Reconstructing Theological Anthropology: What Mutuality, Whose Response?

What can the doctrine of revelation mean for those with profound intellectual disabilities?

January 30 th 2012

A Constructive Theology of Intellectual Disability: Human Being as Mutuality and Response by Molly C. Haslam. Fordham University Press, 2011. 144pp.

Molly Haslam's twenty years of work as a physical therapist for people with profound intellectual disabilities informs her constructive theology of intellectual disabilities. She argues in this deceptively small book that the dominant theological anthropologies of the Christian tradition—which we can think of as the models we make to describe what makes us human—are unable to account for the humanity of individuals with profound intellectual disabilities, for various reasons.

On the one hand, many traditional formulations presume some kind of substance model of the image of God as consisting in rationality, morality, or conscious agency. But these are often unidentifiable in the lives of those with profound intellectual disabilities. On the other hand, even relational anthropologies relapse into intellectualism, such as when Calvin's notion of the image of God as mirroring the divine nature also inevitably defines what is mirrored in intellectual terms, so that those lacking in such capacities are thereby discounted.

Martin Buber's dialogical anthropology, which views authentic humanity in terms of the mutuality and response characterizing I-Thou relations, serves as a springboard for Haslam's own reconstructive theology of intellectual disability. Here I'd like to look at the methodological, phenomenological, and theological aspects of Haslam's proposal, and then pose three sets of questions that can help carry the conversation further.

Haslam carves out space for her own proposal in the first two chapters by engaging with the theological anthropologies of Gordon Kaufman and George Lindbeck—strategic choices of major theologians on opposite sides of the theological spectrum. Kaufman, a correlationist theologian (in the line of Tillich), has long insisted that contemporary theology needs to account for the broad range of human experience; Lindbeck, a kerygmatic theologian (in the line of Barth), insists that Christians ought to inhabit the narrative of Scripture and the dogmatic or doctrinal grammar of the tradition. Both, however, presume a theological anthropology featuring intentional and self-reflexive agency and linguistic and semiotic or symbolic capacity; that is to say, in their model, the person acts intentionally and with self-conscious thought, and has the ability to use and understand language.

In response, Haslam suggests that Kaufman's account excludes people with profound intellectual disabilities, thereby undermining his own commitments to be inclusive of the spectrum of human experience. However, Lindbeck's cultural-linguistic theory of experience also either ignores or overlooks the pre-linguistic and instinctive responses of those with profound intellectual disabilities (more about this in a moment). These critical moves urge a theological method that charts a via media between those on the "left" and those on the "right" toward a reconstructive theology of intellectual disability.

Phenomenologically, Haslam's sketch of Chan, constructed from her "experience of relationship with individuals with profound intellectual disabilities, accumulated over the years of [her] clinical practice as a physical therapist," provides the basic building blocks for her inclusive anthropology. Developmentally at the level of an infant, Chan is completely dependent on others for his care. He does not engage in intentional activity, does not use language or other symbol systems to communicate, and reflects little, if any, self-consciousness. Yet in his behaviours, facial movements, and vocalizations, Chan exhibits the capacity to recognize and respond to others (especially to his caregiver and his therapist) and to developments in his environment (as when it is time for balloon volleying in his group home). Yet even this recognition and responsiveness is not obvious: only his caregivers or those who have spent some time with Chan are in the position to make such inferences.

Here is where, for Haslam, Martin Buber's I-Thou model of relationality is helpful. In particular, since Chan is not capable of discursive rationality, he neither objectivizes others nor responds in a utilitarian fashion to socially constructed aspects of their identities (that is, Chan does not view his caregiver as someone whose job it is to care for Chan); in that sense, Chan never engages in I-It relationships with other people. Yet Chan does participate in I-Thou relations as Buber defines them by responding to others in his environment immediately (that is, unmediated by categorical constructs), totally (in being present in the entirety of his body), and gratuitously (his presence to others invites but does not demand their response).

Central to Buber's construct is that authentic humanity emerges from the I-Thou encounter, and that there is no human image of God apart from the I-Thou relationship. In this case, then, the humanity of people with profound intellectual disabilities is constituted by their mutual and responsive relationships with others. As important, however, is the reverse claim: that the image of God in all people, those without intellectual disabilities as well, is constituted similarly by their mutual and responsive relationships with others, including people with profound intellectual disabilities.

Theologically, Haslam has provided a provocative and plausible constructive anthropology that includes individuals with profound intellectual disabilities, and that extends the work of others and myself in the process. Whereas I have elsewhere (Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity, Baylor University Press, 2007) foregrounded a relational and embodied anthropology intended to be inclusive of people with disabilities, Haslam has deepened my account, explicating on the mutuality and responsiveness constitutive of human relationality. And while others, like Hans Reinders (Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics, Eerdmans, 2008), have avoided "substantializing" (my neologism) theological anthropology according to this or that capacity and have located the imago Dei in God's activity of befriending human beings, Haslam has shown how people with profound intellectual disabilities can also befriend God in turn in response to divine initiative, through mutual responsiveness to the friends that God has provided. If Reinders proceeds theologically from the "top down," Haslam unveils how people with profound intellectual disabilities can and do meet God from the "bottom up."

I'd now like to raise three sets of questions in response to Haslam's book. These are intended not to interrogate or undermine her proposals, but to extend the line of thinking that she has opened up. In particular, I want to explore further some anthropological, theological, and soteriological aspects of her constructive anthropology.

Anthropologically, Haslam has made a very convincing case for rethinking the nature of human being in light of profound intellectual disability. Hers is a historicist and non-essentialist (here following Kaufman) anthropology that nevertheless makes normative, albeit provisional, theological claims. But the question that emerges is whether any case can be made for human distinctiveness within the framework of her mutually responsive anthropology. Haslam recognizes the force of the question: "If human being is no longer limited to those individuals with the intellectual capacity to understand God, respond obediently to God's commandments, or engage symbols of self and other as they response to the world around then, and if the concept of the human is broadened to include non-symbolic, more bodily ways of responding, why would animals not be included among those creatures considered human?"

Two lines of response are indicated. First, Haslam counters that the same anthropocentrism that motivates such a question has also fuelled the "denigration and destruction of nonhuman creatures for centuries," and that people with profound intellectual disabilities have been so treated as among these supposed "nonhuman creatures"! Second, she urges that the mutually responsive anthropology being proposed could support a more inclusive ethic of care involving women, children, animals, and the environment as a whole. While I am sympathetic to both lines of response, this does not adequately account for why the Hebrew Bible does apply the notion of the image of God to human beings alone.

I would add that human beings intuitively recognize fellow human beings. We may not be able to define ourselves adequately or fully in propositional terms. But while Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart confessed his incapacity to define pornography, he nevertheless insisted, "I know it when I see it." Similarly, human beings react to one another intuitively as members of the same species, and we usually respond with acts of care and compassion. Now of course, the counter-claim can be pressed: what about when we do not respond in such a fashion, as in cases of infanticide or genocide?

Herein emerges my second line of response. If in a relational anthropology, what constitutes human beings is the I-Thou relationship, then the failure to respond to others appropriately—that is, responding as if to an "It" rather than as if to a "Thou"—would mark the inhumanity of the one responding. In effect, this places the burden of defining humanity on the one capable of asking the question about human nature to begin with: Should we fail to be mutually responsive to those with profound intellectual disabilities, then we call into question not their humanity but our own.

Theologically, Haslam's constructive theology of intellectual disability raises questions in particular about the doctrine of revelation. This emerges not only because people with profound intellectual disabilities are incapable of rational comprehension—not to mention of linguistic and symbolic use—it also emerges on explicitly theological terrain: that Christian revelation is predicated on the Logos of God, uttered in the Hebrew prophets, made flesh in Jesus, and preached and proclaimed by God's empowered witnesses. Within this "logocentric" framework, what can the doctrine of revelation mean for those with profound intellectual disabilities?

Haslam's anthropology suggests that divine revelation be understood first and foremost in incarnational rather than verbal terms. What is revealed of the divine in this case is non-propositional but is embodied: first in the Christ event, then in the lives of his followers (what Christian theology calls the church), and, perhaps finally, in the lives of all who engage in acts of mercy.

This last point brings us back to Haslam's mutually responsive anthropology as constitutive of our common humanity. If this is right, then God is "manifest" merely in God's presence in our midst, a presence that we might not consciously realize or acknowledge, but to which we, like Chan, might nevertheless pre-linguistically respond to and mutually interact with. Revelation thus comes to all creatures, meeting them at their differing levels and capacities. For those with profound intellectual disabilities, divine revelation comes not cognitively but affectively and incarnationally (in embodied ways). God is revealed, not only to heads but also to hearts and bodies. (This also has implications for thinking about people who have either never heard the gospel or had an inadequate presentation of it; but I will forego taking up this question at any further length due to space constraints.)

Soteriologically, then, the preceding raises the question: How now should we understand salvation, especially in its eschatological or afterlife dimensions? Historically and traditionally, particularly in evangelical traditions (about which Haslam is sensitive to, although she only mentions them in passing in her discussion of Calvin), there are a number of lines of response, each of which are problematic in general and with regard to those with profound intellectual disabilities in particular. High Calvinists might insist that the doctrine of election includes among the elect some people with profound intellectual disabilities, with others passed over in God's inscrutable wisdom as non-elect. This does not treat the latter in a discriminatory manner: Some people with profound intellectual disabilities are among the elect, and others are not—no different for the mass of human beings who are not profoundly intellectually disabled. But most Christians do not see how this account avoids a completely arbitrary God.

Arminian Christians, on the other hand, believe that God elects those who God foreknows will respond positively to God's self-revelation. While this seems to be more just, it forces the question about what counts as a positive response. For some this involves intellectual comprehension, acceptance, and confession of the gospel, while for others it involves sacramental initiation into the church as the body of Christ. However, the former case especially discriminates against people with profound intellectual disabilities, while historic justification for the latter position—that baptism cleanses the human soul from original sin—is no longer convincing for many Christians.

By extension, the traditional Augustinian and Reformed position that general revelation is sufficient to illuminate the reality of sin in the human conscience thus justifying damnation, while special revelation is necessary to accomplish salvation, also does not apply in the cases of persons with profound intellectual disability. Are all people with profound intellectual disabilities then automatically saved? But if they are capable of receiving God's self-revelation affectively or incarnationally (through embodied interactions with others), then might they not also be capable of resisting such revelation, and in those cases, rejecting God's offer of salvation? It is difficult, however, to sustain such a line of reasoning for non-self-conscious persons. In fact, it is implausible to apply to the lives of persons with profound intellectual disabilities any of the traditional categories of the ordo salutis related to the human experience of salvation—conviction of sin, calling, regeneration, faith, repentance, justification, adoption, sanctification, perseverance (which precise order is disputed).

Here I would argue, again springing off from Haslam's relational anthropology as well as my previous work (The Bible, Disability, and the Church: A New Vision of the People of God, Eerdmans, 2011, ch. 5), that we turn the tables instead upon those who are asking such questions. Whereas the traditional soteriology wants to know what all people, those with profound intellectual disabilities included, have to do in order to either merit or receive God's salvation, a relational model understands that individuals are never saved—only I-Thou relationships! In this case, people with profound intellectual disabilities literally need their families, friends, caregivers, and so on to experience God's salvific love, but no less do all people.

More precisely, because "everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded" (Luke 12:48, NRSV), the salvation of those without intellectual disabilities is even more difficult. They now have at least a conscience and in some cases even the knowledge of God that tells them of their responsibilities for the poor, the naked, the hungry, the weak, those in prison, and so on. In fact, they will be judged in part by how they respond to the least of these among their fellow human beings. In short, then, those who spend a good bit of time and effort wondering about the salvific status of people with profound intellectual disabilities may be wasting precious opportunities to mutually respond to such people instead. By objectivizing people with profound intellectual disabilities in this way, we not only fail to meet them affectively and incarnationally and thus neglect to bear salvific witness to their lives, but we also jeopardize our own salvation, as goats standing on the left hand of the judgment seat of God.

Molly Haslam has written a profound book informed by her work with individuals with profound intellectual disabilities. We are in her debt, as well as indebted also to her friends and clients, for provoking these thoughts, and the preceding reflections on them.


Amos Yong is J. Rodman Williams Professor of Theology at Regent University School of Divinity in Virginia Beach, Virginia. His graduate education includes degrees in theology, history, and religious studies from Western Evangelical Seminary and Portland State University, Portland, Oregon, and Boston University, Boston, Massachusetts, and an undergraduate degree from Bethany University of the Assemblies of God. He has authored or edited eighteen volumes through 2011. Appearing in 2012 are Spirit of Love: A Trinitarian Theology of Grace (Baylor University Press), Pentecostalism and Prosperity: The Socio-Economics of the Global Charismatic Movement (Palgrave Macmillan), and four other books. For a full list of publications, see He and his wife, Alma, have three children—Aizaiah (21), a senior at Regent University, Alyssa (18), a sophomore at Northwest University (Kirkland, Washington), and Annalisa (16), a junior in high school in Chesapeake, Virginia.