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Accessing the Divine: attending the BTIC conference 2023

I was pleased to be able to watch, over zoom, the second ‘Accessing the Divine’ conference, held by Boston Theological Inter-religious Consortium in March 2023. The first conference, in 2022, had been on “Disability, Embodiment, and Claiming Joyous Futures”; this year’s topic was “Interdependent Bodies: Disability, Creation, and (Re)imagining Relationality”. I managed not to realise beforehand that the consortium literally has ‘inter-religious’ in its name, and therefore it wasn’t a conference from a Christian or even evangelical Scripture-based perspective, but instead a wide range of perspectives with the coordinating factor being a religious aspect.


There were some technical issues which meant that those of us on zoom didn’t hear anything of the opening half hour. Fortunately, three of the speakers had made transcripts available in advance. Although the sessions were recorded, the recording didn’t work for the parts where the live stream failed. Indeed some of the recorded material is us zoom attendees discussing the lack of functional technology, whilst we waited for someone in Boston to realise that we were trying to tell them that there was a problem!


The conference was ‘inter-religious’, with the BTIC comprising of Christian (including Catholic, liberal, United Methodist, evangelical, and Eastern Orthodox), humanistic, Jewish, Islamic and mixed religious institutes. It was natural, therefore, that not all speakers took the Bible seriously as an authoritative and historical account. I think it would have been interesting and helpful, however, to include at least one speaker who did. The absence of such a person, given the size of mainline Christianity both historically and in the present day, felt like a major gap. The conference felt more like a philosophy event, in which any one philosopher is no more important than another, than an event in which members of different religious faiths considered their Scripture to be authoritative and on a higher plane than any commentators on that Scripture.


I listened to the first set of talks after the event, from the recordings made. Problems with technology meant that I wasn’t able to watch all of everyone’s talk, and this limits my knowledge and therefore summary of what was spoken about. Some of the talks were more provocative for my own thoughts, so I dwell more on those.


Monson: My Soul is a Witness

Robert Monson emphasised the intersectional approach, especially for disability in people from non-white backgrounds and the impact of racism on those living in majority-white countries. This includes racism that is disabling.


Lippincott: Creatureliness as Blessed Interdependence

Drawing on the work of Bonhoeffer, Rowan Williams, and Jurgen Moltmann, Lauren Lippincourt argued for the value of disability in reminding us all that we are finite, limited creatures who must depend upon one another.


This is something that I think is increasingly forgotten, but highly valuable, for modern Western life. Our physical limits mean that we can’t have everything, do everything, or be everything that we want. We have physical, mental, emotional and cognitive limits and constraints.


Sulhaka: Embodied Faith

Vinay Sulhaka finished the first set with a talk on embodied faith in India. He described one of the women he had worked with in his research project, who was disabled as a consequence of contracting polio as a baby. Swati needed her family to support her, and had never married because of her family’s concern about how well another family would care for her. Her family helped her to work, and after her father’s death she became the main provider. Because of her disability, Swati was eligible for charitable help to go on a religious pilgrimage. Her mother came with her as an assistant, and in this way her able-bodied mother was able to access provision that was otherwise kept for disabled people. Thus, Swati’s life demonstrated interdependence and embodied faith.


Lamallam: Human Relation to God and Nature

I watched the second of the two concurrent sessions live. My lack of knowledge of the subject area of the first speaker, Mohamed Lamallam from Georgetown University, meant that I struggled to understand the points he was making. After listening back and using online transcription followed by editing, I was able to – I think – draw the main message: that we should be more humble and less prejudiced. But others who were more familiar with the subject matter – the works of Al-Mar’aari – may have gained much more, where I did not.


Francis: Created to Belong

Marie Francis used the Gospels to demonstrate the corporal needs of all people, and the importance of meeting these needs, including in community. She pointed out that Jesus challenges us “to let go of ability-, social- and economic-based stratification”. The communities that such an approach results in form a balm and place of rest for those who are suffering; a place where people with disabilities and who experience suffering are welcomed, not rejected or merely tolerated.


I found her argument that “cure… is not always a benevolent good, it can also be an attempt at erasure of the ‘imperfect’” to be helpful, to the extent that it fitted with Lauren Lippincott’s talk on creatureliness. We all have limits, and some of us have more limits than others. We therefore all need one another, and the forming of community can be a powerful source of succour to those who suffer.


There are no easy answers to the question of why some people on earth are healed, or preserved in health, whilst others suffer disability from a young age and remain so for all of their life. At its simplest, the fact that any of us enjoy any good at all on this earth is an act of remarkable blessing from God. In this fallen, broken world, it is suffering and not blessing that is the norm. I wonder if there is an extent to which westerners struggle with suffering because they expect God to have eradicated it already, whereas people of other cultures may have a better concept of the brokenness of this world and the frustration that that entails.


I disagree, however, with Nancy EIsland’s idea that Jesus was resurrected with an imperfect body. The Bible is clear that Jesus is resurrected with a glorified body, and that we will be too. The scars on Jesus’ hands, feet and side are in many ways a marker of healing: the unhealed body would have open wounds. Whilst scars that form on earth are markers of imperfect healing, it does not follow that Jesus’ scars are similarly imperfect. Jesus has a glorified body, and it is possible that his scars do not come with the attendant deficits of earthly scars. Given that we are told that he has a glorified body, I am reluctant to characterise his body as imperfect, damaged or wounded, just because he has the outward appearance of scars.


Woodard: He Whom You Love is Ill

In Kat Woodard’s talk, the Gospels seemed to be treated as something akin to Aesop’s Fables and very much not an accurate recording of history. Whilst many of the points she drew out from the account of Lazarus’ resurrection were ones that I agree can be drawn from the Bible, they did not seem to me to be valid interpretations of that particular text. To reach her interpretation, it was necessary to assume that, if Jesus did exist, he was a mere man who got things wrong and had to be corrected, educated, and prompted into right behaviour. The Jesus of Woodard’s interpretation is a man who did not want to heal or raise Lazarus, and certainly would not have done so if not persistently prompted towards this action by Mary and Martha. This raises major theological questions about the kind of God we follow – one who is reluctant to act to help those he claims to love – and would make me strongly disinclined to offer my allegiance and obedience to such a god if I thought he were the one existent God.


The key theme of Woodard’s talk was communal care. Woodard argued that the words of Mary and Martha are what caused Jesus to act to raise Lazarus, and that their actions in this way were a form of communal care and an example of how important it is. Without their actions, Lazarus would not have been raised. People like Mary and Martha are important parts of the community, to get people like Jesus to act.


I am in full agreement with the importance of communal care. If you look at Jesus’ life, it is clear to us that he himself – God! – is ministered to regularly, usually by women. Women anoint his head and feet; women use their resources to support Jesus; a woman draws him water when he is thirsty. I do not, however, consider that the account of Lazarus’ death and revification is an account that discusses communal care, other than in noting the presence of many Jews to mourn with and comfort Mary and Martha in their loss.


Nor do I consider it necessary to change this story, and in particular Jesus, in order to support the concept of communal care. There are many places in the Bible that do this without us distorting this wonderful piece of history. Elijah struggles with depression, and God gives him Elisha. Moses is worried about challenging Pharaoh, and God gives him Aaron. The Proverbs speak of the value of friendship and a good spouse. The apostle Paul speaks of how each person has a different gift within the Body of Christ, and that we are to support and build up one another through the use of those gifts. We are commanded to bear one another’s burdens and to care for those in need.


I strongly disagree that Mary’s words to Jesus “finally compel Jesus to visit where Lazarus has been laid to rest”. It has never seemed to me that “Jesus’ words were undergirded by a sense of frustration over having to revive Lazarus”, as if he did not want to help or act. It is clear from the start of the passage that Jesus intends to act, and not just to act but to act powerfully and gloriously. He says that Lazarus’ situation is “for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it” and then that he will go to Lazarus “to wake him up” (John 11 verses 4 and 11). He needs no encouragement, prompting, persuading or exhorting. The suggestion that he does need such pushing raises major questions about the nature and character of God, which cannot be answered in a way that is consistent with a perfect God. And an imperfect god is not God.


Kat Woodard suggested that Mary’s tears indicate that “she is a safe harbor within whom those around her are welcome to express their emotions.” That is an interesting way to portray the woman who has just lost her beloved brother, in front of someone who has a less intimate (albeit still strong) relationship. Is it not more likely the other way around: that it is Jesus who is the ‘safe harbour’ before whom Mary can weep? That it is Jesus who offers the ‘access intimacy’ when he also weeps, thus meeting and understanding Mary’s needs without Mary having to articulate her desires directly? That it is Jesus’ presence that enables Mary to weep, not Mary’s tears that release Jesus to weep?


I really like this concept of a safe harbour (Kat Woodard) and access intimacy (Mia Mingus), but in a context where the Messiah is present and known to be a person of wisdom, compassion and power, is it not more likely that it is Jesus who offers the safe harbour and access intimacy to the bereft? This fits better with what we know of Jesus, and offers Christians the comfort of a God who is a safe harbour and who provides access intimacy. The converse, where Mary is the safe harbour and provider of access intimacy to Jesus, is of no comfort to us: it leaves us dependent upon finding a fellow human who can provide such things, yet humans are flawed and all-too-often absent; and it leaves us with a God who, far from being our Comforter, Counsellor and Rock, is the one who needs that from us!


Recognising Jesus as the safe harbour helps us to see what our God is like. Jesus could have walked in and simply told Mary to cheer up and watch what he was about to do. Instead, he comes with a great depth of compassion for the very real emotional pain of Mary, Martha and their fellow grievers. He does not dismiss their pain, even though he knows it is temporary. Woodard says that “We see Jesus carry out Lazarus’ resurrection only after this moment of catharsis”, as if he could not have done it otherwise. I think it is more likely that it is Mary, Martha and the fellow mourners who needed the moment of catharsis and to process their grief. They did not need someone blundering in with a loud, forced cheerfulness telling everyone not to be sad about the sting of death.


Woodard speaks of the “tender, persistent nagging that the sisters demonstrate” and their “knowledge that things could have been, and should be, better for Lazarus than they currently are.” I can agree with this interpretation of their feelings and behaviour. They knew Jesus. They knew his power and his love for them. They knew that he could have healed Lazarus and that he loved them and Lazarus enough to want to do so. What I am less inclined to claim is that “Mary and Martha know when to ease up on their pushing of Jesus and revisit the issue later.” I just see two women expressing their knowledge of Jesus’ love and his power to act. I don’t see a need to read into the text a speculation about just how carefully these women ‘knew’ when to ‘push’ Jesus and when to hold back, let alone any suggestion that Jesus could not have acted without the women helping him overcome an inability in this.


Woodard struggles with Jesus’ delay and can’t find any good reason for him not acting promptly. She finds the response that God will respond in God’s good time to be a platitude that brings no comfort when considering the direct pain that Jesus caused to Mary and Martha. She says that “causing direct, tangible hardship to those close to us, even if for the sake of the collective common good, is not a form of care that I feel comfortable endorsing.” She prefers the response of Thomas, who offers companionship even at the risk of death. She says, “Call me a heretic here… but Thomas’ actions feel far more indicative of an understanding of what it looks like to intimately care for someone who is ill than Jesus’ actions do in John 11” (her ellipsis). However much Jesus’ power and glory is shown in the resurrection of Lazarus, that isn’t enough for Woodard. He should have acted immediately.


When we study the Bible as if Jesus is a flawed, sinful being, then we are not pushed to challenge our own thinking when an action taken by Jesus jars with what we think he should do. Similarly, we are not challenged when anything that God does or says in the Bible is in conflict with what we think is true and right. This allows us to create the god that we want, rather than find the God who exists. But it means creating a god who is fallible, fallen and imperfect; who needs help in order to act and to feel compassion; who is dependent upon human beings aiding him. This God can’t be trusted to love us, care about us, or have the power or inclination to do anything to help us – unless we first show him how.


The God of the Bible does care about us. He cares about us individually. He cares enough that he will not follow the short-term path when the long-term path is better. He loves us enough that we can trust him to take even the seemingly most impossible of circumstances and turn them around.


Julia Watts Belser

The keynote speaker was a professor of Jewish Studies. She spoke about the Imago Dei (humans made in the image of God) and her concerns with it as having a history of human exceptionalism, anthropocentrism, and ableism. Her concern stemmed from flawed uses of the idea that place the image of God in the intellect, physical body, or biological sex of a man. Such conceptions result in a conclusion where disabled (or young, or elderly, or anyone who is not a male at the pinnacle of his powers!) people are not in the image of God.


In many ways, Belser still located the image of God in our physical and intellectual abilities. It is just that to do so, instead of narrowing the image of God to only the fully-able members of humanity, she extends it to include the entire animal world. This resolves the tension of seeking to retain the full Imago Dei of even the most disabled person whilst still thinking that the Imago Dei is something about the physical and intellectual capacity. It’s just that what matters, to Belser, is the capacity to be an animal, rather than any other form of life such as a plant, fungus or bacterium.


It is precisely because of the problems with this approach that Christians do not consider the image of God to be found in the peak physical or intellectual abilities of humans. Belser did not engage with any of these explanations of the Imago Dei, preferring instead to open the Imago Dei to the whole of animal kind. It leaves me wondering if plants, fungi, bacteria and the rest of the living kingdom will be next; and after that, the inanimate world may also be found by such scholars to contain the Imago Dei.


Conclusion

Two key themes emerged from this conference, which almost all of the speakers touched on in some form or another: the limits that we all face as creatures, whether disabled or not; and the importance and necessity therefore of community. These themes can be found right at the very start of the Bible, when God’s creation of the world demonstrates a clear separation between the omnipotent God and his very much finite creatures; and the importance to God and to mankind that we do not live as isolated individuals, but in harmony and relationship with other members of mankind.


Most, and possibly all, of the speakers were not orthodox (small-o) Christians, and thus the foundation of their work was not an understanding of the world that included a conception of sin and consequent brokenness. Whilst this is not an acceptable approach to the orthodox Christian, nevertheless I found these talks helpful as a prompt to help me develop and process my own thinking in this area.

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