Monday 25 November 2019

I have so far lived a relatively sheltered and privileged life. I have no claim to understand the depths of suffering, or the harrowing reality of trauma experienced by so many daily. And while I have known both pain and loss to some degree, my experiences of life’s difficulties in no way compare to the horrors which so many people are forced to confront through no fault of their own. I tell you this not out of any false sense of pride, but because I must confront the fact that my own history shapes my sense of reality, and, importantly, my theology.

There is rarely a moment that feels ideally suited for confronting the reality of suffering and trauma. Yet, as Scott Harrower’s recent book, God of All Comfort: A Trinitarian Response to the Horrors of this World (2019), highlights, an engagement between trauma and theology is invaluable, not only to those who seek a response to their own suffering, but also to people like me, who’s theological worldview needs to take seriously the breadth and depth of human experience. I found engaging with Harrower’s work to be both challenging and humbling in equal measure.

Harrower claims that the book will ‘explore how God the Trinity engages with horrors and trauma, and what people can hope for in light of this’ (1). And it is clear throughout, that Harrower’s aim is to provide a clear, pastoral response to those who suffer under the horrors of this life, and one which is deeply rooted in Christian trinitarian theology. This is not primarily a work of practical theology, even if the implications of Harrower’s theologising are deeply practical. And it is this balance which is one of the great strengths of Harrower’s writing; he does not shy away from either the theological or the practical in his engagement with experiences of horror.

The book begins by painting a picture of Christian blessedness. For Harrower, human beings have a specific telos which is undermined by the experience of horrors. On this vision of human flourishing, human beings were made to live in perfect second-personal union with the Trinitarian God, fulfilling the relational image which is imprinted upon each human creature. Harrower thinks that it is only in appreciating this unique telos that we can fully appreciate the damage done by the horrors that have undermined this telos. Thus, following the discussion of blessedness, Harrower provides an account of the disruption of human flourishing under the category of ‘horrors’. According to this account, a horror is something which must meet one or more of conditions 1 to 4, as well as condition 5:

1. It includes a degeneration of life toward death by means of replacing the makeup of a being with absences or distortions of them and replacing the qualities of things with lacks or distortions of those qualities,


2. it is sourced in an objective, relationally immoral action,


3. it objectively prevents an individual from being and allowing others to be  images of God in their natural and fullest sense,


4. it entails a traumatic response that diminishes the potential and actualization of personhood,


5. it is not possible to fully recover psychologically and relationally from these before death. (27-28)

Conditions 1 to 4 seem clear, especially given the account of blessedness in chapter 1. Condition 5 may need some more elaboration. While Harrower wants to capture a variety of kinds of human experience under the category ‘horror’, which range from the everyday to the gross, condition 5 seeks to take seriously the witness of horror survivors in asserting that these events are never fully confined to one’s past. Harrower is clear that while God provides a response to horrors, we must take seriously the damage done by these violations to God’s creatures. This is not a glib, theoretical response to the problem of evil which can be trotted out easily in a philosophy seminar. Harrower’s taxonomy makes it clear that he wants to account for the persistence of traumatic suffering when talking about horrors and the inclusion of condition 5 speaks powerfully of the reality of those who bear the daily burden of horrors.

The rest of the book aims to give a response to such experiences, which is rooted in reflection on the Trinitarian nature of God. Like Harrower’s vision of human telos, his response to horror is importantly second-personal. Rather than looking to some abstract theoretical solution, he first turns to the pages of Scripture and encourages the reader to encounter the narratives found therein. What follows is a twin reading of the Gospel of Matthew, first with an eye to how it mirrors the human experiences of horror, and next to a reorientation of such readings by drawing out the Trinitarian responses to horror. This second ‘blessed reading’ of Matthew aims to highlight the relational blessedness which comes in drawing close to the Father through the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit, and the capacity of this relational blessedness to heal the distortions caused by horror. As condition 5 indicates, this reorientation of blessedness is not a rewriting of the past, but a hope that one’s horrors will not be the final word.

The final section of the book seeks to explore more concretely how this process might take place, exploring the ways in which relating to the Trinitarian God can provide the safety and security which is undermined by the perpetrators of horror, and offer a new narrative by which to see one’s story. This culminates in an optimistic vision of how the community of faith found in the Church might provide an antidote to the relational destruction wrecked by experiences of horror.

Harrower’s book is a welcome and important contribution to theology, which brings the vital work being done by trauma specialists into systematic and analytic theology. It does so in a way which takes seriously the testimonies of horror survivors and presents the implications of these experiences both sensitively and accessibly. If, like me, your theology tends to be untouched by human horror, this is an important first step.

Yet, I was left with the niggling feeling that more could have been done to bring the voices of these survivors to the fore. While the experiences of survivors undergird every step of Harrower’s argument, the reader never gets to feel the force of these accounts directly, and the engagement with real-life experiences of horror often feels anecdotal and illustrative. Undoubtedly, much thought will have gone into the selection of examples and narratives, yet, as someone with little first-hand experience of horrors, my theological blind-spots need to be corrected not only theoretically, but also experientially.

Particularly in the final few chapters, Harrower condenses a vast amount of important material into a relatively short text (the whole book is only 221 pages). This can sometimes leave the reader with the sense that Harrower’s solutions to horrors are straightforward and quick, when in actual fact a close engagement with these issues, and indeed, with Harrower’s argument, shows that this could not be further from the truth. For example, the final chapter on community provides a vision of the Church which I long to see realised, but which seems far from the experiences of many survivors of horror and trauma. Indeed, as the work of scholars like Michelle Panchuk and Lauren Winner has highlighted, this community which Harrower sees as part of the solution to horror, is lamentably too often complicit in its cause. One is left wanting a vision of how those victims of religious trauma, to borrow a phrase from Panchuk, could ever participate in such community again.

A request for more of the same is in no way a criticism of Harrower’s work. Indeed, the desire for more examples and more detailed discussions only serves to reveal the importance of this contribution to theology. The greatest praise that can be bestowed on Harrower’s work is that it has lasted with me. While I finished reading God of All Comfort some months ago, its argument continues to challenge my own thinking on what it is to relate to God, and how my own limited perspective shapes my theology detrimentally. My hope is that Harrower’s engagement with horror serves to demonstrate the importance of theological thinking which looks beyond the blinkered worldviews of academic theology’s sometimes sheltered and privileged protagonists and which highlights the need for a theology which is done for and by those who are all too often seen as peripheral voices in the theological conversation.


Dr. Joshua Cockayne is a lecturer in the Logos Institute. His research focuses on analytic theology, ecclesiology and liturgy. His book on Kierkegaard and second-personal approaches to spirituality will come out with Baylor University Press in 2020. He has published articles in Faith and Philosophy, the Journal of Analytic Theology, Zygon, and Religious Studies.

Photo by Zoran Kokanovic on Unsplash

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