Book Review – Discovering Trinity in Disability: A Theology for Embracing Difference

“We focus on disability and our Christian tradition because we have learned that disability is an enduring, fundamental aspect of humanity that has been manipulated and wronged by society… We searched our faith tradition for signs of disability and, indeed, we found the divine Trinity.” (Tataryn, 7) This statement is the crux of this book, helping readers move from a space where disability is at best, just a burden the person is meant to bear or at worst, a result of sinfulness or God’s wrath to a space where they recognize the Trinity in the embodiment of each person and our call as a community to be inclusive.

They start by examining what disables those in our community: our marginalization of people different from socially acceptable “norms” and the point of view that they are, “objects of pity and recipients of charity.” (Tataryn, 15).  What disables people is less often their different embodiments but rather the exclusion of them from the rest of society; of being viewed as not entirely whole, of having something missing, of being lesser. “By perceiving and treating disabled people as Other, we accept societal taxonomies of gradated human value, thereby rejecting the fullness of humankind and limiting our spiritual growth, both personal and collective.” (Tataryn, 15) It is necessary that we work to shift from the medical model of disability that views various embodiments as a tragedy that we strive to fix to the social model which instead says that disability is rooted not in the person but in the society that disables them.

Next they begin explaining what this inclusive community looks like. While the social model uncovers the root of disability, the Trinitarian Paradigm, as a supplement, “emphasizes the vital, universal need for human relationship.” (Tataryn, 22) They walk us through this by examining the conflicting perspectives throughout Christian history which skew us toward a viewpoint that frames an individual’s value in predominantly economic terms. Starting with the Hebrew Scripture, we start to understand the difference between seeing a person’s body as possessing divinity or demonic traits based on their embodiment.  When we examine Genesis, we see it points to a God who is a Creator and fond of diversity; to the fact that community is not built on similarity but on difference. “By ordering, that which has been created ‘man’ has created hierarchy, which produces in ‘man’ a further need: a relationship of equality, a ‘partner.’ …Human community is based in the difference between ‘man’ and woman.’” (Tataryn, 29) It is sin that divides us, not our differences. It is sin that creates the antagonistic, hierarchal attitudes of one group towards another. Ultimately, we reach Leviticus, whose purpose was to address sin. “Leviticus’s purpose is order, ritual, and the authority of the priestly caste, not complicated by human diversity.” (Tataryn, 32) They also walk us through some of the reasons why it is supposed that disability and ritual impurity are linked to one another, ultimately leading to the conclusion that if read through the social model we can see that the liminality is most often an outcome of life processes more than sin or God’s wrath. “But the prophets distinguish between those who are vulnerable or weak and those who are faithless and suffer as a result.” (Tataryn, 38)

Next examined is how Jesus disables the idea of institutionalized disability within society. “Jesus’ action is one of nullifying the established norms that have disrupted community. By approaching and engaging with individuals who have been rejected by the cultural and ritual codes of community, Jesus subverts the taboos of exclusion and practices radical inclusion.” (Tataryn, 43) It walks through various examples of this, noting how Jesus highlights human dignity, personhood and faith as well as the repentance from sin. It even notes the writings of Paul and Luke that strive to counteract the trend of physiognomy in their time (the belief that one’s physical traits reflected the character of a person). There’s considerable coverage of Paul and his encouragement of others to rejoice in their weakness because that is where God shows up. “In context with the day-to-day living of Jesus of Nazareth, the Resurrection instead signals a celebration of divine love known through the fullness of being human, without margins.” (Tataryn, 50)

Next we examine the role of community, or koinonia, in being a space where love and relationship for all people is lived out side-by-side. Examples from the prophets as well as Abraham and Sarah emphasize the importance of an inclusive community. “The Suffering Servant embodies the stigma linked to disability: causing disgust, shame, and sorrow. Yet the Suffering Servant embodies most completely the relationship between God and humanity, challenging us to look beyond our prejudices in building a new, fuller community than previously imagined.” (Tataryn, 53) In order to better understand what this call looks like and how we got to where we are, the authors dive into a wide variety of theologians from both Eastern and Western orthodoxy. This helps us to see how we get to our understanding of the Trinity today: one of relationship to one another. Operating out of this knowledge is a challenge that the church continues to struggle with. “Unconsciously, our church communities tend to conform more to the tyrannical societal norm than to the dictates of Christ. But with conscious awareness, we can become communities of love that drew people so compellingly to follow Christ in the nascent Christian Church.” (Tataryn, 71)

Next examined are the various models of Christian community: understanding that caring means having relationship with others, that caritas is a necessary outcome of faith and not the exercise of charity as we see today: we potentially give charitably to have others love our neighbor for us. It also looks at the relationship with God in the context of solitude (like the monastic tradition) or service (where oftentimes acting out of pity is confused for loving our neighbors). Amongst several other models, they also examine what is termed a Holy Fool, where “…the Christian (not necessarily a monastic) acts contrary to social norms, shunning public approval, creatively embodying Christ’s radical transformation of the natural world.” (Tataryn, 78)

Following this they engage in an examination of the sacraments: “…we exist in relation to God, to each other, and to the cosmos. Thus, our faith is rooted in our materiality, and this sacred substantiality, as it were, is manifested sacramentality.” (Tataryn, 84) By understanding that all creation is laced with divinity, because the Divine touched all of creation, we can recognize that God is present through creation. Early in the church moments of time that were viewed as particularly imbued with divine presence were called mysteries. As more and more structure was built around these things, societal prerequisites became linked to being able to engage in the sacraments. This attitude has been examined by the church in recent decades.

The last few sections examine miracles, true hospitality and being icons.  The section on miracles looks in depth at the story of a family with children of different embodiments that faces a disabling and exclusive society which they are excluded from participating fully in. “Miracles are associated with faith, sin, cure, prayer, and the power of God over nature to perform the impossible… In our time, we have created disability as a deviance rather than understanding it as an ordinary human occurrence… a miracle presents a quick fix.” (Tataryn, 97) Ultimately, the point is made that rather than viewing the healing miracles as a path to a quick fix perhaps we should understand it as Jesus’ engagement in the Trinity as well as his living out caritas on the Sabbath with people rejected by society. Hospitality examines the church (and all the people that make it up) and asks why we are allowing our hospitality to be defined by society. If you truly care about somebody, that means we also care for them, and if there should be any place that defines inclusiveness and hospitality it ought to be found in Christ’s community.  Lastly we have icons, which some see as a form of idolatry. When more closely examined, “Iconographic style implicitly conveys a transfigured reality and elicits… a recognition of their participation in its meaning… The Eastern Christian does not bow before an icon to worship the wood, but rather venerates the reality recognized through the material substance.” (Tataryn, 109) This allows an extension of one’s self to the Other, in truth, to create a connection not just between those we live with in community today but to tie all humanity through all time together.

In summary, the authors effectively walk us through disability via the lens of the Trinitarian Paradigm as well as the social model, helping readers to gain a more thorough understanding of the Christian faith and what it means to those whose embodiment is different from the accepted norm. It reveals the ways in which our views of humanity are distorted and how it wrongs all of society; that being present and living out caritas with all humanity in an inclusive community is where we find a greater presence of the Trinity and what we are called into as followers of Christ.

Works Cited

Tataryn, Myroslaw & Truchan-Tataryn. Discovering Trinity in Disability: A Theology for Embracing Difference. United States of America: Novalis Publishing, 2013. Print.

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