii). My first reading of this ethical discussion around telling Adam’s story did, I confess, put me on the defensive. After all, Arthur’s story has been in the public domain in various forms since the early ’80s—at least insofar as there is a story to be told. That point was also an issue for me: invited to tell Arthur’s story my immediate response was that there was little story to tell. It became, necessarily, my story, though he was inseparably at the heart of it. Brock’s discussion sharply reminded me of an occasion years ago when the local theological college invited me to preach at the chapel service at the end of a day focusing on disability. When I suggested Arthur should be present, the reaction was highly sensitive: I was effectively accused of using him as a visual aid. I was quite taken aback and forced to examine my own motives—was there an element of feeling that people should confront the reality of what they had been talking about all day? But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that Arthur’s presence was essential to what I had to say about the body of Christ. In the end, I guess, Brock and I have reached the same position: that the story is “ours” rather than “his,” and whether through an attempt at narrative, or through a self-consciously more theoretical approach, we have both been engaged in thinking theologically about the realities of the everyday life we have been invited to embrace, in all its ambiguity, and with its capacity to evoke wonder and love, but also to challenge our thinking, magnify loss and, indeed, deepen distress. Perhaps Brock underestimates the pastoral importance of personal sharing—of offering the human touch, despite its potential journalistic hazards.

II.

A major part of this book addresses issues of medical ethics—hardly surprising given the professional expertise of its author. It is here that stories about Adam and the family’s interactions with health professionals are perhaps most evident. It is here that I found humbling the theological assurance implicit in the ethical stance adopted, particularly in relation to genetic and prenatal testing. I confess that my personal faith was under profound pressure for over a decade, and Arthur’s birth was a powerful reinforcement of already challenging questions. What made this read a humbling experience was the realisation that I had shared many of the attitudes to which Brock directs his critique: Arthur’s situation, even that of the family, did seem tragic; to understand what it meant for the future was a desperate need which the experts could not satisfy; a miracle was craved yet not believed plausible—Brock quotes me on that very point (172). In retrospect I can see how utterly lacking was any trust in God, and I’m glad that circumstances meant I never had to make the kind of choices being discussed in these sections of the book. I fully agree that presenting prospective parents with such choices both reinforces negative attitudes and displaces onto their individual shoulders responsibility for the irrational boundaries between viable and unviable human life determined by the law for society. Indeed, discussions of both abortion and euthanasia contrive to situate ethical burdens on individuals rather than encouraging society to embrace the demands of human solidarity. I’m humbled by a faith which can offer such confident challenge to the common sense of our culture, but I wonder how effective for change it can be when religion and theology themselves are so profoundly marginalised.

III.

Which brings me to the issue which made me feel most defensive. Let me quote:

The disabling condition of Frances Young’s son Arthur originated in an accident due to a fallen world. To see his life this way makes clear sense, given that Arthur’s brain was injured in a birth accident. . . . The cost . . . is to have located Arthur’s life entirely within the domain of theodical thinking. Arthur is trapped in the question of why there is evil in the world at all if God is good. (193-194)

Yes—the “why?” questions dominated Face to Face, though subsequent work not only indicates a shift from my vocation to his vocation, but also from a preoccupation with theodicy to affirming that I have had privileged access to the deepest truths of Christianity. So Arthur is no longer trapped, as I hope some of my earlier remarks here go to show. As someone once said to me, “Arthur is your pathway to God.” But having said all that I do need to raise again those fundamental issues about how God relates to the world. What does Brock understand by his repeated references to the “fallen world”? How does he conceive God’s agency?

Arthur’s condition was not caused by an accident at birth; placental insufficiency deprived him of nourishment and oxygen in the womb, so though a full-term baby he had premature weight, a small head and an underdeveloped brain. For me it was a liberation to be able to accept this as an accident in an accident-prone world—it had seemed utter failure, the failure of my body, more importantly divine failure in the very act of creation. It was me who was trapped, trapped in questions about the very existence, let alone the goodness or competence, of any almighty Creator God. So, indeed, I shared the Zeitgeist. It is precisely because of the cultural assumptions which pervade our essentially post-Christian Western world that the cultural critique so powerfully offered in this book needs to be founded on a more explicit account of how God relates to the “gonewrongness” of the world. (I prefer to use a less traditional term than “fallenness,” for it is hard to see how “sin” had anything to do with the “failure” of Arthur’s development, or indeed with the kind of genetic mutations thrown up by evolution and lying at the heart of this book’s theological hermeneutics.) The problem of theodicy surely lies at the root of those shifts in “common sense” which have undermined Christianity since the Enlightenment, and for that very reason remain on the table.

As some readers may know, my own approach to these philosophically intractable problems has been through reflection on the cross and what that means for the way in which the Christian tradition understands God’s ways with the world. Yes—that does mean encompassing the challenges of Arthur’s condition within the general topic of suffering and loss, but after more than fifty years I have to say that that cannot be regarded as other than appropriate. Yes—there is so much to be grateful for: he is a gift and a wonder. But his recurring periods of distress and severe agitation continue to be a reality, a reality painful and difficult to deal with in practical, emotional, and spiritual terms. Yet, God in Christ has entered the depths of darkness on the cross and transformed it into glory, this being the culmination of the long biblical story of God’s creative and faithful engagement with the world he has let be other than Godself. Here I can only leave it there . . .

  • Brian Brock

    Reply

    Response to Frances Young

    Given the personal nature of this discussion, the word limit has made it especially difficult to offer the nuanced responses these impressive and generous responses deserve. Unfortunately, my responses will have to focus on the main conceptual questions and criticisms raised by my respondents.

    I find Frances Young’s response powerfully moving, since Young knows firsthand the life experiences we both are theologically processing. Young succinctly states the central aim of my book: to discover the gift that is the diversity of the human family through doxological perception. I want people to ask: Why should you, or I, praise God because you exist—no matter who you are? Is everyone fearfully and wonderfully made?

    Young finally came to occupy a very similar position in relation to her son Arthur, though I still squirm at the continuing presence in Arthur’s Call of terms like “tragic,” “bad luck,” “series of losses,” and “damaged persons” to describe Arthur’s life and the lives of others like him.

    Even in this later work Young positions Arthur’s “message” as an articulate lack: “Arthur’s limitations enable us to recognize our own.”1 Arthur’s vocation is to confront dominant cultural values in his inability to conform to them. The more particular and positive vocational revealing I offer in Wondrously Wounded leads me to see hints in Arthur’s Call that Arthur’s vocation may well have gone beyond pregnant inability, such as when Young observes that both she and a Christian carer had at times experienced Arthur to be positively and carefully responsive to moments of their emotional need.2

    I want to read such moments—without any caveats—as signs that every member of Christ’s body can be expected to serve the Spirit’s work of delivering life-giving gifts to the collective body of Christ. Against the “dependent rational animals” anthropology, I want to affirm that it is not lack that some people bring into the church, but positive and concrete gifts from the Spirit that upbuild the body of believers in particular and personally specific acts of service.

    Young wonders if I “underestimate the pastoral importance of personal sharing.” My wife, Stephanie, observed while reading Face to Face recently that she wished she had read it early in Adam’s life, powerfully corroborating Young’s point about the pastoral comfort that can come with just “telling one’s story.”

    What Stephanie found helpful in particular were Young’s account of being entrapped in worries that her behavior during her pregnancy had somehow contributed to Arthur’s condition. I am mortified by my sloppy misreading of the etiology of Arthur’s condition Young highlights in her response. The combination of Stephanie’s resonance with Young’s “pregnancy guilt” and my misreading of the reasons for it highlights the deeper problem of talking well about congenital disability: pregnancy is an ineradicably gendered experience. I know this in my head, but not in my body. (I return to this theme in my response to Carolin Ahlvik-Harju.)

    My personal resistance to simply retelling my own memories grows from a healthy suspicion that I may hear and value some experiences (like my own) over other experiences (more distant from my own), pregnancy most obviously. By attempting to let God’s story about human life as recounted in scripture teach me what true human life looks like, I am attempting to allow the Spirit slowly to release me from the traps laid by my experience as a white man, with all the privileges and gaps in perception that status entails.3

    My approach to these themes also reflects a generational difference. Disability theology didn’t exist as an academic discourse when Young wrote Face to Face. Its development in subsequent decades came to absorb the convention of modern identity discourses that demand people “show their pass” in order to prove they have the authority to join the conversation. This seems to me to bar too many sensitive and politically important contributors from the discussion. At the same time, that I made Young feel defensive is both regrettable and almost impossible to avoid once we have both so tightly tied our stories together with our theological positions. (I return to this problematic in my response to Miguel Romero.)

    Young feels the cross is underrepresented in Wondrously Wounded. I think we link creation and the cross in very different ways. I assume that Jesus was capable of suffering the cross only because he was first born. Because the world is “gone wrong,” we killed him. How to defuse these killing dynamics is the focus of my treatment of sin, the cross, and disability, which I position as less about what is “out there” metaphysically rather than “in us” as beings enmeshed in sinful drives and cultural practices.

    I therefore continue to hold the term “natural evil” to be a category mistake. Young says she rejected this position when embracing the tradition of theodical thinking of John Hick and Donald McKinnon.4 I have never found such rational engagements with the problem of evil to be sufficiently proportioned to the human heart and the pastoral form disability questions present themselves. This is no sentimentalism, which Young tends to present as the alternative to the more hardheaded admission that disability is a “cruel and unnecessary” evil, for the “2 percent of humanity born with some disability or other, denying them the possibility of the fulness of life.”5

    I cannot grant that anyone God has created is denied the possibility of fulness of life. Nor has “science” persuaded me that Adam, with his extra 21st chromosome, is an “accident”—at least no more than the rest of us. The notion that evolution “throws” anything “up” is not the language of practicing scientists but of its popular representation.6 (I return to this question in response to Ian McFarland.)

    In response to Young’s third question, I assumed that the many painful scenes of life with Adam I relate in the book would be connected by readers with suffering of Christ in the world into which Christians are inevitably drawn in this life. It was precisely this linkage of pain and unexpected divine drawing near that the two words of my title, wondrous and wounded highlight.

    I would reformulate Young’s question about how Christians are to understand God’s action in the existence of disability as: How does one live through and publicly narrate the suffering of disability as a participation in Christ’s cross? Adam’s life is not the locus of my own heaviest crosses. His life places constrictions on mine, but not ones that obscure the gifts that continually flow through him. Wondrously Wounded is my attempt to let people get up close to those luminous gifts of the Spirit. What it is not in my power to claim is that my descriptions of Adam’s witness will be “effective for change . . . when religion and theology are so profoundly marginalized.” Only if God decides to use them will anyone be changed.


    1. Frances Young, Arthur’s Call: A Journey of Faith in the Face of Severe Learning Disability (London: SPCK, 2014), 154.

    2. Young, Arthur’s Call, 132.

    3. I was forced to confront these issues directly when working on Brian Brock and Stanley Hauerwas, Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas, ed. Kevin Hargaden (London: Continuum, 2016), cf. 25–37, 184–93.

    4. Young recounts this period in Arthur’s Call, 29–33, and also in Face to Face: A Narrative Essay in the Theology of Suffering (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1990), 54–56.

    5. Arthur’s Call, 32.

    6. Brian Brock, Walther Doerfler, and Hans Ulrich, “Genetics, Conversation and Conversion: A Discourse at the Interface of Molecular Biology and Christian Ethics,” in Theology, Disability and the New Genetics: Why Science Needs the Church, ed. John Swinton and Brian Brock (London: T. & T. Clark, 2007), 146–60.

Response

The Personal Is Theological Is Political Is Poetical

One important slogan of second-wave feminism was “the personal is political”—the title of an essay written by Carol Hanisch in 1969. On a general level the essay implied that women’s lives were not the outcome of individual choices but part of a systematic patriarchal oppression. Although contemporary feminism is a complex movement with a variety of views, the slogan still applies. In a similar spirit the disability rights movement has for decades promoted the slogan “nothing about us without us”—highlighting that nothing should be decided about people with disabilities without their presence, participation, and inclusion. These slogans have for many people become important words of encouragement, words of a fighting spirit, words describing their longing to belong. They have also become a driving force behind academic work.

As I read Brian’s book Wondrously Wounded these slogans came to mind at several occasions. Sometimes simply because the gentleness in Brian’s words is such a beautiful contrast to the image of people protesting, shouting, and demanding their rights in a world created for togetherness. Although I have read Brian’s previous works, this is the first time that I was truly hit by the philosophical and intellectual depth that characterizes his writing. I cannot describe it in any better words than intellectual poetry. This book is like a complex poem that is to be read slowly and carefully, a poem that demands your constant attention but leaves you at peace, a poem filled with phrasings to dwell upon—perhaps most appropriately in prayer.

However, the movement slogans also came to mind at times because I sometimes missed the fury with which so many women or people with disabilities and their advocates throughout history have had to claim their place in the public space. A fury that often transcends books in which the personal perspective is so prominent as in this particular one. In the beginning of the book Brian does warn—or promise—that there will be many points that burn “with angry protest at certain gazes and gestures” (8), but in my reading, the anger does take a back seat in all the gentleness. This is not to say that Brian is timid as he points out injustices or intellectual flaws in others reasoning, because he is not. He takes on not least medical ethicists Beauchamp and Childress with an intellectual hammer and crushes their arguments with utter brilliance. But all the time with kindness, it seems. And perhaps this is what good argumentation looks like when the arguments have matured over a long time, and when the thinker behind them keeps his eyes on Jesus Christ and his feet firmly on the ground. For this, I believe that Brian as a contemporary theologian and ethicist has something unique to offer both academia and the church. The level of intellectual poignancy mixed with faithful praise is truly something extraordinary, something much needed in today’s society, and an inspiration for me personally.

Now, the poetic, philosophical, and gentle style aside, Wondrously Wounded also resonates at many points with my own research interests. Not least with my doctoral thesis on prenatal testing, normalcy, and human dignity. I found it absolutely intriguing to see how Brian grapples with many of the same topics as I have done: what does the parental landscape look like in today’s society? What does it mean to have children today? How does the outlook on the world change when you move from a framework of fear to a framework of gratitude? What does it mean to go beyond the various binaries of society? How do different conceptions of health change the way disability is understood? What does it mean to be a person with a disability, to be the caretaker of a person with a disability, to live in a world that does not appreciate difference in the shape of various disabilities? In what way can theology be a critical force in making visible the injustices that people with disabilities endure? And perhaps most importantly: what constructive visions can theology bring for a kinder, more accepting, wondrous world? While I could sit down with Brian to discuss any of these matters for hours, I would like to take this specific opportunity to start a conversation on the issue of gender in the context of medicine and theology, especially concerning prenatal testing.

This probably comes as no surprise to Brian, since we have discussed the matter before in relation to me trying to promote a feminist disability theology as my constructive vision for a more inclusive community. My vision was formed in dialogue with feminist and disability scholars. My key points were that disability ought not be seen as a catastrophe; that people with disabilities ought not be judged on the basis of their genetics; that people with intellectual disabilities should indeed be perceived as fully human; that eliminating people with disabilities from society ought not be seen as an improvement of society; that disability ought not be viewed as the ultimate threat against a liberal value system; that the idea of an inclusive human dignity ought not only be granted people who fit into the normalcy paradigm. I think we agree on many of these points, although our paths towards them look somewhat different. In parts 2 and 3, “Doxology and Anti-Doxology” and “Systems, Norms, and Modern Medicine—Attending to Creatures,” Brian addresses medical ethics and abortion. While there is nothing wrong per se about how this is done, I would like to raise the question of whether it is feasible to, in 2020, undertake a discussion on pregnancy and parenthood—about abortion—without implementing a clear gender perspective? And before anyone rushes into the whole “Brian is a man, hence he cannot or should not discuss feminism or gender”—I would like to make my case.

The epistemic responsibility of a white middle aged man—can a man be feminist?

Let us go back to where I began in the movement slogans of feminism and the disability rights movement. As for the disability rights slogan “nothing about us without us” I think it is pretty obvious that Brian accompanies his theoretical thinking with the witness of Adam’s life. Although Brian is never caught in the perspective of pure identity politics, I think it is fair to say that the message of the book has a level of depth that it wouldn’t have without the experience of Brian being Adam’s father, but also that it in fact is the hermeneutics of experience that serves to show how disability is best understood as an existential struggle. While I know that Brian has struggled with how to tell Adam’s story well, if to tell it at all, I find telling Adam’s story to be part of what I consider epistemic responsibility; that is, having the particular experiences of being Adam’s father. I think telling this story is to practice a responsible ethical and theological analysis in a research field that has had too much to say about the human condition without considering the human experiences we often call disabilities. I do not, of course, suggest that one is obliged to tell such a personal story, nor that one cannot say anything of importance without it.

Now, as for the feminist slogan “the personal is political” I think Brian would have gained another level of intellectual depth had he taken the time to read through his manuscript from a feminist perspective. Not because every book has to entail such, but because the topics of this particular book are too important not to. What the second-wave feminists fought for socially, politically, morally—and theologically I would argue—was to have a say in issues regarding their health, sexuality, family, and reproduction. How refreshing would it be to see a white, accomplished, good man acknowledge the history of oppression of women as a given in the discourse about reproduction! Would it not have been inspiring to see scholars like Alison Kafer, Kim Q. Hall, or Sharon Betcher being referenced in the book—if not only to recognize an important perspective too often ignored in mainstream medical and theological ethics, if not only to acknowledge the fight women’s movements of the past century have fought to end oppression and inequality (for all)?

This is not to say that Brian does not have important things to say about the practice of prenatal testing and selective abortion. He does. Not least because he truly shows how the practice of medicine shapes people’s understanding of what constitutes “a good society, a good life, and even a good body” (59). The problem here is that if one speaks of how medicine shapes people’s understandings of a good body—the body to be shaped after is not only a so-called normal, average body, but also a male body. The female body has within medicine always been the “other,” the one that has been subject to a male gaze and judgment, the one that has had to be controlled—preferably by a male doctor. In the context of prenatal testing. For example, some research results show that male doctors are more likely to “guide” women towards selective abortion than female doctors.1 Hence, I think it would be important to discuss the gendered power relations that might guide the practice of prenatal testing. As genetic counselling is thoroughly discussed in part 2, I would have liked to see some thoughts on specific moral intuitions and power relations that occur in the screening situation. In fact, by telling his and Stephanie’s personal story of the pregnancy and birth of Adam, Brian demonstrates what it can look like when pregnancy is medicalized and when medical professionals exercise control over (vulnerable) women. Highlighting the gendered nature of power relations within medicine would have strengthened the arguments even more. Furthermore, a gender perspective complements a disability perspective because women with disabilities tend to experience more oppression, more violence, and more neglect than temporarily abled women.

I guess what it comes down to is what one understands with the thought behind the feminist slogan, namely that someone’s life is the outcome of patriarchal oppression. Is that question only subject for radical feminists to investigate or is it a matter for all who live in an unjust world? I truly believe that the good men of the world need to take their epistemic responsibility seriously and take on a feminist perspective as a given in their moral and intellectual reasoning. If not only to recognize women’s struggles, but to recognize that the very same pattern of exclusion concerns people with disabilities. I think this is an important step if the important work on disability is ever going to become an actual journey towards change. It is time to listen. It is truly time to listen. I believe this to be one of Brian’s most important points of the book: “devaluing listening makes it impossible to respond to nonstandard cases” (131).

If the purpose of theology and ethics is to find better ways to respond to—standard or nonstandard—people around us I think we have to start listening not only to those who are already matching our preconceived thoughts. In today’s society where neoconservatism has started to become a serious alternative to liberal values, I think it is urgent to discuss issues like reproductive rights and abortion yet again. But I think that as theologians we are to recognize that to say little more than that life is sacred, or that all life is wonderfully created by God (not that Brian is so reductive), too often becomes a way of oppressing women—once again. If we are to have that discussion, it needs to be done properly and never just in passing. In a time when it appears as if the morals of Western societies are deteriorating, it is time to dig into the histories of marginalized groups and find that our time is new, but the struggle is not.

The title for my response to Brian is “The personal is theological is political is poetical.” Wondrously Wounded is obviously personal, deeply theological, pervasively political, and thrillingly poetical. I was deeply touched by it, and I learned a lot. I will certainly read it again, but this time even more slowly.


  1. Tiina Mälkiä, Moraalia vai lääketiedettä? Kuinka sikiödiagnostiikasta ja selektiivisestä abortista puhutaan perinöllisyysneuvonnassa (Tampere: Tampere University Press, 2008). Also discussed in Carolin Ahlvik-Harju, “The Invisible Made Visible? The Ethical Significance of Befriending People with Disabilities,” Studia Theologica: Nordic Journal of Theology 68.2 (2014) 122–46.

  • Brian Brock

    Reply

    Response to Carolin Ahlvik-Harju

    I am grateful to Carolin Ahlvik-Harju for raising the question of whether I continue to contribute to the problem of insensitivity to the experiences of women. Ahlvik-Harju harbors worries both that I do not go deeply enough into feminist scholarship and that I have not told my own story in a manner that displays sensitivities sufficiently schooled by feminist concerns.

    I have undoubtedly perpetuated in my own ways the gendered injustices about which I believe we are both concerned, and have certainly struggled also to unpick and root them out in myself. This is the point to acknowledge that I could not have written this book without my wife, Stephanie. Not only does her unpaid work hold our household together, but we wrote chapter 4 together in its first iteration—it being impossible for me to have told the story of Adam’s prenatal experiences without her account of that period. The least I could do was to dedicate the book to her, and here I want to acknowledge that, at the deepest level, I only had the mental space to think deeply about our son because Stephanie embraced a disproportionate number of disrupted nights as well as days disrupted by the endless cycle of doctor, social worker, and school appointments.

    I am a work in process, and this includes what I take to be Ahlvik-Harju’s core criticism in the last paragraphs. I have spoken about life being wondrously created by God without sufficiently and explicitly highlighting the danger that my position might be used as a stick to once again use religious language and authority to beat women into coerced agreement.

    Several paradoxes bedevil the contemporary discussion of these issues. What I am permitted to and insistent in saying is that no man should coerce a woman into making a decision with which she does not agree. That applies to issues of political engagement, sexual practice, reproductive responsibility, and even the divvying up of chores in the house. I firmly reject all coercion of women by men, and for what I take to be theologically fundamental reasons.

    Mothering is a gendered activity in every society, ours included, and its responsibilities are overwhelmingly allocated to women. Ahlvik-Harju is therefore entirely right to be enraged, as am I, at the suggestion by a man that a woman is offending not only against morality but against God if she does not feel she can shoulder the burden of a disabled child. We live in societies that unjustly allocate the burdens of the home, and in an important respect those who refuse to shoulder it offer a necessary critique of the gendered laws that unjustly govern our social orders.

    I cannot tell women what to do with their bodies. Instead I depicted in great detail how our situation visits a new kind of injustice and isolation on women. Our society very clearly says, “We don’t want you to bear children who will be costly to the state and undermine your earning potential. You should recognize how few people bear such costly children, but you can do whatever you want without any support or engagement from anyone else.” This seems an unconscionable position into which to force women who are weathering the trauma of the abortion experience, no matter how they are thinking about it or what they choose to do.

    A second paradox. An opportunity arose recently to explore what I called “pregnancy guilt” in my response to Young with an eminent female bishop. This eloquent and accomplished woman quietly admitted over a meal to having a child with a minor but visible physical abnormality as well as a deep and enduring feeling of having somehow been responsible for this “bad” pregnancy outcome. As a father of a congenitally disabled child it never occurred to me I was responsible for his trisomy. And yet Stephanie did feel guilt about Adam’s condition. I found this gulf remarkable, almost unbelievable, and I was keen to learn about it, to listen to mothers who experience it.

    There is an enduring existential divide between bodily experiences. It rests on culturally shaped expectations as well as bodily experiences that I cannot share. What I have experienced is being an outsider, an immigrant, a cultural outsider to the academy, and Adam’s father. Such experiences of being an “other” are clearly not those of women, but they offer the phenomenological germs of experience that may be empathetically extended. They beckon toward an opening to other kinds of suffering, toward becoming a better and deeper listener. I hope for nothing more than to be a good and responsive listener.

    A third paradox. How does being a good listener relate to scholarly citation practice? In my chapters on prenatal testing I very intentionally allowed female scholars to make the case for there being rampant injustice (against women) in the domain of prenatal medicine. I drew prominently on the work of Rayna Rapp, Barbara Katz Rothman, Anne Waldschmidt, Mary Jo Iozzio, Malinda Tankard Reist, and Judith Butler. I was also careful to draw attention to the gender dynamics that are characteristic of the domain of prenatal medicine by extensively and almost exclusively quoting women’s reports of their own prenatal testing experiences alongside those of female technicians.

    I understood my approach in this section especially to be definably feminist in the terms defended by feminist scholars like Katy Cross, who propose that “the simple act of amplifying women’s voices can make a work a feminist undertaking.”1 This, at least, I have tried concertedly to do.

    Perhaps Ahlvik-Harju wanted me to do something slightly different, to not just use and amplify women’s voices and feminist scholarship, but to state explicitly that I am defending a feminist position. I think that I am. But I also think that it is not my judgment or assertion that really matters. My writing either is or is not persuasively sensitive to women’s writing and concerns, no matter how well I pronounce myself to have done on this score. This “proof is in the pudding” criterion brings us to a final paradox.

    Precisely because childrearing and caring for the physical needs of family members has been allocated to women over the many centuries of the West, for a male scholar to discuss disability at all looks a lot like a feminist gesture. This was the feminist agenda behind my decision to open Wondrously Wounded by tracing Augustine’s engagement with anomalous births. Patristic authors are often not good on women, including Augustine. Yet Augustine cared about women as a pastor. He solicitously attempts to relieve the guilt of nuns raped during the sack of Rome in the first book of the City of God, and I think he is also genuinely concerned to reassure women who have borne a “deformed” child that they need feel no guilt or shame.

    If Augustine hadn’t cared about the guilt and shame of women, he wouldn’t have cared about children born disabled. But because he cared about women, he had to deal with disability. Today it seems worthwhile to highlight the points where the canonical authorities may be more concerned with feminist themes than patriarchalist readers have been prepared to see.

    Modern theology needs disability precisely to combat its disengagement with feminist concerns. That such a generous reader as Ahlvik-Harju does not think I have succeeded in this probably means that I should have stated this more explicitly. Perhaps this is a problem of poetry—which turns not on saying things outright, but on performing things with words.

    As the recently unfolding scandal of Jean Vanier’s abuse reminds us, caring for the disabled does not immunize anyone against abuse of gendered power dynamics. Despite this grievous new gendered offense, I still dare hope that drawing men like me into engagement with disability could be one way to gently, and I hope powerfully, attack the denuding patriarchal dominance of the field of theology.


    1. Katy Cross, “‘I Have the Power in My Body to Make People Sin”: The Trauma of Purity Culture and the Concept of ‘Body Theodicy,’” in Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, Scripture and Church in Critical Perspective, ed. Caren O’Donnell and Katy Cross (London: SCM, 2020), 21–39, quotation from 23.

Response

Evil, Wonder, and Chance

A Reflection on Categories in Wondrously Wounded

I want to begin by saying that Wondrously Wounded is a remarkable book. As will be evident in what follows, I do not always agree with the argument; but even where I disagreed, the book challenged me to think through my disagreements as few others have. The result was that Wondrously Wounded took me rather longer to read than I had anticipated, not because it was either boring or clumsily written, but precisely because the combination of energy and clarity with which the argument is developed meant I was forever stopping to respond, reread, and try to respond again. However one is inclined to assess the substance of Brian’s argument, I cannot imagine anyone working in the area of disability theology in particular or, for that matter, theological anthropology and ethics more broadly who could possibly ignore what he has to say. It is a major achievement.

In this response I am going to focus on an area where I am unsure on the degree to which Brian and I are actually in disagreement, in the hope that the relatively short space in which I have to raise my concerns (and Brian to answer them!) is especially suited to matters of clarification. My uncertainty is connected with the term that stands at the centre of the book’s argument: wonder. Brian draws it initially from Augustine, but goes on to develop it richly to limn a whole way of approaching our engagement with the world that goes far beyond (even while it remains firmly tied to) the experience of anomalous births. The crux of my uncertainty is easily stated. On the one hand, I think he is exactly right to use the category of “wonder” to problematise the categorisation of the birth of children like his son Adam as a manifestation of “natural evil.” I was especially sympathetic to this move, because (as I have written elsewhere) I find the whole category of “natural evil” deeply problematic, on the grounds that attaching the label “evil” to happenings that do not have an identifiable moral agent (i.e., a created “I,” not simply a created cause) seems to me to create serious issues of equivocation.1 If evil is defined as that which contravenes God’s will—and which thus should not be—then it seems to me wisely reserved for “moral evil”; that is, instances where personal agency is in play. When applied to “natural” phenomena, the tag “evil” seems to me to presume far too much about what we know should or should not exist—just the sort of presumption which, as Brian notes (in consonance with theologians of disability more broadly), has had the catastrophic effect of viewing “disabled” conditions as “problems” that demand a “cure.”

At the same time, however (and this is the “other hand” of my query to Brian), the claim that a happening in the created order, whether a hurricane or a genetically anomalous birth, is not evil does not entail that it should therefore be declared good. I need to emphasise that in saying this I do not in any way mean to suggest that a human (or, indeed, any) life that comes to be is in itself (viz., as indubitably created) anything other than good. That would flatly contradict the divine judgment reported on Genesis 1. But there is a distinction to be drawn between declaring a creature good qua creature on the one hand, and the endorsement of Pope’s, “Whatever is, is right,” on the other. That a child born with, say, Tay-Sachs disease is good is for Christians beyond dispute; that it is good for a child to be born with this condition is a different question altogether—and it is here that my query about the use of “wonder” arises.2

“Wonder” is a word with a range of connotations, and my worry is that Brian’s use of it seems at times to tend toward stressing its positive connotations in ways that goes beyond what is theologically prudent: to put it the very concrete terms of the book, Brian’s invocation of wonder sometimes seems to imply not simply that Adam is good (a point which, again, I take to be beyond question), but that Adam-having-Down-syndrome is good. Again, I speak of a tendency: Brian nowhere (at least as far as I can see) makes this equation explicitly. Of course, separating Adam from a condition that so profoundly affects the particular shape of his humanity is difficult. Brian cites theologian Frances Young’s assertion that it would be folly to hope her own severely disabled son Arthur would be “cured” in heaven, because his disability is just too closely bound up with his identity for any such “cured” individual to be meaningfully identified as Arthur. Brian elsewhere in the book raises important questions about the vision of resurrected existence that lies behind such thought experiments (and I find his explorations on this front some of the most incisive in the book); but whatever one makes of the relationship between Adam’s identity and his earthly intellectual capacities, the fact that Brian and Stephanie had no problems with efforts to “cure” the heart problems that are part of Adam’s condition suggests that not all aspects of his condition are to be interpreted as wondrous in a positive sense.

And this brings me to a second set of connotations of the term “wonder” that to me are not at all problematic when applied to anomalous births: viz., wonder as a sharp, even disorienting prompt for reflection among Christians on how to be a neighbour. Here a “wonder” is less something intrinsically good (or bad), than simply strange. Indeed, in this context Brian speaks of Christians like Adam having “strange vocations,” which I think gets it just about right.

My concerns may thus be summarised as follows: I think the category of wonder is usefully deployed to challenge the interpretation of anomalous births as instances of (natural) evil. I am, by contrast, less comfortable with the possible implication that “wonder” implies the opposite: that such births are good (as opposed to merely unusual). My discomfort with the latter implication is that such diagnoses of good (like the contrasting diagnosis of evil) reads too much into a particular created state of affairs. The problem with viewing any “natural” occurrence (and I realise that this designation raises a host of problems in itself, but I hope that my basic intention here is clear) as good or evil is simply that it presumes to say too much about what God intends for the world. Except where God is confessed to be speaking or acting directly (e.g., miracles, sacraments, Scripture, the incarnation), the relationship between creaturely happenings and divine will seem to me just too obscure to be able to make such judgments. Here I find the old Scholastic category of divine permission the least bad option, insofar as it is used to affirm that no creaturely occurrence is outside the sovereignty of God’s will (since to argue that would be to pose a limit to God’s capacity to fulfil the promise of salvation in relation to it) without claiming that it is directly willed by God.

Rather than labelling “natural” events as either evil or good (and thus as directly reflecting God’s will in some more or less discernible way), I think it is best to view them precisely as occasions, “neutral” in themselves, for the discernment of God’s will. Thus, taking it as fixed that every human life, whatever its genetic complement or perceived disability, is to be confessed as good in itself, the question to be asked in the face of an anomalous birth is how that goodness is to be fostered given the circumstances that attend this life in particular. Similar questions occur in the face of various sorts of matters that afflict human life at various stages, including “accidents” like cancer or other forms of later-onset debility (many of which, of course, have a genetic component). In addressing such conditions, the problem is not, I think, with the idea of “cure” as such, but rather with the imposition of cure as an externally imposed “solution” to an externally perceived “problem,” rather than an approach that takes seriously the theological principle that the telos of a particular life is a matter of discernment that cannot be determined apart from the active participation of the person whose life it is.

Early on in the book, Brian posits three alternative ways of viewing an anomalous birth: “‘an unfortunate roll of the dice,’ a sign of the displeasure of God . . . , or a work of God that might plausibly be understood to whisper, somehow, of God’s good pleasure in every human life and will to offer abundant life to all” (41); the upshot of the book is that the third of these is to be preferred. Later on, he returns to the problem of classification, arguing against the terming of anomalous births as “accidents” on the grounds that such labelling implies that such events are inherently devoid of meaning (see 149). As evident from my word choice in the previous paragraph, I see no problem in describing anomalous births as “accidents,” precisely because I do not see such terminology as inconsistent with their being regarded as wondrous. More sharply, I am inclined to think that such events are devoid of any readily discernible meaning in and of themselves; rather, the meaning of the lives that come to be through such births emerges—as is true with any life—as the person so born and the community around her seek to determine what meaning God intends for this life going forward.

Now, Brian sketches out the need for just this sort of discernment in the context of various sorts of disability when he writes that it is important to pray for healing, but also to be attentive to “which healing is prayed for, and who is taken to need it” (169). At the same time, the risk of giving too much of a positive valence to wonder is visible in his attempt to replace theodical categories in relating to anomalous births with that of annunciation (194). Again, it seems to me to overreach to suggest that God is directly communicating anything to the world or the church in any birth, anomalous or otherwise. What God is doing with every birth is challenging the world in general and the church in particular to recognise in a very concrete way how this life is intended as a blessing both for the one living it and for the community of which she is a part, and this becomes more evident when the circumstances of a birth make it impossible for the vocational discernment to proceed by inertia along more or less standardised pathways.

This last sentence, of course, is itself precisely the thesis of Wondrously Wounded, and to the extent that this message has the impact it deserves, my reservations about terminology are at best a minor footnote.


  1. Ian A. McFarland, “The Problem with Evil,” Theology Today 74.4 (January 2018) 321–39.

  2. Another way of making this point is to say that Ruth Page’s insistence on “Teleology now!” as a means of affirming the inherent worth of every creature in its present existence before God needs to be held in tension with the recognition that any notion of creaturely flourishing involves at least some tentative projection of a future teleology that is distinct from present states. See Ruth Page, God and the Web of Creation (London: SCM Press, 1996), 63; cf. Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and the Moral Order: An Outline for Evangelical Ethics (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 35.

  • Brian Brock

    Reply

    Response to Ian McFarland

    Wondrously Wounded aims to lead readers into wondering. I develop Franz Rosenzweig’s view that wonder is something that must be lived in against the modern philosophical tendency to train us that all that really matters is what we think about. In certain times and places, it may be that to define this or that particular term becomes tantamount to keeping the decisive questions at arm’s length, intellectually capturing them instead of letting them capture us.

    Young thinks me shortsighted in refusing to label disability a sign of the gone wrongness of the world, and as such, a tragedy. McFarland sees the ways I am using the language of wonder to bring me perilously near the opposite, quasi-Stoic assertion that everything that exists is good.

    I side with McFarland (against Young) in rejecting theodicies that presume any natural occurrence is obviously good or evil. Given this, McFarland wonders how I can interpret Adam’s being as wondrous while still wanting to change him, through, for instance, surgically repairing his heart.

    First a theological point. Lament and praise offer a heuristic for discernment. It is right and proper for Adam to lament painful aspects of his condition, but disability thinkers have been of one voice in resisting lamenting disabled people’s very existence. As a theologian tutored by the doctrinal tradition, it seems to me appropriate to address my praise of God for Adam’s life as it has come into existence and yet lament his leukemia, his heart defect, his deteriorating eyes, his lack of sufficient speech therapy and work placements, and so on.

    Which leads to a conceptual point. For the least bad theodical option McFarland favors to work, it appears to commit him to a distinction between essential and accidental properties. It opens up the question of what an ideal and essential “Adam” would be like if the accidental features of his actually existing state were removed. In bluntly real-world terms: how could I say that I loved and accepted the creature who I live with called Adam if I am all along waiting to meet him in heaven with the “real” face he would have had had his essence not been marred by a contingent accident at the moment of his first cell division?

    Down syndrome occurs at the very first cell division of the fertilized egg. There is no way to reverse this process once it has happened. It cannot be treated. I strongly doubt that it ever will be, in the same way that I am pretty sure there will never be jet engine maintenance on airplanes flying at thirty thousand feet.

    Some might consider fixing an infant’s beating heart an intervention of an analogous level of complexity. Not only can surgeons do that, continues the critic, but you chose to do it in Adam’s case. The hole in Adam’s heart would have increasingly threatened, first, his flourishing, and then his life. Recognizing his goodness meant trying to fix his heart. A proposal to reverse the extra 21st chromosome spread through every cell of his body faces far higher hurdles to qualify as an intervention responsibly and gratefully recognizing the goodness of his existence.

    Neither Young nor McFarland know quite what to do with the doxological framing of my proposal. To state that approach in a nutshell: the psalmic shapes doxological practice, engendering in turn a poetic mode of theological description that shapes the terms of the Christian ethos.

    To illustrate why I read McFarland’s question about whether we disagree as an artifact of his missing the poetic logic of my book, consider the single verse, Psalm 139:14, which uses the term “wonder” in ways that McFarland might also find overly affirmative:

    I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;

    Your works are wonderful, I know that full well. (NIV)

    I would encourage readers to watch a two-minute video in which people with a range of disabilities perform these verses.1 If Christians are going to get their approach to disability right, they will have to grapple with the performed critical resistance offered by the faces of these particular psalm-singers to contemporary normate Christian assumptions. Can Christians and theologians allow that every human being can sing this song, is made to sing this song? More cultural trajectories than we know continually drive us to want to add a “yes but.”

    I am flatly asserting that not only can Adam and Arthur sing this song, but I have undertaken in Adam’s case to show how he does. Nor is a lack of spoken speech a barrier to having a communicative relationship with God or other human beings.

    Because I affirm Adam to be fearfully and wonderfully made, I also affirm his right to thank God for his having been made. My claim, I know, is a bold one: Adam’s witness is so obvious and obviously gospel-shaped that I am forced to confront the possibility that he was indeed created in the form his body and mind have taken. I must consider that it is my own unfaithfulness to wish him otherwise.

    We Westerners are trapped in an overdetermination of our eschatological imagination by the materiality of creation. When we think about the resurrection of someone with Down syndrome, our first thought is, “What will their eyes look like” and “Will their brains work correctly,” or “What will their personalities be like then”—just the sort of questions a doctor would ask.

    Recall the context in which Augustine first coined the term “strange vocation.” The phrase appears in a sermon in which Augustine tells of a man with intellectual disabilities who was so incensed by blasphemy of the name of Christ that he pelted the blasphemer with stones—to the amusement of passersby. Would that every Christian in Carthage was like this man, Augustine exhorts his congregation. The point is not that the man is disabled, or even that his disability communicates something: the point is that he is doing something so paradigmatically Christian that it is hard to imagine he would be doing it if he was not the person he was.


    1. See https://vimeo.com/86925527. This video is produced by Reflectors Ministry, a subset of Faith Church, a multisite church in northwest Indiana.

Response

Disability, Theological Method, and Authorial Positionality

I want to raise some questions that respect the intensely personal starting point of Wondrously Wounded and, likewise, that take seriously the theological implications of authorial positionality when engaging the topic “disability” (5–8; 241–42n5; 247n12). My two overarching concerns are methodological, having to do with how Wonderfully Wounded can be engaged theologically and to situate the book in relation to other ways of thinking about “disability” theologically.

1. A Different Experience and the Challenge of “the Surd”

Complimenting all the things we share in common, Brian and I have had a different journey in relation to the intimate realities that are twisted, flattened, and stigmatized under headings like “mentally retarded” and “intellectually disabled.” I think some of those differences are reflected in what I embrace and what I hesitate to embrace of Wondrously Wounded.

I worried, at first, about beginning with our differences. However, I am encouraged when I recall how our friendship began in 2008: meeting regularly to talk theology, arguing about “disability” in Augustine and Aquinas, and discovering that we were wrestling with a similar methodological puzzle. Me as a doctoral student, Brian as a visiting scholar, we were both trying to sort out how to think theologically with and alongside persons whom we dearly love. For Brian it was his son, Adam, and for me it was my older brother, Vicente. For both of us, as I remember it, what was at stake in the question of method was the risk of profaning a sacred gift with which we had been entrusted.

One aspect of the difference I want to highlight is captured in the generously self-disclosive passage Brock provides near the end of Wondrously Wounded, about his childhood. He writes,

I grew up in a Christian home on a dead-end street. Just around the corner was what we used to call a “home” for the mentally disabled. . . . I have only the thinnest residue of childhood memories of its handful of residents . . . small clusters of awkward forms . . . accompanied by a single bored-looking [caregiver]. . . . These fleeting memories are most recognizable by the feeling of foreboding that accompanies them. The appearance of these habitants was the appearance of a portent, the appearance of a strange and unmentionable tragedy lurking at the edges of the polite, public world. . . . Adam has changed me. I live today an inverted version of my childhood. (226)

That personal background is an important and illuminating frame for the authorial position Brock has assumed in Wondrously Wounded. Specifically, long before Brock received and was changed by Adam, he learned the concept “disability” (and the wide semantic field of associated terms, distinctions, and presumptions), Brock received a moral formation into knowledges and practices where those concepts had explicit meaning and prescribed actions, and Brock was initiated into a professional guild of scholarly theological, philosophical, and bioethical discourse. That personal history frames the methodological starting point Brock has assumed in relation to “disability” in Wondrously Wounded (5–8, 162–68, 175–80; cf. 241–42n5).

There is a difference between Brock’s personal history and the history that frames my own concern with “disability,” analogous to the differences Brock acknowledges between his experience of Adam and the way Brock’s two youngest children (Caleb and Agnes) experience their older brother Adam (xiii). Here is one way to account for that difference, by way of something I share in common with Caleb and Agnus: long before we three had the concept “disability” and long before the moral and cultural significance of that concept had any articulated meaning, we had the knowledges and family rhythms of our respective lives with Adam and Vicente. For me, decades before I began any formal study of theology, philosophy, and ethics, I had the intellectual and moral formation that came from being raised to presume that our intimate family life with Vicente was normal.

To be clear, this is not a gatekeeping assertion of epistemic privilege over the parental experience or a Bulveristic genetic argument; and I would reject claims to some kind of enduring original innocence from the “cult of normalcy” for the siblings of persons like Adam and Vicente. Rather, thinking about the authorial position Brock has assumed in Wondrously Wounded, in light of the difference between those two biographical frames, can helpfully illustrate the distinctiveness of Wondrously Wounded in contrast to other ways of engaging “disability” theologically.

When it comes to the presumptions of Christian theologians and the presumptions of children, it makes a difference if the surd that provokes the problem of and subsequent reflection on “disability” is a strange person who challenges our presumptions or if the surd is a strange way of thinking about someone we love.1

In the person of Adam, Brock was presented with a choice: to reject the graced wonder of Adam’s life or to rethink certain precious presumptions, descriptions, judgments, and practices. Analogously, in Wondrously Wounded, the challenge that provokes the problem of and subsequent reflection on “disability” is an encounter with a person.2 The key theological intervention of Wondrously Wounded, advanced through both narrative and theological argument, is to recast the challenge provoked in the strangeness of an anomalous birth as a question of naming (inclusive of gestures like pointing and gazing, 148–49). That is why, as Brock argues, the doxologically rooted Christian discipline of assent to the Divine naming of each person as creature is fundamental: every person is a being that is at once dignified and called by the Creator, and our cooperation with that naming is the decisive path to liberation from false schemas, disordered loves, and impoverished interpersonal relations (149–54). Through faithful worship, Christians recognize, receive, and affirm that the wondrousness of named-persons who have strange interruptive vocations is more determinative than the ephemeral strangeness that the world names “disability.”

Integral to the rationale, framework, and aims of Wondrously Wounded is a contemporary gaze that presumes and alleges the absurdity of Adam’s life. Over the course of the book, Brock guides the reader along a transformative line of reflection that flips the question of absurdity, in two key moves, back toward the gazers: first, a theological argument that contends the absurdity of the normal-disabled binary and, second, a theological argument contending that at least one kind of allegedly anomalous birth exposes the absurdly unworthy loves festering in the eschatological hopes of contemporary Christians.

Framed by the personal history of Brock’s life before Adam, an appropriately indignant agonism runs straight through the heart of this book. Brock is no longer the kid gawking from his front yard at the nameless cluster of neighbors walking past. Having been changed by Adam and taking parental responsibility for Adam, Brock is unwilling to ignore discomforted and disapproving gazes. From that authorial position, Brock articulates a scholar’s protest: What do you think you’re staring at?

I have been disabled because Adam rubs my face in the barbarisms of our civilized world. . . . I dream of exposing and demolishing the configurations of words and ideas that make that barbarism seem reasonable. Yet raw outrage is sterile or simply destructive if not focused to yield constructive proposals about how Christians might go on . . . (8)

Although the polarity is reversed—“inverted,” one might say—the insider-outsider dynamic remains (cf. 247n10). The challenge of the surd remains, but it has been moved to the center and associated with the irruptive, personal address of the Divine Word.

2. How Should Wondrously Wounded Be Engaged Theologically?

Wondrously Wounded makes sense on its own terms. Nevertheless, I think various discipline-specific questions can be raised about some of the descriptions, distinctions, and conclusions that are presented. When one takes a step back and thinks about how those questions could be articulated on Brock’s terms, it becomes apparent that those who might want to engage Brock theologically are faced with a double bind. Specifically, Brock’s account of Adam and his experience of Brian-with-Adam locate the wonder of Adam’s life within an ecclesially framed, imminent apocalyptic economy of divine action that (1) relativizes appeals to precise theological interpretation of nonbiblical or extrabiblical texts; and (2) relativizes the goods internal to participating in a tradition or focused discipline of theological discourse.3

Working within the mores of his ecclesial tradition, Brock has developed a theological rationale and carved out a discursive domain that insulates Adam’s life and Brock’s experience of Brian-with-Adam from theological descriptions like “anomalous,” “peripheral,” “marginal,” or “insignificant.” This makes sense and is wholly appropriate in light of the principal vocational intent Brock holds forth: “I tell Adam’s story as a witness to his witness. It is a confession, a testimony” (xiv). One cost, however, is that the irruptive singularity and revelatory specificity of the crisis/krisis and annunciation that Adam bears, and to which Brian has borne witness, has no inherent, reason-compelling theological or moral significance beyond the apocalyptic event—i.e., when God’s Word and Command is addressed to particular persons, in a particular time and place. This is not a dismissive critique; rather, it is a respectful acknowledgment of some implications that follow from Brock’s methodology.

For theologians and ordinary Christians who do not experience the crisis/krisis as Brock describes it, the only way for dialogically agonistic engagements with Wondrously Wounded to get any purchase on Brock’s argument, and actually move it forward or correct it or revise it, will be to either (1) weigh in on the veracity of Brock’s account of Adam and his experience of Brian-with-Adam or (2) to ignore the testimonial-confessional elements and take a disciplinary line on one of Brock’s discrete historical, exegetical, theological, social, medical, or ethical claims.

That double bind and these tricky implications can be depicted from a different angle: would the argument in parts 4 and 5 be undermined if it could be demonstrated that there are problems with the historical and interpretive work performed in part 1? I think the answer is no—and I consider this to be both a strength and a key limitation of the worthy method adopted in Wondrously Wounded.

To illustrate that point, here are three challenges to the claims of part 1 that one could raise:

  • It could be argued in various ways that Brock begs the historical question in his account of Augustine and the patristic wonder tradition in part 1. For example, one could argue that Brock’s theological interpretation of his experience with Adam and his ecclesially framed, imminent apocalyptic framing of those experiences overdetermine Brock’s account of the aesthetic themes and antagonistic dynamics in Augustine’s treatment of anomalous births. Thus, for example, against Brock, it could be argued that Augustine’s account of the imago trinitatis and persons who have a profoundly impaired capacity for mens (De Trinitate, books X–XII, XIV–XV) specifies the fundamental anthropological presumptions animating the interpretive, aesthetic, and speculative remarks that Brock focuses on in City of God.
  • It could be argued against Brock that most major libraries have entire wings devoted to preserving our knowledge of medieval practices, movements, histories, and texts that decisively contradict the historical genealogy sketched in part 1. That is to say, there are theologically relevant resources that directly contradict the 1100-year declension narrative Brock outlines, stretching from Augustine to Descartes (40–43). Based on that fact alone, one could simply raise a question about the principal interpretive guides to the medieval period that Brock relies upon in Wondrously Wounded. For example, a question about the operative hermeneutics and theological presumptions informing (a) the genealogical account of “freak discourse” offered by Rosemarie Garland-Thomson and (b) the unambiguously selective history of explicitly naturalistic accounts of wonders offered by Daston and Park (cf. 23; 250n1; 252n9; 265n8; 266n13).
  • It could be argued that in the articulation of his critique of Aquinas (following Daston and Park, 266n13), Brock projects a paper-thin caricature of the sixteenth-century natural-supernatural distinction onto a very brief, sidebar remark in the Summa contra gentiles, where Aquinas pauses to distinguish between the personal experience of astonishment/wondering (miror/admiror) and the particular divine acts that Christians call “miracles” (miracula, a divine act that effects a departure from the generally observed order of the natural world) (SCG, lib. III, cap. 101n1). A remark, one might add, which appears amid a larger discussion (SCG, l III, caps. 64–110) of Divine Providence and the ongoing prime act of creation, which intimately unfolds in and through both the wonders of the natural order and the class of wonders that Christians call miracles. As Aquinas argues there and elsewhere, on this side of the eschaton, wonders never cease (Ps 40:5; Ps 136). So conceived, for Aquinas, whatever solidity the concept “human nature” retains in Christian theological discourse is wholly derivative, flowing directly from the good news of God’s love for the world, wondrously and miraculously revealed in and through Jesus Christ.

Although these kinds of theological challenges could be raised, ultimately, the terms of Brock’s argument don’t allow for this kind of theological engagement in a way that could undermine the conclusions in parts 4 and 5. One can only accept or reject the veracity of Brock’s witness to and theological interpretation of Adam’s “strange vocation,” and that is both the great strength and the key limitation of Wondrously Wounded. In other words, it is impossible to develop, correct, or revise Brock’s theological argument on Brock’s terms, because the core argument in the final two sections of Wondrously Wounded relativizes any appeal to precise theological interpretation of nonbiblical texts and relativizes the goods internal to participating in a disciplined tradition of theological discourse. The scholarly theological goal to wrestle with what it could possibly mean to “get Augustine right” or to “get Aquinas right” simply does not matter for the kind of argument Brock makes in Wondrously Wounded. Understanding Wondrously Wounded in this way helps us recognize and appreciate what it is and understand what it is not. It is not everything and it cannot be everything.

3. Wonderings about Caleb and Agnes . . . and Systematic Theology

Given the options for engagement described above, I think it worthwhile to highlight an underdeveloped aspect of Brock’s intensely personal narrative of Brian-with-Adam. Brock describes, quite beautifully, the process of becoming sensitized to the slights, glares, and curious gazes of others when he is out and about with Adam. And, likewise, how Adam kindled within him an unexpected kinship with folks who might have otherwise remained foreboding strangers. I wonder how Caleb and Agnes, having grown up with Adam, would describe their own experience amid the gazes of outsiders and those glimpses of friendship.

I’d guess that the experience of the two younger Brock children may have been similar to my own: long before I felt any pressure to wrestle with probing theological questions about disability,” I had a mother who taught me and my younger brother how to gently hold and play with Vicente. Like Brock’s two youngest children, long before I learned that the realities of impairment and illness could be taken to levy intractable arguments against a theological outlook on God and the world, I had a mother who helped us understand the goodness and fittingness of Vicente’s life in light of the gospel. Long before I learned to see my brother through the discomforted eyes of outsiders, I had a mother who taught me that it would be shameful to close my eyes to the beauty of his life, his rocking form, and his searching hands.

From my earliest memories, Vicente was not a surd in my life, my understanding of God, or my understanding of the world. Rather, it was the complete opposite: the discomforting and foreboding surd was the strange ways of thinking and strange ways of reacting to my brother that came along with words like “mentally handicapped,” “profoundly retarded,” and “intellectually disabled.” There is nothing wrong with my brother, he just needs extra help. Whatever applies to me, applies to him; whatever applies to him, applies to me. That’s been my rule, for as long as I can remember.

In the penultimate chapter, Brock describes “the Brock family” sitting in a front pew at church and he generously narrates some of the things that go along with Adam being Adam within their community. Given Brock’s life before Adam it makes sense that he might find himself resisting urges to rein in Adam, squirming at the real and imagined gaze of others, and negotiating an inner war of expectations; but, I wonder, is the same thing happening with Caleb and Agnes? Is the way Brock understands the problem, feels the discomfort, and experiences being noticed in church the same as what Brock’s two youngest children think, feel, and experience?

Every person’s experience is distinct and worthy of reflection—nevertheless, I think it is safe to guess that Caleb and Agnes are being raised to presume the truth of the certainties and the goodness of the practices that Brian and Stephanie Brock arrived at through a process of conversion. Adam may have remade Brian Brock, but Adam is helping to build Caleb and Agnes from the ground up. What is ordinary, normal, familiar, and common sense for Caleb and Agnes is life with Adam—and, judging from my experience with my brother Vicente, a decade or two of those family intimacies, happenings, judgments, and rhythms will all leave a profound mark (179, 188–97).

If there is a difference between the way Brock and Brock’s two youngest children experience Adam at church, whose intuitions, assumptions, judgments, and moral habitus is more in line with the good news and settled Christian doctrine? Caleb and Agnes are being raised to hold fast to the convictions and assurances of the Christian faith—a faith which, among other things, makes it possible to recognize reality: namely, the recognition that the irrational and illogical absurdity, contrary to what is ultimately true, is all the strange disability-related assumptions, descriptions, judgments, and conventions that threaten to drive a spiritual and moral wedge between them and Adam. There is a traditional, Christian way of describing the ecclesial frame of that kind of formation: the motherhood of the church. In other words, the evangelical, nurturing, formative, and sanctifying gifts of the church that Brock beautifully describes in parts 4 and 5 of Wondrously Wounded.

In a life’s journey and in the development of a theological argument, it makes a difference if the thing that first gets the theological reflection on disability rolling is a strange person or a strange teaching. In a way that is worthy and wholly appropriate, the theological account of disability in Wondrously Wounded is analogous to the parental experience of Adam being Adam during the church service. A parent/convert-to-wonder, who stands in the gap making the ad hoc case to the church for a person who has a strange vocation. The animating principal that gets the questions about “disability” rolling is a dynamic configured around a person and the challenge that person brings to problematic theological presumptions, descriptions, judgments, and practices that have hitherto been taken for granted.

As a complementary point of contrast with the gift we find in Wondrously Wounded, we could imagine an alternative theological approach: for example, a theological engagement with “disability” that would be analogous to the sibling experience of Adam being Adam during the same church service. A sibling/lifetime-communicant-with-wonder, one who has been shaped by and entrusted with the settled doctrine and practices that have been handed down within the body of Christ. The animating principle that gets the ball rolling on the question of “disability” would be a strange way of thinking and the challenge it brings to settled Christian presumptions, descriptions, judgments, and practices concerning a loved person. In other words, on Brock’s terms, we can imagine someone like Caleb or Agnes setting himself or herself to the work of dogmatic theology or systematic theology or historical theology on questions and puzzles generated by that strange twentieth-century way of thinking called “disability.”

To be clear, I’m not saying that parents and/or siblings are limited to only one kind of approach, that was only an illustration; nor am I proposing that one experience or perspective is more valuable than the other. What I am saying is that, on Brock’s terms, there is a way to make sense of an authorial position that one can assume in relation to “disability” that begins where Brock ended in part 5: the presumptions, descriptions, judgments, and practices of the people of God, the form of life called Christian. From that position, on Brock’s terms, we can imagine and delight in a variety of highly specialized theological engagements with the surd twentieth-century concept “disability”—engagements that work within and try to advance a tradition (for example, Thomism); or that worry about precise interpretations and really “getting Augustine right”; or that seek to identify with clarity and precision relevant dogmatic principles; or, presupposing the settled doctrines of Christianity, seek to systematically explain, organize, and further elucidate that doctrine.


  1. As Brian knows, the term “surd” carries a bit of baggage within our circle of common friends. I invoke the term here both because it captures an important dynamic and as an appreciative acknowledgment of the way Brock has masterfully reframed the key theological question from that other conversation. In what I have to say below, the challenge instantiated by the surd can be understood as the pressure exerted on what has been taken for granted, insofar as the surd seems to be irrational, illogical, and irreconcilable with previous experience, evidence, and common sense.

  2. It is of central importance to the theological argument of Wondrously Wounded that Brock’s test for the seriousness of a theological account of disability is the degree to which the phenomena of disability are tied to the experience of psychological shock (142). So stipulated, in part 4 Brock maps out a formal analogy between the crisis of self-knowledge precipitated by disability and the conviction of personal sin precipitated by an encounter with God’s merciful and liberating love. In doing so, Brock ventures an answer to the question What is the Creator saying through these persons? (53, 240; cf. 5, 28, 160). Brock’s answer: the krisis of Divine judgment and the annunciation of Divine mercy (171–97). Understood in that light, the “strange vocation” of people like Adam is to be “a living bearer of krisis” and “an agent of annunciation” (172, 194).

  3. The conceptual anchor for the formal analogy Brock develops in part 4 is the theologically inflected tradition on the scriptural witness to krisis and annunciation, and the twofold valance of the Christian experience of the Divine Presence (171–73, 188–94, 311n2).

  • Brian Brock

    Reply

    Response to Miguel Romero

    To Miguel Romero Wondrously Wounded “makes sense” on its own terms despite its historical scholarship being wanting and its use of the first-person mode of theologizing to seal itself from criticism. Put succinctly: Romero is unsettled by my not reading the tradition as he does, and not having experienced disability as he has.

    It may come as a surprise that I am wholly happy to grant both claims, though confidently denying that the harms Romero suggests follow.

    There are several habits of thought that unite scholastic theologians whether Protestant or Catholic. One is the assumption that a “serious,” or “scholarly” reading of the tradition yields an obvious developmental trajectory—or at least yields a “correct” reading of a historical theologian. Romero’s insistence that Augustine’s De Trinitate “specifies his fundamental anthropological presumptions” is the telltale hint that he holds there to be a “scientifically correct” synthetic account of Augustine’s works.

    Romero knows I have done my homework on Augustine, yet persists in the unhistorical insistence that there is one correct reading of Augustine. To reuse Romero’s phrase, there are whole libraries substantiating the commonplace that Western theology is one long citation and counter-citation of Augustine. Development of doctrine accounts attempt artificially to end the debate.

    Romero may be averse to the adventus tradition that I am working within or not well read in it, but sympathetic theological readers (including the other respondents in this discussion) recognize that I am not making this theological approach up. As I can only indicate in chapter 1, it is a continuous strand of Christian theology rooted in the New Testament.

    I can only guess that Romero does not want Thomas to be a problem in the story of Christian theology. That is understandable. But he is right that I will be unpersuaded by the sort of “this is what the text really means” arguments beloved of scholastics. What will persuade me is a worked display of Thomistic theology talking as supplely and wide rangingly about disability as I have done deploying the resources of my own theological tradition. I hope that my criticisms of Thomas will spur Romero to do that work, and if it is possible, it is going to be Romero that shows us how!

    There is a second scholastic assumption undergirding Romero’s response that recalls the issue of descriptive and poetic language discussed in my response to McFarland. A narrative or poetically organized text can invoke language like “strange” or “surd” to slowly lead the reader to realize that one understanding of what they thought strange has been transformed in the course of reading the book. On my reading a semantically attentive reader would see that this is what I am doing both with the language of “strangeness” (as Ian McFarland noticed) and also of “surd.” Scholastic readings are committed to univocity of language in a manner that makes this polysemous semantics appear confused.

    I learned this more Wittgenstenian form of communicative procedure from someone who taught Romero and me both, Stanley Hauerwas.1 My confidence in labelling Romero a scholastic rests in large part on the decisiveness with which he has rejected the validity of his own teacher’s way of using language, and indeed, of reading Thomas. It is no problem that Romero has shifted from one theological tradition to another. The problem is to have forgotten how other traditions proceed—and then to deny them as theological traditions at all. There is no one Christian tradition. Every Christian theological tradition has its strengths and weaknesses.

    Here’s one reason why I think that theological anthropology will never be able to cover the whole range of issues raised by disability: it does not contain several lower-level ideas necessary to understand time-saturated interpersonal relations. To intelligently discuss the difference between a parent and a sibling demands, for instance, something like a concept of vocation, specifically that of the vocation to be a parent.

    I regularly talk to siblings of those with disabilities who typically express relief that the buck does not stop with them. If their sibling, for instance, has soiled clothes that need to be changed, or is having a meltdown in public, a sibling can ignore it, at least until asked by a parent to intervene. Siblings are the ones who know how, and may choose to help. But parents have a different level of responsibility, not only theologically, but legally. They don’t have a choice.

    So yes, at the ontological bedrock, Vincente is like the rest of us. Romero twice admits that he had to be taught to be with Vincente by his mother in a different way than his other siblings. His mother decides where Vincente lives, who cares for him, not the sibling. In a family everyone is learning from everyone. But some people are responsible for giving those relationships shape, and a theology that tries to do without such concepts will finally elide theologically and practically important questions like: Who really is responsible for cleaning up that dirty diaper?

    Finally: Romero will have to take up the double bind he experiences reading Wondrously Wounded with Augustine. In fact it is one I took up with Augustine myself. Reading Augustine’s Confessions convinced me that embarking on a biographically illustrated work of theology was very likely to culminate in exposing my inattentiveness and prejudices before the whole world. In the Confessions Augustine very cleverly obscures his monstrous abandonment of his common-law wife, which he defends on grounds of filial respect and obedience to God. There is a fine and dangerous line between testifying to God’s works in the spaces of your daily life and publicly justifying one’s own choices. My pride dreaded parading my shortcomings in public in this way. My narrative can and should be argued with, as with any testimony.

    I know Romero sympathizes when I say that it took some years of spiritual labor in order to be able to speak about Adam in public without being overwhelmed by emotion. It took years more before I was prepared to embrace talking about him as part of my professional portfolio. Anyone who has heard me speak in person about Adam will know that it remains the most spiritually and emotionally draining public speaking that I do. As a person, as a human being, I’d rather not do it at all. Which is why I stated clearly from the first pages of Wondrously Wounded that I feel compelled to bear witness to what God has done in and through Adam.

    I testify to Adam’s witness because of what has appeared though him, despite the fact that Romero thinks my account over focuses on these themes—on the personal working of a living God to miraculously open human perception. I am attracted to this adventus tradition because of its power to highlight the necessity of metanoia, of renewal of mind, if Christians are going to welcome people with disabilities with open arms.

    I vividly remember my few meetings with Vincente, who is obviously beautiful in his complete inability to walk or talk. Does everyone in “mother church” experience him as beautiful? Do they experience him as richly communicative? Would they imagine him capable of sin and sanctification? If not, they need their eyes to be opened. This is not equivalent to having a lesson in theological anthropology, even if such a lesson might invite the perception-altering work of the Holy Spirit. Without that divine working, it seems too obvious that people like Vincente will always tend to be seen, even by Christians, as something less than the human being God somehow wished they had been.


    1. Brian Brock and Stanley Hauerwas, Beginnings: Interrogating Hauerwas, ed. Kevin Hargaden (London: Continuum, 2016), ch. 5.

Response

God’s Disabled Work

It is not possible for me to have read dispassionately or disinterestedly Brian Brock’s Wonderfully Wounded, nor to offer any kind of impersonal response. I have come away from the book with a depth of gratitude I did not anticipate because Brock has given me conceptual and linguistic tools to make greater theological sense of my life. For the last several years, disability has so pervaded my daily experience that I sometimes forget that my life is shaped around it. A little less than a decade ago, it became clear that my nephew, Ryan, is on the autism spectrum. Around that same time, I became romantically involved with, and soon married, Edelweiss—she goes by Evie—who has been a type 1 diabetic since she was twelve years old.

When my sister learned she was pregnant with Ryan, her marriage was in the early stages of disintegration, and she was not planning to have a child. Her emotional resistance to what was happening to her, that a new life was growing within her and demanding new choices of her, was alarming if also understandable, given her own personal struggles. Despite the fact that the pregnancy was unplanned, she never considered abortion. After Ryan was born, my sister met the physical demands of the child. Her work of motherhood was not, in the first years, carried out joyfully, nor resentfully, nor with whatever one might classify as instinctive maternal care. And as if to add insult to injury, it was not long before Ryan exhibited peculiar behaviors and fell short of developmental milestones. He would fixate on certain patterns and colors and objects; certain normal sensations or sounds were intolerable to him; he would perform repetitive movements and sounds for long durations—a behavior I’d observed many times in Brock’s son Adam when I used to worship at the same church in Aberdeen. I remember the unexplainable fear I felt, and how I expressed it in anger and denial, when my mother said to me, “I think Ryan has autism.” I wanted for Ryan to be normal, and I did not want to face what had just shown itself in me—the fear that Ryan was somehow less than fully human, or incapable of a fully human life, or somehow needed to be loved despite the emerging facts about him.

It was around this same time that Evie entered my life. One day, as things became more serious, she said she had something to tell me about herself: “I’m a diabetic.” I knew embarrassingly little about diabetes at the time, other than that I had a diabetic uncle, and that there were commercials for diabetes medication on TV that mentioned insulin and blood sugar. “I don’t have that kind of diabetes,” she said. “I have the other kind.”

When she was twelve years old, Evie’s pancreas stopped producing the hormone insulin, which the body requires to regulate blood glucose, and it also stopped producing glucagon, which the body uses to convert glycogen into glucose when blood glucose levels are too low. Without insulin, chronic hyperglycemia eventually damages nerves and blood vessels, leading to eventual blindness, kidney failure, and sometimes the need for amputations. Without glucagon, hypoglycemia leads to confusion, eventual unconsciousness, coma, and then death.

I did not at first grasp what Evie was doing by telling me about her condition. Naively, I asked her why I would care that she was a diabetic. It’s a big deal, she explained. Other men had ended relationships with her because of it, she explained. There were a number of medical risks. She’d likely not live into old age, nor die comfortably. She explained that I needed to understand what life with her entailed.

Of course, what she was trying to explain to me in advance of my commitment to her, presumably so that I could make an informed decision about my future and her place in it, was not understandable outside of the bonds of that commitment. Tillich was right about this much, that calculating love is not love.1 And part of the reason that this claim is true is that the true cost of love is knowable only within the bond of that love. I could not have understood in advance of marriage what it means to have one’s life patterned around glucometers and lancets and juice boxes in case of emergency, the debt incurred because of medical expenses, rationed vials of insulin, the sorrow or joy after a visit to the endocrinologist, and, of course, the pluriform anxiety and medical-industry gatekeeping that has accompanied our as yet unsuccessful efforts to conceive our own children. Nor could I have understood the gift that these costs have constituted: that this particular person, this particular marriage, is the school in which I have been freed each day to learn to love my neighbor. This love is not neatly divisible along the lines of a “two-tier” morality, the mandatory and the “supererogative.” The love I learn in a life shaped around disability requires, as Brock indicates, conversion (103–5). Such conversion is constant.

One question lingers. The possibility of this love, and the endurance of this spontaneous conversion to love the neighbor, is not a given. In Brock’s critique of medical ethics, and, in particular, his critique of two-tier morality, he draws on the Lord’s parable of the Good Samaritan. A counter-parable, if one is willing entertain the notion, is that of the sower. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus explains the meaning of the parable, saying that the seed is the “word of the kingdom” (13:19) that is miscellaneously received; some do not understand it, others receive it but their faith is choked out by the cares of the world and the lure of wealth, and yet others receive it joyfully, but fall away when trouble arises.

A modern, and not unrelated account of the word being received, taking root, and then withering is that of Emmanuel Carrère, narrated in his masterful book The Kingdom. Carrère speaks of his conversion to the Christian faith, his enthusiastic fervor—working meticulously on a commentary on John’s Gospel, attending daily Mass—his loss of faith, and his attempts to reconcile the man he is now with the Christian man he once was. His story is bracketed by encounters with intellectual disability. It is not only the persistence and prayers of his devout godmother, but finally the experience of glimpsing the Lord’s kingdom in the face of an altar boy with Down syndrome that opens the young Carrère’s heart to receive the gospel. Over time, the demands Jesus makes of his disciples, which Carrère understands are not hyperbolic or within the mainstream of commonsense morality, show themselves to be untenable. Those who allege to do so have found some way to soften these demands, or to interpret distortedly. The truth or falsity of the Christian faith, Carrère comes to see, is whether or not the way of following Jesus is in fact a way of life, a way that can be lived. And Carrère concludes that it cannot. None can live this way of Jesus. The mature man, enough years removed from his “Christian phase” to have forgotten that he had one at all, seeks out a way to reconcile who he was to who he has become. He visits the L’Arche community, where he participates in Christian worship with the intellectually disabled. He finds himself in tears, and he is left wondering what to make of the hopes and prayers of his younger self.

Brock, at this juncture, would surely invoke Luther, and surprise Carrère with Luther’s agreement with his assessment of Christ’s commands: they cannot be kept. Carrère encounters spontaneous Christian love situated within the body of Christ—an institution that cannot enforce such love but can only maintain conditions for its possibility. In this encounter, Carrère sees the kingdom that Christ promises, but he is unable, beyond this encounter, to see his way into this kingdom. He looks in from the gate. Is it enough to concede the point that Christ’s demands cannot be kept, but that it is precisely such failure and the grace which exceeds it that frees us to love the neighbor?

Perhaps my unease comes down to a basic Catholic/Protestant difference—I am aware that I occupy somewhat strange moral-theological territory as an Anglican—or perhaps it is because of the influence of black American Christianity, and black liberation theology in particular, but it is this fundamental issue of the practicability of the Christian faith that troubles me. Brock is, I think, clearly right when he argues that medical ethics, traditionally conceived, leaves physicians (and the rest of us) morally debilitated and unable to act outside the bounds of what is already determined institutionally. Yet I believe that the freedom to love the neighbor, and institutional structures that make such love possible, requires confidence that such love of neighbor accords with reality. One must listen, not just to a Carrère, but to his strange counterpart, Michel Houellebecq, whose work, if nothing else, is consistently illustrative of the moral and practical untenability of any construal of human life that sees the life of the unborn or the disabled or the vulnerable as anything less than precious. His stories are, as Louis Betty has shown, the horror of human life without God, that is, human life lived as though we are something other than the image of God. The greater moment of truth is, I think, not when one is confronted by the impossibility of Christ’s commands, but the revelation that the alternative demands are far more exacting—demonically so.

This is perhaps Brock’s point, if in a slightly different theological key, in deconstructing theologically the concept of disability, arguing that the experience of a person as disabled already constitutes a mis-recognition of that person in God’s economy, but that, graciously, such mis-recognition occasions a new vocation for the disabled, who become instruments of “Jesus Christ’s assault on the Western status quo” (197). As Brock says, one true God has spoken to us creatures his Name and his Torah, and so made us a people who may give and receive ourselves from one another. This claim is no theological nicety. I receive myself from my wife, and this reception is not despite the state of her pancreas, but in a real sense because of it. Similarly, I am Uncle Matt in the particular way that I am because of the particular child Ryan is. These relationships have been Jesus Christ’s assault on me, at least. And to suffer such an assault is to discover the kind of political agency that Brock describes: the recognition of others as the gifts that they are, and the freedom to love them and to be loved by them.

The final point is what is most disorienting and most haunting. I am not accustomed to thinking of myself primarily as the object of the political agency of others, not least those who are disabled, but rather I think of myself generally as a political subject, perhaps among other subjects. It is this fixation on my own agency that is the great impediment to communion, that is, the redeemed community, with those whom I experience as disabled. Yet it is here where the Lord shows himself; that he is the principal political agent, most freely and radically available in those in whom we expect not to find agency: the man on the cross, the child screaming in the restaurant, my wife’s tears.


  1. Paul Tillich, The New Being, trans. M. A. Stenger (University of Nebraska Press, 2005), 47.

  • Brian Brock

    Reply

    Response to Matthew Burdette

    Matthew Burdette’s response hones in on the power of the disabled neighbor to serve as a conduit for God’s power to remake sinful self-perception. He also brings back into the discussion the work done by storytelling first broached by Young.

    Only as I have become brave enough to tell stories about my life with Adam in public have I begun to see how people find their own experiences in my rather unique set of life experiences. Burdette’s reflections on how my telling of my own story with Adam has revealed to him how deeply disability has shaped his own daily experience is precisely the sort of nonlinear communication I have increasingly seen as crucial for getting people to think deeply about disability.

    I was provoked to think about the importance of the positive work done by emotional transference by the critique of negative transference that is common in disability theology. Most of us don’t know disability—what we know is that what some people have to live with scares us, and we do not want to lose the capacities we have. We would tremble to have to deal with what they have to live day in and day out. This projection of fear is such a dominant factor in the way most people experience disability that I consider it a great compliment that Burdette has found hearing my story to reveal one such fear in himself—the fear of losing his autonomous political subjectivity by becoming disabled.

    Being able to admit that we are still in need of conversion is powerful because it is necessarily dynamic. Conversion has a before-and-after structure that is narratival and presumes the necessity for sinners to change. It is intrinsically dramatic. Burdette gets that disability is by definition a topic rife with dramatic tension, and so presents itself as an especially theologically potent domain of the human experience.

    I have a Scottish friend who has experienced Adam’s life much like Emmanuel Carrère experienced the altar boy with Down syndrome at L’Arche. For years I’ve probed this educated friend’s resistance to Christ, in many ways an entirely understandable rejection of late-modern Scottish Calvinism. After watching Adam fight through years of treatment for leukemia, my friend once remarked that if anything was going to convince him that Jesus is real, it would be Adam.

    We also have an honest enough relationship for him to admit that he would argue for abortion if he and his wife conceived a child with Down syndrome. In this he is admitting with brutal honesty what most people think, and for all the commonly held “humane” reasons.

    I am enthusiastic about Burdette’s proposal that the parable of the sower helps us think better about such cases. That parable usefully highlights how ineffectual rational arguments are in changing people’s views about disability. The parable of the sower assumes everyone rationally understands the truth—but comes to discover it does not hold their interest or asks them to sacrifice more than they are willing to give.

    It is an important step in the drama of conversion to realize how much—demonically much—of our lives we will have to sacrifice if we insist on achieving an ideal of flawless perfection. Beloved nephews and diabetic wives will have to go. It was not so long ago that institutions were filled with family members so sacrificed.

    If I were to push Burdettes’s case one more step, I would do so along the lines elaborated in my response to Young. The gospel does not just judge and confront. The gospel woos, it shows us that there is life where all we see and experience is the law. If we are not to experience disability as a killing loss we will have to experiencing it—tangibly, proximately and in the face of conflicting practices and cultural hermeneutics—as the locus of God’s presence to us.

    I’m convinced that the gospel woos even in the law, as I think Carrère realizes even before he is evangelically confronted by the altar server with Down syndrome. He realizes it in a quintessentially Christian and very concrete practice.

    It’s really very strange to wash the feet of a perfect stranger. I’m reminded of a sentence by the philosopher Emmanuel Levinas . . . about the human face, which, the moment you see it, forbids killing. . . . Yes, it’s true, but it’s even more true for people’s feet. Feet are even poorer, even more vulnerable, there’s nothing more vulnerable: the child in each of us. And at the same time as I find it all a bit embarrassing, I find it beautiful that people get together to do just that, to get as close as possible to the poorest thing in the world and in them. I think that this is Christianity.1

    This is the law whose truth and goodness grasp Carrère as grace and gift. This is loving the unsightly member. That Carrère experienced it at L’Arche is a reminder that there is a truth to what God is doing in that place and in the whole world that is not dammed up by our sin.

    That Carrère finally felt he could not live up to this gift is both understandable and sad. As I discussed in my response to Ahlvik-Harju, because Christians are committed to non-calculating love, we can never present disability as a new law to coerce people, especially women, into death-dealing practical forms of existence. What we can do, however, is try to tell our one story, of Emmanuel with us, in a manner that makes the gift of each life tug at the ears of all who might hear it.


    1. Emmanuel Carrère, The Kingdom, trans. John Lambert (London: Penguin, 2018), 383.

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