It’s not hard to find evidence that the divide between “disability” and “ability” is among the major ways that we categorize ourselves within contemporary Western society—a divide we often think of in terms of wheelchair ramps and convenient parking spots. To what extent is this way of thinking about human beings’ particular physical limitations limiting, both to “us” and to “them”? Martin Wendte, Privatdozent (Lecturer) in Evangelical Theology at Eberhard Karls Universität Tübingen and minister in Ludwigsburg, discusses his research on Jesus as a healer: what the New Testament tells us, what we can learn about health and healing from Christianity across the globe, and what topics we're leaving out of our conversations.
What is the topic of your research for The Enhancing Life Project?
My topic is Jesus the healer, within a society that circulates around health. I’m asking which way Jesus understood healing—maybe in a much broader way than our societies do. We are very much fixed and focused on the biomedical dimension of healing.
Recently, I have been focusing on a theology of disability. In many respects, Jesus was healing the blind, the lame, etc.—those people who we would now call “disabled." But at the same time, his understanding both of disability and of healing are very different from the way that we tend to think if we meet people who are challenged in these particular ways. It was really interesting for me to start to understand what was going on there.
How do you understand the public relevance of your project? Has your project revealed any interesting implications for public policy, or public discourse, particularly with the recent focus on accessibility?
If you focus on accessibility, the background idea is this social reading of disability: people are excluded, and it's our task to include them in society. Clearly, that's an important dimension of it, and I think it's both a Biblical one, and one that is of absolute importance for our contemporary discussion.
But what I think is interesting is that, at least from a theological/Biblical point of view, if you’re taking into account the latest research, the “social” understanding of disability is integrated into the wider horizon of the cultural/religious/political reading of disability. That is—that each society defines who's disabled, and so it's not a natural thing that you're disabled because of XYZ physical factors. Rather, the divide between “disability” and “normalcy” is a way that society organizes a discourse about itself—and it’s the main task of theology to deconstruct this discourse, I think.
So I'm all for ramps. Accessibility is of extreme importance, and we need to put money into it. But in the worst case scenario, this way of thinking about disability still relies upon the differentiation between "them" and "us." And the “whole trick,” so to speak, of the theology of disability, would be to turn the table: there's no "them" and “us." And perhaps those who can actually “see clearly,” in a physical sense, are those who are “blind” towards the decisive things in life. So it's this deconstruction of the guiding parameter, which is really interesting. And it’s a real contribution to society if we manage to open up a discourse in that direction.
What do you think are some of the major insights that can be gleaned from who a society "decides" is disabled?
I think it can show us what kind of life constitutes a “good life,” or a “fulfilled life,” and what that kind of life should look like. Those who can't live up to that standard of a “good life” are considered disabled in one way or another. In many Western contemporary societies, our understanding of a good, fulfilled life is that we are fit, active, working, and productive.
However, I think that from a New Testament perspective, a “good life” means that you're opening yourself up to divine reality. You can do this if you're in a wheelchair, and you can do this if you’re not fit, active, working, and productive. Ability and disability, towards this understanding of a fulfilled life, has very different ideas of fulfillment. I think these questions circle around an idea of what a perfect life would look like.
Have you recently taught an Enhancing Life Studies course? Do you have another coming up soon?
Yes and yes! I taught one last summer term, and I will teach one in six weeks time. The one last summer term was about healing, and the one I'll teach this summer term deals with the intercultural dimension of Christology.
What was the course that you taught last summer about -- what were some of the topics that you covered?
We tried both to do New Testament research on Jesus the healer and the healing of Jesus, and also to systematically reflect on how we can actually understand what's going on. Then we had a bit of a rival attempt to try to understand what these questions could mean for practical theology, for our church practice then.
Who were your students for the course?
I taught it at Tübingen University, and the vast majority of the students were just normal students who studied Protestant Theology full time. Interestingly enough, there was one older student who was already an established pastor who was interested in the course, and most fascinatingly, there was another woman who was a pastor, as well as a physical therapist—she was actually healing! So she had practical experience with all these things we talked about, which was pretty strange and challenging in the best way.
You know, in Germany, the Church landscape is very different to the Church landscape in the US. We've got “mainline” churches, and we've got very few “free” churches. And normally, healing is pretty much delegated to the free churches. But this pastor, who was from a mainline church, did all these things! She was praying for all these sick people until they became better, and she was healing with her hands, and she was anointing people. It was really interesting to see that someone in our mainline churches was reflecting upon and practicing all of these things that we're talking about. That's real life in the classroom. I really liked that, it was fantastic.
In my experience within an American framework, students and faculty often try to intentionally separate their religious beliefs from their academic work. What, to you, is gained from the framework that you're working within?
In Germany, we've got Protestant faculties, and so everybody who teaches there has to be Protestant, really. So what's our “excuse” to say that we're scientific nonetheless? The guiding idea is that being scientific doesn't mean starting from a neutral base, but means becoming conscious of the presuppositions that everybody has. It means trying to focus on the subject matter, and trying to develop methods that are adequate for talking about that very subject matter. If that’s what being scientific means, in that respect, we are scientific at this state university because we do both these things: we clarify our presuppositions, and we also try to be in contact with other voices and with the subject matter of different phenomena. There’s this kind of triangle between the voices, the presuppositions, and the phenomena that constitutes a rationally methodological discourse taking place, and I think that's what science is all about. I think we need images of the world—general understandings of reality—in order to see anything at all. We don't see any phenomena at all if we don't have a general horizon under which we understand reality as a whole. This general horizon, then, should be corrected by phenomena. That's the deeper philosophical understanding of why it's actually reasonable to have theology at a state university.
How does the course that you'll be teaching this summer, about an inter-cultural approach to Christology, relate to the course that you taught last summer about healing? What are some of the related questions that each course addresses?
Jesus as healer is a living reality in the Global South. So, if we take a look at African Independent Churches, or Pentecostal churches in Sub-Saharan Africa, etc., it's a real characteristic of these churches—they wouldn't be themselves without healing. So, an inter-cultural approach to Christology means that, all of a sudden, my senior student who was practicing healing in the real world wouldn't be the minority, but the majority.
That's the connection between these two courses, and I think it’s also related to the real challenge for us in the West: to see that Christianity has changed. Jesus has many new faces at the moment, and it's our task to understand what's going on, and that's quite a challenge for Christianity in the North—the "old Christianity”. Healing, health, and the understanding that we are embodied beings, and everything that's connected to that, is clearly part and parcel of the challenge that Christianity in the South brings to the North at the moment.
And so I'm really looking forward to that, on one afternoon, we're going to have a person from a Ghanan church—there's a congregation with roots from Ghana here in Germany, and they're into all these healing practices, and one of them is coming to speak to us! To me, that's just fascinating—to see how these global hybrid identities are actually there in the local setting in which I'm teaching.