Wisdom’s Paradox

18 Traumatic Violence and Christian Wisdom: Possibilities for Wounding and Healing

Julia Feder

In this chapter, I examine the deep evolution of the human imagination in conversation with contemporary anthropological research to construct an evolutionary–informed trauma theology. This history will allow me to draw three (related) conclusions. First, a human traumatic response to violence (and, furthermore, the very interpretation of an experience as “violent”) is conditioned by the distinctively human symbolic imagination formed in and through wisdom. Second, posttraumatic recovery and growth is similarly conditioned by the distinctively human symbolic imagination formed in and through wisdom. Third, there are resources in the Christian tradition, as a “school of [human] wisdom,”[1] to help facilitate posttraumatic healing. To flesh out this third point, I will explore the sixteenth century writings of the Spanish mystic Teresa of Avila on prayer and courage.

Due to the structure of the distinctively human cognitive-behavioral niche, when human beings have negative experiences, particularly ones that threaten their capacities to integrate these experiences into an overarching worldview, these negative experiences can take on a traumatic quality. With traumatic experiences, the harmful effects of the negative experience do not pass or fade after the experience is over. A feeling of being both physically and psychologically overwhelmed by an external threat endures even after this threat is no longer present. This traumatic response to threat is made possible by the distinctively human symbolic imagination itself. The ways in which human beings rely upon each other to survive create the conditions for acute vulnerability, particularly to interpersonal forms of harm. The ways in which human beings construct symbolic worlds create the conditions for generalizing about human experience, drawing conclusions, and replaying events until they fit into a livable symbolic framework. This also creates the conditions for social roles and expectations that can later be violated. Violations of these expectations are often experienced by humans as a form of personal betrayal since social expectations concretely and specifically construct the shared social world. Also, the ways in which human beings cooperate with each other in order to construct their worlds and accomplish goals simultaneously create the conditions for systemic forms of violence (e.g., militarization, economic oppression, racism, sexism, or rape cultures).[2]

The study of trauma in the academy has developed over the last 150 years as an interdisciplinary project. Since the 1980s, Christian theologians have made some contributions to this conversation, generating a subfield within the broader discipline called “trauma theology.” Despite the reality that traumatic violence has been central to the Christian story from its very beginnings (one thinks here of the trauma experienced by the early followers of Jesus who witnessed his crucifixion, as well as the trauma experienced by those who later suffered similarly violent deaths) systematic reflection on trauma for the purposes of constructing a “trauma theology” is a relatively recent development in the history of academic theology. Several contemporary theologians, including Jennifer Erin Beste,[3] Serene Jones,[4] Shelly Rambo,[5] Pamela Cooper-White,[6] and Flora Keshgegian,[7] have undertaken explicit engagement with secular trauma studies in order to reflect more deeply on the nature of Christian salvation. In this chapter, I focus on the work of Serene Jones since her description of traumatic violence resonates in some interesting ways with the conversations we have been exploring about wisdom, evolution, and theology at the Center for Theology, Science, and Human Flourishing. Jones argues (more explicitly than any other trauma theologian to date) that the human imagination is the primary site of wounds following traumatic violence and the task of Christian theology in a posttraumatic context is to offer a way to heal this wounded imagination or, as Jones puts it, to offer “stories of new imaginings.”[8]

For Jones, the term imagination “refers to the thought stories that we live with and through which we interpret the world surrounding us.”[9] This understanding of imagination hints at both its symbolic and social structure, though perhaps not self-consciously, and thus intuits the rich research anthropologists have done on the nature of the distinctively human imagination. Yet this remains a mere intuition for Jones, as she does not engage evolutionary research specifically.

For Jones, Christian prayer practices can function as “imaginative practices”[10] that craft the soul, helping us to “hold” suffering as we “continue to experience the ravaging force of traumatic events.”[11] She argues that prayer can transform an imagination wounded by traumatic violence.[12] This happens as traumatized people tell the stories of their trauma to God and God acts as witness to the sufferers’ stories. In this dynamic process of “testifying and witnessing,” she writes, “a person’s own story undergoes a transformation as it is pulled into and redefined by the divine story of God’s constant presence with us, and God’s promise to ultimately redeem the harm done to us and thus make ‘all things right.’”[13] This transformation happens in three stages, mirroring psychologist Judith Herman’s influential work on the three components of traumatic recovery.[14] First, prayer establishes safety for the traumatized individual by assuring her of the benevolent sovereignty of God who orders and stabilizes the world and is fundamentally trustworthy. It is also God’s desire for humans to act as agents in their own lives such that divine agency and human agency are non-competitive.[15] Second, prayer provides an opportunity to lament, remembering what has happened and mourning what has been lost. This can be especially aided with the accompaniment of Scriptures which provide a language for pain, rage, and even a desire for revenge (without having to act on these desires). Third, prayer provides an opportunity to reconnect with everyday life via practices of thanksgiving whereby the imaginative landscape can be broadened beyond the violence the sufferer has experienced.[16]

Jones turns explicitly to John Calvin’s reflections on the psalms as an instruction in these three movements of prayer, surely influenced by her own Reformed background, yet I consider that other resources in the Christian tradition might be even more helpful. In particular, the writings of Teresa of Avila (1515–82) foreground prayer practices as capable of generating courage—a virtue necessary in the process of posttraumatic healing and one critical to the creative imaginative process itself. Teresa’s theology of prayer speaks to the same three moments in posttraumatic recovery that both Herman and Jones do, but with a particular attention to the role of courage or “endurance” in the practitioner of prayer. As Herman writes in her own book, recovery requires a “tolerance for the state of being ill.”[17] In other words, it requires a kind of strength of “holding on,” a capacity to endure in a good and worthy task despite hardship. This is a classic definition of courage in the Christian tradition.[18]

In Teresa’s thought, prayer practices provide opportunities for individuals to build trust, practice vulnerability, and encounter modified risk. These are the capacities that, on the one hand, are wounded by trauma, but that, on the other hand, remain central to the successful negotiation of the (socially constructed) human landscape. In Teresa’s most mature work, The Interior Castle (1577), she describes the soul as a castle with walls made out of diamond or very clear crystal.[19] The castle is composed of six sets of rooms and in the very center of the castle there is a singular room which she terms “the seventh dwelling place.”[20] In this center point God dwells, and from it light emanates into all the surrounding rooms. The project of the life of prayer is to learn to move from the outer portions of the castle, where most people spend their lives, into the interior parts of the castle, where God dwells. To accomplish this task requires trust that the King of the castle is one with whom you would want to spend time and who wants to spend time with you. Indeed, to enter a castle without knowing you are welcome would be quite a risky endeavor. Movement toward the center of the castle requires vulnerability to the relationship into which one enters, but also the vulnerability to know oneself as one is. To recognize ourselves as castles made out of diamond in which God dwells, is to recognize ourselves as “magnificent” and beautiful.[21] Yet, it is also to know ourselves as “filthy” and “lowly” because it is God who illuminates us (not ourselves) and we often fail to have the courage to dwell within and, instead, choose to dwell in the exterior portions of the castle or the courtyards where reptiles, insects, and vermin also reside. Those individuals who remain in these outer areas believe mistakenly that they too are these nasty creatures, since they spend so much time with them.[22] Victims of sexual trauma, who often struggle so acutely with feelings of shame and self­-disgust because of what has been done to them, can perhaps understand well the dangers of this mistaken solidarity with filth (identity transference). Teresa describes those who only dwell in the external portions of the castle as people who have difficulty understanding themselves as wealthy persons who are able to dwell in the luxury of the inner castle and can converse with (and indeed marry) its King.[23] Teresa compares those who do not practice prayer to those who do not care for their bodies and allow themselves to atrophy from lack of exercise or rehabilitation after an injury; they do not nurture their own full functionality and health.[24]

Writing a decade earlier in her autobiography, Teresa makes even clearer that she views some relationships as damaging or destructive. Christian love, then, does not entail an unqualified openness to all—some need to be resisted, especially those who exercise power unjustly. Her autobiography, interestingly, was written at the command of the Inquisition as a means to interrogate whether she was under the influence of the devil. But Teresa used the directive to write as an opportunity to instruct other women in ways to be resistant to male religious authorities who wish to silence them. She instructs her female readers to choose a confessor wisely and ensure that this confessor keeps the details of her interior life confidential to minimize opportunities for confusion on his part.[25] She gives multiple examples from her own life in which she did not follow this advice, describing the harm she suffered at the hands of confessors who falsely believed she was deluded by the devil, pointing, then, directly to the situation which prompted her writing. As she describes it, she was made to feel confused and tried very hard to believe the judgment that she was under demonic influence.[26] She was “terrified,” “fear[ful],” “completely agitated and wearied,” and in intense “affliction” until God appeared to her in a private vision and told her: “Do not fear, daughter, for I am, and I will not abandon you; do not fear.”[27] As she narrates it, these divine words instantly gave her a calmness, strength, and courage that no person could have given her, even after hours of persuasion. She now has the confidence that the devils cannot hurt her, for she is a servant of a King who is more powerful than any of them. She loses all the fears that have plagued her and believes that the tables have now been turned—the devils are afraid of Teresa, she has power over them now, and they seem to her no more than “flies” and “cowards.”[28] She writes: “Not a fig shall I care then for all the devils in hell: it is they who will fear me.”[29] Recall, however, that it is the committee of male clergy who incited this pain in her and who caused her to believe that devils were appearing to her. She now realizes that the “devils” were always an illusion, a mere suggestion of the priests, and it is they who were the actual agents of harm. Teresa’s cursing of “devils” here encodes an indirect cursing of bad clergymen who doubt her divine favor; the cursing of the devil is subordinate to the cursing she would like to unleash upon bad confessors. This is confirmed by a statement at the end of the chapter that bad confessors are to be feared more than the devil himself.[30]

Therefore, for Teresa personal vulnerability, when able to be controlled, should only be directed toward those who can be trusted. Teresa opens herself up in vulnerability to God, but she guards herself against devils (in her autobiography) and against the vermin of the castle (in The Interior Castle), making sure to let as few into the rooms as possible,[31] bringing into clearer focus the political weight of the metaphor of the castle as a defensive, protective structure. Trauma victims, as they progress in healing, find that they must practice regulating vulnerability: they limit their exposure to untrustworthy individuals and relationships (e.g., those who have abused them in the past), but simultaneously work to relearn gradations of powerlessness and passivity in planned encounters with danger or risk (e.g., wilderness trips, martial arts training, prayer, and so forth).[32]

Specifically, in the case of defensive measures taken against devils in the Life, Teresa speaks of God giving her the courage to engage in bodily combat. She writes,

If this Lord is powerful, as I see that He is and I know that He is, and if the devils are His slaves (and that there is no doubt about this because it’s a matter of faith), what evil can they do to me since I am a servant of this Lord and King? Why shouldn’t I have the fortitude to engage in combat with all of hell? I took a cross in my hand, and it seemed to me truly that God gave me courage because in a short while I saw that I was another person and that I wouldn’t fear bodily combat with them; for I thought that with that cross I would easily conquer all of them.[33]

The nature of the qualified vulnerability that Teresa takes up, thus, involves the body as well as the spirit. If not conquered through the power of God, devils have the ability to wreak bodily havoc and therefore must be vanquished in a bodily fashion. The conquest of these devils, however, does not consist in their disappearance. Teresa still sees these devils from time to time, but she has no reason to fear them. She writes that instead:

There was no doubt, in my opinion, that they were afraid of me, for I remained so calm and so unafraid of them all. All the fears I usually felt left me—even to this day. For although I sometimes saw them, as I shall relate afterward, I no longer had hardly any fear of them; rather it seemed they were afraid of me.[34]

This points us to the nature of traumatic healing: the restored trauma survivor does not experience the disappearance of traumatic memories, but can acknowledge the presence of these memories without experiencing them as overwhelming all other aspects of memory as well as a vision of the future.

If the life of prayer involves openness or vulnerability to God, it also includes resistance to or even defensive combat with others, particularly those who exercise unjust power. It also involves loving service to others, particularly those who are powerless and in need. In other words, this understanding of prayer is a model of relationality or collaboration according to the pattern of the Magnificat: the powerful are to be brought down from their thrones, the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled with good things, and the rich sent away empty (Luke 1:52–53). In the center of the castle of the soul, the seventh dwelling place, Teresa writes, we can experience spiritual marriage with Christ, and, as she calls it, “another heaven.”[35] Spiritual marriage with Christ in this final stage of contemplation is permanent[36] and entails the complete sharing of property; Teresa has a claim to what belongs to Christ and he pledges to care for what belongs to her.[37] There is a great sense of “stability” and the gifts of increased “determination.”[38] Teresa compares this seventh dwelling place to a wine cellar in which God gives the soul something to drink so as to restore its strength and nourish it.[39] The purpose of prayer, then, is to gain the “strength to serve”[40] community members through “the birth always of good works, good works.”[41] As Rowan Williams comments, it is precisely the inner stability provided by the divine union in this final stage of prayer that generates virtuous activity.[42] Teresa commends her sisters to virtuous action in the world, concentrating on those in proximate need, advising them to always stretch their capacity for acts of love, and promising that God will multiply any efforts made in good faith.[43] Thus action characterized by the full development of humility and self-knowledge in the seventh dwelling place represents a form of eschatological hope in God; with the help of our small efforts, God will bring about the transformation of the world. Teresa writes that “if we do what we can, His Majesty will enable us each day to do more and more, provided that we do not quickly tire.”[44] Thus even limited, mundane actions of love between religious sisters have an enduring significance since they embody God’s salvific love for the world as a whole.

A theological framework for healing from traumatic violence that prioritizes courage, like Teresa’s, can offer victims of trauma an opportunity to reclaim agency, appropriate power, and resistance in the face of apparent powerlessness. Teresa’s image of the soul as a castle, a fortified structure, highlights the kind of strength that she recognized is available to one who practices prayer. Paradoxically, as a person becomes transparent to God, moving within the structure towards the center, she gains the strength to persevere in radical relationality to God and comes into right relationship with others—serving her sisters and learning to ignore (or even scare) those who oppose love of God and good work in the world. This, therefore, is wise collaboration. Prayer is an imaginative practice that helps the practitioner relearn trust in herself and in a relational other (God), see herself as capable of resistance and aggression toward others, and see herself as having gifts of love and healing to share with others. It is this full range of relationality that is lost with trauma (as one is reduced to a powerless victim) and that must be restored in a posttraumatic context in order to experience healing.

JULIA FEDER is an Assistant Professor of Theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. She specializes in theological anthropology in the Christian tradition. Her articles have been published in Theological Studies; Philosophy, Theology, and the Sciences; and the Journal of Religion and Society. Her first book project is titled Trauma and Salvation: A Theology of Healing. She was a Postdoctoral Research Associate on the Evolution of Wisdom and Human Distinctiveness projects at the University of Notre Dame.


[1] Edward Schillebeeckx, “Towards a Rediscovery of the Christian Sacraments,” in The Collected Works of Edward Schillebeeckx, vol. 11, Essays: Ongoing Theological Quests, translated by Marcelle Manley, Edward Fitzgerald, and Peter Tomlinson (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 184.
[2] I develop this point further in Julia Feder, “Human Suffering, Evolution, and Ecological Niches: Edward Schillebeeckx in Dialogue with Niche Construction Theory,” Journal of Religion and Society Supplement 16 (2018): 150–64; Julia Feder, “The Impossible is Made Possible: Edward Schillebeeckx, Symbolic Imagination, and Eschatological Faith,” Philosophy, Theology, and the Sciences 3.2 (2016): 188–216.
[3] Jennifer Erin Beste, God and the Victim: Traumatic Intrusions on Grace and Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).
[4] Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).
[5] Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010).
[6] Pamela Cooper-White, The Cry of Tamar: Violence against Women and the Church’s Response, 2nd edition (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2012).
[7] Flora Keshgegian, Redeeming Memories: A Theology of Healing and Transformation (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000).
[8] Jones, Trauma and Grace, 22.
[9] Ibid., 20.
[10] Ibid., 49.
[11] Ibid., 52.
[12] Ibid., 53.
[13] Ibid., 54.
[14] Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 133–236.
[15] Jones, Trauma and Grace, 56–7.
[16] Ibid., 61–3.
[17] Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 176, citing Sigmund Freud, “Remembering, Repeating, and Working-Through: Further Recommendations on the Technique of Psycho-Analysis, II,” in 1914 Standard Edition 12, translated by J. Strachey (London: Hogarth Press, 1958): 145–56.
[18] See Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II–II, 124.1.
[19] Teresa of Avila, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, vol. 2, The Interior Castle, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1980), 283.
[20] Ibid., 427–50.
[21] Ibid., 286.
[22] Ibid., 286.
[23] Ibid.
[24] Ibid.
[25] Teresa of Avila, The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, vol. 1, The Book of Her Life, translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez (Washington, DC: Institute of Carmelite Studies, 1980), 219.
[26] Ibid., 205–6, 219–20.
[27] Ibid., 220–1.
[28] Ibid., 222.
[29] Ibid., 223. The translator adds in an explanatory footnote: “The fig, or ‘fico’, is a contemptuous motion, thus, she is cursing the devils here and proclaiming that they should fear her.”
[30] Ibid., 223.
[31] Ibid., 287.
[32] See Herman, Trauma and Recovery, 137–8, 143, 197ff.
[33] Teresa of Avila, Life, 222.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, 428.
[36] Ibid., 434.
[37] Ibid., 433.
[38] Ibid.
[39] Ibid., 448.
[40] Ibid.
[41] Ibid., 446.
[42] Rowan Williams, Teresa of Avila (London: Continuum, 1991), 138.
[43] Teresa of Avila, Interior Castle, 450, 477.
[44] Ibid., 450.


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