The Trauma-Formed Christian Tradition

This past summer I presented a paper at the Christian Scholar's Conference entitled Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology: The Embodied Life and Practices of the Church in the Midst of Trauma and Human Suffering. One of the major proposals that I presented in this paper is that by-and-large the Christian tradition in many ways has been more shaped by trauma and human suffering than it has been theologically responsive to it. In the next few posts I want to unpack some of the ways in which I think this can be discerned and the implications that this formation has had on the reflection and witness of the church. The tradition being trauma-formed is particularly discernible when we begin to think about the consequences of actual individual and communal trauma as categories in our theological reflection. 

The broad categories that enable us to discern this trauma-formed trajectory are drawn from one of the world's leading trauma scholars, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, in his important book The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma 

First we find that two of the responses to trauma and suffering are related to dissociation. These are forms of alienation and disintegration that happen both individually and communally. For this project I suggested that the two kinds of dissociation most easily perceived in the reflection of the Tradition are bodily dissociation and temporal dissociation. 

Another related and yet distinct consequence of trauma and human suffering is the creation of what I describe as relational fragility. This is the kind of fracturing that impacts both an individuals immediate circle of relationships as well as communities, cultures, and even nations. 

While both bodily and temporal dissociation are forms of separation from the self, this next category is about a harmful posture towards the self. Self-loathing and Self-destruction particularly shape the way that we think not only about ourselves, but also our posture and language toward others, particularly those who are deeply different than ourselves. 

The final categorical consequence of trauma and human suffering is the inability to imagine positive outcomes. This is the kind of orientation to the future that despite any good news or positive events always ends up with a picture of doom and gloom. And it is ultimately this inability that deeply shapes the way that we live or keep ourselves from living due to these expectations of looming and inescapable negative outcomes.   

In the next post in this series I want to begin, one by one, to explore these consequences and to explore just a few of the ways that they seem to embed and manifest themselves in the larger Christian Tradition. So before we close this introduction I just want to take a little space to make clear what I am not saying:

  • I am not suggesting that the parts of the Christian Tradition that I identify as possibly being trauma-formed are inherently wrong, heretical, or should be disposed of. This is one reason why our use of the language of formed and informed will be especially important in our survey. 
  • I am not suggesting that theological reflection that is shaped by trauma and human suffering is in some sense inferior, dysfunctional, or unacceptable. In fact, I intend to argue very strongly in the opposite direction. The challenge that we will confront will be articulating the role that trauma and human suffering has made in theological reflection. 

What I hope to demonstrate at the end of this survey of the places of the Tradition that are trauma-formed is that the primary areas which have then been neglected or distorted are ultimately (and this term is important) ecclesiological

What is your reaction to the suggestion that the Christian Tradition in many ways has been more shaped by trauma and human suffering than it has been responsive to it (theologically)? Is there any validity to the assertion that the Christian Tradition may be in some ways and in some places trauma-formed?