A Theology of Trauma…

“A Theology of Trauma” first appeared at Religica.org on Sept. 14th, 2019 as part of the project’s blog series. “The Religica Blog explores ideas that shape our future. The impulses that shape our future come from people who share their values, stories, and insights. Each blog is seeking meaning over argument, and new discovery that helps all of us. Leave the argument and come discover something new.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
            ~ The Second Coming by W. B. Yeats

Theodicy abounds! Given my newsfeed over weeks and months, my human spirit feels an abrasive insistence that the world, or at least from my perspective in Seattle, is very bleak indeed. With concentration camps on the southern border of the United States and ICE officers rounding up immigrants, escalating conflict around the globe with nuclear arms treaties ignored, and hurricanes destroying islands while the media obsesses with the placement of Sharpied lines, Yeats’ theopoetics is prophetic: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” I wonder when such distant atrocities will show up on my doorstep, my brown skin, liberal leanings, and Hispanic last name trumping my U.S. citizenship and my humanity. It seems to me that the whole world is crying out: “Oh God, why have you forsaken me?”[1]

As a hospital and prison chaplain, I notice that miracles and tragedies often coincide. With the sudden death of an aged mother, siblings reunite and reconcile at her bedside after years of animosity. An incarcerated 13-year-old boy convicted of homicide with a gun asks whether forgiveness and reconciliation are possible. A young man takes a wrong step off of a porch and is now a quadriplegic. A teen girl would rather be in a detention center cell because the alternative is living homeless on the streets. So many times I am asked: “Where is God?” So many times I ask the same question as I listen at the intersection of despair and hope. As a spiritual practice I often turn to Leonard Cohen, who in his song “Anthem”writes: “Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering, There is a crack, a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in.”[2]

Being a witness to stories such as these has led me to explore a theology of trauma as a response to the challenge of theodicy. I experience the universe as created in trauma, with an explosion so violent it manifested both space and time. The Earth was formed in trauma over eons of heat, cold, collision and eruption. Life evolves in violence, needing to consume resources and other living beings in order to survive and thrive. I put my body through trauma, tearing muscle and crushing bone, to keep it healthy, strong and flexible. It seems that trauma is an essential component of the universe, of life, of human cosmology. Complexity and evolution always come with the pain of change.

Theologically, if the wisdom of Genesis is correct and everything was created “good,” there is a temptation to believe that God blesses trauma. But was it “good” when the Abrahamic God participated in mass infanticide in Egypt? Or in the slaughter of the Canaanites so Israel could have their land? Was the incarceration, torture, and state execution of Jesus of Nazareth “good”? For myself, coming out of the Abrahamic religious traditions, I reject these revelations of theodicy if I am to maintain a relationship with a Spirit of life and love that is benevolent, powerful and present.

But what if, instead of blessing trauma, God speaks from creation itself in the midst of trauma? Through this theological lens the holy invites humanity, from our primordial depths in creation, to choose goodness despite trauma. Instead of asking “Oh God why have you forsaken me?” the question transforms into “Oh God, where do I find you?” Arthur Peacocke writes in his article The Sound of Sheer Silence: “Our exploration toward God has inevitably led us to the question of how God can communicate with a humanity depicted by the sciences as a part of a monistic natural world and evolved in and from it.”[3] Instead of a distant cosmic judge, the Spirit of life and love becomes an apophatic, panentheistic presence that invites holy participation.

As Viktor Frankl found in the Nazi concentration camps, even in the darkest depths there is always a choice within trauma. What will I say? What will I do? In my chaplain work I have a sense of love and justice that responds when I see suffering. My center cannot hold. Instead of asking “Why did God let this happen?” I consider that perhaps the answer is, “What is God doing while this is happening?” And I find myself in that answer. John Haught writes in his book Science and Revelation: “the divine decent [into creation] in no way means that God is weak of powerless. In Christ’s passion God is presented to faith as vulnerable and defenseless, but, as Edward Schillebeeckx has remarked, vulnerability and defenselessness are more capable of powerfully disarming evil than all the brute force in the world could ever accomplish. […] ‘Power’ means the capacity to bring about significant events, but this does not necessarily require the external use of force.”[4] In this theology of trauma, the nature of our humanity, our common-union, participates with and in the Spirit of life and love. The arc of justice bends not because God wills it from beyond but because an eschatological whisper resonates through our cells into action in the world. All beings of good will manifest divine mercy, charity, and compassion into the universe by listening to that “sound of sheer silence”[5] inviting us to participate in the story of creation. The Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman writes: “the God of life and the God of religion are one and the same. Implicit in the struggle which is a part of life is the vitality that life itself supplies. To affirm this with all of one’s passionate endeavor is to draw deeply upon the resource available to anyone who dares draw upon it. The aliveness of life and the power of God move through the same channel at the point of greatest need and awareness. What precarious ingredients!”[6] Which means responding to trauma, not in reciprocation of atrocity, but with connection, healing and growth. In doing so, we dare to swim in the powerful currents of the Spirit of life and love.


[1] Psalm 22:1 ; Matt 27:46 ; Mark 15:34 ; NRSV

[2] Leonard Cohen, “Anthem,” The Future, 1992

[3] Arthur Peacocke, “The Sound of Sheer Silence” in Paths From Science Toward God: The End of all Our Exploring (London: Oneworld, 2001) p. 117

[4] John F. Haught. Christianity and Science: Toward a Theology of Nature (Theology in a Global Perspective) (Kindle: Orbis, 2014) p. 42

[5] 1 Kings 19:11-13, NRSV

[6] Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953) p. 63

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