Chapter 8 of my book What on Earth do we Know About Heaven? (Baker, 2012) addresses the topic of the Deaf in heaven. In the chapter I point out that we need to distinguish between being deaf (an auditory deficiency) and being Deaf (a member of Deaf culture). Deafness in the latter sense is not simply a disability; it is a cultural identity borne of shared experiences, interests, and a common language (e.g. American sign language). Many in the Deaf community argue that the hope that one day the deaf will be hearing is not merely an innocent wish that an auditory deficiency be rectified. In its train this seemingly innocuous and beneficent hope threatens the eradication of Deaf culture, an act which is culturally imperialistic at best and culturally genocidal at worst. As John B. Christiansen and Irene W. Leigh observe,
“When individuals such as Jack Wheeler, formerly of the Deafness Research Foundation, proclaim that deaf babies born each year can become babies who self-identify as hearing kids, this clearly serves to reinforce deaf community perceptions that the goal is for deaf people to become hearing and that cultural genocide is taking place.” (Cochlear Implants in Children: Ethics and Choices (Washington DC: Gallaudet University Press, 2002), 287.)
Admittedly, it is difficult for the hearing to appreciate the worries of those in Deaf culture who adopt this analysis. But then this is not surprising, for it is always hard for those outside a common cultural experience to understand the importance of the culture from within. (Why do Sikh men insist on wearing their turbans on the hottest days? Why do Koreans need to eat kimchi at every meal? Why do Italians need to gesture so wildly when they talk to each other? Why do Canadians get so excited about hockey?) In all these cases the best we may do is to get to know people from these different cultural identities to begin to understand and appreciate the world as they see it.
So how can you begin to appreciate the perspective of a Deaf person concerned to defend the uniqueness of their culture? As a starting point, I recommend the documentary “Sound and Fury” (I reference the film in the chapter). You can watch the whole film right here:
In addition, you could listen to my interview with Father Matthew Hysell, the first deaf priest in Canada.
With all that in mind, Deaf liberation theologians have worried that the healing of auditory deficiency, even if it is off in the future of a glorified creation, constitutes an unacceptable imposition on Deaf culture. And so they propose alternative perspectives on eternity in which Deaf community is redeemed as part of the new creation rather than being eradicated. Needless to say, the whole discussion is predicated on the reasonable assumption that genuine Deaf culture cannot be maintained when no members of the community are deaf.
Deaf culture and cancer culture?
With these concerns in mind, in the chapter I propose at least the possibility that redeemed human community in heaven could include populations that maintain Deaf culture in virtue of a population of people who remain deaf. And this brings me to a question I received by email from one of my readers of the book. Steve wrote as follows:
In question 8 regarding deafness and being Deaf, I’m not sure I follow your reasoning. Isn’t the community of Deaf people an accommodation to help overcome or make the best of a less than ideal situation? For example, many cancer patients find deep community with others who are undergoing treatment together with them, or who have fought the same battle. Especially children. I know one girl in our congregation who had brain cancer when she was just a child, and through the cancer programs made some deep, lasting friendships and relationships, ones that seem to be deeper and more meaningful than any others she has made since.
Based on that, would your thesis follow that people will have cancer in heaven if they choose, or that we could experience the relational richness of the cancer culture? It seems to be at odds with the idea of perfected relationships, if relationships are perfected, then they would encompass the best parts of Deaf culture, cancer culture, everything.
So how should we respond to Steve’s provocative comment?
First off, the appeal to cancer is clever rhetorically, for there are few words fit to strike fear into the heart of man as readily as the c-word. So if a theological thesis obliges us to accept the possibility of cancer in heaven then so much the worse for that thesis, because surely there cannot be cancer in heaven.
But does that mean there cannot be deafness as a hedge to ensure Deafness?
A response: suffering and paradigm cultural identity
Our response begins with a question: are there any individuals who identify themselves as part of a culture of cancer and who protest the suggestion that they might one day be healed? The question answers itself: of course not. So then why the difference? Why are there deaf/Deaf people who prefer to be deaf/Deaf, but no cancer patients who prefer to have cancer?
The question can be answered in two parts: the presence of suffering and the presence of cultural identity.
Let’s begin with the presence of suffering. There is no question that cancer is intimately linked to suffering. To be sure, many people recognize that the adversity that cancer presents can lead to soul formation. See for example John Piper’s short essay “Don’t waste your cancer/” You can also check out my article “Michael Douglas on the Upside of Cancer.” But while good can come out of cancer, cancer itself remains a diagnosis that occasions significant suffering. And nobody wants to face that kind of suffering in eternity.
The situation is radically different with the deaf/Deaf. While the non-deaf may widely (if not universally) consider deafness to entail suffering, this opinion is not widely shared among members of Deaf culture. To be sure, they do recognize widespread suffering within their community due to factors like the insensitivity of the hearing community. But that is like the suffering that any minority culture suffers under pressure from an insensitive majority culture. The key is that many deaf/Deaf people do not equate their state of deafness as itself an occasion for suffering. Instead, they view it as the occasion for the development of their own unique communal visual and tactile experience of the world around them.
This brings us to the second difference: culture. The word “culture” is notoriously broad in application and it would be foolhardy to attempt to identify necessary and sufficient conditions for the identification of a distinct culture. At the same time, it is clear that there are clear paradigm instances, what we might call a primary culture. Does being a drag racer constitute a distinctive cultural identity? Maybe, maybe not. But insofar as it does it would be merely a qualifier of a primary culture (e.g. a Chinese person who drag races).
Being Deaf, like being Chinese, is a paradigm instance of cultural identity, and it is as such commensurately more valuable for persons and cultures. We can all readily envision the disappearance of drag racing, but the suggestion that Chinese culture may disappear will rightly shock people as constituting a terrible loss. Being a cancer survivor is not a primary cultural identity like being Chinese or being Deaf. Rather, it is a secondary qualifier of a primary cultural identity (e.g. a Chinese person with cancer).
For these two reasons I think it is plausible to believe that there will be Deaf/deaf people in heaven but no people with cancer in heaven.
In closing let me note one final point. This entire discussion constitutes an adiaphoron, a non-essential, a matter of conjecture. But that doesn’t mean it is unimportant. Indeed, as with many discussions of heaven, it has a relevance that extends far beyond eschatology as we are brought to reflect anew on the aspects of culture deserving of redemption and thus in need of protection.