I’m reading a great book at present for my dissertation ‘Vulnerable Communion: A Theology of Disability & Hospitality’ by TE Reynolds. It says some things that chime with my research for a talk on the Eucharist at CMS ‘Research Conversations’ day this week. And some reflecting on the situation LGBTQ people find themselves in regarding the church of late. I know that is a mash up of issues and complex agendas but bear with me here – there is a convergence.
The book makes the point that if we start our theology from the standpoint of theodicy, God being in charge and having designed everything to reflect him and his will – then we get a perspective that there is an absolute standpoint of normalcy where everything is as it should be in terms of health, gender, body norms, and everyone outside that must be fixed/repaired/normalised – and this is what will happen under redemption. He makes the point that the church usually follows the status quo in terms of cultural norms, instead of
seeing the revolutionising standpoint the Gospels take on many social issues!
However if we think of scripture not as presenting an absolute, normalised template or set of rights and wrongs but more as the story of God immersing himself in our lived human experience – in order to inhabit it and bring His love into every situation – and this being recorded by humans as a holy text that reflects culture in every era and how God is found in each, we begin to see human experience as a good place from which to seek God in the reality of complex, imperfect, impaired life.
This week I heard a Vicar in the church arguing that we must always start from the
standpoint of God and not our human experience but I see the fact that God climbed
down from the throne and into the stable as evidence that He doesn’t see a problem with starting from human experience! His willingness is to bring redemption to and through the existing ‘imperfect’ reality – seen by some churches as women leading, or gay people grappling with their identity as honestly and genuinely as they can before Him by wanting to marry, of people whose bodies or minds are impaired – but all gloriously in love and submitted to Him.
He doesn’t make us perfect according to an absolute of normalcy but inhabits the imperfection with love and enables us to be present to the suffering and imperfection of others. So people who are traditionally excluded by the cult of normalcy, not endorsed by power – gay people, transgendered, women, people who are poor, the mentally or physically ill, are all able to submit themselves joyfully to this love and be filled and enabled by it – without being remade under the cult of normalcy to conform to a mythical pattern.
This is why Christ came so outside the cult of normal – to a single mother, born in a stable under an occupying power, never married, itinerant and surrounded by desperate people who he mainly impacted by being human with them – feeding, caring, listening, touching, not annexed or normalised by religious or political elites. We become attuned and intertwined with God by honestly embracing our human weakness and failure – and that of others – and accepting the vastness of the love that is offered by God. By embracing the limitation of what it means to be human, we become deified by his inhabitation and the cult of normalcy is shown to be defunct.
Reynolds suggests that this re-orders the question of why God “allows” suffering. The best response is to stop intellectualising this question and engage the issue practically
in a way that refuses to see the person as a problem to be fixed but “a presence whose
call for affirmation elicits a moral obligation to listen and pay attention, to show
compassion that reflects back to them their distinct, creaturely beauty and value.
Secondly because only by tending to the presence of another do we come to recognise
when suffering really occurs… The real task…is to be present to others
and this requires moral skill gained in relationships of interdependence
and not in cognitive propositions.
These responses belie the redemptive nearness of God to human vulnerability and
brokenness, a nearness of solidarity that does not undo or fix…but paradoxically embraces
I am not mashing up the many differing issues experienced by people who may in various ways have contravened the cult of normalcy in the church and felt rejection or prejudice. I believe that each person has their own inherent irreducible value before God, and whatever the church or tradition may say, our humanity is not reduced by who we are. We each must find a way to offer and submit our entire self before God in the
fullest way we can, knowing we will be accepted fully. The incarnation has made human
life the starting point for practical theology and the site of God’s action here and
now and therefore it is sacred. Let’s behave to ourselves and to one another as if this
were true. Amen.