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What the Intellectually Disabled Have to Give

In March, the Templeton Foundation announced that this year’s winner of the Templeton Prize is philosopher Jean Vanier. The Templeton Prize is given to those who make an “exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.”


Vanier joins the likes of Mother Theresa, physicist-turned-theologian John Polkinghorne and, yes, Chuck Colson, as Templeton Laureates.


It’s hard to imagine a more deserving recipient than Vanier.


After serving in the British Royal Navy during World War II, Vanier felt called to study philosophy and became a Catholic lay leader.


In 1964, through his friend, Father Thomas Phillippe, Vanier “became aware of the plight of thousands of people institutionalized with developmental disabilities.”


Vanier invited two institutionalized men to come and live with him in Trosly-Breuil, France. This invitation became the start of a worldwide federation of communities that came to be called L’Arche, which is French for “The Ark.”


Today there are 147 of these communities in 35 countries on 5 continents. All of them subscribe to a “Statement of Identity and Mission” which states: “We are people, with and without developmental disabilities, sharing life in communities . . .  Mutual relationships and trust in God are at the heart of our journey together. We celebrate the unique value of every person and recognize our need of one another.”


Please note that the relationship between the non-disabled and the disabled is not that of caretaker to those being taken care of. Instead, it’s that of shared lives and journeys. For that to happen, the nondisabled must believe that the disabled have something to offer in return.


What is that “something?” A fuller understanding of what it means to be human.


Historically, Vanier tells us, “the value of human beings resided so often in their qualities of strength, of competence, of efficiency and of knowledge . . .  It was power and competence that defined the identity of someone.”


Obviously, “people with intellectual disabilities are not able to assume important roles of power and of efficacy.” So their identity and value comes from something else. What Vanier and L’Arche have discovered is the intellectually disabled are “essentially people of the heart. When they meet others they do not have a hidden agenda for power or for success.”


Of course, we’re all called to be “people of the heart.” As Vanier puts it, “At the heart of who you are, you’re someone also crying out, ‘Does somebody love me?’ not just for what I can do, but for who I am.”


The intellectually-disabled don’t pretend otherwise. That’s their gift to us. They remind us that the Kingdom does not belong to the powerful and efficacious—it belongs, as Jesus told us, to those who are like little children—vulnerable, dependent, and open to the gifts that God has in store for those who don’t pretend otherwise.


L’Arche is, to borrow a phrase from Luke’s gospel, a “sign of contradiction.” It’s a reminder that the world is oh-so-very-wrong about the source of human dignity and worth. It’s a reminder that when God intervened decisively in human history, he took on our frailty, not our pretense to omnipotence.


After watching Vanier talk about what it means to be human, Rod Dreher described Vanier as “luminous” and added, “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone who looks so sure of himself, but also so vulnerable, so open, so humble, so illimitably kind.”


Vanier would tell us that it’s a function of the company he keeps, Jesus and his very special and beautifully human brethren.


BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at where you can read and search answers to common questions.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Publication date: May 18, 2015

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