Editor: Hans S. Reinders
ISBN: 978-0- 8028-6511-3
Publisher: Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan
Context is all, so it is said, and this book’s context is the community of L’Arche in Trosly-Breuil in France. Here, in 2007, a very diverse gathering of theologians and social scientists gathered to respond to the challenging question of L’Arche’s founder, Jean Vanier: ‘What have you learnt from being with people of disability?’ In 13 chapters – plus a final one that deserves its own comment- the contributors respond with a range of views that demonstrate a remarkable coherence, with occasional overlap. (One exception is Roy Baumeister’s Chapter 4 on the effects of social exclusion, that depended on an element of deception in his experiments). The chapters are all readable, mostly short, and the convictions of all the writers are rooted in personal and spiritual experience. The book as a whole contributes to the growing pastoral concern for the role of people of disability to the Christian community as a whole.
It is undeniable that the charisma and achievements of Jean Vanier himself form the springboard for this interchange. His own experience of the challenge from people with disability crying out ‘Do you love me?’ is a crucial underpinning. I see two axes to the views expressed: the first is a questioning of the ‘normal’ assumptions of cognition, striving for a wider definition to include persons who may not match up to established norms but whose capacity for emotional understanding and love reveals new dimensions of the human. For example, Kevin Reimer (Chapter 5), shows how the western hierarchical path to moral maturity (associated with Lawrence Kohlberg’s moral stages) give an over-rational account of morality: ‘core members’ of L’Arche communities demonstrate patience and forgiveness, for example, but are unable to explain a rational basis for this. John Swinton (Chapter 11) draws on both apophatic and liberation theologies to counter the (arrogant) claim that mentally impaired people can have no relationship with God because this happens on an intellectual level.
Contributors emphasise the transformation of caregivers and the factors influencing this process like life-sharing, presence, patience, receptivity and an organisational culture that includes spirituality: ‘It is a question of doing ordinary things with love’ (Pamela Cushing, Chapter 6). These qualities transform the moral imagination – and trust cements maturity.
The second axis is that of vulnerability and suffering. As Xavier Le Pichon says: ‘Vulnerability is at the core of the exchange of love through communion’(p.99). This is not meant as sentimental idealism but as an indicator of how true community with marginalised people is at the heart of the identity of Church. It is given further depth by Stanley Hauerwas’s exploration of L’Arche as Peace Movement. This is a moving attempt to show how peacemaking means taking time to confront the violence in ourselves – ‘We have all the time we need to do what needs to be done’ (p.120)- to develop trust, and to learn to receive not only to give. But all this needs to happen in the world beyond L’Arche. The voice of Christopher Newell – priest, parent, writer, professor – embodies the book’s title, The Paradox of Disability in the most profound way. The level of suffering that he endures as part and parcel of daily life is extreme. It has almost driven him in despair to want to die. One part of him longs to be rid of pain: the other part is convinced that he would not be the same person without it and that suffering can offer some positive dimensions to personhood and identity – especially within a Christian narrative. In the end it is the quality of care and love of participants at this event that give him hope: it is positive relation that is longed for and bridges the gap with the other. But is this not the longing of every human being?
Mary Grey, St Mary’s University College, Twickenham