Disability and World Religions

An Introduction

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Editor(s): 
Darla Y. Schumm, Michael Stoltzfus
Studies In Religion, Theology, and Disability
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , August
     2016.
     276 pages.
     $49.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481305211.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Disability and World Religions is a collection of essays by religious scholars at the intersection of religions and disability theory and practice. This well-organized volume effectively provides an overview of basic ideas within religious traditions and contextualizes the experience of these teachings from within that religious tradition. Each of the contributors focuses on a specific religion, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Judaism, Catholicism, Protestant Christianity, Islam, and indigenous traditions in the Western hemisphere. In the first part, the introductions to each religion are comprehensive and clear, with the authors providing an overview of the religious tradition along with its component elements, key beliefs and sources, and, in some cases, current debates and speculations. The second part of each chapter extends this core understanding of the religion to explore the ways that the religious teachings and practices from these traditions impact perceptions of disability.

The volume is situated within the goals of the series of which it is a part, Baylor University Press’s “Studies in Religion, Theology, and Disability.” The series editors “encourage theoretical engagement with secular disability studies while supporting the re-examination of established religious doctrine and practice.” This is accomplished by empowering “newly established and emerging scholars”—which makes the prominence of some of the authors of this volume surprising—to explore the “intersection of religion, theology, and disability” (v). The series introduction itself is effective in situating this text, although it would be helpful to add a citation for the assertion that “persons with disabilities remain the most disaffected group from religious organizations” (vi). Regardless, the need for the series itself, and for this volume of it, is evident.

Disability and World Religions is an immense undertaking accomplished highly effectively. The descriptions of the various religious traditions are thick while still being concise. Scholars could enhance their understanding of various religious traditions through reading the first section of each of these contributions, regardless of whether or not they are interested in disability studies. These sections could also be used in upper-level or graduate world religions courses. The book itself could certainly be used in a disability studies course along with other cultural, anthropological, and historical examinations of representations of disability. Many of the themes discussed in detail in the book can be extended into multiple fields, such as human embodiment, ritual, religious experience, personal and social transformation, and more. The depth of reflection involved in notions of religious and spiritual self-identity, the presence and absence of physical or mental capacities, the common vulnerabilities that are part of being human, all contextualized within social, historical, and religious conditions is impressive.

The greatest strength of this collection is the way that the book conveys dynamic and vast notions—disabilities, religions, and even experience—in simple and condensed terms, yet still manages to convey the complexity of the many issues under consideration. The text goes beyond many traditional barriers—for example, the silos of religious studies and disability studies or of particular religious traditions—to critically analyze common perspectives such as the privileging of certain notions of disability, modern and European traditions of disability studies, liberation and human freedom, cultural obstacles and opportunities, cultural disability models, gender, castes, and more. Taken as a whole, all of these are put into dialogue with each other so that the book attends to specific religious beliefs and cultural concepts when examining and critiquing cultural disability models. A typical example is this line: “Hinduism does not share the West’s enthusiasm for uniform narratives of identity and duty” (21). These sorts of considerations, including those of traditional disability models such as medical, impairment, social, minority, human variation, disability as dialogical, and other critical examinations are present throughout the book. A thread that runs through most of the essays is an examination of the types of stigma, or lack thereof, evidenced in the text, traditions, and practices of each of the religions around disabilities.

This collection of essays is less concrete then both the series introduction and the volume introduction promises. According to the volume introduction, each essay author looks at the impact of a religious tradition on the daily lives of people with mental, psychological, and/or physical disabilities (xxi). This task seems to be carrying forward the series’ desire to take account “of the voices of people with disabilities and the voices of their family and friends” (v). More often, however, each of the sections of this volume critically examine the influence of a religious tradition on ideas about, and theories of, disability. That is, the volume includes voices of religious scholars reflecting on disability studies and theories, but does not appear to include the voices of those who identify as disabled. It also was not clear whether the scholarly voices were those of believers—that is, whether or not the essay authors are themselves adherents to the faith traditions they discuss.

This scholarly work is an important contribution to several fields, and the collection of essays adds to many larger movements within religious traditions, societies, politics, and disability theory. It draws the reader into discussions that contextualize and apply the thought of religious traditions to anthropology, notions of illness and health, legal protections, and more. While the voices of persons with disabilities might not be explicitly present, the knowledge of the authors of disability studies and the depth of their discussion of it within specific religions is enlightening.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Mary Beth Yount is Assistant Professor of Theology and Neumann University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Darla Y. Schumm is Professor of Religious Studies at Hollins University in Virginia.

Michael Stoltzfus is Professor of Religious Studies at Georgia Gwinnett College.

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