‘Flawed Creations’? What about Disability?

My thinking on healing theology began while studying at the beautiful surrounding of Trinity College Bristol.

One of my fellow students was far older than me. I house sat for him and his family one summer and got to know some of their story. When he had started at college it had caused a significant logistical issue for the property department. They needed to find a house with a downstairs wetroom, ramps into the front and back door and plenty of space for a wheelchair. One of my friend’s children was a teenage boy on wheels. He was a delight to get to know, and despite very severe learning difficulties Daniel seemed to bring light to those around him. Perhaps the most moving thing about his story was his impact on other people. His Dad’s previous career had been in law. I remember him saying that Daniel was the only person who could ‘get through’ to some of his previous colleagues. He had a ministry through his weakness.

Ronald Dunn dedicates a moving chapter his book Will God Heal Me to a friend’s biography. Manly Beasley suffered with collagen vascular disease from 1970, a disease which spawns sclerodermia, lupus, dermatomyositis and polymyositis and is considered fatal. Two things stand out about this testimony other than his courage, endurance and fruitful Christian ministry. The first is a promise he claims to have received from Good that: he would ‘live to see his children’s children’. The second is a similar divine encounter where, ‘the Lord spoke to me and said, “I can heal you if you want me to, or I can leave you like you are – and to leave you like you are, you will have to have me every day to keep you going.”’ He then made a deliberate choice to trust the Lord every day because he felt that if God healed me instantly, it would become something in my past that would grow dimmer in my memory. Dunn’s conclusion and title chapter is that Bealsey’s life was ‘something better than healing’. He lived on for 20 years as a walking parable.[21] My reading has uncovered numerous stories of endurance like this where both the ill person and those around them seem to be able to meet God through the person who at first seems to be cast in the role of victim.[22]

Anecdotes are one thing, but I have previously critiqued some healing theologies for just being rooted in their own experience of healing and universalised to everyone. A similar charge could be made if we universalise out of an experience of non-healing. [See Jack Deere Surprised by the Power of the Spirit for a well worked out critique of this].

The first point of call in responding is Maragaret Spurford.[1] Her Celebration is a pivotal critique of a culture seeking after the shallowest signs and yet fleeing any and all suffering. While she believes that the Creator does not will failure, but simply responds to it, she nevertheless terms physically and mentally disabled people[2] ‘God’s failed creation’. In doing this  she is grappling with the problem of suffering under a loving God in a way the signs and wonders movement [hereafter ‘SWM’] never do.[3]

Spurford is a specialist in Seventeenth-Century History at Cambridge. Her story is heart breaking. Having suffered a rare debilitating bone disease herself she also had a daughter born with Cystinosis, an equally rare metabolic disease. She writes openly and bravely, e.g. ‘living with our humanely treated, routinely tormented baby in hospital gives me the right to say from experience that the pain of one’s own child, or someone very close to me, is much worse than my own. I know this because I would rather have been dropped again by the ambulance men [the trigger for much of her own prolonged physical suffering].

For Spurford these ‘failures’ are a necessity in the order of creation. This is backed up by one of the most interesting characters in the healing movement I have read. Geoffrey Lay is a priest in Ely who went blind, through a genetic defect, in his late twenties. Then he and his wife Christine lost a daughter at the age of five months, from serious cerebral and other disabilities. Despite all this Geoff has a healing ministry and is convinced that miracles do happen. But in Seeking Signs and Missing Wonders he insists that a preoccupation with ‘signs and wonders’ has prevented the church from forming a proper healing response toward disabled people, and stops Christians from coming to terms with the reality of pain.

But the idea of ‘failed creations’ as necessary is abhorrent to some writers I have previously blogged about. So can Spurford and Lay prove their case?

Lay however begins his reflection by undercutting any hope of such proof. In the pain he experienced he found refuge in ‘God’s close presence and love’ rather than intellectual solutions. He takes this a bit further as he takes a ‘fideist stance’  arguing for the incompatibility of complete understanding and faith[4]. This is because faith is hope in what is unknown and unknowable. For Spurford a persons religious life or ‘faith’ may even be deeply unhelpful. As they have the added pressure of believing there is a God somewhere behind all these troubles, this rationally compounds the problem. The atheist is then better of. This leads blind priest Geoff Lay returns to fling himself again on simply trusting God. He states that what is needed is a Job-like recognition of God’s sovereignty, and the accompanying trust and relationship with him.[5]

While starting from this position Lay is not completely closing all lines of argument. Rather he builds up to a position that tries to reflect the paradox of the cross. There life springs from suffering and death. That is something we can hold on to when we face death and suffer.[6] Yet Lay is clear that despite all he learnt and how he grew from having his daughter, the ‘life from death’ suggestion that a suffering child may be given to a couple to teach them something is sentiment he could never have discussed with his daughter, had she survived all her pain. If this was God’s only intention for her, what then did that say about God?

Both Spurford and Lay offer a more dynamic possibility in pointing to the creative explosion that exists where joy and pain collide. The tension between these two things is a gift to the world attested to by the artists and musicians whose own pains have often allowed them to take others by their works to much deeper places of the soul. A child’s ‘wasted’ life may, as CS Lewis suggests, accrue ‘second order’ benefits to those who knew her, yet Lay finds no evidence that such benefits always or even often accrue directly to the child. Thus the tension remains irreconcilable, and yet from the communal perspective Lewis alludes to it is perhaps possible to see, not a resolution, but a way in at least to the mystery of suffering.

This perspective allows no simple resolution of paradoxes, yet grants an invigorating myopia [key-hole view] into the nature and heart of the Creator. It suggests that God’s love does not intend the reconciliation of paradoxes, indeed rather it operates through them continually in creative redemptive grace. This is responsive love defined. Thus creation is free, and at its finest when it walks the narrow tight-rope between success and failure.

A sculptor could work with coarse thick clay and make simple mugs, or fine bone china and let creativity take its course. In the former case she may be guaranteed results yet they may be perfunctory. In the later case they may be sensational, yet the incidence of failure will have increased. In taking the risk of failure then the whole is benefited. This indeed is the only choice for a great sculptor. Her creativity cannot be perfunctory. Habitual, mechanical work is the antithesis of greatness.[7]

God then is like the great sculptor.[8] His economy however is such that even the seemingly useless is reincorporated in and not discarded. In fact as Lay points out it is the ‘broken’ parts of the sculpture that He finds easiest to work with. God’s transformation of evil, his response to ‘failure’, is his continual victory. His love is often displayed in his eternal effort to ‘redress that which is, or grows, remiss.’ As Spurford sees it these transformations of twisted nature, like a tree that has grown out of fashion, are invested with a strange beauty. This Lay would maintain shows that God is sovereign over the most surprising aspects of his creation. As the Almighty ‘there is no evil out of which good cannot be bought.’[9]

Again this is supremely seen on the cross, which is the inspiration the likes of Frances Young take as they win ‘little miracles’ out of evil. For Spurford as for Young those who cannot appreciate the wonder of fragility in God and those around them miss out on a source of inspiration, love wonder and praise.[10] Yet to arrive at a doctrine that revels in ‘God’s suffering’ requires a significant reworking of the traditional theology of the impassability of God within his Trinitarian self-sufficiency. This Vanstone classically does by suggesting that if God loves us truly it must have the characteristics exhibited in the Dies Irae. God’s love must be lassus, reflecting limitless; passus, able to suffer and vulnerable; finally cassus, open to the possibility that it may have loved in vain and hence precarious.[11] God was a complete family unto Himself, and yet choosing to adopt the stray orphan of fallen humankind, He (if He loves us at all) has to love us in these three ways. He becomes in Himself vulnerable to His own creation . The outworking of this is that if God has invested so much in this kenosis (self-emptying) the relationship must be of paramount importance to Him. Hence he can be seen not as a far of God healing by ‘magic’ powers on demand, because he necessitates all things to be perfect; but rather as an interested fellow-sufferer, who participates in human pain and wins through it moral development, renewal and love. To give Lay the final word:

The point is simple, though I hope not crudely put when I say that God is not a magician who ‘performs’ recreation for us to detachedly observe, but a Father who draws us into a rela­tionship of love within which we are changed.[12]

What these writers seem to be suggesting then is that from a corporate standpoint disability (in this life) is essential as an active demonstration of God’s ability to work with and redeem what seems to be most fallen. To develop them further we could argue that both sickness and disability produce in humans a yearning for health and what is right. That is in theological terms an eschatological yearning, a looking for the coming Kingdom of God. If the sage is right and God truly has ‘set eternity in the hearts of humankind’, then these things contribute to our great search and quest for God. The way he parakaleo’s [comforts/encourages/propels (cf. 2 Cor 1)] us on the way inspires us that he is after all good, even in the face of such outward suffering.[13] The sad fact is that any other attitude should logically degenerate into a quasi-Hitlerian stance. In choosing to label the disabled as bad, 200 000 eventually died under his regime. Yet as Stephen Sykes writes the care of the sick is integral to our health corporately and as individuals.[14] It is only as we show love to the vulnerable that we mimic the love we have seen God displays. Hence our wholeness, health and salvation is tied up in this.

This leads us again to touch upon the idea that health and salvation are not easy terms to define. If health is seen to be primarily a function of our relationships, it is sometimes mediated so much more powerfully through the vulnerable. I mentioned Daniel at the beginning of this post. The (then) 16 year old son who had been severely disabled since birth. Yet it has been his ministry to cause a number of aloof and reserved acquaintances of the family to openly display love for the first time in years. Daniel is a healer. Geoffrey Lay has a gift of healing, which has led to the cure of others, though he remains blind. It reminds us both of the taunts given to the great physician on the cross, and of the interconnectedness of society. We live not so much in a global village, but a fragmented metropolis and those who can sometimes provoke a coherence there are in themselves of infinite value.

I find this communal argument as I have developed it from Lay, Spurford, Young, Vanstone and others persuasive. It does of course pose a number of problems. Almost perversely their view may leave the physically healthy seeming worse off. This grates markedly with the notion that Jesus always seemed to respond to sickness with physical restitution as well as spiritual support. However Lay has a dramatic answer to this in his analysis of the use of ‘blindness’ in the way Mark has shaped his gospel. It seems from there that Jesus is surrounded by seeing people unable to perceive his greatness. Even Peter in his confession of Christ quickly lapses into a Satan-led stumbling block. However the men in Mk 8:22f and Mk 10:46f (who form a parentheses to this whole section) both start as blind, and yet seem able to truly see – and not just physically – as a result of their encounter with that same Christ. Could it be that in the struggle of their disabilities they had received greater resources [parakaleos] to receive and believe in their Christ? Are there depths of the soul that can only be reached through adversity?[15]

So is the case proven? Are these ‘failures’ a necessity in creation? Will adversity always produce these hidden depths? It would be equally unwise to elevate all people with disabilities to some spiritual pedestal. How a human agent responds to that adversity is a unique and individual thing, although for those who have the spiritual eyes to see the parakaleo will always be there. An individual may respond to that light of God or they may not. Yet the society or church that corners itself into not tolerating what is different or seems to be deficient, may well find that it is they themselves in whom there is no health. Under the dynamic economy of God where good is constantly being produced out of evil, his people must find in their varied relationships the health to carry on, knowing that our longings for the Kingdom will eschatologically be resolved, and using these well-produced longings to catalyse needed changes in ourselves.

If we move the focus back from disability toward sickness, parallel lessons occur. One healing practitioner who stands against this consensus on God’s fundamental desire to heal is S. Baxter, who argues:

‘In the divinely permitted scheme of things there is truly a use for sickness.’[16]

last night I was in the pub with a young guy who had been on route to turn pro at rugby when he was struck down with a knee injury in his late teens. He spent much of the next two years smoking pot, having an operation and going wild. But looking back on it five years on he said he thought God had given him the injury because it was the one thing that might turn his life around and the one thing that might enable him to stop and listen to God’s voice to him.

On a grander scale the whole church in Galatia seemed to have been planted because of an illness Paul had (see Galatians 4:13-15). Some argue that this might have been a disability (some chronic eye condition) due to the reference to the church being willing to pluck out their eyes for him – but it may equally have been the sustained effects of one of his beatings. Either way it was precisely because he was laid up and ill that the gospel went out in that area. For Paul there was a higher purpose to life than healing.

This is taken up by Ronald Dunn who argues that a belief that God is always on the side of health is dangerous and has harmful side effects.[17] Not only may it be dangerous but it may add guilt to grief, raise false hopes, promote self-condemnation, prevent God ministering to us through our sickness, destroy compassion for those who are hurting and finally force its practitioners to concoct excuses for failure.[18] For Dunn, God is still on the side of wholeness, but that wholeness approximates more closely to holiness than to physical well-being. He would argue that illness may lead to clarified values, renewal of character, deeper trust in God, and a freedom to be who you really are when you no longer require health to be happy.[19] In short illness may not be really the great betrayal of the ‘fidelity of our bodies’ that Arthur Kleinman points out we tend to think it is.[20]

I can remember as a twenty-year old standing in a  youth meeting at Stoneleigh Bible week organised by newfrontiers. We were encouraged to pray for healing for those around us. Some enthusiastic teens near me started to pray for ‘healing’ for a lovely girl with Downs Syndrome. As they were praying I had a sense that God already saw her as an utterly beautiful princesses in his Kingdom. However much our society demands it, God does not not have an agenda to conform us to the BUPA adverts stereotype of health. Health is a much bigger thing for Him than that. That girl was healthy. Manly Beasley was healthy. Daniel was healthy.

Thus there are a great plethora of views on healing and suffering to work through. From one perspective, the Marxist analysis of Dorothee Soelle sees a necessity for individual suffering for the perpetuation of social change.[23] Ancient theodicy concurs that suffering may promote an individuals well-being. Yet Vanstone, Spurford and Lay seem to have posed something no less true, but much more admirable. God does not just achieve some vague purpose from our pain but gets involved in our suffering and works from it for our good. The Christian Healing Revival teaches us that this may involve dramatic cure, but miracles (properly so called) remain exceptional events by definition. A synthesis is needed to take us to holistic healing.

[1]  Spurford (1989) p. 51-52.

[2] For an analysis of the terminology used here, particularly the preference of the term disabled to handicapped and some very general attempts at political correctness see Lay (1998) p.15f. As a ‘blind Priest’ Lay’s deliberations seem particularly pertinent here.

[3] Lay (1998) p. 84.

[4] See Romans 8:24-25 for a similar position.

[5] Lay (1998) p.86.

[6] But as another of my college contemporaries Paul Bradbury reflects in his own account of a child’s illness, intellectual explanations of that cross are not necessary the key to applying or understanding its power. Bradbury (2002) pp. 16-17.

[7] This developed from Vanstone see Lay p. 89.

[8] Hence the fact his work cannot be perfunctory as in Anslem’s dictum, God is the one, ‘than which none greater can be conceived.’ Lay p.90.

[9] Spurford (1989) p.80.

[10] ibid. p.83.

[11] Vanstone p.57. The point is made even more memorably by GK Chesterton in Orthodoxy: ‘Christianity is the only religion on earth who felt that that omnipotence made God incomplete. Christianity alone has felt that God to be truly God, must have been a rebel as well as a king. Alone of all the creeds Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator.’ (1908) p. 136.

[12] Lay p.94.

[13] If this sounds glib I recommend reading Sarah Bowen’s testimony of her two children Claire and Jimmy

[14] quoted in Lay p. 95.

[15] One automatically thinks of the likes of blind hymn writer Fanny Crosby who wrote of ‘visions of rapture’ that ‘burst into sight’, but the story of ‘Billy’ a kid who took half a minute to say, ‘Jesus loves me and I love Jesus,’ as told by Campolo (2000) p.112 possible surpasses them all.

[16] Baxter: Divine Healing of the Body p.148.

[17] Dunn Will God Heal Me p. 176.

[18] Cf. Harmful Religion p. 67.

[19] Dunn p. 33f. He gives the example (p. 28) of a melonoma sufferer whose desire was for each conversation to be on a deep level, but found others were in a less willing place to be able to talk about death etc. I’ve seen many people have a miraculous healing and ten years down the road they were just as full of the devil as they ever were.

[20] Kleinman The Illness Narratives p. 47 [quoted in Dunn p.26].

[21] As Beasley said: ‘I’ve seen many people have a miraculous healing and ten years down the road they were just as full of the devil as they ever were.’ Dunn Chp 4. Beasley died in July 1990. Dunn says he believes he could have been healed if he wanted to be, ‘but considering his life and influence I believe he made the right choice’. p.50.

[22] See Sarah Bowen Precious to God for a tale of the ministry of 2 handicapped children. Jane Grayshon’s Pathway Through Pain is another excellent personal reflection. For e.g. of wholeness without healing see Harry Blamires’ Kirkbride Conversations. Probably the most profound of all is the story of Oliver de Vinck, which has an introduction by Henri Nouwen. In the introduction Nouwen tells of a vision he had on reading this story, where God covenants not to destroy this sin-riddled world because of his love for the ‘innocents’. See esp. the brief testimony of Kyle p. 142.

[23] Soelle (1975) p.4.

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