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.