Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Heart's Knowledge

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Heart's Knowledge

Article excerpt

Heart's Knowledge Disability, Providence, and Ethics: Bridging Gaps, Transforming Lives BY HANS S. REINDERS *. BAYLOR, 248 PAGES, $4,9-95

What sort- of world do we live in? Is it a world- of chance and fortune without meaning? When bad things happeh, an accident or an illness, is it only bad luck? Or is there a transcendent order and a governing purpose? Christians talk about divine providence, God sustaining and leading a meaningful cosmos, but there is no unanirnity in the tradition on how to understand this concept. Some see everything that happens, including evil arid suffering, as part of God's overall pifen. Others refuse to understand providence as a sort of universal teleology. God is not directly causing evil for tfie good of the whole.

The Dutch theologian Hans Reinders, one of the most interesting thinkers working at thé intersections of theology, philosophy, and disability studies, discusses in this well-written and engaging book the theology of providence in relation to the experience of disability. He focuses on two kinds of experiences with disability: childrenjborn with disability, and people who have suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Receiving a child with a disability is, for most people, initially experienced as tragedy. "Why my child?" "Why us?" Life as they knew it is shattered. They lived, it seemed, in an ordered world; now that order has-collapsed. Something similar happens in the case of TBI, but with one big difference: the abiding knowledge of the person before TBI. In both situations, people cannot avoid the "Why" questions. This is true for secular naturalists, who theoretically see life only as a sequence of events, as much as it is for religious believers. However, Reinders says, people asking such questions are most often not really asking for a theoretical explanation, a third-person perspective. They are asking, "Why me?" "Why us?" It is a first-person question. It is lament, a cry of despair. Reinders thinks that in this situation to offer a theodicy is pointless, and anyhow impossible. He is, in particular, critical of what he calls cheap theodicies, explanations of God's purposes that risk instrumenralizing suffering, making it into a means to a higher good.

Reinders has written a book of theological analysis, but he wants theology to make sense of our lives as we experience them. Therefore much of the book consists of skillfully told stories, both contemporary first-person real-life stories and the biblical stories of Job and Joseph. Most of the contemporary stories he has chosen are not told from an explicitly religious perspective and do not use the language of God's providence, but Reinders thinks that a theology of providence helps us see these stories in a new light.

The first story is about a promising couple, at home in the successoriented culture of an elite American university, giving birth to a boy with Down syndrome named Adam. He is a complete negation of the "Harvardized" life they had planned. But there is also transformation. On the one hand, the mother experiences a helping presence that slowly breaks down her naturalism, which had suited her at Harvard. On the other hand, living with Adam gradually and often painfully changes her, her husband, and the story through which they understand their lives-and, therefore, also their past. Frequently it is their friends who help them see differently. With time, they cannot anymore understand how they once could think about life as they did. It is a story of transformation and redemption.

Another story is about the wife of a man who suffered a severe brain injury in a boating accident. He partly recovers but is a changed person. He behaves strangely, though he is often happier than he was before the accident. The wife cannot rejoice in his recovery or in his newfound happiness. She mostly sees the lost husband, the lost relationship, the loss of the life they once had.

In the middle of the book is a chapter on the Book of Job. …

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