Copyright © Michelle Voss Roberts. All rights reserved.
The “limited body” names the ways in which boundaries of ability, knowledge, dependency, and location in time and space are integral to being human. These limits are so entirely woven into our existence that they might be called “body parts” alongside the physical organs that operate within them.
Limits call not for a single spiritual practice, but many. We might make it a practice to accept limits. After all, it is part of human existence that we are positioned in particular times and places, that we are dependent on people and resources, and that we are limited in what we can know and do because of these things.
Acting as if we are not constrained in these ways leads to arrogant overreach by individuals and entire societies, which come to see their own ideas, morality, and power over others as ultimate goods. We also need practices that respond to the exploitation or neglect of these basic contingencies—practices of protest, solidarity, lament, and communal healing.
Here, I offer a practice of the imagination designed to expand one’s awareness of limits by training one’s gaze upon the experiences of others. M. Shawn Copeland’s definition of racism demonstrates the crucial connection of imagination to the image of God:
The Spiritual Exercisesof St. Ignatius of Loyola provide one example of meditation practices that expand the imagination. He centers his method on passages from scripture. I apply it here to other narratives and works of art.
- Select a historical narrative, work of fiction, memoir, or other art form in which someone from a different social location tells their story (about race, social class, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality or immigrant status, dis/ability, age, political persuasion, or various intersections thereof).
- Contemplate a single scene from your chosen work. Spend some time getting “inside” that scene:
- Imagine the setting. What landscape or furniture is present? Who are the other people or animals in it? How do they look, and what are they doing?
- What do you hear? Are there sounds of a city, a farm, a home? Are people or machinery at work? If there are other people, what are they saying, and what is their tone of voice?
- Can you smell or taste anything in this scene? What tactile sensations would the characters experience?
- What emotions do these sensations evoke? What do the characters think and desire?
- Consider how contemplating this scene might help you to understand the world. Laurie Cassidy suggests the following questions for reflection:
- Does the scene interrupt or reinforce your biases toward people who share this social position? If it were your story, would you want it to be represented in this way?
- If you or a loved one were in this scene, how might you want it to be different? To the extent that there is suffering, can it be avoided? How so?
- The media have a powerful potential to shape our view of others. Does your regular media intake shine a light on the image of God in people who are different from you, or does it obscure it? How?
- Who in your close circles comes from a different social location than yours? How do their stories expand your view of the world?
- How might this imaginative practice change your habitual interactions with others?
- Cassidy, Laurie. “Picturing Suffering: The Moral Dilemmas in Gazing at Photographs of Human Anguish.” In She Who Imagines: Feminist Theological Aesthetics, edited by Laurie Cassidy and Maureen H. O’Connell, 103-124. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2012.
- Cone, James H. The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2013.
- Copeland, M. Shawn. “The Critical Aesthetics of Race.” In She Who Imagines: Feminist Theological Aesthetics, edited by Laurie Cassidy and Maureen H. O’Connell, 73-86. Collegeville, MN: Liturgical, 2012.
- Voss Roberts, Michelle. Body Parts: A Theological Anthropology. Minneapolis: Fortress, 2017, chapters 3-4.
A Practice of the Limited Body: Imagination
One racial group is contrived as “the measure of the human being” and is deemed normative. Meanings and values have been embedded in those differences so as to favor the group that has been contrived as “the measure of the human being.” Virtue, morality, and goodness are assigned to that racial group, while vice, immorality, and evil are assigned to the others. Entitlement, power, and privilege are accorded that racial group, while dispossession, powerlessness, and disadvantage define others. (Copeland, 2012: 81)