1 What is trauma theology?
1.1 The origins and foundations of the discipline
We are living in an age of trauma (Bond and Craps 2020: 41); that is to say, a time in which understandings of trauma came to characterize so many aspects of cultural identity, inclusion, and belonging. This characterisation has been aided by a century of psychological and medical developments in which we have come to understand what trauma is, how it happens, and what its ongoing impact on both individuals and collectives might be. Of course, trauma was not invented in the twentieth century, rather it is the century in which it has been defined (to some extent) and often medicalized.
That being said, trauma does resist easy definition. Most popular definitions of trauma define trauma as being related to experiences that defy ‘witnessing, cognition, conscious recall and representation’ (Cronshaw 2010: 4). It is often connected with power and powerlessness, such that those without power in particular situations are more vulnerable to a trauma experience that overwhelms ordinary coping systems (Herman 1997).
Trauma is often associated with a shattering or rupturing experienced within the individual. The trauma experience shatters a sense of identity and coherence within one’s life, it can shatter cognition and language such that a trauma survivor is unable to articulate and understand their experiences, and the trauma event can shatter experiences of time so that events associated with the trauma experience press into the present through hallucinations, nightmares, and flashbacks. This sense of shattering is one reason why trauma survivors often eschew language of ‘recovery’ and prefer instead language of ‘remaking’, referencing the remaking of the self that is required in the aftermath of trauma (Brison 2002).
It is important to note that the specifics of a particular event are not important. No event is inherently traumatic no matter how dangerous or terrifying it might be (Alexander 2012: 13). Rather it is the way in which the event is experienced that produces the trauma. This means that two people can experience exactly the same thing and only one of them be traumatized by it. We cannot, therefore, presume to identify trauma primarily on the experiencing of an event that we expect to be traumatic. Nor can we discount trauma because it would seem to stem from an event that we do not usually recognize as traumatic. This is significant particularly when it comes to complex and chronic forms of trauma where there might not be one clearly identifiable traumatic moment but rather a series – a lifetime – of insidious events that the trauma survivor experiences as traumatic.
Trauma is, as Bessel van der Kolk has ably demonstrated, a corporeal thing. In his ground-breaking book The Body Keeps the Score Kolk makes it clear that no amount of talking therapies alone can ‘cure’ trauma. He writes,
We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on the mind, brain, and body […] Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think. We have discovered that helping victims of trauma find the words to describe what has happened to them is profoundly meaningful, but usually it is not enough. The act of telling the story doesn’t necessarily alter the automatic physical and hormonal responses of bodies that remain hyper vigilant, prepared to be assaulted or violated at any time. For real change to take place, the body needs to learn that the danger has passed and live in the reality of the present. (Van der Kolk 2015: 21)
The corporeal nature of trauma is worth bearing in mind when it comes to academic work on trauma, especially as such work emphasizes the primacy of language and the significance of words. Words alone, in the case of trauma, are not enough.
Trauma theology is a relatively recent development within theology as a discipline, with the majority of the work in this field taking place in the twenty-first century. It has its roots in the literary turn toward trauma theory that took place of the work of Cathy Caruth in the 1990s. As such, earlier pieces of work in trauma theology take a similar literary shape in which texts – biblical and spiritual – were analysed through the same hermeneutic lens of trauma that had been applied to other types of literature. Caruth herself focused on exploring texts such as Moses and Monotheism by Sigmund Freud in her literary examination of trauma (Caruth 1996). It is no surprise, therefore, to find early examples of trauma theology following similar pathways. Serene Jones, for example, turns to both the biblical texts – notably the Gospel of Mark – and to John Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of Psalms in her first monograph in the area of trauma theology (Jones 2009). Shelly Rambo focuses on the writings of Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Gospel of John in her book Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Rambo 2010). In both of these works, Jones and Rambo are using trauma as a hermeneutical lens through which to read theological texts and then do theological thinking. Similarly, Dirk Lange turns to the writings of Martin Luther in Trauma Recalled: Liturgy, Disruption and Theology (2010) as he posits Luther’s turn to liturgy as a disruption of the theology of his day. In engaging with the Didache as a text that witnesses to the Last Supper and Jesus’ instructions, he sees it as ‘a liturgical witness to a dissemination that cannot be remembered but only iterated as the force of a return’ (Lange 2010: 152). As noted below, Lange is just one a significant number of theologians engaged with trauma who find the Eucharist to be a fruitful site of theological discourse.
This literary and textual landscape in trauma theology does continue, however. More recent research has sought to balance this with a focus on human experience of trauma and the impact it has on people, both in terms of reimagining theology and in terms of developing practices of pastoral care. For example, Ruuard Ganzevoort has developed a significant focus on trauma from the embodied perspective of lived religion (2019). It should be noted that practices of pastoral care are often results of the theological work trauma theology engages with, but this is not usually the primary aim of the trauma theologian. The aims of trauma theology are largely to bring to light experiences of trauma (often taking place within the church and other Christian communities) and to highlight the ways in which established and traditional theologies do not necessarily do justice to, or take into account, the experiences of the trauma survivor. This witnessing to trauma is then joined with a reimagining of theology that seeks to create a theological groundwork from which pastoral practice might, ultimately, be able to draw.
1.2 Trauma, suffering, and the post-traumatic remaking of the self
Of course, the Christian theological tradition has long been interested in the experience of suffering. The Hebrew psalms are threaded through with cries out to God from suffering people. The story of Job attempts to put suffering into theological context. Paul writes to the early church about his own experiences of suffering. But it is important to distinguish between suffering and trauma. This can be somewhat tricky in a culture in which the two words are often used interchangeably and in a discipline that is not dealing in medical diagnoses of trauma. However, at their most basic, suffering and trauma are not the same thing. Every human person will experience suffering during their lifetimes but not everyone will experience trauma. Experiences of suffering, no matter how difficult, are eventually integrated into one’s identity. But experiences of trauma resist this integration. Trauma has a particular impact on the body in a way that suffering does not. The traumatized person experiences ruptures in their bodily integrity and identity, hyper-aroused nervous systems, ruptures in language and cognition such that they do not necessarily remember or cannot articulate their trauma experience(s) and they experience disruptions of time in the way in which the historical experience of trauma continues to try to push into the present through hallucinations, nightmares, and flashbacks. Trauma experience(s) resist integration and as such the trauma survivor requires a process of post-traumatic remaking in order to move towards flourishing after trauma. Such a process is not required in the experience of suffering (Brison 2002).
1.3 Trauma theology and theodicy
Trauma theology is not usually interested in working out theodicies – theological explanations for why evil/trauma happens to people. Trauma theologians do not tend to spend much time trying to explain the reasons behind trauma experiences. This is primarily because as a theology that is interested in taking bodily experiences seriously, trauma theology recognizes that theodical explanations are of little comfort to trauma survivors. In the midst of working through the process of post-traumatic remaking, abstract explanations about the activity of God are not particularly helpful. Furthermore, trauma theology tends to lean towards a more apophatic, mystery-centred understanding of God that is focused on the theological truths that can be claimed with certainty and that might be meaningful to the trauma survivor (e.g. O’Donnell 2022, Rambo 2010). The idea that God remains within the trauma experience can be very meaningful. Similarly, this focus on the validity of bodily experience centres the trauma survivor’s own perspective on God’s activity in their trauma experience. This leaves space for blame, anger, rage, and the affective responses to trauma as all being valid emotions and does not require acceptance of theodicy that might squash such affective responses. Post-traumatic remaking requires attention to and regulation of the body, constructions of narratives, and reconnection to society rather than theological attempts to make sense of trauma.
2 Methodologies in trauma theology
Given that trauma theology is still an emerging field within theology and still relatively small, there are a variety of methodological approaches taken by theologians undertaking this work. I highlight here the three most common approaches but of course the interdisciplinarity of the discipline means that these will often be used in combination and alongside feminist, postcolonial, autoethnographic, and literary methodologies (amongst many others).
2.1 Constructive methodology
The first approach is that of a constructive methodology. The constructive methodology focuses on producing theology that promotes flourishing. Serene Jones and Paul Lakefield write of the constructive approach that:
We are not interested in merely describing what theology has been; we are trying to understand and construct it in the present, to imagine what life-giving faith can be in today’s world. In doing so, as with any construction job, we are attempting to build a viable structure. In our case, that structure is an inhabitable, beautiful, fruitful theology. (Lakefield and Jones 2005: 1)
This methodological approach is characterized by a threefold process in which the theologian begins with reflecting on the past, often by recognizing a doctrine or tradition from the past that causes problems in the present. The second stage is then a critique of this problematic doctrine, often drawing on other disciplinary fields, depending on the scope of enquiry. The third stage of this constructive methodology is the construction of reimagined theology that does better justice to the experiences of the present day (Wyman 2017). Given the relatively recent developments in the understanding of trauma, it is easy to see why this methodological approach is appealing for so many trauma theologians. This approach is characteristic of work by Shelly Rambo (2010; 2017) and Karen O’Donnell (2022).
2.2 Practical theology methodology
Alongside the constructive approach, and bearing much in common with it, is the practical theology methodology. Whilst approaches to practical theology can vary depending on the goal of the research, practical theology is focused on the dissonances between theology and lived experience, seeking to test the authenticity of traditional doctrinal claims against the lives of real people (Osmer 2011: 3). This methodological approach often (but not always) foregrounds qualitative research with trauma survivors. For example, in Katie Cross’ work on purity culture and trauma, she began by interviewing a group of people who had experienced purity culture. From this qualitative work, Cross was then able to critique theodicies of blame and to outline new ways of thinking about Christian sexual ethics (Cross 2020). Like the constructive approach, practical theology is concerned with critique and potential reimaginings of theology in the light of trauma experiences.
2.3 Hermeneutic methodology
Another common methodology in trauma theology, often used in combination with either constructive or practical theology methodologies, is that of a hermeneutic approach. In this methodology, trauma theory or understanding of the impacts of trauma, form a hermeneutical lens through which a particular text (in its broadest sense of the word) can then be read and analysed. This methodology commonly foregrounds both the specifics of narrative as well as particular literary techniques in its analysis. This kind of reading is concerned with the ways in which ‘trauma may be encoded within texts, on the ways that texts may function in witnessing to trauma, and on the ways that texts may facilitate recovery and resilience’ (Boase and Frechette 2016: 10). For example, non-linear narratives, compulsive repetitions, impacts on identity and remembering, and fragmented, limited language are all common features of this hermeneutic methodology. This approach often draws on the work on literary theorist Cathy Caruth who pioneered a literary perspective that understood trauma to be something that resisted direct linguistic representation and remained outside normal boundaries of memory and narrative (Caruth 1996). More recent perspectives in literary trauma theory have moved away from Caruth’s focus to suggest that trauma is something which alters perception and identity and can then produce new knowledge.
3 Interdisciplinarity and trauma theology
Bringing in trauma as a hermeneutic lens or dialogue partner requires, by necessity, an interdisciplinary approach to research. Roger Luckhurst describes the complicated and multi-faceted interdisciplinary landscape in which trauma is located as a conceptual know that ties together ‘an impressive range of elements’, enabling trauma to ‘travel to […] diverse places in the network of knowledge’ (Luckhurst 2008: 14). This is no less true in the case of trauma theology than any other discipline. For the theologian to engage with trauma means that, at the very least, the trauma theologian will be in dialogue with the field of psychology to at least some extent, even if simply to understand some of the impacts that the trauma experience has on a trauma survivor (see Theology and Psychiatry). But this interdisciplinarity is likely to extend much further and lead the trauma theologian into subdisciplines such as literary criticism, postcolonial criticism, queer theologies, sociology, art, music, counselling, pastoral care, history, cultural studies, and many more besides. As Lucy Bond and Stef Craps note:
Trauma, then, is slippery: blurring the boundaries between mind and body, memory and forgetting, speech and silence. It traverses the internal and the external, the private and the public, the individual and the collective. Trauma is dynamic: its parameters are endlessly shifting as it moves across disciplines and institutions, ages and cultures. Trauma is contested: its rhetoric, its origins, its symptoms, and its treatment have been subject to more than 150 years of controversy and debate. (Bond and Craps 2020: 5)
Trauma is a subject that escapes neat disciplinary boundaries. To engage with trauma is to raise one’s head above the battlements of theology and to engage with the real experiences of real bodies, requiring one to think broadly and to bring the goods of the Christian tradition into dialogue with contemporary understandings of humans and their experiences.
4 Reading the Bible through the lens of trauma
The hermeneutic approach to trauma that seeks to read biblical (and other) text through the heuristic lens of trauma takes a number of different approaches to this work. Significant research has been undertaken to understand the traumatic origins of biblical texts and the ways in which such texts are threaded through with trauma experiences and responses, often in indirect ways. Additional research has sought to read biblical texts with an eye to the contemporary reader and the ways in which some texts might particularly resonate with trauma survivors today, both individually and collectively. A third strand of this research has sought to consider the relationship between God and trauma, particularly examining texts that seem to portray God as an inflictor of trauma.
4.1 Biblical texts arising from trauma
A range of biblical scholars have approached the biblical text (usually the Hebrew Bible) as a collection of narratives that have arisen out of trauma and explored the ways in which trauma makes itself known both directly and indirectly in the texts. David Janzen published The Violent Gift: Trauma’s Subversion of the Deuteronomistic History’s Narrative in 2012 in which he traces the narrative of the author of the Deuteronomistic history that seeks to provide an explanation for the trauma the Judean community suffered in Babylonian exile (Janzen 2012). Janzen highlights, throughout his reading of the text, a single narrative thread that is an attempt to explain to its original readers why the exile happened. Janzen followed this reading of the Deuteronomistic history with a contrasting reading of Kings and Lamentations in his 2019 book Trauma and the Failure of History: Kings, Lamentations, and the Destruction of Jerusalem (Janzen 2019). Here Janzen is keen to contrast historical texts with trauma texts and therefore draws on a comparison of the narrative of 1 and 2 Kings with the book of Lamentations. He writes:
The reactions of Kings and Lamentations to the same basic set of events could not be more different, and this is because Kings can be seen as part of a history, something that confirms the ability of the group’s worldview to make sense even of the disaster that stuck Judah, while Lamentations is largely a series of testimonies to trauma that reject history. (Janzen 2019: 4)
Whilst Janzen focuses on specific, discrete narratives within the biblical text, David M. Carr takes a much broader approach as he examines the whole of the biblical text as a text that arises out of trauma. Carr argues that the Bible’s ‘distinctive themes and emphases can be traced back to century after century of crisis’ (Carr 2014: 4). Carr focuses not just on the specific texts as he traces his argument from ancient Israel to the post-traumatic gospel of the New Testament, but also on the larger narratives to be found within those collections of text. He posits that even the very establishment of monotheism can be read as an outworking of ancient Israelite experiences of trauma.
These grander, overarching critiques of whole texts are balanced out, in this mode of engaging theologically with trauma, by a wide range of close texts readings of specific passages of biblical narrative. For example, Rambo focuses on the resurrection appearances to Mary Magdalene as she examines the confusion, ambiguity, and unseeing that takes place in those passages (Rambo 2010). Jones reads the short ending of the Gospel of Mark as a testimony to the trauma experiences of the first followers of Jesus (Jones 2015). Similarly, Dirk Lange reads the absence of the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus in early texts like the Didache as an absence indicating the trauma experiences of the early church. The absence of the resurrection shows the modern reader that this early community had still not yet come to terms with the trauma they had experienced (Lange 2010).
4.2 Fostering recovery and resilience through biblical texts
L. Juliana M. Claassens (2016) and Christopher G. Frechette (2016) both tackle narratives of rape in the Hebrew Bible with an eye to trauma recovery. Frechette argues for a reading of Isaiah 47 (the rape of Daughter Babylon) as a text that can be read as text in which ‘YHWH condemns the Babylonians for their merciless behaviour’ and that this ‘effectively distances YHWH from the memory of those violations and the toxic meaning derived from them that would have eroded the Judean’s sense of dignity and capacity to trust’ (Frechette 2016: 80). A text about rape, when read through a hermeneutic of trauma, becomes a text about trauma recovery. Claassens picks up a classic feminist approach to such texts as she reads the narrative of Tamar and seeks to fill the narrative gaps and absences with the possibility of a recovery for Tamar after she has been raped (Claassens 2016). She argues that to ‘retell Tamar’s story from the victim’s perspective with a focus on survival and recovery is an act of resistance itself’ (Claassens 2016: 191).
Ericka Shawndricka Dunbar offers a reading of the Book of Esther in her book Trafficking Hadassah: Collective Trauma, Cultural Memory, and Identity in the Book of Esther and in the African Diaspora (2021). Dunbar positions the narrative of Esther as one of sexual trafficking and then draws this powerful reading into dialogue with Africana women and girls and their experiences of sexual violence and trafficking. For Dunbar, the lens of trauma provides a collective dimension that gives space for an intersectional polyvocal form of Africana biblical interpretation. This work also indicates one of the future trajectories of trauma theology as she draws the dialogue away from its north-Atlantic centric roots and into the Global Majority World.
4.3 Violence and God
Theological concerns around the violence attributed (directly or indirectly) to God in the biblical texts has long been a concern for theologians. In the 1980s, feminist theologian Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Ann Parker asked whether the crucifixion of Jesus and the atonement might be considered a form of divine child abuse (Brown and Parker 1989). Whilst this perspective has been largely rejected in atonement theologies, there are, of course, many other instances in the biblical texts where it seems that God is the one inflicting violence on people or requiring violence to be performed to people. These texts have, unsurprisingly, been of interest to Trauma Theologians who have sought to make sense of the violence entwined in these narratives. Frechette and Elizabeth Boase note that ‘in many cases, biblical texts attributing suffering to dehumanizing violations enacted by God as punishment can be understood as representations of trauma that serve as mechanisms of survival, recovery, or resilience’ (Frechette 2016: 17). For example, in her research on child sacrifice in Ezekiel 16 (see Sacrifice and the Old Testament), Margaret Odell examines the narrative of ‘YHWH’s violent punishment of daughter/wife Jerusalem’ (Odell 2016: 108). In this passage, the newly wed Jerusalem is adulterous, even sacrificing her children to idols. This passage sets up and justifies YHWH’s violent punishment of Jerusalem. Odell argues that when read through the heuristic lens of trauma, one can understand this text as a political text that offers hope and a pathway forward for trauma survivors (Odell 2016).
5 Key themes in trauma theology
5.1 The cross and the resurrection
A key theological question raised by theologians interested in trauma is whether or not Jesus himself is a trauma survivor. This question is significant because if one believes that Jesus is a survivor of trauma, then he becomes the model for how Christians should respond to trauma. In her powerful reflection on her own experience of sexual assault, Womanist scholar Shannell T. Smith positions Jesus as a survivor of sexual trauma within the crucifixion experience (Smith 2021). Smith writes, ‘Jesus was triply humiliated. He was made naked. They stripped him. He was penetrated. Not with a penis, but with nails. He was made a spectacle for the crowd’s amusement. They watched and mocked him’ (Smith 2021: 280–281, original emphasis). For Smith, this places Jesus in a complicated position of being both model for trauma survivor and completely alien to the trauma survivor.
In contrast, it is certainly possible to argue that Jesus is not a trauma survivor. As we noted previously, we cannot infer from a type of event (i.e. an experience of sexual assault or the crucifixion) that someone will automatically be traumatized. Whilst we may believe this to be likely, trauma theologians typically emphasize that it is not events qua events that denote trauma but rather the specific ways in which events are experienced and responded to by an individual. Therefore, we cannot simply argue that because Jesus was crucified he is, by default, a trauma survivor. Furthermore, he does not survive but dies. Finally, even if we want to disregard these two points, we have no evidence in the resurrection and post-resurrection narratives available to us that Jesus was experiencing any characteristics of trauma.
That being said, it does seem more likely that the group of women and the beloved disciple, and perhaps even those disciples who were not present at the crucifixion, were trauma survivors. They had, in some cases, witnessed the murder of their friend at the hands of a brutal dominating force. And we see, in some of the narratives that follow Jesus’ death some characteristics of trauma coming to the fore. For example, Jones considers the story of Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus to be a ‘tale of trauma and survival’ (Jones 2009: 24). Similarly, Shelly Rambo situates Mary Magdalene as a trauma survivor in her experience at the empty tomb on Easter Sunday (Rambo 2005). It is these trauma survivors that form the basis of the testimony of the Early Church and ultimately the New Testament.
Both Serene Jones and David M. Carr consider the original ending of the Gospel of Mark as a mark of the impact of trauma on the early followers of Jesus. The original ending to this Gospel is raw and open ended. This shorter ending still includes the empty tomb and a young man dressed in white tells the women that Jesus has risen (Mark 16:1–8) and the final sentence hints at some direct contact with the risen Jesus but much is ambiguous and confusing. This shorter ending is often taken as an indication of trauma experienced by those first followers of Jesus, for whom the trauma of the crucifixion still loomed large. For Jones this ‘unending’ is a challenge to the preacher and she asks ‘how does one take into account the “unending reality” of traumatic experience? How do you preach comfortable endings to people who live in the pain of an eternal present?’ (Jones 2015: 93). For Carr, this ‘unending’ in the Gospel of Mark highlights the way in which the followers of Jesus did not emphasize the resurrection of Jesus as vindication of his suffering. Rather this is ‘vindicated in the redeemed community that survives him. The church’s survival, its ongoing life and flourishing, becomes testimony to the healing and making-righteous that Jesus’ death accomplished’ (Carr 2014: 170). The longer ending to the Gospel of Mark (a later addition to the text) adds in multiple appearances by Jesus to various groups of disciples, as well as Jesus’ commission to the disciples and a narrative of the ascension in an attempt to wrap up the Gospel with a happy and resolved ending.
In pastoral terms, the focus when it comes to trauma has tended to lean towards the resurrection of Jesus. This is true not just when it comes to trauma but when it comes to much preaching and pastoral theology on difficult circumstances and suffering more generally. It is this rush towards to the victory of the resurrection that Rambo takes on in her work Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining. Rambo notes that
Insofar as resurrection is proclaimed as life conquering or life victorious over death, it does not speak to the realities of traumatic suffering. In fact, one must recognize the ways in which resurrection proclamations may gloss over and negate the difficult experience of life in the aftermath of death […] The rush to life can belie the realities of death in life. (Rambo 2010: 7)
Rambo argues that theology tends to want to rush to the resurrection and to proclaim victory over difficult situations, claiming Jesus’ resurrection as the ultimate victory over death. For the trauma survivor, such a proclamation glosses over the lived realities of their experience in which there may be no victory, but simply the ongoing movement of survival and perhaps eventually flourishing.
Instead of rushing to the resurrection victory and triumph of Easter Sunday, Rambo instead points to Holy Saturday as the site between death and resurrection. She draws on the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar as she explores the significance of Holy Saturday in the context of trauma. Holy Saturday is the place in which the linear narrative of life-death-life is interrupted as both death and life are complicated and intermingled in this place. Rambo draws this perspective on Holy Saturday into dialogue with the theme of ‘witnessing’ – a significant theme within trauma studies (Felman and Laub 2013) – as she examines the Johannine Gospel narratives of the disciple’s post-crucifixion. In attending to these middle spaces, Rambo aligns this witnessing between life and death with the work of the ‘interstitial figure of the Spirit’ (Rambo 2010: 12). This interstitial Spirit is the one who remains and witnesses even when it seems impossible to conceive of any divine presence in the midst of trauma. Rather than a drive to life, Rambo figures this Spirit as the one who sustains.
Rambo’s work has been significant in establishing some key principles in trauma theology, particularly in challenging the focus on theology on resurrection. Rambo has, instead, established the ongoing-ness and rupturing nature of trauma as areas of concern for the theologian that require critical reflection on theologies. She encourages us to reflect on what redemption might look like for the trauma survivor.
5.2 Eschatological hope
Like the resurrection, the theological category of hope is similarly tricky in the context of trauma theology. The Christian concept of hope, centred on the person of Jesus and his resurrection, can also gloss over the lived realities of trauma survivors’ lives. This kind of hope often points to the eschaton for both its fullest outworking and can come with the implicit requirement to look beyond one’s current circumstances to the fullest instantiation of hope. Hope is, therefore, explicitly focused on eternal life and a state of perfection (in all things) that will be found in the eschaton. This hope is, according to Saint Paul, produced through our lives. He writes:
We also boast in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom 5:3–5)
This logic – suffering produces endurance, which produces character, which produces hope – is deeply engrained in the Christian psyche. It can be the expected outcome of any difficult circumstance and it is a common way in which Christians try to make sense of challenging experiences. For the trauma survivor, however, this is not the case. The nature of trauma means that, unlike suffering, it cannot be integrated into our identities and ultimately produce hope. Trauma resists this logic and requires a rethinking of the virtue of hope.
Feminist and liberation theologies have also reflected critically on the nature of Christian hope, recognizing that a focus on eschatological hope can serve to keep people in oppression as they are encouraged to fix their eyes on what is ahead and gloss over the difficulties of their present existence. Indeed, trauma theology owes much to feminist and Womanist theological discourse, with many of the early turns toward trauma functioning as a natural outworking of feminist and Womanist theological concerns (Rambo 2020). Trauma theology similarly reimagines Christian hope as something present-oriented that seeks genuine solidarity with the trauma survivor and is grounded in ethical action to transform structures and circumstances that lead to trauma (O’Donnell 2021; De La Torre 2017).
5.3 The Eucharist
A substantial amount of trauma theology is centred around the Eucharist. Theologians such as Marcus Pound, Dirk Lange, Christopher Grundy, and Karen O’Donnell have all written about the relationship between trauma and the Eucharist. These two things (trauma and the Eucharist) have two significant aspects in common. They are both focused on bodies and memories. Therefore, in the case of the Eucharist, Christians are instructed in the gospel narratives by Jesus to ‘Do this in remembrance of me’. The ‘this’ they must repeat is the sharing of bread and wine that are connected (in whatever eucharistic theology one adheres to), in some way, to the body and blood of Jesus himself. In the case of trauma, we have already established the corporeal nature of trauma and the significance of memory and repetition in the experience of the trauma survivor. Dirk Lange notes that:
Perhaps two words that describe the classic liturgical ordo—two words that might also come to mind to any observer, committed to liturgy or not—are repetition and remembrance. The liturgy is certainly a repetitive ritual (enacting certain rites, a certain order of rights week after week) and it is a remembrance of God’s gracious acts toward the human family (acts recounted in the reading of the word, in baptismal remembrance, and in the Eucharistic celebration). Of course, liturgical theologians will want to qualify these two words—liturgy is not just simply remembering, nor is it just a banal repetitive action—nonetheless, both of these terms are apt qualifiers of liturgical action.
Lange draws the connection here to liturgy more broadly, but it is true to say that in the case of trauma theology, this liturgical connection is most fully developed in connection with the Eucharist.
Trauma theology tends to take one of two approaches to thinking about the Eucharist. Either they approach the Eucharist through the lens of trauma theory and by drawing on the literary hermeneutical approach outlined earlier, or they consider the Eucharist through discussion of the experience of trauma survivors participating (or not) in the Eucharist. Both approaches consider the ways in which the celebration of the Eucharist repeats trauma and on the potential the Eucharist has for supporting the work of post-traumatic remaking (although they may use language of recovery and/or healing).
For example, Marcus Pound draws the Eucharist into dialogue with Lacanian psychoanalysis and trauma. Pound argues that the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is a ‘thoroughly traumatic event’ (Pound 2007: 188), an event in which transubstantiation is a moment of rupture, and participation in the Eucharist thus becomes a form of social-psychoanalysis. Drawing on the Lacanian understanding of real, Pound demonstrates that transubstantiation is traumatic because it invites the absolute Other (i.e. God) to confront us with the real of existence. Therefore, what we take as bread and wine coincides with and confronts us as Christ’s bread and body.
The point of transubstantiation amounts to the traumatic intervention of the real, which shatters existing symbolic determinates and makes time matter in new ways. The Eucharist subsequently provides the ritual co-ordinates to symbolically reconfigure one’s life, situating one in the mode of the future anterior. From the perspective of the Eucharist, the past is not simply trailing behind, rather one can redeem it in the light of eschatological hope. That hope in turn is met in and determines the instant presently given to the Eucharistic community. (Pound 2007: 193, original emphasis)
Pound makes a compelling case for using the category of trauma to interpret and understand the theology of the Eucharist, particularly transubstantiation. He suggests that if Aquinas were writing today, he would turn not to Aristotelian metaphysics but instead to Lacanian psychoanalysis for his elucidation of Eucharistic theology. It is important to note, however, that Pound writes in the abstract. There are no traumatized bodies in his work, in fact there are hardly any bodies (even divine ones) present in his writing on the Eucharist and trauma at all.
This absence of the body in Pound’s writing, makes a marked contrast with the second approach to the Eucharist by trauma theologians. In this alternative approach, theologians consider the celebration of the Eucharist from the perspective of the experience of the trauma survivor. Flora Keshgegian argues that ‘the crucifixion of Jesus was a traumatic event, for Jesus himself and for the community around him’ (Keshgegian 2000: 166). Because this trauma is unresolved and never faced as trauma, the crucifixion remains an unexamined trauma at the heart of the Christian celebration of the Eucharist. The Eucharist becomes, then, a place in which the traumatic event (the crucifixion) is ritually repeated because it is never resolved and understood as trauma by those original trauma survivors.
Karen O’Donnell has argued that the celebration of the Eucharistic service has the potential to contribute to the work of post-traumatic remaking as it fulfils (or could fulfil) some of the criteria for this remaking. Post-traumatic remaking requires being in a place of safety and being able to maintain bodily integrity, constructing narratives that make sense of trauma experiences and having these narratives witnessed and believed, reconnecting with and regulating one’s body, and forming connections with others. The celebration of the Eucharist can provide all these things. It should be a place of physical and spiritual safety. Liturgies of the word and confessions of sins may be useful sites of narrative construction. The act of eating and drinking, as well as moving around the church give some potentiality for bodily connection. And the fact that the Eucharist draws disparate individuals into communion both with God and with each other means that new connections are formed (2018).
More recent work around liturgy and trauma has moved away from focusing on the Eucharist exclusively and given more space to consideration of other liturgical rites and their relationship with trauma.
6 Trauma theology and pastoral care
A significant element of the work of trauma theology has been directed at informing the practice of pastoral care. In a very early piece of work, Carrie Doehring used a quantitative method to examine the impact of trauma on the ways in which trauma survivors understood and imagined God (Doehring 1993). In her work with survivors of sexual violence, Jennifer Beste explored the impact of trauma on a survivor’s relationship with God (Beste 2008). Lynn Bridgers examines the resources the Roman Catholicism might have to offer for post-traumatic pastoral care (Bridgers 2011). In her second book, Rambo turns her attention to healing and recovery particularly in relation to racial violence and for military veterans (Rambo 2017).
Two particularly noteworthy examples of such pastorally minded trauma theology can be found in work by Storm Swain and Stephanie Crumpton. In Trauma and Transformation at Ground Zero: A Pastoral Theology (2011), Swain draws on her experience of ministering as a disaster chaplain after 9/11. Swain develops a trinitarian pastoral model in the context of trauma, describing three movements within the Trinity as Earth-making, Pain-bearing, and Life-giving (Swain 2011). In A Womanist Pastoral Theology against Intimate and Cultural Violence (2014), Crumpton engages with Black women’s experiences of violence and the modes of pastoral care and healing employed by Black women in seeking survival. Crumpton presents forms of pastoral care and spiritual life that have Black women’s lives and experiences at the centre. This has been an important work in recognizing the intersectionality of trauma experiences, along with Pamela Cooper-White’s work The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church’s Response (2012).
In the UK, one of the most important examples of this particular aspect of trauma theology can be found in the project led by the University of Exeter focused on examining the impact of tragedies on Christian congregations. This work was developed and taught in a range of theological training colleges across England and was eventually published as an edited collection (Warner et al. 2019). This volume focuses particularly on equipping clergy and others in positions of pastoral responsibility to deal with tragedies in the context of Christian communities. Chapters include theological reflections and sermons on tragedies such as the Grenfell Tower fire, the Manchester Arena bombing, and the attacks on London Bridge and Borough Market. The editors themselves note, however, that whilst they have covered these larger scale external tragedies well within the volume, there is less focus on the internal tragedies that might befall one particular congregation (Warner et al. 2019). A similar project in the United States has been launched in partnership with Boston University, specifically focused on equipping congregations to be trauma-responsive.
This shift in focus within trauma theology to move out of theory and into a more practical form of theology is indicative of the rising recognition of the presence of trauma within societies and of the resources the Christian church might have to offer both its members and its surrounding communities. This is anticipated to be a key area in the future work of trauma theology.
7 The future of trauma theology
7.1 Global research trajectories
White, North Atlantic centric theologians have thus far undertaken much of the work in trauma theology. In this context, the particular event of the Jewish Holocaust has become the foundational trauma event. This is for a number of reasons, including its European location, and the fact that trauma theory has its grounds in work undertaken with holocaust survivors in the 1970s (principally at Yale) (Felman and Laub 2013). Whilst this has obviously been a fruitful avenue of thought, trauma theology is now making a turn away from this white, European-centric focus and exploring postcolonial experiences of trauma. Given that trauma is a cultural phenomenon, it is important to recognize not only that different cultures respond to trauma in different ways, but that different cultures experience trauma in different ways too (Craps 2013). This attention to different cultural experiences of trauma reveals that some of the criteria long thought to be essential for post-traumatic remaking are not, in fact, universal. For example, postcolonial trauma studies draw attention to the non-narrative, non-linguistic possibilities in this element of post-traumatic remaking:
It became impossible to ignore lyric poetry and song, particularly expressions for lost, pre-traumatic pasts articulated through vernacular mythopoesis [...] which repeatedly erupt through the surface of modern and modernist genres. These fragmented, iterated lamentations, unassimilated into the teleology of narrative, and, in fact, culturally sanctioned in popular film through the device of interruptive song and dance, are not aberrations, but intrinsic to South Asian memory work in the face of trauma. (Kabir 2014: 65)
This shift away from Eurocentric foundations of trauma theory gives particular space for recognizing and resisting cultural forms of trauma response. As Ananya Kabir notes in the quote above, such work serves to centralize the body, move away from linear written narratives, and to pay attention to specific collective experiences of trauma. Anthony Reddie highlights the Windrush scandal as a trauma experience as he considers why Black lives still don’t matter (Reddie 2022), whereby many marginalized people who had arrived in the UK, particularly from the Caribbean were detained illegally, threatened with deportation, and wrongly deported. Anuapama Ranawana turns the gaze of trauma theology on Sri Lanka as she explores motherist action in the search for the disappeared (Ranawana 2022). Recently published volumes of essays on trauma theology have sought to pay closer attention to postcolonial and Global Majority World theologies of trauma (Barker 2019; O’Donnell and Cross 2022).
7.2 Trauma-informed church and pastoral care
As theological work has developed over the last twenty or so years, solidly grounded in trauma theory, confident in trauma shaped hermeneutical approaches to texts, and creative in its reimagining of theological doctrine, this field is now taking a more practical turn. As noted previously, this shift has begun to take place with projects focused on equipping clergy and congregations to respond to trauma that takes place both within congregations and in the local communities more broadly.
Whilst most of the research at the moment and work undertaken in this area has been focused on equipping churches to deal with traumatic experiences that happen outside of the church, a future trajectory in this work will be to focus on trauma experiences inside the church including supporting survivors of spiritual abuse (Oakley and Humphreys 2019), as well as sexual abuse by clergy. This is, of course, in addition to developing resources to help congregations deal with events such as suicide, violence, and abuse that take place within their congregations. A trauma-informed church will, by necessity, produce trauma-informed pastoral care that is sensitive to the experiences and needs of trauma survivors. Such pastoral care will need to be grounded in accessible trauma-sensitive theology and in congregational attitudes that are willing to reflect critically on beliefs and undertake the work of reimagining them in the light of trauma experiences.
O’Donnell’s work in the area of reproductive loss has sought to point towards this trajectory also. Following the constructive method, she has positioned the experience of reproductive loss as traumatic experiences and examined the impact reproductive loss has on traditional theological doctrines such as providence, prayer, hope, and the body. This kind of theological reimagining then shifts into the development of spiritual practices and liturgical resources that have a practical dimension and seeks to resource both individual Christians and the church as a whole in supporting those for whom reproductive loss is traumatic (O’Donnell 2022).
Jennifer Baldwin’s work on trauma-sensitive theology has already begun to produce these kinds of resources as she explores holistic perspectives on trauma and considers the spiritual needs of trauma survivors (Baldwin 2018). Baldwin describes her work as a
Venture into a re/formation of Christian theology and practice with the intention of honoring the stories of faith that have nourished past generations while infusing those narratives with the wisdoms of contemporary knowledge in order to meet the variety of needs of person and communities struggling under the burden of traumatic experience/s and responses. (Baldwin 2018: 2)
Baldwin’s work is an excellent example of this trajectory within trauma theology. It is grounded in academic sources but accessible and practical for the non-academic reader. This translation of theory into practice will be a marker of the next generation of work in Trauma Theology.
8 The significance of trauma theology
What is the point of this theological work around trauma? Why does it matter? It can sometimes feel futile when the work of a trauma theologian is sometimes to just point out the presence or absence of trauma in a text or narrative, or to engage in constructive theological work out of yet another context. However, trauma theology is a fast-growing and popular approach to theology which would indicate that there is at least some significance and value in the work undertaken.
8.1 Taking the body seriously
Theology has a history of attempting to abstract the body out of its work. For centuries, much theological writing was undertaken from the standpoint of a neutral observer discussing objective facts. Of course, bodies have never been absent from theology but rather have always shaped the ways in which theological discourse has taken place. And the perceived ‘neutrality’ in previous generations is not neutral at all but rooted in the white, masculine, Western, heteronormative, cisgendered, able-bodied theologians that form the bulk of the theological discipline. When trauma theology engages in its work, it is putting the experiences of the body – whether collective or individual – front and centre in a way which has, thankfully, become more common in theological endeavour since the 1980s. Trauma theology takes the experiences of the body seriously, expects trauma experiences to impact on both the kind of theology that is created and the kind of theology that is needed, and seeks to do justice to the experiences of trauma survivors within theological discourse. Theology and Christian practice have a history of attempting to gloss over the painful realities of lived experiences and to point only toward the victory of the resurrection and the hope of eternal life in dealing with trauma. Trauma theology seeks to redress this balance and to construct theological discourse that might speak to such experiences.
8.2 Resourcing the church
A second key aim and important value of trauma theology is its resourcing of the church in engaging with trauma. This is especially significant given the prevalence of trauma in the twenty-first century not just from experiences of war and violence, but also poverty, health, emotional abuse, spiritual abuse, and the long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Trauma is likely to present in many Christian congregations and communities. The work of trauma theology seeks to equip Christians to ask questions of their own theologies, to seek to be trauma-informed in their practices of pastoral care, and to respond to trauma within their broader communities confidently and helpfully. This is not a field of theological research that is disconnected from practical outcomes. Trauma theology is deeply embedded in the life and practice of both individual Christians and Christian communities more broadly. A notable example of the kind of contribution trauma theology can make to the church and its narratives is Stephanie Arel and Shelly Rambo’s edited collection Post-Traumatic Public Theology (2016).
8.3 Theological reimagining
Returning to the quotation from Lakeland and Jones concerning the constructive methodology engaged in so much trauma theology, an important value of this theological work is in constructing theological discourse that is life-giving and promotes the flourishing of trauma survivors and those who work with them. If trauma is a defining characteristic of modern life, then a theological endeavour that has these aims in mind is sure to be of benefit. Trauma theology is, then, a space in which this life-giving theological reimagining can take place. It is an approach to theology that is not afraid to ask difficult questions of traditional doctrines, to create space in which serious attention is paid to the experience of trauma, and is able to recognize the always developing, never completed nature of theological discourse.