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                The Suffering Body: Asian and Western Perspectives

Project Directors | Project Summary | Project Fellows | Graduate Research Fellows | Project Plans |
Project Documents

Project Directors

Ellen Armour, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Chair in Feminist Theology; Director of the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender and Sexuality

Richard King - Associate Professor of Religious Studies (A&S), Associate Professor of Religion and Culture in the Divinity School, and Senior Research Fellow in the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture

Douglas Knight - Drucilla Moore Buffington Professor of Hebrew Bible, Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Culture

Project Summary
Suffering is a universal experience. All humans suffer, but cultural differences can lend quite different meanings to that suffering and to the response it is due. In common to all, however, is the body, the precise locus of suffering. This three-year research and publication project examined "the suffering body" using interdisciplinary and cross-cultural methods. Humanists and social scientists affiliated with The Center for the Study of Religion and Culture (CSRC) at Vanderbilt University and the Department of Cultural and Religious Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) brought Asian and Western perspectives into sustained dialogue, seeking to facilitate new and significant scholarship on this important topic.

"The Suffering Body" project had three primary foci: conceptions of suffering in the cultural, religious, and philosophical traditions of Asia and the West; medical responses to the suffering body; and Asian and Western approaches especially to suffering inflicted by humans, both intended and unintended. The use of the body to shape this project is important in two somewhat paradoxical ways. First, bodies are concrete and require the articulation of particular social location when examined critically. The body in question is always a body that is marked by gender, race, age, class, nationality, and more, and it defies easy universalisms or scholarly abstractions. Second, discussions of embodied suffering lend themselves to common understandings across cultural contexts. This experiential or relative universalism reminds us of the need for our scholarship to speak and listen across boundaries. In the current wave of economic and cultural globalizations it is not always clear how human needs are to be considered. A focus on "the suffering body" is a potential remedy for this lack and constitutes a promising meeting-ground for multiple cultures and disciplines.

Project Fellows
Faculty collaborators from Vanderbilt and CUHK currently include:

From Vanderbilt:
Jeffrey P. Bishop, Biomedical Ethics and Medicine
Roy O. Elam, Internal Medicine and Palliative Carec
Volney P. Gay, Psychology of Religions
Paul Lim, History of Christianity
Richard McGregor
, Islam
John Thatamanil, Hinduism and Christian Theology
David J. Wasserstein, Judaism
Chongbin Zhu, Integrative Health

From the CUHK:
CHU Tai Shing Nick - Cultural theories, consumer culture, cultural criticism of body and the arts
KUNG Lap Yan - Political theologies and new religious movements in Asia
LAI Chi-Tim - Taoism
LAI Ming Yan - Gender studies and domestic violence
LAI Pan Chiu - Christian theology, dialogue with Buddhism and Confucianism
LEE Chi Chung Archie - Cross-textual hermeneutics and Lamentations
LINDER, Birgit - Chinese literature and madness in literature

LO Lung Kwong - New Testament Pauline letters
NG Tze Ming Peter - Religious pedagogy
PANG Laikwan - Chinese film studies and rights studies

Graduate Research Fellows

Ellen Lerner, Graduate Department of Religion

Project Plans
The collaborative project between Vanderbilt's CSRC and the CUHK commenced in the academic year 2005/05 and continued through 2005/06 with discussions on the separate campuses. Following several meetings in which both groups worked toward defining the problem and refining the approaches, we engaged in discussions based on shared readings about suffering and the body.

During the 2006/2007 academic year our collective research agenda was furthered through a series of monthly meetings at each institution, employing the focused-reading model of the previous year and incorporating individual and group presentations of work in progress. Occasional external speakers were invited to address specific issues with us, such as a comparison of modern and traditional medical models for treating pain and suffering. Small groups of participants drawn from both Vanderbilt and CUHK collaborated, usually by email, in developing responses to a series of questions directed at the various fields and traditions.

Work in the academic year 2007/08 included further monthly discussions by the two groups of scholars, pursuing first the general phenomenon of suffering and the possibilities of palliation and then, second, human-caused suffering and the possibilities of palliation.

The academic year 2008/09 will build on the previous discussions, pressing for deeper understandings and comparisons regarding both the general problem of suffering and the specific case of human-caused pain and loss. Participants will also prepare their presentations for the second joint conference, which will be held at Vanderbilt University in May 2009. Topics tentatively set for this conference include philosophical and religious responses to suffering; theorizing the body in cross-cultural perspective; medical practices and indigenous worldviews - cultural and philosophical perspectives on health, illness, and the suffering body; and religious traditions and human-caused suffering.

Project Documents
Bibliography: Texts and Articles Related to Suffering
Suffering: Project Proposal and Bibliography (pdf)