Theology and Down Syndrome

(This is Neil) Today, I would like to reflect on this question: How can theology help us to better recognize the dignity of our brothers and sisters who have Down syndrome?  I will be indebted to a recent book by the Pentecostal theologian Amos Yong, whose brother, Mark, has Down syndrome.


First, we need to briefly ask how Down syndrome has historically been viewed. Professor Yong tells us that modernity medicalized  intellectual disability. There were advantages to this re-description. The work of such 19th century scientists as J.L. Down helpfully distinguished disability from insanity or moral defectiveness. Nevertheless, Down’s initial hypothesis that children with (what we now call) Down syndrome were “Mongoloids,” the product of a spontaneous evolutionary regression to a less developed race, would clearly have negative consequences. The initial optimism that such children could be cured through educational and therapeutic progress gave way to a dark pessimism that saw intellectual disability as a threat to any such progress. This led, in the United States, to forced sterilization and even some notable figures calling for the “letting die” of deformed infants.


More recently, there has been a reaction against seeing those with intellectual disability as “problems” for either scientific cure or institutionalization. The social model of disability focuses on stigmatization – on intellectual disability as a social construct, arising as society projects its fears of strangeness onto outsiders. In this model, social values and practices identify certain individuals as mentally deficient. These individuals are placed into an industry that confirms them as “retarded” through testing, and members of the wider society are then “taught” to orient themselves to the “retarded” as objects of pity, compassion, fascination, even horror. The social model has drawn attention to how the medicalization of disability isn’t necessarily purely objective and how it leads to the disabled being seen as objects, incapable of expressing themselves or articulating their own experience. But, of course, we can never see disability as only the sad result of stigmatization: there is an inescapable biological component.


But what about the history of Christianity? We have to be cautious here. There is a way of reading Scripture that would associate disability with impurity, defilement and sin. Those who are physically or mentally disabled are seen as passive, capable only of waiting for the eschaton, and, in the meanwhile, of resignation. Furthermore, it might seem as though the disabled are associated with demonic possession. In a notorious episode in later history, in his Table Talk, Luther suggested that a misshaped twelve-year old boy be suffocated, reflecting a popular view that such a human being was really a changeling, “a mass of flesh without a soul,” expressing nothing more than demonic activity. But, if we look at Scripture more closely (and without so-called “ableist” preconceptions), we can see that a more attentive reading can subvert our earlier reading. The exegete Kerry Wynn has noted that physical disabilities can be seen as signs of the covenant – Jacob’s limp, Isaac’s blindness, Leah’s “weak eyes,” Moses’ stuttering, Zechariah’s muteness, and Paul’s blindness and “thorn in the flesh.” I’ve already posted on how Luke-Acts challenged common notions of physiognomy. (A Girardian reading might also be helpful at points.)


We can draw three initial theological conclusions from the history of Christianity about disability. First, disability is part of God’s plan and plays a role in history. Second, God does intend the well-being and salvation of those with disabilities. Third, Christians are meant to show charity to the disabled.  Obviously, these conclusions can help us avoid some of the dangers in the modern discourse of disability. But they are still insufficient. For instance, St Augustine was quite clear that God created the disabled, and could, in his omnipotence, even give a “simpleton” (one of the Moriones) “preference in the award of the grace of Christ over many men of the acutest intellect.” But this did not mean that Augustine necessarily sought to include them in society. Later, he notes that “they fetch higher prices than the sane when appraised for the slave market” because the Moriones amuse others. He does not condemn the practice.


We are back at our original question. How can theology help us to better recognize the dignity of our brothers and sisters who have Down syndrome? Once again, we must be aware of the danger of seeing them solely through the lens of medicalization, even if we cannot simply say that Down syndrome is solely the result of stigmatization. But we can go further. Professor Yong suggests that we reexamine our theological loci with disability in mind. He first looks at creation, especially the imago Dei. Often, the divine image has been identified with rationality, which can have problematic consequences for the disabled. Many exegetes presently, Yong tells us, associate the imago Dei with “the human capacity to exercise dominion over the created order.” This might still have problematic consequences for the disabled. But, what if, instead of ruling over, dominion meant ruling with others? As we will see, examining theology with the disabled in mind leads us to recognize the importance of interrelationality and interdependence.


Furthermore, when we think of the imago Dei, we must think about Jesus Christ. Recall that Jesus was marginalized from the very start, “taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil 2:7). After all, the Suffering Servant in Isaiah is imagined as physically deformed, “so marred was his look beyond that of man” (Is 52:14). The marginalization of Jesus is extended in the physical disabling and breaking of his body on the cross. From disability, then, comes our redemption, and God’s weakness is revealed as “stronger than human strength” (1 Cor 1:25). Yong paraphrases Augustine:


The deformity of Christ forms you. If he had not willed to be deformed, you would not have recovered the form you had lost. Therefore he was deformed when he hung on the cross. But his deformity is our comeliness. In this life, therefore, let us hold fast to the deformed Christ.


Besides this theology of the Cross, Jesus also brings us back to interrelationality and interdependence. Jesus revealed to us that “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15:13). Human beings, then, are Christlike, fully manifesting the imago Dei, when they are receptive to the Spirit’s creation of relationships of mutuality. This isn’t merely the case of the disabled needing the help of the able. Yong tells us that insofar as God’s saving grace is only available through “the stranger” or “the least of these,” the “able” need for their own sake to form relationships with the disabled to receive God’s grace.  


When we think about ecclesiology with the disabled in mind, we are forced to recall St Paul’s words, “[T]he parts of the body that seem to be weaker are all the more necessary, and those parts of the body that we consider less honorable we surround with greater honor, and our less presentable parts are treated with greater propriety, whereas our more presentable parts do not need this” (1 Cor 12:22-24). Our idolatry of secular honor becomes impossible. Also, Yong suggests that we might deepen our grasp of catechesis if we notice the presence of the disabled, “especially with regard to how human knowing of God is mediated through formation, imitation, affectivity, intuition, imagination, interiorization and symbolic engagement.” With regard to the Eucharist, the disabled remind us that our desire for the sacrament must be more than merely intellectual. This is because the disabled, as Joseph Cardinal Bernardin noted, can’t always use words to demonstrate their understanding of the Eucharist, “but they can show that they recognize the difference [between the Eucharist and ordinary bread] by their manner, the expression in their eyes, their gestures, or the quality of their silence.” Finally, the disabled also remind us of often neglected dimensions of theology and ministry. The late Catholic priest Henri Nouwen was obviously a learned man, but it was the severely disabled Adam Arnett who taught him not to fear “radical vulnerability” and embodied the resurrection power of Jesus for him. He was a teacher. (See my post here on the disabled and wisdom.)


Perhaps most interestingly for us today, Wolf Wolfensberger has written that the intellectually disabled have a prophetic role for many reasons, one of them through their martyrdom as victims of selective abortion.


Finally, Yong reexamines the doctrine of the resurrection with the disabled in mind. What will the bodies of the disabled look like in heaven? It is easy to say that they will be “healed.” But many physically or intellectually disabled people reject shallow versions of this assertion. The sociologist and theologian Nancy Eiesland explains, “[H]aving been disabled from birth, I came to believe that in heaven I would be absolutely unknown to myself and perhaps to God. My disability has taught me who I am and who God is.” The theologian Frances Young writes about her severely disabled son, Arthur, “I find it impossible to envisage what it would mean for him to be ‘healed’ because what personality there is is so much part of him as he is, with all his limitations. ‘Healed’ he would be a different person.” Stanley Hauerwas: “To eliminate the disability [of retardation] means to eliminate the subject” (my emphasis).


Yong then brings up Gregory of Nyssa’s idea of everlasting progress (epectasis):  “For this is truly perfection: never to stop growing towards what is better and never placing any limit on perfection.” This means that the Spirit can lead us into an unending perfection that retains continuity with our present life amidst transformation. Yong imagines that heaven for those with Down syndrome would not be a “magical fix” but a constant increase in goodness, knowledge, and love, especially fostered through union with the communion of saints.


In conclusion, we must resist some of the consequences of the discourse of medicalization, although Down syndrome certainly is a biological reality. We must remind ourselves that God created those with Down syndrome and cares for them – reality did not momentarily slip from his hands. We must care for them as well. But we must also go beyond that. Perhaps we can better recognize the dignity of our disabled brothers and sisters if – when we think about the imago Dei, we think about such friendships as those between Henri Nouwen and Adam, when we think about the Cross, we remember that Christ’s “deformity is our comeliness,” when we think about the church, we think of those who desire the Eucharist without being able to fully explain this desire, and, when we think about heaven, we can imagine it being a place where the disabled go from glory to glory in the communion of the saints.


And, perhaps, if we better recognize the dignity of our disabled brothers and sisters, we can somehow stop their martyrdom.


Amos Yong’s book raises many good questions for today and tomorrow alike. It also has rather moving vignettes about his own brother.


But, what do you think?

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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5 Responses to Theology and Down Syndrome

  1. I suppose that if one makes use of the Cartesian division of mind and body (also called the mind/body dichotomy), and if one supposed that mind is all there is in the essence of what we are in the image and likeness of God, then there would be a major problem.

    For those, however, who believe, with the writers of Torah, with the writers of the New Testament (or H KAINE DIATHEKH [sorry, no Greek characters available here]), and even with the Neoplatonists, the Taoists, and the Buddhists, that we are a triunity of Body, Soul (or Mind) and Spirit, there should be no problem.

    With that view, we know that the body can be deformed, but the human being there is complete. Likewise, if the mind is deformed so that there is difficulty with the one deformed in speaking, the human being is still complete. The important thing is that central awareness, which was present before body and mind were formed, and which will long outlast those other two.

  2. Todd says:

    Thanks, Neil; this is excellent.

    Off the top of my head, I would say there is a thread of hope in the Old Testament Scriptures which are, admittedly, handicapped by an ancient view of blessing being a reward for virtue and misfortune being a punishment. The deep theology of Judaism, especially as it developed along with or after the impact of the Exile, seems to offer some hope.

    I would look to that Advent passage of Isaiah 35:3, 5-6a, in which the promise of strengthened hands, firm knees, opened eyes, cleared ears, and so on are offered. It might be argued that these images were intended to be aspects of unfaithful Israel’s curse and cure. But I don’t think they can be easily dismissed as univalent.

    Nor do I think Isaiah was speaking of literal healing, either of the physically challenged or a complete restoration of a “cursed” nation.

    I would suggest that Isaiah, and later Jesus in Luke 4, point to a messianic quality in these “improvements.” When a blind person is able to communicate in Braille, navigate with physical or computer aids, their “eyes,” their way of receiving input from the universe, have been opened. They receive information in ways unimagined a few centuries ago.

    I would defer to a person with the experience of Down syndrome, deafness, or any other challenge, but I would suggest that the medical and cultural advances are no less a herald for the reign of God than the episodes in which the Lord Jesus actually cured people in the gospels.

    I recall a Kansas City friend who had Down syndrome, but his witness as a communion minister, sacristan, and active parishioner was indeed a herald of the Reign of God, and he needed no “magical fix,” only an open culture with believers prepared to receive the gift of a person as it was given.

  3. Neil says:

    Dear Gentlemen,

    Thanks for writing. I apologize for taking a day to get back to you.

    Bernard is certainly right about the problems with a Cartesian division of mind and body. Amos Yong pursues what he calls an “emergentist” view. He claims that the soul is, put very briefly, “an emergent set of distinctive features and capabilities constituted by but irreducible to the sum of the body’s biological parts.” He sees this view as much more compatible with contemporary neuroscience, which tells us that our mental properties are “dependent on but not fully explicable by” physical properties. Thus, when we speak about human nature, we must take account of embodiment, environmental and social situatedness, and relationality – without being reductive or deterministic.

    Todd points us to a passage from Isaiah that can be read eschatologically. It is true that Yong passes over such proclamations too quickly, although he does acknowledge that they “have been the source of hope to many people with ‘disabilities’ throughout the centuries.” Nevertheless, Yong would rightly caution us from relying on such passages too quickly – they can reinforce notions of embodiment that suggest that those with disabilities are not yet “whole” and must be cured before entering the kingdom of God, and they can suggest that the disabled should hope for the eschaton and give up any hope for the present life.

    And I think that Yong and others would be hesitant before speaking of technological development as possessing a “messianic quality,” because technology has also been used to victimize the disabled. It might be better to see a “messianic quality” in the friendships that, while made possible by the development of computer aids and Braille, are ultimately created by the Spirit for the glory of God.

    Thanks again.


  4. Todd says:

    Neil, thanks for this and of course, for the series on the Week of Christian Unity.

    I certainly feel leery about getting caught in a tussle amongst theologians and people with whom I have a very limited share of experience. And yet …

    Yong may miss two important nuances of the hardships of life in the ancient world and of a quality of orthopraxis in Judaism, and to the theology of gifts in Paul.

    Were those who were blind, lame, etc. looked down upon because they are unable to offer service, to contribute to the survival of a clan, family, or desert tribe? Certainly there were many examples of honoring elders–people who were past their physical usefulness to the family and community. There may be a certain bias in applying the standards of a modern society to the demands of the ancient world.

    Secondly, I think there may be a bit of bias in Yong’s own thesis. We all agree that human beings have value and worth completely apart from their ability to contribute to society or community. However, do we do the physically and mentally challenged any favors by suggesting all they need to do is receive honor? In other words, are not their own gifts and abilities to be put to the service of the community, just as any apparently “normal” person’s would be?

    At the very least, the act of seeing, leaping, being unstopped: in the gospels, this is an occasion of rejoicing and the praise of God. Certainly, we are all called and challenged to encounter our own brokenness, our own weaknesses and see these as an occasion for metanoia, conversion, and the praise of God.

  5. Neil says:

    Dear Todd,

    Thanks for writing – there is no need for leeriness.

    I don’t think that, in ancient Israel, the disabled were “looked down upon” because of an inability to provide service. Ancient Israel, as Yong says, was “more concerned with ordering an impure world through proper rituals, a recognizable symbol system, bodily hygiene, and social practices.” Even if the disabled were not to be cursed and seen as special objects of God’s care, they were still associated with a sort of disorder – thus, the disabled could not approach the sanctuary of God (see Lev 21:16-23).

    I would agree that the gifts and abilities or the disabled should be put to the service of the community. I’d be cautious, however, about rooting the dignity of the disabled in any sort of optimism that, with the help of computers and other technology, they have or will soon have the same capacities as the “able.” I worry that this optimism can soon turn to pessimism.

    I would want to root it more in mutual relationships – the relationships in which we, who are not disabled, can, as you say, “encounter our own brokenness, our own weaknesses.”

    Thanks again.


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