[as often is the case, I embedded a video here which cannot be viewed in emailed version]
I had a conversation with someone last summer about their son with Down Syndrome. They live in a large city in the U.S. and they shared with me the difficulties they’ve had finding any significant assistance in the public school system for children with Down Syndrome. While there were many offerings for children with Autism, there was almost nothing available for their son. They puzzled and agonized for a long time.
By chance they found out about a pediatrician who specializes in working with Down children. During their first appointment, they mentioned to the doctor their frustrations with finding public or private school support for their son. The doctor said to them very bluntly, “The reason is clear and tragic: most Down Syndrome children never see the light of day.” The stats are clear: most children with Down Syndrome are aborted after their genetic abnormality is discovered through prenatal testing. “When he said it,” the father said, “I felt nauseous. I thought of my son. What a beautiful gift he is. How helpless he is. He’s taught my wife and me the meaning of sacrificial love. Special needs children remind us of what it really means to be human.”
David Bentley Hart has a remarkable reflection on the vision of humanity Christianity “invented.” It’s a vision of life so extraordinary that God had to break into history and reveal it to us in Jesus, shattering our hardened hearts. It can be said that the whole economy of salvation exists to bring this vision into the world. The Church, which is a God-knit community of re-created men and women, exists to build a new culture amid the ruins of the old, a culture in which the destruction of the disadvantaged or disabled would be absolutely inconceivable. Hart:
The more vital and essential victory of Christianity lay in the strange, impractical, altogether unworldly tenderness of the moral intuitions it succeeded in sowing in human consciences. If we find ourselves occasionally shocked by how casually ancient men and women destroyed or ignored lives we would think ineffably precious, we would do well to reflect that theirs was-in purely pragmatic terms-a more “natural” disposition toward reality. It required an extraordinary moment of awakening in a few privileged souls, and then centuries of the relentless and total immersion of culture in the Christian story, to make even the best of us conscious of (or at least able to believe in) the moral claim of all other persons upon us, the splendor and irreducible dignity of the divine humanity within them, that depth within each of them that potentially touches upon the eternal.
In the light of Christianity’s absolute law of charity, we came to see what formerly we could not: the autistic or Down syndrome or otherwise disabled child, for instance, for whom the world can remain a perpetual perplexity, which can too often cause pain but perhaps only vaguely and fleetingly charm or delight; the derelict or wretched or broken man or woman who has wasted his or her life away; the homeless, the utterly impoverished, the diseased, the mentally ill, the physically disabled; exiles, refugees, fugitives; even criminals and reprobates. To reject, turn away from, or kill any or all of them would be, in a very real sense, the most purely practical of impulses.
To be able, however, to see in them not only something of worth but indeed something potentially godlike, to be cherished and adored, is the rarest and most ennoblingly unrealistic capacity ever bred within human souls. To look on the child whom our ancient ancestors would have seen as somehow unwholesome or as a worthless burden, and would have abandoned to fate, and to see in him or her instead a person worthy of all affection-resplendent with divine glory, ominous with an absolute demand upon our consciences, evoking our love and our reverence-is to be set free from mere elemental existence, and from those natural limitations that pre-Christian persons took to be the very definition of reality.
And only someone profoundly ignorant of history and of native human inclinations could doubt that it is only as a consequence of the revolutionary force of Christianity within our history, within the very heart of our shared nature, that any of us can experience this freedom. We deceive ourselves also, however, if we doubt how very fragile this vision of things truly is: how elusive this truth that only charity can know, how easily forgotten this mystery that only charity can penetrate.
All of which, as I take leave of this phase of my argument, raises certain questions for me. A civilization, it seems obvious, is only as great or as wonderful as the spiritual ideals that animate it; and Christian ideals have shown themselves to be almost boundless in cultural fertility and dynamism. And yet, as the history of modernity shows, the creativity of these ideals can, in certain times and places, be exhausted, or at least subdued, if social and material circumstances cease to be propitious for them. I cannot help but wonder, then, what remains behind when Christianity’s power over culture recedes?