Trauma, Worship & Life Together

praying man

“Holy places are dark places. It is life and strength, not knowledge and words, that we get in them. Holy wisdom is not clear and thin like water, but thick and dark like blood.”
– C.S. Lewis, Till We Have Faces.

One of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s quintessential observations in the early part of Life Together is basically this: We need to cease with our idealism about church and embrace the reality of the Church. We are all in this struggle against God and one another and only when we surrender to the reality of the Church do we embrace the Church as it is.

I think this can be helpful, painful as it is. Our idealism, though rooted in genuine and even teleological (and eschatological) desire, does not make sense of this often agonizing span of time between the two advents of Christ. It is often a time we remain “faceless,” borrowing and living through the masks forged in insecurity and suffering. It is, as it were, a dark and bloody mess. So the way we are together matters. Moreover, the manner of our worship matters.

To Deconvert or Remain
But can Bonhoeffer’s observation of the Church account for those who’ve experienced the sort of religious trauma described in Michelle Panchuk’s excellent post on this blog? What can we say about the casualties of the absolute worst of the Church’s carnality – the presence of those who are so religiously corrupt, knowingly or not, that they victimize others in the name of their (versions of) God?

Panchuk’s two hypothetical examples are familiar: Victims of physical and emotional violence at the will of a priest and a parent, perpetrators whose faith should flower into care, certainly not abuse. Having walked and wept alongside victims of religious trauma or abuse, I’ve observed that relating to the Church is, at best, bewildering and isolating for them, never expeditious. They often know they are sinners, too, but how on Earth can they reconcile suffering in the name of God on the one hand with a faith that is supposed to be rooted in God’s reciprocated love on the other? To embrace intellectually what Bonhoeffer concludes about the struggle of Christian community is not enough, which is one point it seems Panchuk is making. How does such a wounded person move forward? Or should they move away and deconvert as the most rational response? She offers some helpful “lines of thought” at the conclusion of her post and my hope is to interact broadly with those, specifically a theory of worship,embodied religious experience, and communal faith conceived honestly. (I wish there was room here to interact with all of them.)

As a pastor, my general response is (at least) threefold: First, I believe in God’s gracious persistence in keeping people of faith, even as they suffer mightily. Secondly, I believe it will be very difficult for that deeply wounded person to remain if the form of worship, and thus belonging, is purely expressive and not formative. She will have a hard time entering into worship if it’s dependent upon her state. Thirdly, communal faith within the Church as a “dark, holy place” needs to make normal room for the traumatized.

On Keeping & Worship
To the first response: I suppose deconversion does make practical sense. But I am inclined biblically to believe a person of faith is kept in God’s love regardless of her experience or understanding, so she will find questionable satisfaction in living as though she is not kept. Much as deconversion might stand to reason, I believe it will ultimately be discomfiting and could possibly even compound the pain and isolation. Personally, I believe this is often why the wounded can’t or don’t leave. Many theologians and philosophers have reckoned with this tension of relationship to God despite suffering (Augustine, Luther, Kierkegaard, etc.). Consider the story of Job and the considerations of God’s culpability in his suffering. Consider his blaming, so-called friends. On some transcendent level, I believe the sufferer will live reckoning with this “keptness” – in some sense, drawn by it.

This leads to Panchuk’s question of those who do stay. How can they, as she puts it, “keep on doing those things they believe to be essential to calling themselves a religious believer?”

My second response is that worship is formative, not fundamentally expressive and makes room for the victim of religious trauma. Unfortunately, the western Church suffers mightily from distortions of the Enlightenment’s “brains-on-a-stick” framework. It is from this framework that some form of the “requisite affective states” Panchuk mentions spring, forming the basis of expressivism as worship. In other words, these states to which we intellectually ascend then move us toward acts of worship that center on what we do toward and for God. A trajectory might be: Think right + Feel right = Worship right. I grew up primarily exposed to this framework (which is why Christianity seemed untenable in early adulthood). Even if I came into the church grumpy, wounded,  doubtful or overwhelmed by pubescent fantasies of nakedness galore, there was no way I could express or experience worship as it was understood. Not really. Because it was, from stem to stern, up to me.

But worship is formative. It’s not primarily up to me, but it does include me. It is based on what God has done and is doing. He sets the Table with his own love and life. Worship (like the Law) is a gift from God to us, meant to restore and dignify our humanity. He requires no such gift from us. Liturgy, as “the work of the people,” is thoroughly rooted in God’s initiative. God’s work first. This order matters. Sometimes we can bring no more than our kept bodies to it – even the ones hovering between dusk and dawn in an interminable dark night of the soul. So I suggest this view of worship makes space for even the most profoundly wounded soul to stay and even to worship. At the very least,this should be the relentless encouragement of the Church to them.

Kenosis for Worship as Formation
I would add that expressivism has displaced the sacraments as what they were for so many centuries. The Eucharist centers on our common need for the self-giving of Christ and its (his) sufficiency. No additives. Whatever theory of Christ’s atonement we might place at the center, each one rests upon his kenosis. Each one must. Otherwise he was not here for us. Furthermore, simply being a wounded voice and body remaining among the Body, all of us smeared with our mortality and in all manner of states, makes most sense of what the Church actually is at the Table. The requisite state for God’s love is human. Full stop. All yearning and pursuit and requisite states aside, the Church includes those whose suffering precludes them from anything other than simply being there with empty hands (a faith act) while others are raising them, with closed mouths while others are praying or rejoicing. I believe being present, whatever the motivation or wherever one is located on the continua of faith, hope and love, makes a difference. It forms hearts – because God is at work.

As an aside, it’s for this that the Book of Common Prayer was actually written – that regular people might be so human as to practice their faith in certain rhythms outside the church walls, and not just when it seems to make most sense to reason or emotion. It’s in these often rote practices that our hope, as liturgically-minded believers, might grow and our suffering might heal even if we bring nothing to them. Over against medieval Catholicism’s naturalized worship liturgy that arguably emphasized human effort as the basis for worship, Cranmer and other reformers hoped to recover God’s initiative and activity in worship. (Along with one of Panchuk’s commenters, I too would point the reader to James K.A. Smith’s seminal work, Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation, as well as Ashley Null’s Thomas Cranmer’s Doctrine of Repentance: Renewing the Power to Love.)

The Hope of Honest Pastors (& Churches)
My third point relates to the shape and tone of communal faith. As pastors, we always hope that those who are following Christ will find increasing joy in doing so. If we are honest, we do not always experience that joy and, sometimes, for a longer season than we want to admit. My ability to admit this is what makes Bonhoeffer’s assertion helpful. 

On a brief personal note, my pastoral relationship to the Church can feel like living up to God’s expectations as my boss and, frankly, I often don’t want much to do with him as my boss (even though he is good). If that sounds awful, then you’re reading it right. Not many people want to leave work and have dinner with their boss. But this is what I navigate in my relationship with God. In my worship. I am continually reckoning with how I see him and how he actually is. I see myself in a hazy mirror and him through a thick fog. But I worship. Thankfully, the seasons of my heart do change.

That which makes the Church a dark, but holy place is the obvious presence of our intermittent “unfaith,” even the agony or malaise that accompany human lives oriented toward God. This is why God sets the Table. We are, nonetheless, doing life together around this Table. We would do well to actually be more together in our togetherness, the fulfilled with the floundering in honest empathy. We should aim for nothing less than being together in each other’s agonies and even our seasons of spiritual sterility, not merely rehearsing our knowledge and experience of the requisite states of faith and for worship.

To the extent we as leaders idealize the Church, we leave the traumatized in the margins without an imagination for belonging or an invitation to worship as worship really is and has been. In her reality as a holy place where the wisdom of God comes to bear, the Church can surely be life and strength. But she cannot be other than thick and dark like blood. I am a witness to the many victims I have known who have found healing from the Church herself in the Church, as the Church. But it’s never clear. Never thin.


Trauma and Deconversion: Questions for Pastors and Philosophers


tear in eye

Written by Michelle Panchuk.

Michelle received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of South Carolina and will be a research fellow at Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion for the 2016-2017 academic year. In her free time she enjoys reading children’s fantasy, hiking with her husband, Yuriy, and collecting dog-sightings with her toddler, Miroslava

Content note: descriptions of religious trauma, physical abuse and mention of rape.


“Better to refuse even the truth for a time, than, by accepting into our intellectual creed that which our heart cannot receive, not seeing its real from, to introduce hesitation into our prayers, a jar into our praises, and a misery into our love. If it be the truth, we shall one day see it another thing than it appears now, and love it because we see it lovely; for all truth is lovely.” — George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons

Recently Seth Cain wrote about what pastors want from their philosopher friends. In part, it was a call for us to consider those weighty, soul-wrenching situations in which parishioners turn to God, and to their pastors, for support. It was a reminder that what people need is not always more theological or philosophical reflection, but a loving presence in time of need. I think Cain is exactly right. But while many find comfort in their faith in the midst of suffering, for others, faith itself is the source of deep pain. There are those who, as the result of religious trauma, have left their faith, doubt their faith, or try desperately to maintain a grasp on what used to be their faith. The church and the academy tend to have little to say to such people, and when we do speak, it has often with scorn or suspicion. I believe we can, indeed, we must, do better. Here I offer a first attempt at describing the problem and then suggest a few directions of inquiry that may provide us, as theologians, as pastors, as philosophers, and as Christians, better resources with which to respond to religious trauma.

By religious trauma I mean an array of negative experiences of the divine, of religious practice, of religious community, or of religious dogma that are personally transformative in ways that significantly diminish the individual’s capacity to engage in or experience these very things in the future. Religious trauma is related to the more general problem of evil, but raises a distinct set of questions that are not answered by more general responses to evil, just as such. Suffering in general can pose an obstacle to faith, but there is something unique, and uniquely problematic, about being harmed (or perceiving oneself to be harmed) by God, in the name of God, with the approval of God, or by those who claim to represent God.

Consider the following examples:

A young child is repeatedly and brutally beaten by her religious parents. She is told that since God commanded the Israelites to stone their rebellious children, anything they do to her short of that is divinely approved, and morally deserved for her childish misbehavior. They say that they must beat her because God wants them to. One night, they lock her out of the house as punishment for some misdeed. Sitting alone, bruised and bleeding, gazing at the stars, the girl has an overwhelming sense of the presence of God—a presence utterly terrifying because she perceives it to be of a being who delights in her suffering. This experience fundamentally shapes her feelings about the divine. Whatever she may come to believe about God, she cannot shake the deep revulsion she has at any attempt to address herself to God.

A young boy is raped by his priest in his church and sworn to secrecy in the name of God. Telling anyone will hurt the reputation of the church and displease God. Whatever he may come to believe about the church, the sight of a priest or even a church building continues to make him physically ill.

These are two cases of religious trauma. In both there is a sense in which it is almost irrelevant what the individuals come to believe about the experience or its evidential force with respect to the truth of their religious beliefs. The experience itself both transforms them and subjects them to affective (e.g., fear, revulsion), physical (e.g., nausea, racing heart), and other psychological (e.g., intrusive thoughts, doubts) states that partially or completely preclude them from full participation in religious life. In the former case, the woman’s attempts to worship are hindered because, though she may believe God to be worthy of her worship, her revulsion at every attempt to relate herself to God impedes the love and adoration she believes she must have. In the latter, the man’s ability to participate in religious practices, such as receiving the Eucharist from a priest, within his faith tradition is significantly hindered. If he is persuaded of the importance of these practices for his religious faith, then his experience has diminished his capacity to engage in his faith. Both individuals have been traumatized by religion, and that trauma negatively affects the further practice of their faith. Certainly, this is not the only way that harm done in the name of God may impact an individual, but this is one significant, and not at all rare, way that it does.

A common response from philosophers to descriptions of religious trauma is to dismiss them as pastoral, rather than philosophical, concerns. Since they are not problems about rationality of religious belief (at least not from the standpoint of theoretical reason) or the evidence for the truth of some religion, they fall outside of the purview of philosophy. But pastors are often equally unable to address the topic in a helpful way. They say things like, “But you KNOW that isn’t true! Why don’t you just move on/get over it/forgive/forget.”

In both cases, there appears to be a deep-seated assumption that religious faith is primarily an intellectual exercise. If you just adopt the right set of propositional attitudes, everything else (including those aspects of faith that are not merely intellectual—obedience to God, for example) falls into place. This, it seems to me, fundamentally ignores the kind of beings humans are, and the kind of thing worship is. While I do not yet have a fully developed theory of worship, worship cannot be simply the holding of the right set of propositional attitudes. Within Christianity, paradigmatic cases of worship seem to assume some level of belief, but also involve things like a committing of oneself to God, loving God, obeying God, adoring God, trusting God, and even enjoying God. If this is correct, and certain kinds of religious trauma preclude the individual’s ability to adopt the requisite states, might that inability count as a practical reason to deconvert? If so, what do we say of those who stay? Is it rational to continue considering oneself a follower of a God by whom one is repulsed?

My sense is that most philosophers and clergy want the answer to be, no, to the first question, and, yes, to the second. Some philosophers of religion suggest that any rejection of theism is the result of cognitive or moral deficiency (See for example, Alvin Plantinga’s Warranted Christian Belief, Chapters 7 and 14 are particularly relevant). But even those who acknowledge the rationality of atheism often speak as if only intellectual doubts could possibly count as reasons against religious faith. This is not to say that survivors of religious trauma never deconvert as the result of intellectual doubts. Many do. But there are others who simply cannot find a plausible way to keep on doing those things they believe to be essential to calling themselves a religious believer. These, who deconvert as the result of trauma, are then labeled “angry,” “emotional,” “irrational,” or “hurt.” In the end, isn’t this just another insidious form of victim blaming? Isn’t this just a lazy way to reinforce the privilege of those of us lucky enough not have been deeply wounded by our faith?

There are a number of lines of theological and philosophical inquiry that I believe could offer helpful resources in unraveling these difficult questions and in extending greater empathy to survivors of religious trauma:

1.) Development of a robust theory of worship. The recent debacle over Larycia Hawkins statements have prompted some interesting work in this direction that I hope will develop beyond a desire to merely draw lines in the sand. As I mentioned above, taking seriously the affective aspects of worship might explain why someone who cannot manage to find herself in the requisite affective states might have a reason to deconvert. Conversely, attention to the ways in which loving the things that God loves (love of neighbor, kindness, mercy, etc.) is also an act of worship might explain how a survivor might have a reason to continue identifying as a religious believer, despite her inability to love God, or even address herself to God through prayer, as she currently perceives the divine being.

2.) Attention to the fact that Christians worship a God who is a survivor of religiously-motivated abuse. Jesus was put to death by religious leaders in the name of God.

3.) Consideration of the implications of communal faith. Can we say on one hand that religious community is essential for faith, and simultaneously believe that the fault rests solely on the “hurt” deserter when they leave their faith because of religious trauma?

4.) Consideration of the parallels between canonical cases of religious experience and cases of religious trauma like the one described above.

5.) Work on embodied religious experience (See, for example, the work being done by Christina Van Dyke and Robyn Dembroff. Religious folks are not brains believing in God and engaging in religious life from the comfort of their vats. They are embodied individuals, experiencing their faith as embodied beings.

6.) Exploration of the interplay between theoretical and practical reason in religious belief and religious practice.


On Doors and Differences


Written by: Jason Browning

doorsJason Browning is married to Jennifer Browning and they have 3 daughters. Jason and Jennifer serve as Associate Pastors at Westmore Church in Cleveland, TN. Holding a BA from Lee University and a MTS from the Pentecostal Theological Seminary, Jason enjoys all things athletic and outdoors.



An interesting thing happens to girls about age 12 or 13. No, not that interesting thing (which is another topic for another blog). I suppose this happens to boys too, but since I only have daughters, I’ll speak a bout them. Around age 12 or 13, as young women are developing gifts and talents, one of the abilities they begin to exhibit is what I call “facial communication ability.” This is the ability by which a person can look at you and say nothing yet communicate a thousand different thoughts in less than 5 seconds. This talent is in full bloom by age 14 and is usually accompanied by other non-verbal communications like heavy breathing, rolled eyes, stomping feet and, as was the case in our home recently, a slammed door.

We don’t normally slam doors in our house. But our 14-year-old daughter did and when she did, the force of the door against the frame shook the wall causing a nice hanging clock to fall off the wall smashing to pieces. I know this doesn’t happen in any other home in America, but it did in ours. We usually talk about this kind of stuff and then determine an appropriate course correction. But this day was different. I took matters into my own hands. I grabbed a hammer and screwdriver and went to her room and took the doors off the frames. No bedroom door. No closet door. Which for a 14-year-old girl is the equivalent of water boarding.

You’d be amazed at what no doors can do. Doors have come to give us a sense of privacy and seclusion. They serve as a warning because they force people to announce their entrance into a room. Doors aren’t just entrances, but they provide separation and boundary and when you slam them, you can do a lot of damage.

For years, the church has slammed the door on the academic world and specifically in my Pentecostal faith tradition. As a result, there is often an unspoken tension between academia and the pastorate. The viewpoint many pastors take is that academia is lifeless and many times not practical. It is informational only and lacks heartfelt attachment. (As I type those very words, my heart hurts and my mind fills with exceptions to that statement.) There is this tension that is constantly involved in the pastorate/academic relationship that requires balancing the heartfelt work of the Spirit with the important scholarship of the Word and while it is subtle at times and overt at times, the tension is always present. I hate that. I don’t want tension in any of my relationships. So the temptation is to slam the door on emotion or slam the door on scholarship and you hear those doors slamming with statements like “All that information is dry and boring. It chokes out the move of the Spirit.” or “That service was all hype and emotion. There’s no content or substance there.” And the doors keep slamming and the damage keeps piling up along with the tension.

My faith and my profession and my academic involvements and all the other areas of my life don’t need balanced tension but prayerful integration. I want my preaching to have substance and content as it evokes deep emotion and reflection. I want the information of the Word to be infused with the inspiration of the Word so my head and my heart are engaged in being changed into the image of Jesus.

Interestingly, we position academics and pastoring as if they were in conflict with each other. We see the classroom and the pulpit in competition. The professor and the pastor can’t coexist. I’ve seen this in churches where scholarship is ignored, where no outside commentary is engaged. Pastors close the door to insightful teachers because “they’ve never been in the field.” I’ve seen this in the classroom where deep truths are communicated but connecting the dots doesn’t happen, where teachable moments are almost tangible, but the outline and covering the information is the priority. Professors close the door to heartfelt emotion because “this isn’t the time or place”.

Into this tense door slamming relationship the Scripture and specifically Jesus speaks. Over 60 times in the New Testament, Jesus is called teacher. In some form or another his information and the role of teacher was valued. Yet in His teaching, He always cut straight to the heart finding ways to challenge the mind while speaking to the issues of sin in the heart. Jesus taught “as one with authority” and I don’t believe you can do that without both scholarship and also emotion. He opened doors for religious teachers to be engaged all the while continuing to be moved with great compassion for everyone.

Jesus selected 12 disciples to carry his message and told them to “go into the world…” and “teach them to observe what I have commanded you.” The value and emphasis on teaching can’t be ignored and neither can His selection of disciples. Educated men who worked for Rome alongside uneducated Jewish fishermen were all invited to participate as Jesus opened the door to the world with His message of life. And as that group moved into what became the early church, this movement of Christianity spread among the uneducated and the educated alike.

One more thing about doors—doors have been important in churches for a long time. Doors have been the subjects of artwork. Some churches have red doors to symbolize the blood of Christ and keep demons out. Some churches have Holy Doors. In the book of John, Jesus makes these “I Am” statements. One of them is “I am the door” which I think speaks tremendously to pastors and professors. I want all of my life, my academic ambitions, my pastoral pursuits, my parenting style, my interaction with my spouse, everything to be centered on the teachings of Jesus. Jesus models for all of us the heartfelt emotion and commitment to biblical scholarship and teaching that integrates knowledge and faith instead of the either or position we give them. Jesus who is at the same time full of grace and truth, who is both teacher and prophet, who is the Good Shepherd and the Door calls us to open doors of dialogue and understanding with the pursuit of His agenda not ours.

It is my sincere prayer, that the doors of academia and the doors of the pastorate be wide open for all of us.