INTRODUCTION TO TRAUMA-INFORMED ECCLESIOLOGY


TOO OFTEN WE BELIEVE THAT WHEN PHYSICAL HEALING OCCURS, MENTAL HEALING NATURALLY FOLLOWS, AND THAT WITH TIME, ALL WOUNDS HEAL. SUCH IS NOT ALWAYS THE CASE, HOWEVER. VIOLENCE OFTEN CUTS SO DEEPLY INTO OUR MINDS THAT SURFACE HEALING COVER IT OVER AND, HIDDEN AWAY, ALLOW IT TO EXPAND. THE BALMILY WORK OF THEOLOGY AND OF RELIGION IS TO UNCOVER AND MEND SUCH WOUNDS. AND WHAT MEDICINE DOES THIS? HEALING LIES AS MUCH, IF NOT MORE, IN THE STORIES WE TELL AND THE GESTURES WE OFFER AS IN THE DOCTRINES WE PREACH.

Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World

It is difficult to articulate both the ferocity and ubiquity of trauma and human suffering in the world. Whether we are talking about hunger, war, sexual violence, abuse, neglect, and disease... suffering is everywhere and it is ruthless. 

In a world filled with immense pain and suffering, with forms of trauma and human suffering caused by violence as well as the unavoidable realities of life, it is time for Christian theologians and leaders to better understand and reflect on the nature of trauma and human suffering both in the world as a whole and within our own communities of faith particularly. As the single, universal human experience, the value of trauma and human suffering as a place of theological reflection cannot be understated. We are continuing to learn the deep physiological, emotional, psychological, and spiritual implications of trauma. And these emerging understandings are in need of deep and conscious theological reflection. 

It is the contention of my project that the Christian tradition has immense resources to speak to the pervasiveness and consequences of trauma and human suffering, as well as to nurture and create communities of faith and larger societies which are able to both prevent and prove resilient in the face of trauma and human suffering. 

By employing an interdisciplinary approach and seeking to integrate what we can learn in the various worlds of trauma studies, epigenetics and biology, psychology, philosophy, and theology among others, I hope to offer an initial sketch as to the shape and focus of a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology


WHY ECCLESIOLOGY?

The reasons that I seek to articulate a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology are numerous. But here I want to explain briefly why trauma and human suffering is not a helpful framework in which to craft a systematic theology, and yet is an indispensable component for ecclesiology. 

Serene Jones in her great book Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World describes it this way:

If grace has the power to reshape the imagination, then theology is the language that both describes that power and evokes it in the lives of people by telling grace-filled stories of new imaginings. But just as the shattering effects of trauma are painfully particular to each person who suffers them, so the healing power of grace is specific to each imagination it soothes and heals. Recognizing this fact led me to abandon the project of writing a systematic theology of trauma and grace. Rather, what my own writings on trauma continue to seek is a glimpse of grace at work in the interstices of imagination. (22)

The universality of trauma and human suffering, and the need for trauma-informed systematic theological reflection, results in a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology. My larger project operates within three presumptions:

(1) That the byproduct of all systematic theological reflection (whether formal, anecdotal, or unreflective) is in fact, ecclesiological. Ecclesiology should not be seen merely as a section or unit of systematic reflection but as the resulting embodiment of the community’s theological commitments.

(2) Ecclesiological practice is the location in which most who are touched by the Christian tradition will find their experiences of trauma and human suffering addressed, admittedly with varying degrees of effectiveness and fidelity.

(3) I reject the presumption that theological reflection unilaterally shapes embodied practice. There is a dynamic interplay between practice and formal reflection, my contention being that embodied practice has done more to shape theological reflection than vice versa.

We must find ways to appropriate the deep wells of the Christian tradition for addressing questions about trauma and suffering, redemption and grace, our present reality and our eschatological horizon. And all of these reflections, the articulations that come from them, and the embodied life of grace and solidarity of hope and lament, must come from within the life of the church. Therefore, if we are to speak meaningfully to questions of trauma and human suffering, we must do so from within a robust ecclesiological ecosystem. 


DEFINITIONS

Here I want to offer briefly some definitions and clarifications about the ideas and language that will be employed throughout this project...

TRAUMA AND HUMAN SUFFERING

The grammar of, "trauma and human suffering" is important for a variety of theological and methodological reasons:

  1. Trauma typically is used to refer to the consequences and implications of an event and do not necessarily speak to the nature of the event itself. It is possible that two people experience the same event and only one is traumatized by it. 
  2. Trauma, particularly its psychological and physiological consequences vary across time, culture, and geography. This often has as much to do with worldview and culture as with genetics and environment. 
  3. Both trauma and human suffering have the capacity to complicate, compromise, or even obliterate our ability to respond faithfully to God and the world. 

TRAUMA-INFORMED

It is important for this project that we speak about it as Trauma-Informed. This is crucial for two reasons:

  1. Trauma and Human Suffering function as a litmus test for theological reflection, not the basis for theological reflection. In other words, does the theological reflection under consideration make sense of emerging understandings of the consequences and implications of trauma and human suffering? If not, this is an indication that our reflection may need additional consideration or even possibly revision. 
  2. What we know about trauma and human suffering is continually evolving. Whether we look to psychology, neuroscience, epigenetics, or philosophy, we are continually learning new information which should inform our theological reflection.