A Response to: When A Theologian Gets it So Wrong

I have a friend who is a theologian, author and lecturer at Alphacrucis College – Dr Shane Clifton. He is a unique soul and suffered an accident resulting in SCI. Shane lives perilously in a wheel chair and writes poignant stories that are bloody funny one moment and will take your breathe away the next.

Here is his response to my previous blog:

I think the term “theologian” gets a lot of bad press for the work of a very few of its membership. In fact, the type a theologian you are talking about – narrowminded, mean-spirited, certain they are right – probably comes from a particular constituency. Most theological work – as with most study – opens a person up to the realisation that God transcends their categories. Indeed, most theological teaching involves opening rather than closing people’s minds. Given that there are so many criticisms of theology from so many angles – e.g. theology kills the spirit, theologians deal in the abstract and not the real world – I think some defence of the discipline is in order.

Now, in terms of the issue that sparked the blog, I think you should name the person and identify the issue. while I would certainly agree that speculation as to the nature of heaven (and hell) should be held loosely, you might be interested to hear about Amos Yong’s reflection about image of God to in people with a disability – and what that might mean for the future. The difficulty, of course, is that disability is not one thing, but a label that refers to many things. In Amos’ case, he is working with the down syndrome of his brother, and he makes the point that the disability is so much a part of his identity/person that to envisage him without it makes no sense. He also wants to recognise that his brother is fully in the image of God as the person with down syndrome, and then speculates (and he admits as much) that something of the down syndrome will carry through to the future. He bounces out of the image of Jesus who retains his nail scarred hands and feet, and imagines a future for his brother where his identity as a person with down syndrome continues, even as he is freed from the physical and intellectual negatives that went with the condition.

Read here for the rest of his comments: http://shaneclifton.com/2013/10/05/jay-mcneill-when-theologians-get-it-so-wrong/

Here is my response:

Hey Shane

Yes you are right, the term “theologian” gets some bad press. The truth is most of my friends who practice this discipline are some of the most humble people I know. So let me clear that up, I am only referring to some acknowledging the unhelpful influence those “some” still have.

The point of my blog was to highlight theologians are just people with flaws and bias. That is why there are many varying opinions between different pockets of Christendom. It is not too different to a doctor who has 1000′s of years of science behind his discipline but may still have a different diagnosis to another doctor – hence the term “get a second opinion”! Theologians practice the art of learning, and in the same way, the audience needs to practice the art of listening not just absorbing.

As for the examples I use in this “blob”(disability in heaven and the pop theologian) I just don’t see the sense in naming and shaming. I would rather write to my audience encouraging them to process with a more savvy and realistic view than pinning their thoughts on someone’s vacillations sending them spiraling downwards. I don’t have the skill to climb Mount Everest and use my negligible theology skills to present a case that your peers would take seriously.

I have read some of Amos Youngs views. As much as I admire the content I can’t help but wonder if the subject has got traction because individuals find it difficult to live with the unknown. What I mean by that is the theory attempts to put reason behind what is in my opinion, a mystery. I think (I am now in territory I shouldn’t be in) likening the holes in Jesus’ hands and feet to the possibility of people carrying their disability into heaven is a big stretch. It seems, at least on the surface, an attempt to see a purpose in disability. I just don’t buy that. If you have a disability it is a bloody bugger. As I have written about extensively, beauty comes from disability but I would give Jesus the credit for that as he tries to turn the war around (bring the kingdom). I don’t think Jesus tries to make the war worse by giving someone a disability and then celebrates it by introducing it into heaven. I find it hard to believe that God strategically uses disability to do his work, rather, he responds to the evil of disability by turning it to good.

In regards to Kingdom Theology, my view is healings that Jesus did were to demonstrate what it looks like when heaven comes to earth and to plant seeds of hope and that is why we only see it occasionally to remind us – I don’t think healing is a right or on tap as some theologians would suggest. By all accounts in the gospels when Jesus healed, he did it properly and completely, there is no reference to Jesus healing the blind man and he only sees in one eye etc… to think God would only half do the job in heaven seems counter intuitive to how he expressed himself on earth.

For me, Sunny is complete but that is because I love her but I am not blind to the grief she and I will continue to share – that is what I call “the great contradiction”. That is an unsophisticated comment I know, but if heaven does exist and I have the chance of being a part of it with Sunny, heaven will be having a conversation with her and watching her ride a bike (which neither things she can do). A theologian who hypothesizes that someone with a disability wants to continue living with it, isn’t from my tribe – they are more alien like! There is a chasm of difference between a person that lives with an impairment having done the internal work to be content in this life and someone who believes a disability contributes to an identity and therefore cannot be separated.

Yes, I still think that the lessons learned here on earth will serve the general wisdom in heaven. Shane, your journey may just make you the wisest person in eternity!

10 thoughts on “A Response to: When A Theologian Gets it So Wrong

  1. Hmm. Theology is always a tricky subject for a number of reasons, but the most significant one, I find at least, is that theologians fall into 2 camps – those who’s exegesis is based upon their actual relationship with God, and those exegesis is not. Having lived in both camps at one time or another in my life, I know you’re never going to get either side to back down and re-examine their methodology without – you guessed it – Divine intervention.
    Having put that forward, I can surmise that my own opinion is as useless as any other, but that an insight afforded me may, if shared, be of service in the thinking of others also. That’s my hope anyway.
    Here’s a pretty basic axiom. God is spirit. We tend to think of our Spirit as a sub-part of out entire being (mind, body, spirit), rather than the over-encompassing force of life who’s manifestations in our physical world, that is in mind and body, are for the sake of our understanding. Manifestations of the things we observe with our senses are examples for us to interpret and gain understanding of how the “real” world (meaning the over-encompassing world not limited by out own sensory perceptions) operates. God is, but nature, unencumbered by many things that we struggle to understand and define within our own very limited terms of reference.
    Those who make the attempt to decipher this relationship of manifest cause and effect have an historical track record of missing something key. For example, the Gospel of John, Chapter 9, opens with Jesus passing a man who had been disabled from birth. Now even his disciples, who would have all been pretty familiar with the Torah, and the Prophets, and most of the other scrolls available in the Temple, immediately jump to the conclusion that some part of the law in Exodus (maybe Chapter 20 or thereabouts – who knows for sure?) must surely apply in this circumstance. It was common doctrine. So they basically ask, “Who’s responsible for this dude being disabled? Who’s sin is it a punishment for?” Jesus replies (my paraphrase), “That’s not how it is. The purpose of this man’s blindness is to show the glory of God, and the importance of not procrastinating over doing this kind of thing”, and immediately fulfills that purpose by healing the guy. Huh.. Who’d have thought it?
    We seem to miss this concept, like, all the time. If we really think we can decipher or anticipate the work, the ebb and flow, the mystery, of the Spirit of God, and reduce it to simple cause and effect, then we have a problem. To think we can know (or worse, dictate) the mind of God without him providing such insight is, at best idolatry, at worst moronic, destructive and evil. This body and mind will pass away. God loves and is concerned for it, but it will pass away. (As well as any reason for any negative things manifest within it – that’s why it dies in the first place…) What’s of far, far greater import to him is the state of what will not pass away, our Spirit. Because through it, everything else we know and experience is manifest.
    Now all this is not something I want to go into great discourse or fits of logic, valid or fallacious, about. Atheists have better reason to do that than I, and some are fine thinkers and have an academic grasp of theology. But of course to form an opinion about something somebody says in a book, is no legitimate authority to speak on their behalf on any chosen topic. I am acutely aware of this myself, and my hope is that the spirit of Love will save these words from becoming just more clanging, gonging noise in a world where it’s getting increasing hard to be still and listen. We will know, what we will know, when we will know it.


  2. let me add, I think the theologian must listen to the “common person” also. You, J, seem hesitant to talk about theological topics, because you’re worried about “ignorance.” I think that also is nonsense. You have an insight into these matters that very few theologians have, and you should feel absolutely no hesitation in commenting on scriptures or theology in the light of your experience or revelation. As you say, the key is that we are all listening to one another. If we do that, then we all learn something. Even if all that we learn is to disagree with one another in a friendly way.


  3. Pingback: Jay McNeill: “When Theologians Get it So Wrong” part 2 | Shane Clifton

  4. “In regards to Kingdom Theology, my view is healings that Jesus did were to demonstrate what it looks like when heaven comes to earth and to plant seeds of hope and that is why we only see it occasionally to remind us – I don’t think healing is a right or on tap as some theologians would suggest. By all accounts in the gospels when Jesus healed, he did it properly and completely, there is no reference to Jesus healing the blind man and he only sees in one eye etc… to think God would only half do the job in heaven seems counter intuitive to how he expressed himself on earth.”
    True, but I’m not sure I agree entirely. When jesus healed the blind man – there were a few but i’m thinking of the one in John 9 – the situation got worse. This isn’t Jesus fault of course. But you would think that this guy would have been welcomed back into his community after having been shunned for so long, but it’s quite the opposite.
    John 9 is always the chapter that gets thrown at me by well-meaning street evangelists or people on public transport. “You know that Jesus healed a blind man in the Bible, you can read about it in John. Have you prayed for jesus to restore your sight?” *exasperated sigh*
    For me, Jesus’ healing wasn’t just about the physical – the social, psychological and spiritual were just as important if not more so.
    I’d like to think that the negative aspects of disability will be removed in Heaven, but as people have already said, one can only speculate as to what it will be like. I’d like to think that some of the positives of disability will remain. For me, I couldn’t imagine life without braille, so if Heaven has a library I’m hoping there will be an equal number of braille books as there are printed ones, which would make a change from our earthly libraries!


    • Wow Lauren, this is a stunning reply – in a great way! I guess there are as many legitimate perspectives as there are people. I can only imagine the kinds of conversations you have about healing since you have such a recognisable challenge. It would be too easy for people to draw parallels with Jesus healing the blind man etc. You must be a patient person. Excuse my ignorance, but are you using voice recognition with the blog? I’d love to know how you are writing replies as well…


  5. Hi Jay,
    Thanks for your comment. I try and be patient but it’s not always easy! A lot of Christians are willing and open to a conversation about healing, others don’t get it and you wonder why you made the effort to begin with, and then there are those who take me as I am. It’s always nice hanging out with this latter group – I can take my advocacy/education hat off. 🙂

    Re blogging, I have speech software on the computer that reads everything on the screen, and will read words as I type. I also have a braille computer – like a laptop but with a braille keyboard and electronic braille display. I bought your book last night on Amazon, converted the kindle file to a text document so I could read it in braille (the braille computers aren’t compatible with kindle files, and I much prefer reading in braille than with speech software/audio). Awesome read so far, but I’m not getting a lot of study done! (I’m easily distracted.)

    Have also enjoyed reading your blog entries about Sunny. We have a bit in common – I was a prem baby too (born at 26 weeks) and spent about 5 months in hospital. Of course I don’t remember it but your hospital stories are similar to those my parents have told me.
    Blessings to you and your amazing family,
    Lauren 🙂


    • Hey Lauren,
      Sounds like you are an amazing person! I love the way technology can make things more possible but it still takes a determined person to make it work for them. We have augmentative comms for Sunny but it takes some incredible effort to get her to use it. She is profoundly deaf (cochlear implant) and can’t talk or control her body. Still she communicates well considering.

      Ahhh yes the education comment resonates! Not only do you have to figure out life differently to most but you also have the quirky job of helping people understand – seems like a double whammy doesn’t it? Since Sunny we have found like minded parents with special needs kids a much easy group to be around so I get you there.

      I hope you enjoy the book (if you can do that with something that raw – it is a bit like reading the old testament for fun!). Keen to hear your thoughts. Writing a new novel right now, its great fun, I don’t need to worry about the truth!

      Thanks for listening to my rants through your fingers. Take care and I am grateful to you for reaching out to me.


  6. You’re most welcome.
    “Reading the old testament for fun”… love it! I wouldn’t quite put your book in the same category as the OT – it’s in a league of its own. 🙂 I’m about a quarter of the way through – I don’t mind your ranting at all… I appreciate people who are brave enough to be raw, authentic and honest. The world needs more of that I reckon!

    I understand the difficulty with Augmentative comms. In my undergrad student life I studied music therapy, and had a couple of special ed placements. It was amazing to see all the forms of communication the kids could use and the patience and effort it took (from kids and staff alike) to work with them. (very challenging trying to use them with no sight!)
    have you done any work with the Anne Mcdonald Centre?



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