Investigating human fragility

Excerpts from ‘Supererogation and the Riskiness of Human Vulnerability’, a chapter written by Brian Brock, in The Paradox of Disability, Hans Reinders (ed.), 2010.

Investigating human fragility

What does it mean to investigate human fragility? And what counts as knowledge or results from such investigations? Theology and the empirical sciences will give different but related answers… (p. 127).

Hauerwas asks us to begin our exploration of human fragility by thinking theologically about one existing group of communities in which the interplay of these two forms of vulnerability [the sensation of vulnerability and actual vulnerabilities] is exposed, the L’Arche communities. In so doing, Hauerwas seeks to learn what this way of life teaches us about how to live with fragility in all spheres of human existence. He studies L’Arche as a “given” to be understood, moving from there to suggest what kind of people we have to be if we are to take seriously the witness of that community of care. To attend to such a community of care, therefore, represents a discrete mode of investigating the virtues necessary to accept and live in solidarity with all human fragility (p. 127-128).

Being for and bearing the vulnerable: The problem of prenatal testing

Concepts such as value-neutrality, individual choice, risk avoidance, and the authority of expertise are as such  not necessarily theologically problematic; but they may become a cocktail that is poisonous to the most vulnerable when they are unreflectively teamed with decisions about whether to eliminate humans perceived to be a social burden. Genetic counselors express the decision of a state, perhaps unwittingly, whose offer to help those mothers most in need of social support has been reduced to the offer of an abortion. This political role is sustained as genetic counselors embrace the role of nondirective (and therefore apolitical) advisor while serving the widespread use of the technologies of elimination. In theological and pastoral terms, the net effect is the loss of attentive empathy and concern for the whole of life while ostensibly in service of the state’s interest in minimizing economic cost (p. 132).

Supererogation in medical ethics

… when used in the context of medical ethics, supererogation suggests that loving our family members with a disability, particularly when this involves our children – is somehow special – or more sacrificial – than loving other, “normal” people.

[However] … the use of supererogation… fuels trajectories within Western medicine that seek to eliminate human vulnerability, and with it those human beings who are characterized as “defective” (p. 128). …the concept of supererogation functions to heighten the extant social stereotypes within which women who wish to accept the most vulnerable in their wombs are portrayed as, at best, making a heroic decision, at worst, an immoral one (p. 135).

Theological critique

The English term “supererogation” marks its direct descent from theological usage in being a derivation of the Latin erogare (meaning “to pay or expend”) as it prominently appears in the (Latin) Vulgate in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan, having rescued the injured neighbor, cares for him, takes him to an inn, tells the proprietor to care for him, and promises to reimburse his expenses, as it says in Luke 10:35, “and whatever you spend besides” (quodcumque supererogaverus). … Whereas Thomas Aquinas and others solidified the distinction between commands and counsels in a highly technical manner (Summa Theologica, 1a2ae 108.2-4), Luther argued that we could in truth obey neither Christ’s counsels nor his commands, and so are constantly thrown back on grace and into love of the neighbor without hesitation or moral hairsplitting – completely without reserve… Luther bequeathed to evangelical ethics a sensitivity to the difference between embarking on projects of moral calculation and justification, yielding a two-tier morality, and the single-tier morality of attentiveness to the neighbor.

… With the story Jesus revalues the Pharisee’s question, “Who, then, is my neighbor?’ He refuses his interlocutor’s assumption that morality begins with trying to define the other “out there” to whom empathy and solicitude is due. His question is wholly different: Who turned out to have been a neighbor? Faithfulness here appears as a transformed consciousness in which one’s own self-interest is wholly tied to the well-being of the other. Jesus thus suggests the moral force of a specific form of attentiveness to others.

In terms of this attentiveness to the neighbor, the spontaneous responsiveness of the Good Samaritan turns out not to be “irrational” or “unpredictable,” but a very practical rationality. Jesus asks us to become people whose investigation of human fragility does not begin by our distancing of ourselves from others as “subjects,” but by training ourselves to respond without excuse and without forethought to existing human need. I take this spontaneity to be the premise out of which a laboriously cultivated way of life such as L’Arche can emerge. As Jean Vanier himself puts it, L’Arche is a school for relationships, a community where people can discover the fecundity of divine love through attentiveness to others. To discover such spontaneity is a gift of the Spirit that cannot be ensured or legislated by any law, but begins in the prayer that requests it. Such love, as Jesus’ parable suggests, requires conversion, not simply information or education … [But] … a steady emphasis on the occasional and gratuitous nature of Christian responsiveness is not opposed to more hardheaded institutional thinking…, but in fact demands it  (p. 136-138).


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