Monday, January 2, 2012

The Other-Abled ("Disabled") as a Sacrament of Our Humanity

As a result of cultural obsession with the “perfect body” and both externally and self-imposed idealized standards of how we should look, we often experience an affective alienation from our own bodies. We develop and retain an image of how we “should” look to others, measure ourselves against this standard, feel the disparities between the ideal and the reality, and, in the end, we recognize and dread our inability to attain to or retain our idealized perfect form. In the end, we lose a sense of “at-homeness” in our own bodies; we feel that our bodies are such an imperfect refraction of ourselves that we feel out of place in our flesh, an aversion to our bodies.

Dualistic anthropologies, like those traditionally upheld in Christianity, assert that the “real you” is not the outward body but an immaterial essence, often called a “soul,” that resides within the body. Such matter (body) and spirit dualism can no longer be scientifically or theologically defended. We are our bodies; our bodies our us. Our body-selves have real bearing on who we are, and dualistic anthropological assumptions only serve to foster and encourage our sense of alienation from and criminalization of our bodies, our material natures.

Susan Wendell a philosopher and herself an other-abled person, maintains that “the oppression of disabled people is linked to the more generalized cultural oppression of the body and, more concretely, of physicality...” Ellison, in summarizing Wendell states,

Our culture idealizes the body not only in terms of ideal physical appearance, but also in terms of responsiveness and control of body functions. Because so few persons measure up to the idealized standard of either beauty or bodily performance, people generally feel alienated and displaced from their bodies (p. 42).

Ellison (p. 43) goes on to assert, “ The cultural preoccupation with bodily perfection oppresses disabled persons, but it also alienates all persons from their experience of embodiment and heightens their fear of bodily change.”

Against the norms of a culture that values idealized beauty and autonomy, an other-abled person symbolizes all that is dreaded: mortality, loss of autonomy, and disparity with body-image ideals. The other-abled lack autonomy. The other-abled person is vulnerable—she is dependent on the care of others; hence, she is at odds with a culture that moralizes and esteems autonomy and self-reliance as a cardinal virtue. And, to the degree that the other-abled person misses the mark of autonomy, to that degree is she even moralized into marginalization.

Ellison posits,

Cultural myths of radical autonomy reinforce the oppression of the disabled. The disabled represent those who have not managed to control the neediness of their bodies. Therefore they appear not only as different, but as wrong... [The hatred of the disabled] is rooted in their lack of autonomy, along with their visible embeddedness in nature and the body (p. 43).

The other-abled remind us of who all of us are. Humanity is actualized not in radical autonomy but in immersive vulnerability and dependence on intra and inter-community relationships. None of us stands alone; no one stands with her own bootstraps. Instead of seeing disability as a sign of moral failure, weakness, and instead of seeing our existence in dualistic differentiation from our bodies, we should view the other-abled as a symbol of our shared human condition. We are all body-dependent, we are all dependent on one another. Mutualistic dependency is the ideal, not the aberration. As Ellison proposes, maybe the other-abled should be viewed as a sacrament of our human reality: at-homeness in and identification with our body-selves, dependent on a complex web of relationships.

Our moralized normalcy of able-bodied autonomy, idealized beauty, and aversion to the body not only encourages the oppression and marginalization of the other-abled, but it engenders alienation from our bodies while diminishing our shared humanity. A sacramental vision of the other-abled reminds us of our shared interdependence, vulnerability, weakness, and embeddedness in the flesh, our bodies. “...we live in, and because of, our bodies... [and] We live because of, not in spite of our embodied connections” (p. 44).


Ellison, Marvin M. Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality. Louiseville: John Knox Press, 1996.

Wendell, Susan. “Toward a Feminist Theory of Disability.” Hypatia: A Feminist Journal of Philosophy 4:2 (Summer, 1989) in Ellison, Marvin M. Erotic Justice (see above).

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Top Reads of 2011

In all, I probably read some thirty books in 2011. Many of them deserve mention, some of them for how profoundly terrible they are. However, my top five reads for 2011 are as follows:

Anatheism: Returning to God After God, Richard Kearney

After the introduction, I could hardly read more than a few pages without breaking into tears. This work is having a profound impact on my thinking. Anatheism might become my new designation/identity especially if this term starts to find broader use. I love that anatheism, in Kearney's use and in my own developments on the term, allows for atheism, in fact, it embraces atheism as both a necessary and ameliorating intellectual and moral conclusion. I will be writing with reliance on this work for some time, and I apologize in advance for the likelihood that much of my writing will reference this work for the foreseeable immediate future.

Adventures in the Spirit: God, World, Divine Action; Philip Clayton

This work is an important contribution to the development of a truly progressive, science-positive, pluralistic theological method. It explores questions of theological method with a healthy emphasis on the need for inter-religious dialogue. Clayton fairly and informatively develops the historical and contemporary interplay between classical theism, deism, atheism, open theism, panenetheism, and process theism. He develops and defends what he entitles open kenotic process panentheism—a paradigm that I find religiously compelling.

Erotic Justice: A Liberating Ethic of Sexuality, Marvin M. Ellison

Written in the early 1990's, Ellison writes as a gay Christian academic and ethicist prior to the justice advancements for LGBTQ rights in the last twenty years. His context as a sexual minority gives him an insightful perspective on the cultural hegemony of white, patriarchal, monogamous, heterosexual normalcy. He makes sexuality into a justice issue and shows how it operates as a barometer of inequities prevalent in society. Ellison seeks to promote a sex-positive, body friendly (“at-homeness”) sexual ethic that moves beyond both power, possession, and control. This is an excellent read in social justice from a unique perspective. This also seems to be an under-appreciated resource for those interested in constructing an empowering ethic of non-monogamy and/or polyamory.

Old Testament Ethics for the People of God, Christopher Wright

Wright's work tops the works on biblical studies that I read in 2011. Wright's approach to ethics in the Pentateuch and the Hebrew Prophets begins with a reconstruction of the social settings (the sitz im leben) that form its ethical frameworks. He shows how Old Testament civil-social ethics are inherently situational and contingent on particulars of historical-cultural setting. Against such situational contingencies, Wright then shows how Old Testament ethical assumptions such as the priority of justice, humanity, and compassion can still inform and inspire ethical systems today. He is not an inerrantist who believes that the Bible has to be always correct on matters of morality; instead, he takes an accommodationist approach in which biblical ethics are limited by the ethical imaginations of the biblical authors. Hence, Wright does not give biblical ethics unbridled authority today—they must be understood for their bedrock moral assumptions rather than, as fundamentalists are wont to do, making particulars into universals.

Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes, Charles Hartshorne

This work, by Hartshorne, is a brief, cogent presentation of Hartshorne's philosophy and theology. In it he dispels and critiques some of the more damning assumptions and dogmas of traditional theisms such as the idea that revelation or scripture must be inerrant, the idea that God is all powerful, and the idea that immortality must be personal as conscious life after death.