Faith in Trauma: Breaking the Spell

My title—“Faith in Trauma”—is ambiguous. It can suggest four different but, as will eventually emerge, tightly interrelated things.

(1) The title can suggest reflection on what part faith plays in surviving a traumatizing situation: the role of faith in withstanding trauma.

(2) “Faith in trauma” can also suggest reflection on trauma befalling faith itself, so to speak—a sort of “crisis of faith” in the face of trauma, in effect: traumatized faith.

(3) Then again, the same phrase can suggest reflection on what remains of faith once it has undergone severe challenge by trauma—what faith as such finally proves to be, once it is reduced or distilled down to its essence by having to confront trauma. Here, we could speak, perhaps, of faith purified by trauma.

(4) Finally, the title can suggest an unusual sort of reflection on what it would be like to place one’s faith “in” trauma itself, as one can speak of placing faith “in” a friend, for example. In that sense “faith in trauma” would means something such as giving oneself over into the trust of trauma itself, actively trusting trauma as one might trust a friend, or “the power of love,” or the like. Accordingly, just as we might call faith in salvation (the faith-filled certainty of being saved) “salvation-faith,” so we might speak here of trauma-faith.

I will say some things about each of those four in turn, in this and succeeding posts.


The Role of Faith in Withstanding Trauma


All other things being equal, the more faith one has, the better are one’s chances of surviving life-threatening situations. It doesn’t really matter that much what one has faith in, just so long as one has it. Regardless of whether the faith is Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Shintoist, Hindu, or of any other religious or spiritual stripe, what really counts for survival is simply that: to have it. For that matter, faith in the ultimate triumph of communism, capitalism, or the American Way will work just as well as any faith grounded in some religious or spiritual tradition. So long as one really firmly believes that, when all is said and done and whatever is happening is finally over, what one believes in, whatever it may be, will come out on top, then the benefit of believing remains the same.

That even works if one does not believe one will live long enough oneself to see the final triumph of that in which one believes. Indeed, if one is really convinced of the ultimate victory of one’s cause, one may even volunteer to die for that cause oneself, climbing joyfully up to get nailed to the nearest available cross or the equivalent. Such voluntary dying for what one believes in does not in any way diminish the survival-value of one’s faith itself. It bears witness to it: Martyrdom is precisely such witnessing–from martyr, Greek for a “witness.”

No less an authority than Jean Améry, who was no such martyr and who by his own account managed to survive Auschwitz without any faith, bears witness to the utility of faith for survival. In At the Mind’s Limits (translated by Sidney Rosenfeld and Stella P. Rosenfeld, Indiana University Press, 1980) Améry notes (page 12), that he “entered the [Nazi German] prisons and the concentration camps as an agnostic,” and left them the same way, once he was finally liberated. “At no time,” he writes, “could I discover within me the possibility for belief, not even when I lay bound in solitary confinement, knowing that my file was stamped ‘Troop Demoralization,’ and for that reason constantly expecting to be hauled off for execution. Also, I was never bound by a particular political ideology, nor was I ever indebted to one.” Nevertheless, he goes on (pages 12-14):

I must confess that I felt, and still feel, great admiration for both my religiously and politically committed comrades. [. . .] One way or the other, in the decisive moments their political or religious belief was an inestimable help to them [. . .] . Whether they were militant Marxists, sectarian Jehovah’s Witnesses, or practicing Catholics [. . .] their belief or their ideology gave them that firm foothold in the world from which they spiritually unhinged the SS state. [. . .] Both the Christians and the Marxists, who already on the outside had taken a very subjective view of concrete reality, detached themselves from it here too in a way that was both impressive and dismaying. Their kingdom, in any event, was not the Here and Now, but the Tomorrow and Someplace, the very distant Tomorrow of the Christian, glowing in chiliastic light, or the utopian Tomorrow of the Marxists. The grip of the horror reality was weaker where from the start reality had been placed in the framework of an unalterable idea. Hunger was not hunger as such, but the necessary consequence of atheism or of capitalistic decay. A beating or death in the gas chamber was the renewed sufferings of the Lord or a natural political martyrdom. The early Christians had suffered that way, and so had the plagued peasants during the German Peasants’ Revolt [in the 16th century]. Every Christian was a Saint Sebastian and every Marxist a Thomas Münzer.

Published in: on February 29, 2016 at 4:30 pm  Leave a Comment  
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