Trauma, Suffering, and the Community

On the Mere Orthodoxy blog Patrick Stefan has written an appreciative critique of an article recently written on trauma and Reformed evangelicalism by Paul Maxwell. I want to weigh in with a question for Patrick. But before I get to this, I need to give a quick fly over of the discussion.

First, Paul’s piece was a reflection on his experience within evangelicalism and particularly at Westminster (Philadelphia). Paul was connecting a general observation about the culture of Reformed evangelicalism—its divisiveness and in-group vs. out-group dynamics—with the tendency of the traumatized to re-create trauma. He writes, “abused boys can be attracted to militant contexts that recreate their own emotional abuse.”

Not only is this re-creation a recipe for perpetuating abuse, but it is also a pretty terrible context for working through trauma. He writes, “But currently, and I say this in spite of all the books that have been written for ‘survivors’ and ‘healing’ by evangelicals, there is no place for corporate or public healing of trauma in evangelicalism . . . I simply don’t believe there is space for a traumatized person to be their full selves in this community.”

Patrick Stefan builds on Paul’s article by telling his own very moving story of trauma. He suggests his narrative has two stories: “there’s the well-rehearsed one that demonstrates my theological acumen and ability to find truth, then there’s the back-story of a boy in an unsteady world looking for some semblance of certainty.” He gives his own account of Reformed evangelicalism highlighting the doctrine of the fall, the nature of trauma within this doctrine, and biblical examples of coming to terms with suffering.

While generally building on Paul’s article, he thinks “Maxwell has painted Reformed Evangelicalism with too broad a brush.” I wish Patrick had said more about this. Frankly, I am not sure he’s even talked about Paul’s most significant complaint, not about Reformed theology (Paul’s dissertation is on this), but the culture of the community.

It strikes me that Patrick has actually unwittingly contributed to Paul’s point by talking about the two narratives of his life. This leads to my question for Patrick: What kept you from telling your story to your church community? He says, “Behind the closed doors of my home I struggled with anger, hyper-vigilance, and sleeplessness, though I put on a good face in public.” This is precisely the point the Paul was making.

What struck me most about this piece—knowing Paul pretty well—is that it signaled a break with a sort of protective pretense. The fact is, this is remarkably courageous for a person in Paul’s position (Who wants to hire “damaged goods”?). The fact is our church communities do have informal in-groups and out-groups, those who are qualified for “leadership” and those who are not. There are the sufferers and the helpers. Emotional stability is a sign of spiritual maturity, and vice versa–circumstances notwithstanding.

I want to suggest that the reason that the community does so poor a job of supporting sufferers and the reason why Patrick was hesitant to show his suffering is precisely because we still tend to assume that negative emotion is a direct and simple manifestation of sin. Negative emotion, especially statements of anger, regularly disqualify people from being “in.” This creates a devastating catch-22 where people want to communicate strongly and risk rejection for doing so.

Many thanks to both Patrick and Paul for their vulnerability. I applaud them both for their courage. But perhaps, we could bring about a community where courage isn’t necessary for sharing suffering?


John Calvin on the Body, from Psychopannychia

We are better taught by the Sacred Writings. The body, which decays, weighs down the soul, and confining it within an earthly habitation, greatly limits its perceptions. If the body is the prison of the soul, if the earthly habitation is a kind of fetters, what is the state of the soul when set free from this prison, when loosed from these fetters? Is it not restored to itself, and as it were made complete, so that we may truly say, that all which it gains is so much lost to the body? Whether they will or not, they must be forced to confess, that when we put off the load of the body, the war between the spirit and the flesh ceases. In short, the mortification of the flesh is the quickening of the spirit. Then the soul, set free from impurities, is truly spiritual, so as to be in accordance with the will of God, and not subject to the tyranny of the flesh, rebelling against it. In short, the mortification of the flesh will be the quickening of the spirit: For then the soul, having shaken off all kinds of pollution, is truly spiritual, so that it consents to the will of God, and is no longer subjected to the tyranny of the flesh; thus dwelling in tranquillity, with all its thoughts fixed on God. Are we to say that it sleeps, when it can rise aloft unencumbered with any load? – that it slumbers, when it can perceive many things by sense and thought, no obstacle preventing? These things not only manifest the errors of these men, but also their malignant hostility to the works and operations which the Scriptures proclaim that God performs in his saints.

Aquinas’s Logic of Temptation

This is useful for understanding the relation of body and soul in Aquinas for several reasons. First, the spiritual governs the corporeal, so temptation comes through the body. Second, the movements of appetite make perception more acute, or the body prepares the soul’s cognition. Third, imagination produces appetite, or the soul prepares the body, at least in part.

Summa Theologica, I-II.80.2

Hence, the entirety of the devil’s interior operation seems to focus on the imagination and sentient appetite.


By moving the two of them, he is able to induce a man to sin, since he can operate in such a way as

to present certain imagined forms to the imagination, and he can likewise

bring it about that the sentient appetite is excited with some passion.


For it was explained in the First Part (ST 1, q. 110, a. 3) that a corporeal nature naturally obeys a spiritual nature with respect to local motion.


Hence, the devil, too, is able to cause everything that can arise from the local motion of lower bodies, unless he is held back by God’s power.


Now the fact that forms are represented to the imagination follows sometimes from local motion.

For in De Somno et Vigilia the Philosopher says, “When an animal sleeps and the blood descends to the sentient principle in a large quantity, the movements or impressions that are left by sensible motions and that are conserved in the sensible species descend at the same time and move the apprehensive principle in such a way that the impressions appear in the way they would if the sentient principle were at that time being affected by the exterior things themselves.”

Hence, this sort of local motion on the part of the humors or [animal] spirits can be procured by demons whether the man in question is asleep or awake, and in this way it follows that the man imagines certain things.


Similarly, the sentient appetite is likewise excited toward certain passions in accord with certain determinate movements of the heart and [animal] spirits; hence, the devil can likewise operate to effect this.


And from the fact that certain passions are excited in the sentient appetite, it follows that the man perceives more acutely the sensible movement or tendency that is traced back, in the way just explained, to the apprehensive principle;

for as the Philosopher says in the same book, “Lovers are moved to the apprehension of the beloved even by a slight similarity.”


Again, because the passion is excited, it happens that what is proposed to the imagination is judged to be something that should be pursued;

for someone who is in the grips of a passion (ei qui a passione detinetur) is such that what he is inclined toward by the passion seems good to him. And it is in this way that the devil induces a man interiorly to sin.

The Forbearing Community

The challenge of any community is that we all have ways of being that cause tremendous pain to others. Our own assumptions of what is due to us or just our unconscious drives for love, affirmation, and satisfaction can make life unbearable to others. We sin both by demanding what others cannot give and by not giving what we never even thought of giving. Yet the real pain caused by our inattention and habitual desire is serious. This is why the only real community that can exist is a Christian community. A real community must be sustained by forbearing the pain caused by others. We must be able to say, “This pain I charge not to them, because God has not. In fact, God has not charged to me the pain I am causing them, but has become the great bearer of pain, making forgiveness possible. And since human forgiveness and forbearance is always responsive to God’s forgiving, my forbearing this pain is simply doing less than what God has done for me in Jesus.”

Calvin: Conflating Heart and Will

Calvin does use the word “heart” in many ways throughout The Institutes. But at least when he’s talking about the depravity of the psychological faculties, he takes the biblical uses of “heart” as references to the corrupt will. I think this is a problem, but I make no comment about that here. But to preserve a key example:

God, therefore, begins the good work in us by exciting in our hearts a desire, a love, and a study of righteousness, or (to speak more correctly) by turning, training, and guiding our hearts unto righteousness; and he completes this good work by confirming us unto perseverance. But lest any one should cavil that the good work thus begun by the Lord consists in aiding the will, which is in itself weak, the Spirit elsewhere declares what the will, when left to itself, is able to do. His words are, “A new heart also will I give you, and a new spirit will I put within you: and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes, and ye shall keep my judgments, and do them,” (Ezek. 36:26, 27). How can it be said that the weakness of the human will is aided so as to enable it to aspire effectually to the choice of good, when the fact is, that it must be wholly transformed and renovated?

John Calvin, Institutes, II.3.6

The Psychology of Invisible Prejudice

My academic project leaves me very little time to reflect on current events or to comment in public on them. But I take up pen in this instance to provide a short stab at what I take to be one of the most fundamental misunderstanding in the ongoing conversation on interethnic reconciliation. On the one hand, white Americans don’t tend to think of themselves as racist and don’t ascribe racist motivations to their actions. On the other hand, minorities see very clearly the lingering racism, prejudice, and privilege. Can the two viewpoints be reconciled? Perhaps I can provide one step toward it (there are certainly other aspects that need to be addressed).

My research has enabled me to dip my toe into the emerging research on the “adaptive unconscious” (Timothy Wilson’s terminology). The adaptive unconscious is roughly our lower level cognition especially at the level of perception, involving filtering white noise and  reflex evaluations of our surroundings. There is a strong link between our lower cognition and our emotional states (see Jesse Prinz). So, for instance, lower cognition enables my to be “aware” of dangers and react before I am even conscious of them. The difficulty with lower cognition is that it has a complicated relationship with our conscious thought. For instance, I talked with a man recently who had debilitating fear of barking dogs as a result of an attack as a child, but could not “think his way out of it.” The “irrationality” of our fears is no reason for us not to have them, since they operate at another level of our consciousness. Some people talk about this as the intentionality of the body (e.g. Merleau-Ponty).

So, to make a step toward reconciling the opposing views. I suspect that the many white Americans who say they are not racist are being sincere in the sense that they do not consciously entertain ideas of inferiority towards other racial or ethnic groups. But, at the level of the body, or at the level of their lower consciousness, the fear and disdain may exist very plainly and visibly to others. This is not insignificant. Our gut reactions to others form a major aspect of social intercourse. We like people who are “open” and “warm”, even though we may not be able to say explicitly what we mean by these metaphors. What we mean by “open” may be 1,000 small types of behavior, speech, or expression that are hard to specify. Minorities can face a world where nearly all of the people they come into contact with on a daily basis are “closed” and “cold,” or hostile. And conscious intentional hostility is not the only type that produces violence. Our heads say we are open and welcoming, but our bodies and our hands may tell a different tale.

So, the police officers who have been in the news racist? They certainly are reacting with excessive force. Even if their thinking is not prejudiced (though perhaps it is), their bodies 2016-07-12 11.27.48 am.pngare. And this state of affairs is legitimately terrifying and sometimes deadly for those against whom this prejudice is directed. I grieve the lives these officers have taken.

So what can be done about invisible prejudice? The raises another feature of our “body-intentionality,” that it is largely affected by our experience. How did my friend fight his fear of dogs? He held puppies. It is absolutely essential for building racial peace for all of us to intermingle our lives with those who are different from us. We must experience the humanity of the other through hospitality to teach ourselves to love. We cannot be content with affirmations of equality but no bodily action. The role of the Christian church in this is especially important. We must take seriously our responsibility to build diverse, hospitable communities that are capable of ministering reconciliation both on a Spiritual and social level. We are to be a city set on a hill, a City of God where there is one body, as well as one Lord, one faith, one baptism.

Reading Lewis on “The Model”, Ch. I

First it is necessary to note what Lewis is doing in this book. I think he is fundamentally wanting to illustrate the general psychological difference between ancient and medieval people and ourselves, in order to make us aware of our own “mental temper.” I think he holds that each age, very roughly speaking, has a sort of aesthetic that saturates its epistemic and moral intuitions. This is a claim about generalities; and as such, it will be suspect to the modern scientific mind. Morton Bloomfield objects, for instance, that “built into a book of this sort is the hazard of trying to find the mediaeval and Renaissance world-image,” and quips that Lewis has “a tendency to oversimplify and to overcategorize.” But, even this rejection of general views may be an aspect of the modern psychology. We’d prefer to stick to knowing “the facts,” the things that are falsifiable. Claims about general psychologies are not falsifiable, and therefore taboo. Frankly, I think this taboo is partly arrogance about the sorts of things “we [moderns] know”, and partly a lack of imagination about the assumptions that drive our intuitions.

(In case you missed it, I’m suggesting the reason that the notion of a “general mind” seems uncouth is because we fail to notice our “general mind.” The danger with bracketing off generalities as “unknowable” is the sort of absurd causal reductionism that is only possible to specialists [e.g. “A new study shows…”]. When dealing with persons, for every ten variables you think you’ve eliminated, there are ten more you’ve failed to imagine. Imagination is a key ability for generalizing. Generalists–at their best–skillfully balance relations of causal factors.)

At any rate, this is how Lewis sums up at the end of the book:

Pg. 222: 

“We can no longer dismiss the change of Models as a simple progress from error to truth. No Model is a catalogue of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy. Each is a serious attempt to get in all the phenomena known at a given period, and each succeeds in getting in a great many. But also, no less surely, each reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge. Hardly any battery of new facts could have persuaded a Greek that the universe had an attribute so repugnant to him as infinity; hardly any such battery could persuade a modern that it is hierarchical.

“It is not impossible that our own Model will die a violent death, ruthlessly smashed by an unprovoked assault of new facts–unprovoked as the nova of 1572. But I think it is more likely to change when, and because, far-reaching changes in the mental temper of our descendants demand that it should. The new Model will not be set up without evidence, but the evidence will turn up when the inner need for it becomes sufficiently great. It will be true evidence. But nature gives most of her evidence to the questions we ask her. Here, as in the courts, the character of the evidence depends on the shape of the examination, and a good-cross examiner can do wonders.”

So, to begin the series of posts. Excerpts from Chapter I of The Discarded Image:

Pg. 10: 

“At his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems. He wanted ‘a place for everything and everything in the right place’. Distinction, definition, tabulation were his delight. Though full of turbulent activities, he was equally full of the impulse to formalise them. War was (in intention) formalised by the art of heraldry and the rules of chivalry; sexual passion (in intention), by an elaborate code of love. . . . There was nothing which medieval people liked better, or did better, than sorting out and tidying up. Of all our modern inventions I suspect that they would most have admired the card index.

“This impulse is equally at work in what seem to us their silliest pedantries and in their most sublime achievements. In the latter we see the tranquil, indefatigable, exultant energy of passionately systematic minds bringing huge masses of heterogeneous material into unity. The perfect examples are the Summa of Aquinas and Dante’s Divine Comedy;”

Pg. 11:

“They are bookish. They are indeed very credulous of books. They find it hard to believe that anything an old auctour has said is simply untrue. And they inhabit a very heterogenous collection of books; Judaic, Pagan, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoical, Primitive Christian, Patristic. Or (by a different classification) chronicles, epic, poems, sermons, visions, philosophical treatises, satires. Obviously their auctours will contradict one another. They will seem to do so even more often if you ignore the distinction of kinds and take your science impartially from the poets and philosophers; and this the medievals very often did in fact though they would have been well able to point out, in theory, that poets feigned. . . . A Model must be built which will get everything in without a clash; and it can do this only by becoming intricate, by mediating its unity through a great, and finely ordered, multiplicity.”