“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.” —Werner Heisenberg
One of the risks of advocating for inclusion and belonging for people with developmental disabilities in faith communities is that we can begin to think of those communities as merely social networks that happen to be particularly welcoming. Indeed, they can be powerful networks as evidenced by the Putting Faith to Work initiative from the Collaborative on Faith and Disability, and the personal stories of welcome, connection and love shared by countless people. Also, it’s probably fair to say that many people without disabilities see their weekly gatherings primarily as social opportunities. At their most basic level, though, these places of worship have something far deeper as their primary focus—a collective spiritual concern. Sacred texts, rituals, and professions of core belief reflect important and deeply held values and principles that members seek to live out in their everyday lives. And the ways in which that happens are both powerful and observable.
We live out our personal values when we choose a vocation; indeed, the very word comes from the Latin “vocare”, a calling. We live them out in our relationships, our leisure activity, our personal conduct, and even our political points of view. Those values become the lens through which we see the world around us and they shape the way we interact with it. When those values are rooted spiritually, they oblige us to look both farther beyond ourselves and more deeply within ourselves. This is something profoundly and uniquely human; still, many in the professional community have been slow to recognize (or, rather, slow to admit) that these same things are at work among people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
One reason that human service provider organizations have been reluctant to bring matters of spirituality into their work among those with disabilities may be due to a profound misunderstanding of the so-called “separation of church and state”. A more believable explanation, however, is that these deep issues of faith and spirituality are real—and that is new to many professionals. Bear in mind that, for decades, the service system has taken refuge in either the superficial or the artificial. We have been busy selling people with disabilities elements of life that are not real. We pretend that group homes are independent living; that sheltered workshops are actual jobs; and, perhaps worst of all, that paid staff qualify as family and friends. Depth and authenticity are rare commodities in disability services.
It is time to look deeper
Werner Heisenberg was a German theoretical physicist who was awarded the 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics for the creation of quantum mechanics. He was, even by the highest standards of science, simply brilliant. He was also a man of whom a colleague once noted, “He impressed me by his deep religious conviction.” In fact, in his speech before the Catholic Academy of Bavaria, at his acceptance of the Guardini Prize in 1974, Heisenberg noted, “Religion is therefore the foundation of ethics, and ethics the presupposition of life.” In short, if you are a human being, these matters affect you.
While it is unlikely that Heisenberg had people with intellectual and developmental disabilities in mind when he spoke, he seemed to be onto something significant. It does not matter whether one is a scientist or a theologian, nor is the presence of a disability relevant. Essential human characteristics seem to include a sense of wonder, a comfort with asking why, and a compelling need to encounter something that “waits at the bottom of the glass”. As we come alongside people with disabilities as advocates and providers of support, perhaps it is time for us to step beyond our tedious assessments of deficit and our pretense of the artificial, and start to ask the questions that truly matter. It is time to look deeper.
 Heisenberg, Werner. 1973. “Naturwissenschaftliche und religioese Wahrheit”. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 24 March, pp. 7–8. (