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

Maybe someday. But not today.

Saturday I sat in the hospital with a teen who was shot in the stomach.
Yesterday, 1 dead and 7 injured at a school shooting in Colorado.
An hour ago, while we ate dinner, shots were fired outside our home.

We held our breath until we heard the sirens.

I went outside to see if anybody needed help.
There is a mosque on the corner.

I’m beginning to believe that nothing will ever change.
Not until each of us has sat with a body bleeding out.
Not until we’ve held a child’s hand while they cry about how much it hurts.
Not until each one of us has lost somebody to this horrific violence.
Not until every one of us is shot, one way or another.

Today, my family was lucky. The shots didn’t enter our home.

There’s always tomorrow.

Holy and hurting spirit of life and love; continue to weep with our pain.
Holy and broken spirit of life and love; continue to companion us in our mourning.
Holy and powerless spirit of life and love; continue to whisper change to our hearts.
Maybe someday, we will listen. And learn. And understand. The way of life and love.

Amen.

Thinking about theodicy…

Being a spiritual humanist in a Christian seminary can be challenging. Thankfully Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry is committed to an interreligious experience of dialogue, deep listening, and free thought. And I was raised in a healthy Christian family who provided a framework of faith. These help me engage Christianity from the perspectives of believer and apostate. One topic that has always fascinated me from both views is theodicy: otherwise known as the problem of evil.

Evil is especially prevalent in my mind right now. It feels like darkness is winning; I see a world on fire. No matter how many marches I attend, letters I write, and representatives I call, evil outpaces the good. Legislation that will help the wealthy and hurt the poor is allowed to pass. Walls across borders are being built. Dreamers are deported. Police get away with murder. Rapists are held unaccountable. Fires. Hurricanes. Climate change.

If god existed, how can god sit idle? Especially if god is all knowing, powerful and loving?

There are numerous attempts at an answer. Some involve free-will. Others focus on god in the moment on the margins. There is always the answer in Job where god just says, “You don’t know me. I do what I want!” Perhaps suffering is god’s version of tough love? Jesus had to suffer, right? Evangelical capitalists always talk about boot straps and exceptionalism; of course their god would kill his own son via capital punishment. It’s so we can succeed. And if people don’t… well, that’s their own fault.

None of this is sufficient; and I will not accept it. The universe seems largely apathetic to the human cause. I hold ourselves, myself, to blame for the evil. Justice, much like good and evil, is a human invention. If I were to pull the universe apart, I wouldn’t find an atom of “good” or a particle of “evil.” So why would they matter? Because I want them to matter. if I am going to exist in this world, hell, if my son is going to exist in this world, I want qualities like “justice” and “good” and “mercy” to matter. Otherwise I am helping build a hell on earth and sacrificing my own son to its machinations.

Am I up for the challenge? Not alone. I have surrounded myself with my tribe; people who crave justice, mercy and goodness. People who hold powerful love as the ultimate human ideal. And they keep me going; and they keep me honest; and they keep me safe. Because if I have learned nothing in seminary, it is that the role of the prophet isn’t to predict the future. It is to learn from the past and let it serve as a warning to those in power.

Because while I would rather bend the arc of the universe peacefully, there are other options. To those in the halls of power; in the life or privilege; while you sleep may you imagine the gleam of the pitchfork and of the guillotine, and remember the history of the world. There is still time to change course. But perhaps not much time. May you have a reckoning with your god. An eschaton is nigh.

Life isn’t (un)fair…

universe-hd-photo95-JPGA long time ago I stopped believing in a fair universe. From everything I’ve observed, life is a mix of intentionality, chance and inevitability. I have a small amount of agency; I work hard and pay my taxes and volunteer all of which come with their own rewards. But for the most part, life is just as likely to kick me in the balls as it is to let me win the lottery. Nature has no sense of justice outside of its laws of cause and effect. It is up to me to create fairness from an otherwise apathetic life.

When I believed God was in charge of everything, I had mantras like “it’s all part of God’s plan” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” to fall back on whenever undeservedly bad things happened to good people. (let’s be honest, bad people deserve it, right?) Eventually they all became platitudes. Because as more curses and blessings stacked up, most of which without any catalyst, God’s plan began to look like trying to read tea leaves and God had a funny sense of what people could handle vs. what they should have to handle. In the end I was forced to reject the notion of a just God because a just God wouldn’t stand idly by in the face of so much injustice.

free-willNot just the kind of injustice that people intentionally cause; not crime or war or corporate greed or any of the millions of ways we dehumanize each other. I’m talking about the stupid everyday injustice, like car accidents and slipping on a patch of ice and breaking your leg. Accidents with horrible consequences. The butterfly effect of causality that reaps human life. I can’t even buy into the “free will” answer: God doesn’t intervene because he loves our free will more than he loves starving children. It’s bullshit, because that’s not love or justice, that’s an excuse. Therefore, I was left with either rejecting my preconceptions about God or believing in a lie.

Recently, my father-in-law passed away. While he was not perfect, he lived a good and clean life. He didn’t smoke. He drank less than occasionally. He was a runner. He attended church, was married more than 30 years and was an overall good man. He was diagnosed with throat cancer, which spread to his brain and eventually to the rest of his body. The doctors originally gave him 6 months to live. He fought for over 4 years until May 11th, 2015. There it is; blessings and curses all wrapped up in a whole ball of intentionality, chance and inevitability. If a just God did exist, this wouldn’t have happened.

BristleconeThe ironic part is I wish I still believed in a just God because right now I could really use something to blame. I want to look God in the eye and say “You are wrong! You did this! This is your fault and how dare you proclaim love and justice and mercy and compassion when you let good men suffer and die!” I am angry because Andy didn’t deserve to die. Not this way; not like this. He deserved better from his God than he received. There are millions of other people in the world who are more deserving than he was to die of cancer. This is a horrible statement but right now I feel horrible and selfish and hurt and confused and broken. And tired.

Right now I am just. So. Tired. Because what is the point? Why should I work so hard for ideals that go against the very fabric of the universe? Why should I care? In a just universe I’d be able to look at my son and tell him that life will be kind. But right now all I can tell him is that he will never know his grandfather; that he was robbed of having a good man in his life because life isn’t fair.

Life just is.

It is a hard lesson and I’m left with one lonely realization; if there is going to be justice in this world then I’m going to have to be the one making it happen. It’s up to me to create justice where it doesn’t exist. Because that is what I want to do. The responsibility has been passed from God to me and it’s a heavy load. 11238228_10153338843751934_1951030714927036305_nFortunately I know a whole lot of other people who are working to lighten that load. I know miracle workers on the margins of society who squeeze justice from life like blood from stone and I want to be just as strong and powerful and tireless as them. And maybe if I can just keep trying, keep believing in love and justice, I can make my father-in-law’s death mean something.

Because I think that’s what he would have wanted. And it’s what I want. Rest in love Andy. I’ll keep working on the justice.