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Sarah J. Melcher

Xavier University (Cincinnati, Ohio)


Amos Yong

Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, California)

Disability, Providence, and Ethics

Bridging Gaps, Transforming Lives

Hans S. Reinders


© 2014 by Baylor University Press

Waco, Texas 76798-7363

All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission in writing of Baylor University Press.

Scripture quotations, where not an author’s own translation, are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Cover Design by Alyssa Stepien

Cover image: The Blind Dancing at Night; Les Aveugles dansent la Nuit, 1956 (oil on canvas), Ernst, Max (1891–1976) / Private Collection / Photo © Christie’s Images / The Bridgeman Art Library. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Reinders, Hans S.

Disability, providence, and ethics : bridging gaps, transforming lives / Hans S. Reinders.

248 pages cm. — (Studies in religion, theology, and disability)

Includes bibliographical references and index.

ISBN 978-1-4813-0065-0 (hardback : alk. paper)

1. Providence and government of God—Christianity. 2. People with disabilities—Religious aspects—Christianity. I. Title.

BT135.R45 2014



Nobody knows what suffering or sacrifice means—except, perhaps, the victims.

—Joseph Conrad

God tempers the wind for the shorn lamb.

—Anthony Trollope


STUDIES IN RELIGION, THEOLOGY, AND DISABILITY brings established and newly emerging scholars together to explore issues at the intersection of religion, theology, and disability. The series editors encourage theoretical engagement with secular disability studies, while also supporting the reexamination of established religious doctrine and practice. The series fosters research that takes account of the voices of people with disabilities and the voices of their family and friends.

The volumes in the series address issues and concerns of the global religious studies/theological studies academy. Authors come from a variety of religious traditions with diverse perspectives to reflect on the intersection of the study of religion/theology and the human experience of disability. This series is intentional about seeking out and publishing books that engage with disability in dialogue with Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, or other religious and philosophical perspectives.

Themes explored include religious life, ethics, doctrine, proclamation, liturgical practices, physical space, spirituality, or the interpretation of sacred texts through the lens of disability. Authors in the series are aware of conversation in the field of disability studies and bring that discussion to bear methodologically and theoretically in their analyses at the intersection of religion and disability.

Studies in Religion, Theology, and Disability reflects the following developments in the field: First, the emergence of disability studies as an interdisciplinary endeavor that has impacted theological studies, broadly defined. More and more scholars are deploying disability perspectives in their work, and this applies also to those working in the theological academy. Second, there is a growing need for critical reflection on disability in world religions. While books from a Christian standpoint have dominated the discussion at the interface of religion and disability so far, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu scholars, among those from other religious traditions, have begun to resource their own religious traditions to rethink disability in the twenty-first century. Third, passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act in the U.S.A. has raised the consciousness of the general public about the importance of critical reflection on disability in religious communities. General and intelligent lay readers are looking for scholarly discussions of religion and disability as these bring together and address two of the most important existential aspects of human lives. Fourth, the work of activists in the disability rights movement has mandated fresh critical reflection by religious practitioners and theologians. Persons with disabilities remain the most disaffected group from religious organizations. Fifth, government representatives in several countries have prioritized the greater social inclusion of persons with disabilities. Disability policy often proceeds based on core cultural and worldview assumptions that are religiously informed. Work at the interface of religion and disability thus could have much broader purchase—that is, in social, economic, political, and legal domains.

Under the general topic of thoughtful reflection on the religious understanding of disability, Studies in Religion, Theology, and Disability includes shorter, crisply argued volumes that articulate a bold vision within a field; longer scholarly monographs, more fully developed and meticulously documented, with the same goal of engaging wider conversations; textbooks that provide a state of the discussion at this intersection and chart constructive ways forward; and select edited volumes that achieve one or more of the preceding goals.



Stanley Hauerwas

1Disability and Divine Providence

2Cosmic Fairness?

3Providence: Intervention and Transformation

4Does the Cosmos Contain Keys?

5A Man Named Job

6Fons Omnium Bonorum

7Providence in Christ

8Stories We Live By





The Christian belief in providence is also faith in the strict sense to the extent that, with reference to its object, it is simply and directly faith in God Himself, in God as the Lord of His Creation watching, willing and working above and in world-occurrence. I take this statement by Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics¹ to be the heart of Hans Reinders’ extraordinary account of how the Christian understanding of providence helps us be people better able to be with the disabled. How providence so understood should work to have that effect is not easily displayed, which is why this is such an important book. Reinders’ clear and compelling account of the relation of providence and disability does not need to be explained by me, but I want to try to explain why that is the case.

Of course, as Reinders helps us see, one of the words that often creates problems—when appeals to providence are made to explain why bad things happen to good people—is the word explain. It is, of course, an indication of our humanity to ask why, in an attempt to explain why X or Y happened, but just to the extent we think an explanation is possible, we run the risk of giving false comfort for ourselves and others; and that often makes matters worse. That we want to explain why a child is born with Down syndrome is perfectly understandable. But explanation can tempt us to believe that what we have experienced is really good for us or others in the long run, which traps us in a mechanistic universe in which God can make no difference.

That is why Reinders’ refusal to associate providence with theodicy is so important. For interestingly enough, theodicy—that is, the attempt to show how terrible events can be reconciled with the presumption that God exists primarily to ensure we are all right—is not really about God; rather, theodicy is all about us. Thus Reinders’ refusal to read Job as an exercise is theodicy. When Job is read as the attempt to justify the ways of God to our satisfaction, we miss how Job is able to help us better understand the God who refuses to let us be alone in our suffering. In short, theodicy is an attempt to overcome the contingent character of our creaturely status.

Contingency, moreover, is the heart of providence when providence is appropriately understood as the expression of God’s care of God’s creation. It is not accidental that within the Church Dogmatics, Barth’s account of providence develops within the doctrine of creation. We, and all that is, did not have to be, but we are. The only way to comprehend that which did not have to be but is, is through showing the connections between that which did not have to be through a narrative. Providence is the name Christians use to express God’s care of the contingent in a manner that the contingent remains contingent. Thus contingency is viewed as gift—not burden.

These are heady theological waters that are not easily navigated. The false alternative is to think that God is the direct cause of every happening or God is not present at all. The latter alternative cannot help but result in deism, and the former turns God into a manipulative tyrant. Reinders reminds us that the problem with these alternatives is the presumption we know what we say when we say cause. The very language of cause, particularly when cause is understood as efficient causation, presumes that if God is to be present in creation, then episodic intervention by God will be required. But the very presumption that God must intervene presumes that God has a problem in being present to that which would not exist except by God’s grace. In short, intervention language is the language of deism.

What must be remembered is creation is a concentrated way to tell the story of God’s love of all that which is not God. Providence is but a further elaboration of that story that witnesses to God’s ongoing care of that whose very existence depends on God’s delight in what God has created. What providence makes possible is that our lives can be and are in fact storied. Indeed the very demand to explain Why This? Why Me? can be understood as a testimony to the presumption that our existence is not the result of blind chance. The problem is not that the questions Why This? Why Me? are asked, but the problems come when we try to answer them using the grammar of explanation.

That is why this book centers around the stories Reinders marshals to help us see that the birth of a mentally handicapped child, as well as those who have suffered a traumatic brain injury, cannot be explained, but they can be storied. Through stories we are able to make connections between contingencies that cannot be connected by cause and effect but nonetheless can be shown to be parts of an ongoing pattern of life. Stories may not explain what happened, but they can help us know how to go on. Of course, as Reinders makes clear, it is not just any story that shapes the stories Christians tell to make sense of our lives. For Christians, it is the story of Jesus that tests any stories we would tell of our lives.

Reinders’ account of the christological character of the doctrine of providence echoes Barth’s understanding that in its substance the Christian belief in providence is faith in Christ. The word of God that makes faith possible and that illumines all existence by making it possible to see the lordship of God in the history of creaturely being, Barth maintains, is the one Word of God besides which there is no other—the Word which became flesh and is called Jesus Christ.² Accordingly the Christian belief in providence is given content and form, and is therefore in distinction from other similar forms, by the fact that the lordship of God is not just any Lordship, but the fatherly lordship manifest in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Barth is unrelenting in his critique of Protestant accounts of providence that divorce an account of providence from its proper christological home. When providence is divorced from Christology, it cannot help but become an expression of absolute will of an absolute power in an absolutely subjected sphere of power. Though such a view of providence was promulgated by orthodox Protestant theologians, Barth identifies them as liberals because their account of providence was liberated from the constraint of faith in Christ as the one word of God. Barth notes, for example, that such a view of providence not only proved inadequate in the face of the Lisbon earthquake, but when a general conception of providence is divorced from Christian substance, it becomes, for example, a favorite word on the lips of Adolf Hitler.

Reinders knows most of us are captured by the general account of providence identified and critiqued by Barth. He does not blame us for that, but rather gently and patiently leads us through exercises designed to help us recover the Christological character of our faith in God’s care of us through providence. If he had begun with his chapters on Calvin’s account of providence, many of us would have found Calvin far too dogmatic. But by taking us through witnesses who have learned not to lie to themselves about their child’s disability, we are prepared to begin to appreciate why providence is the name given to the transformation of our lives that is required if we are to be able truthfully to go on.

Such a transformation is made possible by having our lives engrafted into the story that is Jesus. That story—that is, the story of Jesus—means we are not determined by the past. Indeed the past is not even the past until it has been redeemed: thus Reinders’ suggestion that the Joseph story indicates that the past is not fated to be the past because we do not even know what the past is until we see the past in the light of the future that is Christ. Reinders’ use of stories like Martha Beck’s story is not therefore an illustration of a point that can be isolated from the story of Martha Beck, but the story is constitutive of the argument of the book.

Stories like the story of Martha Beck help us see that providence is best understood as an exercise in retrospective judgment. The great temptation is to think some account of providence will give us a handle on history by underwriting the presumption that where we are and where we are going is inevitable. But providence is best understood as a retrospective exercise that helps us see that what we thought happened is open to being described in a manner that is redemptive.

One of the extraordinary features of this book is the way Reinders has been able to engage difficult and complex questions dealing with God’s way of being and what can only be characterized as pastoral concerns. Though he acknowledges his indebtedness to John Swinton’s Raging with Compassion, a book with extraordinary pastoral insight, Reinders’ way of storytelling in itself is a response to the isolation suffering entails. Providence becomes the way our aloneness is overwhelmed through our mutual recognition made possible by the stories we must tell to one another. Such stories have the ring of truth because they are told by those who have nothing to lose.

Reinders rightly concentrates on stories of disability because so often disability occurs in contexts in which we have our highest expectations. We rightly want our children born all right. We have high expectations for those we bring into existence. Unsure about why we have this desire that our children have a normal and happy life, we are led to compensate for our uncertainty by ensuring that for them everything will be all right. But sooner or later, in everyone’s life, something will become not all right. We seek to blame or explain, but neither works. Reinders’ book is an extended meditation on why Christians have an alternative to that unhappy choice.

Some may think this book is primarily directed at those who have disabled children or family members. Hopefully those so situated will be led to read this book, but it would be a tragedy if the book only had such readers. This is a book that addresses theologically fundamental human questions in a manner that has implications for all lives. Hopefully it will be read widely as a model for the difference being Christian makes for the way we live.

—Stanley Hauerwas

Duke Divinity School



There are but three alternatives for the sum of existence: chance, fate, or Deity.

—James Douglas


What, if anything, has divine providence to do with disability? The question is by no means an obvious one to ask, except for the fact that a remarkable number of people hold strong opinions on the matter, both with regard to the question itself as well as to what seem to be plausible answers. To start with the former, for some the question as such betrays a suspicious desire to overcome disability by spiritual means. It inevitably pitches the realm of the fallen, rejected body against the realm of the soul, where healing, and ultimately redemption, can be found. For others the question as such is not suspect, and the answer is important, at least to them, even when none of the plausible answers goes uncontested. For some there is great consolation in the belief that disability is part of divine purpose, which for others again is totally unacceptable.¹

Surfing on that endless sea of popular opinion called the Internet, I came across the site of BBC Disability Ministry and was quite surprised in finding the following expression of faith on the matter:

We exist to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ. We joyfully live with a hard and glorious truth: God purposes disability in his creation for his glory and for our good.²

The surprise was because my European mind led me to assume that behind these lines was the respected public institution of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Of course this was a mistake. BBC Disability Ministry turned out to be a volunteering group of people with disabilities attached to Bethlehem Baptist Church, which was unspecified on this site. Its statement is a particularly strong example of the claim that God uses disability for his own glory, as well as for the good of the people involved. Without further qualification not very many people would be prepared to accept this.

Moving on in cyberspace, I stumbled upon one of the most succinct dismissals of this view that I have ever come across. I found it in a poem called Ars Poetica written by the American poet Gregory Fraser. In this poem Fraser sets out to define the nature of his poetry in light of the existence of his brother Jonathan who lives with spina bifida: All poetry begins, from now on, with my brother’s legs. Fraser has no patience for endearing talk about God’s friendship, let alone love, for his disabled brother. For those who are tempted to make sense of disability in religious language, he has a very clear message: Call God ‘cause’ and be done with it.³

This comment not only squarely opposes the triumphant tone of exalted views on what faith can do for you; Fraser also puts his finger on the spot where religious explanations hurt the most. People with disabilities have been harassed by comments about their sin, lack of faith, or inadequate prayer. Get rid of all this religious stuff, Fraser suggests; replace divine will by cause and there remains nothing to explain.

Particularly offending are religious explanations when they are felt as exonerating God, while blaming the victims. In his book Vulnerable Communion, Tom Reynolds makes this point:

Making the victim responsible is a typical path toward resolving the issue. … We look for a reason, someone or something to blame. And if God is not culpable … then the individual is presumed at fault, either bringing on divine punishment as a response to sin, or pre-empting the healing process because a lack of faith.

When religious explanations of disability come up, people sooner or later find themselves discussing the will of God. If God’s will has anything to do with it, then what does he want? So, the question arises of what religious traditions mean when they say that what happens in our lives is an expression of God’s will. Traditions can be written plural, in this connection, because this question is not only found in Christian discourses on disability, but in Jewish and Islamic discourses as well.

It is with regard to this question that Gregory Fraser’s blunt advice is particularly poignant. Forget about the why question, I take him to say, because there is no divine intention here, just natural cause. Not everybody agrees, though. I know my daughter’s disability has nothing to do with sin or lack of faith, but yet the question must be asked.⁶ Since the why question is on virtually everybody’s lips, it is apparently hard to avoid.

But I should not get ahead of my argument; I should say a bit more about what this book is supposed to do. Looking at the two opposite statements above, the question that interests me primarily is not what divides them, but rather what they have in common—and not only these two, but a whole range of similar statements. What they have in common is that in discussing the issue of making sense of disability, each of them is dependent on some conception of the universe, a particular way of looking at the world and our temporal existence in it. The controlling picture in the background seems to be something like this: in the ordinary flow of things, the world appears a pretty reliable place, a stable habitat for humanity, if you will. Occasionally things seem out of joint, however. People’s lives are turned upside down, shaking their belief in reliability. Tragic events and horrific accidents occur in their lives. This is when the question arises: Why this? Why me? The world throws all kinds of events upon people, some of which raise this question in that they disrupt what they would ordinarily expect from their lives. Apparently, being confronted by disability is one of such events.

Yet people’s responses differ, and they differ widely. According to some the universe is a well-ordered space, kosmos rather than chaos, to use ancient Greek terminology. According to others, however, there is no rule in the universe but chance and fortune, which makes the notion of a stable and reliable world anything but certain. The issue of making sense of disability, then, is ultimately about what kind of space one believes the universe to be. This is a question that warrants investigation.

The perspective from which I will pursue this investigation is that of religion. Religious traditions have characteristically adhered to the notion of a well-ordered universe (at least the traditions of the Abrahamic religions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity have). The reason is their belief in a Creator God who rules heaven and earth, as the Hebrew Bible puts it. This is why God in these traditions is spoken of as a providential God. The notion of a well-ordered universe goes hand in hand with the notion of divine providence, and this notion is the central concern of this study.

However, in investigating divine providence, I will not start with investigating sacred texts and classical treatises based upon them, the kind of sources that theologians usually start with—not because I think other sources of wisdom are preferable, but because I think that theological explanation is at its strongest when it addresses questions that spring from our own experience. When, for example, Gregory Fraser—or anyone else for that matter—in view of his brother’s disability suggests that we call God ‘cause’ and be done with it, then the question is what experience makes such a statement intelligible. What are its presuppositions, and what are its implications? The same goes mutatis mutandis for any competing statement on the same subject. It seems to me there is no better way to understand what people believe, and why, than by following the logic of how they try to make sense of their experience, as they report it, and then turning to the wisdom and insights of ancient sources to see whether—and, if so, how—these sources shed their light upon that experience.

Given the strong sentiments when it comes to disability experience and the many different ways of representing it, however, it is clear that I am entering a minefield here. The danger of offending people’s most intimate feelings lies on every corner of the road ahead. This cannot always be avoided, and in the present case there is a particular reason to be very cautious indeed: I am not a disabled person myself, at least not for the time being.

In starting with the question of how disability experience is accounted for and what this tells us about the underlying beliefs, I can only speak from what I have heard and read from people with disabilities and their families. Representing their views, however, is a sensitive issue indeed. In recent times, the experience of being misrepresented has been abundantly testified. Representation of disability is a tricky business, apparently, particularly because there are issues of stigmatization and marginalization at stake, especially when those who are not stigmatized and marginalized are the ones that are producing statements about how people feel about their disability. Regarding such statements people have learned to ask who is behind personal pronouns like we, they, us, them, our, or theirs. In the present case this is as well a relevant question to ask.

Even though I do not speak from firsthand experience, I do think it is possible to listen to what people say, and listen carefully, in order to try and understand what they are saying. One of the ways this can be done is what I intend to do in this book, which is to find out what convictions and beliefs make their experience intelligible. Therefore, listening carefully to what people say about the meaning of the question Why this? Why me? in their lives is the appropriate way to start.

Finally, in taking the why? question as my point of departure, it appears this inquiry is buying into the premise of disability as a tragedy, comparing it to horrific accidents and other catastrophes, against which many people with disabilities and their families would level strong objections. As a matter of fact, I do not believe that disability is first of all a tragedy, because what makes it a tragedy, if at all, are mostly other people’s responses.⁷ But even if disability per se is not necessarily a tragedy or a disaster, the experience of being confronted by it certainly is, at least initially. This experience turns people’s lives upside down, as the literature of their first-person accounts abundantly testifies. Of course it can be argued that disability will only appear as a tragedy because the people involved have been socialized within the cult of normalcy, to borrow Tom Reynolds’ phrase.⁸ But precisely because they are so socialized, the experience of tragedy cannot but be very real to them. The fact that underlying the notion of tragedy are often mistaken beliefs about disability is something they do not know at the time of their experience. At that time, people have yet to find out ways to regain confidence and trust that there is life beyond tragedy. As I have put it elsewhere, for most people the experience of disability as tragedy is real because it is prior to discovering the grounds on which that experience can be contested.⁹

Making Sense of Disability

Before we proceed, however, I need to clarify the language of making sense of disability. It is not unusual for theologians to think about the kinds of questions they raise as questions about meaning. This holds for questions about disability as well. The late Nancy Eiesland, for example, expressed in her work a wholehearted commitment to the struggle of the disability rights movement of which she considered herself to be a part. But at the same time, she confessed that this commitment failed to respond to some of her spiritual and theological questions, such as the question, What does my disability mean?¹⁰ Similarly Arne Fritzon, a Swedish theologian with cerebral palsy and a member of the Ecumenical Disability Advocates Network (EDAN), writes about Disability and Meaning.¹¹ Together with Samuel Kabue from Kenya, Fritzson was one of the authors of the document A Church of All and for All,