What might reflection upon disability through a theological lens offer to disability studies? If physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual limitations were viewed as unsurprising, intrinsic and good aspects of humanity and our "embodied peculiarities" (Creamer 108), what are the implications for our understandings of God? Might disability studies and theology complement one another to enhance our understandings of disability, while posing new areas for reflection on the lived experience of disability? These questions are explored in Deborah Beth Creamer's book, Disability and Christian Theology, which offers a new model for engagement of disability studies: the limits model.
Creamer's limits model asserts that all human beings are limited and dependent to some degree, whether intellectual, spiritual, physical or emotional. Thus, limits should not be viewed as exceptional to the human experience. Instead, the limits model contends we must engage in critical reflection about embodiment as well as the nature of God, by challenging our notions of what it means to be "normal" and valuing limits for what they reveal about ourselves and about God. The limits model is drawn from aspects of disability studies, theology, feminism, anthropology and Biblical scripture to develop three claims of the Christian tradition with which to engage disability. That is, limits are: (1) unsurprising characteristics of humanity, (2) an intrinsic aspect of human existence, and (3) good and not evil.
Creamer begins by grounding her proposed model in a discussion of the medical model and the social minority model of disability. For example, using a disability studies perspective, she presents challenges regarding embodiment, noting the way the medical model is centrally grounded in unchallenged and socialized understandings of normality and the body. Moreover, though she notes the significant contributions of the social or minority model, Creamer asserts this understanding also falls short of fully capturing the complexities of embodiment, suggesting that it neglects the physical and emotional reality of impairment, such as experiences with chronic pain. Creamer is concerned with disability understandings that ultimately perpetuate the binary categories of normal versus abnormal. Instead, beginning from a more robust and multi-faceted understanding of disability through the fluidity of the limits model, Creamer suggests that we approach what it means to be human from the starting point of disability in order to compare and consider the varying experiences of all individuals. This inclusivity challenges and debunks "normal" versus "abnormal" debates and the instability and diversity of a disability category.
Creamer argues that our embodied experiences can serve as a "critical source for the doing of theology" (p.57). She spends a considerable portion of the book unpacking Sallie McFague's embodiment theology and its key conceptualizations in order to build on the theoretical groundwork of her limits model. Though Creamer praises and expounds on McFague's feminist construction of embodiment theology, she is concerned with McFague's seemingly dismissive view that disability is a mere result of the randomness of life. Alternatively, Creamer asserts that the existence of disability and the experiences of disabled people should not be reduced to such an unconcerned view. She highlights several scriptural references arguing that attention to disability in theological reflection rightly develops a Biblical, just and inclusive view of God and a more healthy, interdependent body of believers.
Creamer's model incorporates the contributions of three previous works on disability and religion:Images of the disabled God, the accessible God and the interdependent God are derived from previous theological reflection on disability by Jennie Weiss-Block, Kathy Black and Nancy Eisland, respectively. She expounds on the metaphorical images of God represented in these liberation theologies of disability to illustrate the problematic absence of disability in the academy, Christian communities and places of worship. Claiming each of these images "offer[s] insight into God's nature" (p.87), she notes that while such liberation theologies provide new insight, imagining disability as an expression of human limit is a fourth conception of God that might strengthen and shape existing models. Thus, theologically speaking, the inescapability and acceptance of limitations would also end what Christians understand to be our sinful and ongoing struggle for independence from God.
Though the majority of Creamer's book is devoted to development of the limits model, it also presents a number of challenges to scholars of both disability studies and theology. For example, she argues that the lack of disability studies research on religious experiences of individuals with disabilities is problematic. Creamer finds scholarship in theology to be equally lacking when considering disability as an embodied experience for theological reflection. She discusses the implications this neglect has for individuals who are marginalized from full participation in faith communities. There have been few challenges to Othering theological views that pity or spiritualize disability, and recent liberation theologies are just beginning to have an impact. As Creamer notes,
Recognizing that knowledge also has limits, the proposal of the limits model necessitates conversation, interaction and relationship. Both theology and disability studies can benefit from such conversations…Conversations between disability and theology can be mutually beneficial, allowing us to challenge problematic metaphors and oppressive practices as well as to imagine new possibilities for theoretical and theological contributions. (117)
Creamer has spent over twenty years exploring the intersection of disability and theology as a feminist theologian. Her voice reads as one familiar with marginalization in the academy, giving her added credibility to critique the absence of disability for theological reflection. As a female, Christian Disability Studies scholar, I found Creamer's analysis of the intersection of theology and disability to be well-informed, enlightening and stirring. Admittedly, this review contains bias accordingly. Nonetheless, Disability and Christian Theology is a book that will benefit any reader who wants to understand disability as it is informed by theology, and theology as it is informed by disability. There is also historical insight to take away from the first chapter, "Understanding Disability," for readers who do not espouse the Christian faith but are interested in learning more about the medical and social models of disability.
At first reading, I expected Disability and Christian Theology to contain personal accounts about disability and theology from individuals with disabilities. However none are mentioned other than the scholars cited in chapter four, "Liberation Theologies of Disability". This may leave readers with a disability studies perspective with a bit of tension, as disability voice is an essential component for works on disability and scholars who profess personal experiences with disability are often more respected for their insider perspective. Yet, Creamer carefully explains that it was the ambiguity of identity categorization and insider-outsider perceptions that drove her to develop the limits model. She cites her own struggles with disability identity to explain this in the introduction and develops it further in a section on interpreting deafness and cognitive disabilities. Thus, her limits model invites a holistic perspective of human embodiment where none are excluded and individual experiences of disability are acknowledged for their social, communal and embodied complexity in a postmodern era.
Creamer concludes by illustrating that reflection on disability conveys characteristics of God, such as creativity, perseverance, and strength. Overall,Disability and Theology disrupts dominant, ableist perspectives of human embodiment and demands we "examine and embrace and reinterpret our limits" (119).