E is for… Embodiment

Me, demonstrating mud. I've pushed that wheelchair down some muddy tracks in my time. I see the world!

Me, demonstrating mud. I’ve pushed that wheelchair down some muddy tracks in my time. I see the world!

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There was a trigger for my departure from Christianity. So many things could have been the reason I left, and weren’t. As a feminist, no matter how much feminist theology I read, I saw a lot of gender inequality in the churches. But that wasn’t enough to push me away. I was a gay Christian, involved in the LGBT Christian movement for about ten years – I was used to constant homophobia and being told I was a terrible sinner for loving my wife. That still wasn’t enough to encourage me to leave.

Ultimately, I left because Christianity had no room for embodiment.

It was attitudes to the body, particularly (but not solely) disability, that put the final nail in the coffin of my Christian faith. Attitudes that, realistically, are too deeply rooted to be addressed without some serious overturning of the way Christianity works.

There are so many stories I could tell to illustrate this. I could talk about the church I visited that had all the steps down from the entrance to the sanctuary (where worship takes place), where four ushers stood and stared at me while I basically crawled down, dragging my walking frame behind me – no one bothering to tell me that there was a disability-accessible door at the other end of the church. I could talk about how my own confirmation was ruined for me, because I was terrified that I would get the order of things wrong and not understand things (after years of experience of ritual that I can’t remember the order of) – and then I did get panicked, confused and lost because no one had time to explain the order of the service to me. I could talk about priests who spoke positively from the pulpit about women and LGBT people, but spoke with pity or disgust when it came to disability – which comes up a lot, when it comes to the Bible. Christianity has something beautiful called liberation theology, a radical grassroots theology focused on freedom for the oppressed – but somehow that has rarely included those who are oppressed because of their different bodies.[1] In much of Christianity, we’re only worthy of charity and pity, not liberation.

And there’s no real reason why Christianity shouldn’t be able to deal with the body. There’s plenty of theology out there that attempts to look positively at the body. But after a couple of thousand years of dualistic theology, that pits the body against the soul, it has a lot of baggage around the body and the material world. Even Gnosticism, as much as I like some of its mythology, is obsessed with the corruption of the material world. In the end, that wasn’t what I wanted from a spiritual path.

So then there was Paganism.

It first appealled to me because of its focus on the body, as part of the earth. (I’m talking here about Wicca, Druidry, and other earth-centred forms of Paganism – I know there are Pagan religions that don’t have this focus.) The honouring of the material world is a beautiful thing. And if we took it seriously, really seriously, it would revolutionize our view of the body. Think about it. Forget ‘god + goddess’ fertility-based binaries that can alienate LGBT people and those who experience gender differently. Forget the oppressive norms of body size and shape (‘fatness’) that we inherit from a post-industrial, post-colonial society. Forget exclusionary practices based on bodily norms and concepts of physical ‘perfection’ that leave disabled people feeling like outsiders. Think about how incredible it could be if every body, every form of creativity, and every consensual expression of sexuality were truly celebrated. Diversity is everywhere in this colourful world, and I love that my quirky body is part of it.

I know there are people out there who think my obsession with ‘being disabled’ is unhealthy. Who would rather see me pretend that disability doesn’t really exist. And really, that’s a different topic. But there are two sides to disability rights. There is an understanding of oppression, but I’ll talk about that another day. And there’s the celebration of who you are – as a disabled person, not in spite of being one. And I love that. My body causes me all manner of pain, difficulty and problems, but that doesn’t mean I want to change who I am.

So one day, if you’re in ritual with me, and you see me struggling to remember the order of things, or getting lost going around the circle, or stumbling while leaning on my crutches, or if I have a miss a ritual (or four) because the rain and the cold cause me pain, or if I have to leave the circle because I’m ill, you’re welcome to offer to help, and you’re also welcome not to. And if I sometimes draw attention to the way embodiment is central to my existence (because you can’t not be aware of your body when it makes itself this ever-present), you don’t need to cheer me up – just remember that I consider that a gift as well as a sometimes-curse. All I really ask from you is acceptance of the way I am, and of my agency (my right) to control what it means to me – from which healing practices I choose to engage in, to whether or not I feel well enough to attempt stairs today, to what I get to call myself. My body is different, and it is beautiful, and it is mine. And that *is* true for everyone..

I left Christianity because it had no room for embodiment. I’d like to stay with Paganism because it does. But that’s still potential – not yet reality. I like to hope that reality can be built, though.

This my favourite body (AKA SJ). Drinking Guinness.

This my favourite body (AKA SJ). Drinking Guinness.

For more about agency and identity, listen to this month’s Divine Community, which was just released yesterday. That’s right – I finally made a podcast episode. Rejoice.

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[1] This is something I’m working on as part of my PhD – there are a few awesome scholars who believe that disabled Christians need liberation theology too, and I’m working with their ideas. If you’re interested in liberation theology, the best writers on the subject are Gustavo Gutiérrez, whose work was part of the grassroots Latin American movement, and who said that if theology is not about liberation and social justice for the poor, it is worthless. James Cone‘s black theology is also a fascinating read.

8 thoughts on “E is for… Embodiment

  1. I am familiar with liberation theology. I took an entire class on it as part of my BA work (BA religious studies). Liberation theology is not just Christian. It can be Muslim, Hindu, or any other religion. My paper for that class was about how Paganism can be considered a liberation theology in itself, especially some forms of Wicca (Reclaiming, Dianic). If you’d like me to email it to you, please let me know.

    Also, some colleges and universities are seeing a rise in the field of disability studies, which may be something you are interested in. It explores disability in an interdisciplinary way, most likely including religion.

    Blessings,
    Victoria

    • I didn’t say it was just Christian. I was talking about a Christian context.

      Based on the definition of liberation theology, I would say that some Pagan theologies could be considered liberation theologies, but not ‘Paganism’ (which is a practice not a theology, and of course, is not monolithic). My personal opinion of some Dianic Wicca is that it’s more oppressive than liberatory, but that’s a personal view, of course.

      I have an MA in disability studies. It is my specialist field.

  2. This is a beautiful and powerful post. Thank you for sharing it.
    I hope we have it within ourselves to witness each other in our reality. When we approach each other in a sacred environment, I hope we can let go of our steadfast Western insistence on making everything comfortable and light all the time.

  3. I could not love you more
    And to this truth I incline
    Your incarnate choice is perfect
    You embody the divine

    Forester

  4. I stumbled onto your blog because of a mention by RoguePriest. I have a certain affinity for liberation theology. As a person who does not have a significant disability, the issues you have presented don’t generally occur to me. So I mainly wanted to say thank you for sharing your story. It reminds me that there are other human struggles out there beyond my own, and it gives me a lot to think about.

  5. Pingback: Paganism & Disability Links | The Lefthander's Path

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