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Hearts and Minds: Embracing Limitation

Maja Whitaker —

It can seem like a noble pursuit to be always pushing against one’s limits.

I, for one, am still working my way out of an unhealthy mindset of Christian service where a good girl is one who is run off her feet, forever saying “yes,” and prioritising everyone else’s needs not out of love but out of obligation.

I have come to learn, however, that despite our best intentions, it is sin that has us forever pushing at the boundaries – dissatisfied with Eden and grasping for more, instead of being content that we already have everything we need. Not satisfied with being made in God’s image (Gen 1:26–27), the first Adam wanted to become divine (Gen 3:5). Christ, the second Adam, instead embraced the limitation of the human nature (Phil 2:6). To be limited is a very human thing.

Some have argued it is a very divine thing also. Nancey Eiesland, the late disability theologian, offered an image of God with a major physical disability:

I saw God in a sip-puff wheelchair, that is, the chair used mostly by quadriplegics enabling them to maneuver by blowing and sucking on a strawlike device. Not an omnipotent self-sufficient God, but neither a pitiable suffering servant. In this moment, I beheld God as a survivor, unpitying and forthright. I recognized the incarnate Christ in the image of those judged “not feasible,” “unemployable,” with “questionable quality of life.” Here was God for me.[1]

It’s an image of God that, for most, is unfamiliar and provocative, perhaps even offensive at worst. But the images of God the Bible presents are often the same.[2] I do not want to go as far as Eiesland did and suggest that God is innately disabled or limited. I value her voice and I think she had to be this provocative to spur a shift of our collective theological imagination. However, in addition to the theological issues it raises, her image of a disabled God is potentially alienating for those with intellectual disabilities, or for those of us who are temporarily able-bodied (that’s code for nondisabled).

While not all persons will experience a degree of limitation that warrants the label “disability” during adult life, we will all become disabled in some way if we live long enough, and the status of “nondisabled” is at all times a precarious position. Disability is inherent in the human condition. This does not equate to saying that “we are all disabled in some way.” I would not want to claim this, as it could easily be interpreted to downplay the struggles of those with recognised disabilities, or even to shirk our communal responsibility to offer preferential care to those with a greater need. Instead, I suggest that the common experience of disability lies in the nature of human persons as creatures: finite, contingent, and limited.[3] It may be better to think of limits in this sense as boundaries, without the negative value that is usually attached to our understanding of limits. Creation itself requires limits to have form, and in the same way, limitation is an intrinsic part of our human creatureliness.[4]

The reality of the incarnation still blows me away: Christ, who holds creation together with his word (Col 1:17; Heb 1:3), became a human infant. I don’t know if you’ve spent time with a tiny baby recently, but they are pretty useless. Lovely, yes, but they can’t do much. I remember marvelling at the way that my first daughter, who was born at full term plus some, could not even move her two eyes together for a start. She was born just before Christmas, and the Christmas story took on a whole new meaning for me that year. Jesus chose this? The indignity! The humility! The grace.

To become fully human, Jesus had to embrace limitation. So perhaps for us to be fully human, we need to embrace our limitation also. Yet in the brokenness of our humanity, we strain against these limits in an effort to deny our own vulnerability. I’m not talking here about accepting injustice, about justifying laziness, or about undercutting your dreams for more. As imagers of God, we are called to use all our talents and energy to create a flourishing world. But that does not mean pushing against every limitation.

Swimming in the waters of modern Western culture, however, we are addicted to progress and seduced by the prospect of mastery. Dissatisfied with what we have received as gift, we look for ways to remake ourselves. Michael Sandel offers this as a critique of the kind of Promethean aspiration and overreaching hyperagency that leads us to human genetic enhancement.[5] I want to offer this as a critique of the kind of Superwoman/Superman aspiration that leads to perfectionism, frustration, anxiety, and hurry.

Recognizing the limits of all human persons enables us to reject cultural narratives such as “the American dream” which offer only either fulfilment in success or despair in failure. Instead, the cross and resurrection point us towards affirming dependency as our natural state, the human person as creature, and existence as gift. Meaningful community requires interdependence, which in turn, rests upon the reality that human persons are limited. Vulnerability is not a threat to our humanness but a condition of our relatedness. We are relational and limited creatures, which entails that we are also dependent creatures. As Hauerwas claims, “Dependency, not autonomy, is one of the ontological characteristics of our lives.”[6] In a world that celebrates independence, wholeness at every level is only found in dependence. This is not a wholeness defined by freedom from flaws, loss, or brokenness, but a wholeness that can absorb and transfigure these flaws, losses, and forms of brokenness within Christ-centred community.

This does not mean that we should not work to overcome or adapt to limits, but that our reflection on them needs to be careful to avoid pathologizing all limits. We must fight against the confines of injustice, particularly on behalf of others. But the confines of our own humanness, our own limitedness, the fact that we are not superhuman? These are limits to accept and embrace.

Maja Whitaker is a lecturer in Practical Theology at Laidlaw College, based at the Christchurch campus, and is part of the leadership team of the School of Theology. Maja and her husband Dave pastor the Equippers Church in Timaru, a Pentecostal church within the ACTS movement. 

[1] Nancy Eiesland, The Disabled God: Toward a Liberatory Theology of Disability (Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1994), 89.

[2] Some of the Psalms describe God as impaired, particularly deaf and mute (Pss 22:1-2, 28:1, 35:22, 83:1, 109:1). He’s even portrayed as forgetful (Gen 8:1; 9:16; Isa 49:15-16). My favourite, however, is the omni-directional wheelchair he has chosen in Ezekiel 1:4–28.

[3] Deborah Creamer argues that “disability is not something that exists solely as a negative experience of limitation but rather that it is an intrinsic, unsurprising, and valuable element of human limit-ness.” Deborah Creamer, Disability and Christian theology: Embodied Limits and Constructive Possibilities (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 96.

[4] In Genesis 1 God separates the light from darkness, water from sky, and land from water, imposing limits on the chaos.

[5] Michael J Sandel, The Case Against Perfection: Ethics in the Age of Genetic Engineering (Harvard University Press, 2007).

[6] Stanley Hauerwas, "Chapter 1. Timeful Friends: Living with the Handicapped," Journal of Religion, Disability & Health 8.3–4 (2005): 11–25.