Ableism is when you try to heal me, and fix me and promise that I will walk, or see, or hear or that I will be everything I was really meant to be … one day in heaven
Ableism is believing that heaven is an able-bodied place where broken bodies finally become ‘whole’
– Maria R. Palacios, disabled poet and storyteller
I would like to begin by noting how limited our comprehension of God is in this life. Not that our understanding of God is necessarily incorrect, although sometimes it is, but it is certainly partial and incomplete (1 Cor 13:12). There are very few things I can say about the resurrection or life in the eschaton with confidence other than that I will be united with God in a way beyond what I experience now, and that is good. I am confident that mourning, pain, suffering, hunger, thirst, an adversarial relationship with creation and others, and death will be no more (Romans 8:22; 1 Cor 15; Rev 7:16–17; 21:4). It seems we will have a mode of embodiment, a spiritual body of some sort. Not in the sense that we will have wispy, ethereal bodies, but in the sense that the struggle Paul describes in Romans 7 will be overcome (1 Cor 15:42). Any projections beyond this are rooted in our limited understanding of Christ’s post-resurrection body—after all, Christ is the only one who has been raised from the dead (and is still raised, in case you were thinking of Lazarus, Jairus’s daughter, or others). Other projections of the resurrected body, even Christian projections, might share more in common with Feuerbach’s notion of God—a kind of super-me. And while Christ is the key to understanding what we are as humans, I’m not sure what kinds of conclusions I can make about our post-resurrection bodies based on his. So, instead of answering the question in a systematic and direct way, I will try to get at some of the issues this question raises in a different way.
When I was writing Disabling Mission, Enabling Witness and wanted access to a deeper understanding of Deaf culture for one of the chapters, I engaged five Deaf interlocutors. These individuals helped me to understand the difference between being deaf or being hard of hearing, which is viewed in our culture as an impairment or disability, and being Deaf, which includes being part of a culture or a linguistic minority who, among other things, communicates using sign language. Until those correspondences I had not noticed how Deaf spaces are arranged, considered the importance of lighting, explored deeply the embodied nature of communication, embraced the hermeneutical insights that Deaf culture can provide in the interpretation of Scripture, or understood how many Deaf people experience a more communal rather than individual sense of identity. These Deaf perspectives awakened me to my restricted visual perception and inattentiveness to embodied communication—it hadn’t occurred to me that I might be viewed as limited, or according to many Deaf people, disabled!
Our discussions were extremely helpful to me, but one exchange stands out. I began to consider the kind of question that motivated this collection of articles and inquired, “Do you think you will be able to hear in heaven?” I was caught off guard when my discussion partner shot back, “I don’t know whether or not I will be able to hear in heaven, but I’m sure you will be Deaf!” While I desired that he be able to hear children’s laughter, rain against the window, or the ocean’s waves crashing on the beach, he wanted me to be able to experience communication and the other in a richer and fuller way. The complexification of the ability-disability distinction that was a result of this encounter, and others, leads me to a new question:
Will (all) “abilities” be (completely) healed in the resurrection?
I don’t know, but I’m certain that ableism will be.
My new perspective on Deafness, disability, and the eschaton prepared me for another encounter that would occur a couple of years later. At a symposium on Disability and Human Nature, I was a part of an interesting conversation. At this small gathering there was a palpable tension between some philosophers and theologians, many of whom were Thomists who weren’t disabled and some disability theologians, most of whom claimed a disability identity. In short, those without disabilities believed impairment to be a privation of a good, meaning, in the case of disability, a creature’s natural capacities are intended to develop with teleological normativity (eyes are made for seeing and legs are made for walking in order to fulfill their proper function). At the same time, the Thomists argued that our dignity is intrinsic and is grounded in our nature as humans and not in the actualization of any human natural capacities. The Thomists were able to robustly affirm the dignity of the disabled person, to a point. The disabled scholars took offence at being characterized as living as deprived bodies and felt the sting of an argument which seemed less about perfection than normativity. In a word, ableism. At one point the dialogue turned to address a version of the question that has stimulated this conversation: will there be disabilities in heaven? One renowned philosopher/theologian began to wax eloquent about whether the atmosphere in the coming age will be able to accommodate the kinds of sound waves that are necessary for hearing. He mused about whether there would be sound or not and imagined that there might be a different way of communicating. There may be no such thing as hearing in heaven. I didn’t challenge that conclusion (again, who knows? we are all wrong) but I did insist that, even if there is no sound in heaven,By what standards or norms are we imagining the resurrected body? I will still need my ears. After a probing silence I offered, in an attempt to highlight how ridiculous the conversation was, I will need my ears to help hold up my glasses.
By what standards or norms are we imagining the resurrected body? I am currently training for a physique bodybuilding competition. There are parts of my body that appear to be reaching their telos in form and function (according to whose evaluation, you ask?). Am I to be the standard? The ideals of beauty and function are certainly contested in this life within and across cultures and through history. I am not unique in that my relationship to my body and self-understanding has changed in this life over time through relationships and experiences. But I represent all things normative (male, cisgender, temporarily able-bodied, highly educated). What of my disabled friends? It is the case now that autism is not always impairing—people on the spectrum often thrive because of their particular way of being in the world and offer important insight, perspectives, and healing to communities of faith. Many of my autistic friends delight in their neurodiversity. Do these manifestations of autism and Deafness described above offer us a foretaste of how “disabilities” might persist in the resurrected body? To what degree will an experience of the new me in the resurrection, a me that lives in harmony with God, others, self, and all of creation foster a new understanding of self, which, of course, includes my embodiment? If experiences and relationships have altered my self-understanding on this side of the eschaton, then how much more so in heaven. We simply can’t imagine what will be due to the limits of our knowledge and experiences. All things are to be made new (Rev 21:5). The relationship between our present embodiment and self-understanding today and at the resurrection will be related as a seed is to the plant (1 Cor 15:37).
Whatever our thoughts about the resurrected body, they cannot be oriented by an ideal body, an inaccessible concept of perfection, or by an ableist projection of the superhuman. We must be guided by the Kingdom of God. Our bodies, as they are right now, are for service in God’s kingdom and are fitted for that telos. The fact that, from God’s point of view, no body is excluded now from participation in the life, body, and mission of Christ can be understood as a sign and foretaste of the kingdom to come. What does that mean for disability? In what ways does the disability/ability paradigm (the socio-cultural reality or the bio-medical experience) separate one from oneself, from others, from creation, or from God? We can answer with confidence that, whatever our embodiment in the resurrection, all those barriers to communion will be overcome along with the sadness, pain, suffering, and death that accompany them.