Theology Without Words: Deaf People, God, and the Church

By Richard Mahaffy

Last fall, I did an independent study course with Br. David Vryhof, SSJE, on Deaf theology. I wrote a paper for the course entitled, Theology Without Words: Deaf People, God, and the Church. We explored some of the basic tenets of Christian theology from a Deaf perspective.

Deaf adults represent a unique and underserved population in the church, with special needs which result from the difficulties they often have in communication, and especially in understanding and using English. In this study, I examined the particular challenges Deaf people have in understanding and accepting Christian doctrines, drawing on recent works in Deaf theology and Deaf liberation theology.

In her book, Deaf Liberation Theology, Hannah Lewis, a Deaf woman priest in the Church of England, makes some excellent points about how hearing people view Deaf people and how they use the Bible to make assumptions about Deaf people.

For example, consider the story of the healing of a Deaf man in Mark 7:32-37. That Deaf man, who is “healed,” becomes a hearing person. Everyone thought it was wonderful that Jesus did that, that Jesus changed a Deaf man to a hearing man. Is this a good thing? Does it presume that hearing people are better than Deaf people? Does it assume that Deaf people are not whole and that they need to be healed? Is this man better off now because he was Deaf before and now is hearing? Should Deaf people want to become like hearing people?

Some Deaf people object to these notions. This story challenges our thinking because we have to figure out what message this kind of story gives to Deaf people, including me. What does it mean if Jesus does not heal us? By focusing on people with disabilities, healing stories about Jesus can give the false impression that these people would be better off if they could become whole, if they could become “normal.” This can be a discouraging message for people who are unable to change their condition.1 We have to challenge those assumptions.

Who Are the Deaf?

I would like to distinguish between four different groups in terms of hearing loss. There are differences of opinion about who belongs in which category,2 but these are the four primary groups as I prefer to define them. (1) The term “Deaf ” (with a capital “D”) usually refers to people who are born profoundly deaf or who become deaf at a pre-linguistic age. Generally, American Sign Language is their first language (especially if they are born to Deaf parents). (2) The term “Deaf ” can also refer to profoundly Deaf people who have been raised with the oral method but have acquired sign language at a later age (normally, they have hearing parents or deaf oral parents). This is the group to which I belong. (3) A third group, “deaf ” with a small “d,” refers to those who, perhaps because of sickness or an accident, become deaf after acquiring language. This group would also include people who have had their hearing restored (at least to some extent) through cochlear implants or other medical procedures. (4) The final group includes people who are hard-of-hearing (who may or may not use sign language), but can function in hearing society. Hard-of-hearing people are generally not referred to as “deaf,” just as people who wear glasses are not referred to as “blind.”

Two Types of Deaf Ministry

There are two different types of ministry with the Deaf: ministry that takes place in hearing churches (through interpreters), and ministry in Deaf congregations that use sign language as the principal means of communication.

Hearing churches with interpreted services rely heavily on English and make use of liturgical texts such as those found in the Book of Common Prayer. Deaf people are asked to participate in liturgies that have been designed by and for hearing people. In these churches, Deaf people do not pray and celebrate the liturgy in their own language or in ways that reflect their culture. Instead they use forms of worship that were developed for hearing people, and that depend heavily on words. Sermons and hymn texts in particular are often very difficult for Deaf members to follow. Deaf people who join a hearing congregation often sit near the front of the church to view the sign language interpreters during the worship service. This is not desirable for many Deaf people (including me) because it gives us limited choice of seating in the service. It is, however, the norm for Deaf people who attend hearing churches throughout the United States and the world over. Deaf people who belong to hearing churches are seldom given opportunities to share in the leadership of the church, and may be limited to only a few areas of service.

Deaf congregations in which sign language is the principal means of communication offer Deaf people the opportunity to participate in liturgies that have been adapted to their needs and reflect their culture. These adaptations make these liturgies far more accessible for Deaf people, especially for those whose grasp of English may be limited. Deaf members can participate fully in all the ministries of the Deaf church, including its leadership.

What Is Deaf Theology and Why Is It Important?

Deaf people should not only be included in church, but should also be encouraged to develop their own distinctive understanding of Christian truth, a truly Deaf theology. Deaf theology is a new field which looks at theological questions from the perspective of Deaf people and their experience of God and of the world.

So far, very little has been written, and the few books that have been written come from hearing or deafened authors. Deaf people communicate their ideas in sign language, which often cannot be recorded accurately in print. So, Deaf theology arises in this non-written, visual-rather-than-verbal context, unlike other forms of theology, which are either expressed through or dependent on written texts.

The problem with theology for Deaf people is that most theologies are written in books which often are complicated and inaccessible for Deaf people. Deaf theology is based on vision and touch rather than written expressions because vision and touch are more accessible to the Deaf. However, Deaf theology has similar characteristics to theologies that arise from the perspectives of other minorities because of the common links of discrimination and oppression. Deaf people experience discrimination and oppression resulting from an imbalance in the dynamics of power, much like women, black people, poor people, LGBTQ people, and disabled people.

In recent years, Deaf ministry has declined, due to a number of factors including: (1) A general lack of understanding and support among hearing people for ministry with the Deaf (few bishops feel the numbers of Deaf people served warrant the expense); (2) The dispersion of the Deaf community because of medical advances and mainstreaming, which remains a huge challenge for Deaf churches; (3) Less money available for ministry in general, which means that many Deaf ministries are being squeezed out of existence; (4) The ongoing challenge for the need to accommodate Deaf people in worship, education, etc., especially because of the problem of communication.

In order for bishops and dioceses to assist and support Deaf ministry, they need to be educated about Deaf culture and understand that American Sign Language is a language in its own right. Interpreted services are not sufficient to meet the needs of Deaf people. It is a critical task for the leaders in the church to identify the current needs of Deaf people and to create ways for the church to continue to reach out to Deaf people.

Richard Mahaffy is an MDiv student at EDS and is a postulant for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. He is profoundly Deaf since his birth.

This article is from the Spring 2015 issue of EDS Now.


1. Hannah Lewis, Deaf Liberation Theology (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2007), 145-146. [Back to text]

2. Doug Alker, the first Deaf chief executive of the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID) in Great Britain, uses three groups: Deaf (those with profound hearing losses prior to acquiring lan- guage), deaf (those with profound hearing losses who acquired Eng- lish prior to losing their hearing) and hard of hearing, those with sufficient hearing to participate in hearing society). [Wayne Morris, Theology Without Words (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Com- pany, 2008), 13-14.] [Back to text]