The new creation part 3: Disability and the Eschaton, by Kevin Timpe
September 28, 2016 — 7:31

Author: Helen De Cruz  Category: Afterlife Christian Theology  Tags: , , , , ,   Comments: 8

A few years ago, I had a student with Cerebral Palsy. He was one of those students that I connected with outside of the regular classroom. One day while we were talking about theological matters at our favorite local coffee shop, he told me that he’d be “really pissed off” if he didn’t have CP in heaven. The reason he gave for this claim was that his disability is part of his identity.

I confess that his claim struck me as odd at the time. Like many individuals, I had the thought “but why wouldn’t you want to not be disabled if that’s possible?” But over the past year and a half as I’ve begun immersing myself in various disability literatures, I’ve come to learn that my student’s thought is common among many people who have disabilities. Some members of the Deaf community think that they’ll be deaf and speak in sign language in the eschaton, just as others expect to speak in their own linguistic communities. (Just as I would like to be able to speak and understand Farsi in heaven, should I get there, I hope that I’ll be able to communicate in ASL.) And theologian Amos Young, in his well-known Theology and Down Syndrome, argues that his brother will still have Trisomy 21 in the eschaton.

Why might it be important to take seriously this line of thought? I think because of the substantial history of harms that have been done against those with disabilities, both in general but also more specifically by denying their voice when they speak of their own experiences. In her wonderful The Minority Body, Elizabeth Barnes talks about the tendency to downplay such testimony from those with disabilities as a kind of epistemic injustice, namely testimonial injustice. According to Miranda Fricker, testimonial injustice “occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to dive a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word”(Epistemic Injustice, p. 1). (As an illustration of some of the difficulties facing individuals with disabilities and the denial of their voice, I highly recommend people read Harriet McBride Johnson’s “Unspeakable Conversations.”).

Now, I don’t think that the need to take such testimony seriously means that it’s always veridical. (Neither does Barnes.) But it should make us pause and think before speaking. In what follows, I especially encourage those with disabilities to weigh in. And I encourage those of us that don’t have disabilities to take their reports seriously.

So what of the question, “will people have their disabilities in the eschaton?” Obviously, on one sense of the term ‘identity’, if a disability is part of a person’s identity then they will. Here I’m thinking of specifically numeric identity. But I also think that there are compelling reasons to think that not all disabilities are part of a person’s identity in this sense. (I’m inclined toward the view that there’s not a single thing that is disability, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I think that not all disabilities are similar in the relevant respect.) Disabilities that are acquired later in life—e.g., dementia or disabilities which result from a traumatic brain injury (TBI)—aren’t essential to a person’s numeric identity. If a person exists prior to having a disability, then it is possible for that person to exist without that disability. And if Christianity is true, it’s also possible for those born with a disability to no longer have it. The blind are given sight; the lame walk.

But this doesn’t mean that all disabilities are like that. It may be that chromosomal abnormalities (e.g., Trisomies 18 and 21, 2p15-16.1 Microdeletion Syndrome) as well as other kinds of disabilities are not separable from one’s numeric identity in this sense. I confess I don’t know what to think about these kinds of cases. But I think we have some (though certainly defeasible) reasons for thinking that these disabilities will be present in the eschaton because they are tied to a person’s numeric identity.

There’s another—a weaker—sense of identity where I think it makes sense to say that disabilities are part of a person’s identity, and that’s the “self-understanding and narrative” sense of the term. This is, I think, what many people mean when they say that being disabled is part of their identity. It is, for instance, what I think is present in the following passage from Simi Linton:

While retaining the word disability, despite its medical origins, a premise of most of the literature in disability studies is that disability is best understood as a marker of identity. As such, it has been used to build a coalition of people with significant impairments, people with behavioral or anatomical characteristics marked as deviant, and people who have or are suspected of having targets of discrimination…. When disability is redefined as a social/political category, people with a variety of conditions are identified as people with disabilities or disabled people, a group bound by common social and political experience. (Claiming Disability, 12)

A similar approach to one’s identity as disabled can also be found in Harilyn Rousso’s Don’t Call Me Inspirational. For many people with disabilities, their disability has so shaped their self-understanding that they cannot understand what it would be like for them not to have those disabilities (even if it is metaphysically possible for them to exist without those disabilities).

There are other aspects of one’s identity, so construed, that might also be understood in a similar way. Being a parent isn’t part of my numeric identity (since I was still me prior to being a parent), but it is a significant part of my own self-understanding and who I’ve become. And this is also true more specifically of being a parent of a disabled child. Even if I am no longer a parent at some point in the future (that thought is horrific to me!) or still a parent but not of a child with disabilities, the ways that those experiences have shaped my life are, I think, marks that I shall always bear in the future. And it’s hard, if not impossible, to know what these marks will be like prior to having them. Such marks are, in Laurie Paul’s term, transformative experiences.

Answers to the question depend on lots of philosophical questions (e.g., What is the nature of disability? What is the correct account of human nature? What kinds of goods and diversity will be realized in the heavenly kingdom? What experiences are compatible with the beatific vision?). It is my hope that in the future there will be more interaction between philosophy of religion and disability studies.[1]

[1] I’d like to Michelle Panchuck, Scott Williams, and Hilary Yancey for discussions on these issues.

  • Hi Kevin. Important stuff. My disability is in being dizzy and in pain all the time. This makes me unable to do many things, such as drive well. So I prefer the term “unable” to “disabled”, as if I am a worn out piece of machinery taken out of service. Plus, everyone is unable to do many things.

    On the other hand, I can do some things better than before, photography, for instance, as it fulfills a new need to focus more, in order not to be sick, to have my attention somewhere else, such that I do not get overwhelmed by nausea, tinnitus and all the other stuff that goes with this.

    Let me address two tangents. One is the comment that I have heard, people say they would rather be dead than to live as I do through each day. If you suddenly felt like I do, even if you were pleading to be put out of your misery, I’d bet you dollars to donuts that you would fight me off if I put a pillow over your head as you waddled so.

    I used to love to drive. I even used to love exercise, and was in pretty darn good condition, working out with dumbbells, calisthenics, stretching exercises, and racewalking over 5 miles each day. And I have heard people say that they’d never want to give up their licenses. I wouldn’t have either, and loved my car.

    Here’s the other tangent. Becoming unable to do these important activities is like moving to a new country, suburban after urban or vice versa, mountains after oceans, even being adopted into a new family with much different ways than known previously.

    That said, I would like to be cured, to be able to do what I was doing before, and add photography to it. It may not be for everyone, but I have seen the viral videos of people who hear for the first time in their lifetime, and they love it. But, as we age, these abilities leave us, sometimes suddenly, usually not to return.

    John Lennon said in his song to his son that life is what happens to people while we are making other plans. For me, it is a wisdom to embrace the life that comes, and also the death that is to come, for me hopefully decades from now.

    September 28, 2016 — 8:57
  • This is a very thought-provoking post, Kevin. What do you think about this idea? Most (perhaps not all) of the conditions we call disabilities are disabilities in a pretty literal and straightforward sense: there are certain things others can do that are difficult or impossible for those who have these conditions. Might it be correct to say that, in the eschaton, people will still have these conditions, or at least belong to these groups, but the conditions themselves will no longer be disabilities, in any literal or straightforward sense? For instance, one might be a member of the deaf community, and communicate primarily in sign language, but be capable of hearing if one chooses. Or one might still, in some sense, have cerebral palsy, but no longer have any of the associated mobility or coordination difficulties. (It is sometimes thought that there are certain distinctive advantages to having certain conditions that are usually classified as disabilities; these, of course, would not be lost.) Is this the sort of thing people have in mind, or do you think I’m missing something?

    September 29, 2016 — 3:11
  • Rus,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Regarding your preferred terminology, I can respect your preference. One of the difficult things I’ve encountered reading (and now trying to contribute to) the disability literature is the extreme divisiveness of language. But let me also indicate that I also think that not all inabilities are equally relevant to these discussions. My inability to fly, for instance, is relevantly difference than children that I know that are unable to communicate effectively with their parents. (I have no idea which pole here you see your own inability closer to.)

    And yes, I think we have many cases where a disability makes possible or contributes to a good that the individual wouldn’t otherwise have. Many disabilities involve, at the very least, what Barnes calls “local goods”.

    Regarding your first tangent, I think that you’re right. And there’s a lot of empirical literature that would seem to back it up. (Which is one reason that so many Hollywood films about disability can be problematic.) And the point is also related to L.A. Paul’s work on transformative experiences that I mention in passing.

    Thanks for the engagement.

    September 29, 2016 — 8:08
  • Kenny,

    At the very least, I want to leave open that possibility. But I think it differs on the kid of disability. (I also worry that your characterization of disability won’t get all the cases right, for reasons Elizabeth Barnes discusses in her book.)

    It’s not clear to me, though, that we can always separate having a particular disability with the ‘effects’ of having that disability. Perhaps it’s just a failure of my imagination, but for some disabilities it looks like that wedge will be hard to accomplish.

    September 29, 2016 — 8:17
    • I definitely wasn’t trying to characterize all cases, just certain relatively simple ones. I guess I’m trying to understand exactly what it is that people wouldn’t want to give up. Your distinction (in reply to Rus) between disability and inability is helpful. Part of what I was trying to say is that in most of these cases it’s hard for me to understand how coming to have an ability you didn’t have before (i.e., getting rid of an inability) could be destructive to one’s identity. There are some cases where that might be true, like if the inabilities stem from one’s character, but for physical inabilities I have trouble seeing it. So the first thing I wondered was whether a person who valued, or at least identified with, his or her disability was valuing or identifying with something other than an inability. Is that right? If so, then surely there are some cases (e.g. sensory deficits, mobility limitations) where the thing that’s valued is (metaphysically) compatible with coming to have the relevant ability, right? But maybe there are other cases where it’s not. I haven’t thought about this very much and I don’t know very much about it, so these are all just questions.

      I can definitely understand how people might come to view the world a different way by having to live differently because of a disability and being part of a community that shared that experience, and I can certainly see that that could be something of value. But in the cases where this is the thing of value, the removal of the inability would not necessarily destroy the value. Or so it seems to me. I’m trying to think of, and understand, the harder cases.

      September 29, 2016 — 16:22
  • Ray Charles became blind as a child: He said, “The inability to hear is a handicap; not the inability to see.” His foundation was set up to help the deaf. If my memory serves, he is the celebrity who got this very argument to be trending in the news, by saying that if his blindness could be cured, he may not want it. This caused people on one side of the argument to say that they lost respect for him ~~ and to repeat, I believe, but could be wrong, that it was Ray Charles who made this statement. If blindness is not an inability that ought to be considered a handicap, then there is a world one can live well in, better in, without sight. We can imagine that.

    Alternatively, in the 80s, the middleweight champion Marvelous Marvin Hagler, when asked what he thought of Tommy Hearns ducking out of their first scheduled fight for problems with his finger, said critically, “Do you know how many people would cut off” their little finger for a chance at a million dollar pay day. Here, we have the case of money in exchange for an inability, something Rod Serling addressed when in order to win a bet, a character cut his vocal chords permanently so that he definitely would not speak, and thus win the million dollar bet ~~ challenged to go so many months without uttering a word.

    Disability is something that is defined by the federal agencies Social Security and ERISA, a definition tracked closely and fought over by disability insurance companies. On the other hand, wasn’t President FDR disabled, who held that position longer than any other president, and so is Stephen Hawking, sometimes called the smartest person alive, possibly helped along by his inabilities ~~ or at least we can imagine that happening.

    There is the tension, the disability, being unable to earn money or enough money, in order to live within society ~~ versus the potential world that the non-disabled would need to imagine, for those who are unable to do activities that would lead to being able to make such a living.

    To go a step further, there is the stigma. Should we feel sorry for Stephen Hawking? And if we are, is it coming from a place of condescension, with how much misunderstanding? Should we even feel sorry for the celebrity who would not want to have his blindness cured?

    Most commonly, those on SSDI or other disability income, are an economic drain in the system ~~ even though they (we) have paid into that very system, in order to take from it when and, God forbid, if it should be needed. This can create an attitude of condescension and challenged through misunderstanding for those who still pay into the very same insurance. At least an unspoken self-righteous social resentment can occur in individuals, at worst, disabled people have been put to death.

    Thank you so much for this forum, Kevin & Helen

    September 29, 2016 — 19:46
  • Jeremy Pierce

    You can’t easily separate the idea of the eschaton from teleology. It seems to me that we have to have some notion of the way things ought to be. It obviously shouldn’t be a matter of what we would prefer. It shouldn’t be what people without disabilities fallibly want for people with disabilities. But it also shouldn’t be what people with disabilities fallibly want for themselves. Many people contemplate whether the eschaton will be so different from our experience that if we were to try to describe it to us the way we are now we wouldn’t even find it attractive, and yet it would still be objectively better than anything we can imagine for ourselves. Given that, I tend to think the testimony of the preferences of anyone about what they would want in the eschaton is, while not irrelevant, really not the point. Some people might want to be “cured” or want not to be “cured.” But I don’t think we should settle for a subjective view of what’s good. You don’t have to be minimizing the testimony of people with disabilities in particular to say this, at least if you’re doing so because you’re minimizing the preferences of everyone in general.

    There’s an interesting book that I read a review of recently. I don’t remember the name of the author or the book, but it was by a man who had autism who underwent some neurological treatment that allowed him to increase his ability to perceive what others are thinking and feeling, and he describes it as a sudden realization of all the verbal and non-verbal communications that he’d been missing out on. There is objective content that he was simply not able to pick up on. He says he wishes he hadn’t had that treatment, because now he saw people for what they really re, and he was able to read that back into past interactions with people where he realized that they probably weren’t as favorable interactions as he at the time had thought. He was suddenly more suspicious of people, knowing things about them now that he never had realized.

    Even in that case, though, it’s hard to argue that he’s intrinsically worse off, even if there’s a negative effect on him because of his newfound knowledge about people. What he says is bad is the effect of this knowledge on him. Not having that and then getting it made him more suspicious of people, when he had been blissfully ignorant before. He’s the guy in the Matrix that wanted to go back in and forget about what he’d learned by joining Morpheus’ team. He wasn’t comfortable with knowing reality, so he wanted illusion again.

    I think this case shows a few interesting things. One is that the particular aspect of autism that got modified in him is not essential to him in the sense of numerical identity. He certainly sees himself as the guy who couldn’t see how others saw him all those years, and now he’s no longer clueless about such things. It also shows that someone might have a reason for not preferring a “cure” but that the reason is purely because of the consequences of having to deal with realities that they don’t want to deal with. I have no idea how many cases are like that, but this guy seems to be such a case. And third, it shows that someone can be better off in terms of having better abilities to navigate the world and protect himself from potential danger of being mistreated by others, while wishing he hadn’t become that way. And it might even be rational for him to wish he hadn’t become that way, all the while still be true that it’s better for him. But we know from many other discussions that being objectively better off doesn’t always line up with personal preferences.

    When I see my son struggle to communicate with language, it’s hard for me to think that he wouldn’t want it to be easier for him to say the things he wants to say. When I see my other son take forever to get through a math assignment that he has a hard time focusing on, when other kids in his grade would do it in a tenth of the time, it’s hard for me to think he wouldn’t love to have an easier time processing information and having more integrated sensory experiences. But I’m sure he wouldn’t want to be such that he longs for complex social interaction that he would find difficult and worth avoiding at the moment. It would be like asking someone who hates golf if they want to be cured of that and made to like golf and play it for hours at a time. I’d not want someone to change me that way. Yet one might still argue that having stronger social desires and abilities would be good for him and not just as an instrumental good. One might argue that it’s intrinsically better because things would be working the way they’re supposed to.

    I recognize that it’s hard to say something like that without the implicature of inferiority and so on. But I would insist that we need to keep some language for saying that someone’s condition is not ideal and that it would be better for them if they were a different way. The “mere difference” view of disability that’s becoming very common nowadays is at odds with any kind of teleology that I believe to be necessary for any kind of eschaton that’s worth desiring. We can’t think that all differences are mere differences and that every neurological state, say, is equally good. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t some differences that are mere differences, at least intrinsically. Certainly we have plenty of such examples. Handedness is one that historically (and in some parts of the world even now) has not always been taken as a mere difference, but most of us think it is, at least intrinsically. (We might recognize that left-handed people have a harder time in our society, because many artifacts we construct are designed for right-handed people, and so on.) But I think we have to have some room for things not being the way they ought to be and becoming better in the eschaton, however we settle which things those are. I think there is a movement to erase such talk, and I think such a view would be misguided, even if well meant.

    October 4, 2016 — 21:29
  • Dustin Osborn

    Dear Kevin,

    Thank you for your thoughts on this specific question and your sensitivity to your students’s claims. I came across your post while researching under what conditions identity is preserved or broken for mentally disabled persons when they enter the afterlife. In the above you seem to be testing different criteria for identity preservation when an agent identifies with a disability so deeply that its loss upon death would be, in a mild case, a pro tanto divine harm, or, in a severe case, identity destruction. What do you think of “personal attachment” as a possible criteria here? If I understand that notion, its that over time a disabled person might embrace and endorse her adult life built around the presence of her disability such that wishing away her disability is tantamount to wishing away her own existence (which may be cherished). I don’t know any of the literature offhand; I offer it here simply on the basis of a short conversation with an expert which I now realized I should have extended. Thank you again. – Dustin

    October 22, 2016 — 0:50
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