John Templeton Foundation

ABOVE: An artist’s representation of how two lives can affect each other in profound ways shows intersecting electroencephalograms (EEGs), which are traces of the electrical activity emanating from the brain. The yellow and blue signals depict low amplitude beta waves that are often associated with active thinking or concentration. When the EEGs meet, the beta waves become gamma waves, shown here in green, that appear to be involved in higher mental activity, including perception, problem solving, fear, and consciousness. Although the neurobiology of interpersonal experience is in its infancy, and only recently has neuroscience research provided evidence of brain mechanisms underlying the ability to understand the meaning of one’s own and another person’s actions, a convergence of findings point to the importance of social relationships in shaping neuronal function and brain architecture. It seems that however able or disabled we may be, “communion is,” as Jean Vanier has written, “at the heart of the mystery of our humanity.”

Home Approach Program Commitee Other Participants
Contact: Mary Ann Meyers, Ph.D., Senior Fellow 

he purpose of this symposium is to explore the value of sharing one’s life with mentally or psychically handicapped people as a way to fulfill the vocation of a human being. Central to the discussion are the perspectives of those whose lives are enriched by their association with persons of all ages who are considered disabled by our societies. The thirteen investigators—scientists, social scientists, theologians, and ethicists—gathered in Trosly-Breuil have come to examine how the experiences of caregivers may overturn the classical notion of opera supererogatoria to the extent that, far from being a form of “good Samaritanism” or action beyond the pale of duty, their work with the disabled can sometimes result in their own moral transformation. Though not without cost or pain, it can teach them, or so Jean Vanier and the late Henri Nouwen among others have suggested, a great deal about their own capacity for self-deception and thereby strip away one barrier to their human relationships and the relationship they might desire with God.

L’Arche, the French word referring to Noah’s ark, is a federation of communities that Dr. Vanier founded to enable people with cognitive developmental disabilities and those who assist them to live and work in safe places where they can learn from one another and testify that the so-called handicapped people have a positive contribution to make to our societies. His approach is a dramatic counterpoint to the preference utilitarianism of those who make a hypercognitive assessment of moral standing and calculate the merit of an action on the basis of its contribution to “the greatest happiness of the greatest number.” Dr. Vanier’s way is a matter of “just generosity,” to use Alasdair MacIntyre’s famous description of the virtue that requires people to be uncalculating in dealing with those who are disabled, especially with regard to independence and practical reasoning, “in the sense that they can rely on no strict proportionality of giving and receiving.”

But on what grounds then do the more able share in the lives of the less able? The symposium considers such ethical issues as the limits of responsibility and duty, as well as psychological issues dealing with the basis of altruism and ontological issues related to the difference between ‘being’ and ‘doing’. It seeks answer to such key philosophical questions as: Who is worthy of love? What is the emotional-relational basis for inclusivity? In cases of severe cognitive disability, whether developmental or dementia-related, what is the nature of human relationships? How is love experienced in such cases? What can we learn from those who seem to lack discernment about the disinhibition of love? Is there any evidence that persons with cognitive disabilities can bring healing to others? From the theological point of view, what can be said about divine love and severally disabled persons? What does this tell us about God? Scientific questions and questions in the realm of social science include: What is the current state of knowledge about genetic diseases such as Down’s syndrome and Wilson’s syndrome that disinhibit altruistic love? Do such conditions of disinhibition reveal to us something profound about the ground of human nature? What can we understand neurologically about areas of the brain involved in love in persons with cognitive disability? In their caregivers? Is there a way to measure the human and spiritual transformations in the lives of the latter? Does the availability of preimplantation genetic diagnosis and fetal medicine augur a future without or, at the least, with rare instances of developmental disability? What does that possibility mean for the cognitively disabled among us? Or for those who might be born so or become so in the future? Or for those who would care for them? And a final question that more even than most of the foregoing bridges disciplines: What meaning can we find in a community of disability that lies outside and beyond the parameters of liberal thought? The answers are sought in a gathering, under the auspices of the John Templeton Foundation, in the French village, near the old royal hunting forest of Compiègne, that was the home of the first L’Arche community and remains a spiritual center for those who believe the seemingly incapacitated have lessons to teach us all.