Suffering with numerous health complications for most of my life now, I have had great periods of theological deconstruction and re-construction in regards to the nature of God. I would assume the same has been true for Nancy Eiesland as a Christian woman with physical disabilities, and perhaps one could view her book The Disabled God as a sort of deconstruction and re-construction of her own Christology. In the book she repeatedly brings up the fact that degrading Christian mentalities and attitudes, albeit often covertly hidden in subconsciousness, surrounding the physically disabled are “funded by foundational Christian themes such as the conflation of sin and disability, virtuous suffering, and segregationist charity” (93). She gives an example that cut to my heart: People who use wheelchairs endure physical debasement when people refuse to meet their eyes or stand beside the chair to talk instead of before the person” (92).
When we avoid interactions with those in braces or wheelchairs, or when we talk at them—thinking we’ve done our Christian duty—but have dramatically failed to talk with them, perhaps we simply don’t recognize who it is we’re encountering. Do we see evangelistic opportunities and divine mistakes, or do we see the divine itself and opportunities to be evangelized ourselves? I want to argue for the latter.
The degrading manner of (non)engagement with those with disabilities largely stems from an ancient pagan view of God as a distant deity that intervenes with human affairs on rare occasion. When God is this cosmic being orbiting in the Heavens away from embodied humanity, it becomes very easy to situate one’s eyes away from the earthly and up towards the heavenly under the guise of spiritual piety. But anyone who has struggled with their health or who has inherited physical disabilities understands that this top-down theology ultimately enables and perpetuates inaccessible, individualistic, minimizing, and justifying theologies of so-called suffering. This is problematic because it lends itself to model a church hierarchy of privileged able-bodied individuals that seek to help the disabled, as opposed to centralize them in the church as bearers of the imago dei who have a wealth to teach the rest of us about who God is.
Worship of the disabled God is the psychological and theological reconditioning that there is divinity within all creatures great and small, certainly not least of these those with physical disabilities. Leon Dufour writes: “I think, in the end, God is the person you’re talking to, the one right in front of you.” This view of God calls us to rename the disabled as image bearers of the divine Logos and to see in ourselves our own disabled properties not as evidence of our sin, but as our shared humanity through which the holy God became incarnate in Christ and continues to emanate through us by way of the Spirit. This relocation of God out of the sky into what Paul Tillich calls “the ground of being itself” dramatically changes the Christian objective. Relationship is prioritized over conversion. God lies at the heart of life, meaning that God transcends our abilities or disabilities and works not in spite of it, but through it. Therefore, the disabled don’t need the spiritual aid of the Church; the Church needs the disabled to teach her what it truly means to be the body of Christ.
Christians have become so obsessed with looking up at a crucified Christ who has atoned for original sin, died and gone to Heaven, when what we need is a God who suffers, dies, and in his resurrection “calls for his frightened companions to recognize in the marks of impairment their own connection with God, their own salvation” (100). Eieslend’s renaming of Christ as the disabled God repudiates the destructive notions surrounding disability by way of reimagining the holy God as present in and through disabled humanity, rather than above it in heavenly perfection. This is an embodied Christology, which locates the divine as a presence at the very heart of life, and what a much more holistic place for Christian ministry to begin.