In the summer of 2021 I began driving an ice cream truck. My small contribution to Howdy Homemade Ice Cream, an ice cream shop that deliberately employs workers with intellectual, emotional, and/or physical disabilities, such as Down Syndrome, was to simply provide transportation for catered events so that Howdy Homemade’s workers were not only included but actively contributing their gifts in service for others to receive. At catered events in public parks, office buildings, private birthday parties, churches, soup kitchens, and more, young and old formed queues for ice cream that at times reminded me of the diverse crowd that processes to receive the Eucharist. The recent “Hiring Chain” advertisement by CoorDown well depicts my own aspiration, that some of these customers might observe Howdy Homemade’s workers in these different contexts and consider how they might create similar jobs in their places of employment, especially since so few good jobs with adequate pay and health insurance exist for people with significant disabilities.
There is probably a more technically efficient way to run an ice cream store than Howdy Homemade’s mode of operation. As John Swinton well describes in Becoming Friends of Time, people with disabilities tend to relate to time differently than those of us who have become habituated by modern life to following a clock, functioning more like machines than humans. But the reason Howdy Homemade narrowly survived the economic challenges of the pandemic is because the broader community of which the store is a part valued the humanizing goods HH contributes to the broader public, such as joy and hospitality, which derive from its founder’s self-consciously Christian aims and disposition.
Sadly, Howdy Homemade is an extraordinary exception to how people with Down Syndrome and other physical, emotional, and intellectual disabilities are regarded in the world today. Remembering how Christians throughout the centuries have understood humanity to have been created in the image of God is a continual need in order for us to rightly discern our time and place in this world of wonders and perils. Not only can such a vision clarify our obligations towards our fellow human beings. It must also unsettle and re-make how we imagine what it means to be a human being.
Down Syndrome and Inhospitality
In her December 2020 piece in The Atlantic, “The Last Children of Down Syndrome,” Sarah Zhang interviewed persons with Down Syndrome and families around the world who care for children with a range of more and less severe physical, emotional, and intellectual disabilities related to Down Syndrome. Alongside her nuanced and intimate depiction of their plight, Zhang’s analysis raises a disturbing prospect, that we might have a future altogether without human beings who have Down Syndrome:
Denmark is unusual for the universality of its screening program and the comprehensiveness of its data, but the pattern of high abortion rates after a Down syndrome diagnosis holds true across Western Europe and, to a somewhat lesser extent, in the United States. In wealthy countries, it seems to be at once the best and the worst time for Down syndrome. Better health care has more than doubled life expectancy. Better access to education means most children with Down syndrome will learn to read and write. Few people speak publicly about wanting to “eliminate” Down syndrome. Yet individual choices are adding up to something very close to that.
The complexities of abortion in the contemporary world are manifold; writing in Plough, Kirsten Sanders describes the decision making process of women considering an abortion as wrestling with ghosts. But the arrangement of our common life, encompassing vast healthcare systems and individual decisions, prevent most – and in some places, nearly all – people with Down Syndrome from ever being welcomed into this world. Routinely, pro-choice or pro-abortion advocates will criticize conservatives for trying to make abortion illegal while also advocating for austerity with respect to the welfare state, and rightly so. The conservative preference for an informal but strong network of local support from churches, family members, and friends is theoretically desirable. But in our increasingly fragmented and isolated modern world, where bonds that traditionally wove communities together are increasingly frayed, these networks are harder to form and maintain, such that policies of economic austerity can foster child poverty. Consequently, pro-life advocates are routinely stereotyped as valuing human dignity within the womb but not outside of it, not least when it comes to matters of poverty and justice in other arenas of political and socio-economical life.
However, a serious problem with that line of criticism is that countries with the very best social safety nets and the very best public health insurance in the world – the Nordic countries – have a slightly higher abortion rate than the United States. According to the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare, “Some 57,000 induced abortions were performed in Finland, Sweden and Norway in 2019, that is, 12.4 abortions per thousand women of childbearing age (15–49 years).” According to the Centers for Disease Control, in the United States “in 2018, a total of 614,820 abortions were reported, the abortion rate was 11.3 abortions per 1,000 women aged 15–44 years, and the abortion ratio was 189 abortions per 1,000 live births.” So, while it is worthwhile to undertake whatever costs are needed to so support families in their material needs, to the benefit of parents concerned about their financial ability to care for children with intellectual and physical disabilities, it is not the case that public healthcare would necessarily solve this problem. In Iceland, the abortion rate is virtually one hundred percent where pre-natal screening indicates the child has Down Syndrome; in Denmark it is ninety-eight percent. As Zhang notes, there can be peer pressure not to end these pregnancies. Even if we regard universal public healthcare as a good worth pursuing, it not only does not reduce abortion rates but can actually increase them. According to a March 2022 report for the United States Senate Joint Economic Committee’s Social Capital Project, while medical advances have vastly expanded the life expectancy of people with Down Syndrome, up from 10 years of age in the 1960s to around 52 years of age in 2020, selective abortion means that in the last ten years about 67 percent of Down Syndrome pregnancies were aborted.
What’s So Great About Theological Anthropology in Pluralistic Societies?
In response to such trends, some point to the wonderful things people with Down Syndrome can do, accomplish, or enjoy. These truly significant accomplishments are indeed worth celebrating. Yet, as Justin Hawkins delicately warns, human worth and dignity are not determined by our perceived usefulness to others. People with Down Syndrome are not reducible to their achievements or capacity to enjoy things, nor is their existence reducible to inspirational examples for the ambition of others. But as wonderful as it is to find examples of people with intellectual and physical disabilities still accomplishing truly wonderful achievements despite all adversity, there are a great many parents of children with significant disabilities who may not ever accomplishment an athletic feat, hold a job, or speak – yet, even so, such people are no less human than you or I.
Our perceived utility to others, however great or small, might prove to be little more than the extent to which we can be exploited by dehumanizing forces and soon discarded, not least in the throwaway culture of land, animals, and human beings in the age of globalization. Rather than envisioning the systems and tools of society as serving the good of humanity, instead conditions can emerge where human beings serve the ends of the systems and tools of society in a vicious, deleterious cycle. Historically, humanity has shown ourselves more than capable of confusing real virtues such as compassion and mercy with violence and brutality, taking it upon ourselves to put people deemed worthless out of their misery, as Lebensunwertes Leben, life unworthy of life. The marginalization and disposal of the lonely elderly, ethnic minorities, the supposedly unproductive, and especially those human beings with physical or intellectual disabilities is not only tolerated but becomes celebrated and championed as humane and dignified. We not only forget, but actively avoid realizing, that even the most fortunate, affluent, and privileged among us, in time, will become utterly useless to our own selves and depend upon the compassion of others as our mortal bodies decay. We are taken from dust, and to dust we shall return, despite all presumption, accomplishment, distraction, or protestation to the contrary.
Cultivating a self-consciously theological account of human dignity might seem like a non-starter to cure the ills of our common life, a confusion of categories as sectarian private values are imposed upon the so-called neutral liberal order of our pluralist societies. The rhetorical moves possible within public reason tend to create a neat distinction between public goods, such as individual liberty, and private values, such as one’s religious preferences. A metaphysical account of what human beings are, particularly one that explicitly draws upon the discourse of Christian theology, indeed breaks the rules of the liberal game for acceptable public discourse.
Yet, it is no secret that everyone who participates in the procedures of public reason does so not only despite, but often precisely because of, their sincerely held private values. One might argue in public for sincerely held, private values on moral and social questions, but must find seemingly neutral ways to argue for this vision in public, perhaps advancing a technocratic argument about how a political ruling on a moral and social question would affect the gross domestic product. But the political organization of our common life inevitably involves some understanding or another of what human beings are, which necessarily exceeds the constraints and limits of supposedly value-free, public neutrality. We might conclude, with Justice Anthony Kennedy, that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” but this raises significant questions about what the rights and liberties for those who due to intellectual disabilities are scarcely capable of conceptualizing existence.
Liberty in personal preferences, commitment to one’s local community, and consumer choices have their place. But purportedly value-free claims to neutrality are ill-suited tools for understanding and criticizing the market forces and organization of our common life which degrade the earth and deem some human beings as unworthy of life itself. For some problems, comprehensive doctrines and value claims are inescapable, not least on the question of which kinds of human beings should be welcomed and loved on the earth as our common home, or why persons who have Down Syndrome and other intellectual disabilities increasingly are unwelcome in this world.
The Image of God
Of all the claims advanced in the history of Christian theological anthropology, one of the most important is that human beings are created in the image of God. In Genesis, the Gospels, and in Paul, “the image of God” is often associated with “vicegerency,” as those particular creatures entrusted by God with administrating rule on his behalf. In the fourth-century, Gregory of Nyssa depicted his sister Macrina as a Socrates-like philosopher, theologian, and teacher. Amidst their wide-ranging discussion of the soul, the body, and the resurrection, Macrina observes that “the human being is a kind of small cosmos.” Though created good, our corruption into sin means that “because our nature is impoverished of the beautiful, it always reaches towards that which it needs. This appetite for what is lacking is the desiring condition of our nature, which is either foiled of the truly beautiful through misjudgment or perhaps even obtains by chance that which is good to obtain.” God, however, is not beautiful by participating in something higher than God’s own self, nor is beauty merely some part of God. Rather, for Macrina, God is simple, meaning that God is beauty itself. As finite creatures, our best and noblest conceptions of the good and the beautiful are an analogy of God’s own infinite and inexhaustible beauty due to our good creaturely limitations. However, even our highest notions are fraught, subjected as wear to the forces of evil, disordered desires, and misguided judgments. The forces of evil, sin, and death threaten God’s good creation with annihilation into nothingness.
Later, in the seventh century, Maximus the Confessor, in his “On God’s Preservation and Integration of the Universe [Ad Thalassium 2],” described how the triune God upholds all things in providence. God not only created everything, but at present sustains everything despite the suffering, evil, and corruption that afflicts creation, in order that all things might be renewed, thereby “displaying the grace of God effective to deify the universe.” By the language of ‘deification,’ Maximus does not intend that the difference between Creator and creation becomes confused, nor that there are any gods but one. Rather, the goal of all of creation is to participate as creatures in God’s life and become like God in Christ. Maximus elaborates:
It is on the basis of this grace that the divine Logos, when he became man, said, My Father is working even now, and I am working. The Father approves this work, the Son properly carries it out, and the Holy Spirit essentially completes both the Father’s approval of it all and the Son’s execution of it, in order that the God in Trinity might be through all and in all things (Eph 4:6), contemplated as the whole reality proportionately in each individual creature as it is deemed worthy by grace, and in the universe altogether, just as the soul naturally indwells both the whole of the body and each individual part without diminishing itself.
More succinctly, as Maximus put it elsewhere, “The union of humanity with the divine Logos through the incarnation has renewed the whole of nature.” Contemplating the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as one God, revealed quintessentially in the work of the God-man in whom the broken creation is restored, is the ultimate source and goal, the cosmic mystery, from whom and in whom and towards whom humanity exists. Similarly, but in a quite different context in sixteenth-century Europe, John Calvin held that the entire created universe was a kind of theater in which God’s glory was displayed. By having been created in the image of God, human beings are thus distinguished from all other creatures, created to reflect the likeness of God, as in a mirror. As Calvin put it in the famous opening words of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, “nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and ourselves.”
Throughout the history of Christian theological reflection there have been wide debates over how best to understand humanity’s creation in “the image of God” (Gen. 1:26). Some have regarded it as humanity’s intellect or rationality or various human faculties, rather than our person as a body-soul unity. For instance, Augustine, in his masterpiece On the Trinity, does not necessarily deny the body participates in the image of God but focuses on the rational human soul in discussing the image of God, whereby, the one God who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is mirrored in the inter-relation between mind/memory, word, and love. Others went so far as to conclude that the image of God has been lost altogether due to sin; most interpreters avoided that conclusion because the Epistle of James cautions listeners not to curse their neighbors because they are, still, the image of God (James 3:9).
However, at the turn of the 20th century, in his Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck argued that “in our treatment of the doctrine of the image of God, then, we must highlight, in accordance with Scripture and the Reformed confessions, the idea that a human being does not bear or have the image of God but that he or she is the image of God.” Bavinck insists that our whole selves in body and soul are created in the image of the triune God, with the goal of our conformity to the image of Christ, but this carries an important implication for Bavinck: “it follows from the doctrine of human creation in the image of God that this image extends to the whole person. Nothing in a human being is excluded from the image of God. While all creatures display vestiges of God, only a human being is the image of God. And he is such totally, in soul and body, in all his faculties and powers, in all conditions and relations.” Comparable to Maximus, for Bavinck the entirety of God’s good creation is redeemed in Christ; the good creation ruined by sin is restored by grace. Only humanity is created in the image of God, and not only in part, such as the soul but not the body. Rather, the whole human being is the image of God.
Whatever else can or should be said about the long history of Christian theological reflection on humanity as the image of God, identifiably Christian reflection on the question will find its beginning and end in Jesus Christ himself. Referring back to the Genesis-creation narrative of God speaking light into existence, the Apostle Paul in the New Testament writes that the God who shone light into darkness at creation has “shone in our hearts to give the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” through beholding “the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:6, 4).
Drawing on these and other passages, later interpreters foreground Jesus Christ as quintessentially the image of God after whom humanity is patterned in the image of God. For instance, where Colossians 1:15 describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God,” John Calvin comments:
The sum is this – that God in himself, that is, in his naked majesty, is invisible, and that not to the eyes of the body merely, but also to the understandings of men, and that he is revealed to us in Christ alone, that we may behold him as in a mirror. For in Christ he shews us his righteousness, goodness, wisdom, power, in short, his entire self. We must, therefore, be beware of seeking him elsewhere, for everything that would set itself off as a representation of God, apart from Christ, will be an idol.
Similarly, for Karl Barth the image of God involved relationships between God, humans, and creation. But Barth especially contributed a driving orientation from and towards Jesus Christ crucified and risen as the chosen and rejected covenant partner, the judge judged in place of others, the elect and damned God-man. In short, “the whole Bible speaks figuratively and prophetically of Him, of Jesus Christ, when it speaks of creation, the Creator and the creature. If, therefore, we are rightly to understand and estimate what it says about creation, we must first see that – like everything else it says – this refers and testifies first and last to Him.” These brief observations leave many important questions untouched, but hopefully trace a few salient lines of Christian reflection on humanity as the image of God.
The bare affirmation that human beings have dignity and certain rights can be argued from several different philosophical outlooks. A distinctively Christian anthropology maintains that the saving wisdom and power of God are revealed in the folly and weakness of a crucified Messiah, scandalizing all notions of human worth considered otherwise.
In his recent Paul and the Power of Grace, New Testament scholar John Barclay observes different ways human worth was calibrated in the ancient Greco-Roman world. According to Cicero, “by nature we yearn and hunger for honor, and once we have glimpsed, as it were, some part of its radiance, there is nothing we are not prepared to bear and to suffer in order to secure it.” By contrast, the Apostle Paul’s antidote to the social poisons of rivalry breaking out at Galatia was to insist that “those who have been reconstituted by the Christ-event are no longer invested in the forms of ‘capital’ in which most people find their worth,” instead finding their deepest worth and identity “‘in Christ,’ a gift received, not a status inherited or achieved.”
It is difficult to imagine the extreme liminality of a crucified person in the ancient world. Not merely a painful way to be publicly executed, gasping for breath while flailing, but as a public spectacle crucifixion was furthermore an utterly degrading, humiliating, and debasing way to die in an ancient context that reckoned social worth in categories such as honor and shame, purity and impurity. If in God’s economy human worth is calibrated by a crucified Jew from Nazareth, then a question mark is set against all notions of human worth considered otherwise.
If the heart of reality is that human worth is constituted and recalibrated by the wisdom and power of God revealed in the folly and weakness of a crucified Messiah, as Christian theologians past and present have testified in one fashion or another, then an outlook of both solidarity and contradiction emerges. Positively, in this vision, God in Christ identifies with and renews the trampled peoples of the world, even summoning tramplers to no longer dehumanize themselves and others. Negatively, a word of judgment accosts our manifold violence, whether in flagrant acts of personal animus, or our casual participation in a respectably dehumanizing culture, whose violence upon the earth and other human beings can easily remain out of sight and out of mind.
In other words, whatever true human needs are, human beings do not want a crucified Messiah. A Messiah who lives gently in a violent world is so utterly damning a contradiction of our obsessions with power, wealth, reputation, and pleasure that he must be eliminated. A Lord who takes little children by the hand and blesses them represents a threat. Who will rid us of this monster, who embraces the people we throw away, who takes in his arms these repulsive, embarrassing, ridiculous folks? Where popularity and wealth determine human wealth, only scorn is deserved by someone so weak as to befriend unimpressive, annoying, inconvenient, resource-draining persons, wasting everyone’s time by eating with the disreputable and disenfranchised, wrapping a towel around his waist and filling a basin with water to wash their disgusting feet. Or, when human worth is functionally a matter of physical attractiveness, then the suggestion that a crucified Nazarene is the image of the invisible God represents not merely a strange shortcoming but a scandal which challenges the entire world – a king who hangs on a dishonorable tree in shame, a priest who becomes the slaughtered corpse in an impure grave, a prophet whose declarations of liberty for the captives and justice for the poor precedes his own cry of thirst and scream of godforsakeness.
The Hidden, Human Life
Meekness can sound like a naïve ruse, perhaps negligently surrendering a vulnerable world to tyrants. Indeed, there is nothing gentle about neglect or abandoning the defenseless. Even so, a hidden life of quiet faithfulness, and a gentleness is hardly a success sequence in a world of Machiavellian technology and cutthroat efficiency, but nonetheless testify to the hidden-but-present kingdom of God. Consequently, at least one contribution of Christian theological reflection on being human beings in a dehumanizing world is to insist that people are not suckers for living gently in a violent world. If God’s saving wisdom and power are revealed in the folly and weakness of a crucified Messiah, then human beings have inherent and irreducible worth and certain obligations of hospitality and conviviality emerge, regardless of their costs.
Open-hearted tenderness to vulnerable children, attentiveness towards persons with disabilities, or marveling with the wonder at the gift of the earth quietly stands in gracious judgment over the valuations of human worth operative in vast, incomprehensible systems of exploitation and dehumanization. Such modes of human existence represent a sign against the powers of this age that this is God’s world, that there is an age to come, which is no abstract or ethereal escapism, but something already concretely realized and seen in the resurrection of the crucified Nazarene. Alongside hidden deeds of gentleness, we also need public and relentless testimony against those forces of dehumanization which destroy the most vulnerable among us. Bringing a Christian theological outlook more pointedly to bear on our contemporary situation must insist that persons with Down Syndrome, not in part, but in their whole being, are the image of God, and as such are persons to be treasured rather than precluded from our world. They are not only to be included in our own schemes, but supported in their own vocations to which God has called them, that they might not only receive from us but that we might in turn receive the distinctive contributions that only they can give about just what it means to be human.
The End of Humanity: Beholding God in Christ
In Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov, a profoundly disillusioning experience befalls Alyosha following the death of his elder, Fr. Zosima. But after an unlikely woman showed him a surprising kindness, Alyosha stood beside Zosima’s coffin as a lector read the story of Jesus’ first miracle at Cana of Galinee. Alyosha suddenly sees Zosima at the wedding feast of the Lamb, exhorting Alyosha to gaze upon “our Sun,” Christ himself. Zosima beckoned: “Do not be afraid of him. Awful is his greatness before us, terrible is his loftiness, yet he is boundlessly merciful, he became like us out of love, and he is rejoicing with us, transforming water into wine, that the joy of the guests may not end. He is waiting for new guests, he is ceaselessly calling new guests, now and unto ages of ages.” At this, “something burned in Alyosha’s heart, something suddenly filled him almost painfully, tears of rapture nearly burst from his soul… He stretched out his hands, gave a short cry, and woke up.” Astonished, Alyosha gazed with wonder upon the body of Zosima that lie before him, then wandered outside and down the steps:
Filled with rapture, his soul yearned for freedom, space, vastness. Over him the heavenly dome, full of quiet, shining stars, hung boundlessly. From the zenith to the horizon the still-dim Milky Way stretched its double strand. Night, fresh and quiet, almost unstirring, enveloped the earth. The white towers and golden domes of the church gleamed in the sapphire sky. The luxuriant autumn flowers in the flowerbeds near the house had fallen asleep until morning. The silence of the earth seemed to merge with the silence of the heavens, the mystery of the earth touched the mystery of the stars… Alyosha stood gazing and suddenly, as if he had been cut down, threw himself to the earth. He did not know why he was embracing it, he did not try to understand why he longed so irresistibly to kiss it, to kiss all of it, but he was kissing it, weeping, sobbing, and watering it with his tears, and he vowed ecstatically to love it, to love it unto ages of ages.
At the mesmerizing vision of Christ himself, Alyosha not only encounters but is encountered by the tenderness and severity, the beauty and mystery of Christ himself, in whom the innermost depths of the soul and the outermost reaches of the stars embrace. Beholding Christ, Alyosha “wept even for the stars that shone on him from the abyss… it was as if threads from all those innumerable worlds of God all came together in his soul, and it was trembling all over ‘touching other worlds.’”
A Christian outlook towards the future will anticipate some such experience for human beings at the beatific vision, that is, seeing Christ as he is, face to face, rather than only as in a mirror dimly at present (1 Cor 13:12). In the meantime, it is only when gazing upon the face of another human being, and in being beheld by their gaze, that humans apprehend and are apprehended by the image of God. Christ told us where we would encounter him in this world, whether to our credit or shame, among the hungry, thirsty, naked, stranger, sick, and imprisoned (Matthew 25:31–46); he declares, that “whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me” (John 13:20). When we make time for and embrace a person who has Down Syndrome we embrace, and are embraced by, the image of God.
- Charles C. Camosy, Resisting Throwaway Culture: How a Consistent Life Ethic Can Unite a Fractured People (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2019). ↑
- See Dan G. McCartney, “Ecce Homo: The Coming of the Kingdom as the Restoration of Human Vicegerency,” Westminster Theological Journal 56 (1994); Richard Lints, Identity and Idolatry: The Image of God and its Inversion (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015); Haley Goranson Jacob, Conformed to the Image of His Son: Reconsidering Paul’s Theology of Glory in Romans (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2018). ↑
- St. Gregory of Nyssa, On the Soul and the Resurrection, trans. by Catherine P. Roth (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1993), 34. ↑
- Ibid., 78. ↑
- St. Maximus the Confessor, On the Cosmic Mystery of Jesus Christ, trans. by Paul Blowers and Robert Louis Wilken (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2003), 100. ↑
- Ibid. 100–101. ↑
- St. Maximos the Confessor, Third Century of Various Texts, in The Philokalia, Volume 2, ed. St. Nikodimos of the Holy Mountain and St. Makarios of Corinth, trans. G. E. H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard, Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), 121. ↑
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John T. McNeill and trans. by Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), 35. ↑
- Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: vol. 2, God and Creation, trans. by John Vriend and ed. by John Bolt (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 554. ↑
- Ibid., 555. ↑
- John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle to the Colossians, trans. by William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1979) 149–150. ↑
- Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, trans. by G.W. Bromiley (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1956), III.1.23–24. ↑
- John M.G. Barclay, Paul and the Power of Grace (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2020), 67. ↑
- Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, trans. by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York, NY: Penguin 1992), 361–362. ↑
- Ibid., 362. ↑
- Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamzov, 362. ↑