I have profited greatly from Hans Reinders’s previous works on disability, in particular his The Future of the Disabled in Liberal Society and Receiving the Gift of Friendship, both of which I have reviewed elsewhere.
D. C. Ralston, “Review of The Future of the Disabled in Liberal Society: An Ethical Analysis, by Hans S. Reinders.” Journal of the Christian Institute on Disability, 1.1 (Fall/Winter, 2012), 105-107. Available: https://journal.joniandfriends.org/index.php/jcid/article/view/15. D. C. Ralston, “Review of Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics, by Hans S. Reinders.” Journal of the Christian Institute on Disability, 2.1 (Spring/Summer, 2013), 101-102. Available: https://journal.joniandfriends.org/index.php/jcid/article/view/51. In the former, Reinders suggests that the key to securing the future of persons with (mental) disabilities in “liberal” society is to find ways of becoming a certain kind of person—namely, persons who are willing to share their lives with those who have mental disabilities, where such sharing is grounded fundamentally in an understanding of “life as a gift.” In Receiving the Gift, he lays the theological groundwork for a deeper understanding of what that sort of person would need to be like, and in this present work he provides us with a framework for understanding how it is that one becomes that sort of person.
Given the limited space available here, my aim will not be to present a comprehensive “book review” in the traditional sense. (My colleague at Joni and Friends, Dr. Ben Rhodes, has reviewed this book for the Journal of the Christian Institute on Disability.)B. Rhodes, “Review of Disability, Providence, and Ethics: Bridging Gaps, Transforming Lives, by Hans S. Reinders.” Journal of the Christian Institute on Disability, 6.1-2 (Spring/Summer & Fall/Winter, 2017), 111-113. Available: https://journal.joniandfriends.org/index.php/jcid/article/view/151. Instead, I will focus exclusively on one aspect of Reinders’s discussion—namely, what he has to say about the role of “narrative” and “narration” in the lives of people faced with unexpected loss or suffering, including the challenges associated with disability—and bring that discussion, in turn, into conversation with certain resources from the domain of narrative theology. My objective is to demonstrate one way in which Reinders’s work here helps to deepen and enrich our understanding of what it means to think about disability as a constitutive part of one’s personal narrative, or “story.” This is important because being able to narrate disability into one’s story enables one, in turn, to situate it within the broader context of divine providence—and, thereby, to open up the possibility of thinking about disability in terms of meaning and purpose rather than (merely) blind fortune or random chance.
A (Very Selective) Précis
In chapter 1, Reinders observes that the “Why?” question constitutes a form of lament—a cry of despair seeking not so much an intellectual explanation of how a disability (or other event experienced as “loss” or “tragedy”) came about, but rather a pastoral response: a reassurance that there is some sort of meaning or purpose involved.
Responding adequately to this cry of lament, Reinders contends, is crucial for enabling people to address the fundamental problem posed by the sort of suffering under consideration in this work—namely, the problem of “bridging” or “negotiating” the “gap” between the “Before” and “After,” the two distinct time frames in terms of which a disruptive event (such as the birth of a child with a disability) is experienced. Bridging that “gap”—the yawning chasm that threatens to destroy the sense of meaning or purpose—requires that people learn to “see” what has happened to them in a different way, in a new light. And that, in turn, requires transformation: people experiencing suffering must, in a sense, become “new” or “different” persons in order to see their circumstances differently. Providence is “the active presence of God, mediated by the Spirit, to guide us in learning to see what there is to be seen” (p. 29).
This guidance by the Spirit is necessary because people find themselves embedded in an ongoing, continually evolving “story,” or “narrative.” At any given moment, there is uncertainty as to how that story will turn out: will it turn out to be one in which there is a coherent, meaningful connection between the “Before” and “After,” or will it turn out to have been a story of blind fate or random chance? Only in hindsight do we see the connection between the “Before” and “After.” Providence, then, is about how God enables us to get to the point where we can “see,” in hindsight, that he has been present all along—and how.
Disability and Calling
As I read this book, I was struck repeatedly by the crucial role of narration—the stories we tell ourselves and others about our lives. And it occurred to me that the resources of narrative theology might prove helpful in further elucidating this notion. Central to the process of transformation to which Reinders draws our attention—the process ofThe actions of human beings throughout history, and of God himself, are best understood on analogy to improvisational theater, where actors respond to a given situation by either “accepting” or “blocking” it, and thereby either extending or inhibiting the “action” of the play. coming to “see the connection” between the “Before” and “After”—is learning how to “narrate” the disruptive events of one’s life into a new, or different, “story.” When it comes to disability, I would suggest, it is possible not only to come to see disability as a part of one’s (revised) story, but even as a central part of it—as, in fact, a calling received from God.
This notion of “disability as calling” will, no doubt, strike many as counterintuitive. After all, as philosopher Rick Langer explains, disabilities are often seen as impositions, as impediments to the achievement of one’s goals or life plans—as, in a word, contrary to the fulfillment of one’s calling.R. Langer, “Disability, Calling and ‘A Kind of Life Imposed on Man.” In Beyond Suffering: A Christian View on Disability Ministry [Course Reader]. (Agoura Hills, CA: Joni and Friends, 2011). Available at: https://store.joniandfriends.org/product/beyond-suffering-christian-view-disability-ministry-study-guide/. But if, as Langer argues (drawing on the writings of the sixteenth-century Puritan theologian William Perkins, among others), divine “callings” themselves just are “impositions”—that is, claims made upon us by God, to which we must respond, rather than being principally the sorts of things that we take the initiative to “seek” or “find” (as we tend naturally to think of them)—then the fact that disabilities are often experienced as impositions does nothing to render them incompatible with also being callings from God. And if that is the case, then, it is possible and even “quite natural to see one’s disability as compatible [with], contributing [to], and at times even constitutive of one’s calling.”Ibid., p. 1.
So, if it is possible to see disability as at least partially constitutive of, and perhaps even generative of, one’s calling, how does this actually come about? Here, Kevin Vanhoozer’s notion of theology as “theo-drama” may prove helpful.K. J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005). As cited in Langer. On this picture, the actions of human beings throughout history, and of God himself, are best understood on analogy to improvisational theater, where actors respond to a given situation—a “prompt,” “question,” or “offering”—by either “accepting” or “blocking” it, and thereby either extending or inhibiting the “action” of the play. A “good” improvisational actor will always find a way to extend the play’s action; bad improvisational actors “block” the play’s action.
Building on this analogy to improvisational theater, we can view disability as an “offering”—as something that is “thrust upon us, not chosen.” It is “called out to us.”Langer, p. 6. The question for us then becomes, how will we respond to this “prompt” or “offering?” Will we “accept” or “block” it? In the context of disability, this means either acknowledging it and allowing it to become part of the “narrative” of our lives (“accepting”) or “blocking” the offering by refusing to “narrate it into the drama we are enacting.”Ibid.
This decision—whether to “accept” or “block” the “offering” of disability—is, in turn, the “tipping point in making a disability generative” of calling. It is
as if God has come to us through circumstance and issued a call, and we must choose to accept or block. Every individual confronted with a disability must consider: Will I accept this offering which God has given me and include it in the story I act out, or will I block and reject, choosing to live around my disability rather than live through it?Ibid.
In the end, “we are called to take up our disabilities and include them as constitutive parts of our divine calling”—that is, incorporate them into the “narratives” of our lives.Ibid. Our response to that call itself constitutes, in part, the “narrative” of our lives.
Disability and Transformation
These insights from narrative theology are, I suggest, helpful in reaching a deeper understanding of what is going on when we talk about people “narrating” disability into the stories of their lives.Reinders’s work provides us with the key to understanding why some people choose to “narrate” disability into the stories of their lives while others refuse to allow it to become a meaningful or purposeful part of their story. The question remains, however: what is it that makes the decisive difference between those who choose to “accept” rather than “block” the “prompt” of disability? How do we explain or account for one response rather than the other?
Here, I believe Reinders’s work in this book is particularly valuable, for it provides us with the key to understanding why some people choose to “narrate” disability into the stories of their lives while others refuse to allow it to become a meaningful or purposeful part of their story. As Reinders contends, transformation is the key. Reinders observes that people are able to “bridge the gap” between the “Before” and “After” to the extent that they are transformed into a “new self.” Borrowing our language from the analogy to improvisational theory, we might say that the Spirit of God transforms individuals into people who are able to “accept” the callings—the “prompts”—posed by disability and its entrance into their lives. People who “accept” rather than “block” are those who have been transformed by the Spirit of God so that they are able to “see” differently—to “see what was there already,” in Reinders’s terms. And, at least in part, “what was there already” is this fact: God has been present all along, and not only present but also calling to us—not in spite of our disabilities or other perceived weaknesses, but in and through them (cf. Romans 12:9-10).
In Disability, Providence, and Ethics, Hans Reinders helps us understand what is needed in order for people to be able to “accept” the prompt of disability, to “narrate” it into the story of their lives in terms of divine providence, understood as God’s “active presence” in their lives.Portions of the second section of this essay (“Disability and Calling”) are drawn from my “Disability Suffering, and Personal Narrative,” which was published (in Dutch translation) in 2016 in T. Boer and D. Mul (Eds.), Lidjen en volhouden [Suffering and Perseverance], Lindeboom Series in Medical Ethics (Amsterdam: Buijten & Shipperhein), 157-171. In the end, what enables people to be able to do this, from the standpoint of Christian theology, is personal transformation into “new selves,” which transformation is effected by the Spirit of God. The process of transformation is a dynamic one: as people are transformed by the Spirit, they are able to “accept” rather than “block” the call of disability and, thereby, incorporate it into the narrative of their lives. As the “story” of their lives takes on new directions—as they become, in a sense, “new selves”—they are increasingly, though only (fully) in retrospect, able to “see” the circumstances of their lives in a new light, namely, the light of divine providence. “Seeing” things in this new light involves accepting disability as part of one’s “calling”—this is what people come (or at least can come) to see: disability as part of one’s calling (from God). Transformation by the Spirit is how they are able to get to the point of being able to do this.
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