Religion and Bodily Images:
One of my research interests is inquiring into the use of bodily images in religious thought. Through this, I hope to share how symbols, images and language affect our perception of humans as embodied creatures, and what the effects of this usage are.
When a lack of spiritual awareness is equated with a disabling condition, a stigma is attached to disabilities. As an example, the Gospel of John (chapter 9, NRSV) records the disciples asking "who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" Despite the answer of Jesus that neither of these sinned, but that the man was blind in order to show the power of God, the problem continues: many places of worship are not accessible at all, and very few are built with the least indication that a person with a disability might ever be in a position of leading worship.
At the 2015 meeting of the United Methodist Association of Ministers with Disabilities, I spoke on the topic "Blind or Asleep?: an inquiry into disabling language." This presentation starts with John Newton's use of blindness as a symbol for spiritual unawareness, then examines some Biblical uses, and concludes with a look at the effects of the Enlightenment and a challenge.
One result of this study has been a greater appreciation of the apophatic theologians: any attempt on the part of humans to define or describe God is doomed to failure. And, as historical study turns up example after example of assurances that disabilities and similar conditions (such as writing with the left hand) were once considered sinful, I have developed a growing sense of divine inclusiveness that ought to be reflected in human communities.
In late ninteenth-century America, Fanny Crosby stands as an interesting figure in the area of religion and bodily images. In an accident at a young age, she became legally blind (she was able to discern light or dark and large shapes). She nevertheless became a signficant figure in American poetry and hymn-writing. In an age when Methodism was following much of the religious world in the transition to classic liberalism, she affirmed traditional doctrine. At the same time, she was part of wide trend in which women asserted authority to teach men, based on a divine call. Thus, it is not a surprise that many of her poems and hymns contain significant bodily images.
My first proposal for a dissertation would have covered her use of visual images in hymns and poetry. This project foundered when it turned out that most of Crosby's unpublished material was in inaccessible locations. You can read more about Crosby at "Fanny Crosby American hymn writer and poetess" from the New York Institute for Special Education, successor to the New York Institution for the Blind, the school where she studied and taught, and a short biography at The Cyber Hymnal that includes a partial list of pen names and hymns.
Horace Bushnell laid the groundwork for a city park that, when constructed, rejuvenated Hartford. He also took an interest in proposals for a transcontinental railroad, and, on his own, planned a route that was very close to the one eventually adopted.
Bushnell was also pastor of North Church (Congregational) in Hartford, leading it through a time of rapid growth in a city that was changing from a port to a financial center. His ability to argue a point (due, in part, to his earlier legal training) and critique both sides of a debate first established his reputation.
However, Bushnell contracted tuberculosis, which forced him to resign his position. In a great example of how technology can be assistive to many people with and without disabilities, he turned to writing, just as new printing technology made books cheaper than ever, and became a well-known figure. He also became the center of debate (and an attempt to mount an heresy trial), where his legal training again came to his aid.
With the drum-beats of the approaching Civil War, Bushnell turned to politics. Although he was a fervent Unionist, he again experienced no difficulty in lambasting both sides for falling away from the biblical standards of faith. As he wrote, Bushnell reflected upon and challenged views on many subjects, including attitudes toward the body.
Because so much of his work was available, and because he lived during a time of great change, Bushnell was an attractive subject for study, and became the topic of my thesis.
Revised July 2015