It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
—Hebrews 10:31 NJB
god (n.): Old English god “supreme being, deity; the Christian God; image of a god; godlike person,” from Proto-Germanic *guthan (cognates: Old Saxon, Old Frisian, Dutch god, Old High German got, German Gott, Old Norse guð, Gothic guþ), from PIE *ghut- “that which is invoked” (cognates: Old Church Slavonic zovo “to call,” Sanskrit huta- “invoked,” an epithet of Indra), from root *gheu(e)- “to call, invoke.” But some trace it to PIE *ghu-to- “poured,” from root *gheu- “to pour, pour a libation” (source of Greek khein “to pour,” also in the phrase khute gaia “poured earth,” referring to a burial mound); see found (v.2). . . . See also Zeus.
Zeus: supreme god of the ancient Greeks and master of the others, 1706, from Greek, from PIE *dewos- “god” (cognates: Latin deus “god,” Old Persian daiva- “demon, evil god,” Old Church Slavonic deivai, Sanskrit deva-), from root *dyeu- “to gleam, to shine;” also the root of words for “sky” and “day” (see diurnal). The god-sense is originally “shining,” but “whether as originally sun-god or as lightener” is not now clear.
—Online Etymology Dictionary
My title, “The Trauma of God,” is ambiguous. By one reading, that phrase would mean the trauma God undergoes or suffers; one could read it as God in trauma or God traumatized. It would mean God opened up by the wound, God being wounded. In that sense, the trauma of God is “God on the cross,” the title of the first section below.
Read another way, “the trauma of God” would be not the trauma God undergoes but rather the trauma God is: God as trauma, God doing the traumatizing. Taken that second way, the title would mean God not as opened by the wound but rather God as doing the opening, the wounding—God as the cross, which I use as the title of the second section below.
Those two phrases, God on the cross and God as the cross, cross one another, and in that crossing, the trauma of God reaches its apogee, with God, as it were, crossing God out, becoming “God under the cross,” a predominantly linguistic event that is the topic and title of my third and final section.
To say that the trauma of God culminates in a predominantly linguistic event is by no means to limits its scope or impact. Rather, this event is one that forges the discourse to build at last a genuinely all-embracing world—an “ecumene” which, as the twentieth-century Dutch Catholic theologian Edward Schillebeeckx argued, would be not only “the ecumene of the world religions” but also “the ecumene of humankind, to which agnostics and atheists also belong . . . the ‘ecumene of suffering humanity’ (to use a phrase of J. B. Metz).” Such a world would be one where no one needs to be concerned with demonstrating that religious faith, of whatever sort, is “based on rational arguments which are meant to show the superiority of religion to other solutions of the question of life.” It would be a world in which everyone is freed from the need to “demonstrate by rational arguments that his or her conviction of faith is more ‘rational’ and better than atheism or other religions”—or, for that matter, a world in which atheists and agnostics are also freed from this need to demonstrate the superiority of their stances. Put differently, it would be a world in which the word God becomes again common human property, free for use by all alike, reclaimed from those who once stole it for their own selfish purposes.
God on the Cross
The trauma of God is, first, God on the cross, an idea that is most obviously associated with Christianity. In Philippians 2:5–8, Paul writes,
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. (NRSV)
Both the New American Bible and the New Jerusalem Bible state that Jesus did not regard his equality with God as “something to be grasped.” The version I prefer is the New English Bible (NEB), which says that Jesus “laid no claim to” such equality. I prefer that NEB version because, for one thing, it resonates well with the various Christian Gospel episodes wherein Jesus is challenged by officials to produce his authorizing credentials, to tell them what entitles him to speak “with authority.” When so challenged, Jesus refuses to lay claim to any authority save the authority that is already directly present in his words. He lets what he says speak for itself, with its own authority and without any attempt to ground it in any independent claim to authority. Perhaps because I came of age in the 1960s, I cannot but jubilate over such a refusal to bow down before these officials who, unlike Jesus, “lay claim” to an authority status.
At any rate, Jesus’s kenosis, his self-emptying, has often been taken primarily, if not exclusively, as a prescriptive model for living the Christian life—living it, namely, as a life of self-denial in service to others, grounded in subservience before God the Father. That emphasis reflects Paul’s own in the passage from Philippians 2, which encourages us to emulate Christ’s model. However, this idea of kenosis can also describe God’s own inner Trinitarian nature. In that interpretation, the kenotic process of self-emptying manifests as ever ongoing and ever deepening in the movement of giving and receiving that is at the heart of the divine Trinitarian life.
As I have suggested, this notion of self-emptying applies to the Second Person of the Christian Trinity, the Son, the divine Word of John’s Gospel, as it is only by the divine condescension—taken literally as “lowering oneself”—that he may empty himself of his divinity (or at least of the claims to privilege that may go with it) and take on, as Paul says in Philippians 2:7, “the form of a slave, being born in human likeness, and being found in human form.” That kenotic foundation of the incarnation is then replicated in the human life of the incarnate Word, Jesus himself, by the continuing deferral Jesus makes before the Father who “sent” him, seeking always, even in Gethsemane, that his Father’s will, rather than his own, be done.
Nor is it only the Son, Second Person of the Trinity, who can be characterized in kenotic terms. The fulfillment of the Father’s fatherhood resides in emptying himself completely and without reserve into his Word, the Son, so that everything the Father has to say is said without remainder in that one Word, just as the mainstream Christian tradition has long held. Thus, the Father and the Son can be seen mutually and eternally deferring to one another, neither laying claim to equality with the other but each emptying himself entirely before the other. What is more, that reciprocally ever-deepening yielding of the entirety of oneself to the other can itself be taken to constitute, in turn, the very substance of the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. By that interpretation, the Holy Spirit would itself be no more and no less than the very spirit of the eternal circulation of self-emptying love whereby the first two Divine Persons stand in relation, and infinitely giving way, to one another.
And more broadly, this notion of kenosis has also been used in Jewish Kabbalism to characterize the relationship between God (triune or not) and God’s creation. According to this tradition, the divine creation of everything that is not God is a matter of God drawing God’s self back, emptying God’s self out, and clearing God’s self away; it is literally God making room for something (anything) else. The act of divine creation is, then, first and above all an act of God’s voiding of God’s self, of clearing space into which whatever is to come next may be brought forth. Infinite God must voluntarily limit God’s self, as it were, to make room for whatever, unlike God, is itself limited, finite.
If we take seriously these implications of kenotic thought and theology, the cross that comes at the end of Jesus’s ministry as it is recounted in the Christian Gospels shows itself as the culmination of the whole story of God—not just the story of God incarnate in the man Jesus but the story of God in all God’s being and action. What becomes manifest is that God is truly God only insofar as God is God on the cross. Anything less than a crucified God would be a limitation upon the limitless self-limitation that constitutes the very essence of the divine. Only God on the cross would be genuine God and not a mere idol.
God as the Cross
The trauma of God is, second, God as the cross. God as the cross is a rupture, a wound, at the very heart of being, one that can never be closed. And it is this all-defining wound that idolatry endeavors to close.
God in trauma, the focus of the preceding section, is God climbing up on the cross and utterly voiding God’s self of all selfishness, as it were, in pure, ever-deepening deference to God’s other; it is literally God making room for that other to be and then keeping that room open thereafter, by keeping God’s self out of it, respecting and preserving the other, setting it free to proliferate. And proliferate it does: otherness generating other otherness, without end, new otherness springing forth forever again into the space that is always cleared away and set open before it ever anew in what I will call God’s very Goding. In Goding, or being as genuine God in perpetual self-emptying or self-withdrawal, God is the space-clearer who forever keeps on clearing. Such never-ending action of self-withdrawal, wherein God’s very “being” as God is indistinguishable from that “acting,” makes of divinity a whirling vortex that, as a sort of ceaseless, limitless vacuuming action, catches everything else up into its own ongoing, ever-escalating turbulence of self-emptying. Whatever tries to take a stand and assert itself against the draft of that divine vortex gets torn apart: God on the cross crucifies everything else in turn.
“I am the Lord your God,” announces the speaker in Exodus 20:2 and Deuteronomy 5:6, “who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (NRSV). In the following verse, God directs that “you shall have no other gods before me,” then adds in the very next two verses: “You shall not make for yourself an idol. . . . You shall not bow down to them or worship them” (Exod. 20:4–5 and Deut. 5:8–9). A bit earlier in the Exodus narrative, Moses finds himself at the burning bush, directed by the voice that speaks there to go down into Egypt to set the Israelites free. Moses asks for the speaker’s name. God replies, “I am who I am.” A note to the text at that point in the NRSV tells the reader (not the only translation so to suggest) that the Hebrew line at issue might also be translated in different ways, including “I will be what I will be.” From the Christian perspective that emerges much later than the action of Exodus, what God will eventually turn out to be—and, therefore, all along to have been, according to those lines from Exodus and Deuteronomy—is crucified. That divine crucifixion is also the crux that connects God’s two self-identifications in Exodus (“I, who have brought you out of . . . slavery” and “I, who am/will be whoever/whatever I am/will be”), with the proscription of idolatry that immediately follows such self-identification. The God who sends his chosen people to wander for forty years in the desert will not rest content with only that much wandering but will instead insist upon a never-ending wandering in which whatever is set up among created things as a place of security, as a way of resting in any specific identification of God as this thing here or that other thing over there—every attempt to capture God in a name—is cast down, exposed in advance as sheer idolatry.
God on the cross thus crosses out all attempts to reduce God to something safe and secure. The crucified God exposes not only God’s self but also everyone else to the trauma of homelessness, of sharing with the Son of Man in having nowhere to lie one’s head or, to mix metaphors some, no idol on which to hang one’s hat. God on the cross crosses everything out, including God’s self.
God under the Cross
The crucified God crossed by God the crucifier—that is, the crucial exposure of the idolatrous nature of all names for God—is at the same time God under the cross or God sous rature, to use a French expression of Jacques Derrida’s. In Derrida’s work that expression is ordinarily translated into English as “under erasure,” as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak definitively rendered it in her translation of Derrida’s Of Grammatology. However, more literally rendered, Derrida’s phrase means “under crossing out,” as a word remains legible beneath the X mark with which one might cross over it while writing.
Derrida borrows this idea from Martin Heidegger, who famously crossed out the word Sein (“Being”) in “The Question of Being”—his open letter to Ernst Jünger, first published in 1956—to express what Heidegger took to be the core of “nihilism.” For Heidegger, the essence of nihilism lies in Being’s own sending of itself in and as its own crossing-out of itself in favor of the beings it thereby lets be—that is, nihilism is seen in the self-withdrawal into concealment. All questions of influence aside, the self-cancellation of Heidegger’s “Being” recalls the self-emptying of God in Pauline and Kabbalistic formulas. Traditional Jewish proscription against uttering the name of God can also be heard as sounding the same theme: that what I have called God’s very Goding places God under the cross as well as on it.
God sous rature, God crossed out, is God cancelling out in advance any identification of God with this, that, or the other thing. It is God casting away all such identifications, exposing them all as idolatry—and thereby, indeed, casting humanity itself loose into an abyss of anonymous godlessness in which, perhaps, it is above all atheism that finally gives God God’s due.
Trauma is a break, a tear, a rupture, a splitting open. It is a bolt of lightening—that ancient symbol of Zeus, the lightener—that splits open the night, ripping everything theretofore hidden in the protective darkness out into visibility, but for only a fleeting moment before the darkness descends again. If God, that one who will be whoever that one will be, turns out finally to be an atheistic God, then God is the trauma of all traumas, a trauma refusing all closure.
Thus, the trauma of God would finally be trauma itself healed open so that God’s trauma becomes the very place for human dwelling, the dwelling of all with one another in final or eschatological community. Insofar as God as such is trauma, to follow biblical admonitions—admonitions also echoed in more than one non-biblical tradition—to come to live “in God” is to come to live in trauma. To use a Christian gospel image, to come to live in that God who has revealed God’s self to be trauma is to experience resurrection in coming to live in the still open wounds of the glorified body of the risen Christ.
In the penultimate chapter of the Gospel of John, the newly resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples who have fearfully gathered in what comes in the Christian tradition to be called the upper room. They are gathered on the evening of what will come to be known as the very first Easter Sunday. According to the end of John 20:19: “Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’” Then John goes on in the next verse to say, “After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.” That is, before breathing out the Holy Spirit upon them, he identifies himself to the disciples by exposing to them the still open wounds inflicted upon him two days before at his crucifixion. That the wounds were still open is made clear by the story, as I read it, of doubting Thomas, which immediately follows the bestowal of the Spirit:
But Thomas (who was called the Twin), one of the twelve, was not with them when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”
A week later the disciples were again in the house, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said: “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it in my side. Do not doubt but believe.” (John 20:24–27)
By John’s account it is minimally clear that the wounds inflicted on Jesus’s hands and side during his crucifixion were not simply erased by his resurrection. Even by that minimal reading, then, the healing of resurrection is no return to some pristine condition in which trauma has been altogether repaired, made as though it never were. Rather, trauma continues to be legible even after it has been in some sense canceled or crossed out; it is still visible, readable sous rature. Thus, even the resurrected body—that glorified body Paul promises to all who, dying with Christ, will be resurrected with him as well—continues to carry the “marks,” as John calls them, of its wounds.
In short, even the glorified, resurrected body continues to be marked by trauma. Resurrection—which is to say ultimate, final, eschatological healing of all wounds and drying of all tears shed over those wounds, in fulfillment of biblical promise—is not the eradication of trauma. Nor is it attaining a failsafe security against trauma or an assurance of being at last free of all risk of trauma. It is, if anything, the liberation not from trauma itself but from the compulsion to avoid it. Resurrection is the freedom from fear of trauma and the freedom to live fully open to it, fully vulnerable (which means, literally, “open to wounding”)—even and especially when so living leads to the cross, which is where, Jesus not infrequently assures his disciples, following him will inevitably lead.
Resurrection, the final healing of trauma, is not the closing of the wound. It is, rather, its transfiguration, which I am using here to suggest the moving of trauma out from under one sign—that is, out from under one “figure”—and under an altogether different one. Trauma in God, eschatologically healed trauma, is trauma moved out from under the figure of reparable damages and under the figure—itself traumatic—of God in trauma and God as trauma, the God on the cross who crosses God’s self out to become no more and no less than the Word of words, the Word making the point where all naming, all referentiality, ceases but from which it all arises and returns as well.
In that transfiguration, trauma stands revealed in its final irreparability as a being riven apart, sundered as by a bolt of lightening, rendered permanently and definitively incommensurable not only with others but with oneself. In turn, the kingdom of God—of that God who has put God’s self under the cross by going on the cross—becomes the transfigured community of all those who are thus radically incommensurable, both with one another and with themselves. It is the community of all the traumatized, who have nothing in common but their vulnerability, their openness to wounding, the community that can only be built on the sharing of unshared wounds, those wounds that, as anthropologist Angela Garcia neatly expresses it, “cannot be resolved any other way but by remaining close to one another.” It is that truly universal, “ecumenical” community of which Schillebeeckx writes.
Only such a community of trauma—the community of all those who have nothing in common save the openness of their wounds—could be the kingdom of any God worth worshipping.
1. Schillebeeckx, Church: The Human Story of God (New York, NY: Crossroad, 1990), 189.
2. Ibid., 81.
3. Ibid., 82.
4. I will frame my discussion almost exclusively in terms of Christianity and Christian theology. The same themes can be discerned in other traditions as well, including Hinduism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, and Taoism, but in this essay, I will remark on these other traditions only when the occasion seems particularly apt.
5. Derrida, Of Grammatology (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967).
6. Heidegger, “The Question of Being,” in Pathmarks (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 291–322.
7. Garcia, The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession along the Rio Grande (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010), 68.