Attachment to God, Part 1: God as Parent and Lover

What does it feel like to love God?

Over the last few years, much of my scholarly research has been involved in the attachment to God literature. This series is intended to introduce you to that literature and popularize that research.

An attachment is generally defined as a close affectional bond. In many ways, "attachment" is a kind of shorthand for "love." That is, we are both attached to and love our parents, spouses, children and friends.

The formal study of what is known as attachment theory began with the work of John Bowlby. In the early 50s, Bowlby, a British researcher, noted that juvenile delinquency seemed to be associated with early maternal separations. This data point led Bowlby to investigate the power of the attachment bond upon childhood development. Concurrent work done by Harry Harlow supported Bowlby's notion that we have an innate need for love and attachment. (An excellent book, which a class of mine is now reading, on the early history of Harlow's work and attachment theory is Deborah Blum's Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection). Attachment theory received an enormous boost in the 1960s with the work of Mary Ainsworth and her use of the Strange Situation to assess childhood attachment styles. We'll look more closely at Ainsworth's work next post.

For about 25 years attachment theory largely focused on childhood attachments, the relationship between parent and child. However, in the late 80s researchers began to apply attachment theory to adulthood love relationships. The reasoning went like this. As children we develop "internal working models" of ourselves and our relational Other (i.e., parents). That is, during childhood we internalize notions regarding both our intrinsic lovability and the trustworthiness of our caregivers. Some of us have internalized positive notions of Self (e.g., I'm a good boy), while others have internalized negative views of Self (e.g., I'm a bad girl). In addition, we also internalize notions of our Loved One (for most, our parents). We learn how likely we are to be cared for and how likely promises will be kept. In the language of Erik Erikson, we learn to Trust or Not Trust the people around us.

The adulthood attachment researchers observed that if these internal working models get set in early childhood they should linger and then manifest themselves in our adulthood attachments, mainly in our romantic relationships. This observation has lead to over 20 years of fascinating research regarding how attachment dynamics play out in intimate and romantic adulthood relationships.

In coming posts I'll talk more about the childhood and adulthood attachment literatures. For now I simply want to reflect on this question: What does it feel like to love God?

As humans, our language regarding God will be in terms we can understand. And when we look at the bible, the description of the love relationship with God has generally clustered around two human love relationships: Parental and romantic.

For example, loving God is often expressed in the bible as a child/parent relationship (the brackets give the context):

[God speaking to his people:] “As a mother comforts her child so I will comfort you.” (Isaiah 66:13)

[God’s people speaking to God:] “Yet, O Lord, you are our Father.” (Isaiah 64:8)

[Jesus teaching his followers how to address God in prayer:] “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” (Matthew 6:9)

[God comparing his love for his people with a mother’s love for her child:] “Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has born?” (Isaiah 49:15)

[Jesus comparing his love for the people of Jerusalem to the protective behavior of a mother hen:] “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem…how I have often longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings…” (Luke 13:34)

[God comparing his love for his people to a parent teaching her child to walk:] “When Israel was a child, I loved him…it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, taking them in my arms.” (Hosea 11:1,3)

[God comparing his love for his people to a parent raising a rebellious child:] “For the Lord has spoken: I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me.” (Isaiah 1:2)

In addition to characterizing relationship with God as a parent/child bond, the Judeo-Christian tradition also conceptualizes relationship with God or Jesus as an adulthood love relationship. A few more examples from the Old and New Testaments:

[A description of God’s love for his people:] “As a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” (Isaiah 62:5)

[A description of God’s relationship with his people:] “For your Maker is your husband—the Lord Almighty is his name.” (Isaiah 54:5)

[An image of Jesus, the Lamb, marrying his people, the Church:] “ ‘For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.” (Revelation 19:7-8)

[A continuation of the above image from the book of Revelation, where the people of God are compared to the new Jerusalem:] “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” (Revelation 21:2)

[The New Testament author, Paul, comparing marital love with Christ’s love for his church:] “Husbands love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her…” (Ephesians 5:25)

In sum, when we speak of relationship with God we tend to express our love as either child or spouse. Loving God is experienced in either familial or romantic terms. God as Father. God as Lover.

But we also know that familial and romantic love can be complicated and conflicted. Love can also be peaceful and reassuring. Why these differences? If we look at the bible, and around our churches, it also seems that the love relationship with God has its ups and downs. Further, no two people seem to experience loving God in the same way. Again, how to understand these differences?

Interestingly, the very best theory psychologists have to study parental or romantic love is attachment theory. More specifically, attachment theory has had its greatest successes in studying parental and romantic attachments, the very same two love relationships that dominant the biblical witness concerning loving God. That's a neat convergence. The model best suited to the study of love--attachment theory--is ideally situated to tackle the data--the religious experience of God.

And this convergence made some psychologists wonder if attachment theory might be effective in exploring what it feels like to love God and be loved by God.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

5 thoughts on “Attachment to God, Part 1: God as Parent and Lover”

  1. Ooh, I'm looking forward to reading this! Is it safe to assume you are familiar with St. John of the Cross's writings?

  2. Well, I doubt that what I can add could really be considered theological commentary, but I will be glad to share some of St. John's poetry along the way, and I look forward to reading what you have to say.

  3. Just read Beck & McDonald (2004). Didn't expect to find the author's personal blog! Hope to be in touch. 5 degrees of separation -- I already saw someone who comments on your blog who also comments of the blog of a colleague of mine. Neat.

  4. Hello Dr. Beck, While reading on your article, I was hoping there were more to it. I thought of the article like just an introduction to something. Hope you can make a sequel to it. Thanks. Ana P.

Leave a Reply