More Than Skin Deep: The Image of God in People with Disabilities
Note: Over the past week, in posts written by John Hammett, Tim O'Connor, and Joshua Moritz , we have been exploring various conceptions of the "image and likeness of God" in humans. One common view is that the Image of God is found in unique physical traits possessed only by humans. However, if this were the case, what about humans born with disabilities? In today's post, Kathy McReynolds addresses the issue of disability and challenges us to think about the Image of God as something far greater than our outward appearance or physical abilities.
For the past twelve years, I have had the privilege to teach in the Bible Department at a prestigious Christian university. Most of my students have been raised in Christian homes and have attended conservative, Bible-believing churches all of their lives. These students believe that they have a pretty solid understanding of what the image of God entails; at least they think they do until they encounter the world of disability. Disability creates a dissonance in their worldview that they are not expecting. All of a sudden, what they thought they understood about the image of God comes crashing down like a house of cards. The image of God and disability just do not seem to go together.
The following quotes from some of my student’s papers are representative of many and their experience with the disabled “strange other.” What is communicated loud and clear is the challenges disabilities raise for their conception of the image of God:1
I believe that those with disabilities are equal to us … but I discovered a hidden evil in my heart. Deep in my heart, hidden from the world, I believed that children born with disabilities that would normally not survive its first few days should be allowed to die.
I think I could have intellectually acknowledged that all men and women are created in the image of God … In this class I was challenged to see the realities of disability and ask if I really did believe that God created these individuals in his image and salvation was for them too.
Though I have always known that these individuals are created in His own image, I often found myself secretly thinking that they were miserable and often a burden on others.
Sometimes I feel pity for disabled individuals because they are not “normal”. I feel that their disability is hindering them from experiencing the best life possible. I think disabled people experience a lesser quality of life because they cannot physically and/or mentally do as many things as a “normal” person could.
Now, these young people are not more spiritually or morally bankrupt than others in contemporary society. In fact, to the contrary, these Christian students are considerably more spiritually and morally sensitive in general because of their commitment as Christ- followers. Still, these views have been nurtured and influenced by two factors, one that is cultural and one that is religious: 1) the pervasiveness of a reductionist view of human being fostered by scientism; 2) a wooden, literal interpretation of Genesis 2:7 which says that “the Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and the man became a living being.”
Taken together, these two factors present a skewed view of human being, one that focuses on the physical and material rather than on the spiritual and essential. This is one of the reasons why my students twinge and recoil a bit at the thought that persons with disabilities can be made in God’s image. “They just don’t look like it,” they say, zeroing in on what is physically seen. This view has had enormous consequences for people with disabilities. In fact, Adolf Hitler, as part of developing his approach to the weaker members of society in his book Mein Kampf, identifies the stronger (better looking and functioning) members of society as “images of the Lord” in contrast to the weaker members who are mere “deformities” of that image, and who ought to be cleansed from society. Many have argued that Hitler’s ideas concerning those with disabilities were inspired solely by Darwinian evolution. However, these quotes from Mein Kampf reveal a horrific misuse of Scripture, not evolutionary ideas.
Furthermore, with regard to evolution, a face value exegesis of Genesis 1 & 2 does not dictate that the physical stuff God used to create human beings was special or unique or that the image itself resides in it. It shows, rather, that all matter was formless and void until God, who acted and willed out of his good pleasure and sovereign choice, brought order and harmony to it. This applies as well to the creation of human beings who are uniquely created in God’s image. If this image is not merely physical stuff, what is it? What does the literary and historical context of Genesis 1 & 2 reveal?
There are three views on the image of God: 1) Substantial; 2) Relational; and 3) Functional. The functional view sees the imago Dei as a function or role that humans fulfill--such as being priests or having dominion. The relational view has to do with humans imaging God in their ability to have spiritual relationships—primarily with God, but also expressed in terms of our male and femaleness and other nuances. The substantial view essentially says that God’s image is imprinted on the person’s soul as an image is impressed on a coin, and has much to do with human capacities like our free will and ability to reason. It has been predominant in Christian theology in the West since about 600 AD.
But though we do have specific capacities that bear on our responses to God, as the substantial view says, the human being is an embodied soul who has both relational and functional capacities, as well. The relational implications include the biblical truth that among all God’s creatures, only human beings can know Him and be consciously aware of Him. Most importantly, he knows us and can be in relationship with us even when we do not acknowledge him out of rebellion, or cannot respond to him because of disability. If we consider the Substantial view’s emphasis on conscious awareness, ability to exercise freedom, and decision-making capacities alone, however, some human beings may not qualify as persons, whereas some non-human animals might.
Against this, a more holistic view affirms that all human beings bear God’s image, regardless of capacities. The image of God cannot be lost or compromised in anyway. Even the poorest functioning human being profoundly reflects God’s image.
In an unexpected and peculiar way, my students discovered this truth about the image of God when they began to interact with people with disabilities in my classroom. This truth about the image utterly transformed and they began to see people with disabilities quite differently. The following quotes come from the same students quoted at the beginning:
What I came to realize is that since the disabled are people, they deserve life. As humans made in the image of God, we are to try to preserve our fellow disabled brothers and sisters who are also made in the image of God.
When I went to the day group home, it was an amazing experience. I really enjoyed interacting with everyone there. I was able to paint with them, and one of them sang to me and taught me to dance; it was so much fun. It was great to see how each and every one of them was so unique and made in the image of God.
In this class I was challenged to see the realities of disability and ask if I really did believe that God created these individuals in his image and salvation was for them, too. As a result of what I have learned from this class my answer to these two questions is a resounding yes! God loves individuals with disabilities and knows the depths of their hearts and minds on a level I could never comprehend. Who am I to doubt who God knows, who He loves, and to whom He offers the gift of His Son.
At the beginning of the semester, disability was a foreign world for me. That world was new and uncomfortable. I had no idea how to interact with anyone with a profound disability and had little desire to learn how. Throughout this course, the walls of misconceptions, fears, and insecurities that I have built up to distance myself from disability have slowly been chipped away. As I learned more about disability, my fears and discomfort were replaced with compassion and joy. Exposure to individuals and families with disabilities was the most effective way to break down those walls. Having the opportunity to observe and interact with individuals with disabilities was invaluable. Participating in disability ministry is not burdensome, as I had initially worried, but freeing. I left the night feeling uplifted, loved, and so aware of God’s mysterious presence within broken humanity.
During Jesus’ ministry on earth, often the best way to find him was to seek out those society considered strange, unclean, or undesirable; Jesus often sought them out, himself, in order to show that God’s love for us does not depend on our merits or abilities, much less our outward appearance. Similarly, my students today meet the Lord anew—and discover that same message of God’s unmerited grace and love—when they seek out relationships with those our society finds strange and broken, with those who they could easily avoid seeing at all. Rather than judging with the eyes alone, my students learn to recognize their cultural and theological blind-spots, and see both the disabled and themselves in the light of Christ’s love. Relationships are transforming; and relationships with people with disabilities can transform not only our image of them, but of the God who made in His image, and dwells with us in places deeper than the skin.
1. All student quotes used by permission. Names are left out to protect student privacy.
Kathy McReynolds is a professor in the Biblical Studies Department at Biola University, where she teaches on Theology of Suffering & Disability and Healthcare Ethics, and as an adjunct in Apologetics. She holds a B.A. in Christian Education from Biola University, an M.A. in Systematic Theology from Biola’s Talbot School of Theology, and a Ph.D in Ethics from USC, specializing in ethical issues in genetic enhancement research. Since 2007, Kathy has also been at the Christian Institute on Disability at Joni and Friends, first as Director of Public Policy, and now as Director of Academic Studies.