Elizabeth Bucar

The Good of Ambiguous Bodies

Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religion
Northeastern University, Department of Philosophy and Religion
Boston, Massachusetts; United States of America

Capstone Conference Talk

Friday (8/4) 5:00-5:20PM

Why Do Bodies Matter to God?

Reactions to transgendered people illustrate vehement disagreements over whether bodily modifications enhance the human condition or violate it. And the fact that these reactions are often expressed with religious language demonstrates the importance of theology to the understandings of gender, sex, and transformation in broader cultural conversations. Religious traditions have debated the role of bodies and sex in human flourishing long before the physical transformation was medically possible, and thus have deep intellectual depositories—concepts, logics, frames—for thinking about embodied sex’s moral significance. I will present part of a larger work in progress, The Good of Ambiguous Bodies, which explores these religious resources in order to provide new ways to identify and assess assumptions about the moral significance of gendered bodies.


Capstone Conference Research Laboratory

SATURDAY (8/5) 9:30-10:40AM

Discovering Strength in Vulnerability

The purpose of this Research Laboratory is to unfold a differentiated concept of vulnerability that takes seriously that vulnerability is, at the same time, both a resource and a risk. This conception challenges widespread beliefs that vulnerability is a condition that ought to be avoided by persons and communities. In order to clarify the importance of this nuanced concept of vulnerability, the laboratory seeks to demonstrate how individuals and communities can discover strength in vulnerability; address interdisciplinary approaches by bridging the sciences and humanities to explore and understand vulnerability in its diverse dimensions; and to highlight how vulnerable individuals and populations can counter hegemony and thereby envision a future of freedom and flourishing.

Research Laboratories allow audience members to interact with a panel of ELP Scholars and Interlocutors in addressing a problem of public relevance. We invite active participation from audience members in the creation of new knowledge.

Academic Biography

Elizabeth Bucar is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Northeastern University. She received her PhD in religious ethics from the University of Chicago Divinity School in 2006. Bucar was Post-doctoral Fellow at Georgetown and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro before joining the Northeastern faculty in 2012.

Bucar has three areas of research interests in religious ethics: the interplay of feminist politics and clerical authority, bodily practices and character formation, and cross-cultural conceptions of sexuality. Her first book, Creative Conformity: The Feminist Politics of U.S. Catholic and Iranian Shi‛i Women (Georgetown University Press, 2011) argues against the widely held assumption that clerical pronouncements are obstacles to women’s flourishing. Using ethnographically informed textual analysis, Creative Conformity offers a comparative case study to explore how women receive and transform clerical teachings and thus contribute to the production of religious knowledge.

Her second book, The Islamic Veil (Oneworld Publications, 2012) counters the popular flattening of the veil into a sign of Islamic fundamentalism. In this book her goal is to challenge attempts to demonize the veil as “oppressive to women” by arguing that its meaning is not fixed but rather active, elastic, and recreated in new ways.

In addition to over 20 articles, Bucar is co-editor of two collections, Does Human Rights Need God? with B. Barnett (Eerdmans, 2005) and Religious Ethics in a Time of Globalism: Shaping a Third Wave of Comparative Analysis with A. Stalnaker (Palgrave, 2012). 

Project Executive Summary

My book, The Good of Ambiguous Bodies, explores theological and ethical roles of “the body” that are important to enhancing life studies. These roles become clear when religious traditions confront new technologies that purport to enhance human life by transforming our physical bodies. My goal is to determine the criteria by which multiple religious authorities judge forms of body modification as enhancements or violations of human life through a concrete and comparative case study. I focus on sexual reassignment surgery in two religious traditions (Catholicism and Shi’ism).

I begin with the following observations. First, existing technologies are enabling humans to influence and change aspects of the human condition in unprecedented ways. Second, these technological modifications to human bodies and minds are destabilizing established categories of the human—such as sex—that have historically held moral significance in religious systems of thought. If technology is remaking the human, then among the task of ethics is to determine (1) which human characteristics should and should not be altered and (2) which forms and methods of alteration are acceptable. My hypothesis is that since religious ethical theories have been trying to remake humans for centuries, through disciplinary practices and moral teachings, they have useful intellectual resources for the contemporary assessment of human modification technologies. This project employs a comparative case study of embodied sex to determine what these religious resources might be.