Witnessing Trauma

The willingness to witness trauma is often autobiographical. This is true of me in my role as a professor of theology who is active in our university’s Institute of Trauma and Recovery. During my postgraduate education, I tried to stay in one lane and focus solely on Reformation theology and history. That would have been clean and tidy—theology in the academy, and trauma in the real world. But trauma and recovery has pursued me and refused to let go.

No one starts from nowhere. We all carry stories that frame our daily professions and relationships. So how did I end up teaching integration of theology and psychology to trauma therapists after completing postgraduate research in John Calvin? I am still not sure. But I do know that these thought worlds, separate as they might seem, are deeply integrated in me, the person; that we cannot help but be who we are; and that there is a clear reward to integrating our professional lives with our lived experiences. A person-centered, holistic approach to life may just be what the world, divided as it is today by endless abstract classifications, is hungry for. What we may need is to encounter reality fresh and face-to-face, whether that reality is violent or beautiful. 

As a professor of theology and pastoral counselor, I have had the privilege of witnessing countless students and friends share stories of surviving violence. I have also had the privilege of sharing my story with them. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, I live daily with the symptoms of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) that affect every aspect of my life. Recovery has been slow and steady. The journey is long, but the friends on the road are more numerous than I had assumed, even in the academy. Indeed, it has been a privilege to research trauma with fellow survivors and witnesses who are keen to explore how theology can be reimagined in our “east of Eden” world.1

Stories like mine and my students are not uncommon. Recent studies report that 70 to 90 percent of adults experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives. As a result, some psychiatrists have concluded that “trauma is now our most urgent public health issue.”2 The COVID-19 pandemic and political unrest of 2020 and 2021 make such an assessment hard to deny. Scholars in the last thirty years have also proposed that traumatic violence is a global public health issue best approached through interdisciplinary collaboration, but theologians have only just begun to join this conversation. We are just beginning to ask how theology can contribute to our understanding of trauma and possibilities for recovery.

But there’s a more specific question that I hear repeated often by students, friends, and colleagues, and it’s a question that has been important to my journey as well—how are we to understand the experience people often have after trauma that they are angry at God and feel alienated from God by their suffering? Put differently, what can theology contribute to our understanding of human persons who feel forsaken by God after trauma, and how might theology offer insight in trauma recovery?3

A Basic Sketch of PTSD

But before mining theological resources to assist in recovery, we must first understand trauma.

What is the story of trauma? Where did it come from? The clinical study of trauma waxed and waned throughout the 1900s, and it was not until 1980 that the treatment of outspoken Vietnam veterans led the American Psychiatric Association to canonize traumatic stress with the diagnosis PTSD.4 The medical treatment of combat trauma in the late 1900s opened up doors for parallel diagnoses related to such atrocities as domestic violence, childhood sexual abuse, and political captivity. 

Trauma has come to be defined as “an inescapably stressful event that overwhelms one’s coping mechanisms.” During a highly stressful event of overwhelming violence in which one is powerless to fight or flee, human persons are able to survive the psychic stress of the event by undergoing a complex process of hyperarousal and alterations of consciousness that protect the person from fully experiencing the threat. In clinical terms, this process is a “freeze” response called “dissociation” that has been formally identified as the central pathogenic mechanism involved in PTSD.5 During dissociation, a traumatized person who is threatened with violence undergoes an extreme narrowing of perception as a defense mechanism, and this numbs the person’s consciousness against the brutality being experienced. 

Survivors frequently report dissociation as a kind of out-of-body experience in which they have the perception of floating above their own bodies, as if they were watching the trauma happen to someone else.6 Through such experiences “the helpless person escapes from [their] situation not by action in the real world but rather by altering [their] state of consciousness. . . . this altered state of consciousness might be regarded as one of nature’s small mercies, a protection against unbearable pain.”7

However, clinicians and neuroscientists agree that while dissociation is adaptive in trauma, it is maladaptive for recovery.8 Because the traumatic experience is walled off from ordinary consciousness, the memories of the trauma are not recalled in an integrated fashion in the post-traumatic context. Instead, they may be experienced as intrusive and sporadic flashbacks of sensory overload. Freud was essentially correct, then, when he noted that traumatized persons “suffer mainly from reminiscences” because “the patient is, one might say, fixated to the trauma.” Traumatized persons suffer from unintegrated memories of terror that interrupt their present consciousness. Serene Jones writes that in PTSD, “the mind’s meaning-making structures have collapsed” and that “because [information] cannot be processed and stored, [it] simply wanders and consistently replays itself.” This ongoing repetition results in what Babette Rothschild describes as a  “misperception—in mind and body—that past trauma is still happening.”9 The experience of having one’s present mental state constantly interrupted by the fear of an overwhelming threat of the past is at the very heart of the PTSD syndrome.

In the last thirty years, the study of trauma has moved off the psychoanalytic couch, making its way into the humanities. Trauma theory began in the mid-1990s as an interdisciplinary attempt to explore how trauma affects human self-understanding. Literary scholar Cathy Caruth was particularly influential in summarizing a traumatic event as a “missed” or “unclaimed” experience. She describes trauma as the wound that results from an event of such terrifying magnitude that the event is too much to process as it happens—the terror is too great to comprehend. As a result, the memories of the past violence haunt the human psyche seeking to be processed or “claimed.”10 When traumatic memories are unclaimed in this way, it creates the experience of a “double-wound”: the initial traumatic event and the stress that follows. Even though the traumatic events are over, the terror continues to wound the mind in the present.

From these conceptualizations of trauma, literary theorists have developed a framework that is now called trauma theory through which hermeneutical possibilities are opened in the important differences between suffering (which has ended and is in the past) and trauma (which persists so that suffering continues in the present). As Freud puts it, the threat of trauma is continually felt by survivors “as contemporary experience, instead of . . . remembering it as something belonging to the past.” This sense of continual experience is what theologian Shelly Rambo gets at when she asserts that trauma is radically different from general suffering. Suffering is what one can recover from, what one can heal from. Trauma, however, is what is unbearable, what one cannot handle, what overwhelms. Rambo says that “this is the difference between a closed and an open wound . . . trauma is the suffering that does not go away. The study of trauma is the study of what remains.”11

Post-Traumatic Relating to God

Given the way that psychological trauma remains even after the events are over, survivors experience negative effects on their relationships with other human persons in the present. However, recent philosophers and theologians have also pointed out that traumatic events do not only disrupt our relationship with other humans; they also disrupt our relationship with God. Some scholars have called this post-traumatic disruption of the divine-human relationship a “stain on the soul,” as if it were a kind of moral leftover or residue from adverse experiences.12

Surviving violence can cause one to live with a deep suspicion toward any previously held notions of the goodness or trustworthiness of God. One psychiatrist puts it this way: “The traumatic event challenges an ordinary person to become a theologian, a philosopher, and a jurist. The survivor is called upon to articulate the values and beliefs that she once held and that the trauma destroyed. She stands before the emptiness of evil. . . . all questions are reduced to one. . . . Why? . . . . Why me?”13 Asking the question why? is a natural and legitimate response to horrendous evils because trauma has negative effects on human persons’ perceptions of their relationships with God. 

Trauma can cause persons with post-traumatic stress to doubt God’s goodness or to see God as “a cruel judge” who is either powerless to help, unwilling to help, or altogether indifferent.14 For example, consider the story of Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel as told by Judith Herman:

There are people with strong and secure belief systems who can endure the ordeals of imprisonment and emerge with their faith intact or strengthened. But these are the extraordinary few. The majority of people experience the bitterness of being forsaken by God. The Holocaust survivor Wiesel gives voice to this bitterness: “Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget that nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget those things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”15

While stories like these are uncomfortable to hear, it is imperative that we listen. Many people assume that this kind of insecure connection with God is contrary to religious faith, that faith means feeling only that God is one’s “safe haven” and source of comfort, protection, delight, and security.16 What about those like Wiesel who feel forsaken by God? Is there room for faith in feeling forsaken?

Questions like these present a unique challenge to theologians and students in the religious disciplines today. It appears that psychological trauma creates a loss of connection with God and can cause persons to feel alienated from God and angry toward God. And because trauma is a double wound, this sense of alienation from God is compounded and difficult to address. If theology is the discipline that addresses the relationship between God and human persons, what can theology contribute to our understanding of this experience of feeling forsaken by God? How can the religious disciplines facilitate recovery for these experiences?

Feeling Forsaken by God: Calvin’s Traumatized Christ

To answer these questions, I will draw from my PhD research, which has focused on the Christian doctrine of Christ’s descent into hell, particularly as the doctrine was articulated by the Reformer and theologian John Calvin, who makes hell sound strikingly similar to trauma.17 In Calvin’s theology, hell is rarely conceived of as a physical place—it “signifies not so much the locality as the condition of those whom God has condemned and doomed to destruction.” Hell, then, is the “wretched” feeling of being “cut off from all fellowship with God.” For Calvin “where there is guilt before God, there hell immediately shows itself,” such that “we always find a hell within us.”18

Scholars have noted that Calvin is able to pastorally apply this psychological understanding of hell not only to those who “entangled in sin, carry death and hell along with them” but also to those who suffer persecution and endure mental distress: “there is no condition more unhappy than to live in trouble of mind, and to have a continual warfare raging within one’s self, or rather without ceasing to be tormented by a hell within” (tormente dune gehenne interieure).19

Calvin’s psychological description of hell results in a certain kind of demythologized account of Christ’s descent into hell. He suggests that the traditional story of Christ harrowing souls imprisoned in Limbo is “childish” and is “nothing but a story,” whereas Christ’s actual descent into hell occurred when he “suffered in his soul the terrible torments of a condemned and forsaken man.” Calvin calls this experience a kind of “death of the soul,” a terrifying sense that one’s relationship with God is in peril:20

Would you know what the death of the soul is? It is to be without God—to be abandoned by God. . . . full of terror and desolation, [it] drives those to despair who feel that it is inflicted on them by an angry and punishing God. The only thing which can temper the bitterness of its agonies is to know that God is our Father, and that we have Christ for our leader and companion.21

Hell in Calvin’s theology is thus the condition of a soul that results when we are entirely bereft of the conviction that God is favorably disposed toward us because we perceive ourselves to be engaged in an adverse relation with God. To be in hell is to feel forsaken by God rather than loved by God.

Calvin indicates that this feeling of being forsaken by God is what Christ experienced in the garden of Gethsemane and during the crucifixion, two intense emotional struggles that caused severe psychological pain and stress on Christ’s body. He pays profound attention to the embodied expression of Christ’s fear: “Something commonly considered miraculous was related about him: from the fierceness of his torments, drops of blood flowed from his face.”22 And he employs Christ’s bloody sweat as proof that his fear was extreme. This traumatic fear of death continued to the climax on the cross when Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

There, Calvin points out a key paradox in the words of Jesus. First, Christ says “My God, my God.” He is calling God his own and taking God to himself. This is a cry of faith and trust. Second, Christ cries “why have you forsaken me?” He is crying out against God. This is a cry of despair and fear. Calvin notes that this is a remarkable coincidence that seems paradoxical: Christ does not cease to call God his own and to put his trust in the Father even as he cries out against him. Even when Christ felt forsaken and “suffered beyond measure,” Calvin notes that “he did not cease to call him his God, by whom he cried out that he had been forsaken.23

This raises an important question. Was Christ sinning when he cried out against God? If faith in God is a religious virtue and Christ is supposed to be morally perfect, how can Christ experience some kind of a loss of faith? Calvin responds that these emotions are apt given the violent events, and therefore, “it in nowise detracts from his heavenly glory. . . . There is no reason why Christ’s weakness should alarm us.”24 So even though Christ felt forsaken by God, Christ did so in the context of a relationship of lament with God. This demonstrates that it is possible to conceive of faith as a dynamic struggle that is not the opposite of doubt but is rather the very presupposition that legitimates doubt as an appropriate response toward surviving violence. 

This means that for Calvin it is possible that doubt and despair are not sinful but are appropriate responses to extreme suffering. Christ has demonstrated by his descent into hell that it is possible for human persons to suffer unspeakable torments, to despair with imperfect faith, and to doubt God’s goodness while still reaching toward that goodness. Feeling alienated from God does not mean we cannot be in a legitimate relationship with God.

Faith and Doubt

The insecure dynamic that Calvin identifies between Christ and God is helpful, I think, when we consider our own relationships to God. That dynamic shows us that insecurity in terms of our attachment to God is not sinful as such. Even Jesus felt this way. Consider again the cry of dereliction, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” It seems that Jesus was experiencing an insecure attachment to God during an event of traumatic violence.

It may seem alarming at first to say that Jesus, the eternal and perfect divine Son of God, experienced an insecure attachment to God. But drawing from Calvin, I am arguing that Jesus’s sinlessness and moral perfection are compatible with feeling alienated from God. I think this is why the book of Hebrews says that “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15 NRSV). As Calvin says, Jesus is “bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh”; he is like humanity in every way, yet he has never sinned, and so an insecure attachment is not sinful as such.25 Thus, I believe that Christ’s cry of dereliction can be a helpful framework for those of us who have suffered the effects of trauma in relationship with God. It means that when traumatized persons such as myself feel a loss of safety in relationship with God, we are not sinning, and we are not alone. We are, in fact, in the best of company. We are having an experience that God has also experienced in a morally perfect way in the person of Christ. It is completely legitimate to lose a sense of safety in one’s relationship to God after trauma, since even God’s own sinless Son knows this experience. As those who are included in Christ by the power of the Spirit, we are likewise included in Christ’s perfect life before God, which does not prohibit emotional expressions of doubt but includes them in the embrace of perfect faith.26

Moreover, as Calvin indicates, we may learn to lament with Christ by crying out “why have you forsaken me,” and this lament is possible in the context of a committed relationship with God, where we can call God “my God.” In other words, expressing feelings of alienation from God or anger toward God can be a completely legitimate mode of relating with God in the aftermath of trauma and can even be a cathartic or healing experience that is divinely sanctioned by the example of the person and work of Jesus Christ. That is good news for people who feel alienated from God. It is a paradox, but we can say that God knows what it feels like to be alienated from God, and God also knows how to find reconnection with God through such an experience.

Seeing that insecure attachment with God is not sinful is important for an effective response to trauma survivors that can facilitate recovery and healing. Consider the case of Diane, an adult survivor of childhood sexual abuse:

My father abused me until I was four years old. He threatened to kill my mother or younger brother if I told. . . . Yet my mother continued to keep us in that environment. They eventually divorced. . . . After her divorce, my mother had affairs—the first one involved a priest; the other, a married man. The priest was sexually inappropriate with me. . . . [he] molested me when I was eighteen. . . . Growing up was also filled with constant health issues, nightmares about being chased and raped. . . . I have felt alone and unprotected most of my life. I knew God was there, but his promises were not for me. . . . Although I sought and served God with all of my strength, I still felt a wall and a distance between us.27

How can Diane be blamed for a lack of connection with God given the trauma she has survived? She recounts, “I was furious with God. I was also terrified of him, but longed to be close to and secure in him.” When sharing these conflicting desires with one of her professors in college, the response she received from the professor startled her: “How could you not have trust issues with him?” There was no judgment, no chastisement. Instead, the response was empathetic, validating, and freeing. Diane says that this response freed her to take initial steps in trusting God again. Knowing that her insecure attachment was a legitimate response to trauma and was not sinful freed her to find secure attachment again.

Christ’s Body Keeps the Score

How can one conclude a story about trauma? As Judith Herman says, always return to the body.28 Along those lines, the psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk has recently become popular for his studies in PTSD showing that “the body keeps the score” of the effects of trauma on persons. That is, trauma is not merely about emotional despair or feeling forsaken; it is about how these feelings manifest in unbearable sensations that people feel in their bodies. 

Here, I think Calvin’s theology can be of help as well. Recall that for Calvin, Christ’s descent into hell was not just when he cried out to God on the cross but also when he feared violence and sweat blood in the garden of Gethsemane. We might say that Christ’s body was keeping the score of trauma.29 In this way, we can show not only that it is legitimate to feel alienated from God but also that it is legitimate to feel disabled in one’s body as a result of trauma.

I end by recalling my story and the stories of my students and friends. Like many survivors, I live with daily triggers and reminders of the violent past that disrupts and disables. I am thankful for the recovery that has made it possible for me to walk again, even if with a limp. As Judith Herman (a hero of mine) says, recovery doesn’t mean that the past is completely healed or that the memories are gone, just that they are losing their gripping and paralyzing force. With time and care, they become integrated into a larger story of grace, memories to befriend rather than avoid. I am comforted that there are theological riches that can be retrieved and reimagined to help in this befriending process. Unlikely as it may seem, Calvin has been a friend to me on that journey. And the Christ of whom he speaks remains the dearest friend of all. I still believe this Christ can teach us how to doubt with faith, how to relate to God after trauma, how to stay in the tension of death and resurrection, and how to hope for the dawn even while it is still dark.

  1. See Preston Hill, ed., Christ and Trauma: Theology East of Eden (Eugene, OR: Pickwick, forthcoming). See also the publications in this edition of The Other Journal by fellow contributors to this edited volume, Emilie Grosvenor and Samuel J. Youngs.
  2. Corina Benjet et al., “The Epidemiology of Traumatic Event Exposure Worldwide: Results from the World Mental Health Survey Consortium.” Psychological Medicine 46, no. 2 (January 2016): 327–43.
  3. See these questions raised in Hill and Dan Sartor, “Attachment Theory and the Cry of Dereliction: A Science-Engaged Model of Atonement for Posttraumatic Stains on the Soul,” Theologica (forthcoming); Eleanore Stump, Atonement (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018), 339–77; Michael Rea, The Hiddenness of God (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2018), 157–59 and 177–79; Rea, “The Ill-Made Knight and the Stain on the Soul,” European Journal for Philosophy of Religion 11, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 117–34; and Michelle Panchuk, “The Shattered Spiritual Self: A Philosophical Exploration of Religious Trauma,” Res Philosophica95, no. 3 (July 2018): 505–30.
  4. See Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd ed. (1980), s.v. “PTSD.”
  5. Bessel A. van der Kolk, “Trauma and Memory,” in Traumatic Stress: The Effects of Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society, ed. Bessel A. van der Kolk, Alexander C. McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth (New York, NY: Guilford, 2007), 279; and van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Transformation of Trauma (New York, NY: Penguin, 2014), 66. Also, see van der Kolk and Rita Fisler, “Dissociation and the Fragmentary Nature of Traumatic Memories: Overview and Exploratory Study,” Journal of Traumatic Stress 8, no. 4 (1995): 505–25.
  6. See, for example, Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1992), 87–88.
  7. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 42–43.
  8. Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, 92.
  9. Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, trans. and ed. James Strachey (New York, NY: Liveright, 1961), 7–8; Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 29–30; Rothschild, Eight Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery: Take-Charge Strategies to Empower Your Healing (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2010), 27.
  10. See Cathy Caruth, ed., Trauma: Explorations in Memory (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 1995); and Cathy Caruth, ed., Listening to Trauma: Conversations with Leaders in the Theory and Treatment of Catastrophic Experience (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press, 2014).
  11. Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, 12; and Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining(Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 7 and 15.
  12. See Hill and Sartor, “Attachment Theory and the Cry of Dereliction”; Stump, Atonement, 372–76; and Rea, “Ill-Made Knight,” 117–34.
  13. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 178.
  14. Christian Gostečnik, Tanja Repič Slavič, Saša Poljak Lukek, and Robert Cvetek, “Trauma and Religiousness,” Journal of Religion and Health 53, no. 3 (2014): 690–701.
  15. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 94.
  16. Pehr Granqvist and Lee Kirkpatrick, “Attachment and Religious Representations and Behavior,” in Handbook of Attachment, ed. Jude Cassidy and Phillip Shaver (New York: Guilford, 2016), 919.
  17. See Hill, “Feeling Forsaken: Christ’s Descent into Hell in the Theology of John Calvin,” (PhD diss., University of St Andrews, 2021), 188–96, https://hdl.handle.net/10023/23552.
  18. Calvin, “Psychopannychia,” in Tracts and Treatises in Defense of the Reformed Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958), 3:480; Calvin, Institutes, 3.25.12; Calvin, Comm. Hebrews 2:15; and Calvin, Comm. 1 John 3:2. Note that English references to Institutes are taken from Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J. T. McNeill and F. L. Battles (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster John Knox, 1960). Also, see these remarks by Calvin: “The grave is called sheol . . . these words, therefore, here denote not so much the place as the quality and condition of the place” (Comm., Psalm 16:10) and “Would you know what the death of the soul is? It is to be without God—to be abandoned by God, and left to itself” (“Psychopannychia,” 454–55).
  19. Calvin, “Psychopannychia,” 455; and Calvin to Monsieur de Falais, October 14, 1543 in Letters of John Calvin, ed. Jules Bonnett (Philadelphia, PA: Presbyterian Board of Publications, 1858), 1:397. Calvin says that “hell has opened to receive him” when one feels the “protracted sorrow” and “mental distress” of a “terrorized conscience” (Comm., Psalm 6:6–7). For more on Calvin’s application of this hellish mental distress to persecution, see Jones, “Soul Anatomy: The Healing Acts of Calvin’s Psalms,” in Trauma and Grace, 43–67.
  20. Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.9 and 2.16.10.
  21. Calvin, “Psychopannychia,” 454–55 and 483.
  22. Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.12.
  23. Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.12. Calvin calls this dialectic of faith and despair “a great paradox” (repugnantiae) which could also be translated “contradiction” or “incompatibility.”
  24. Calvin, Institutes, 2.16.12.
  25. Untangling sinfulness from normal responses to trauma is essential to post-traumatic growth. This involves being able “to understand the response to trauma itself: shattered beliefs about the self, others, the future. This is, I want to emphasize, the normal response to trauma; it is not a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, nor does it indicate a defect of character” (Martin Seligman, Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being [London, UK: Atria, 2011], 162).
  26. My special thanks are due to Scott Harrower and Joshua Cockayne, who helped stimulate my thinking around traumatology and recovery. This section of the essay was adapted from a portion of our forthcoming book from Cascade Books, Dawn of Sunday: The Trinity and Trauma-Safe Churches.
  27. “Diane’s Story” in The Long Journey Home: Understanding and Ministering to the Sexually Abused, ed. Andrew Schmutzer (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011), 357–58.
  28. Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 266 and 269.
  29. Preston Hill, “Does God Need a Body to Keep the Score of Trauma?” Theological Puzzles 1 (2021), https://www.theo-puzzles.ac.uk/2021/04/20/phill/.