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.


One thought on “Trauma, Worship & Life Together

  1. Thank you for this. The most powerful thing I have ever experienced was an apology from a man from a religious institution who did not have to give an apology, and yet found the grace within to do so.


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