Disability and the Image of God

Disability and the Image of God

Dr. Jared Ortiz

Professor of Religion
Hope College

Jared Ortiz

There is one anthropology for everybody. Let me put it more simply: whatever it means to be human is true for every human. When we say it this way, it seems kind of obvious. Today, we almost intuitively sense that the converse is truly perverse. We rightly recoil from the twentieth-century ideologies of “blood and soil” that proposed fundamentally different kinds of humans. We reject the ancient Roman—and founding American—distinction that not all humans are persons. Yet, when it comes to persons with disabilities, many people today forget these good intuitions and fall back into perverse ways of thinking.

Leading ethicists today have re-introduced the distinction between humans and persons. They tell us that there are some humans who do not rise to the level of personhood, for example, fetuses, infants, and the intellectually disabled. Personhood, they posit, requires the display of certain capacities: rationality, autonomy, awareness of self through time, etc. Or, take our widely-accepted practice of pre-natal screening which screens for… what? The kind of children we want in the world—that is, non-disabled ones. And for those who receive an unfortunate diagnosis, it is best that they do not see the light of day and are replaced by others of a supposedly better kind.

Which returns me to the opening thesis: there is one anthropology for everybody.  How should Christians understand this? Every human being—by virtue of being a human being—is made in the image of God. It follows, then, that every human being—every single one—has an infinite worth, a profound dignity, is utterly irreplaceable, and has been created to find ultimate fulfillment in God.

What, though, does it mean to be made in the image of God—and can we find a definition that holds for everybody? Reading Genesis 1, many scholars today say that we image God by our dominion over creation: God created us as His stewards, as His image on earth, who are meant to rule as He rules. As far as it goes, this is certainly true and biblical. But, we might ask, what about those with intellectual disabilities: can they rule over creation? Does it undermine our humanity if we are incapable of ruling this way?

A more traditional interpretation says that we are made in the image of God because of our reason and freedom or—I think more accurate—our intellect and will. This answer is much maligned today. To our post-Enlightenment ears, this sounds like bald rationalism and Cartesian pride. This definition has particularly come under fire from disability theologians. It smacks of ableism, they say, and casts doubt on the humanity of our intellectually disabled brothers and sisters. I am sympathetic to these concerns, though I think this traditional take on the image of God holds up as both biblically sound and able to preserve the dignity of persons with intellectual disabilities.

First, the Bible. God gives us dominion, yes, but what allows us to exercise dominion? It is our intellect and will. We have a mind that can know and a heart that can love. Like God, we can make proper judgments and care for the world. In this way, we can reflect God’s providential wisdom and solicitude in ruling the world.

In Genesis 1, there is a subtle and beautiful shift when God creates humans in his image. Genesis 1:28 says, “God blessed them and said to them…” God addresses us directly. Because humans are made in God’s image—that is, because we have an intellect and will—God speaks to us, calling us to intimacy with Himself. God creates only humans with this capacity, a capacity for God. And it is true of every single human, disabled or not.

It is this understanding that preserves (not bestows or earns) the dignity and humanity of all people, especially those with disabilities. We are not the image of God because of anything we do. We are the image of God because of what we are. And what we are (humans) necessarily entails a who we are (persons). God gave us a mind and a heart and, even if they are impaired in some way—as they are in all of us—we are still human, still made in the image of God, still persons. A person is not just a some-thing, but a some-one, a human being with an intellect and will who is called, in this life or the next, to know and to love God.