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

A Theology of Resiliency: A Reflection

When distilled into its finest pieces our universe has no mechanics to ground the depth of human experience. Powerful emotions, such as love, or existential desires, like justice, have no elementary particle. There are no atoms of hate or quarks of mercy. Yet human beings have evolved into creatures of symbol and creativity that participate every day in acts of spiritual creation; namely, a will to meaning which elicits a physical difference in creation. Facing a clockwork universe, “I rebel, therefore we exist.”[1]

In the context of a spiritual humanist theology, when I choose to wake up in the morning motivated by a radical agape impacting others, I take the invisible (love) and make it visible (charity). This does not happen through magical or miraculous intervention, but through a recognition of and participation in an interconnected reality.[2] My caritas emerges as a holy act that shifts the course of the universe: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, forgiving the enemy – none of which makes sense in a mechanistic reality. This is at the core of spiritualities like the Christian call to love my enemy and do good to those who hate me.[3]

And it is the root of a spiritual humanist theology of resiliency. It is a panentheism of participation where the ground of being exists in all creation and is at work in active partnership through all creation. When my belief and faith in justice bends the arc of history, I engage with the holy. Because through my will for justice (which exists in concept) I have breathed new life into the world (by creating justice). I become a conduit for an underlying divinity that isn’t outside of space and time but intimately connected to it. God is in and of the machine.

Neurologist Victor Frankel, who survived the holocaust, wondered how some human beings held hope in the depths of the worst of suffering. He found it was rooted in an unwillingness to give into despair. That despite even the horror of a concentration camp, “We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life even when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.”[4] A refusal to accept the terms of the universe and rather create something new.

Human resiliency then is a psychospiritual practice, rooted in our DNA and cultivated in community.[5] It resists passive and active events of oppression and harm. It grounds powerful prophetic action, like Rosa Parks refusing to relinquish her bus seat in Montgomery, Alabama sparking the civil rights movement in the United States. And Sophie Cruz, who at five years old had the courage (and community) to deliver a letter to Pope Frances in his visit to the White House, advocating for a change in immigration law and becoming a face of the immigration reform movement.[6] It embodies a range of spiritually motivated events of resiliency, even from the smallest of decisions like waking up in the morning committed to being a force for good in the world.

Because it is only through my actions that good, or love, or justice, or mercy, will ever take place in the world. They will not emerge from a metaphysical beyond, or be captured in a neoplatonic form made manifest. My actions exist as a sacrament: an outward symbol of an inward grace. Grace being my recognition of my own existence and inheritance as undeserved and unearned, which inspires from me a stance of gratitude paid forward into the world. A theology of resilience recognizes the worth and dignity of all, inspires empathetic action in the face of suffering, and is grounded in the psychospiritual power found in all creatures of symbol and creativity that will benevolence into existence.


[1] Camus, Albert, and Anthony Bower. The Rebel An Essay on Man in Revolt. Vintage Books, 1956.

[2] King, Martin Luther, and James Melvin Washington. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. New York: HarperOne, an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2006.

[3] Luke 6:27, NRSV

[4] Frankel, Man’s Search for Meaning

[5] Levine, Saul. “Psychological and social aspects of resilience: a synthesis of risks and resources” Dialogues in clinical neuroscience vol. 5,3 (2003): 273-80.

[6] The Washington Post, “Meet Sophie Cruz, 5-year-old who gave the pope a letter because she doesn’t want her parents deported,” September 23, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/local/wp/2015/09/23/meet-the-5-year-old-who-gave-the-pope-a-letter-because-she-doesnt-want-her-parents-deported/?utm_term=.c823f004272d

Back to school.

854990I’ve successfully completed my first class at Seattle University! Huzzah! Take that all you people who… well… actually were quite supportive of this crazy idea. The class was STMM 5530: Pastoral Care Skills, which is usually ten weeks long but because it was a summer session, was compressed into five days. Ten women and one man (me!), from six different faith backgrounds and three different degree tracks, came together to help each other learn how to listen. It felt more like a retreat than a grad school class.

9398Learning how to listen may sound easy, but we tread into some deep emotional, spiritual and psychological waters. There were five required texts for the course and all needed to be read before the first day of class. Armed with theory, in class we discussed how family history, genetics, society, ethnicity, culture and religion all came together to fashion our behavior, specifically how we react in anger, fear, guilt and depression. In order to bring healing, we needed to understand brokenness; specifically, our own.

tumblr_lqeip8nsdz1qcn6k7o4_250We formed triads, and twice a day each of us had a turn at being an observer, listener and speaker. All sessions were video recorded. We were to review our listening sessions and critique our own behavior: How am I sitting? What kinds of questions am I asking? Am I looking at the speaker? How are our chairs positioned? What does my voice sound like? How am I using my facial expressions? We also had constructive feedback from peers and instructors.

105909-Black-Dynamite-now-this-is-som-gQ4KNone of the class was role play. As the speaker, we needed to respond from the heart. Some topics of discussion were: “Who are you and why are you here?” “What are your limitations and strengths?” “What aspects of your family were most difficult?” “What excuses do you use to avoid self-care?” “Where does your anger come from?” “How do you react to conflict, and why?” “How do issues of power and vulnerability affect your life?” It may seem crazy to be able to honestly speak this kind of personal truth to complete strangers.  Thankfully, I had two amazing women in my triad who made self-disclosure incredibly easy.

gif-8The goal of all this is to begin fashioning a sense of pastoral presence; a way of being fully attentive to a care-seeker in a way that affirms their worth and dignity as a human being and provides a safe environment from which to begin healing. I learned this requires an enormous amount of self-examination and self-knowledge. It demands that I be the servant-leader. I also learned there is a scary amount of power that comes with ministry. I’m thankful that I’ve chosen a school which teaches the responsibility, compassion and humility necessary to use that power in a way that respects and honors each individual person I meet.

I can’t wait for the fall semester.