The Grace of Creatureliness: Technology, Disability, and Human Limitation

The Grace of Creatureliness: Technology, Disability, and Human Limitation May 26, 2020

by Eleanor McLaughlin, Lecturer in Theology and Ethics, Regent’s Park College, Oxford, and Course Coordinator of the MTh and PGDip in Applied Theology, Faculty of Theology and Religion, Oxford

Gathering at the timeless Eynsham Hall in Oxfordshire to consider the relationship between advances in technology and human flourishing might seem at first glance to be an odd combination. The Hall is emblematic of a time before the types of technologies that are often seen as insidious, a more peaceful, less frenetic time before the advent of social media, 24-hour news channels, the ever-present mobile phone. However, on closer inspection, some of these very technologies underpin the success of Eynsham Hall. The Hall promotes itself through a carefully curated presence on twitter. When guests walk into their bedroom for the first time, they are greeted by classical music emanating from a discreet digital radio. There are televisions in every room, and, of course, complimentary WiFi is everywhere. Somehow, the team running Eynsham Hall have managed to intertwine the use of technology with the retention of peace and tranquillity, traditional aspects of life in a country house, to create a restful and welcoming atmosphere. Can this splicing of technology with inherited values be done in our daily lives to the same good effect?

The focus of my research for the Human Flourishing in a Technological World project is on disability theology and technology. I’m interested in how the integration of technology into our lives can be put to beneficial use, in particular for people with disabilities. Theological anthropology that takes the variety of human embodiment seriously can help us identify ways in which technology can be beneficial and increase human flourishing. It can also help us flag up the ways in which technology is used to harm people; again, my concern in particular is with the ways in which technology can be used to harm people with disabilities.

It’s clear from our experience of every day life that some recent advances in technology are extremely beneficial for people with disabilities. For instance, Augmentative Alternative Communication technologies such as eye tracking or head pointing devices help people to communicate with others. Online discussion groups allow people to meet, play games, and access support networks even if they are unable to move from their bed. Medical technologies such as the Freestsyle Libre sensor allow people to monitor their glucose levels much more easily than doing finger pricks, leading to greater control over sugar levels and thereby avoiding dangerous hyper- or hypoglycaemic episodes. Of course, these technologies could be put to nefarious uses too, but it’s easy to see how a great many people can have enriched lives thanks to these technological developments.

But what about technologies that allow us to select, for instance, one embryo over another for implantation in cases of IVF? Or technologies that are meant to make life easier, but in fact make things a lot harder for people with disabilities, such as the ‘chip and PIN’ payment system (see the recent Guardian article by Anna Tims, ‘How shops sign away the self-worth of disabled people,’ (20 January 2019). As with the examples mentioned above, it is not the technology itself that is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but the use we make of it. These latter examples of developing technologies tend, intentionally or unintentionally, to separate people with disabilities from those without. Why is this? Why is there an enduring ‘us and them’ divide in society between those without and with disabilities? Why is it so often taken for granted that human embodiment is embodiment without disability? My work suggests that this divide is to do with how we perceive human limitation, and how theology has some great resources to help us tackle this problem.

By taking as a starting point a theological anthropology that reminds us of the human condition of creatureliness, we can begin discussions of the impact of technology on our lives in a way which does not separate those with disabilities from those without disabilities. This is not to deny any differences between those with and without disabilities, but rather to highlight that while the variety of human embodiment leads to myriad experiences of being human, we all share a common starting point of being creatures. As such, we experience the limitation of being creatures rather than all-powerful creators. We exist within certain parameters that are set for us, instead of by us. This starting point prevents the traditional dichotomy between people with and without disabilities, according to which people with disabilities are portrayed as limited, and people without disabilities are portrayed as not having any limits.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his lecture series now published as Creation and Fall, discusses the limit that all creatures bear when in right relation to God. Bonhoeffer investigates the Genesis story and asks what we can learn from it about our condition as creatures of God. He suggests that before the Fall, when Adam and Eve are in the Garden of Eden, they realise that the prohibition that God sets on eating the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden is a limit that is given to them. However, this prohibition, this limit, is not experienced as negative. Bonhoeffer argues that the tree represents God’s being present at the centre of human existence, showing the humans that they do not have to live out of their own resources, but can rely on God, who occupies the centre of their existence. Thus, the limit imposed on Adam and Eve (to not eat the fruit of that tree) is, for Bonhoeffer, grace bestowed on them by God. This grace is defined as ‘that which holds humankind over the abyss of nonbeing, non living, not-being-created’. (Bonhoeffer 1997, 87). For Bonhoeffer then, being a creature of God means having a limit, but that limit represents God’s grace to humanity: the grace which means we can rely on God rather than having to rely exclusively on ourselves.

As we go forward into the next year of the Human Flourishing project, I will be pursuing this investigation using resources from within the disability theology movement. I will ask how creaturely limitation can be experienced as grace by all human beings, and whether this common experience can help us re-structure discourse around disability.

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