Disability and World Religions is a collection of essays by professors of philosophy, theology, and religious studies, covering Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Judaism, Catholicism, Protestantism, Islam, and Indigenous Traditions in the West. The book is part of Baylor UP's "Studies in Religion, Theology, and Disability" series, which responds to what the Series Introduction cites as "the emergence of disability studies as an interdisciplinary endeavor that has impacted theological studies" (v) with "thoughtful reflection on the religious understanding of disability" (vi). That modest-sounding goal aside, this volume's editors acknowledge that the complexity of "disability"—acquired or congenital? Cognitive, physical, psychiatric? Phenomenological or social experience? Lived or representational?—coupled with the enormous range of beliefs, practices, and texts of any one, let alone nine, religious traditions makes for a potentially unwieldy tome. They thus gave authors a straightforward template to follow, and caution readers not to assume any finality or consensus on the part of individual essays or the collection as a whole. This caveat is appropriate, and within the speculative compass it allows for, the nine essays offer an interesting array of perspectives on the intersection of disability and faith.

Since British and American scholarly work on disability representation frequently begins with the binaries of both Old and New Testaments (disability as scourge and mark of sin; disability as sign of spiritual purity or favor), and with books like Nancy Eiesland's groundbreaking 1994 The Disabled God training our attention on disability in a specifically Judeo-Christian tradition, the diversity of faiths included here is especially welcome. References to disability in Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestant Christianity may be the most familiar to most readers, and the long history of scholarship situating contemporary attitudes about disability within those religions may explain why these chapters are the strongest on disability scholarship. Some religious traditions seem more readily reducible than others to the template the authors were asked to follow; the chapters on Hinduism and Islam seem especially freighted by the task of condensing their various tenets and laws before turning to the question of disability. It may be inevitable that a collection packing nine religious traditions into its 200 pages with some discussion of disability theory ends up truncating its broad if worthy goals—to teach students of disability theory about religion, theology students about disability, and anyone who's interested about the convergence of these subjects. The unexpected strength of the book as a whole might actually be its presentation of disability, since disability is the through-line and reading more than one chapter provides useful repetition and reinforcement.

At the same time, though it's clear from their introduction that the editors of this collection are versed in the terminology of disability studies—for example, the various "models" we use to examine disability experience and representation, how the social model corrects the medical model but is itself challenged by a post-social or phenomenological turn—the essay writers themselves deploy these concepts unevenly. One senses throughout the book not just that tension between historical, ideological vastness but also the pressure to simplify for an uninitiated audience; more seriously, several chapters also seem uncomfortably apologetic about their subjects' denigrating attitudes toward the ill and impaired. The result is a collection that, for all its utility, can be a frustrating read. In certain chapters, at least, it's as if the authors weren't entirely sure where to place their loyalties—with the philosophical discourses they study and teach or with disabled people, so often denigrated by those same discourses or excluded from religious community. The editors explain that they asked authors to engage both "strengths" and "weaknesses" in their discussions and even to provide "constructive suggestions for how contemporary religious communities might be transformed in order to be more hospitable to and informed by the voices and experiences of people with disabilities or chronic illnesses" (xii)—a mouthful that indicates the intended audience of the volume, and that may explain the occasionally defensive, justificatory notes as essays struggle to acknowledge prejudice against disability without forcing readers to conclude that a religion is thereby inhospitable to their concerns.

That said, as various authors promote subtle "adaptations" of religious teaching to make room for the fact of disabled experience—which is another way of saying that religion might be remade in the image of actual human embodiment, contingent and imperfect—an exciting hermeneutical freedom takes shape. Alongside the tentative propositions to tweak this or that basic tenet of a religion is an intriguing possibility that just as disability studies has challenged the naturalness of disability as a discrete category or the obviousness of health and function as privileged states of being, so too might a religious scholar, student, or believer interrogate the putative "truths" of religious doctrine. Another virtue of the collection is that while its chapters try to think about religion through a contemporary disability perspective, many of them also contest the philosophical biases of certain DS concepts. If disability theory has critiqued a Western privileging of autonomy, wholeness, and social productivity, for example, the intersection of disability and some religious traditions also complicates the foundations of Western disability activism—one based on political coalition, or the foregrounding of a particular bodily condition, or even the notion of an essentially coherent identity (even if that identity, in claiming pride, refuses a punitive correlation between selfhood and impairment). If Disability and World Religions raises the question of what religion in general, with its tendency to conflate spiritual and physical health and sickness, means for people with disabilities, it also invites readers to problematize the very notion of identity that undergirds some forms of activism in the first place.

Postmodern implications aside, this collection has obvious practical applications. One can dip in for concise summaries of its various religious traditions and come away with ideas and claims that might be easily transportable to one's own research. I can imagine using selectionsfrom it in an undergraduate DS class to explore the way the construal of some bodies and minds is embedded in what we take for granted about how the world works and who we think we are within it. The diversity of the collection seems vital for an increasingly global study of disability in the Humanities. If the parts of each essay sit awkwardly against each other at times, and if religious traditions are themselves often contradictory on the subject of disability, the collection as a whole does some important work in broadening the scope of its two disciplines.

Return to Top of Page

Copyright (c) 2017 Susannah B. Mintz

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact the web manager, Maureen Walsh. Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

ISSN: 2159-8371