Can Christ’s Empathy Help Trauma Survivors Who Feel Alienated from God?

Preston Hill and Dan Sartor
Wednesday 15 June 2022
  1. Introduction and Hypothesis
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction and Hypothesis

Traumatic events and the posttraumatic stress they create seem especially important to address given the recent global crises, including the Coronavirus pandemic, mass exposures to racial injustice, and severe political unrest. Indeed, recent studies report that 70% of adults worldwide experience a traumatic event at some point in their lives (Benjet et al. 2016) and in America this statistic jumps to 90% (Kirkpatrick et al. 2013). In light of these findings, some trauma psychiatrists of the last decade have concluded that “trauma is now our most urgent public health issue” (van der Kolk 2014, 356).

Trauma may be defined as “an inescapably stressful event that overwhelms one’s coping mechanisms” (van der Kolk, McFarlane, and Weisaeth 2007, 279). These traumatic events constitute an urgent health issue not simply because they are so common, but because they frequently generate significant health problems, maladaptive behaviors, and dysfunctional styles of relating for those with posttraumatic stress, which together profoundly disrupt human flourishing. Moreover, these injuries to human flourishing often persist for years after the traumatic events are over. These intractable consequences constitute posttraumatic stress since they persist even when danger has subsided. Posttraumatic stress includes such symptoms as hypervigilance, avoidant behaviors, rage, shame, depression, anxiety, and an overall sense of terror and helplessness that inhibits relational connection with others. Furthermore, it is often implicated in a variety of anxiety disorders, mood disorders, and medical conditions related to chronic pain, autoimmune disease, gastric problems, and a myriad of other conditions (van der Kolk 2014).

Importantly, trauma can interrupt not only one’s relationships with others but also one’s relationship with God (Herman 2002; Walker, Courtois, and Aten 2015). Recent discussions in analytic theology and philosophy have considered how trauma interrupts a person’s union with God. These discussions were sparked by Eleonore Stump’s book Atonement in which she treats such problems as a kind of shame that inhibits one’s experience of being desirable for union with God. For Stump, this shame can be overcome by the atoning work of Christ. Responding to Stump, Michael Rea has indicated that when trauma perpetrated by others is the cause of interrupted union with God rather than one’s own wrongdoing, the usual solutions from atonement that absolve one’s guilt do not apply in the same way to restore spiritual union. Moreover, Rea shows that trauma leaves upon its nonculpable victim a shame-based “stain on the soul” much the same as guilt does. While Stump has supplied a plausible solution for stains on the soul for the guilty, how can these irreproachable posttraumatic stains on the soul be healed through atonement?

Following Stump’s lead, we wish to apply a science-engaged model of atonement to fill this recent lacuna in analytic theology on the topic of stains on the soul, characterized by shame pursuant to suffering trauma without culpability, such as experienced by the victims of sexual abuse or unprovoked violent assault. We employ the moniker posttraumatic stains on the soul (PTSS) for this kind of shame. Moreover, while variations of PTSS are legion, we confine the scope of this puzzle to those PTSS that interrupt union with God when guiltless trauma survivors blame God for their suffering, feel persecuted by God, or believe themselves to be ostracized from God as a result of their trauma.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 Analytic Theology and Posttraumatic Stains on the Soul for Atonement

Eleonore Stump’s work elucidates how Christ’s atoning work has application not only to the distance between God and human persons caused by sinfulness and its attendant guilt and shame, but also to the morally lamentable leftovers in human psyches even after repentance and forgiveness have occurred. Drawing from Thomas Aquinas, Stump calls these psychic leftovers from sin a “stain on the soul,” and she shows how atonement is aimed at removing such stains beyond rectifying the problems of shame and guilt (2018, chap. 1).

For Stump, everything starts and ends with the love of God; “God’s love is maximally expressive of God’s nature and central to the atonement…There is no human being, however steeped in evil, with whom God does not desire union, which is the true good for that human being” (Stump 2018, 378). Following Aquinas, Stump defines love as a desire for the good of the beloved and union with the beloved (2018, 40). Since God is love, God always desires the good of his creatures and union with his creatures. And since union with God is also the highest good for every human, God’s love is really all about the union with God that God always desires for his creatures (2018, 41).

On this account,, guilt involves deeming oneself as unworthy of good, while shame entails being found undesirable for union with others (2018, 45). Therefore, if atonement is to bring about union in love between human persons and God, atonement must provide a solution to the problems of guilt and shame in such a way that a maximally great kind of union is achieved. But the greatest kind of union in love “is reciprocal, and requires mutual closeness” (2018, 17). So, atonement for Stump must bring about not merely a unilateral union from God to human persons, but a bilateral and mutual union that runs in both directions between human persons and God. This state of affairs constitutes a mutual indwelling between humans and God that is the end for which atonement—or “at-onement”—is the means (2018, 7). At-onement brings about the mutual union in love between Creator and creature that is interrupted by sin and all its effects, including guilt and shame.

Stump employs a thick account of empathy to explain how indwelling occurs between persons, asserting that mutual indwelling occurs between persons when they are mutually close to one another and share a significant second-personal presence made possible through mindreading. This constitutes a kind of “I-thou” relation characterized by rich shared attention through which “one person has within herself something of the mind of the other” (2018, 130). Since these are the conditions of union in love, these conditions must be met mutually between God and human persons. Therefore, as Stump explains,

The nature of the union that atonement is meant to help bring about…consists in a mutual indwelling between God and a human person in grace, in which the Holy Spirit of Christ is within a person in grace and her psyche is within Christ. To achieve this mutual indwelling, Christ needs to open himself to receive the psyches of all human beings, as he does when he bears all human sin on the cross. But a human being also needs to open to receive the Holy Spirit, who indwells every person in grace. (2018, 342)

So then, for Stump, God indwells human persons through the indwelling of the Spirit whenever persons open up their psyches to God, and human persons indwell God through Christ’s passion on the cross when he opened his psyche to all humanity—even in our sinfulness.

Stump’s model achieves its zenith in exploring how Christ opened his mind to all humanity particularly during his cry of dereliction. Drawing from mirror neuron research, Stump suggests that although God did not forsake the Son on the cross, the Son still experienced forsakenness because he was opening his mind—or mind-reading—to share in all the guilt, shame, and stains on the soul of humanity:

At one and the same time, Christ mind-reads the mental states found in all the evil human acts human beings have ever committed. Every vile, shocking, disgusting, revulsive psychic state accompanying every evil human act will be at once, miraculously, in the human psyche of Christ…without yielding any evil configuration in either Christ’s intellect or will. In this condition, Christ will have in his psyche a simulacrum of the stains of all the evil ever thought or done, without having any evil act of his own and without incurring any true stain on the soul. The suffering of such a psychic connection all at once with the evil mental states of every human evildoer would greatly eclipse all other human psychological suffering…Flooded with such horror, Christ might well lose entirely his ability to find the mind of God the Father. (Stump 2018, 164-165)

Drawing upon the scientific findings regarding the neural mechanisms of mirror neurons, Stump proposes that Christ’s mind shared in all the guilt and shame of humanity without being himself morally culpable through empathy and mindreading. “On the cross, in the experience expressed in the cry of dereliction, Christ establishes at one and the same time an indwelling in God of all human beings even in their sinfulness. Then, when at any other time a human person…surrenders to God in faith and is open to God, the circuit for mutual indwelling between God and [human persons] is completed, because the Holy Spirit comes to indwell [that person]” (Stump 2018, 166).

Importantly for our puzzle, Stump indicates that this account of mutual indwelling offers a solution not only to the alienation caused by guilt and shame but also to the problem of stains on the soul. To reiterate, a stain on the soul is that which is leftover in one’s psyche after all other reparations have been made for wrongdoing. For example, if a wife commits adultery against her husband and is thereafter repentant and desires reconciliation that is met with forgiveness, this does not change the memory of betrayal in the psyche of the wife and the shared history of betrayal that now characterizes the spousal relationship. There is relational debris leftover even after forgiveness, i.e. stains on the soul.

With careful qualification, Stump shows how even these stains can be healed by union in love “because they have become interwoven into a story of love that is worth prizing” (2018, 374). The idea here is basically that reconciliation involves creating a new narrative in which the stains are neutralized by a qualified kind of “forgetting” that sees the sins in the new light of a reconciled and restored relationship. This is the kind of healing that atonement brings about between human persons and God. Although God cannot literally lose memory, he can “forget” human sins in the same way a betrayed spouse “forgets” the sins of an adulterous but repentant partner. Through this “forgetting” of sins a new narrative is formed and union in love counters the remaining stains on the soul caused by guilt. The sins are remembered, but they are remembered through the kind of “forgetting” made possible by union in love that sets these memories in a new redemptive context.

While Stump’s account of atonement for stains on the soul is convincing and rich, Michael Rea has pointed out that it does not cover all kinds of stains on the soul and therefore further development is required to supplement Stump’s account. Rea draws from the story of Sir Lancelot, who was raped by a female imposter, from T. H. White’s The Ill-Made Knight to illustrate how certain stains “are not caused by our sins alone” and that “things that happen to us can stain our souls no less than things we do” (2019, 125). Rea’s basic point is that while the kind of “forgetting” that Stump suggests may help for stains relating to guilt, not only does this not help with stains relating to shame but may even be a morally reprehensible suggestion altogether. “Why think that a victim of horrendous abuse…will suddenly ‘forget’…why think that a divine ‘let’s forget about this’ response is an appropriate (or even morally acceptable) way of dealing with the stains left by victimization?” (Rea 2019, 125).

In response to Rea, Stump admits that “the remedies for the stains on the soul I explored cannot cure problems that have nothing to do with guilt” since “there can be an undesirable residue left on a person’s psyche by being the victim of someone else’s wrongdoing” (2019, 167). However, Stump does point out that her work “discussed defects such as these…under the heading of shame” and that she has offered an account for how atonement includes setting this shame right through its opposite, which is honor (Stump 2019).

Rea is largely sympathetic to Stump’s account of Christ’s empathy with all human persons on the cross and how “it is easy to imagine that knowing we’ve been thus empathetically engaged would matter to those who have trauma-inflicted stains upon their soul” (2019, 125). Yet, Rea does not think Christ’s empathy with the traumatized can inevitably matter for two reasons. “First, there is no clear connection between Christ’s empathetic engagement with our experiential history and our no longer being pained…by it” (2019, 125). That is, there is no obvious causal mechanism that can explain why Christ’s empathy toward traumatized persons might in reality for these persons alleviate the spiritual sequelae of their posttraumatic stress, or in the idiom of Aquinas, the “stains on the soul” caused by trauma.

Secondly, “victims of serious evil do not always blame only their human perpetrators. Some blame God simply for standing by and watching” (2019, 125). Rea provides the example of religious trauma. Drawing from the important work of Michelle Panchuk, Rea demonstrates that trauma survivors can have what he calls “blaming God” beliefs. To see this, consider the following from Panchuk:

A young child is repeatedly and brutally beaten by her Christian parents. She is told that since God commanded the Israelites to stone their rebellious children, anything they do to her short of that is divinely approved and morally deserved. And she believes them. One night, they lock her out of the house as punishment for some misdeed. Sitting alone, bruised and bleeding, gazing at the stars, the girl has an overwhelming sense of the presence of God—a presence utterly terrifying because she perceives it to be of a being who delights in her suffering. (Panchuk 2018, 514)

Surviving religious trauma like this can leave a stain on the soul in which survivors view God as a kind of accessory after the fact who was collusive, an accomplice, or even a co-perpetrator. Importantly, the question of any real moral culpability on God’s part is beside the point, since for survivors these “blaming God” beliefs and feelings are real in their interruption of the divine-human relationship. Mutual indwelling has been interrupted.[1] Whether these beliefs are true or false, “they are there nonetheless and contribute to people’s alienation from God” (2019, 127). Rea further states that “pointing to Christ’s empathetic engagement with their trauma will (insofar as they partly blame Christ as one of the causes) be of no psychological help whatsoever” (2019, 127).

In her response to Rea, Stump concedes that stains on the soul relating to trauma and shame need some explicit treatment in connection with atonement. Without being morally culpable, a good God would want to do something to alleviate this posttraumatic alienation to bring the kind of union made possible through atonement. This, then, is the question for our puzzle. How might it be that God, without being morally culpable, nevertheless makes reparation through atonement for persons who understandably blame God for their seemingly undeserved suffering?

2.2 Interpersonal Neurobiology and Traumatology

The overall understanding of trauma has been significantly enriched by empirical developments in psychological science over the last century that have interrogated the neurological bases for interpersonal flourishing in such a way that these studies confirm the intuitions of early attachment theorists. Whereas early psychoanalysis and attachment theory have posited the importance of interpersonal relations for human flourishing, it is only in recent decades that this insight has been given empirical confirmation in neuroscientific research. A very helpful access into this body of literature can be seen by surveying a recent development in psychological science called Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB).

According to IPNB, the mind possesses a capability for awareness and attunement. Awareness involves conscious mental experience related to a sense of knowing. Attunement is the mind’s ability to regulate the flow of mental information through focused and sustained awareness that is open and receptive. According to attachment theory, attunement is central for fostering “secure attachment,” and relational attunement occurs when the objects of focused attention consist of the internal emotional and body states of ourselves and others during interpersonal engagement. Being attuned to another essentially involves sharing in the “vitality affect” of another person (Stern 1985, 157) and has been postulated in neuroscience to be correlated with right-brain to right-brain mirroring of brain states between the two people (Schore 1994; Siegal 1999). Such attunement affords a sense of “being seen” and openly received—it conveys a sense of mattering to another—and this mental event is often correlated with brain states being mirrored between the two persons attuning to each another. This vision of human flourishing from IPNB posits that attunement is not simply a mental phenomenon but also a brain activity that undergoes empirical change between subjects when this experience is achieved.

Attunement of a caregiver to a developing child is necessary for survival and optimal development. Without a physically proximate caregiver, an infant is defenseless against the dangers of the environment and helpless to provide for its own needs for shelter, sustenance, safety, and social stimulation (Bowlby 1983). Inadequate social stimulation results in failure to thrive, not just psychologically, but also physiologically. The drive for interpersonal attachment itself is the primary animating drive of human functioning, stronger than pleasure-seeking and pain-avoidant drives (Wallin 2007). When one is attuned to another this provides the basis for a healthy interpersonal connection and subsequent neurological flourishing, which are both associated with secure attachment.

On the other hand, a perceived misattunement from a caregiver can lead to various forms of “insecure attachment,” which entails varying degrees of physiological dysregulation. Lack of attunement yields insecure attachment and involves ruptures of trust. Unrepaired ruptures of trust are, to varying degrees, relational traumas that create an ongoing state of hypervigilance and sensitivity to threat (Wallin 2007). Trauma, in all its various forms, entails an experience of fear, helplessness, and desertion. Posttraumatic stress reflects the continuation of fear and helplessness, even when actual danger has passed, through intrusive memories of traumatic events, sympathetic nervous system arousal, avoidance of stress-activating stimuli, and negative emotions, such as numbness, anger, depression, helplessness, guilt, and shame (American Psychiatric Association 2013).

As traumatic stress persists without sufficient resolution, the resulting “deficits in psychological and interpersonal functioning then create additional stress which further compromises neurobiological structures… [the trauma] becomes a ‘state of mind, brain, and body’ around which all subsequent experience organizes” (Cozolino [2002] 2017, 259). Trauma has the potential to fracture mind, brain, and relationships, producing fragility and rigidity, all of which is the very antithesis of integrative health characterized by flexibility, adaptability, cohesiveness, optimal energy, and stability (Siegel 2012). Thus, posttraumatic stress impairs the ability to perceive and receive the attunement of another. Interpersonal trauma ruptures attunement.[2]

Empirical studies in trauma have shown that even with effective treatment and recovery, the residue of traumatic memory—both implicit and explicit—and emotional vulnerability to posttraumatic stress persist. When posttraumatic growth occurs, the traumatic history no longer exists as the central organizing principle in an individual’s mind, brain, and relationships. Nevertheless, the traumatic experience persists as an important aspect of the survivor’s identity and personal narrative (Herman 1992). Neurological effects and relational sensitivities persist, although not nearly as severely as when post-traumatic stress is florid and when the trauma remains unresolved. These unerasable dynamics might well be thought of as posttraumatic stains on the soul for the survivors of trauma, and interpersonal trauma particularly, even when significant healing and redemption are achieved. Much like a physical wound which may leave a scar when healed, a psychological wound may leave behind scarring from the traumatic event even after the memory is resolved. The difference is that while physical wounds have physical causes, psychological traumas are the result of how events are perceived—often interpersonal events when attunement is interrupted because the other is perceived as malicious or threatening rather than caring and available for connection.

Note that a real loss, abandonment, or act of harm is not necessary to rupture attunement. Rather, a perceived loss, abandonment, or act of harm is sufficient in the mind of a single party within the relationship—especially the more vulnerable party when a power differential is perceived—to suffer rupture, potentially resulting in anger, guilt, and shame. The loss of relational integration, that is, of union, leads to fragmentation and disequilibrium of mind, brain, and relationships (Siegel 2001).

All of this raises the question: how might attachment ruptures and interpersonal traumas be resolved? From the framework of IPNB, the answer is empathy. The experience of empathy is fundamental to not only the original state of mutual interpersonal attunement and union but also the repair of ruptures. Secure attachment is acquired by attunement and insecure attachment ruptures are repaired through attunement. And empathy is the foundation of attunement.

Empathy is the prerequisite of open, compassionate attunement to others, which leads to what IPNB calls “mindsight” (Siegel 1999; 2001), a construct similar to “mindreading” that Stump utilizes from literature on autism and mirror neurons.[3] Empathy can be characterized as the adding of the perceptions, feelings, and thoughts to one’s own subjective reality, seeing in one’s own mind a situation as if one were the other, but not losing the “as if” condition (Cain 2010). When one has this kind of measured empathic attunement in order to share in the affective state of another without losing oneself, one is experiencing what IPNB calls “mindsight” toward another. Technically speaking, mindsight is the ability to intentionally focus attention to create an internal model of one’s own mind as well as the mind of another. It is a process of internalizing another’s affective state that achieves a mirroring of the other’s neurological activity. It is holding a conceptualization of another’s mind within our own, which seems to correspond to Stump’s notion of mutual indwelling.

When two or more persons reciprocally extend mindsight toward each other with openness and compassion, intersubjectivity is the result. Intersubjectivity powerfully bonds differentiated persons together without any loss of the distinct awareness and volitions of each person while relating to the other. The intersubjective activity of mutual and relatively accurate mindsight fosters a sense of “seeing” and “being seen” by another, creating a mental experience of distinction, union, and transcendence (Mitchel 2000). Beyond a mental experience of the mind, intersubjectivity provides generative and integrative biological processes in the brain and throughout the body. They simultaneously infuse the relational ecosystem with vitality and optimal energy through synergy.[4]

In IPNB, the union achieved through intersubjectivity is the antidote to the attachment ruptures involved in posttraumatic stress. This is because relational attunement facilitates renewed social connection at psychological, neurological, and interpersonal levels (Siegel 2013; Wallin 2007) to dissolve the power of guilt and shame. For instance, studies in the neurobiology of conflict resolution have postulated that an increase in oxytocin is neurologically correlated to the phenomenon of empathic states for repairing ruptured relationships (Influs et al. 2019). Such empathic states of attunement have been simulated through computational psychiatric studies to involve higher activation of the medial prefrontal cortex than in mere cases of self-distress (Cittern and Edalat 2017). What studies like this show is that neuroscientific research continues to confirm intuitions from attachment theory that empathic attunement plays a key role in the neurological conditions for renewed social relationship between persons alienated from one another through significant interpersonal rupture such as traumatic harm (Lahousen, Unterrainer, and Kapfhammer 2019; Staemler 2012).

Thus, IPNB provides us with an empirical framework, illuminating neurological substrates for empathic attunement and mindsight, which are the antidote to interpersonal alienation resulting from perceived maltreatment regardless of the objective facts of moral culpability. Empathy is a neurologically measurable interaction between human persons that is at the heart of what attachment theorists call “attunement”, which is also called “mindsight” in neurobiology literature. Empathy of this sort toward the suffering of another opens up the possibility for persons to repair relational ruptures and this repairing process through empathy can take place regardless of any objective moral culpability. One’s anger and alienation toward an innocent other can be resolved when the innocent other empathizes with the angry person.

3. Discussion

Thinking about Christ’s mindsight toward the traumatized in this way extends beyond Stump’s thinking about shame. While shame is certainly a matter of reduced relative standing among a perceived social hierarchy, it cannot simply be an issue only of honor because, like guilt, shame leaves stains on the souls of the traumatized and these must be addressed in some way by God. So, while Christ’s morally pure participation through empathic mindsight with the evil of humanity does bestow honor to counter humanity’s shame, this honor does not address the morally lamentable leftovers of trauma. As it currently stands, Stump’s model provides a clear solution to shame related to culpability, but this solution is not currently extended to include PTSS that involves shame related to nonculpable victimization.

Stump agrees with this point and admits with Rea that whatever solution is provided for what we are calling PTSS, Christ’s empathy with human suffering will be insufficient in itself to constitute this solution. Stump summarizes the issue this way:

I also agree with Rea that a person who is angry at God or is alienated from God is not helped by having it explained to her that in the incarnate Christ God has suffered as she has. If…all there is in Christ’s incarnation and passion is an additional suffering in the world, then what Christ endures simply makes more suffering…such cases need some explicit treatment…a perfectly loving God would want to do something to remedy the human sufferer’s anger or alienation, even though God is not guilty of any injustice towards the sufferer. (Stump 2019, 170)

But are persons with “blaming beliefs” toward God for trauma really simply “not helped” by considering Christ’s empathy toward them? Does Christ’s passion simply add to the suffering of the world? What if God’s doing something to remedy the human sufferer’s anger or alienation has taken place precisely in Christ’s passion? That is what we are suggesting here. Drawing from attachment theory and IPNB, we suggest that much like the central role of empathic attunement and mindsight for bringing repair to ruptured attachments, perhaps God received the anger of traumatized persons with empathy as if he were morally culpable for their suffering. On this proposal, God’s willing submission to the guilty verdict thrown up by angry survivors can become the very mechanism by which these persons can come to believe that God understands and wants to understand their pain, especially because he does not avoid their rage nor repay violence with violence. Rather, he absorbs the vitriol of false accusation with full physical and psychical presence to the very point of death. Thereafter, with the power of resurrection and grace, he reveals the true nature of himself to those who would wrongly accuse him, thereby winning trust and affection. And in this divine willingness to understand despite being unjustly blamed, God can demonstrate that he is morally pure and worthy of trust. In this context of God’s free embrace of posttraumatic anger, secure attachment can be established for survivors.

How might such a connection with God be made possible by the person and work of Christ given the inhibiting forces caused by posttraumatic stains on the soul? We are proposing here the beginnings of one science-engaged model of atonement that might provide an answer. Through his atoning work on the cross Christ may have opened his mind to all the stains on the souls of fallen human beings in such a way as to include a particular variant of posttraumatic stains on the soul, namely, of blaming God for one’s suffering, even though God is not morally culpable. Christ may have had a simulacrum of such an experience in his own mind during the cry of dereliction by having an advanced and accurate empathic attunement through which traumatized persons indwelled his mind. Traumatized persons were in Christ on the cross because Christ received them into himself through an intentional psychic connection and attunement toward these persons, a process which interpersonal neurobiology calls “mindsight.” And since Christ was God, these persons were also in God, and this means that for any such person who subsequently receives God’s offer to dwell in them, the circuit of mutual indwelling will be complete and union in love can be accomplished. In this way, God supplies his part for mutual indwelling that can counter the alienation caused by trauma because he is open toward the traumatized.[5]

However, as Stump indicates, more is required if union in love is to be established. Union in love requires mutual indwelling. God was in Christ opening himself up to the traumatized so that they may dwell in God. But how can traumatized persons open themselves up so that God may dwell in them? While this seems the harder practical question to answer, we have suggested that Christ’s cry of dereliction supplies the very interpersonal grounds for this opening process to begin. Christ’s mindsight was empathic, and since empathic mindsight has empirically verifiable regenerative properties for traumatized persons who feel alienated from others regardless of actual moral culpability, Christ’s empathic mindsight toward persons with posttraumatic stains on the soul may have similarly regenerative properties for persons to experience renewed trust in the goodness of God. That is because, as interpersonal neurobiology indicates, empathy toward the suffering of another does not always have to merely add to the suffering of the world but can actually generate renewed relational bonds between persons feeling alienation as a result of trauma. So, Christ’s suffering with the traumatized on the cross can be more than a mere sentiment since Christ was not just another suffering human but was God in the flesh. If this God can be conceived in Christ’s suffering as opening himself with empathic mindsight to the posttraumatic stain on the soul of blaming God for one’s suffering, then this provides just the precondition necessary for those who blame God for their suffering to begin to deem him trustworthy again. Paradoxically, the human soul vexed with a sense that she is abandoned by God is joined in that very experience of dereliction as Christ undertakes abandonment in solidarity with the victims of trauma both through empathic mindsight and by suffering trauma. When we blame God for the sin of others, and when God opens himself up to the pain of this experience in Christ, God makes it possible for us to trust him again by letting us know that he wants to understand our pain despite our blaming him for this pain. Demonstrating that he is not indifferent lays the ground for us to trust him again. He has done this in the atoning work of Christ on the cross.

Importantly, our suggestion here meets the two criteria raised by Rea above. Drawing from attachment theory and IPNB, our account supplies a clear and plausible causal mechanism for explaining how a consideration of Christ’s empathic engagement with our experiential history may actually help in our no longer being pained by it. Because one person is clearly helped by having another who is perceived as morally culpable for their suffering actually empathize with that suffering, Christ’s empathic engagement with the PTSS of blaming God can clearly help those who blame God for their suffering, given that Christ is at the same time the God who is being blamed. Since empathic attunement toward another’s trauma has empirically verifiable properties that are relationally generative for restoring union between alienated persons (whether real or perceived), our model suggests that Christ’s cry as a share in posttraumatic stains on the soul on behalf of the God being blamed by survivors can restore interpersonal connection between these survivors and God, inasmuch as interpersonal neurobiology and attachment theory show that a perceived wrongdoer’s empathy with the wounded provides a concrete avenue for restored trust and psychological connection. This is a kind of science-engaged supplement to fortify Stump’s more theoretical Thomistic proposal on how Christ’s passion helps a subsequent life in grace and surrender to God.[6] Our sketch here might provide one science-engaged mechanism to explain how it is possible for Christ’s reconciling work to have concrete bearing on the experience of redemption for persons in grace today who have known the trauma of living in a world that wanders east of Eden.[7] So, Christ’s mental openness toward traumatized persons is not only the precondition for mutual posttraumatic indwelling which subsequently requires an independent openness of the traumatized person toward God. Rather, Christ’s empathic engagement is simultaneously God’s part for indwelling while also being itself a potential causal mechanism that can facilitate the human part of indwelling also.[8] Therefore, Christ’s empathic engagement provides a total basis for mutual indwelling between God and posttraumatic human persons. Christ’s empathy with trauma can facilitate mutual posttraumatic indwelling. It is therefore not obvious as Rea thinks that “pointing to Christ’s empathetic engagement with their trauma will (insofar as they partly blame Christ as one of the causes) be of no psychological help whatsoever” (2019, 127). Additionally, because our account engages concretely with the problem of “blaming God” beliefs, our model offers a potential solution to exactly this particular kind of PTSS. Therefore, our suggestion here offers a plausible explanation for how Christ’s empathy with PTSS may alleviate the anger and alienation that traumatized persona can have toward God. Regardless of whether God is in reality above the kind of moral culpability requiring such forgiveness, having the experience of God’s empathy with one’s suffering can facilitate the kind of renewed trust needed to resolve the rupture of union reflected in one’s “blaming God beliefs.”[9]

4. Conclusion

To conclude, our puzzle probes how empirical science may provide a solution to a question raised by analytic theology on what we have called PTSS. If PTSS bring alienation between human persons and God, and if atonement achieves union that counters alienation, then how can Christ’s atonement have application to PTSS? We have suggested that perhaps God addresses these stains in a manner similar to how human persons bridge the gap of interpersonal alienation with one another through empathic attunement and mindsight. Perhaps God engaged empathic mindsight with the posttraumatically stained of all humanity through Christ’s cry of dereliction on the cross. Such an attunement between the mind of Christ and the minds of the traumatized with stains seems to inherit all the strengths of Stump’s account and yet supplements her account in just the way that both she and Rea agree is needed. Our proposal here supplies an explanation of how Christ lost shared attention in his relationship with God on the cross through a relationship with fallen humanity while being free of moral culpability. Our proposal also explains how some kind of objective union with God (or, “at-one-ment”) was accomplished in this cry through the indwelling of the sinned against in the mind of Christ (by empathic mindsight) and through Christ’s indwelling in God. Importantly, because the empathic mindsight of Christ toward humanity was relationally generative for reestablishing trust in an alienated relationship, this interaction between Christ’s mind and stained minds provides an interpersonal basis for these persons to experience renewed relationship with God according to the way this normally happens for human persons in the real world. In our eyes this constitutes the beginnings of a science-engaged model of atonement for PTSS.[10]


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[1] Julie Exline’s clinical research explores how unforgiveness toward God serves as a potent predictor of negative mood (Exline, Yoli and Lobel 1999) and also how individuals who possess the most resilient relationship with God believe, first, that it is wrong to rebel or reject God and, second, it is morally permissible to assert themselves to God, raising complaints, questions, and doubts (Exline, Kaplan and Grubbs, 2012).

[2] Understanding attachment wounds and interpersonal trauma in this manner creates a consonant and illuminating framework for Aquinas’ notion of stains of the soul. Importantly, PTSS are also stains on the body since in trauma “the body keeps the score” (van der Kolk 2014) and all of these processes entail neurological substrates. To the extent that PTSS is an embodied phenomenon with measurable neurological substrates (Tomko 2012), accounting for the resolution of trauma in interpersonal relationships will involve some basic explanation of corresponding physiological dynamics involved in this process. When transposed to the divine-human relationship, this means that a model of atonement for PTSS will require some science-engaged explanations and this will involve referencing empirical studies in psychological science.

[3] The concept of empathy from IPNB is not encumbered by the development of empirical research on the mechanisms pertaining to interpersonal aspects of autism (for more, see Hill and Sartor 2022).

[4] Intersubjectivity of this sort—similar to what Michael Tomasello calls “joint attention” and (when developed into common goals) “joint intention” (Tomasello et al. 2005)—entails a sharing of emotions, experience, and activities that promotes human flourishing. Hence, the voluminous evidence in the scientific literature that strong social support is powerfully and positively correlated to psychological well-being and physical health. Apart from a mutual open relational attunement, the benefits of intersubjectivity with its generative and enlivening properties remain unrealized.

[5] We are not buying wholesale into all of Stump’s account of atonement but instead are merely using Stump’s own atonement constructs to show how her account might be supplemented on the terms she has developed. Some of Stump’s use of philosophical constructs on themes like second-personal presence and joint attention is contested. For alternate ways of considering second personal presence and joint attention in ways applicable to incarnation and the divine-human relationship see Cockayne 2020, ch. 2; Siposova and Carpenter 2019; Benton 2018; Green 2017.

[6] Our science-engaged approach for offering a causal mechanism may fortify Stump’s account against the critique that her account seems “Abelardian” or “merely exemplarist” on the relation between Christ’s passion and a person’s subsequent surrender to God (e.g. Johnson 2019, 316).

[7] See this question (how Christ’s story can change other human stories) in Crisp 2020, 166; Rea 2019, 133.

[8] For a fuller account we would need to elaborate beyond the scope of this paper on the precise role of the Holy Spirit in facilitating this human part of openness to God’s indwelling a traumatized person with PTSS. We hope to expand on the indwelling of the Spirit in future research.

[9] This puzzle presumes with Stump upon a classical theist picture of divine nature which is absolved of all contingent qualities common to created being and can therefore be named impassable, immutable, necessary, etc. Consequently, we are not saying that God experiences trauma in God’s divine nature. Rather, with Stump, we are assuming the Chalcedonian ability to logically distinguish between the categories of person (prosopon/hypostasis) and nature (ousia) which permits one to say that the contingent experiences of Jesus of Nazareth qua human, while in no way moving or changing the divine nature, are nevertheless truly the experiences of the person of the Son of God. So then, God the Son experiences trauma, not in his divine nature, but by virtue of the assumed human nature. On our proposal, trauma would rank among such contingent experiences since it is an irreducibly embodied phenomenon that results from the exigencies of a passable nature.

[10] It is important to underscore that our model proposes a normative-theological claim with implications for pastoral-descriptive issues. The normative-theological claim pertains to what happened on the cross as God’s answer to the kind of moral obligation God has toward humanity’s traumatization on Stump and Rea’s accounts. The pastoral-descriptive issue pertains to the subsequent psychological dynamics: because God has done this, if humans are subsequently reflective of it, it will help them in their recovering secure attachment to God. We have not explored this pastoral-descriptive issue further in this paper, except to suggest its plausibility, though we hope to elaborate on this pastoral/clinical intervention in future research.

Cite this article

Hill, Preston, and Dan Sartor. 2022. “Can Christ’s Empathy Help Trauma Survivors Who Feel Alienated from God?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 9).

Contact the author

Preston Hill
Email: [email protected]

Dan Sartor
Email: [email protected]

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