Dr. Stephanie Arel publishes Affect Theory, Shame, and Christian Formation

Dr. Stephanie ArelWe are excited to announce that Dr. Stephanie Arel (STH Practical Theology ’14) has been named as an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow at ‎The National September 11 Memorial & Museum and Visiting Scholar at New York University. Dr. Arel is the co-editor, along with Dr. Shelly Rambo, of Post-Traumatic Public Theology, and she has recently published Affect Theory, Shame, and Christian Formation. Here, she shares more about her research, including what influences her interdisciplinary approach and why embodiment matters in practical theology. 

1.What inspired you to engage Christian tradition and practice through the affect of shame?Affect Theory, Shame, and Christian Formation

In March of 2011, at a symposium on trauma, healing, and spirituality in Belfast, Ireland, I spoke about shame in the context of war, addressing the experiences of women survivors of rape during the Rwandan genocide, US soldiers returning from war with PTSD symptoms, and cultures, like those in Belfast and Bosnia, steeped in war and violence. The presentation asserted that theology has a responsibility to examine how the church talks about shame, guilt, and sin to help survivors of war trauma attend to their wounds. Afterwards, questions and stories about guilt, shame, and the role of theology in war proliferated. Two priests from Belfast and a therapist of African victims of torture shared about deep wounds suffered in war, urging me to continue to explore the affective impact of shame. They pressed the need for shame to be discussed more openly in theological circles, especially those that employ practices of care.

  1. Your work is very interdisciplinary, drawing from psychology, literary theory, trauma studies and affect theory. How do you understand this interdisciplinary approach to enhance your practical theological perspective?

If we assume that practical theology constructs a bridge between theological learning and reflection on the one hand and the actual experiences or practices of Christian communities on the other, then we need tools to build, change, or improve that bridge. I see other disciplines as tools that offer methodological variety with which to approach reflection on religious practice thereby enhancing the depth of interpretation related to how praxis reflects particular theologies. Construction of new ideas through insights from other disciplines occurs alongside integration of academic schools of thought in the pursuit of a common goal. In my research, I combine the perspectives of two or more fields to enrich my understanding of religious practice while highlighting how religion undulates in modern thought and behavior.

  1. You write that a focus on affect engenders “shame’s impact on the Christian self as fully embodied” and that the body is the “affective center of life” (24). This turn to the materiality and experience of the body is crucial for practical theologians. What possibilities do you see for exploring the impacts of other affects on the full embodied Christian self?

Affects are fractious, and they lie at the root of human experience – they show up first on the face, but they have a profound ability to direct human behavior. In the book, I focus primarily on shame and interest/excitement which technically is necessarily present when shame shows up. I appreciate Tomkins’s recognition of nine basic affect – distress-anguish, enjoyment-joy, interest-excitement, fear-terror, anger-rage, surprise-startle, shame-humiliation, dismell, disgust. The dashes between the affect pairs indicate a range of intensities. I could see fruitful work emerging from the study of any of these. A question that would be interesting to me might relate to how the affects of joy, fear, and anger facilitate or impede Christian formation. Off the cuff, I think that exploring these affects might reveal people’s images of God, how they respond to this image, and how that image effects how they relate in the world on an affective level. I am also interested in how practices and the spaces in which they are performed trigger particular affects.

  1. You offer rich readings of Augustine’s City of God and Niebuhr’s Nature and Destiny of Man, particularly on these theologians’ interpretations of original sin. How does your work with these theologians expand past approaches to their work?

I think what interested me most about Augustine and Niebuhr, besides their position as placeholders in the Christian intellectual tradition, is that they are both diagnosticians of the human self or soul. And although, as my work tries to illustrate, they misunderstand affective phenomena, calling guilt shame for instance (although Augustine I think does a better job at understanding shame than Niebuhr), they are both committed to understanding the mechanisms at place that lead to human dis-ease in their particular contexts. Neither had access to the research we have today, in affect theory for instance. I approach their work with an epistemological advantage, also having at hand the work of other theorists (especially feminists). Uncovering where shame lies in their highly significant works is important for rethinking the theological meaning of shame in the current context.

  1. You explore the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday as one Christian practice where touch has the potential to disinter shame. How do you see the possibility for other Christian practices?

As I discuss in the book, touch has potential not only to have a negative effect but also a positive one. Two productive consequences of touch include acknowledging another’s presence and triggering positive affects. As a result, any Christian practice that includes touch has the potential to recognize a person’s being in the world (therefore affirming their worth) and the potential to ameliorate negative affect – shame being one of these. The laying on of hands, baptism, touch in exchange during communion – anything where flesh makes contact – can be beneficial. Even though neurologically one does not need to be aware that touch makes a positive impact, I think practitioners that utilize touch can enhance their effectiveness by being aware of touch’s affective consequences.

  1. You write beautifully in Chapter 5, “An affectively attuned theology understands that human life is made up of fractious affects, and that practice offers hope for renewal and conversion, not in order to purify and cleanse, but in order to become fully participating members of the Christian community who all bear shame.” Are there any practices or contexts where you think an affectively attuned theology is pressing in our world today?

First of all, I think that paying attention to affect happens when people talk about how affects operate in their bodies, identifying these. I also think that some people – those who are very empathic – can identify affect and the ability to influence someone affectively intuitively. When a person has experienced trauma, any triggering of the trauma (regardless of its perceived intensity) impedes the ability to regulate affect. The demand then is for self-soothing but also for contact with others that can foster healthy connections – or as I put it – attachment. This can happen in community – but it is very difficult even as it is very necessary for personal and communal health.

  1. How do you hope practical theologians will engage your work?

I hope many things, but if I can focus on just two. First, I envision this book opening up an intellectual place of engagement with classical theology as it has the capacity to be interpreted and reinterpreted. Other, especially feminist theologians, have paved the way for scholars of my generation to do this effectively. For instance, I could not have uncovered in Augustine the shame I recognize without the work of Mark D. Jordan, Karmen MacKendrick, and Virginia Burrus. Secondly, I hope that the project propels theological reflection concerning how theory and practice make an indelible impact on affect, an impact that can either perpetuate shame and trauma or ameliorate their effects.

View all posts