Theology and health care - how do we treat people in need?
In the Federal Government's recent Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) initiative, ACU received a rating of 4/5 - or above world class - in the 'Religion and Religious Studies' category.
This may have come as a surprise to some people given that theology is often considered an arcane field of academic inquiry - discussions of God, the after-life, the soul and ultimate purpose can seem very remote topics to scrutinize.
Yet actual theology research has an undoubtedly concrete focus and context.
My own research, in practical theology and health care, investigates how theological perspectives on humanity can help us understand health care at its most vulnerable point - how we treat people in need.
My argument is that we become who we are - psychologically, socially and spiritually - through our relationships with other people. The quality of our relationships determines how our lives unfold.
It is these interpersonal relationships which define what it is to be human - and can influence how we look at other people, including, for example, those living with disabilities.
In Western society, people living with disabilities are often held in a much lower regard than the rest of the population. Some question their capacities to have these person-defining relationships, and thus question their worth as humans.
It is a contradiction that while the 'rights' discourse in Western society means that people living with disabilities have been drawn into mainstream society, there are also policies which mean a very limited number of disabled people are actually born.
Government funding for disability services continues to rise, anti-discrimination laws include those with disabilities, and programs to increase workforce participation have become common place.
Yet pregnant women aged over 40 are encouraged to test for in-utero disability - with 85 per cent of those who encounter problems choosing to terminate the pregnancy.
While people with disabilities in countries like Australia have never been more secure, able-minded and able-bodied people are held in such a comparatively higher regard, that those with disabilities continue to be marginalised in practise.
At the heart of these contradictions is the strongly held position in Western society that humans, in their perfection and wholeness, are superior.
Humans are distinguished from other aspects of the world by their superiority over both the inanimate and animate world. Humanity is able to conquer without restraint and is in fact commanded to do so - 'fill the earth and subdue it' (Genesis 1:28).
Theologically, it is believed that humanity was made in imago dei, or in God's image - whole, glorified, and without defects of mind and body. This over time has led to the commonly held view that people are best described in terms of their self-reliance, intelligence, and independence.
So those with disabilities, especially profound intellectual disabilities, are seen to be missing something.
Through my research I am aiming to demonstrate that thinking about humans in terms of their relationships, instead of their intelligence and independence, has the capacity to positively transform how we perceive all types of people - including those living with disabilities.
When we look into the face of another person we cannot do so in a neutral way - we either have to accept the other person (with a smile or recognition) or reject them (in an active or passive way).
In the context of someone with a disability, they can easily become faceless and categorised by what they can't do. The person living with disability can be ignored, and socially, we are sometimes encouraged to do so. I believe that this is because when we confront disability, it becomes impossible for us to ignore our own vulnerabilities.
Encounters with those living with disability are like holding a mirror to our own lives and our own reality - we are laid bare to ourselves, and this can often be an uncomfortable experience.
Christian theology and practice has experience of looking at the frailties which characterise human existence, and celebrating these frailties rather than trying to eliminate them.
With the help of practical theology, society may learn to celebrate the diversity of the human condition rather than pay it lip service as is so often the case.
A deeper understanding of what it means to be human in all its many forms can only be achieved when we acknowledge our dependence on each other through relationships. If we do this we have the chance to move from simply providing services to those living with disability, to actively embracing them celebrating our whole human community.