Disability, Anthropology, and Flourishing with God: A Kierkegaardian Account
1. Kierkegaard and Disability
2. Kierkegaard’s Theology of Suffering
If Christianity relates to anyone in particular, then it may especially be said to belong to the suffering, the poor, the sick, the leprous, the mentally ill, and so on, to sinners, criminals. Now see what they have done to them in Christendom, see how they have been removed from life so as not to disturb—earnest Christendom… Christianity in Christendom fares as a weak child who is given something and then a couple of stronger children come and grab it. These all too intensely secularized people whose entire life and way of thinking are secular, they take possession of Christianity, grab all its consolation served up in the form of human sympathy—and those unfortunate persons who especially ought to have the benefit of Christianity are shoved aside.6
3. The Limits of Capacity-Based Anthropology
A human being is spirit. But what is spirit? Spirit is the self. But what is the self? The self is a relation that relates itself to itself or is the relation’s relating itself to itself in the relation; the self is not the relation but is the relation’s relating itself to itself. A human being is a synthesis of the infinite and the finite, of the temporal and the eternal, of freedom and necessity, in short, a synthesis. A synthesis is a relation between two. Considered in this way, a human being is still not a self. …Such a relation that relates itself to itself, a self, must either have established itself or have been established by another. … The human self is such a derived, established relation that relates itself to itself and in relating itself to itself relates itself to another.26
Brian is 36 years old. He has no language and does not communicate through any formal system of communication (at least any known system). We had spent a couple of hours talking about Brian with his mother, his caretakers and various other support workers, trying to work out precisely what his spiritual needs might look like. At the end of this process Brian’s mother said, “It’s been lovely to talk about Brian. Since I can’t talk to him, talking about him is good. He’s a good person.” She did not of course mean that she literally could not talk to Brian. She spoke with him all the time, even though it was not at all clear how much Brian could understand and whether his responses related to their immediate encounter. (I can think of a few of my theology students to whom the same observation could be made!) Her point was that he was limited in his ability to respond to her and that she had actually learned a lot about him by listening to the various stories that people had told about him. But what is interesting in her statement is the way that she positions Brian as “a good person.”36
Animal life is so simple, so easy to understand, because the animal has the advantage over man of not being able to talk. The only talking in animal existence [Tilværelse] is its life, its actions. …When I see a spider spinning its fine web, truly a work of art, I see—for the spider has the advantage over man of not being able to talk—I see what it means, the spider is seeking a living.38
It is arguable, however, that a further effect of our partiality for members of our own species is a tendency to decreased sensitivity to the lives and well-being of those sentient beings that are not members of our species. … While our sense of kinship with the severely retarded moves us to treat them with great solicitude, our perception of animals as radically ‘‘other’’ numbs our sensitivity to them… When one compares the relatively small number of severely retarded human beings who benefit from our solicitude with the vast number of animals who suffer at our hands, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the good effects of our species-based partiality are greatly outweighed by the bad.40
For a mother of a severely cognitively impaired child, the impact of such an argument is devastating. How can I begin to tell you what it feels like to read texts in which one’s child is compared, in all seriousness and with philosophical authority, to a dog, pig, rat, and most flatteringly a chimp; how corrosive these comparisons are, how they mock those relationships that affirm who we are and why we care? I am no stranger to a beloved animal. I have had dogs I have loved, dogs I have mourned for. But as dog lovers who become parents can tell you, much as we adore our hounds, there is no comparison between the feelings for a beloved child of normal capacities and those for a beloved canine. And I can tell you that there is also no comparison when that child has intellectual disabilities.42
4. The Promise of Teleological Anthropology
Very often, however, it is overlooked that the opposite of sin is by no means virtue. In part, this is a pagan view, which is satisfied with a merely human criterion and simply does not know what sin is, that all sin is before God. No, the opposite of sin is faith, as it says in Romans 14:23: “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” And this one of the most decisive definitions for all Christianity—that the opposite of sin is not virtue but faith.43
Notice the dangerous word—that a putative human organism (an unborn child, a severely challenged adult, a person with dementia or with a condition that radically isolates them from communication, a person in a so-called vegetative condition) is beyond the community of mutual sense-making, we need to pause and weigh the importance of recognizing not necessarily another speech-user operating just like ourselves but another center of meaningful experience, another point of view, the focus of another intelligible situation—and therefore a contributor in ways I may not easily grasp to my own intelligence.47
5. A Relational Teleological Anthropology
We human beings are the sorts of beings we are because we are cared for by other human beings, and the human being’s ontological status and corresponding moral status need to be acknowledged by the larger society that makes possible the work of those who do the caring required to sustain us. That is what we each require if we are some mother’s child, and we are all some mother’s child.61
The word is obviously derived from “nearest”; thus the neighbor is the person who is nearer to you than anyone else, yet not in the sense of preferential love, since to love someone who is in the sense of preferential love is nearer than anyone else is self-love….The concept of “neighbor” is actually the redoubling of your own self; “the neighbor” is what thinkers call “the other.” That by which the selfishness in self-love is to be tested.62
Parents love the children almost before they come into existence and long before they become conscious beings, therefore as nonbeings… If parents had no hope whatever, no prospect at all, of ever receiving joy from their children and reward for their love—well, there would indeed still be many a father and mother who still would lovingly do everything for the children—ah, but certainly would also be many a father and mother whose love would grow cold. By this it is not our intention to declare outright that such a father and mother are unloving; no, but the love in them would still be so weak, or self-love so strong, that this joyous hope, this encouraging prospect would be needed. And with this hope, this prospect everything is all right.66
Dissimilarity is temporality’s method of confusing that marks every human being differently, but the neighbor is eternity’s mark—on every human being. Take many sheets of paper, write something different on each one; then no one will be like another. But then again take each single sheet; do not let yourself be confused by the divine inscriptions, hold it up to the light, and you will see a common watermark on all of them. In the same way the neighbor is the common watermark, but you see it only by means of eternity’s light when it shines through the dissimilarity.71
Conflicts of Interest
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(Kierkegaard 1993, p. 111). Note, as an anonymous referee helpfully points out, the acceptance that one’s disabilities are the will of God is a controversial issue in disability theology. I will not explore to what extent Kierkegaard endorses this view here. However, the key claim in the passages quoted from the Gospel of Sufferings is much more minimal, namely that one’s suffering can sometimes be used by God to strengthen one’s capacity to will the good.
The idea that some suffering might be useless has been discussed in contemporary disability theology. For instance, Peter Capretto has argued that theology should resist the urge to instrumentalize disability for theological ends and instead should ‘embrace’ the uselessness of some disabilities. Summarizing his argument, he writes that,
I contend that this embrace of uselessness, a relation to disability without operationalization, is undoubtedly a privileged responsibility of theology’s method: to interrogate others and ourselves not out of utility, but out of a wonder that demands nothing other than attention itself. The possibility raised here in conversation with experiences and operationalizations of disability is that theology’s method, if there is such a thing, might be defined precisely by this uselessness, and that this would be okay. (Capretto 2017, p. 915).
This approach to suffering is not merely theoretical for Kierkegaard. In writing to his cousin, Hans Peter Kierkegaard, who was paralyzed completely on one side, Kierkegaard demonstrates the application of his thinking on suffering. He writes, ‘reconciled to your fate, with patience and quiet devotion, you carry out as important a task as the rest of us who perform on a larger or smaller stage… Undeniably your stage is the smallest, that of solitude and inwardness—but summa summarum, as it says in Ecclesiastes, when all is said and done, what matters most is inwardness—and when everything has been forgotten, it is inwardness that still matters.’ (Kierkegaard 1999, 7: 6295). Similarly, he writes to Jette, his sister-in-law, who was bed-ridden with severe illness and depression for a number of years (Brittain 2012, p. 302). Here, Kierkegaard writes, ‘You are in some measure always suffering—hence the task lies right here: Divert your mind, accustom yourself by faith to changing suffering into expectation of the joyous. It is really possible. … Oh, if one were never to see another human being again—and that is far from your case—then one could by faith conjure up or forth a world of diversion into the loneliest room.’ (Kierkegaard 1999, 5: 6091).
He writes that ‘the present age is orientated to equality, and its most logical implementation, albeit abortive, is leveling the negative unity of the negative mutual reciprocity of individuals’ (Kierkegaard 1978, p. 84); in such a society, ‘The individual does not belong to God, to himself, to the beloved, to his art, to his scholarship; no, just a serf belongs to an estate, so the individual realizes that in every respect he belongs to an abstraction in which reflection subordinates him’ (Kierkegaard 1978, p. 85).
In a journal entry, Kierkegaard puts the point succinctly:
Christianity begins to console there where human society wishes to be ignorant that such sufferings exist. In Christendom there is no change at all. True Christianity would shock everybody, as it once did, because in proclaiming consolation for such horrible sufferings it embarrasses society by pulling out these horrible sufferings for a day, something we usually defend ourselves against so that we may remain ignorant of them—we Christians! (Kierkegaard 1999, 3: 3498).
As Joanna Leidenhag argues, many relational anthropologies, according to which personhood is defined as ‘the capacity for relationality’ are deeply problematic, since, ‘In so far as autistic spectrum disorders are primarily defined by a neurologically grounded impairment in social interaction, the failure of the relational turn prohibits positive theological treatments of persons with autism.’ (Leidenhag n.d., p. 24).)
A similar remark is made in the Christian Discourses:
Alas, who does know himself? Is it not exactly this to which the earnest and honest self-examination finally leads as its last and truest, this humble confession: “Who knows his errors? From my hidden faults cleanse thou me” (Psalms 19:12). And when a person examines his relation to Christ, who then is the human being who completely knows his faithlessness, who the human being who would dare to think that in his very self-examination there could not be faithlessness? Therefore you do not find rest this way. So, then, rest; then seek rest for your soul in the blessed comfort that, even if we are faithless, he still is faithful. (Kierkegaard 1995a, pp. 287–88).
Just as true flourishing is not found in proper function or virtue, Kierkegaard tells us here that true self-knowledge is found only in resting in God and God’s faithfulness.
In Brittain’s words, Kierkegaard ‘has no investment in a theological anthropology concerned to establish a standardized form of human existence. His emphasis is consistently on becoming the sort of human being God intends you to be, which has little in common with social and cultural standards and norms’ (Brittain 2012, p. 290).
Swinton makes a very similar comment in writing that, ‘a gospel based on divine grace reveals us all as essentially dependant beings. Our status before God and our relationship with Him are products of His undeserved and unearned grace, quite apart from any contribution we may seek to make, and as such are independent of our cognitive capabilities.’ (Swinton 1997, p. 22).
Swinton makes a similar point about the limits of language as a test of flourishing in relationship with God (Swinton 1997, pp. 25–26).
As Brittain describes, ‘Under the weight of sin, all human beings are effectively “disabled.” Sin impedes human self-understanding; it disrupts relationships with others and prevents wholeness of living’ (Brittain 2012, p. 289).
As Grant Macaskill notes, it is important to allow those with disability to inform our theology without romanticizing these disabilities. He observes that,
Much of the theological engagement with autism rightly seeks to give a positive account of the condition and its place within the church, but we cannot allow this to blind us to the real difficulties and suffering that it can often bring. We have to develop ways of speaking about autism that allow us to identify certain of its elements or aspects as bad, without thereby labeling the condition in wholly negative term (Macaskill 2019, p. 40).
(Macaskill 2019, p. 99). As he later goes on to elaborate: ‘The physical constitution of a person with autism can give rise to a different set of problems than that of a “neurotypical” person. But sets of problems, though are associated with the “flesh,” the physical and neurophysiological particularities of each person. Both sets can rightly be called sin.’ (Macaskill 2019, p. 142)
However, returning to Barnes’ terminology, we might also suppose that some individuals with cognitive disability exist in a state of ‘mere-difference’, rather than ‘bad-difference’. That is, while many human beings lack the capacities held by neurotypical individuals for self-reflection or higher willing, their existence is not one defined by pain and suffering simply because their capacities differ from those of other human beings.
We know from many of his own descriptions that Kierkegaard’s primary audience was those deceived by Christendom into thinking that they were truly Christian. Kierkegaard’s aim to ‘introduce Christianity to Christendom’ (Kierkegaard 1991, p. 36) is often deconstructive, prompting those who relate to God through the crowd to realize the need to relate to God as an individual. And thus, is not surprising that Kierkegaard’s anthropology centres on the despair of the self-deceived and those who take refuge in worldly structures, rather than relationship with God. None of this can excuse Kierkegaard for not addressing the issue of cognitive disability more directly, but it might help us to appreciate the specifics of his context.
Such love involves a kind of redoubling; here Kierkegaard is expanding the discussion of ‘other relatedness’ from Sickness to apply not only to relating to God, but also to relating to one’s neighbor.
Indeed, many scholars see Works of Love as Kierkegaard’s attempt to bring the single individual into a genuine Christian community (see Ferreira 2001, p. 104).
A similar conclusion is reached in John Swinton’s discussion of disability and ecclesiology. He writes that, there is a constant, and that constant is Jesus. At the heart of that constant is a place of belonging for all people. The only norm that matters is love. To be include you just need to be there; to belong you need to be missed; to miss one another we need to learn what it means to love with the passion of Jesus. And perhaps that is as good a definition of the calling of the church that we can get? It could be that in wrestling with the meaning of the term disability we actually discover the meaning of love. (Swinton 2012, p. 188).
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Cockayne, J. Disability, Anthropology, and Flourishing with God: A Kierkegaardian Account. Religions 2020, 11, 189. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11040189
Cockayne J. Disability, Anthropology, and Flourishing with God: A Kierkegaardian Account. Religions. 2020; 11(4):189. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11040189Chicago/Turabian Style
Cockayne, Joshua. 2020. "Disability, Anthropology, and Flourishing with God: A Kierkegaardian Account" Religions 11, no. 4: 189. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel11040189