Why Theology & Trauma?

A number of students have asked me recently why I want to study theology and trauma together. My answer is both simple and complicated. The simple answer is that I think that studying at the intersection of theology and trauma is a generative place to re-imagine redemption, reconciliation, and healing. The more complicated answer is that trauma (in its multifarious forms) lingers and manifests in unpredictable ways in the brain, body, and relationships. This can be extremely problematic for one’s neat and tidy theological system.

Systematic theologians attempt to make sense of life by isolating and working on particular questions and issues. This process requires abstraction of life into theory. This theory then helps to refocus one’s focus or approach to real life questions, yet it can be difficult to get back to application (or practice) in the everyday, if reflective space is not purposefully given or sought out. Unfortunately, theology can sometimes leave us in our heads, while ignoring the realities of life.

Trauma, on the other hand, requires a practical application. It connects us to real life, often because we have personal experience. Trauma causes humans, in general, to reevaluate how one makes sense of the world. This reevaluation is inherently religious, regardless of one’s creed or faith, because it frames how one makes meaning out of the crazy chaos of life. We can tell stories, make movies, write books, and reframe our stories of trauma and sorrow, but the reality is that one’s brain, body, and community most likely will never function well or be the same again.

Trauma blurs all of our categories. It requires something of our neat and tidy abstractions, because it breaks in and intrudes on the daily. Trauma turns our linear existence into chaotic and sometimes surrealist perceptions of life.

In short, trauma holds us accountable to the embodied reality of human existence. Pat answers ring hollow in the light of trauma. It requires new questions, nuanced approaches, improvised responses, and a “new imaginary” (as Grace Janzten says). If we are to respond well to the challenge of trauma, then we have to reevaluate our core theological commitments and practices. I believe that this improvisational stance toward life, faith, and healing (we could even say faith, hope, and love) is the core theological task for today’s world.

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