Dutch Author Bessel Van der Kolk masterfully clarifies the complexities of the human psyche and inner world. His work specifically focuses on trauma, how it is carried in the body, and how that trauma can be addressed, befriended, and integrated. I am distinctly struck by his work around embodiment. Arguably, this book is summed up by that very concept. Emotions communicate embodied reality. Van der Kolk writes, “Emotions (from Latin emovere – to move out) give shape and direction to whatever we do, and their expression is through the muscles of the face and body” (75). Modern dualism has taught us that humans have bodies, but in reality, we are bodies. That can be difficult to conceptualize considering how deeply disembodied Western Christianity has become, particularly since the Reformation. Not that Catholicism had it all right, but its symbols, rituals, and liturgy are more naturally embodied. Protestants took down the symbolic body of Christ from the crucifix, substituted transubstantiation for memorial, and taught us to close our eyes during worship.
Certainly it is arguable that our culture of disembodiment is attributed to the economic structure of capitalism. In the Great Transformation, Polanyi writes, “Self-regulation implies that all production is for sale on the market and that all income derives from such sales. Accordingly, there are markets for all elements of industry, not only for goods, but also for labor, land, and money […]” (72) Places of worship are not immune. Most churches function off of and are sustained by the basic tenets of capitalism: commodification of land, labor, the pursuit of greater market share. Western Christianity, evangelicalism and many mainline streams together, are not sinisterly disembodied. Perhaps it is the result of the totalizing commodification of all things, even sacred space. When this space is commodified and lacks the ability to transform, people cannot find healing, specifically for their internal world which likely dictates their external relationships.
Van der Kolk offers a way forward. He writes, “Being able to feel safe with other people is probably the single most important aspect of mental health; safe connections are fundamental to meaningful and satisfying lives.” (81) Van der Kolk introduces the need for social support which provides the critical element of reciprocity. Reciprocity, he writes, is “being truly heard and seen by the people around us, feeling that we are held in someone else’s mind and heart.” (81) This is not possible in a commodified ritual space, because it doesn’t allow for the soul to settle. Van der Kolk gives voice to Internal Family Systems in chapter 17. He writes of the internal managers, firefighters, and exiles. I will not go into detail here regarding IFS, but I bring it up only to make this point: When ritual space is commodified, only our internal managers are welcome. Managers are the parts of us who know how to smile at the greeting time, say “hello” to the right people, and “thank you” when we check-in the kids to childcare. These parts of us know how to feign kindness and gentleness in order to receive the same. In this market, emotions are commodified-the most acceptable emotions are bought and sold to afford social power and approval. In this market, exiles are not welcome, and if they present themselves, the firefighters are surely close by.
Van der Kolk writes, “Danger turns off our social-engagement system, decreases our responsiveness to the human voice, and increases our sensitivity to threatening sound […] in order to feel emotionally close to another human being, our defensive system must temporarily shut down” (85-86). When our churches are commodified, danger and scarcity control the collective narrative, a manifestation of system 1 thinking. System 1 thinking is about survival, and when in survival, trauma cannot be addressed. It’s simply not safe to do so. What is the way forward? I feel it has to do with decommodifying emotions and bodies within ritual space – a first step would be to eliminate quantifying attenders, members, baptisms, salvations etc. Then, inclusion of less acceptable emotions is needed. These emotions carry the voice of inner exiles, and if allowed we find them everywhere – in sycamore trees, coming through thatched roofs, and and returning from prodigal existence.