In God's Image
Recognizing the Profoundly Impaired as Persons
- ISBN: 9781625646323
- Published By: Cascade Books
- Published: April 2018
Peter Comensoli’s In God’s Image: Recognizing the Personhood of the Profoundly Impaired defends the personhood of human beings with severe cognitive disabilities via a fresh reading of the imago Dei, or image of God—the belief that something about human nature reflects its divine creator.
Theologians have traditionally identified the imago Dei with traits that supposedly distinguish humans from non-human animals: reason and will. Hence, for theologians wanting to affirm the personhood of the profoundly intellectually impaired, the first line of defense is typically to abstract away from the specific abilities or disabilities with which any human being lives their life. These theologians locate the imago Dei not in an immanent human capacity like reason or will, but rather in a “transcendent good” or “gift” that anyone can receive, regardless of their natural aptitudes (35).
In God’s Image critiques one example of this approach at length: Hans Reinders’ Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics (Eerdmans, 2008). To defend the personhood of human beings who lack agency, writes Reinders, one must make friendship the criterion of being human and bearing the image of God—for to be befriended, either by God or another human being, is a grace that requires no agency. But safeguarding the personhood of the profoundly impaired by thus “sidelining their impairment” gets the Christian view of personhood wrong (215), Comensoli argues, insofar as it decouples the descriptive question of “what it is to be a human being” from the normative question of the “value or purpose” of an “individual’s human life” (122).
In other words, according to Comensoli’s reading of Reinders, the way a profoundly impaired human being lives—the “actual” nature that they have—has “no” intrinsic “value and purpose” (158). Rather, value and purpose fall exclusively on the abled side of an interabled friendship: the unimpaired charitably expand the label person from its conventional use (meaning the unimpaired) to an unconventional one (including the profoundly impaired). Comensoli deems this “paradigm of inclusion” (215) bad for the profoundly impaired because it turns the innate fact of their personhood into an invitation-only “achievement” (218). For Comensoli, a more properly Christian view would recognize the personhood of the profoundly impaired not in spite of but “in the midst of” their “impairment” (218).
The constructive task of In God’s Image is therefore to provide an alternative to Reinders’ paradigm of inclusion. Comensoli must (a) show “that the profoundly impaired are recognizably persons precisely in the condition in which they are living their lives” (215), that is, in the “lived reality” of their cognitive disability (221), without (b) making “their claim to personhood dependent upon the condition of their impairment” (215), lest unimpaired human beings lose their own claim to personhood. As an example of the latter mistake, Comensoli points to the so-called “associating move,” which maintains that, since the profoundly impaired “suffer like Jesus suffered,” they are persons “in the same manner as Jesus was” (207). Like the paradigm of inclusion, the associating move treats personhood as an “achievement” rather than an innate fact; it merely changes the default owner of this achievement from the unimpaired to the impaired (207).
How, in short, does a theological anthropology avoid the Scylla of the paradigm of inclusion and the Charybdis of the associating move? In God’s Image finds an answer in Aquinas, for whom the image of God exists in three distinct modes: in “nature” or “creation,” in “grace” or “recreation,” and in its “original” perfect “glory” in God (179). The imago Dei in the mode of nature distinguishes the nature common to all human creatures as such from the quality of an individual instance of that general nature (182). So, to be a human being or person is to have the kind of nature that has God’s image in it, full stop; it means one has an “essential substance” of the “rational” kind, regardless of the “concomitant quality” of one’s mind (177). The imago Dei in the mode of grace concerns the degree to which an individual’s life choices conform to God’s image in the mode of glory: sinning, for example, distorts the image of God in a sinner.
This modal account of the imago Dei lets Comensoli replace Reinders’ logic of “inclusion-as-goal” with the logic of “inclusion-as-given” (104), according to which (a) all human beings start off with God’s personifying image; (b) those with severe cognitive disabilities “lack” the “agency” necessary “to choose against grace and glory” (181); (c) the unimpaired can so choose, placing them at greater “risk of losing” God’s image (181); ergo (d) the profoundly impaired are “a better measure” of God’s image in “humanity” against which the unimpaired should “judge the quality of their own humanity” (182). The profoundly impaired, far from needing a special invitation into personhood, are paragons of personhood.
In God’s Image falls short of its constructive goal, though, insofar as the book reproduces the very problem it critiques. For all its talk about the importance of grounding the personhood of the profoundly impaired “precisely in the condition” of “their lives” (215), the book includes no concrete examples of such lives. At the same time, it does describe the lives of some famous abled friends and caregivers—Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, Ian Birrell—a discrepancy that places disproportionate value on the abled side of interabled relationships. In addition, without concrete examples, the book’s use of terms like “profound impairment” (99) and “lack of purposive agency” (33) remains unclear. When do they apply to a human being and why? What difference might a congenital versus an acquired profound impairment make to Comensoli’s modal imago Dei? Or a non-progressive traumatic brain injury versus a progressive neurological disease? Suffice to say, Comensoli’s analysis of personhood deals mostly in abstractions, sidelining the “lived reality” of disability (221).
Olivia Bustion is a PhD candidate in theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School.Olivia BustionDate Of Review:January 25, 2023