Community and Communion: A Comparative Analysis of Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas on Theology and Disability

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Courtright, Andrew Michael
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University of the South , School of Theology thesis 2014 , School of Theology, University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee , Jean Vanier , Stanley Hauerwas , Theology and disability , Theological dimensions of intellectual disability , incarnational anthropology , Sacramental ecclesiology
Over the last four decades, Jean Vanier and Stanley Hauerwas have continued to be leading voices in the field of theology and disability. As Vanier reflected on his experiences at L’Arche and as Hauerwas included the mentally handicapped in his theological project, they both gave voice to the spiritual and theological dimensions of intellectual disability. This thesis is a comparative analysis of Vanier’s and Hauerwas’s writings regarding people with intellectual disabilities with particular focus on their relationship to the church. By comparing each writer’s methodology, anthropology, and ecclesiology, I argue that Vanier and Hauerwas share both an Incarnational anthropology as well as a sacramental ecclesiology. Because their methodologies are reversed, however, their Incarnational anthropologies and sacramental ecclesiologies are not identical, especially regarding the importance of the visible church. Where Hauerwas and Vanier agree, however, is their shared belief that people with intellectual disabilities have the unique ability to show us the face of God and so change the lives of “normal” people who enter into community and communion with them. In the chapter on methodology, I suggest that Hauerwas’s and Vanier’s methodologies face in opposite directions because of the nature of their work. Vanier’s retrospective theological realism comes from his experience of living, eating, working, and praying with the residents at L’Arche and is grounded in his spiritual journey. Hauerwas, on the hand, uses the mentally handicapped as part of his theological agenda which argues that the narrative-based Christian ethic stands in opposition to the project of modernity which values individualism and autonomy. Through their experiences of being with (as opposed to doing for) people with intellectual disabilities, Vanier and Hauerwas began to see how important such lives are for the church as it attempts to offer a unique vision of humanity, one based on the Incarnation of Jesus and not on cognitive ability. The second chapter on anthropology explains the differences between Vanier’s and Hauerwas’s understandings of humanity in relation to Jesus. Hauerwas bases the uniqueness of humanity on the Incarnation because, in Jesus, God chose to become a human. The definition of humanness, therefore, should not be based on criteria like IQ or rationality, but on what kind of people we are. Vanier also bases his anthropology on Jesus’ Incarnation but sees the link between Jesus and humanity in Jesus’ identification with the poor and weak. Because we have all experienced feelings of fear, loneliness, and isolation at some point, Vanier believes all humans are equal and, when we are able to encounter aspects of ourselves in people we see as “other,” we can grow and become more fully human. Hauerwas’s and Vanier’s similar Incarnational anthropologies contribute to their understanding of the church as sacramental in nature. The way we are to become more human, for Vanier, is to participate in what he calls the sacrament of encounter. Though Vanier is grounded in his Catholic faith, as L’Arche began to grow it included other Christian denominations and eventually other religious traditions. Vanier found that he encountered the “other” most fully in the sacraments of baptism and eucharist, but since those sacraments were unavailable or unappealing to some traditions, he came to see the sacrament of encounter, as found generally in daily interactions and particularly in the act of washing one another’s feet, to be a way of encountering the other for all. While this is a powerful premise, it is somewhat frightening for Hauerwas who believes that the church, and the sacraments of eucharist and baptism, must be visibly and recognizably Christian if they are to have the effect of embodying Jesus’ presence and allowing the reality of God’s redemptive narrative to be made known. Hauerwas’s ecclesiology is sacramental because he believes the sacraments play vital roles in the sanctification of individual Christians, and because the church as a whole acts as a sacrament for the world by showing what it looks like to follow Jesus. This is the point where Hauerwas and Vanier diverge most, yet they both continue to come back to Jesus in their methodology, anthropology, and ecclesiology. Finally, this thesis will conclude by summarizing the major points and connecting them to areas of further research as well as practical and personal applications, through which we might experience the type of community and communion Vanier and Hauerwas have both found in being in relationship with people with intellectual disabilities.