CIL advisor publishes cover story on theology and trauma

Chaplaincy Innovation Lab advisor and Boston University School of Theology professor Shelly Rambo has published a lead article in Christian Century. You can read “How Christian theology and practice are being shaped by trauma studies” at the journal’s website; a very brief excerpt is below:

The therapeutic challenge facing someone who has experienced trauma remains that of integrating the experience into their life. This entails working through the obstacles of ruptured memory, the inability to narrate the experience, and the shattering of assumptions and relational bonds that once sustained life. The processing of memory into language is a function of the frontal lobe of the brain, and much therapeutic work focuses on telling the story of one’s trauma. Talk therapies have dominated the field.

But research suggests that talk alone is insufficient. Those attuned to neurobiology emphasize that traumatic memories are stored as body memories in the limbic system. In traumatic recall, bodily sensations mobilize to respond to danger, even if the context is not threatening. This is what is known as being “triggered.” If trauma is stored as sensations in the body, then the focus of therapy must be on retraining the body to respond without registering constant threat. Practitioners focus on breath regulation and mindful body movements that restore a sense of safety.

The study of trauma and the rise of trauma studies have had a necessary impact on Christian theology. They have exposed glaring limitations in some Christian accounts of suffering and turned theologians in new interpretive directions.

Whereas Christian theology often approaches the topic of suffering through the classic framework of theodicy—making sense of evil within God’s rule of the world—trauma theologians question this framework on pastoral grounds. Aiming to reconcile what we know of God’s nature with what we know of evil and suffering in the world, theodicy frames suffering as an abstract problem to be solved. This approach can hover above the realities of what someone is experiencing. Rather than trying to offer an explanation of what is taking place, theology needs to witness to what is taking place. This approach mirrors some of the critiques of talk therapy: theodicy is the work of theology’s frontal lobe; theology needs to witness to the experiences of the sufferer.