Amos Yong. Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity. Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007. xiii + 450 pp. $39.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-60258-006-0.
Reviewed by Allison Carey (Shippensburg University)
Published on H-Disability (February, 2011)
Commissioned by Iain C. Hutchison (University of Glasgow)
Disability Studies as a Tool to Inform and Reform Christian Theology
Despite the march of modernization, religion continues to play a significant role in the way people make meaning of the world and in the politics that they pursue. As such, social movements intended to enhance the dignity and value accorded to people with disabilities must take the role of religion seriously. Amos Yong’s book, Theology and Down Syndrome, offers a remarkable rethinking of Christian religious theology to present a theology that is inclusive and respectful of human diversity.
The book is broken into three parts. Part 1 includes the introduction and one chapter describing the historical development of Christian theology regarding disability. This section notes the complexities of Christian thinking on this topic, including lines of thought that value and devalue disability, but Yong pays particular attention to the development of the religious traditions that have contributed to the devaluation of people with disabilities. For example, the stories of Jesus as healer have been used to portray individuals with illnesses and disabilities as impure, in particular need of God’s saving grace, and as objects of Christian charity. Also deeply troublesome, great philosophers, such as Aristotle, Augustine, and John Locke, associated cognitive limitations with spiritual limitations, and thereby contributed to the belief that people with significant cognitive disabilities were excluded from the promise of eternal salvation. In contrast with these traditions, Yong promises to “subvert conventional antidisability readings of the Bible by reading beneath and between its lines” (p. 42). Historians will long for greater development of part 1 as the broad sweep across time and place in a single chapter prevents nuanced examinations of how these lines of thought developed, intersected, and were put into practice. This section, as is true of part 2 as well, provides background information for the reader, rather than an innovative historical analysis.
In part 2, Yong brings disability studies to his primary audiences: individuals in the Christian theological academy, seminarians and graduate students in religion, pastors, and laypeople interested in theology. In the course of three chapters, Yong offers a thorough, engaging, and very well-researched review of disability studies, particularly as it relates to intellectual disabilities, covering the following topics: the rise of medicalization; the shift from the medical model to social and postmodern models of disability; and the social, political, and economic inequalities that produce and structure disability on a global scale. These chapters offer little that is new to disability studies, but they are highly readable and provide a fabulous introduction to disability studies for undergraduate and graduate students.
In part 3, Yong turns to his substantive contribution: a theology informed by disability studies and respectful of people with disabilities. In the course of four chapters, he skillfully draws on key concepts in disability studies, such as relationality and embodiment to develop a theology rooted in the “pneumatological imagination,” which respects the voices, biographies, and experiences of diverse individuals (p. 11). Yong organizes his work by discussing several theological concerns: creation, providence, and the image of God; the practices of the church; and salvation, healing, and heaven. Instead of proceeding through his arguments on these topics, I instead will focus on how he uses some of the concepts central to disability studies to reformulate theology across these areas.
The notion of relationality is increasingly used in disability studies to situate people’s experiences in their social context. Relationality rejects the traditional dichotomy of nondisabled as independent and disabled as dependent, and instead asserts that individuals exist in a web of interdependence. Yong draws on this social concept to reconsider the relationship between humans, God, and the work of the church. For example, Yong explores the notion that humans are made in the image of God. Some theologians have stressed that humans possess particular qualities and capacities that are God-like, such as rationality and compassion, while other theologians have stressed that we resemble God in what we do, such as exercising dominion over creation or acting mercifully. Yong argues that the imago Dei consists neither in human structures nor in human functions but in our relationship with God, with other persons, and with the world; it is our relationships that influence our development as Christians and through which we express Christianity. Yong states, “It is therefore in the quality of our relationships, as opposed to the quantity of our intellect, that the image [of God] is restored” (p. 189). Individuals with significant disabilities maintain the ability to have strong relationships with God, their families, and their communities, both through expressing and receiving the love of those around them. These relationships are emergent, spontaneous, and creative, transforming as one’s social context, relationships, and capacities change. If someone becomes ill or disabled, their relationship with God may change but it is not necessarily diminished. According to Yong, “the question is not whether God can use people with intellectual disabilities, but whether the rest of us are sufficiently able to discern what God is saying and doing through their lives” (p. 219). It is not the lack of cognitive ability, but rather the refusal to enter into a relationship that perverts the image of God.
Yong warns against simplistic interpretations of relationality that position the person with a disability as an object of charity in order to enable other Christians to do the work of the church. He also warns against the idea that all people with limited cognitive capacities are “holy innocents” who on that basis can be excluded from the activities of the church. Yong draws on the notion of hospitality to discuss the work of the church, suggesting that the church must support each member to feel noticed, affirmed, included, valued, and loved. As such, the work of the church should not lead to reject weakness of dependence as values, or, conversely, to glorify independence and leadership in church activities. Rather the church must draw on the experiences of the marginalized and the weak to show the way to a “radical vulnerability” as embraced by Jesus, for, Yong argues, it is through weakness, dependence, and relationship that the power of the Holy Spirit is revealed (p.220).
Yong also brings the notion of embodiment to theology. Central to disability studies, theories of embodiment suggest that one’s experiences and identity are mediated by one’s physical and mental realities. Traditionally, Christian thinking has dismissed the relevance of the body, except as symbolic of the state of one’s spiritual condition. Indeed, some Christian belief systems posit that through salvation one’s heavenly body will be restored and devoid from the damaging effects of illness and disability. Yet what does it mean to “restore” a person with intellectual disabilities to wholeness? If one has always been disabled and/or if one has incorporated disability into one’s identity, does salvation then promise the erasure of one’s identity? If so, is that salvation? Yong argues that theology must take embodiment seriously. He contends that our identities, including our Christian identity, emerge through our interdependent relationships shaped in embodied social contexts. Therefore, insofar as disability is central to our identity and relationships, it is also central to our being, our soul, and our expressions of God’s love. Yong asserts that God creates diversity with love and value, not with the intent to eventually homogenize humanity in the salvation process. He criticizes the idolatry of the young fit healthy body and argues that, while we should not discard medical advances, we should “resist its seductions” and value human diversity (p. 249).
Yong’s theology also has the potential to take seriously inequality, marginalization, and the pursuit of social justice in this world. Yong argues that the glorification of the modern individual divides us and blames individuals for failure. Instead, Yong seeks to have Christians join together in relationship, to hear and respect each other’s stories and understand the value of each person as an expression of God’s love. Justice emerges, he states, through a common narration of our stories together, understanding how we are interdependent and connected. This does not mean that religion should content itself with offering pastoral therapy. The church must fight against the oppressive social structures that individualize, divide, and crush the work of the Spirit. It must build social reconciliation, inclusion, and solidarity to enable a just political, economical, and social system. While the potential for social justice is articulated, the author spends far less time building a political and economic critique of society and even less time suggesting economic and political solutions than on theological arguments.
In this book, Yong tackles issues of tremendous theological importance, and builds a theology informed by disability studies. It is fascinating reading and encourages readers to consider deep questions regarding creation, salvation, the soul, etc. This is no mere pastor’s guide to helping people with disabilities. I highly recommend it for all who study theology or engage in religious ministry.
For historians and disability studies scholars, their interest in the book is less certain. The author’s central focus is clear: to develop a theology that takes disability and disability studies seriously. It is not primarily a history or a study of religious thought. His historical section on theology is one chapter that provides basic background information and situates disability as a theological “problem.” Yong does not engage in intensive discussions deconstructing past Christian theology for his audience; he does not discuss the social and contextual factors that led to the dominance of one theological tradition over another; he does not discuss in detail the lives of the men who affected Christian thinking regarding disability nor offer historical details of how the lives of people with disabilities have been affected by these theologies. As such, there is little innovation in his historical analysis, and historians will long for greater discussion of the historical development temporally and geographically of Christian views on disability. Therefore the book may not appeal to historians or others who lack interest in Christian theology for the sake of theology. Considering his contributions to disability studies more broadly, Yong draws on disability studies to inform and reform theology rather than attempt to contribute to disability studies more directly. He skillfully uses the ideas of disability studies but does little to add to them. He does not expand or critique disability studies theory per se; scholars will not likely come away from this book with a new set of concepts or theories useful in conducting empirical social and historical analysis.
For those who are not well acquainted with disability studies, Yong provides a clear discussion of the ideas that he applies. For those not well acquainted with theology, however, the depth and complexity of the arguments can be challenging to grasp. Yong relies heavily on jargon, which can make the reading difficult for even well-educated readers. For example, in his discussion of the Creation, the Fall, and providence, he briefly summarizes a range of theological positions, including theism, pantheism, neoplatonic emanationism, and dualism. Each of these positions receives only a few sentences at most. Similarly, when he discusses the soul, he mentions, but spends almost no time on, dichotomistic (body and soul) and trichotomistic (body, soul, spirit) views of the soul before going to his own theological argument. Without significant background in these debates, the average reader cannot evaluate the importance or merit of these various views, the degree of radicalism of Yong’s own views, or their implications for other doctrine and practices.
The focus on Down Syndrome and its mention in the title seems strangely narrow. Yong discusses a range of disabilities and illnesses, and there seems to be nothing particular about Down Syndrome that distinguishes it from other disabilities in regard to the merit of this theology. He does spend more time considering the role of cognition rather than the physical body, but there is a wide range of intellectual, cognitive, and mental disabilities that seem very relevant. I was left uncertain whether there was something particular about Down Syndrome that warranted its inclusion in the title, or if this attention was simply due to the fact that Yong’s personal experience with disability is most influenced by having a sibling with Down Syndrome.
Finally, as a Christian with some interest in theology, I was left pondering various theological issues, especially the role of belief in one’s relationship with God and salvation if cognition is not relevant. If Christianity is expressed through loving relationship, and if this relationship can be manifested through giving and receiving love or both, is a belief in God necessary? Is knowledge of God necessary? At one point Yong states, “I suggest people with Alzheimer’s or those in comas who may never regain their cognitive capacities nevertheless remain engaged in relationship with God (if they were believers before) even during these periods of degeneration and dying” (p. 190). Does a relationship with God require a belief in God? If so, does Yong fall back into relying on some cognitive requirement to conceptualize and commit to a belief in God? If not, can salvation come to anyone who expresses love or even receives love through their relationships?
In conclusion, Theology and Down Syndrome represents a thoughtful advance toward the respectful inclusion of people with disabilities and the broader phenomena of illness and disability in Christian theology and practice. Its focus is clearly to engage in a theological discussion, not to conduct a historical analysis of the development of Christian theology. Therefore I found it to be an exciting advance in Christian thinking but it may disappoint historians of disability. With that said, discussions of theology have an important place in disability scholarship, philosophy, and activism. Rather than serving as the epitome of inclusion, churches have often been places of exclusion and have proved rather resistant to laws, like the Americans with Disabilities Act, and conversations framed by such political concepts ss “rights.” This book offers a way to engage Christians in thinking about the role of disability in their spiritual communities and thereby may serve to advance disability awareness and heighten inclusion in a way that political ideologies and laws cannot.
. Mary Therese Harrington, “Affinity and Symbol in the Process of Catechesis,” in Developmental Disabilities and Sacramental Access: New Paradigms for Sacramental Encounters, ed. Edward Foley (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 1994), 116-129.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-disability.
Allison Carey. Review of Yong, Amos, Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity.
H-Disability, H-Net Reviews.
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