How to Write Theology after Trauma
In the middle of my second year of graduate school, my life changed forever. I went home for Christmas break one person and returned another—a shaken, skittish proxy of myself I barely recognized.
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Trauma is like that. It fractures your life into a before and after.
I remember little from those first few weeks of the “after.” Sitting silently in the late Dr. Richard Schade’s seminar on 20th-century German literature, unable to process anything he or my colleagues offered during discussion. Walking on auto-pilot into a room full of boisterous undergraduate students, puzzled why the instructor hadn’t arrived yet only to remember, with horror, that it was me. I was the instructor. A week later forgetting my gradebook in the bathroom, along with a stack of student papers and my wallet—not surprisingly, no one returned them.
I considered dropping out, taking a leave of absence or something. It was unfair to expect my professors or students to put up with the absent-minded wreck I seemed to be becoming.
“You’re not quitting,” my teaching advisor, Jennifer, told me flat out one icy afternoon. It was not very late in the afternoon, but already the sun cast a dusky pink hue across the courtyard outside her office window.
“Stay in the program,” she told me. “Show up to teach. Show up to your grad classes. Don’t worry about anything else right now but showing up.”
But I keep crying and losing stuff and spacing out, I told her. My students probably think I’m an airhead.
“I’m not saying this for them, I’m saying this for you,” she replied. They were college students, not infants. It was more important, Jennifer thought, that I have a reason to wake up in the morning, something to get me out of the house and be around other people a little part of every day.
“Your classes will probably be the only time you don’t feel eaten alive by all the reminders of what just happened to you.”
Her tone of voice cut through the fog of dissociation surrounding me. She spoke slowly and deliberately, as though my life was at stake, and maybe it was.
In the end, I didn’t quit. Even though I was a mess of post-traumatic stress most of that term. Even though I forgot keys and names and assignments, and had nightmares nearly every night, and twice left Dr. Schade’s seminar to hyperventilate in the hallway.
I kept showing up. And slowly, imperceptibly, faint rays of light penetrated the darkness.
At the time, most of the courses in the German Studies program where I completed my Master’s degree were taught in German. While I usually struggled with the academic-level German, that term it felt like a fortress, impervious to the arrows shooting at me from the rest of my life.
Even outside of courses, I’d found myself journaling in German rather than English that winter. I could say more about my wounds and nightmares than I could in English. I could write without shutting down or feeling like I would die—of shame, of grief, of confusion, of rage.
There was a certain irony that I found refuge in the German language because that whole term, in Dr. Schade’s literature seminar, we focused on German-Jewish writers of the post-Holocaust period.
The big question they struggled with was how to write in German after the Holocaust.
German, after all, was the language of their oppressors. Yet it was also the language of their intellectual heritage, having grown up in Germany and been formed by its universities, its philosophical heritage, by its language's tendency towards labyrinthine sentence structures, riddled with nested clauses and subordinating conjunctions that make you want to rip your hair out yet in the same breath marvel at how much more sense the writings of Immanuel Kant in his native tongue.
It was this tension that made the German language such a painful question for them. How could the same language these Jewish authors once knew and loved and built worlds in possibly be the same one used by the Nazis to degrade and torment their people, to mastermind gas chambers and train routes and mass extermination?
This dilemma—what to do with German after the Holocuast—was an offshoot of the mjch bigger question facing Jewish philosophers and religious thinkers around the world: How do we read the Torah after the Holocaust?
In the face of the “prototype of all genocides,”1 how are we to honour a vision of the world that believes things like morality, repentance, forgiveness, responsibility, and human dignity are even possible?
For some Jewish writers, continuing to use the German language in literature was a form of resistance, a kind of linguistic middle finger to their perpetrators. For them, it was vital to bear witness, to tell their stories, to assert their right to their native language, to refuse to surrender the intellectual world they called home.
Others, like poet and translator Paul Celan, weren’t so sure.
In the midst of my own trauma that winter, I felt uniquely at home with his post-war poetry.
It is full of jagged edges and haunting absurdities that somehow manage to say nothing and everything at the same time. While others tried to explain and make sense of what had just happened, Celan made sense by not making any sense whatsoever. He continued to write in German, but butchered and dismembered it and then put it back together in poetically nonsensical ways.
“Black milk of morning,” he writes in the first line of his most famous poem, “Death Fugue” (Todesfuge).
How can milk be black? Why is it in the morning? No one really knows. Maybe it’s an oxymoron. Maybe it’s symbolic—milk should be white but now it’s black. Maybe it’s nothing. Maybe it’s just there to foil anyone’s assumption they can fully comprehend anything at all, ever again.
Black milk of morning we drink you evenings
we drink you at noon and mornings we drink you at night
we drink and we drink
A man lives in the house he plays with the snakes he writes
he writes when it darkens to Deutschland your golden hair Margarete
he writes and steps in front of his house and the stars glisten and he whistles his dogs to come
he whistles his jews to appear let a grave be dug in the earth
he commands us play up for the dance
(Read the rest of this poem here)
No punctuation, no structure, no clear storyline. Only fragments, hints of memory, repetitive phrases that have no connection to one another yet—over the course of the poem—mold themselves into a rhythm. A momentum. A litany. A tension.
How do we write theology after trauma?
By “after trauma,” I do not mean merely our own, personal experiences, but the existential era we inhabit, one in which evil not only exists in the abstract, but in forms that are intimate, that cause body- and soul-degrading wounds among us and within us.
How do we presume to say anything at all, let alone things of God, in the face of suffering that permeates every facet of the human person?
There are many who regard trauma as a “problem” for theology, with the reasoning that it complicates our efforts to understand and “explain” God, the ways He is (or is not) present in the world of human suffering. It complicates the simple storyline we thought our lives in Christ were supposed to follow, from death and sin to resurrection.
I tend to agree here, at least with the semtiment that any attempt to divine some sacred purpose for trauma is pointless at best, sickening at worst.
But the deeper problem, it seems to me, is the assumption that theology’s task is to explain God. Or anything, for that matter.
Maybe theology is not about explaining who God is but giving people a container to hold the Mystery of all we may never know about Him or our suffering, which at times may prove equally incomprehensible.
Maybe the purpose of theology runs parallel to that of of education, according to Metropolitan Kallistos Ware when he was questioned on the subject, his response being to help people "learn to be free.”2
While trauma diminishes human capacity for liberty, perhaps theology’s task is to re-connect people with their God-given free will. To equip them with the fortitude, hope, dignity, and love needed to become capable of bearing witness to human freedom.
Maybe to move towards freedom, we have to sit with the problem of trauma as it is, as it is told, whether we understand or not.
Maybe, like Celan, we must first allow our language for God to break down into jagged shards, unplottable stories, into the haunting rhythms of meaninglessness that permeate nearly every facet of human life and history. Maybe we need to do more listening before swooping in to impose our own meaning.
Maybe trauma is less a problem for theology and more an entry point. Even a corrective. A hurdle that checks the tower of our rational explanations of God from getting too high.
Less than a year after that afternoon in Jennifer’s office, the following November, after a routine day of teaching college German courses, Jennifer returned to the antebellum Kentucky house she and her husband John had been perpetually restoring to find him on the floor, dead.
He had only recently been pronounced cancer free by his doctors. They had just begun allowing themselves the luxury of making a few plans for the future. But suddenly, by some unrelated bodily fluke (an aneurism? A heart attack? I forget) he died.
By that time, I had finished my MA and moved on to my PhD in the History Department across campus. I hadn’t seen Jennifer in months.
Still, nearly a year to the day she had sat with me in the midst of my own traumas, I trudged through the snowy campus, painted by the rosy hues of the same sinking sun as the previous year, and climbed the stairs of Old Chemistry building to her office.
“I heard you were back on campus,” I said, not knowing how else to account for my impromptu visit. As soon as she looked up from her computer, tears came to my eyes.
“Yes, well. Looks like I’m having to follow my own advice,” she responded, a faint, sad smile on her face.
I don’t remember anything else we said that day, only the silent glance that passed between us—a moment of perfect understanding, two emissaries gathering in the night from the trenches of traumatic grief.
There are times when even the best words fall short.
Richard I. Sugarman, Levinas and the Torah: A Phenomenological Approach (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2019), xlii.
“A Sense of Wonder,” in Inner Kingdom: Volume 1 of the Collected Works (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000).