The New Christians

The New Christians

The Orthodoxy of Down Syndrome

Garret asks a good question in regards to Who Decides Orthodoxy?


Thanks for asking good questions and getting us to think. I deeply appreciate it.

Maybe another part could be added on to your statement discussion
and consensus on


orthopraxis… and using new media mobilize
communities to common places of action. And this is being spoken on
behalf of my brother with Down’s Syndrome, who has little use for
intellectual debates on the internet, but a deep need for actions that
shape will shape his and his communities theology.


I am not meaning to diminish the importance of the intellectual
discussion of theology but I do want it to become dualistic and thus
neglect my brother. I also realize that this question is being spoken
from a certain theological perspective but one that I think is
important to this discussion as it proceeds.

I am on my way out to go to work but just wanted to add an opinion before I was out.

Thanks Tony. 

Since I’m probably as philosophically as theologically bent, I’ve often struggled with the more conservative conceptions of orthodoxy because they surely tend to overestimate the ability of many human beings to articulate complex theological ideas.  Jesus (“Come, follow me”) and Paul (“if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised
him from the dead, you will be saved”) both had thresholds of belief to which, I assume, most developmentally challenged persons could rise.


To the argument that we can’t “lower the bar” of belief to chose exceptions in humanity who have the misfortune of a chromosomal abnormality or a tragic brain injury, my counter is that we’re all somewhere on the intellectual spectrum. Take, for instance, intelligence quotient.  Some human beings have very high IQs, and some have very low IQS.  But most of us fall somewhere in the middle.

Definitions of orthodoxy, or “Christian belief,” it seems to me, should be attainable by every — or nearly every — human being, not just those of us within the two standard

bell curve.jpg

deviations of the center of the bell curve of intelligence quotient.  In other words, the threshold of belief would not be attainable by someone who is comatose.  But it should be attainable by someone who has some verbal ability — or even some ability to communicate thoughts.


Some might want to draw the line for the requirements of orthodoxy somewhere within the range of more cognitive function, but because I fiercely believe that developmentally challenged persons are fully human, I draw the line at a place where those persons are included.

(Photo of boy from Wikipedia, GNU Free Documentation License)

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posted January 9, 2009 at 9:59 am

“Since I’m probably as philosophically as theologically bent, I’ve often struggled with the more conservative conceptions of orthodoxy because they surely tend to overestimate the ability of many human beings to articulate complex theological ideas. ”
I’d like to know what conceptions you are identifying as “conservative”, particularly because liberalism is no easier to understand than conservative doctrine.
It would seem that you are trying to define what exactly is the realm of “orthodoxy” as a salvation issue, as you are identifying the worthiness of a person as a measure for how we articulate doctrine. It would seem to me that the presupposition is that the task of theology – as it needs to be inclusive of a variety of people who need to understand God – is a salvation issue.
Certainly, complex theological proofs don’t save, faith in Christ alone saves. However, that very statement “faith in Christ alone” can be unpacked over and over again.
We all don’t have to be Gnostics with a high and secret knowledge, but we also can’t shoot down the work of the church in trying to understand who God is and what he has done.
I’m not interesting in redefining the nature of God so that I don’t have to articulate Trinitarian doctrine. I would rather set myself to the task delving deeply into Trinitarian doctrine so that God would reveal his essence in simplistic terms. Understanding theological complexity is really an attempt to find simplicity and clarity of thought about God.

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posted January 9, 2009 at 10:09 am

I appreciate the spirit in which this post is offered, but I have to wonder: rather than serve as a rejoinder to make sure our definitions of “orthodoxy” are accessible, doesn’t this problematize the very notion of an “orthodoxy” that might be rendered unattainable by cognitive ability in the first place?
Orthodoxy and orthopraxy serve an important role in policing the boundaries of group identity, but I think God will inevitably come to us in the guise of someone who challenges those boundaries in one way or another.
I think it is clear that there are practical considerations about how or to what extent a given person might be able to participate in the life of the community, but I don’t think this needs to be connected in any way to a person’s inclusion in the community. In the case of the comatose person, he or she is obviously not able to participate in community life, but may well be part of a community through prayer, visitation, and support of the person’s family.
What this has to do with orthodoxy, I’m not sure, but I think that’s part of my point.

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posted January 9, 2009 at 11:27 am

Since human efforts at determining orthodoxy should be the search for understanding of what God intended, it should be as simple and attainable as God intended. I firmly believe that ‘God is not willing that any should perish’, so His way of enabling that will be simple and attainable. I expect we have been much more guilty of ‘raising the bar’ than ‘lowering’ it. Whether in our list of dos and don’ts, or our complex systems of theology, we have become as guilty as the Pharisees in adding to the basics. I am continuing to try to understand the simplicity of our loving, gracious God, and His desire to relate to us. Yes, He is infinitely deep and complex, but His love for us is as simple as a mother for her child.

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Patricia Tice

posted January 9, 2009 at 11:29 am

I love a discussion of these topics probably more than I should, but have come to the point that I begin to wonder what their usefulness amounts to.
My own daughter, Katie, also has DS (which is how I found this discussion) and I often wonder how and when I’m going to get to the point that we talk meaningfully about God. At 6 she understands sin and has some understanding of consequences (although I may not have done very well on this part of her training). She is the one who blesses our food because the tradition in our home is that the youngest is the one to pray–and she’s pretty mad if someone else does it instead. As far as we understand, she asks God for things she wants and thanks Him for things she has. She has been equally attracted by Jesus and Harry Potter (not my fault–preschool has its issues).
I was driven to a personal relationship with God at an extremely early age, although my cognitive age may have been above hers now. If faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word, I know I heard the word repeatedly. She may or may not be hearing but more because of our understanding of her ability to hear. Our misunderstanding may create a disconnect in our ability to facilitate her connection to Christ (as He clearly desires), but I doubt that it would ultimately interfere with her ability to connect to Him anyway. We often work to make sure our orthodoxy is flawless and end up hesitating when it comes to evangelism, prayer or action because we fear a misunderstanding or orthodoxical error. I didn’t understand all of the theological stuff that goes into orthodoxy when I received Christ, and frankly, I think many of the early church Fathers might have been tried as heretics in a later age.
One part of orthodoxy that gets overlooked frequently is the inscruitble nature of God, but this is balanced by his infallibility–He always gets His man, regardless of how we get in the way. In short, God is messy, but effective. We get the privilege of working with Him toward that end if we are open and obedient. That’s one of the few things we are really good for. If you want to be RIGHT, you’ve got the wrong religion–that’s not the point of Christianity, but it might be the point of Pharaseeism.
That is not to say that understanding orthodoxy for those who can parse out those ideas is not valuable in a universal sense, but it does tend to lose its practical usefulness at extremes (angels and pins come to mind). I believe it was Luther that said something like “he who champions orthodoxy in all places but that which is in question in his age, fails to champion anything at all.” For instance, championing issues of grace vs. predestination in the 21st century may be a valid fight, but it is not the fight of our age. Materialism (do we live in a fundamentally spiritual or material world), eugenics, agnosticism, pornography, universalism–those are the real battlegrounds.
Katie probably won’t care about most of these herself, but is directly impacted by the orthopraxy that leads from orthodox or heretical thinking on these matters, which I believe was the point.

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posted January 9, 2009 at 11:42 am

As yes, more gnat dissections regarding hell. I have loosly followed this discussion, finding some resonance in places with others experiences. It is truly sad that these “questions” and “beliefs” have not been laid to rest by now. We stress and cause others stress over the “orthodoxy” of our supposed belief yet in truth we are as in the dark as any. Fear drives the ugly side of the discussion, but I suspect fear lurks in the background even when we are civil.
Sometimes clarity shines through “non-Christian” and certainly “non-orthodox” sources. From the very recent movie “The Man From Earth.” (my transcription may have a couple of small typos, please forgive)
Dan–“Taking along that the philosophical teachings of Jesus are Buddhism with a Hebrew accent, tolerance, brotherhood, love, a ruthless realism acknowledging that life is at it is, here on earth, here and now. The kingdom of God, meaning goodness, is right here, or as it should be. I am what I am becoming. That’s what the Buddha brought in.”
John–“And that’s what I taught, but a talking snake made a lady eat an apple, so we’re screwed. Heaven and hell were peddled so priests could rule through seduction and terror, to save our souls that we never lost in the first place. I ran a clean pass, they ran it out of the ballpark. “

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posted January 9, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Why do we limit God so? My believing, dying Husband was in a comatose state in the days before he died. How do I or anyone know how God may have ministered to him, through His Spirit, unencumbered by outside distractions, ceaseless interior noise, random thoughts? How do we know what this is like, the possibility of Deep calling to deep; Spirit, communicating to spirit, at any time of our lives where we find ourselves helpless, speechless, unable?
We often quote, “to whom much is given, much is required”…yet we fail to notice the unspoken corollary to that: to those in the top percentile re: one’s IQ, much has been given, much will be required. And, to those in the bottom percentile, less has been given…but much will still be required. To our human eyes, and :gasp: judgments, it will LOOK like less. But it will be a vast amount to those giving it.
Too often, those in the middle give middling amounts and worry about the poor folk at the end who do not have the blessings they do. Yet I have known several Believers with Downs and they shame me and humble me with their unwavering faith, gift of service, heart of mercy towards others.
Would I have been so gifted…

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Alan K

posted January 9, 2009 at 1:48 pm

Do we save ourselves or does God save us? Jesus prays for Peter as Satan demands to sift him like wheat. Peter still goes out and denies knowing Jesus, but Jesus’ prayers still were enough to uphold Peter through Peter’s unbelief.
The English reformer Richard Hooker was no great friend of the Catholic Church but nevertheless argued that Catholics were justified–not because the Catholics agreed with Hooker on justification (they did not) but because the Catholics believed in Jesus.
Certainly our children don’t have it all figured out when we baptize them. But they become part of the community nevertheless.
I state these things for the sake of commending Garret’s post about his brother. Hopefully we can see that his needs are our needs as well, that we really have no privilege whatsoever over him. Orthodoxy keeps us from reading from the Republic instead of the Bible in worship. Orthodoxy reminds us we are gathered around Jesus Christ, not Harry Potter. And perhaps that is as orthodox as we can ever get–the God made known in Jesus. Trying to pinpoint a theological knowledge bar seems to throw us back upon ourselves, away from God.

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posted January 9, 2009 at 7:02 pm

Hamlet said, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” I like to think of the appearance of God in theological or philosophical reflection to be the gracious act of God to show up when we seek him, not that he is drawn there by the high quality of our discourse. It is no more or less “normal” for God to be there than in the seeking of someone who uses “common sense” or for someone who struggles to make sense of even that.
In a sort of zen way, the more you learn about God, the harder it gets to know him. This doesn’t mean it is better to not know anything, just that the struggle to be faithful scales perfectly with our ability to process complexity.

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Rick Ellis

posted January 9, 2009 at 10:54 pm

Reading through this I am reminded of Henri Houwen and his work with the handicapped at Daybreak the L’Arche community in Toronto. Here was a man who had won acclaim as a university professor at Norte Dame, Yale Divinity and Harvard Divinity but found his greatest reward working and living with the “poor in spirit.”
One writer said this after spending time with Nouwen and his handicapped friend Bill:
It might be one of the greatest ironies of the spiritual life that the more we seriously explore the mysteries of God, the more we realize how little we will ever know. In fact, true progress in the spiritual life is not measured by greater knowledge and clarity, but by a deepening sense of awe and wonder. We know we are making progress in the spiritual life when we have a growing sense of wonder and a diminishing sense of certainty.

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Andrew Martin

posted January 10, 2009 at 8:03 am

I’m not sure what line you’re trying to draw. My own estimate of orthodoxy can only be a measure of the extent to which someone else agrees with me. I don’t see that as a boundary, but a spectrum, a continuum. Some people seem to be on mats that overlap with mine, within this great tent of faith that we share; other people’s mats seem to be at some distance.
Looked at another way, there are lots of lines: those with whom I’ll break bread; those whom I’d be happy to teach my (hypothetical) kids; those whom I think it would be beneficial to have stand up and teach in the (church) community, and so on. Some of those have to be codified, for the sake of good order; many do not.
The bible gives us lots of clues about how God draws lines, but they all seem to stem from the mix of faith and practice. So, I’d rather want to judge orthodoxy hand-in-hand with orthopraxy: if the fruit of someone’s belief is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and the rest, then I suspect that they are in touch with at least some part of the truth.

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Appalachian Prof

posted January 10, 2009 at 2:23 pm

“To the argument that we can’t “lower the bar” of belief to chose exceptions in humanity who have the misfortune of a chromosomal abnormality or a tragic brain injury, my counter is that we’re all somewhere on the intellectual spectrum.”
Are there actually people who argue this? Is their god (deliberate small “g” here) a bureaucratic jerk? An Ivy League admissions officer?

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posted January 10, 2009 at 2:25 pm

One of my coreligionists likes to point out, like the good Lutheran he is, that salvation is not about “earning points by doing stuff.” That includes thinking “right enough” thoughts, or feeling “right enough” feelings, about God.
None of us can think or emote or act our way into God’s grace. God’s grace is God’s gift to us. I would like to think that the God you believe in, like the God I believe in, has grace and mercy enough for all of us, including those with medical challenges that prevent them from “doing theology” on a level we deem acceptable.

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Patricia Tice

posted January 12, 2009 at 10:07 am

Unfortunately, if there is any specific challenge that keeps people from God, Jesus seemed to indicate the challenge was for the wise, the rich and the entitled. Their independence disqualifies them until they are willing to give it up and that’s no easy task.
The question of who can get in or not from God’s point of view seems pretty clear according to Jesus–kids first, the weak, the dependent, the meek and the “poor in spirit”.
It’s our own social constructs that become limited by our own (humanly limited) orthodoxy. Jesus was remarkably inclusive on invitation and remarkably exclusive on his long term associations, but with a very different set of criteria than we have for those choices.
He had the luxury of seeing into people’s hearts, or at least the drive to do so (depending on your understanding of Christ’s incarnate omniscience). Steve Brown often talks about a close friend of his who is on the exact opposite of the political spectrum (whose name escapes me) and the criteria for their friendship and association is his friend’s heart for God and their heart for each other. They still don’t agree on many things. They don’t need to. They love God and would both be considered within a range of traditional Christian orthodoxy (both are, in fact, orthodox Christians in their core beliefs–not something else).
Agreement in essentials. Grace in ALL else.

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William Gall

posted December 28, 2009 at 11:11 am

Did not John the Baptist leap in the womb when the Virgin Mary approached? Here we step back from even infancy to a Spirit-filled human fetus, filled with the Holy Spirit from his conception. He leaped, though, because he knew the Almighty God, in an even earlier stage of development, was near. How did he know? Certainly not according to any sensual data or cognitive knowledge. But it was knowledge nevertheless, a revelation of the mystery of God.
In the Orthodox Church babies are baptized, chrismated, and communicate in Christ’s body and blood, because, through these Divine actions (Mysteries, Sacraments) by grace, they’ve been given spiritual eyes in their hearts to receive God and His love, beyond our every human definition of knowledge.
And they are to grow up to salvation.
The adult Christians, led by their leaders, pass on what they have received generation by generation from the Apostles, and also partake in the various means the Church has engaged in to rule out heresies, and errant individual Bible interpretations. But those who have not, and those who will never, reach the stage of abstract reasoning, are not responsible for what they can never grasp. But they are not devoid of knowledge of God; their worship, as was John the Baptist’s leap, is precious to God. And unless we become as children, we cannot experience the Kingdom. And so they become our teachers!
I have personal experience of this as I work in a group home and have for quite a while. God bless. Merry Christmas! The uncontainable God, born of a Virgin!

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