God Beyond Words

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Tiō is a pioneer network of professionals providing and promoting Christian perspectives on intellectual disabilities using theology, story and the arts. In February, VOX magazine editor Ruth Garvey-Williams attended the Tiō conference in Belfast, exploring the vital area of “communication.” Here Ruth summarises the keynote message given by author and theologian, Jill Harshaw.

(From the April - June 2019 issue of VOX)

Jill’s passionate interest in intellectual disability and theology represents an integration of her academic background and her personal experience as the mother of a woman with profound and complex intellectual disabilities. Her pioneer work God Beyond Words was published in 2016 (Jessica Kingsley).

At the start of the conference Jill posed the question, “How does God communicate with human beings?”

As Christians, the first thing that comes to our mind is God’s Word. At times, He speaks through the church. Many hear Him speak in a group Bible study, in conversations with fellow believers or in times of personal prayer. God also speaks through the wonder of creation.

What do all these things have in common? Many of them involve words and language (reading, hearing, or speaking God’s Word). Many of them involve cognitive thinking - our thoughts process the reality of God’s creation.

Words and reasoning are tools we have been given in order to hear God speaking to us. But Jill asked, “Where does that leave people who have severe intellectual disabilities? What if words are impossible? What if someone cannot think cognitively?”

An IQ is shorthand for assessing intellectual disability - people below 55 on the IQ scale would have a “profound” intellectual disability. Someone with an IQ of around 70 has an intellectual disability. If your IQ is over 135 you are considered to be “gifted.”

We were asked to consider, “If words and cognitive thinking are not possible, how can people communicate with God or, more importantly, how can God communicate with them?”

One commentator said, “Severely mentally handicapped people are denied the very substance of a rational productive existence... such an existence gives no real opportunity for inner spiritual growth or the nourishment of the human spirit, both of which are important when coming to terms with the meaning of Christianity...”

In different Christian traditions, there are various theological responses to the question of whether people with intellectual disabilities can “be saved” - a question that has caused great distress to the relatives of people with profound disabilities. These responses (such as the age of understanding, the sacrament of baptism or the doctrine of “election”) tend to focus on a person’s entry into heaven rather than the potential for a relationship with God.

Are we asking the wrong question?

Encountering God is not about the extent of human incapacity but about God’s unlimited capacity .

“Encountering God is not about the extent of human incapacity but about God’s unlimited capacity and endless desire to draw people in His love. Just because we cannot work out how that happens, or what it looks like, does not mean it does not exist. If I am capable of having a relationship with my daughter that is intimate and full of love, how can God not be capable of doing that?” Jill said.

During her session, Jill explored this issue through a theology of accommodation:

Accommodation in this sense refers to a special arrangement that is made for someone who is different. Outside the Biblical tradition “accommodation” was a device to help people to understand a message.

God is infinite and He created human beings to be in loving relationship with Himself but human beings are finite and are therefore incapable of apprehending an infinite God (there is an unbridgeable gap between us). Because God loves us, in order to bridge this gap, He reveals Himself according to our capacity to comprehend. He accommodates Himself to us!

God accommodates His revelation to us by choosing to speak through human beings (and using human language).

He is motivated by boundless love ... “Now because it is impossible for something that is circumscribed to rise above its own limitations, let alone grasp the superior nature of the Transcendent, accordingly, God brings His power, so full of tender love for humanity down to the level of our weakness.” (Gregory of Nyssa).

John Calvin describes it in this way, “God, in so speaking, lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children. Such modes of expression, therefore, do not so much express what kind of a being God is, as accommodate the knowledge of Him to our feebleness. In doing so, He must, of course, stoop far below His proper height.”

And Gregory of Nyssa adds, “So the Divine power, though exalted far above our nature and inaccessible to all approach, like a tender mother who joins in the inarticulate utterance of her babe, gives to our human nature what it is capable of receiving and thus in the various manifestations of God to man, He both adapts Himself to man and speaks in human language...”

Jill posed a number of questions to the conference, “If God is continually accommodating His revelation to us, where does that end? Does He have an IQ scale? Is it possible that people on the other end of the scale [to Mensa levels] are also uniquely “gifted” in terms of how God interacts with them in ways that we cannot understand? Is it possible that there are fewer intellectual high jumps in their way?”

Too often, we seek to measure God’s immeasurableness by our small measure. We need to humbly accept the infiniteness of our ignorance.

These truths should end the needless anxiety on the part of Christian families, an anxiety that too often continues to be fostered by the church.

Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom heaven.”- Matthew 18:3 - 4.

This does not mean adults with intellectual disabilities should be treated like children. Rather it means that we should humble ourselves to acknowledge that God is infinite, and that it is only by His gracious accommodation that we know Him at all.

We need to be wary of the elevation of intellectualism and the danger of arrogance within our churches. Intellectual activities may lead us part of the way, they may even point to God’s existence, but God’s essence is beyond understanding.

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We are not complete as a church if the indispensable parts of our body are absent.

The Scriptures tell us that the “weakest” are really “the indispensable” among us. We are not complete as a church if the indispensable parts of our body are absent.

Psalm 131:1-3 - “O LORD, my heart is not proud, my eyes are not haughty, I do not concern myself with things too wonderful for me; but I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, I have quieted my soul. O Israel, put your hope in the LORD.”