Crippled Grace

Disability, Virtue Ethic, and the Good Life

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Shane Clifton
Studies in Religion, Theology, and Disability
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , March
     285 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Shane Clifton, Professor at Australia's Alphacrucis College, combines insight and honesty in this exploration of Christian theology and disability. Books of theological reflection by the parents, siblings, and teachers of the disabled are plentiful. Books of theological reflections by disabled theologians are rare. Clifton's voice is important because he reflects on theology as a disabled person. (In the disability community, debates over terminology are political. Some use “person with a disability” or “differently abled person.” This disabled reviewer chooses “disabled person.”) At mid-life Clifton became a quadriplegic due to a bicycle accident, an experience that shapes his reflection even as he is mindful that his challenges, questions, and experiences of an acquired disability are different than those of people born disabled or with a different disability. Attentive to the variety of experience of disability, he employs the stories of others in addition to his own to ground his reflection. The narratives he shares are realistic, brutally honest, and are both moving and gut-wrenching at times. 

The book opens with the narrative of the father of a severely disabled daughter named Sunshine who is also a committed Christian. The story of his own reflection on his daughter's disability becomes one of the touchstones of Clifton's account. It is only after this story that Clifton turns to a chapter that outlines various Christian views of theodicy. 

Clifton's next chapter insightfully presents a “disabled reading” of virtue traditions. He gives a brief, helpful overview of the tradition of virtue as it is depicted in Aristotle, the Hebrew Bible, and the New Testament. He notes these traditions are often not inclusive of the physically or intellectually disabled because of their focus on self-control, bodily integrity, and reason, the very things disability often prevents individuals from possessing. He also notes the complex relationships the disabled have with Christian healing traditions. In contrast to some other writers on theology and disability, Clifton acknowledges that those with disabilities who are not healed in this life, long for physical healing in the next. 

Clifton next turns narrative's power in framing relationships between ethics, disability, and agency. How the disabled see their disability in relationship to the rest of their lives has a profound impact on their lives and worldview. For example, Clifton discusses the story of Australian disability advocate Mark Tonga who suffered a mid-life spinal cord injury, one that ended an accounting career. Tonga used his experience, skills, and frustrations to launch a career as a disability rights advocate. 

From that exploration of virtue Clifton turns to the issue of “quality of life,” which is a prevalent theme in the writings of the philosopher Peter Singer, among others. Clifton admits that when happiness is measured among the disabled, those born with disabilities are happier then individuals who acquired disability later in life. He notes that measures and philosophy of the disabled focus on ways disability limits independent functioning without measuring other facets of life that may be joyful. Yet, it is problematic that disabled people are employed at lower rates then the non-disabled, since employment is a key measure of happiness in quality of life surveys. 

The next chapter delves into the question of autonomy and relationship. Here, like other writers who are concerned with the virtue tradition in relationship to human vulnerability, Clifton turns to Alasdair McIntyre's book Dependent Rational Animals (Open Court, 2001)Clifton pushes McIntyre's account further, noting how important it is to think of the giving and receiving of care as a “two way street.” Giving care requires a certain set of virtues, but receiving care also requires those who receive care to develop some virtues as well. This means that the disabled develop virtues that allow them to go about their lives as they are able, but in ways different than the classical accounts of virtue which stress rational bodily control and integrity. He also notes that in some ways, the moderately intellectually disabled can become independent practical reasoners in ways that can foster their self-determination even when self-sufficiency is impossible. But Clifton rightly notes that even the able bodied are never fully “independent”; we all depend on networks of people for all aspects of our lives, from our jobs to the production of our food. This is a key insight that is important for further work. 

Clifton next turns to the topic of the role of sexuality and pleasure in the good life. He notes people often assume that the disabled are asexual, which is often not the case. While acknowledging that disability can impose real and painful limits on sexual functioning, he notes that eroticism takes many forms, and that intimacy, touch, and pleasure can be especially redemptive for the disabled. He muses that sex surrogates might be redemptive partners in transforming the shame that the disabled may have about their bodies. But he also asks how the disabled might be redemptively intimate, without being fetishized. He turns to christology to note that it is in broken bodies that Christians are most asked to see God writing about the implications of this aesthetic for disabled bodies in erotic contexts. 

The book's conclusion is like the book, honest about its limitations, thoughtful, and conducted by weaving between the experience of disability and the Christian tradition as it has been handed down in the virtue tradition. Clifton acknowledges the importance of that tradition but argues that it can be reformulated from its classical paradigm to be less elitist and more open to all. 

Clifton has provided us a needed work in the literature on theology and disability. He does not instrumentalize the disabled. While he acknowledges the extraordinary strength that individuals with disability can sometimes muster to overcome challenges, he acknowledges that some limitations are real and cannot be overcome. He also manages to combine personal honesty with sophisticated reflection, a feat too rare in academic theology today. This is truly a book all who want to work in theology and disability should read, because it is thoughtful, brutally honest, deeply reflective, and methodologically sophisticated. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Aaron Klink is Chaplain at Pruitt Health Hospice of East Carolina, Durham.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shane Clifton is Professor of Theology at Alphacrucis College in Australia.



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