This one of the key focuses of Kevin McCabe’s
) on Kierkegaard and disability.
(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