Imago Dei: For we are Glorious.

This past weekend I attended two films with my youngest son and husband. On Friday, like the rest of the world, we attended one of the first showings of The Black Panther.  On Saturday we caught one of the final showings of The Greatest Showman. My youngest is a huge musical theatre buff and he wanted to see Showman one more time on the big screen before it was relegated to Netflix and Movies on Demand.


This past week I have been thinking a lot about imago Dei. For those non-theology folk imago Dei means the image of God.   There is some pretty wonderful stuff written about the imago Dei, and while most theologians agree that the notion of the imago Dei is not primarily focused on the physical body, the fact that most images of God have been male and able bodied has posed a challenge for women, people with disabilities, and other diverse bodies.


At first blush the two films I viewed seem to have little in common The Black Panther is a Marvel superhero film with amazing CGI and intense battle scenes, while The Greatest Showman is the story of P.T. Barnum and is filled with incredible music and jazzy dance numbers.  They both were fantastically entertaining, but for different reasons.


But upon further reflection both films, at their core, are about bodies that through the ages have rarely  been viewed as the imago Dei.   The Black Panther focuses on the fictional country of Wakonda where the citizens of a Black country live isolated, peaceful, and prosperous lives unaware of the struggles and oppression of their global Black brothers and sisters. Part of the story line explores the country’s existential struggle about whether to share their riches with the rest of the world. The Greatest Showman shares the story of the rejection and public humiliation of many of the “oddities of nature” that were featured in Barnum’s circus.   Both movies explore the oppression and empowerment of diverse bodies.


Which brings me back to the imago Dei. Historically our colonizing images of God have dictated which bodies are seen as worthy and favoured within society, as well as those bodies that fall outside of some humanly created Divine norm. As I have been preparing for an upcoming class exploring the topic of the imago Dei I have been largely focused on disabled bodies. In particular I have been reflecting upon Nancy Eisland’s liberating assertion that an embodied God occupies a power wheelchair.  Similarly there are many wonderful authors and artists who have offered other diverse images of Jesus, God, Mary, and so on.


But the two movies of my weekend reminded me that it isn’t enough to think of a Black God or a Disabled God. We need to also think of a God covered with tattoos, or a transgendered God, or God as a bearded lady, or God as conjoined twins. In short we need to understand that our images of God are limited by our human imagination and that the imago Dei is as infinite and diverse as the Divinely creative diversity of every body that has lived, or that may live.


One of the most powerful scenes of the movie is when P.T Barnum denies his performers entrance to a post-opera cocktail party with members of New York society. Embarrassed by their unique bodies he sends them away. But the bearded lady, who in the movie does not have a name beyond the description of her face, marches through the party followed by the diverse bodies of her fellow performers. Through the song she affirms her identity as well as the power, beauty, and dignity of her body, as well as the bodies of her friends marching behind her.   While the lyrics of the entire song are powerful, one line caught my attention; “for we are glorious”.    It occurred to me that those four words in particular captured the imago Dei.   All bodies are the imago Dei and all are glorious.

Choosing Matthew.

I love teaching.  Teaching more than anything I do forces me to keep learning.  Sure being a doctoral student means I read and write and think a whole lot.  Or at least I am supposed to be doing those things.  But spending time with students who ask challenging and thought provoking questions keeps me on my toes and ensures that I never stop unpacking and critiquing ideas – both mine and others’.  Because the students ask hard questions I am constantly amazed and usually pleasantly surprised by how much students teach me.


Today I was asked one of those hard questions.  These days I teach an undergraduate course exploring issues related to suffering, disability,  and faith.  The course is called ‘Questioning Ability’ and each week the students and I unpack a question related to one of those issues.  Today’s question explored how and why we conflate disability and suffering.  And while I don’t talk a whole lot about my journey parenting Matthew in class, the students know I have a child with complex and significant disabilities.


During today’s discussion it was noted that life support for very disabled or ill infants can be legally discontinued while in the NICU in the name of ‘mercy’, but that Robert Latimer went to prison after killing his daughter Tracy despite the the fact that he was utterly convinced Tracy was suffering.  It was not lost on the class that the life of an infant in the NICU could be, and often is, ended simply on the notion of anticipated suffering, while Latimer’s response to his daughter’s confirmed suffering was met with a very different response by Canadian law.   It was an excellent distinction I thought.


One student raised her hand during this discussion and asked whether I would be willing to comment on our decision to NOT discontinue Matthew’s life support while he was in the NICU – if it wasn’t too personal a question.  After a moment’s pause I decided to answer because I felt sharing a bit of our story would add to the educational conversation by adding an example of a lived-experience to a hypothetical discussion.  My answer also drew upon some of the theological and ethical concepts we had been studying (noted in brackets for those who are interested), but in a practical, real-world way.


We chose to embark on our journey with Matthew for three very clear reasons, though while in the NICU I would not have been able to articulate those reasons so succinctly.  I just knew that discontinuing Matthew’s life support was unimaginable.

First we were, and are, utterly convinced of Matthew’s personhood regardless of ability or intellectual capacity (Singer, Fletcher).  My husband and I firmly believe that Matthew’s story, which is the foundation of his personhood,  began at birth and will continue to  his death (Hauerwas).  And we believe that Matthew’s story matters.  What doesn’t matter is  that Matthew’s story will not include such conventional milestones as degrees, marriage, children, or employment.  What does matter is that Matthew is a vital member of our family and community and that his story is an essential part of our collective stories (Hauerwas, Vanier, Nouwen).  And that without his story our stories would somehow be lacking.  And while I am not sure I would have been able to articulate this rationale 19 years ago I knew that if I chose a life without Matthew then my journey would have a huge, gaping hole.

Second we chose to continue on this journey because I wasn’t afraid of disability.  At the time of our decision I was a trained occupational therapist.  I had spent years learning to nurture the potential and quality of life for people living with disabilities.  I firmly believed (and believe) that disability and suffering are NOT the same thing.  Disability can lead to suffering, but it is not a given.  Rather, suffering is a fact of life for all of us regardless of ability (again Hauerwas, but also highlights points by Frankl, Soelle we were studying).  The idea of parenting a child with a disability was something I felt that I had the training to handle.  I was wrong, but that is another story and something I had to learn along the way.

But most important I chose to continue on this journey because I had hope.  At the time of our decision we had no real knowledge of what Matthew’s life, or our lives, would look like.  The physician’s reports were often ambivalent.  Some doctors offered dire predictions.  Others offered a more hopeful outlook.  Given the extent of Matthew’s brain injury I now wonder about some of the rosier predictions we were given.  They weren’t realistic.  But at the time I clung to those optimistic predictions like a a drowning person would clutch a lifeline.  For years the hope that Matthew would defy the odds and avoid serious disability were what kept me going.  I look back now and label that thinking denial, but it worked.  By the time I had figured out that Matthew wouldn’t walk, or talk, or sit, or eat, or read, or call me “mom”, none of that stuff mattered.  Because Matthew was a vibrant, wonderful, and valued member of our family and our community because he WAS and because he IS.  Full stop.