Next week, November 2-3, we will be welcoming constructive theologian Dr. Shelly Rambo to The Seattle School for the annual Stanley Grenz Lecture Series. Dr. Rambo will discuss her concept of “Resurrection Wounds,” an understanding of trauma and healing that goes far beyond the traditional notions of redemptive suffering. Here, in an interview that originally appeared in The Other Journal, Dr. Chelle Stearns, Associate Professor of Theology, joins Dr. Rambo in a conversation about how theology and psychology intersect in both the reality of suffering and the hope of resurrection.

The Other Journal (TOJ): In Spirit and Trauma, you claim that trauma disrupts our narratives of redemption. As you put it, “theology must account for the excess, or remainder, of death in life that is central to trauma.”[1] How did you become interested in trauma as a frame for doing theology?

Shelly Rambo (SR): I was always compelled by suffering and by the way that great literature asks questions about faith and suffering, especially the suffering of innocent children. This is the question in Dostoyevsky. The conundrum of belief for Dostoyevsky is “Yes, I can understand a lot of things, but the suffering of the innocents? I can’t let God off the hook for that.” These great questions of literature pressed against my confidence in the Christian belief that I was raised with.

While my tradition recognized the questions, it was more invested in theological answers. These questions were met with a certain kind of apologetics that was interested in convincing people of the way and that seemed to negate the complexity of the questions. I was living in a world of faith that was more invested in propositional truth claims than it was in the questions. Literature, for me, opened up those questions. It posed a challenge to my Christian faith, and I realized that either my faith world had to expand to engage the complexity of those questions or I couldn’t stay in that world any more. Experiences of extreme and chronic suffering caused me to realize that I can’t do this faith if it’s not going to engage the question of suffering with more complexity. That was a very personal journey, one that actually led me to seminary, of deeply respecting my Christian tradition and yet finding it incapable of handling the complexities of life experiences.

But it wasn’t until I was in my master’s program at Yale Divinity School in the early 2000s that the study of trauma really became a passion for me. I began working with Serene Jones, a forerunner in theology and trauma, and she led me into the world of trauma literature and into some very productive collaborative experiences of co-learning. This was at a time when collaborations were beginning to take place across the university and the Yale Psychiatric Institute, with their work with Holocaust survivors and intergenerational trauma, and the English department, where they were studying literary theory and deconstruction. The energy in these interdepartmental collaborations was tangible. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this movement at Yale, which had begun a few years before I arrived, was the birth of the interdisciplinary study and literary deconstruction of trauma in the United States.

I was aware, however, that there was this triangle of clinical practice, literary theory, and Christian theology, which I found to be a very unique way of thinking about suffering, a distinctive phenomenology of suffering. I brought it back to Christian theology, and I asked more of those complex questions that my faith tradition had danced around with apologetics. How do we think about suffering, given the Christian plot—the story of creation, fall, and redemption? What happens when the human story and the story of our lived experience doesn’t fit the linear pattern of that Christian plot? What happens when there are certain dominant ways of telling that story which undercut many of our stories? More specifically, I came to believe that it is important to ask why certain ways of thinking about what happened on the cross come to be the one way of thinking. I brought all of the trauma readings, and all of these questions, back to Christian theology, and it led me to my doctoral work on the interdisciplinary study of trauma and to a corresponding theology of Holy Saturday.

“I asked more of those complex questions that my faith tradition had danced around with apologetics.”

TOJ: In the midst of this transformation, why remain a theologian? Why not go into a clinical profession where you directly helped people in trauma? What’s important about doing theology in this space?

SR: I was always interested in theological questions about suffering, particularly as it is lived out in persons. I’ve always been interested in what happens when Christian theology doesn’t work for those who suffer and what happens when human experience doesn’t work. Yet it never dawned on me to go into psychology.

It did dawn on me, however, to go into literature. I already had that background, there was so much happening at the intersection of literary theory and trauma, and I knew that there was a lot more freedom to interpret texts in literature than in theology. In literature there are boundaries that come with interpretive methods, but in theology there is a sacred aspect to the texts and an added layer of tradition to consider. This means that texts can’t be read in just any way; there are communities of authority gathered around these texts. And I really felt that I wanted to take responsibility for those texts.

I chose theology because I felt I could make a unique contribution. As a woman growing up in a tradition in which the doctrine of biblical authority was very strong, I was often the person who didn’t fare so well in textual interpretation. I was aware of how texts could be deployed to silence others, of how they could be deployed with great authority at a human cost. And so my work with trauma was and continues to be very textual. I don’t see that as detached from lived experience but, rather, as an important intermediary between text and life. Indeed, biblical interpretation clearly maps onto and shapes human lives. There is not a great distance between the lived story that we carry with us and the biblical stories that we believe in; for a lot of people, these two kinds of stories are intricately connected.

“There is not a great distance between the lived story that we carry with us and the biblical stories.”

And those connections cannot be reduced to propositional truth claims. In speaking of interpretation, particularly as someone raised in a tradition of apologetics and concrete theological answers, I find that it is key to approach the biblical text with an awareness of its poetic illusiveness. People may make claims, they may say that “Jesus is this,” but if we read closely in the Gospels, we can push back and say, “Really? Jesus is just that?” And so one way to think about trauma and the theological interpretation of biblical texts is in the context of the Midrashic texts of the Jewish tradition. These texts have a poetic, storying element to them, and I really love that. I think this practice of interpretation speaks to the gaps of human experience, and it always says both more and less. In reading Scripture in this way, we give ourselves a moment of wonder, a moment to think “maybe the text could instead say this.”

Moreover, there is incredible power in having access to the original languages of these texts, in studying the historical context to the biblical text and the history of its reception. In studying these things, I’ve learned how political and messy the context and reception of Scripture has been. Therefore, in my work with trauma, it is critical to consider this context and then account for the elisions in the story, to follow the thread of that poetic wondering about other interpretations. For people who read the biblical text with a trauma lens, what’s not said often becomes more interesting than what’s said.

A lot of great trauma scholarship is in biblical studies. And actually, they accessed trauma theory before the theologians. People like Tod Linafelt, Timothy Beal, and Walter Brueggemann started a trajectory that takes post-Holocaust theology very, very seriously; they asked how to approach biblical texts in light of the Shoah. They did this work early, because the texts have a traumatic reception in the ongoing relationship between Christianity and Judaism. So I owe a lot of my inspiration to reading of their work. They envisioned what would it actually look like to turn to a Gospel text and look for what’s there and not there as a way to testifying to traumatic experience.

TOJ: In your theology, you adopt a somatic, or bodily, way of knowing. You claim that when our bodily senses become confused, we lose our ability to articulate our experience; that is, our bodily knowledge becomes disconnected from our capacity for language. You refer to this as the “sensorium” or the overloading of the senses.[2] And later on in Spirit and Trauma, you talk about how the senses are able bring us back to our bodies and back to where people are healed. I am still working through the implications of this more somatic epistemology. How do you talk about it theologically?

SR: There’s an awareness within continental philosophy that critical theories, such as deconstruction and postmodernism, largely focus on attempting to understand the role of subjectivity in language. Even Judith Butler’s theoretical work on bodies has predominantly remained on the level of language. It’s very discursive. A lot of critical theory, and I think trauma theory as well, really can’t account for skin, flesh, or material bodies.

I’m heavily impacted by the neurobiological research on trauma and by a basic premise about how our brains work: when we experience trauma, the cognitive or frontal lobe of the brain shuts down, which means that trauma is experienced elsewhere. It is lodged in the body, not necessarily in our language. This is the viewpoint of Bessel van der Kolk—who is extremely evangelistic about his opinion—and there’s a lot of neuroscientific research that is moving in this direction.[3]

Neurobiological research, like the work of van der Kolk, pushes us back in the direction of bodies, toward an awareness of an affective dimension in how we live our lives, an awareness of this radical interaction between actual biological bodies and discursive worlds that are continually shaping each other. I’ve been collaborating recently with Richard Kearney, and he calls this carnal hermeneutics. Rather than following philosophy’s trajectory toward a separation of phenomenology and hermeneutics, he urges us to think of text and body together, to think on what I call the surface of the skin.[4]

In thinking this way, I hope to recover the fragmented and bodily ways that people really process trauma. I hope to find the ways that we interact in and with the world, between words, cognitive linguistic capacity, and the body. This is affect theory as it emerges out of trauma theory, and what I like about affect theory is that it has both word and body in active interaction with the world so that our experience of moving in the world is this blending of, let’s just say, the world experienced on the surface of skin. And thus the skin becomes an interesting surface on which to theorize about a more interactive notion of subjectivity. There’s a kind of porousness about the somatic. And this makes things like synesthesia important, which I mention later in Spirit and Trauma—touch and hearing and smell and all the senses need to work together.

When I began this work, I had no sophistication in writing about that, except that I followed the biblical text. In the biblical text it was really Mary Magdalene who guided me. Mary couldn’t see, but she could hear Jesus by the sound of her name. Multiple senses were involved.[5] You could imagine Peter and the beloved disciple stumbling over each other as they are trying to get to Jesus, to the tomb. I have these visual images of these witnesses who are using every sense they can. Every sense they have is activated, because they don’t know what’s going on. And I think what trauma theory has often missed in its theorizing is the importance of having a way to talk about the body and the importance of these senses.

TOJ: You mention Mary Magdalene and Peter at the tomb, and I think one of your major contributions to theology is in the way in which you have identified the Spirit as the “middle” Spirit who witnesses trauma, especially the trauma of Holy Saturday, that day when Jesus is silent in the tomb and the Spirit is an invisible but persistent witness.[6]  You also allude to the collision of the human spirit and the divine Spirit in lived experience, especially in trauma. Could you speak some about your understanding of the Spirit in this context?

SR: My discussion of the Spirit is shaped by my reading of the original Greek of the Johannine text. In reading that text, I’ve thought a lot about the promise and arrival of the Spirit. I believe we need to think more carefully about the different ways in which Spirit manifests in biblical texts, and to that end, I want to emphasize that there are different moments in a theology of the Spirit. There is the Holy Saturday moment, which is the moment I described in my book and the moment which I will discuss here, but that doesn’t negate, for example, the Pentecost Spirit, the kind of vibrant, fiery, blood-boiling, pulsing—like surging bodies—Spirit in which life and witness are reclaimed in a very different way. There are many different ways in which God’s Spirit engages the world—touching, incarnating, creating, tabernacling, manifesting. I am not describing a full theology of the Spirit that includes all of these manifestations, only a much-neglected moment in the narrative of what we consider the Holy Spirit in Christian thought.

That said, I believe we’ve missed something about this concept of witness and about the way in which, to quote Hans Urs von Balthasar, the “weary trickle” or the “faint glimmer” of God remains, though not in any clear or substantive sense.[7] This is perhaps what we think of as the human spirit and God’s Spirit becoming inseparably joined in the faintness, in the vulnerability. I definitely don’t state this in the book, and it might be a more provocative theology of God that I’m putting forward, but perhaps this advocate Spirit is the human spirit who remains to witness the death of God. When God is absent, there needs to be a witness, which in fact counts, which in fact is a presence, but which is not the presence of God. I never came out and said that in the book because I think it has implications for a theology of God that I was so nervous to step into as a newly minted doctoral student. I don’t think it was fear—it was just that I had so much going on in the book that I didn’t want to say, “Here are the implications for a theology of God, for an ecclesiology.” But, of course, I think this will be a key part of my future work.

“Perhaps this advocate Spirit is the human spirit who remains to witness the death of God.”

In Spirit and Trauma, I really wanted to emphasize what I’ll call the weakness of God and the weakness of Spirit. But I didn’t want to link that weakness with the cross—I felt like that would entangle the weakness of the Spirit too tightly with atonement theologies, that it missed something that I was attempting to convey. I wanted to say that there was something about the Holy Saturday presence, absence, and witness that intimates a theology of redemption but doesn’t necessarily redeem. I don’t think that I say that there is no redemption in the cross, but I come close to saying, instead, that we redeem each other through our witness.

This human task of witnessing means entering into the chaos of a different posture. I like that word posture because it’s kind of Kierkegaardian—the trembling in which you enter into what you don’t know. Anyone who has worked deeply with people in the throes of trauma knows that there is a threat that you will go under with them. So this posture is a trembling kind of presence, in that you could be taken under unless you have the nourishing presence of the Spirit. The theologian Wendy Farley once asked the Dali Lama how we know that if we enter into the way of compassion we won’t get swallowed, how we can know that it won’t take us under. And it was such a powerful question for me because I really think that’s right on: if we enter into this witnessing, we will be marked in some way.

We will be affected when we enter this space of witnessing, but it is not martyrdom or imitation. Yet it comes dangerously close, and I’m OK entering into that dangerous territory because I don’t think I’m reinforcing theologies of suffering as a kind of prescriptive goading into suffering. But I do think there are the imprints of that kind of theology in what I’m proposing; people could probably take the things I’m saying and move them in that direction. So I’m kind of dancing on the edge of very dangerous theological territory.

“We will be affected when we enter this space of witnessing, but it is not martyrdom or imitation.”

TOJ: This conversation is making me rethink my interpretation of your pneumatology, which I’ve generally seen as along the lines of Augustine’s idea of the Spirit as “the bond of love” between Father and Son.[8] One of my students once expressed the mysterious witness of the Spirit as the presence of planks during the swamp moments in life. The student described it as trying to cross a swamp with three boards: you have to put one board in front of the other to get across the swamp, but even as you’re making progress, the reality is that you are still in the middle of a swamp. And so there’s still a presence and there are still the boards. This is what you refer to as the “mixed terrain of trauma.” Witness is necessary because the experience confuses hope and despair, life and death. It is like swimming with a strong undertow. The Spirit’s witness in these mixed moments becomes like the three boards in the swamp, ever present but accompanying the very real possibility that the next move will start the sinking. In this light, where do you think the Spirit goes on Holy Saturday? Von Balthasar asserts that the Word becomes silent on Holy Saturday—is the Spirit’s witnessing also silent? Or is it true absence?[9]

SR: It is not pure absence, and I don’t know that I would say that it is silence either. The von Balthasar allusion is interesting because he very much describes pneumatology as a bond, in that, kind of like that Augustinian line, the Spirit is the glue that holds together what has been alienated: the Father and the Son at their most extreme separation. He reads it this way, except that in other works on pneumatology, he interprets the Spirit more independently, not as an adhesive bond but as actually bringing about a new thing. At points he even says that the Spirit surprises the Father and the Son. This vision shows up in his writings on Holy Saturday, particularly at the points in which he is trying to discern the distinctive meaning of Adrienne von Speyr’s visions of the descent into hell.[10] And it gives rise to thinking about this synesthesia, as we have not yet recognized the form with which the Spirit expresses herself.

God’s Spirit is never separated from us, but experiences, such as trauma, can render this love—which is the central attribute of the Spirit and which still remains with us—altogether lost. Yet the pneumatology of Holy Saturday says that when all is lost the Spirit surfaces through the textured witness of those who remain. This is where the connection between God’s Spirit and the human spirit is most critical; the witnesses surface this love. Here I am pointing back to my comments about the surface of skin as significant, because I want to emphasize that this work is not just about words or language but, in very concrete terms, about tending to bodies. The theology of Holy Saturday is oriented less to those who experience trauma than to those who accompany others in this journey through the swamp. Finding one’s way in the swamp requires others who can witness it.

What I hope to emphasize about the descent into hell in the Spirit during Holy Saturday is that we have not yet known that Spirit before. And it appears distinctively here, just as the animating breath appears as the breath of life in Genesis. I highlight this distinctive vocabulary for the Spirit, which occurs in the Gospel of John, setting it apart from the Spirit of Pentecost, because it takes a different form. So I mean to demonstrate that it is not just that the Spirit appears in this part of the story but that the witness is a distinctive form of presence. The swamp, as you present it, may be a very real experience of God’s absence, yet the Spirit in hell is discerned not as pure presence but through the witness of the disciples.

And so that Spirit is always present, yet it has to get reanimated. You can go back to Ezekiel and the dry bones. You think these bones are the driest bones ever, that there is no life possible in them, but they just need to be summoned and given life again. It’s kind of like your image of the boards in the swamp.

TOJ: This is also similar to your use of the word interstice, that very small crevice between life and death where you say the witness of the Holy Spirit is manifest. Every year at Advent, I’m shocked again that Advent is so apocalyptic. The high will be made low; the low will be made high. And then when the Spirit speaks in the book of Revelation, there is also a promise of newness, that the Spirit bears witness to the nearness of transformational times.

SR: But isn’t it interesting that if you read that through the lens of trauma, that newness is not necessarily a clean break. It is not a completely new thing; it was there before. For example, I envision Wendy Farley’s Spirit as an enraged survivor, roaring, “You can’t beat me down again.”[11] This power was previously unrecognizable to the survivor when she was laying planks in the swamp, but she arises as a warrior-survivor. She taps into the power of this Spirit that’s there, but it’s a Spirit she’s never tapped into before. That’s a new thing—a surfacing of what’s there rather than a break into some other reality.

TOJ: I’m reminded of the words of Isaiah: “Behold, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland” (43:19 my paraphrase). Something is being made manifest in the middle spaces of life. We sometimes question whether we are built with the capacity to respond to God, yet it is the Spirit who draws us back into these places of encounter and healing; we are made more and more capacious to receive the love and grace of God through this interaction with God’s love.

SR: For Catholics, this new thing of which we are speaking is, in a sense, the ground that is already there. And for von Balthasar, love is that ground. Love is the foundation of all that is. Protestant theologians often narrate grace as the in-breaking of God into the world, but when we witness the Spirit, we see that love is the more steadying and constant.

[1] Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), 6.

[2] Ibid., 90–91, 140, and 162–63.

[3] Van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma (New York, NY: Viking, 2014). See also Bessel A. van der Kolk, Alexander C. McFarlane, and Lars Weisaeth, eds., Traumatic Stress: The Overwhelming Experience on Mind, Body, and Society (New York, NY: Guildford, 1996).

[4] See for example, Richard Kearney and Brian Treanor, eds., Carnal Hermeneutics, Perspectives in Continental Philosophy (Bronx, NY: Fordham University Press, 2015).

[5] As Rambo writes in Spirit and Trauma: “Mary [Magdalene’s] witness does not just extend forward but extends back onto this tenuous terrain [of Holy Saturday]. She moves in the abyss, carrying others, oscillating in the middle space. Her work is not solely the proclamation of what is new but the work of witness to what remains. Her testimony is, after all elided; in the Gospel, her proclamation is suspended and it is unclear if her witness is received. Her breath and movements unveil a pneumatological sensorium at the interstice of death and life. This sensorium is shaped by an unseeing that shifts to seeing but only through hearing, and a hearing that requires altered naming; touch is suspended as well” (140).

[6] See chapter 4 of Rambo, Spirit & Trauma: “If the middle describes the space in which persons find themselves in the aftermath of trauma, the middle Spirit provides a vision of God’s presence in the abyss” (113).

[7] See von Balthasar, Heart of the World, trans. Erasmo S. Leiva (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1979) and von Balthasar, “Easter,” in You Crown the Year with Your Goodness: Sermons through the Liturgical Year, trans. Graham Harrison (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1982). See also Rambo’s discussion of this in Spirit and Trauma, 72–80.

[8] See Augustine, On the Trinity [De Trinitate], Book XV.

[9] See Rambo, Spirit & Trauma, 6, 14, 91, and 160ff. She writes that “trauma forces us beyond a familiar theological paradigm of life and death, and places us, instead, on the razed terrain of what remains. Trauma presses theologians to seek new language to express God’s relationship to the world. This is not a new task. In fact, it is the perennial work of theology. Amid the claims about redemption and new life, there must be theologians who testify to the undertow, to witness the pull of death in the tenuous territory of the aftermath” (14). Also see von Balthasar,Mysterium Paschale: The Mystery of Easter, trans. Aidan Nichols (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 2000), 49–52.

[10] See von Balthasar, Heart of the World, trans. Erasmo S. Leiva (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius, 1979).

[11] See Farley, The Wounding and Healing of Desire: Weaving Heaven and Earth (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005), 97, when she writes, “There is a third member of the Holy Trinity. She is outrageous because of the kind of power that seems to spin off of Her. . . . Many denominations try to keep quiet about her, remembering Her flame only on the Sunday of Pentecost.”