By Professor David Albert Jones
St Augustine of Hippo (354-430 CE), thought that people had disabilities because of the fall. In paradise, Adam and Eve would not have had any disabilities. However, this did not mean that he wanted to distinguish between disabled people and able-bodied people. Rather, he thought that, since the fall, everyone has been disabled in some way or other.
He expressed this idea in a rather more comical way when he asked the question of how much control over the body Adam and Eve would have had. He claimed that, before the fall, we would all have had complete self-possession and control over our bodies. Against people who said that this kind of self-control was humanly impossible, Augustine pointed to individuals who have strange abilities that are remarkable for their rarity.
There are persons who can move their ears, either one at a time, or both together. There are some who, without moving the head, can bring the hair down upon the forehead, and move the whole scalp backwards and forwards at pleasure. Some, by lightly pressing their stomach, bring up an incredible quantity and variety of things they have swallowed, and produce whatever they please, quite whole, as if out of a bag. Some so accurately mimic the voices of birds and beasts and other men, that, unless they are seen, the difference cannot be told. Some have such command of their bowels, that they can break wind continuously at pleasure, so as to produce the effect of singing. (City of God XIV.24).
Thus, there is a variety of abilities and of disabilities, but everyone must struggle more or less, and suffer, at least some of the time, and live with the limits of their mortal body. In one place in his writings Augustine provided an account (to my knowledge unique in the ancient world) of physical disability as a form of diversity that contributes to the beauty of the whole.
In this passage he discussed stories of strange and marvellous races – tribes who were born with one leg, or who were only one cubit high. Augustine was sceptical about these travellers’ tales but was insistent that, if they existed, then they were no less human than human beings of more familiar shapes and sizes.
For it is reported that some have one eye in the middle of the forehead; some, feet turned backwards from the heel; some, a double sex, the right breast like a man, the left like a woman, and that they alternately beget and bring forth: others are said to have no mouth, and to breathe only through the nostrils; others are but a cubit high, and are therefore called by the Greeks Pigmies… But whoever is anywhere born a man, that is, a rational, mortal animal, no matter what unusual appearance he presents in colour, movement, sound, nor how peculiar he is in some power, part, or quality of his nature, no Christian can doubt that he springs from that one protoplast [Adam]…
For God, the Creator of all, knows where and when each thing ought to be, or to have been created, because He sees the similarities and diversities which can contribute to the beauty of the whole. But He who cannot see the whole is offended by the deformity of the part, because he is blind to that which balances it, and to which it belongs. We know that men are born with more than four fingers on their hands or toes on their feet: this is a smaller matter; but far from us be the folly of supposing that the Creator mistook the number of a man's fingers, though we cannot account for the difference. (City of God XVI.8).
We do not know why God has created people how and where and when they are conceived. We do not know the wisdom of why each has been given the physical, temperamental or intellectual characteristics, even the number of fingers, each is born with. We do know that God does not make mistakes, and whereas we think that divergence from the norm is a defect, God sees the whole and how each person contributes to it.
Augustine was concerned to understand how a perfect God could permit the birth of a disabled child. Part of his answer was that creation is good when taken as a whole, in space and time, even though we might not think so because we can only see this or that part. We only see part of the picture.
At the same time Augustine was also concerned to confront the fear directed at people who appear physically different. This is a theme found throughout his writing, the importance of finding a place in a larger more diverse community, and the dangers of seeking separation and exclusivity. The providence of God is served by accepting and celebrating the diversity within the world and within the Church. The kingdom of God is not served by trying to create a homogeneous society or a Church only for the perfect (or for those who think they are perfect).
Augustine was happy for achievements to be celebrated, including intellectual, athletic and moral achievements, but was always cautious in case someone who excels in one way at one thing might become proud and fail to realise his or her need for the help of God and for the support of the community. Again and again, in different contexts, Augustine emphasised the many different kinds of abilities and disabilities distributed across the community, not so that these differences might alienate people from one another but, paradoxically, to show us what we have in common.
Professor David Albert Jones
This post is an extract from a talk given at an event on disability, spirituality and sport held during the London Paralympic 2012.