Tag Archives: diversity

Embracing difference as a spiritual discipline

We Christians have not been known, especially in recent years, for our ability to embrace difference…but what if we were?

A few weekends ago I listened to a podcast on the enneagram, the typology of nine interactive personality types that supposedly traces back to the desert fathers, and have been fascinated ever since.  But while I have loved learning about my type, where I’m prone to stress and poised for growth, what I’ve loved most about the typology is the window of empathy it has given me into the way I view my friends, family, and co-workers.  The enneagram, at its best, celebrates the differences that make us human, and instructs us not to try to change but to further understand and know one another.

But what about when people are really, really different from us and those differences confront what we think we know about ourselves, our culture, and even our faith?

As an anthropologist, I’m not only attracted to, but trained to appreciate differences in all their human forms.  When I meet someone who tells me about a different upbringing, worldview, or belief system, my ears perk up, and my intellectual curiosity sparks.  “How fascinating,” I think.  Tell me more,” I often blurt out instinctively; I listen and wait and expect…to grow.

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JingPo Christians in Yunnan, China.  All photos by Evan Schneider.

This robust respect for difference is entangled with one of the controversial, central tenants of anthropology–the notion of cultural relativism, or the belief that you kind of have to know a bit, well a lot, about another culture to understand it and to see and understand how they value what they value.  All cultures contain truth and integrity, but we rarely stop to pay attention and try to see things the way others might see them.

As I mentioned, this tenant is controversial because it’s really challenging.  Especially in the course I teach on disability, it’s almost impossible for our ableist and intellectualist-coded minds to stretch ourselves to consider disability as yet another element in human diversity.  When I assign a provocative chapter that references the very title of our course, “Disability as Difference,” students are wont to collapse the tension, to find the differences of disability clearly lacking or deficient, or at the very least, to assimilate the disabled to be “just like us.”

We human beings are simply not very good at seeing difference as valuable or even neutral. We’re constantly shaping, skewing, explaining, and evaluating differences (and different people) that we come into contact with everyday.

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The great Buddha at Lantau, Hong Kong.

But what if we added to our spiritual disciplines the act of allowing space for difference and even appreciating difference before we try to so hard to reform it, judge it, or rehabilitate it?

I think Christians especially have been afraid of the costs of such a foray.  We are afraid of where an appreciation for difference may lead us–astray from our Christian beliefs, our Christ, our God, our truth.  But if we are so easily lead astray from our faith when we value the differences of others, do we not serve a God who is small to begin with?  If our faith falters at the very introduction of contradiction, tension, and diversity, is our faith not flimsy and perhaps very worthy of being discarded?  Might we find a more robust faith, as Jesus did, in accompanying and learning from those who are different from us?

As an anthropologist who has learned so much from others about God precisely because of this openness toward difference, I seek a faith that is deep and profound and hearty because it is constantly probed and reevaluated and tested by what I am learning.  At every angle, when I exclaim, “That’s fascinating,” and sit at another’s feet to listen, I may risk something, but I also stand to gain so much.  I find this openness to difference, this grappling with diversity, to be a spiritual discipline because God is nothing if not miraculously incarnate and yet profoundly different from us at the same time.

But often we forget that truth.  

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Family out at a restaurant in Cairo, Egypt.

We presume God to belong to us, to be just like us, to be ours, to be with us and for us.  But I think God wants us to read scripture against the grain, to consider the rich diversity among its pages and in our lives, and to explore with abandon, making ourselves profoundly open to others and to God in unlikely and unexpected people and places.

We can’t do that if we’re afraid and closed off to those who are different from us, though.  We can’t grow if we don’t allow difference to disrupt our neat beliefs and convictions.  We can’t truly know God if we confine ourselves to that which is similar, expected, and narrow.

Do you do this in your life?  How do you embrace difference as a spiritual discipline?  How has it enabled your faith to grow, even if it has been tested and tried?

My husband often talks of how our seminary professors challenged us to discover a second naiveté after the faith of our childhood failed us and here Cornel West talks about a healthy atheism. I’m really interested in exploring how vulnerability like this to difference, especially, can help us to grow in our love for one another and God.

 

 

Why the Church Needs People with Disabilities

 

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This is the cartoon on the front of my students’ syllabus!

Over the past five years or so, this blog has taken a massive shift in trajectory toward exploring the lives, needs, and gifts of people with disabilities, in China, in our local church, and through my own experience with my daughter.  (In fact, I’m realizing how much I need a new tab for disability on here!  Coming soon…)

What I’ve found as I’ve only just begun to embrace this collision of my anthropological, theological, and spiritual life is that our theologies, when it comes to understanding disability, are quite limited.  They’re often not broad enough to consider the gifts of the Spirit people with disabilities possess, because they’re caught up in a rhetoric of healing, medicine, suffering, or overcoming.  Or they’re plagued by an anthropology that makes disability some surface form of neoliberalist inclusion rather than a deep paradigm shift for us all in what diversity and its value really confers.

We human beings are searching for theologies of disability that ring true when it comes to the light, challenge, and wisdom people with disabilities bring to life–theologies that confront our hollow concepts of both diversity and God.  But we need to learn and hone and witness to these theologies through practice rather than mere intellectualism, recognizing the transformative experience of life lived with other and with God.

I’m excited about being part of a recent series on Youth Ministry and Disability organized through The Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary because the authors are making the case that the Church needs people with disabilities rather than the another way around!  I think this is a really exciting moment for the theology of disability, and I hope you will read all the posts and leave your comments and continue the conversation.  I’m including mine below, but please do swing by this one from my colleague, Joel Estes, and one of the great theologians of disability, John Swinton, among others!

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On Being Transformed

“You never know. Maybe she will get up and walk. Maybe she will be able to eat and talk like other kids…maybe someday she will be normal.” 

I have often heard these well-meaning words from friends, colleagues, and church folk about my daughter, Lucia, who was born with a progressive genetic disease of the brain. From the time she was just a couple months old, from her seizures, to her feeding tubes, and onto her diagnosis, our family has been confronted with the idea that Lucia is abnormal. But perhaps especially because she’s our first child and we know no differently, or perhaps because my husband and I have learned so much from her, I bristle at statements that suggest life would be better for us or Lucia if she would conform a bit more to the standards we hold for other kids. As a person of faith, I often wonder what God would have to say about our ideas of normal and how God might use children and youth like Lucia to fight against a culture that (perhaps un-self-consciously) worships ability and regards disability as a problem.

Keep Reading at The Institute for Youth Ministry…

Outside the walls

A few months ago I overheard my husband counseling a friend who was going to accompany us to a party thrown by a bunch of my colleagues in anthropology.  “You don’t have to worry with them,” my husband assured our friend, “anthropologists are interested in everything.  Watch, whatever you say they’ll find it interesting, they’ll talk about anything forever.”

It’s evidently what makes us quirky party attendees or hosts, but I like to think that our curiosity as anthropologists is also one of our best qualities.  We find the world more interesting, more beautiful precisely because of diversity and difference.  Life is more intriguing because of culture, because your corner of the world doesn’t look talk, or act, like mine.  And yes, I could talk about those fascinating differences in culture, well…forever.

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A foster mom in Anhui, China embraces her foster son. Photo by Jason Fouts.

On the last day of the class I was teaching at the seminary this semester, when I felt like I’d earned the right to speak a little of my own passion into my students’ lives, I challenged them to believe that they might learn just as much about God outside the Church walls or the seminary campus as within.  I asked them to dare to believe that pushing their faith to include, behold, embrace, and learn from people from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds–pushing their faith to be real outside the Church might actually make it deeper, more powerful, and more poignant.

You see, I think that while it’s human to be curious, it’s also human to be really freaked out by difference.  And when we Christians get skittish, we often take a lot of the beauty and truth and goodness that God has blessed and made and called good and try to cram it into our manmade boxes.  I think good theology and good anthropology teach us to do just the opposite (like reminding us that Jesus blew the chains off women, tax collectors, diseased men and women, and prostitutes,  and included us Gentiles in salvation) (or anthropology that shows us how insightful, productive, and healthy cultural differences are), but we humans also like to be in control.

Anyway, I said these things to my students not only because they’re my truth but also because the next generation of spiritual leaders just might be our politicians, professors, doctors, lawyers, philosophers, non-profit managers, prison wardens, and community organizers.  A friend of mine had a conversation last week with a faculty member at the seminary who said her greatest concern is that we are preparing seminarians for jobs and a world that doesn’t exist.  A few days later, that same friend asked me whether I claim my Christian faith in community and what that means.

Being introduced this fall by my professor at the university for a presentation.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
Being introduced this fall by my professor at the university for a presentation. Photo by Evan Schneider.

And I realized for the first time in years of discerning and seeking and praying that I can say that I’m “out,” for lack of a better term, in my department at my university, as a Christian, a minister, a person of faith, and it finally feels right.  My colleagues happily introduce me as their resident pastor, they call on me for counsel in difficult situations because they know I’m not afraid of the messiness of life, and they even appreciate being told they are prayed for.

But it doesn’t just go one way–these same colleagues hold me accountable when I begin to complain or gossip, they counsel me through life’s big decisions, and they rejoice and grieve with me.  Both these experiences close to home and those afar of being ministered to by those supposedly outside the fold have taught me that the Spirit isn’t limited to the walls of the Church despite our unconscious, subversive efforts to confine it.  The prophetic isn’t limited to God-fearing people, and Christians don’t have a monopoly on Truth.

A temple in Luang Prabang, Laos.  Photo by Ben Robinson.
A temple in Luang Prabang, Laos. Photo by Ben Robinson.

Perhaps this is where my anthropology meets my theology so nearly, neatly, and dearly–in the enmeshing of the sacred and the profane in the everyday lives of people in culture, relationship, and meaning-making.  Real salvation is transcendent in that it seeps out of our pores to touch everyone we meet and everything we do.  And so I think theological education has to change to respond to not only this reality, but this Truth.  It has to equip all these people who are going to be outside the walls of the Church institution, and who will be ambassadors of faith and hope and love in this world.

I look around and I value and am inspired by both forms of leadership, service, and ministry–those inside the Church and out–but I believe the Church and seminaries have often been focused on internal ministry at the expense of the external, and our lives are lived, made, and redeemed in the everyday.

A Lahu church congregation in Yunnan, China.  Photo by Evan Schneider.
A Lahu church congregation in Yunnan, China. Photo by Evan Schneider.

Thanks for letting me talk forever and ever this morning about what I really find interesting in this beautiful, strange, sacred world.

P.s. You may notice the blog has a new look.  About time, right?  Everything’s pretty much the same except some of the links are to the right and on the bottom.  Thanks for stopping by and let me know what you think of the facelift.   —Erin