Review: Molly C. Haslam, “A Constructive Theology of Intellectual Disability”

Title: A Constructive Theology of Intellectual Disability: Human Being As Mutuality and Response
Author: Molly C. Haslam
Publisher: Fordham University Press
Genre: Theology
Year: 2012
Pages: 134
Binding: Paperback
ISBN13: 978-0-8232-3941-2
Price: $24.00

Here’s another (perhaps over-long) review. For the benefit of people wrapped up in the holiday season and not able to spend much time on a blog post, here’s a little synopsis of the review:

SYNOPSIS: Theologian/physical therapist Molly Haslam claims that Christian theology is problematically biased in its typical definition of “human being” according to attributes such as agency, rationality, and intelligence. Christian anthropologies thus marginalize people with profound intellectual disabilities. She describes several recent attempts to account for the disabled in Christian theology. She finds them inadequate because they still seem to privilege the rational self. She seeks to construct a theology which explains how people with severe intellectual disabilities can be seen as being created in the image of God. Her account is excellent despite a few internal contradictions, and it has interesting implications for how a Mormon theology of intellectual disability might look. Above all, it very fruitfully invites you, good reader, to think about what it means to be human.

Now for the full review.

Chan was born with cerebral palsy. At age twenty he functions with an IQ level of about 20—somewhere near the level of an infant. He can’t roll over or hold his head upright. It seems he can’t understand or produce words or sentences, nor can he use or interpret gestures. It also seems Chan can’t self-reflect, symbolize a goal, or act with intention to achieve one. His caregivers describe his behavior as being alternately “awake oriented” and “sleep oriented.” They try to discern patterns when Chan exhibits such behaviors. They look for messages in eye movement, heart rate, and muscle tension. They believe Chan acts at a “preintentional” level; that he responds to the world around him without conscious intention and the world around him can in turn respond to him. Molly C. Haslam, a physical therapist and theologian, turns to Chan and other people with “profound intellectual disabilities” to better understand what it means to be human (57-65). What can Chan tell us about who we are, about who God is, and about our relationships to each other? Those questions are the main theme of Haslam’s A Constructive Theology of Intellectual Disability.

With the rise of a disability rights movement over the past hundred and fifty years, various “models” have been created to frame disability. The “vocational model” sees disability in terms of impact on ability to work, thus measures are taken to provide education, training, and job opportunities for the disabled. The “medical model” has promoted “important medical advances,” but “professional control” often wins out over “empowerment of the individual” (10). The “minority group model” tries to overturn societal barriers against and stigmatization of the disabled. This model has been useful in helping Haslam identify ways which “our theological categories perpetuate this stigmatization,” but she believes it misses complexity—”individuals with disabilities experience disability differently” (11). Thus, one more model, the “limits model,” is helpful for Haslam’s purposes. It emphasizes that embodiment is multifaceted, it “begins with the notion of limits as a common, indeed quite unsurprising, aspect of being human.” Everyone has limits in varying degrees (12). Using these last two models, Haslam explains how “our theological categories perpetuate the stigmatization” the intellectually disabled because they fail “to account for the full humanity of these individuals” (13).

According to Haslam, Christian theology has usually defined humans in substantialist terms. “Christianity came to life in a culture infused with Neoplatonic philosophy and its privileging of the world of ideas over the material world” (14). A person’s intellect matters more than their body (Aquinas, Calvin). Several recent theologians have recognized this bias which places human nature on the “inside” (Reynolds, Yong, Reinders). In order to account for human disability they try an “outside” approach by defining humanity in relational terms. A person is a human in that they are created, recognized or accepted as such by God or caregivers. Haslam sees these new attempts as a “hopeful sign” (3), but not good enough. They either define humans as utterly passive, thus not reflective of an active God (and we’re supposed to be “created in his image”), or they still locate humanity in a particular capacity: a person’s agency, the ability to understand one as a differentiated self, a being capable of symbolic or goal-directed behavior, understanding oneself as loved by another.

In part one Haslam explains and argues against Gordon Kaufman‘s view of the human as “intellectual agent” (19-35) and in part two she does the same for George Lindbeck‘s view of human being as “language user” (36-52). Throughout the rest of the book Haslam seeks to construct a view of humans which is “life-giving” even for the intellectually disabled, something she argues the other accounts fail to do:

“Rather than turn ‘inside’ the self and ground our concept of human being in a particular capacity, or rather than turn ‘outside’ the human being and construct a theological anthropology based on the movement of the other toward us, I suggest that we employ a more holistic understanding of the God/world relation….I suggest that we locate our understanding of human being not on one or the other side of the subject/object dichotomy but in the realm of ‘the between.’ We find our humanity in relationships of mutual responsiveness, in which individuals with profound intellectual disabilities participate as responders, albeit in nonsymbolic, nonagential ways…they do express the ability to respond to the world around them and to evoke a response from others” (8).

I described much of part three in this review’s introduction. Haslam presents “a phenomenology of human beings in relational terms” by describing Chan, his daily routine, his caregivers, and the relationships that exist between them (53-66). The detailed account gave me a sense of Haslam’s deep familiarity with people of profound intellectual disability, to which she attributes “the passion that invoked” the book to begin with (10, 18). She acknowledges the “risk of misinterpreting their behavior,” but sees “no other choice” other than remaining silent, thus failing to advocate or learn from the disabled (17). Chan’s behavior seems to indicate that “he is able to respond to the world around him,and those around him respond in turn to the changes in Chan’s behavior,” setting up her main argument that “mutually responsive relationships are possible for these individuals, even when symbolization and conceptualization are not” (64). Human being is “dynamic,” not static, “a relational concept” based on “the capacity for responsiveness, but always a responsiveness in relation to an other and never the capacity for responsiveness in and of itself” (66).1

This touching, sometimes unsettling depiction of Chan sets us up for part four where Haslam outlines Martin Buber‘s account of “I-It” and “I-Thou” relationships (67-91). In an “I-It” relationship, a person sees another person, conceives of another person as a whole, an object, a reduction of what they actually are (68-9). Whenever we reflect on another being we turn them into an “it,” a tool, a utility, and this is “the melancholy of our fate,” Buber says (79). In contrast, an “I-Thou” relation is immediate, total, mutual, sheer presence without categorizing (69-70). Haslam stunningly describes this relation as requiring “both will and grace” (72):

Meeting the Thou requires both my activity and my passivity, my choosing and being chosen. It requires my activity as I go my own way and meet the Thou, in the sense that I must…await its presence. But it requires more than my activity alone. Ultimately, meeting the Thou requires activity on the part of the Thou as the Thou is going his own way and meets me. This is grace in the sense that meeting cannot take place as a result of my own act alone; it requires that the Thou give itself to me (72)

Buber and Haslam see such relations existing not only between human and human, but with animals, nature, and God (72-3). “Relation is mutual…we are moulded by our pupils…[and] are educated by our children and by animals!” (73). Most important to Haslam’s project, I-Thou as opposed to I-It relations aren’t merely accessible to people with profound intellectual disabilities, they are most especially accessible to them above all: “In the case of Chan, his behavior gives no indication that he is able to employ conceptual material sufficiently to perform the categorizing, organizing, objectifying functions of the I-It relations” (77, 81). By the very fact of existing, others offer themselves at the same time that they help create us. “Although Chan may not be able to offer grace in the form of consciously choosing to enter into relationship, he would be able to offer grace in the form of his bodied presence which I encounter and which calls for my response” (82).

The final chapter explores the traditional theological concept of imago Dei, a Latin term referring to God’s words, “let us make humankind in our own image” (Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1-3; 9:5-6). This has been interpreted to mean a variety of things typically divided up into two perspectives. First, a “substantialist conception” sees imago Dei as referring to human possession of “some quality, capacity, or characteristic inherent in its creaturely substance that renders it similar to God” (93). This can include physical resemblance, but some emphasize God’s giving humans “dominion” over creation more. Thus humans are higher, better than animals and nature, a view which Haslam believes has resulted in the “devaluation and often abuse of animals and inanimate objects” including the disabled (94). The second perspective of imago Dei is the “relational conception.” The image of God is something that occurs as a result of the relationship between God and human (94). It is a relation, a way of doing or being, rather than a characteristic.

This has crucial implications for how humans are understood in relation to God (and, as an aside, is one of the most critical theological points of contact between Mormon and “traditional” creedal Christianity, one which helps merit us the label of “non-Christian” or “cult” by a few theologians). Consider Aquinas’s chain of being, a continuum of god-like beings. Some things, he says, image God in that they simply exist, others in that they also live, and finally, some because they “know or understand” (96). Humans have intellect, memory, will, thus the ability to love God, thus they image God, albeit imperfectly (97). But how would Chan image God in this view?

Haslam describes Martin Luther’s view of the imago Dei as being determined by human response to God’s unmerited, free gift of love. There “is no ‘remnant’ of the image in humanity that has ‘fallen’…no quality or capacity inherent in human being that continues to reflect God’s image” (95). Haslam likewise characterizes Calvin as using such a “reflection” model, more relational than substantialist. Humanity is fallen, must turn to God, and thereby reflect His will in their lives (99). While inanimate objects bear God’s image “through their splendor, complexity, and beauty,” humans do so when they “consciously acknowledge their dependence on God and give God their obedience” (101). Because this still requires an ability to conceive of a self and an other (God), and the ability to respond knowingly, Haslam says Calvin fails to account for Chan too.2

Ultimately, Haslam turns to the concept of God as “yearning” in order to find the imago Dei in a way that would include Chan and others with profound intellectual disabilities. The Bible most often depicts God anthropomorphically as a being who creates and sustains the world, and who desires above all to have a relationship with humanity (106). He seeks relation in the Garden of Eden, and continues to offer it through covenants, promising faithfulness. In the Bible “God is portrayed as intimately involved with God’s creation, responsive to the concerns of God’s people and desirous of relationship with them” (107). But she turns to Pseudo-Dionysius to prevent her conception of God from becoming a master/slave dialect. This author portrays God as “yearning itself” rather than a distinct person who yearns (108). This concept of God is important to Haslam because she wants a way for Chan to experience God even without being able to consciously know it, and she wants to show how someone like Chan can actually image God. Chan tells her something profound (and perhaps to some, heretical) about God:

These individuals image God not because of some intellectual capacity they possess, but because their participation as responders in relationships is expressive of the longing that God is (110).

Obviously, this approach to the imago Dei has remarkable implications Latter-day Saints. It bears directly on the ways we conceive of things like “intelligence,” “intelligences,” or the human “spirit”, what it means to be “children of God,” the concept of “unrighteous dominion,” the bounds of God’s omnipotence, and the very nature of Zion and celestial life as being rooted in “sociality” (D&C 130:2) among many other under-explored possibilities.3 Haslam doesn’t approach the question of whether some future event (like the resurrection) will result in disabled persons being “added upon” so to speak with more rational capacities, and obviously the subject of pre-mortal spirits is also absent. Various Mormon theologians have wrestled with some of these issues, but none to my knowledge have yet constructed a divine anthropology which consciously accounts for people with severe intellectual disabilities.4

Haslam’s account is rigorous and thorough, but she doesn’t particularly address the question of whether her perceived advantages afforded to the intellectually disabled should be seen an ultimate destination for others. This is a blind spot she recognizes, but doesn’t try to account for. She doesn’t deny that “verbal and intellectual interactions may provide greater depth and complexity in human relationships of mutual love and responsiveness” nor does she “intend to leave behind the capacities for intentionality, symbolization, and linguisticality” (104-5). She is simply trying to resist “those theological anthropologies that locate human being in the possession of a particular capacity” (105). Her account thus suffers somewhat from the same fatal flaw she detects in other accounts in that it rests on a particular human capacity of responsiveness, even if non-symbolic. She recognizes this when she acknowledges there are multiple levels of consciousness. Would Terri Schiavo, a woman who was in a vegetative state, apparently “less aware” than Chan, be considered human based on Haslam’s criteria of responsiveness? Where is the line drawn and why? Haslam says this question has “less to do with [Schiavo’s] level of responsiveness and more to do with what levels of responsiveness we consider to be evidence of a life worth living.” Arguments over that issue preceded the decision to terminate her “life” (114). Instead of accounting for these other levels of consciousness Haslam only has space here to hope that her book will prompt further work in that direction. The “traditional distinction between the human and the nonhuman” needs to be examined and broadened, thus impacting “feminist ethic,” “animal rights ethic,” “disability rights ethic,” and “children’s rights ethic” (115).

To put it all together, Haslam’s overriding and “one important criterion…in determining the adequacy of our religious symbols is the degree to which our symbols reflect an understanding…that is approapriate to the broad spectrum of human experiences” (20). In A Constructive Theology of Intellectual Disability she identifies the theological bias toward rationality which marginalizes those with profound intellectual disabilities, missing out on their part of the spectrum of human experiences. She seeks to construct a theology which explains how such disabled people fit within the imago Dei. They fit because they embody and remind us of God’s quality of longing for response; they can exist in an I-Thou relationship regardless of (or precisely because of a lack of) the ability to reflect upon it.

Her approach tells us a lot about what she believes “THEOLOGY” is. Following theologian Gordon Kaufman, she explains that theology “is not a description of how things ‘really’ are… [because] we cannot get outside of our place within humanity in order to encounter the world or the human beings as objects for examination. Thus, our aim in theological work…is not the determination of whether our theological concepts fit reality. It is the construction of theological concepts that get us where we want to go—concepts that provide us with adequate orientation in life. It is ‘human work emerging out of faith’s own need for more adequate orientation and symbolization'” (19). She recognizes that this dangerously binds theology fast to human culture and assumptions (94), but she has “chosen to accept the risk” because she believes the ways we think about and talk about each other, the definitions we have of “human being,” directly impact how we love one another (17).



1. Thus Haslam seems to reintroduce the same problem she identified in her previous chapters.

2. Because Haslam is not focused particularly on the problems of grace and works in relation to human salvation, she does not engage in the problem of free will generally. I assume she would locate free will as a characteristic of an intellectual agent. Thus, it would be a concern only for one biased by an intellectual conception of human being.

3. Of course, there are crucial distinctions that must be drawn between what Haslam is describing and what Mormons might describe given our additional canon. Differences require just as much attention. For instance, what would a Mormon account say about Buber’s claim: “there is no ‘nature of human being’ in the sense of some isolatable capacity or metaphysical substance, such as the soul” (67)? Moreover, can Mormons learn from and incorporate insights from non-Mormon theologians and traditions, or re-envision Mormon doctrines in new ways, or are we simply to look through other traditions in order to merely find what we think “Mormonism” already teaches? Joseph Smith said “If men do not comprehend the character of God, they do not comprehend themselves” (see fn 9 here). This statement can be read to either support or contradict Haslem and Buber, depending on how it is applied. More on this later.

4. This is a project I hope to begin in the future. Such accounts include those by Truman Madsen (Eternal Man), Blake Ostler (the Exploring Mormon Thought series), and most recently, Samuel L. Brown (In Heaven as it is on Earth), though these writers have somewhat different purposes, methods, and thus, ultimate conclusions. Taylor Petrey’s recent piece in Dialogue also touches on similar issues.


  1. Wow. Just bought. Thank you, Blair. So much I could say on this topic, but I’m attempting to write about it instead.

  2. Possibly the best review I’ve seen you write yet Blair. Outstanding.

  3. Blair, I loved that you brought this book to my attention, but I loved more your bringing to my attention the debates about this in theology. A profound and beautiful review. It’s not something I talk about much but it has been on my mind of late. Thanks for sharing this.

  4. Thanks yo. Keep me posted on related stuff, please.

  5. Blair: This is really good stuff and a very important issue to address. I resonate (of course) with the emphasis on relationality and Buber’s I-Thou approach to such relations. In addition, in my 4th volume I present a theodicy (I actually present 3 different theodicies based on 3 very different views of God’s relation to the world in Mormon thought) in which I develop a theology of physically and mentally challenged individuals and their roles as co-agents in Christ’s atonement.

  6. Thanks Blake, when do you expect to publish the 4th volume?

  7. Looking at about February 2012.

  8. Looking forward to it!

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