Receiving the Gift of Friendship, by Hans S. Reinders

Dr. Hans Reinders

Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics, by Hans S. Reinders. (2009) Though he is not an Orthodox Christian, he incorporates the writings of His Eminence John Zizoulas into his work as one of the keys to the aim of his work, along with a quote from St. Symeon the New Theologian.

Briefly (the book is 379 pages), his acquaintance with a person with profound intellectual disabilities- Kelly,  stimulated Dr. Reinders to explore the basis by which we may assert with confidence that Kelly is indeed human. Not that this basis is a human perspective- he carefully lays a theological foundation to show that her humanity has a Divine basis.

His quest finds resonance with these words by His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew:

Just as Plato sought the perfect society by looking at the condition of the human person “writ large,” so we must discover in the human person the very qualities that will enable us to transcend division and achieve not mere unions of cooperation but the fundamental unity that links every person to one another.

In “Religious Communities in the European Union, (Brussels, 09/04/2008)” Chapter 4, “Church and World: Global Perspectives,” P. 163, In the World, Yet Not Of the World: Social and Global Initiatives of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and John Chryssavgis, ed., Fordham University Press, NY: 2010.

Reinders’  book is a challenging read. The philosophers and theologians discussed in the book (along with their views on personhood) include Aristotle, St. Iranaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Kant, Barth, as well as a contemporary writers who have also explored aspects of the subject.

In the first two parts, Reinders struggles against all arguments with implications that humanity is based on functionality. Ultimately it is the love of God and His gift of human life that form the basis for personhood. It isn’t achieved, not in the initiation nor in the consummation- the “telos” of our life on this earth. Those who have accomplished nothing are still human persons.

His Eminence John Zizoulas’ writings on Trinitarian and ecstatic being and on ecclesial and relational personhood are discussed in detail. Reinders takes issue with certain phrases in his work, chiefly in regard to how

“man can henceforth . . . affirm his existence as personal not on the basis of the immutable laws of nature, but on the basis of a relationship with God which is identified with what Christ in freedom and love possesses as the Son of Good with the Father.” (Being as Communion, P. 56, italics added) from Receiving the Gift of Friendship, P.269

For Reinders, this very movement to affirm one’s existence leaves out persons who are profoundly disabled.

But for the Orthodox Christian, man, even fallen man in the utter weakness of the bondage to and fear of death, retains free will. A relationship with God involves synergy, cooperation, faith working through love, in Christ.

For to everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask more. (St. Luke 12:48)

And would not the corollary be that to him who has been given little or nothing (case in point- a person with profoundly disability), little or nothing will be required  of him? Elder Paisios of Mt. Athos, of blessed memory (†1994), says of persons with developmental disability, that

their souls are already saved [. . .] without making any efforts [they] have earned Paradise. (3 Ageloglou, Priestmonk Christodoulos, Elder Paisios of the Holy Mountain (Mt. Athos, Greece: Holy Mountain, 1998) 138)

Ultimately, though, its not what we do, but what we are that will be decisive. We will, though, be judged for our works, (2 Corinthians 5:10) though ultimately the inner motivation for these works will be decisive. (“out of the heart proceeds . . . St. Matthew 15:18-20) But one might reasonably infer that since to “every one to whom much is given, of him much is required,” (St. Luke 12:48) to those to whom little is given, little will be required.

Many Protestant Christians believe in monergy, in which God alone acts in conferring grace. We Orthodox hold that this compromises the human free will. As our Lord Jesus Christ says,

Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me. (Revelations 3:20)

Reinders, though, never uses the word “monergy.” He emphasizes that in our relationships, with God and others, including persons with profound disability, receiving is the key, rather than giving.

But then what of “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” (Acts 20:35)?

St. James does write, “let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak . . . (St. James 1:19a) This places the priority on receiving.  And again,

Elder Paisios stressed that our acts are worthwhile only if they are done out of a grateful predisposition. He always urged us not to struggle out of self interest, but rather out of responsive gratefulness. Even our faith in God should be based on our gratefulness.

from Responsive Gratefulness in the Spiritual Life in

For Reinders, as I read him, the social contribution of persons with profound disability, realized for those who are in a relationship of friendship with them, is a personal lesson in the reality that “every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and comes down from the Father of lights …” (St. James 1:18, and and also in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysosotom) All we have is from God, all we know is what we’ve learned from others. Every moment of our existence, everything we have, is from God. Trust is the key; we trust Him, and in others, too, for the expertise we lack in so many of the things we take for granted. As Jesus says,

Assuredly, I say to you, unless you are converted and become as little children, you will by no means enter the kingdom of heaven. -St. Matthew 18:2

And does this not mean childlike trust, a total dependence upon our heavenly Father’s continual sustenance? This is how I understand Reinders’ meaning. And is this not in accord with how we worship and how we believe?

And this is but one way- one we can understand- that the profoundly disabled contribute. In the great mystery of God’s economy this may be but the tip of the iceberg.

Reinders also brings forward the ministry of L’Arche, a worldwide Roman Catholic- based ministry in which persons who commit themselves to relationships with persons with intellectual disabilities find themselves- from their own testimonies- that  if they “stick it out” through the inner struggle that such a commitment entails- they experience illumination through their realization of their own brokenness, and of the Healer of their brokenness.

The winner of the 2009 North American Antiochian Orthodox Christian oratorical contest, Joel Schaefer, shared a similar experience he had in his week at the Special Olympics Camp at Antiochian Village. Its about three quarters of the way down the page, though the whole thing is inspirational, and puts the experience in context:

Reinders’ affirms the Holy Spirit as “the transforming Friend.” (P. 310, from James Houston, The Transforming Friendship, p. 118) Reinders writes, “Why this transformation must be extrinsically [from outside, or above] grounded is brought out clearly in a saying that has been attributed to an ancient voice, Symeon the New Theologian:

When the three-personed Diety dwells within the saints and is known and felt to be present, it is not the fulfillment of desire, but the cause and the beginning of a much greater and more fervent desire. (from Hymns of Divine Love, tr. George A. Mahoney {NJ: Dimension Books})

As Orthodox Christians we can affirm that all good is from above, without subscribing to monergy. The glorious truth of man’s creation in God’s image- a gift of Grace in itself- is incompatible with the view of fallen man as totally depraved and ultimately unable to respond to God at all. Our being made in God’s image is irrevocable; its who we are, from the least to the greatest.  But it is also only through the Holy Spirit’s agency, by which we abide in Christ, according to the great love of the Father, that our responses (or even our unavoidable lack of responses, as in the case of persons with profound disability)  become building blocks toward the fulfillment of our “telos,” (goal and destiny): likeness to God, the realization of the   “image.” And we realize this not as individuals, but together; together we are being built as a holy temple in the Lord. (St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians chapter 2)

I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing. -St. John 15:3

Persons with profound disability are fully human, but it is not normative humanity, and all of us, fallen as we are, share this predicament with them. Only in our Lord Jesus is normative humanity; He is the authentic human Person. (And He is God from all eternity- fully human, fully God, one Person. Glory to Him!) In the Son, “the express image” of the Father, (Heb. 1:3) we may have likeness to God. And how we come to this telos through Christ differs for each person, according to what each of us has been given. Our Lord Jesus Christ is “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.” (St. John 14:6)

Ordering information for the book:

Dr. Hans S. Reinders is the chairman of the European Society for the Study of Theology and Disability


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