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.
 I’d like to Michelle Panchuck, Scott Williams, and Hilary Yancey for discussions on these issues.
An Argument for the View that God has a Sense of Humor
Does God have a sense of humor? Here is one argument to think that he does. Let us start with the following uncontroversial premise:
(1) Having a sense of humor is a good-making property for human beings.
This does not seem to need much by way of defense: surely, ceteris paribus, we prefer someone with a sense of humor over someone without a sense of humor. In fact, when asked what we deem most important in relationships with other persons, the attribute of humor is usually in the top five. The second premise is as follows:
(2) For any property P, if P is a good-making property for entity X and P is intrinsically good, then for any entity Y that can have P, P will be a good-making property for Y.
Let me point out two important features of this premise. First, it says that if something is a good-making property for X, then it is a good-making property for Y if Y can have that property. The following example illustrates the relevance of this restriction. It is good for a building to be hurricane-resistant. However, since God is an immaterial being, it would be ridiculous to think that God is hurricane-resistant. God does not even have all good-making properties that humans have. Being a fast swimmer is a good-making property, but, of course, God is not a fast swimmer—nor is he a slow or an average one; he is simply not a swimmer at all, given that he does not have a body. That some property P (say, being hurricane-resistant or being a good swimmer) is a good property for one thing X (say, a building or a human being) does not mean that it is also a good-making property for some other thing Y (say, God). Only if Y can have that property is it good-making for Y.
A second important feature of (2) is that it is restricted to properties that are intrinsically good. It is a matter of philosophical debate precisely how we are to spell out what it is for goodness to be intrinsic rather than instrumental, but it seems the following will do for our purposes: something is intrinsically good if it is good in itself or for its own sake rather than as a means to something else. It is good that the water in my cup is fluid, but merely because I want to drink it. It is, therefore, merely instrumentally good. However, the beauty of Rembrandt’s The Jewish Bride or the courage of a fireman who attempts to save someone’s life by risking his own life are intrinsically good, because they are good in themselves and for their own sake.
The third premise is:
(3) Having a sense of humor is a property that is intrinsically good.
To have a sense of humor seems to be a property that is intrinsically rather than (merely) instrumentally good. To have a sense of humor is good in itself or for its own sake, not merely because it is a means to something else. Among the things that are usually considered to be intrinsically good are happiness, beatitude, contentment, and pleasures and satisfactions of certain kinds. To be amused seems to be one of the pleasures and satisfactions that are intrinsically good, for it seems that if someone is amused at something and there is nothing morally wrong about that, then that is a good thing in itself: it need not serve any further purpose in order to be good.
From (1) through (3) it follows that:
(4) If God can have a sense of humor, then having a sense of humor is a good-making property for God.
The next premise is:
(5) God can have a sense of humor.
I return to this premise below. (4) and (5) together allow us to infer that:
(6) Having a sense of humor is a good-making property for God.
The next premise says that:
(7) If having a sense of humor is a good-making property for God, he has that property.
And from (6) and (7) we conclude that:
(8) God has the property of having a sense of humor.
Let me now defend the two premises not yet discussed. The reason to embrace (7) is that God is perfect in all regards. This is not to say that God will have any good-making property that he could have. It is, presumably, a good-making property of God that he has actualized the actual world. Assuming that God was free in actualizing this possible world, he could have actualized another possible world, and if he had done so, he would have exemplified the good-making property of having actualized that possible world. But God cannot actualize this possible world and another possible world. Hence, God will not have all good-making properties that he could have. With the property of having a sense of humor, things are different, though. There seems no property or set of properties that God contingently exemplifies, such as having actualized this possible world or having raised Jesus Christ from the dead, that rules out his having a sense of humor.
This leaves us with (5), which says that God can have a sense of humor. Is this true? Well, I see no reason to think that it conflicts with God’s omniscience. And I cannot think of a good reason to think that it would be ruled about by God’s omnipotence, omnipresence, omnibenevolence, or any other properties that are traditionally ascribed to God as essential properties that he has. There seems to be nothing in the nature of being amused or having the disposition to be amused that is ruled out by God’s nature. Thus, for all we know, God can have a sense of humor.
It follows from the argument that God has a sense of humor.
Robert Adams famously argued that an unsurpassable being need not actualize the best possible world. Adams urges that he does not believe that there is a best world, but assumes there’s one for the sake of argument.
I think it is fairly plausible to suppose that God could have created a world that would have the following characteristics: (1) None of the individual creatures in it would exist in the best of all possible worlds. (2) None of the creatures in it has a life which is so miserable on the whole that it would be better for that creature if it had never existed. (3) Every individual creature in the world is at least as happy on the whole as it would have been in any other possible world in which it could have existed. (‘Must God Create the Best’, PR, 1972)
Links added 4 August:
Information about this case isn’t easy to come by, but here are a couple of old stories that provide some account of the events:
-From Aug. 19, 2011 in the Banner, the “official magazine of the Christian Reformed Church” (the denomination with which Calvin College is associated) there is “Calvin College Religion Profs in the News; One Alleges College Is Being Dishonest”
-From the Aug. 2011 Spark, Calvin’s own alumni magazine, there is “Calvin professors in center of origins conversation”
“A Tale of Two Professors” is a recently produced documentary, half of which is on the interesting case of John Schneider, who was a tenured professor in the Religion Department at Calvin College, until he was forced into early retirement over his work concerning how to understand the doctrine of the Fall in light of scientific results suggesting there were no historic first humans, Adam and Eve, who began their lives in an unfallen world, free of evil and death. (I would not recommend the documentary’s telling of the other story they cover, but, unfortunately, the tales are woven together so that you kinda have to take them both in.)
Schneider’s story was also told a couple of years ago by Michael Ruse in the Chronicle of Higher Education, in an opinion piece whose title reveals how Ruse saw the whole affair: “The Shame of Calvin College”. And in a blog post at New APPS, Jon Cogburn helpfully quotes the question and answer from the Heidelberg Catechism that seems most relevant to the case. (Faculty at Calvin sign a “form of subscription” endorsing that Catechism, along with a couple of other historic Reformed confessions; the form itself is here. Batman’s response is here.)
The documentary brings in Jamie Smith of the Calvin philosophy department to give the college’s side of the issue. Smith explains:
We want to cultivate a theological imagination that doesn’t assume that it’s either/or. As if, “Oh, this new data has come in. We’d better abandon everything we’ve thought for fifteen hundred years.” So, we want to ask hard questions, but we want to do that faithfully.” (8:42 – 8:59)
I want to be careful in responding to that. The context in which it’s presented in the documentary suggests that it is aimed at Schneider, as an explanation/justification for why his treatment was appropriate. But I can’t be sure that the documentary is presenting this fairly. For all I really know, Jamie could have been just explaining how in principle the college might be justified in restricting someone, or, indeed, he could have been just explaining how he thought these questions should be pursued, with no reference at all to the issue of whether the college should take any actions against anyone who didn’t pursue the questions in that way. In that case, my complaint is against the documentary, and not against Jamie.
But since it is suggested – whether by Jamie himself or by the editing of the documentary – that this is directed at Schneider, it really ought to be said that we’re not talking here about “new data” that has just come in. The results that drive Schneider’s questions are quite old. It’s stuff we’ve known for a long time. And I take myself to be seeing things much as Ruse does in saying that it’s stuff that many parts of the Church have been embarrassingly slow to respond to in anything close to a satisfying way. And as for the “abandon everything we’ve thought for fifteen hundred years” bit, well, that’s obviously blowing things up a bit (or more than a bit), since of course nobody’s talking about all that, either. Perhaps that’s just some harmless rhetoric (since it is so obviously blown up), but one might wonder about the use of such pumping of one’s opponent’s position in the context of discussing the ouster of someone from his job. (Though again, I’m not certain whether my complaint here is against Jamie or against those who put this documentary together.)
Incidentally, Jamie is part of a group that has a grant from the BioLogos Foundation for a project entitled “Beyond Galileo – to Chalcedon: Re-imagining the Intersection of Evolution and the Fall”, so, presumably, we will soon be able to see a concrete example of how to ask the hard questions here faithfully. Making sense of evolution while remaining faithful to the honest-to-God truth of “all the articles and points of doctrine” of the Reformed confessions would seem to me quite a challenge!
Is it ever rationally believe in the occurrence of miracles on the basis of testimony of others? I have been of late fascinated by the research of the developmental psychologist Paul L. Harris, who has investigated how young children acquire information through testimony. Harris gauges two psychological hypotheses. The first, which he attributes to Hume, is that children always assess the content of the information: they are more inclined to disbelieve information that widely differs from their earlier experience. The second, which he identifies with Reid’s position is that children are naturally credulous; they are inclined to indiscriminately believe what others testify, no matter who they are or what they tell. Reid thought that this was a “gift of nature” (current cognitive scientists would call it maturationally early or innate), which only gets attenuated over time through experience. I will follow Harris’ attribution of these views to Hume and Reid for convenience’s sake, keeping in mind that their actual positions are more complex.
I got back last night from the third LOGOS conference (and there’s more to come), which was hosted this year by Notre Dame and organized by Mike Rea and his team as part of the Analytic Theology Project. The general theme was Scripture, Revelation, and Canon, and more specifically, the question was posed whether (very roughly, cut me some slack here) the methods analytic philosophers apply when doing, for relevant example, philosophical theology, can be fruitfully applied in broader horizons within theology, especially to the more specific topics of the conference.
An example of this kind of research project can be found in Crisp and Rea’s _Analytic Theology: New Essays in Philosophical Theology. (As far as I know, Mike Rea coined the term.) In his key note speech William J. “Billy” Abraham issued a grave but friendly challenge to the project of analytic theology. It included a raft of challenges facing analytic theologians (I’ll see if I can’t get Billy to put up a draft). He was explicit that he was not at all suggesting that these challenges couldn’t be met–in fact he seemed to be optimistic about it–but they are still bridges that must be crossed on the way to building a viable analytic theology. I think many of them have in fact already been met in the process of developing the philosophical theology of the last few decades. I’ll wait to comment more on that until I can see if I can get a draft of Billy’s paper. But I think the main challenge is this–and this may overlap considerably with Billy’s concerns.
Analytic philosophers have made great strides in their treatment of core theological issues such as the trinity and incarnation. But it is time to branch out to concerns which might be even more complex in a way: revelation, inspiration, the normativity of tradition, and the individuation of ecclesial bodies. Swinburne is the only analytic philosopher/theologian who has treated any of these issues in much detail that I can think of (please post other instances you are aware of). Most analytic philosophers reject flat-footed verbal plenary inspiration, but what do they put in its place? These are the sorts of questions which were treated at LOGOS and which need to be treated in the next several decades of analytic theology.
[MM: See William Abraham’s Turning Philosophical Water into Theological Wine]
Last week, I had the great good pleasure of hosting Richard Cross for a number of events at Baylor. To my knowledge, he’s one of the few people willing to defend (not necessarily as his own view, but as a perfectly sensible position) Scotus’ thesis that there must be *some* univocal concepts involved in predications concerning God. This got me to thinking about religious language.
It’s been a decade since I studied this, but the following argument is one I find highly suggestive. It sides with Scotus and, as I recall, the followers of Cajetan, in arguing that religious language can’t be analogy “all the way down.” Here’s my simple (perhaps simplistic) reasoning.
Philosophy TV posted several reflections on issues related to Christmas during Christmas week last year. Jason Brennan’s contribution presents the Christmas story (i.e. the gospel) as a bad story about an immoral divinity.