📙 Crippled Grace
Author: Shane Clifton
Full Title: Crippled Grace
Since this book claims to be a work of Christian theology, it is perhaps necessary to justify my reliance on Greek sources. It is still common for Protestant and Evangelical theologians to lament the supposed Hellenization of Christianity, but the appeal to Jerusalem over Athens tends to be both anti-intellectual and totalizing, presuming that the Hebrew way of thinking is the high point of the history of ideas and that everything that follows the biblical canon is corruption and decline.
Ethics may be understood to be seeking to answer the question, “What is the right thing to do?” but the virtue tradition’s concern is the question “What is the best way to live?”4 It answers that we live to attain eudaimonia, which is normally translated as happiness.
As developed by Aristotle, eudaimonia is teleological—it is the end we pursue for its own sake and nothing else. We act for many reasons, with many ends or purposes in mind, but all of these ends aim for the ultimate purpose of living a good life, which is eudaimonia—happiness.
What it is for a thing to flourish depends upon its Nature.
For Aristotle, though, what makes us distinctly human is our capacity for reasoning, so that only a person who lives wisely (wisdom is practical reasoning) can be said to have lived a fully human life.
It is noteworthy that what is most characteristic of the treatment of people with disabilities throughout history is the assumption that they lack the capacity for proper reasoning, and so are unable to interpret their own experiences, or speak for and decide for themselves.
Above all else, what the disability rights movement has insisted upon is that people with a disability, whether it be physical or intellectual, are human, and so as capable as anyone of self-understanding and self-determination.
If eudaimonia is understood as the flourishing life, Aristotle argues that it is virtuous activity that achieves it. A Virtue is a characteristic or trait—a habit of character—that enables a person to succeed in their undertakings and, more broadly, to flourish in life.
wisdom is the fundamental virtue that enables a person to decide what the virtues are and how to exercise them at any point in time.
Moral virtues require a balanced character and are generally found in the mean between two vices, excess and deficiency.
Virtues are taught and modeled by our parents and leaders, and we learn them both through instruction and practice; practicing a Virtue enables it to become a habit, internalized as a part of our character.
Virtue is both rational and pleasurable, bringing together our reason and our emotion. Virtue facilitates our achievements but is also its own reward.
Courage, for example, is the preparedness to give one’s life for the sake of another, and the courageous person understands that the happiness derived from courage goes hand in hand with self-sacrifice.
The recognition that there is an internal reward that comes from acting virtuously leads Aristotle to differentiate between a person who is self-controlled (or continent) and one who is fully virtuous. The former knows what to do and does it, even though it is contrary to her desires, and so exercises self-control when she acts. The latter knows what to do and desires to do it, and so acts with full virtue.
Transcending the moral virtues are what Aristotle describes as the “intellectual capacities of the soul.”
It is this contemplative capacity that Aristotle believes is most distinctly human, and so for him, it is the intellectual virtues of the philosopher that facilitate complete happiness.
The best practitioners are those who embed themselves in the tradition, learning its habits and values, who then transcend the tradition, taking it forward.
It is perhaps noteworthy that in my own case, acquiring a disability brought me into a community of disabled people, with its own history, values, attitudes, and practices. The research underpinning this book represents my attempt to understand its virtues and actions—to learn, for example, that sometimes rage is a virtue and not a vice, needed to deal successfully with discrimination.
The best friendships are only possible between people of equal Virtue and, according to Aristotle, equal advantage, and are characterized by the joy of living together. Such relationships enable people to achieve their own good by acting in the interest of the other.
The importance of friendship for the flourishing of people with disabilities warrants further attention, especially given Aristotle’s view that true friendship is only possible between people of equal advantage.
Reflecting the prejudices of his day, Aristotle thus concludes that women and slaves are unable to be happy, in the fullest sense of the term, because they lack the freedom to make their own decisions, which restricts their exercise of virtue. “The slave is completely without the deliberative element; the female has it, but it has no authority.”30 More than just the cultural blindness of this position, what is noteworthy for our purposes is that this logic is extended by Aristotle to people who are chronically ill, mentally deficient, and even “ugly.”
For it is impossible or not easy for someone without equipment to do what is noble: many things are done through instruments, as it were—through friends, wealth, and political power. Those who are bereft of some of these (for example, good birth, good children, or beauty) disfigure their blessedness, for a person who is altogether ugly in appearance, or of poor birth, or solitary and childless cannot really be characterized as happy; and he is perhaps still less happy, if he should have altogether bad children or friends or, though he did have good ones, they are dead. Just as we said, then, [happiness] seems to require some such external prosperity in addition. This is why some make good fortune equivalent to happiness, and others, virtue.
For Aristotle, ill health, mental deficiency, and ugliness—characteristic ways of describing disability—are not only undesirable for their own sake (how could anyone consider the disabled life to be a good life?) but necessarily restrict the full exercise of virtue.
And so we come to the crux of the matter. For Aristotle it is impossible for the disabled person to be truly happy. This prejudice cannot be brushed aside, since it indicates one of the problems of Virtue Ethics, which is the tendency for Virtue to be conceived of in ways that entrench the status quo.
In turning to the scriptures, there is some hope for a more inclusive perspective, although as we shall discover, the treatment of disability and flourishing in these authoritative texts is relatively ambiguous.
But Aristotle, as an elite Greek, is unable to see the dark side of life with the same perspicuity as the authors of the scriptures, and this is important for disability. The author of Ecclesiastes speaks to the disempowered condition, and “the hedonic joy he describes could be seen as an important act of resistance against oppressive conditions, since he refuses to let the human spirit be crushed.”45 This refusal gets to the heart of what disability pride and empowerment are all about.
Like virtue theory, the Christian scriptures are teleological in orientation, and relate human flourishing to virtuous living. But while there is a common shape to the two traditions, the Christian vision is thoroughly differentiated by the countercultural life and message of (the Jewish) Jesus Christ.
It is a promise of friendship with God the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and the formation of a new and loving community, aimed especially at people living on the margins (a fact mostly forgotten by middle-class Christianity in the West today).
Christianity is sometimes understood as offering happiness in heaven and stoicism in the present, but the eschatology of Jesus looks to the future, and in so doing brings joy to the present day, notwithstanding its ups and downs. As Green says, people “who orient their lives to the divine purpose disclosed in the Messiah will experience the pleasure and meaningfulness associated with human flourishing within this eschatologically determined world.”63 Happiness, then, transcends the pursuit of pleasure, is teleological (eschatological), and derived from living meaningfully in service to Jesus.
Jesus teaches and then embodies a solution to the problem of evil: the divine Choice to submit to the injustice and suffering of the cross, and transform the evil done to him into a good by responding with Love and forgiveness.
What is important is the recognition that the life and teachings of Jesus are not abstract transactions focused on whether or not a person gets to heaven, but, rather, that they are intended to make a difference in human history.
To the central questions of virtue ethics, “What is the best way to live?” and “Who am I to become?” the Christian vision answers, “Imitate Christ.” As St. Paul says, “Have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing . . . [and] humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:5-8).
In a deliberate interplay with philosophy, St. Paul regularly contrasted the foolishness of the gospel with the wisdom of the Greeks. That foolishness was a seemingly upside-down vision of the good life that took the form of self-sacrificing Love for God and neighbor, and more radically again, Love of one’s enemies (an impossibility for Aristotle).
With the foundation of grace in place, St. Paul insists that the Spirit of God will help to set our minds on Christ (Rom 8:1-17), so that imitating his self-sacrificing love becomes habitual. Indeed, the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:19-25) is not ethical rule-keeping but a transformed character, and love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (vv. 21-22) are virtues. And like Aristotle’s fully virtuous man, the virtuous life modeled on Jesus becomes something that Christians do gladly (2 Cor 12:9, 15), so that happiness and virtue go hand in hand.
The New Testament contains some striking contrasts with Aristotle’s analysis of Virtue. In particular, it praises virtues that Aristotle knows nothing about—faith, hope, and Love—and counts as virtues qualities that Aristotle treats as vice, such as Humility.
MacIntyre holds that Aristotle would not have admired Jesus Christ, and would have been horrified by St. Paul.
Jesus arrived at the same theological conclusion in John 9 when asked whether a man was born blind because of his sins or those of his parents. Jesus’ response, “neither, but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him,” is followed by the man’s healing, and thereafter an extended discussion of the spiritual blindness of the Pharisees and Jesus’ identity as “light of the world.”
First, for the gospel writers, healing and exorcism pointed to Jesus’ messianic vocation; they are symbols of the good news of the kingdom of God. The Gospels communicate this truth metaphorically.
Second, throughout the ages, faith in Jesus, and through him the possibility of healing, has offered hope to people subject to pain, disability, and grief. As is apparent throughout the New Testament, the promise of healing is normally fulfilled eschatologically (every biblical character experiences the full gamut of human growth and decline, and fragility, suffering, and death are the one universal reality, even for Jesus). As we live in hope of the eschatological vision, we are graced with the Spirit as the firstfruits or deposit of the future (Rom 8:23). In this way, hope transforms the present, not by eliminating hardship, disability, or even death, but by giving us the fortitude to persevere and live constructive and meaningful lives.
One of the problems of “models” of disability is that they tell disabled people what they should and should not want. In the case of the medical or “healing” models, what they should want is to be “normal” and rid of their defect. But for good reason, many people with disabilities are content with their selves, and rather than hoping for a technological or miraculous intervention, they long only for a social environment that enables them to flourish as they are.
As feminist theologians have observed, theologies that insist on the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and death and, thereafter, its paradigmatic role for Christians, inevitably justify and sustain female oppression and domestic abuse. It is a logic that also applies to people with a disability, especially because theologies of submission are taught by those in power to sustain the meek acquiescence of people without power.
But it is sufficient for now to conclude with the observation that the Bible does not simply include marginalized people, it sets out to empower them. One of the prominent themes of the gospel and the writings of St. Paul is the idea that the seemingly weak things of this world are declared powerful in Jesus Christ.
Narrowly conceived stories are of little use in an unfathomably complex world, especially when drawn from authoritative sources. It is precisely for this reason that feminists have asked of Christianity, “Can a male savior save women?”86 There are competing answers to that question, but it is at least true that many women from many different contexts have answered positively, although they have needed to be wise and creative in doing so. We might equally ask, “Can the story of a nondisabled man teach a disabled person how to live the good life?” Again, I think we can answer, “yes,” provided we appreciate the need to be flexible in doing so.
While agreeing that the goal of human life is eudaimonia, Augustine criticizes the “pagan” philosophers for their description of happiness as the life spent pursuing truth (i.e., philosophizing); “he isn’t happy who doesn’t have what he wants . . . and if the Academics are always seeking truth without finding it, it follows that they don’t have what they want.”
It is not until Aquinas (1225–1274 A.D.) that the particularities of Aristotle’s virtue theory come to influence Christian tradition.
As noted earlier, while Aristotle and the New Testament have very different views about the good life and virtue, they share a logical and conceptual structure that identifies virtue with the achievement of the human Telos (flourishing) and vice (sin) with its destruction.
Aristotle gives Aquinas a systematic way of thinking about eudaimonia and the habits of character, but Aquinas’ subsequent explanation of virtue is thoroughly grounded in his theological commitments.
Aquinas understands happiness to consist in activities of virtue, “as engaging in and enjoying a genuinely good activity.”90 Perfect happiness, then, is engaging in the very best and most enjoyable activity, which for him as a Christian is knowing and enjoying God in God’s essence, an activity only possible in heaven. Imperfect happiness, which is all that is available this side of heaven, is engaging in and enjoying the good activities accessible in our daily lives.
Aquinas’ conception of happiness is “a hybrid of the objectively good activity and the subjectively grounded enjoyment of the actor.”92 The happy person does the objective good, which is judged by the goodness of the ends or purposes for which the activity is done, and subjectively enjoys doing so.
Because imperfect happiness is an activity, Aquinas understands that it can be impeded by illness or severe disability, which is capable of undermining contemplation (for him the highest of pleasures) and virtuous activity. He goes on to insist, though, that perfect happiness is free of the body and available equally to all. He thus adopts the long history of nondisabled prejudice, assuming the inferiority of disability, but at least is thoroughly inclusive in his explanation of perfect happiness, which for him is what matters most.
Aquinas notes that sin causes us to be double minded, lacking internal integration, so that we are at war within ourselves (cf. Rom 7:14-26). Internal integration, for Aquinas, is ultimately a result of the Love of God, since one is at Peace with oneself when loving God wholeheartedly, and thereafter is able to Love others fully.
It is not until Aquinas (1225–1274 A.D.) that the particularities of Aristotle’s virtue theory come to influence Christian tradition. As noted earlier, while Aristotle and the New Testament have very different views about the good life and virtue, they share a logical and conceptual structure that identifies virtue with the achievement of the human telos (flourishing) and vice (sin) with its destruction. It was this parallelism that allowed Aquinas to synthesize Aristotle and Christianity, structuring his anthropology and ethics in Part II of his Summa Theologica by Aristotle’s logic.
In coming to this conclusion, Aquinas understands happiness to consist in activities of virtue, “as engaging in and enjoying a genuinely good activity.”90 Perfect happiness, then, is engaging in the very best and most enjoyable activity, which for him as a Christian is knowing and enjoying God in God’s essence, an activity only possible in heaven. Imperfect happiness, which is all that is available this side of heaven, is engaging in and enjoying the good activities accessible in our daily lives.