Interpreting shame: affect, touch, and the formation of the Christian self
Arel, Stephanie Nanette
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This dissertation examines the function of shame within Christian texts and practice through the lens of affect theory and trauma studies. A focus on the deleterious effects of interred shame and shame’s role in attachment presses theology to name corporeal shame, understand it as distinguished from guilt, and recognize how it relates to attachment and human bonding. Distinguishing shame from guilt provides conceptual markers of shame, shifting the focus away from the image of the lonely, guilty sinner and toward a self both attached to others and to God. An analysis of classic theological texts along with an exploration of touch in Christian practice discloses that shame must be disinterred and faced in order to repair its negative effects and to restore its natural function in attachment. An analysis of Augustine’s The City of God reveals shame’s emergence in Augustine’s theology embodied by the notion of “covering-up,” which impedes attachment to God. In The Nature and Destiny of Man, Reinhold Niebuhr’s notions of sensuality and pride reflect shame, yet Niebuhr subsumes shame under other terms. Examining the place of shame in these major works and displaying the continual covering-over of shame in these theologian’s descriptions of the human condition exposes shame’s toxicity but also unveils shame as indicative of attachment. Augustine’s notion that the forehead serves as the seat of shame parallels affect theory’s location of affective emergence on the face and corporeally situates shame on the forehead. The final chapter displays what it would mean to take seriously the implications of affect in theological anthropology and practical theology. Both affect theory and trauma studies underscore the somatic and textual interactions that create a shamed self. This dissertation turns to the liturgical enactment of Christian practices, highlighting the importance of touch in both harm and repair. Exploring the moment of touch in the imposition of ashes on the forehead on Ash Wednesday develops touch as an affective encounter with shame. This interdisciplinary study of shame broadens insights about how Christian theologians interpret the human condition, as disinterred shame directs the self towards its greatest attachments: connection to others and to God.
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