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Deaf Theology

Walls are everywhere.
But, "Something there is that doesn't love a wall."
Might that "something" be God?
If so, shall we imitate God and wall out those walls?
Robert Walker, 2008

Rev. Walker's sermon at Wesley Seminary addresses one concern of Deaf theology: exclusion. From the scriptural injunction, "curse not the deaf...I am the Lord, and I command you to love others as yourself" (Leviticus 19:14a; 18b) to questions of best practice and inclusion, Deaf theology seeks to promote the inclusion of all people. Deaf theology also asks what faith has to tell us about Deaf people, about being Deaf and deaf, and the resulting challenges to mainstream theology. As such, it joins with other theologies of liberation, whether racial or disabilities. It brings a new sense of identity and self as a result.

The word "theology" comes from Greek roots designating the study of God. Such a proposal is, to say the least, audacious. How can a human mind hope to understand God? How can human language pretend to communicate the ineffable?

What can we do when attempting such an effort? Perhaps, for a place to begin, we can join with St. Anselm, who wrote of "faith seeking understanding." Theology can help us understand our faith in God and, by extension, what God calls us to do in the world. One understanding of theology that we take from Paul's first letter to the church at Corinth is that the body of Christ is composed of many parts. Each part has a unique function. Together, all of the parts create a functioning body, and each part, while uniquely different, is also necessary.

The primary concern of disability theology is to understand the nature of this diversity in humans. We are created in the image of God, but exhibit many variations. Some of these variations may seem to be limiting, but on careful examination, are human views of different ways of understanding or doing things. Theological study reminds us that "Yahweh does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks on the heart" (1 Samuel 16.7, NRSV), and that we need to look further than the outside, beyond the body and its differences.

Theology is also a reflection on life experience. Therefore we place value on how people live and where they find God's presence and direction. When we meet to worship, we express this search through our rules for living together. The Bible is a record of how we have come to understand the practical aspects of living in community. In our various communities, we have rules and laws that express our understandings of how to best live together. In the United Methodist Church, these rules are expressed in the Discipline and Book of Resolutions. Although neither perfect nor followed perfectly, they tell us what we aspire to be.

Theology also reminds us that God calls every person to some variety of the work that comprises living together with this diversity. It also reminds us that this work includes helping others with the needs that we all face. And therefore it also reminds us to strive to reach everyone, and that sometimes this requires knowledge of how those needs are understood and absorbed in different ways by some.

Finally, theology reminds us that we all stand equally before God. In the context we have set out of diverse gifts within a body, people with disabilities have gifts of their own to bring. These gifts may be different but they are vital to its health. Therefore, we speak of ministry with and not ministry to people with disabilities.

Among people who are Deaf or live with multiple differences, we seek to promote the inclusion of all people. Deaf theology also asks what faith has to tell us about Deaf people, about being Deaf and deaf, and the resulting challenges to mainstream theology. As such, it joins with other theologies of liberation, whether racial or disabilities. In doing that, it brings to every person a new sense of identity and self.

Portions of this article appeared in Leo Yates Jr., Deaf Ministry: Ministry Models for Expanding the Kingdom of God, Create Space, 2015.

Books on Deaf Theology

Broesterhuizen, Marcel, editor. The Gospel Preached by the Deaf: Proceedings of a Conference of Deaf Liberation Theology held at the Faculty of Theology of the Catholic University of Leuven (Belgium), May 19, 2003 (Peeters, 2007).

Hitching, Roger. The Church and Deaf People: A Study of Identity, Communication and Relationships with Special Reference to the Ecclesiology of Jurgen Moltmann (Paternoster).

Lewis, Hannah. Deaf Liberation Theology (MPG Books Ltd, Bodmin, Cornwall, 2007).

Morris, Wayne. Theology without words: theology in the deaf community: explorations in practical, pastoral and empirical theology (MPG Books Ltd. Bodmin, Cornwall) 2008.

June 2016