October 8, 2015 / Theology
With the help of Søren Kierkegaard, Dean Dettloff explores how traumatic experience alienates us from ourselves, our world, and our faith—and yet gets resolved through the wondrous renewal of life itself.
July 27, 2015
Recently, I sat in a circle of students who had just read Eleanor Stump’s chapter on the book of Job in her seminal work on theodicy, Wandering in Darkness. In that chapter, Stump walks the reader through each trying moment of the story, including the conversation between God and Satan that paves the way to Job’s distress. She presents a compelling interpretation in which every one of God’s words and actions is motivated by unfailing love. As most of the students engaged the text with hope and intrigue, one student—a survivor of sexualized violence who I will call Anna—folded her arms, leaned back, and said, “Great. Now we know that God loves Job. But how does that help him?” Stump had succeeded in convincing Anna that God is thoroughly loving, yet that success fell flat.
Anna’s response is representative of the way many survivors of sexualized violence respond to theodicies that emphasize God’s loving nature. So what if God loves those who endure traumatic suffering? What matters is whether or not that love does anything. The main question on the minds of survivors is not one of God’s guilt or innocence. It is not enough for God to be philosophically absolved of culpability. What those traumatized by sexualized violence want to know is whether God is actively with them or against them in their fight for survival.
For some religious thinkers, the claim that God loves those who suffer implicitly indicates that God is working for their wellbeing. Action and solidarity are considered necessary components of love’s very definition. Certainly this way of conceptualizing love is theologically ideal. But in our world, love too often plays out differently. Systems of abuse conflate love and violence when traumatic injury is suffered at the hands of parents, siblings, friends, and intimate lovers. While being raped, a countless number of victims have listened to their perpetrators explain that the violent act of coercion is an expression of love. Especially for those victims who were abused as children, notions of love and violence come into being and take shape together, one indistinguishable from the other. It does not suffice, then, to argue that God loves those who suffer. Survivors of sexualized violence push us to articulate the shape of that love and its relation to trauma.
If we read loving-God theodicies with Anna’s resistance in mind, what do we find? What, if anything, does God’s love do for Job? Returning to the text that rankled Anna, does Stump’s argument for a loving God merely seek to absolve God of culpability for human suffering or is the loving God of Stump’s theodicy useful to Job and trauma survivors like him? If we step outside the scope of theodicy, does the loving God outlined by Stump offer any hope to trauma survivors for recovery?
Trauma is a particular kind of human suffering, “an affliction of the powerless.” In her highly acclaimed book Trauma and Recovery, trauma specialist Judith Herman explains that suffering is likely to become traumatic when “neither resistance nor escape is possible,” when human strategies for self-defense are annihilated. The kinds of events that give rise to traumatic suffering are those that “overwhelm the ordinary systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection, and meaning.” To determine whether Stump understands Job’s suffering to be traumatic, then, we must ascertain whether her reading of his suffering is characterized by powerlessness and a destroyed sense of control, connection, and meaning.
Stump begins her description of Job’s suffering by describing the vast extent of his loss. In one day, Job loses both his family and his socioeconomic stability. Due to both freak natural disasters and human cruelty, all of his children are killed, and his livestock and servants are lost. Stump tells readers that Job’s suffering is the kind that “can be shattering to the person compelled to endure it” because he is unable to resist or escape debilitating bodily pain, psychic distress, and profound loss. On all accounts, Job is powerless. Stump goes on to describe Job’s suffering as “a rack on which the psyche is tormented without rest, struggling for breath.” Her inclusion of the qualification “without rest” signals that in addition to being powerless to protect his children, servants, and animals, Job is also powerless in the face of his own internal suffering. Stump’s interpretation certainly counts loss of control as a significant dynamic of his distress.
Stump also recognizes that Job’s loss of connection with his community intensifies his suffering. Not only “has [Job] become despised by his society” and been “publicly disdained and ridiculed . . . by people who are themselves outcasts,” he becomes alienated even from those who should be most supportive of him, his wife and closest friends. Driving home the impact of Job’s alienation, Stump emphasizes the degree to which Job’s trust in his intimate relationships is betrayed as his family and friends repeatedly fail to lovingly support him, choosing to distance themselves from his anguish rather than empathize.
Job’s loss of trust stretches beyond his intimate human relationships and infects his relationship to himself, the world around him, and God. Stump draws this conclusion in observing that Job’s speeches of protest include an accusation of betrayal, and because Job’s own explanation for his suffering is that God is “afflicting him with terror.” Job’s belief that he is suffering at God’s hands “rattles (his) psyche” so thoroughly that he is unable to trust anything in the way he did before. Confidence in the correlation between one’s perception of the world and the reality of the world is necessary for making meaning out of that reality. Thus, Job’s inability to trust in God and in things implies that his ability to sustain a sense of meaning is wholly destroyed.
Stump’s interpretation of Job’s suffering mirrors Herman’s description of trauma as that which results from powerlessness and a shattered sense of control, connection, and meaning. Each of these—control, connection, and meaning—is lost to Job who is utterly unable to resist or escape harm. Because Job’s suffering is traumatic, a closer look at Stump’s examination of God’s love for him should assist in determining whether this love helps victims and survivors of trauma or functions solely to defend God from accusations of callous indifference. To make this determination, it is first necessary to articulate what does help trauma survivors move toward recovery.
Because the experience of trauma obliterates the self, trauma recovery must begin with piecing the self together again. Our basic trust in our relation to the world is what sustains us throughout the many phases of life. Basic trust is, Herman says, “the foundation of belief in the continuity of life, the order of nature, and the transcendent order of the divine.” It is a secure sense of connection with those who ought to care. In one way or another, victims of traumatic events cry out to those from whom they expect comfort and protection. It is when that cry is not answered that connection is shattered; the traumatized person loses her ability to trust and along with it her sense of self. Herman identifies the first step of recovery from this kind of trauma as reestablishing safety. While this certainly means securing an external environment in which traumatic events will not continue, it also means reestablishing connections that can serve as a foundation for rebuilding basic trust and, ultimately, a secure sense of self. Thus, Anna’s question can be restated this way: Does God’s love in any way protect Job from future injury or help him rebuild basic trust and a secure sense of self?
Stump sees evidence of God’s love in the content of God’s speeches to Job, in God’s assessment of Job’s conversation with his companions, and in God’s very presence with Job. In the text of God’s speeches to Job, Stump observes God depicting herself “as a person, in personal and parental relationships with his creatures, sharing what he has created with them and making them glad by doing so.” God’s speeches “[convey], in the vivid sort of way a story would, a picture, an impression, of God’s entering into second-personal relations with all his creatures.” Stump describes God’s speeches to Job as one reminder after another that God chooses to be in loving relationship with all of God’s creation—stars, rain, and even the ostrich who forgets to feed her young. The implication, of course, is that God is also lovingly committed to Job’s wellbeing. For Stump, God’s speeches also reveal “God’s great care . . . for his second-personal connections to them.” It is not just God’s children that God loves; God also cares deeply for her very connection to them.
Although she readily admits that Job believes God has betrayed him, Stump thinks Job is ultimately wrong in this belief, for traumatic betrayal is inconsistent with God’s thoroughly loving nature. God’s assessment of Job’s conversation with his supposed comforters, then, presents a bit of a puzzle for Stump, because as she sees it, “when God talks to the comforters about Job’s complaints and the comforters’ condemnation of Job for those complaints, God takes Job’s part entirely.” God expresses anger against the comforters for their judgment of Job and affirms that Job has spoken rightly in his protests against God. Stump contends that the only way to interpret what is going on is to affirm that God supports Job’s speaking these accusations, not because they reflect God truly but because the act of voicing the accusations is right and good even if the content of the accusations is false. God shows Job love by validating his experience, by affirming that he is right to express that experience, and by defending him from those who have deepened his suffering by denying it.
Continuing her analysis, Stump observes that “While God has been talking to him, Job has been, somehow, seeing God.” She does not mean that Job has perceived God by sight but that God has been directly and intimately present to Job in some way or another. God’s direct presence is God’s way of answering Job’s profound, though mistaken, sense that God has betrayed his trust. Stump explains, “To answer a mistaken charge of betrayal, a person who loves you can try to explain, or she can just face you and let you see her,” so that you might see in her the sincerity of her unwavering love and commitment. If Job is able to see God, who loves all of creation with the dedication and care of a good parent, Stump believes Job will come to know that he too is embraced by that love. God unmistakably honors Job, cares for him, and takes his complaints to heart. This is made evident through God’s words and actions and by the mere fact that God, creator of all, decides to show up.
These ways that Stump describes God’s loving response to Job stand in striking relationship to the traumatic nature of Job’s suffering. Job’s cry to God for an explanation for his suffering is the cry of a traumatized person to the one who ought to care. Not only does God respond to Job’s cry, God answers in person. God comes to Job’s side. Since it is when trauma victims’ cries go unanswered that their sense of connection is finally dissolved, in making herself present to Job, God interrupts Job’s sense of lost connection and insists through her very presence that the one who ought to care for him does indeed care.
God’s condemnation of Job’s comforters validates Job’s sense of suffering. In affirming Job’s protest, God upholds Job’s feelings as legitimate; Job’s experience matters. Here, too, God’s love for Job manifests as a demonstration of God’s enduring connection to him. God reveals herself as able and willing to understand him and defend him against his critics.
God’s lengthy descriptions of her caring relation to all of creation offer Job assurance that he has a place with the rest of God’s children in a whole network of connection held together in the love of God. By revealing God’s interconnectedness with the entire world, Job is invited to see his place in its order, an order preserved by the connecting power of God’s love.
God’s loving presence, loving affirmation, and loving speech do more than assert God’s inward disposition toward Job. They are acts of real protection that shield Job’s sense of connection from further disintegration and help him regain a sense of his relationship to the world. In offering him a renewed sense of connection, God’s love serves as a foundation on which Job can begin to rebuild basic trust and reconstruct his sense of self. As such, God’s extension of love opens the door to Job’s first concrete step toward recovery. And so Job’s story suggests that a loving God is concretely valuable for survivors of trauma.
However, I am not convinced that Stump’s argument for a loving God succeeds as theodicy. It does not satisfyingly explain, for example, how the traumatic suffering of the innocent enters a world governed by a thoroughly loving God to begin with. The love Stump attributes to God in the story of Job does not make a difference to those who are killed by the initial impact of a traumatic event; the fact that God walks with survivors in the aftermath of trauma does not justify the original event of trauma. Put differently, the children Job bears at the end of his story do not replace the children who were killed at the beginning. The bountiful life he eventually reconstructs does not make the loss of the life he previously knew somehow OK.
A thriving survivor of rape once told me, “Yes, I am doing well. I love my life. People tell me that I have helped many by speaking out about what happened to me, and I hope that is true. But, if I could choose this life or a life in which I was never raped, I would choose the life in which I was never raped. No hesitation.” Recovery does not erase the pain and injustice of traumatic loss. Recovery is a process that opens up space for renewed living but that new life develops in the company of a loss that will never disappear. Ultimately, God’s loving nature does not justify acts of traumatic injustice or absolve God of culpability.
Apart from theodicy, though, a loving God is crucial for survivors in the aftermath of trauma. For survivors, God’s thoroughly loving nature can have concrete effects, increasing their prospects of survival and helping to initiate the long and arduous process of recovery from traumatic rupture. This God joins the traumatized in their struggle to regain basic control, rebuild basic trust, and reestablish a sense of meaning and connection that makes space for the fractured self to rest, recover, and live. It is a consequence of God’s love that the aftermath of traumatic injury includes the possibility of recovery.
Even so, survivors of sexualized violence rightly question and resist theologies that posit a loving God without describing the shape of God’s love and its relation to traumatic experience, because that shape and relation determine whether such theologies will perpetuate or interrupt cycles of violence and abuse. The preceding analysis of the specific ways in which God’s love is beneficial to trauma survivors was motivated by a survivor’s resistance to the assumption that benefit is an inevitability of love. Recall Anna’s challenge to her classmates after reading Stump’s chapter on Job: “Great. Now we know that God loves Job. But how does that help him?” The concrete connection between God’s love and Job’s benefit in no way undermines the legitimacy or value of Anna’s challenge. To the contrary, if anything worthwhile has been gleaned in this study, it is in large part to her credit for posing its guiding question. Survivors of sexualized violence and those who suffer other forms of violent trauma point religious thinkers to the real and continued need for greater clarity when we say that God loves those who suffer. We are wise to listen.
 Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1992), 33 and 34.
 Stump, Wandering in Darkness: Narrative and the Problem of Suffering (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010), 181 and 182.
 Ibid., 182.
 Ibid., 192 and 183.
 Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 51, 52, and 3.
 Stump, Wandering in Darkness, 195, 187, and 189.
 Ibid., 193 and 195.
 Ibid., 192.
Hilary Jerome Scarsella
Hilary Jerome Scarsella is a PhD student in theological studies at Vanderbilt University. She writes on the intersection of theology, trauma, systemic violence, and strategies for survival. Scarsella completed her masters of divinity in theology and ethics at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. In addition to being a survivor of sexualized violence herself, she is an advocate for survivors as the Public Educator of Our Stories Untold. Her interest in theology and trauma is informed also by her former work in the Kurdish region of Iraq with the nonviolent solidarity organization Christian Peacemaker Teams.